“The enemy’s come to die on this field, my friends, for an awful prince and terrible pay. We, on the other hand, have come to die on this field for a terrible prince and awful pay. That the Heavens are on our side ought to be evident.”
– Captain Thierry the Acerbic, addressing his company before the infamously bloody Battle of Motte-aux-Foins
Anticipation hung in the air like smoke.
The sigil of the Seventh General, Vesena Spear-Biter, was painted on thousands of stretches of dark cloth hanging from arms and armour and even hair: two jagged, monstrous fangs tearing at what looked like a thunderbolt of iron. Red and white set on black, it was eye-catching and when the breeze blew through the outskirts of Serolen a sea of pale teeth biting into iron stirred with it. These were not the drow from the Outer Rings I’d once fought, the dregs of the dreg-empire. No, the Vesena came armoured in iron and obsidian, bearing polished cuirasses and helmets shaped like angled bat wings. Tough tezkuze leather, those massive hard-skinned blind lizards who could eat even Mighty should they prove reckless, had been fashioned into trousers and long-sleeved vests touched by tinkling bracelets and sculpted greaves of stone or dull iron. There was an order to this host of the Firstborn, unlike in most of their kind, for in the days of the old Empire Ever Dark the Mighty Vesena Spear-Biter had been known as the ‘Relentless General Whose Victories Flow Like A River’.
The Vesena were not so much a sigil as they were the last field army of the ancient Empire Ever Dark, kept standing through the ages by sheer dint of the Spear-Biter’s brutal murder of all rivals and naysayers. Time had taken its toll, and warriors now stood where once soldiers had, but there was no closer among the Firstborn to a professional army than the Vesena Sigil. It had occupied the whole of the city of Great Noglof, before leaving with the Exodus, and made the entire city into a bustling army camp – kept going by the plunder in Night and gifts and food that was brought back by the fighting drow of the sigil after every campaign. Even now, a discerning eye could make out what had been the components of a field army simply from the way the warriors were equipped.
First came long stretches of skirmishers, bearing hard bucklers of iron painted with their sigil while long barbed javelins hung from their backs and short blades were kept at their hips. Dzulu, most of them, but the Vesena were one of the rare sigils that taught Secrets to their own and so they all shared a deadly blackflame trick that allowed them to have quite the sting to them.Behind them came hunters, those that would have been infantry regulars in olden days. These stood in companies of nine times nine each led by the least of the Mighty, an ispe, and were armed as I had only ever seen the Watch be armed: though they bore long swords of Night-forged steel on the flanks, they also held horn bows. Short, stout and curved these little wonders were no match for a good Deoraithe longbow but they fired at surprising range – regular arrows would be next to useless against the dead, of course, so the Vesena had adapted by infusing obsidian arrowheads with Night in a way that made them burst on impact.
At heart of the army stood the finest warriors of the Vesena, three thousand hulking towering shapes whose shells of iron-joined obsidian left no opening at all from head to toe. The Ebonclad were a cabal of their own within the Vesena, each and everyone a jawor that drew on Night to breathe and see through the sealed armour and wield their large stone-and-steel maces. As another exotic addition, the Vesena Sigil also boasted no less than ten of the hulking things called zanikzen, the famed annihilation-engines that Mighty Ysengral had gone to war nine times to steal only to be driven back every time. House-sized and made entirely of bone and onyx, they looked like two-wheeled carts holding up the fused bones of a hundred ancient drow whose wretched half-seen silhouettes ended up pointing their hands towards the horizon and forming a gaping maw filled with spear-like spikes of onyx. As field siege engines I deemed to be to be inferior to what the Empire and Callow used, but they’d been murderously proficient at defending tunnels.
