The Infernal Battalion – Django Wexler

How to describe a mind seen from the inside? Metaphor is a weak reed, but metaphor is all we have. And so— The mind of the Beast was a hurricane. In the center was the Beast’s core, a pulsing, writhing mass of tightly webbed darkness. It was surrounded by a wind that screamed through the non-space, smearing out streamers and tendrils of darkness into a ragged accretion disk. These were the shredded, broken shards of minds absorbed by the Beast, moments torn from lives and thoughts ripped into a tangle, whirling around and around the core in a terminal spiral. When they finally impacted, reduced to their most elemental pieces, the Beast absorbed them into its bulk and so grew ever larger. Beyond the frenetic violence of the center was a calmer interval, where the winds were not quite as strong. Here the minds were left in larger fragments—a child wailing in terror, a soldier cowering during a cannonade, a young woman embracing her lover. Memories repeating over and over, echoes of the people they’d once been. A few even larger pieces were aware enough to perceive their surroundings, shouting desperate questions or threats into the uncaring mindscape. New minds popped into being at the periphery, as in the real world the Beast continued to spread, taking body after body. They were tiny hurricanes in their own right, dust devils spinning inside the greater gale. For the most part, they didn’t last long. Few minds had the necessary strength of will to adapt to this strange environment, to hold themselves together against the pull of the Beast. Eventually, they lost their sense of self and tore apart, to be drawn into the core and devoured.

Far below—if that term had any meaning here—was an unfathomably complex network of silver lines, shimmering with coruscating bolts of lightning. These were the bodies of the Beast, viewed from the inside. Separated, but always connected here, laid bare before the demon’s controlling intelligence. It would not be correct to say that the Beast moved through the mindscape, because the mindscape was the Beast. But its focus of attention could flit at will from the core to the periphery, down to the network of bodies and out through their senses into the real world. The demon reveled in the freedom, the sense of scale. It had spent a thousand years crammed into a single body, packed into a space barely big enough for a human mind. Now it blossomed outward like a flower, fueled by the neverceasing torrent of fresh victims. Its first flowering, so long ago, had been stunted, incomplete, and ultimately disastrous. But it had been young and foolish then, newly born, ignorant of the human world and its complexities. A thousand years of digesting new minds—even the trickle the Black Priests had allowed it, a fresh one only when the old body died—had made it canny, and it had planned deep. Last time, it had kept its bodies together, and they had all been hunted down. It would not make the same mistake again. Bodies were already being squirreled away, hidden against disaster, so that if worse came to worst, it could always begin anew. I will not be banished again.

In the process it had, annoyingly, discovered its own limitations. It could ingest new minds only so fast, for example. And its ability to control its bodies was limited by physical distance—too far from the core and they no longer had enough strength to convert fresh bodies, and after a few hundred miles it lost its hold on them entirely, leaving them empty husks. But the larger it grew, the faster it could eat and the farther it could reach. Eventually, every human in the world would be a part of it. It would breed new children, consume them as well, and continue on forever. I will not be stopped. Its attention was drawn back to the mindscape, where one of the little hurricanes seemed to be maintaining its shape against the steady pull of the core. That took uncommon determination, and the Beast examined the mind more closely. Its flavor was familiar. Janus bet Vhalnich. The name sparked a hint of disgust deep in the Beast’s center. It felt a brief irritation. That was Jane Verity’s emotion, and it had grown far beyond the template her meager mind had imprinted, sloughed her off like a butterfly shedding a cocoon. It wondered how much Jane had influenced the decision to capture Vhalnich in the first place.

He brought knowledge I need, in any event. And a potentially useful body. “I’m flattered by the attention.” It wasn’t speech, as such, but a close equivalent. Janus was addressing the Beast, which would have made it raise an eyebrow, had it possessed one. “Can you understand me?” “I can.” The Beast’s voice was like thunder. “I am impressed. Not many can hold on to their sense of self without a body as an anchor.” “I do the best I can,” Janus said. The hurricane of his mind wobbled slightly, then settled down again. “It may help that I spent a great deal of time in my own head in any case.” “But I am curious why you persist,” the Beast said. “It must be such an effort. Better to let go, dissolve into me, and be done.

You cannot put it off forever.” “I can put it off for a little while longer. That’s all humans can ever manage, isn’t it?” “I could, of course, destroy you,” the Beast said idly. “Tear you to shreds. It would be as easy as dragging a finger through the soap scum in a bath.” “I would rather you did not. You have my body and my knowledge. Perhaps my mind can be useful as well. I am—I was—a general, and you may have need of one.” The Beast laughed, a crackle of warring lightning. “Need, little mind? Do not speak to me of need.” “You must need something,” Janus said. “I will grow,” the Beast said. “I will consume. Forever.