And in the very middle of the army, seated atop a writhing living throne made of once-Mighty foes stripped of Night so thoroughly they became nisi, Mighty Vesena the Spear-Biter waited. Though it would have been as ravaged by age as Rumena in appearance, being its senior, the long stripe scars going down its face made it impossible to tell what it might once have looked like. It wore an armoured cuirass of obsidian over flowing pale cloth, needles of bone woven into its pale long hair to keep it in an elaborate bun. It claimed for only a weapon a long-handled axe – so long as to be half as tall as they – whose head was steel so deeply imbued with Night it flickered around it like smoke. Around it an honour guard of rylleh stood, clad in bright colours, but the lesser Mighty had been spread among the host as commanders of dzulu. The Sisters had once told me that most titles among the Mighty had once been military ranks in the Empire Ever Dark, for the soldiers had been among the first to thrive in the nights after the end of the Twilight Sages, and the Vesena in a way kept closest that that old truth.
There were twenty thousand, all in all: but a fifth of the might of the Vesena Sigil, but its sharpest fangs were all bared here, spread amongst the trees. Facing them was only deep darkness and the mists of the Gloom. Open grounds for six hundred feet after the end of the forest, which struck me as having been the Dead King’s picked battlefield: the dead fared poorly in the woods. Against, drow, anyway.
“They haven’t even dug ditches,” I frowned. “Sloppy. Ysengral would have done better.”
Mighty Ysengral, the Cradle of Steel, had distinguished themselves to my eye as the finest of the Firstborn generals even if they were towards the lower end of the Ten Generals when it came to raw power. Considering it was debatable where Rumena would rank second or third among them, though, that was still nothing to sneer at.
“Ysengral was defending the Wilting March from another breakthrough,” Komena said, and I almost shivered.
Standing to my left, eyes silver-blue and form little more than flickering shadow, the image of what had once been a mortal woman was sharing the sights with me. Before I took my eye off her, every time I glimpsed a long-fanged skull beneath the shadows that was always gone if I tried to find it. There was a twang of something like iron and blood to her voice, something I could not help but taste against the roof of my mouth. Komena wore armour, and a sword at her hip. She was the Youngest Night.
“We did not foresee the Hidden Horror until it was edging into the Gloom,” Andronike said, her voice coming from my right.
Her eyes, too, burned pale blue. But over her face flickered the shape of the iron mask she had once worn as one of the Twilight Sages, and the thick billowing cloak she had decked herself in almost seemed like dark-feathered wings whenever she moved. There were strings twined among her fingers, which she ever twined. The affect to her words was subtler, like a drink thought harmless until your tongue was felt to be numb. She was the Oldest Night.
“You didn’t get time to dig in,” I put together. “Vesena was the closest?”
“Kurosiv,” Komena replied, shaking her head. “But its horde was spread out. Vesena was ready for war.”
“He’s able to slip past your scouts with entire armies now,” I whispered.
Shit. If they could only tell that the Dead King was attacking when he was beginning to breach the Gloom, then that gave them what – half a day to mobilize at most? They’d either have to permanently garrison a significant portion of their forces to defend all the southern stretches of Serolen, which would cripple their ability raid into Keter’s territory, or start breaking through whatever means he used to obscure the movements of his armies on this front. I would have pursued the matter in conversation, but was robbed of the opportunity: the battle was beginning. It started with a sound like the whistle of a falling arrow, though utterly deafening. Then flashes of blinding light scythed through the mist in five places, like a titan’s raking claws, and for a moment the passage between Keter and Serolen was forced open by the sorceries of the Dead King. In that heartbeat, long ladders of steel with spiked ends fell through the open space and buried deep in the ground, the runes carved on the glowing bright. Like a steel road, one meant to keep the gap open.
“Second through sixth,” Mighty Vesena said, voice ringing out. “Wail.”
The Crows and I were standing by its side and so we’d seen its eyes had not blinked, not even when the light had been at its brightest. Five of the massive zanikzen lit up, thousands of glyphs in Crepuscular craved into the bones unveiled, and as crews attended to the large engines I saw heat waft of the surface and half the body of a nisi too close to the maw turn to ash. Heat shimmered between the onyx spikes, near-invisible lances of impossibly hot air shooting out and lashing out at the ladders in a lazy, low arc. The needles went abruptly still afterwards, forcing out a strange sound like a hundred inhuman wails. The first to get hit dented, and its front melted like summer snow, but the dead had moved quick enough to contest three of the remaining four. Ghouls who’d moved forward like lightning threw themselves in the way, embracing annihilation to curb the blow, and though one of the lances tore through and broke a ladder’s end in a spray of earth the other two held. The dead had three beachheads. Further down the line, another five bursts of light signaled that Keter was broadening its offensive.
“Two by breach,” Mighty Vesena ordered.
Even as the drow annihilation-engines began hammering at the fresh beachheads, the Vesena Sigil began its advance without needing to be told.
“They’re impressively disciplined, for a sigil,” I admitted, eyes remaining on the battle.
“Vesena made of the old western army regulation a set of holy rites,” Komena told me, sounding fond. “All who break them are said to have broken faith with the sigil and are free to be slain.”
I’d gathered that Vesena Spear-Biter was a darling of hers, which didn’t surprise me all that much. Komena did tend to favour the old warhorses who’d survived the collapse of the Empire Ever Dark.
The ever-relentless dead had wasted no time getting through their protection for the three ladders that’d landed: shield-soldiers the size of ogres in heavy plate, protecting in a ring the more vulnerable mages putting up translucent shields of sorcery preventing repeating fire from the engines from getting through. With the second wave, if Keter’s usual northern doctrine held, would come another circle of corpse-mages to attempt to raise rough but swiftly functional wards that’d make it hard work dislodging the dead from that position. The Firstborn were well aware of that, of course. Even as the first rank of a shield wall formed beyond the beachheads the drow skirmishers finished closing in the distance. Javelins flew whistling, the drow never breaking stride or slowing as they threw, the barbed ends hitting the shields of the dead with dull thumps before exploding in black flames of Night.
The shield walls broke, shattered like overripe fruits as the the first line of skirmishers unsheathed swords and wading into close combat. The lines behind disrupted the gathering dead with further throws, enabling the nimble drow to slip through the gaps in the defences of the dead. Mighty Vesena had been, I gathered, one of the few Firstborn generals to win victories against the dwarves during the war that broke the Empire Ever Dark. It had typically won those victories by hitting the heavy-armoured but slow-moving dwarven armies with crippling blows while they were in movement, never allowing them to deploy the siege engines and harsh sorceries that’d shattered so many drow armies. Traces of that mindset could still be seen here I decided as I watched the drow skirmishers of what the expanding assault of the Dead King had made the right wing slink their way deeper behind the lines of Keter.
Their objective here was clear: hitting the dead mages putting up shields before a second wave could set up wards, then prying away the Dead King’s breaches from him one after another. It was a much more aggressive defence than Ysengral was prone to waging, or even the other general I was most familiar with: Radosa. The Hushing Dread actually preferred letting the greater strength of the dead past the Gloom before striking at the weakened defences of the breaches, picking off the enemies at its leisure within the forest. Its battles lasted twice as long as everyone else’s, but then it also counted about a third of the casualties most the time.
“He’s fought Vesena before,” I grimaced. “And no one else uses the blackflame skirmishers. If you use the same tricks against the Hidden Horror too many times…”
In the distance another set of blinding lights shone. And again. And again. You’re going to run out of skirmishers before he runs out of cabals capable of making those, Vesena, I grimaced. And I would give the Spear-Biter its due, the first three breaches the Dead King had forced through were swept back. The skirmishers were just a little too slow, a flow of reinforcing armoured Binds pulling them down and slaughtering them to the last, but, a second wave of longsword bearing warriors carved their way to the mages before the second wave could put up wards, helped through by the focused arrow-fire of their brethren. They slipped into shadow and danced around the bone-giants, artists at their work, but what was three beachheads when another ten had just dropped in the span it took to clear them? The right flank had gone quiet, but the wailing of the zanikzen was the herald of strife spreading to the left and the centre. The Vesena redeployed with impressive swiftness, as a well-oiled machine, but this time when the skirmishers hit the first wave of beachheads they found they were expected.