” “But you have enemies,” Janus said. “What can threaten you?” The Beast’s voice dropped to a growl. “The devourer. Infernivore. It must be destroyed.” The Beast searched the memories it had accumulated, including Janus’ own. “Winter Ihernglass bears it for the moment. She must be killed. And the Thousand Names, where its summoning is recorded, must be destroyed. Then I will be secure.” There was a moment of silence, aside from the ever-present howl of the wind. “That should be straightforward,” Janus said. “Would you care to hear my plan?” Another flaring, actinic laugh. “You amuse me, little mind. Go on.

” “I think,” Janus said, “this is where I—that is, my body—may be useful…” Part 1 1 Raesinia “Is that all?” Raesinia said. “Nearly, Your Highness,” said the royal dressmaker, a plump, red-faced woman who towered over her diminutive monarch. “One more, if you please. Take a breath and hold it.” Raesinia complied, and the dressmaker whipped a knotted cord around her middle with expert speed. She muttered to herself and tugged it a bit tighter, then looked. “Wonderful. Thank you, Your Highness. I must say you are very lucky to have such a slender frame. And such beautiful skin! You will look magnificent.” Raesinia caught her own gaze in the mirror over the dressmaker’s shoulder and rolled her eyes. Stripped down to her underthings, she could see the truth clearly enough. I look like a child. And she always would. Her unaging state could be inconvenient, but her actual appearance had never really bothered her.

It could be useful even—with the right outfit, she could pass for a boy, and political opponents had a persistent tendency to underestimate her. She’d never particularly wanted male attention, though it had occasionally come her way regardless. Poor Ben, who tried to protect me and died for it. Now, though… “One in sea green, I think,” the dressmaker was saying. “And one in that lovely Hamveltai crimson. I know just the supplier. And then—” “I leave it entirely in your hands,” Raesinia said. “But you must excuse me. There’s a great deal of business to attend to.” That was wrong, she realized at once. A queen didn’t ask a servant to excuse her. I should tell her to go. But politeness had been ground into Raesinia since her earliest education, and now that she was back in the palace, all the old lessons had resurfaced. “Of course.” The dressmaker bowed deeply.

“I am honored by your custom, Your Highness.” Joanna opened the door. The large, silent woman and her slim, more talkative partner, Barely, were on permanent detachment from the Girls’ Own as Raesinia’s personal guards. Their presence had already become a comforting part of her landscape, and it was hard to imagine that she’d once been without them. They’d been part of the group that rescued her from the Penitent Damned and Maurisk’s Directory, and they’d stayed at her side through the horrors of the Murnskai campaign. While Joanna was resplendent in a well-tailored blue-and-silver dress uniform, Raesinia had no doubt that the sword and pistol on her belt were extremely functional. Even with Vordan more or less at peace, it was a comforting thought. “Tell Barely to send the girls in, please,” Raesinia said. Joanna nodded and leaned out the door. She never spoke, but she and her partner had a private language of hand signals that let her make herself understood. Raesinia was resolved to learn it herself someday. When I have time. Someday I’ll have all the time in the world. Two young women in palace livery swept in and went to work, silent and efficient. Raesinia stood stock-still, raising or lowering her arms as required, feeling a bit like an articulated dummy.

On campaign with the army, she’d mostly gotten away with reasonably practical riding outfits, and before that she’d still been in official mourning for her father. Now, though, with the echoes of the victory celebrations still fading from the palace and life returning to something like normal, standards had to be maintained. Or so said Mistress Lagovil, the intimidating head of the palace staff, and Raesinia hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to argue with her. One of those standards, apparently, was that the queen couldn’t be seen in any outfit that she could possibly don under her own power. Raesinia had pushed for a little practicality—she did have work to do, whatever Mistress Lagovil might say—but that still meant yards of lace and silk, carefully matched with rings, bracelets, combs, necklaces, and whatever else could be scrounged from the Royal Jewelhouse. To Raesinia’s eyes the final effect was, at best, “sparkly.” She’d been raised to appreciate palace fashion, but the lessons had never really sunk in. Mistress Lagovil had apologized for the sorry state of the wardrobe, and indeed the rest of Ohnlei. The palace had been sacked once by the revolution and again when Janus’ army had been quartered there. Furniture had been broken up for firewood and drapes torn apart for uniforms and bandages. Much of the staff was gone, fled or drafted into the army, and only a handful had returned despite the end of the war. The nobles who’d once lent their splendor to the court were still mostly hunkered down at their country estates, waiting to be sure the storm had well and truly passed, and Raesinia couldn’t say she blamed them. At least some of the more tedious rituals had been temporarily suspended. Raesinia could take her meals in her quarters—the Grand Hall had been used to stable cavalry mounts and was still being cleaned out—and there were few dignitaries who required official receptions. No one suggested going hunting.

Privately, Raesinia dreaded the day the full splendor of the palace was restored. Before her father’s death, her days had been as tightly regulated as a clockmaker’s apprentice, jammed with lessons, formal dinners, court outings, and other official occasions. Once she was dressed, Raesinia took a few tentative steps in front of the mirror, to confirm that she could walk without anything falling off. It wasn’t a bad dress, really, a deep Vordanai blue accented with silver, flattering to a figure that didn’t have much to flatter. Raesinia rolled her eyes at herself again, signaled her approval to the maids, and followed them out into her private chambers. Eric was waiting for her, practically vibrating with nerves, and Raesinia stifled a sigh. It really wasn’t his fault, as he’d been thrust into a job he’d had no preparation for—he’d been a clerk doing the palace accounts until Raesinia had asked Mistress Lagovil for an assistant, and he was still overawed by the royal presence. He was competent enough, but… No but. It’s not his fault that he’s not Sothe. Every time she saw Eric’s too-serious face, struggling to maintain the constipated expression he associated with proper dignity, Raesinia missed her old maidservant. Maidservant, bodyguard, spy, assassin. Friend. She’d left, after thwarting Orlanko’s assassins on the final night of the Murnskai campaign. Where are you, Sothe? “Your Highness,” Eric said. “You look lovely.

And the dressmaker has given me her assurances that everything will be ready before—” Raesinia waved a hand. “I’m sure she’ll do fine. What do we have today?” Eric looked down at the leather notebook he always carried. “The Duke of Brookspring is expecting you in twenty minutes, Your Highness. Then lunch with Mistress Cora, and you agreed to grant an audience to Deputy d’Andorre.” See? I do have work to do. Even if it sometimes seemed like everyone wanted her to sit back and ignore it. “We’d better get started, then.” * The old Borelgai embassy, a rambling, ancient stone pile at the edge of the palace grounds, had been burned by a mob during the revolution. For now the Borelgai ambassador and his staff had been assigned to a suite in the palace itself. Eric led the way there, through corridors largely deserted except for guards at regular intervals. The soldiers—part of the First Division had the honor today, Raesinia saw—came smartly to attention as she passed. Joanna and Barely, her constant shadows, followed a few steps behind her. “Did Dorsay say why he wanted to see me?” Raesinia said. “His Grace did not mention a specific reason,” Eric said.

“As far as I’m aware, the treaty is progressing well, if slowly.” That was Dorsay’s ostensible reason for being in Vordan, the peace treaty that would officially end the war between their two countries. There were a great many details to be ironed out, and in practice the negotiations were conducted between a swarm of bureaucrats from both sides. Trying to understand the actual points of contention made Raesinia’s head hurt, but she did her best to keep abreast of the general shape of things. Dorsay didn’t even seem to do that, happy to let his underlings do the work. Raesinia suspected he was here more as a reminder than anything else, Borel’s greatest living soldier showing the flag to underline the fact that—unlike all her other opponents—Vordan hadn’t beaten the Borelgai in open battle. Two Borelgai Life Guards, their shakos lined with their trademark white fur, stood guard outside the door to the embassy suite. They came to attention as well, and the door opened to reveal the perpetual smile of Ihannes Pulwer-Monsangton, Borel’s ambassador to Vordan. If Dorsay was all bluff informality, which Raesinia had come to respect during their time in Murnsk, Ihannes was the opposite, with the oily charm of the professional diplomat. Raesinia presented him with her own best smile and acknowledged his slight bow with a nod. “Your Highness,” he said. “You honor us.” “Ambassador.” Raesinia paused when Ihannes didn’t move aside. His smile turned apologetic.

“His Grace has asked that this be a private meeting.” “Of course.” Raesinia gestured for Joanna and Barely to wait. “Eric, find me after my meeting with Mistress Cora.” Ihannes stepped aside, and Raesinia swept past him. The Borelgai suite was elaborately furnished, by the standards of the depleted palace, with furniture and decorations in the severe Borelgai style. More diplomatic posturing, she assumed. Attua Dorsay, the Duke of Brookspring, was seated at the head of the long table, vigorously applying butter and jam to several slices of toast. Ihannes cleared his throat theatrically, and Dorsay looked up.


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Updated: 18 July 2021 — 19:24

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