Through the black flames leapt out slender, almost insect-like silhouettes.
“Hexenghouls,” I whispered.
Shit, Neshamah really wasn’t pulling punches here. Those nasty little things weren’t like most ghouls: swift and passingly intelligent in a way that allowed them serve as both harassers and a sort of replacement for the Dead King’s general lack of cavalry. No, these were almost as smart as people. Hexenghouls, named by the Lycaonese, were good at two thing only: killing, and disrupting magic by their mere presence. They had hardened bronze rods instead of bones, enchanted in a way that Masego told me destabilized the structure of spell formulas when they got close enough. Those vicious beasts were the reason Lycaonese mages were relatively rare while as a people they had much reason to keep magical bloodlines going. Every year, scaling through passes and mountains, those monsters made it into the lowlands and went hunting. Tonight, deployed in numbers I’d rarely before seen, they went through the skirmishers like a sickle through wheat. The few dzulu who were quick enough to call on Night found they couldn’t focus it properly and were massacred within moments.
Night was not sorcery, but evidently the Dead King had been adjusting what he ordered carved onto those bronze rods.
The second wave of longswords drove them back, even if they destroyed but a handful, but by the time the hexenghouls retreated behind them stood a heavy shield wall of skeletons. Too heavy to punch through in time: valiantly the warriors threw themselves against it, but Neshamah’s second wave of mages came through. Wards came up and then, with a position finally secure, the dead began unleashing their real offensives. Beorns tumbled through, carelessly stamping through the skeletons, and spat out the corpses they held within them in the middle of drow ranks. Dzulu could do nothing against the likes of those, much less the even more heavily armoured ‘tusks’. Those were a recent addition to Keter’s arsenal, rarely seen on my front: catapult-sized necromantic constructs shaped rather like boards, unlike many of the Hidden Horror’s creations they held within then no lesser dead. They were instead filled with rocks, and in front of them jagged tusks of steel were meant to make them into moving battering rams designed to crack open shield walls.
Going against drow foot? They trampled straight through those lines like they weren’t even there.
“Now,” I murmured, “for the tug-of-war.”
With a slew of fresh casualties, Night and necromancy came out. Even as the officers-Mighty destroyed the war-constructs or died trying, the mage cadres of Keter competed with drow as to whether corpses would get up as undead or be emptied of Night first. The undead drow could not use Night, but they would explode with what they’d held when their corpses were shattered. It wreaked havoc on the attempt to keep a battle line going to have your own dead blow up on you when you drove them back. Not that there was much of a battle line: at best it could be said that there was a line where the Vesena and the dead met. And where half a hundred Firstborn must have died with every passing beat. Behind it was an ugly chaos of Mighty and war-constructs tangling in duels that paid no heed to the warriors around them. For all that Vesena Spear-Biter had mimicked the ways of the old armies of the Empire Ever Dark, it was only that: a mimicry. The Mighty were not true officers, they were chieftains who ceased paying mind to their own companies the moment there was a great foe for them to fight.
“Using the Mighty as construct-killers instead of officers works better,” I noted, brow creasing at the sight. “If the Spear-Biter sent packs of pravnat and jawor after the beorns and the tusks they could be put down much quicker. Instead they keep running into isolated ispe and pravnat and overwhelming them.”
Vesena’s strategy being a success had depended on breaking through the initial defence of the breaches and shutting them down before casualties could mount, but that’d failed. Now the attempt by its sigil to push through the dead was turning into the sort of meat grinder that could utterly destroy an army if a general got stubborn. With the centre and the left wing taking such a beating, the Vesena were forced to thin their right flank to reinforce the lines that’d been devastated by constructs. And even then, the remaining skirmishers were now pointless going around through the woods in a far-flung circle that might allow them to eventually flank the left wing of the dead but practically speaking would just take them out of the battle for the rest of its span. Mistake, that. They’d have been more useful kept anchoring the thinning right flank in my opinion.
“The Vesena are inflicting great losses on the dead,” Andronike replied.
“Sure,” I dismissed. “Those officer-Mighty are pure slaughter against Keter’s Bones and Binds. No denying that.”
It was hard to, when all it took was for even an ispe, the lowest of the Mighty, to reach the shield wall of the dead to contemptuously crack it open.
“And I don’t mean to dismiss what’s being achieved here,” I continued. “At this point Mighty Vesena had lost what, three or four thousand?”
“Closer to four,” Komena told me.
“And it’s cost the Dead King more than three score of his finest war-constructs, on top of at least thrice that in foot,” I said. “The problem here is that while Vesena’s sigil is killing the enemy, it’s not doing it in a way that wins the battle.”
I pointed at the worst of the slaughter, where the lines were going back and forth.
“They’ve been gaining and losing the same thirty feet since the battle started in earnest,” I pointed out. “Maybe this battle can be won, at this exchange rate of lives for undead, but it’d be pissing away the war to keep fighting it this way. Packs of Mighty striking together allows for decisive blows in a way spreading them out cannot.”
“General Rumena said much the same,” Andronike said. “Though it did mention that Vesena’s methods would function significantly better when on the offensive instead.”
I narrowed my eyes. Yeah, I could maybe see that. As an offensive army they’d be smashing through whatever forces the Dead King could put in their way, which tended to be light on war-constructs, and if they ran into a few of those then the same rylleh that’d yet to move so much as an inch would be able to handle them.
“Might be,” I muttered.
The battle was going badly for the Vesena, even a fool could have seen it, but to the Spear-Biter it must seem like it could still be turned around. The zanikzen had polished off every breach they could, leaving only the four whose wards had been raised, so they began pounding at the dead instead. Every burst of burning heat swatted down entire companies, and the crews prudently aimed them far behind the fighting so there’d be no risk of hitting their own. They wouldn’t be able to handle that rate of fire for long, not without risking the engines blowing up, but then they’d didn’t really need to. The superbly aimed hits slackened the pressure of the dead against the drow and, sensing an opening, Mighty Vesena sent in its finest. The Ebonclad advanced, flowing forward silently as if they were gliding over the ground. Signals went up in the sky, woven in Night, and a corridor was opened for them to strike cleanly at the dead. The sight of it was… I let out a sharp breath, genuinely impressed. It was like watching a hammer strike at an egg: clad in ebony armours sealed by melted iron, the Ebonclad were untouchable to the dead. Their large war maces, on the other hands, released waves of Night whenever they struck and so pulped the dead straight through their armour.
The tusks and beorns that’d not been handled were struck at in groups of then, methodically and cleanly if with little regard to the collateral damage against the dzulu. That armour did not seem to hinder them sinking into pools of shadows, and they even seemed to have greater control over the trick than most: they sometimes slunk up the beasts and let only the upper half of their body emerge form the shadow, striking at the necromantic constructs with impunity.
“Impressed?” Komena asked.
“They’re exceptional,” I acknowledged. “But Vesena just got played the fool.”
It’d been baited into committing its finest troops before Keter slapped its last cards on the table.
“Oh?” Andronike hummed.
This battle had already taken place, so they knew what had taken place while I was left to guess. But while Akua might have pointed out to me that the Dead King had grown to learn my tricks, the opposite was true as well.
“We haven’t seen Revenants yet,” I said. “When we do, I wager things will swiftly proceed downhill.”
The Ebonclad smashed their way through the dead on two of the breaches and began making serious assaults on two of the warded beachheads, but I bade my time an counted up to seventeen before my cynicism was ‘rewarded’.
Like great raking claws, five lights burned again where the battle had begun. On the right flank that’d been so weakened reinforcing the others.
“Vesena just lost this battle,” I grimly said.
Though the zanikzen were on the edge of breaking apart, they still fired unflinching at the fresh breaches. Two per breach, as Mighty Vesena had early ordered. Or so they attempted. Three of the annihilation-engines went up in storms of ashen heat, killing the crews instantly, and one aborted its shot. Still, every breach received a direct shot just as the rune-inscribed ladders came down and one even received two. That one broke. The other four held, protected by what looked like swarms of ghouls nailed to the ends as a grisly shield. With the army already too committed down the line, it would have been a disaster to try to redeploy. So instead Mighty Vesena sent into the breaches what few regulars it had left, and with them sent its hardest hitters: it sent out rylleh. Unfortunately, the Dead King had picked his timing exquisitely. Before the rylleh were halfway there, Revenants strode out of the warded breaches and tore into the Ebonclad. Half of the rylleh had to be recalled, which made a mess of things.
“So that’s where the Stitcher went,” I muttered.
A castle-sized abomination made from the bodies of half a dozen horrors put together – the scales and bones of a dragon, what looked like the heads of at least three sea snakes, the heavy fur and leather of ratling Ancient Ones – was butchering its way through the Ebonclad, even swatted down a rylleh that got too close. The Revenant was inside, and damnably hard to put down. We hadn’t seen her in a year, so I’d hoped the Blade of Mercy had damaged her beyond use in their last tangle, but it seemed not. Hanno was convinced she’d been a healer before the Hidden Horror got his hands on her, which somehow made it all even more horrifying. Even as I watched, Mighty Vesena tried to stabilize the situation by firing its remaining annihilation-engines directly into the Revenants, but that caught only one and killed a few hundred of the Ebonclad in the exchange. Bad trade, the Seventh General was losing its cool.
Even worse the rylleh who reached the fresh beachheads were not, to their surprise and mine, greeted by swarms of ghouls or skeletons. Awaiting them were dead mages and large pots of metal, heated and filled with two things: necromantic sorcery and steel scraps. Like sharpers they blew, the cursed metals ignoring most defenses that could be put up by Night, and I winced when I saw not one but three rylleh go down. They got up shortly, of course: rylleh were harder to kill than that, and even if one had actually died that probably wouldn’t have kept drow of that tier out of the battle for long. But the corpse-mages were bearing strange metal staffs, and though I could see no visible mark of sorcery being employed the three rylleh that’d been struck down… stayed down.
“Weeping Heavens,” I murmured. “Has he found a way to shut down the Night?”
“Not quite,” Andronike said, voice grown cold. “Those staffs were made of an alloy of tin and antimony, and strangely enchanted – they did not disrupt Night, or end it, which we could have fought. They directed it away from our warriors, down into the earth.”
And moments later, petty ghouls they would otherwise have been able to slaughter by the hundreds began tearing into the downed rylleh. They devoured their flesh so that they would never recover from that death. Gods, I fucking hated fighting the Dead King. There was always another nasty trick just waiting to be unveiled. Binds began pouring of the breaches, forming up under arrow fire by the increasingly outnumbered and outflanked Vesena. This was going to turn from a defeat into a disaster, if something wasn’t done soon, and I wasn’t the only one to see it.
The Seventh General, Vesena Spear-Biter, took the field personally.
I did not even seen them move until they were standing before the Stitcher, long axe resting against the shoulder.
“Sa vrede?” Mighty Vesena asked of the Revenant.
Are you worthy? I shivered to hear my words spoken by one of the ancient monsters of the Firstborn, taken as writ of faith. Whether in fear or thrill – or perhaps both – I could not be certain. Vesena received no answer, and as the stitched up necks and heads of sea snakes struck out at it the Seventh General vanished into shadows and emerged atop the monster. The axe came down, head biting into the dragon scales, and inside the beast a sea of Night cut through. Split in two, the Stitcher’s monster poured our blood, guts and strange liquids of many colours. Inside a dead young woman screamed and the corpses of the drow began gathering to her, forming another shell, but Mighty Vesena landed before the Revenant and stood knee-deep in guts and blood. Its shoulder twitched, once, twice and then it proved why it had earned the sobriquet of Spear-Biter. I’d thought it a reference to mere spears, once, but that was not the case. Vesena had once warred against an ancient sigil-holder that’d unearthed and partially repaired one of the ancient wonders of the Empire Ever Dark, a great tower of arcane-forged steel that gathered lightning into itself and spewed it in a constant storm around itself. The steel walls had been thirty feet deep, surrounded by constant death, and the way the tower jutted out from a deep pit in the Inner Ring had led Firstborn to call it the Spear.
Night pouring out of it as it twitched, Mighty Vesena screamed in pain and its mouth unhinged, revealing a bestial maw as large as the sigil-holder itself had been. Bat-like wings tore out of its back, and even as the Stitcher tried to form a grisly homunculus of drow corpses roiling with Night the horrid creature Vesena had turned itself onto unhinged its great jaw even further and revealed glinting fangs – before biting straight through the corpses and Revenant, as it once had through thirty feet of solid steel, and swallowed the Stitcher and a bloody swath of her work whole.
Officers began calling for a retreat, heeding some unseen order, and the Vesena obeyed in largely good order. Their sigil-holder continued to sow destruction left and right, covering the retreat along with the remaining rylleh, and I slowly breathed out.
“After?” I asked.
“They pulled back and Kurosiv drowned the invaders in violence, sweeping them back to the breaches, then broke the wards personally,” Andronike said, her voice betraying little of her opinion of that Mighty.
Mighty Kurosiv the All-Knowing, the Second General. It rarely bothered with deeper tactics than throwing warriors at the enemy but given the absurd amount of those within its sigil that tended to work regardless. I found the way it benefited from the deaths of its own and so encouraged them to be rather disgusting, and I suspected the Sisters felt rather the same for different reasons: Kurosiv had found a way to grow fat as a parasite nestled in the heart of the Night, exploiting the system they had built as no one else had before or since. Rumena had allegedly taken it as enough of a threat it’d exterminated its first five sigils, earning the epithet of Tomb-maker in the process, but it was telling that in the end it was not Kurosiv that’d settled in the Outer Rings.
“Three other battles were fought that very same night, Queen of Lost and Found,” Komena said.
The images flickered quickly through my mind, almost a memory shared but not quite.
Ysengral the Cradle of Steel, the Eighth General: a lipless grin and tittering laughter hiding a mind like a steel trap. And traps did it wield, mazes and madness and traps behind which stood soldiers in steel and machine of war that worked on and fed of and spat out Night. Endless bands of dead slipping through the Gloom, testing the defences day and night.
Ishabog the Adversary, the Fourth General: ever-moving, ever-restless, a spear and song on the lip and a glint in its eye. Only Mighty may have the right to call themselves of the Ishabog, and mighty was their calling: always one against ten, ten against a hundred, a hundred against a thousand. Vicious creatures made of dead flesh hunting through darkened woods in packs, hunted in turn.
Radhoste the Dreamer, the Sixth General: a bed of stone like a sepulcher, carried by rigid in dread. Eyes closed but seeing, a mind that spans miles and sifts through the sleeping and the dead. A hundred battles fought with the Enemy like a fencer on the field, back and forth ever going for the throat as a thousand die with every hour.
All happening, all being fought.
“Remind Cordelia Hasenbach that she will be fighting those battles as well, if she does not leash her lackeys,” Komena hissed in my ear.
And in the heartbeat that followed, they were gone. Dawn shyly peeked through the flaps of my tent, and I eyed my shaking hands before sighing.
So much for getting a good night’s sleep before leaving.