The presence of another voice in his head was alarming, to say the least. This one came quieter than the first, its words hissed and trailing into each other. That the first voice he’d been talking to didn’t respond to the newer one struck Brandon as strange until he realized that the first one couldn’t hear the new voice.
Should he tell the first voice? Honesty begot honesty, and as far as he knew, the first voice hadn’t lied to him. Still, the cards were not all on the table, and so Brandon swallowed, deciding not to bring up the second voice until he determined whether he believed the accuser over the informer.
His strongly-worded request was met by a strange sound that he managed, after a few seconds, to identify as a laugh. While it was good that the first voice registered that it wasn’t a direct threat, the voice’s return hit harder than Brandon would’ve liked to admit. Indeed, he would be making things harder if he didn’t listen to the voice providing him guidance in a world he was now lost in. The voice’s gibe about his father only dug the knife in deeper because it’d guessed his thoughts perfectly. Though he’d ultimately chosen not to pursue foolishness, he’d considered it, and that was enough to bring about a wave of shame. He was green and everyone knew it, in life and in death, and he supposed he deserved the harsh sense the voice was speaking.
When the voice admitted weakness, Brandon paused, surprised. Given how the voice had responded to his questions back when they were inside the vision, with the ring of light and endless dark, he hadn’t been expecting much in terms of answers or admissions, but its words just now were… humanizing. No longer did the voice seem like that of a titan or seraph—it was that of a man. A being, perhaps, if the voice had transcended humanity, but nonetheless one with flaws and desires. It was not omniscient or omnipotent, and it wanted not to lie dormant, which made Brandon believe in it that much more. Its statement about igniting his body had him crack a small smile. Since its goals aligned with his for the foreseeable future, there was room for trust.
The mental nod he felt as he commanded the army was a reassuring one, and it inspired continued confidence as he rode on. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a skeletal horse trotting alongside a spear-wielding soldier, and he was struck with an idea. Looking at around at the skeletons surrounding the bone horses, he willed them to mount the horses, and they did, interpreting his command as he’d meant them to. One soldier mounted each horse, rising and trotting to keep pace behind him. Suddenly, his battalion had a cavalry, and a look back had his mind call up the stories of the grim riders of old, who were said to be core to many undead armies. Would he really be able to command such creatures one day? “Commanding the dead,”
Brandon said, realization dawning on him, “I’m doing that through magic, aren’t I?”
That was the only explanation he could think of aside from being mentally linked to the skeletons, which was both more and less unsettling depending on how he thought of it.
Hearing that the voice didn’t have access to his thoughts was a relief, though the inclusion of “yet” in the voice’s words left room for doubt. After all, if it had access to his thoughts, it had no reason to inform him of it. However, given that the voice seemed to have limits, like not being able to hear the second voice accusing it, Brandon figured it to still be telling the truth. His mind was his own, then, he had until the time the voice was able to read his thoughts from the workings of his brain to decide whether he truly trusted the voice, which seemed far enough away for there not to be any rush.
The pause that came after his request for a name was concerning, if only because identity was key to a lot of things. Brandon, for example, was a Unicorn—a son of a respected Duchy family in the Holy Griffin Empire. Mentioning his name alone could open doors, and he figured it no different for necromancers, of whom there were the infamous and not. Of course, he was assuming the voice belonged to a necromancer, but he saw no reason why it would not. All the signs were there, from being trapped in a tomb artifact to directly performing magic with his body, and given the circumstances, he preferred a necromancer.
When the voice claimed himself a lord, Brandon paused. There was a difference between being a lord and a knight, and that difference lay with whether or not one was granted land and titles. But that was within the Holy Griffin Empire; outside it, lord titles were won through conquest, self-claimed with blood and steel, and the implications that came with a necromancer claiming a lord title were… many, to say the least.
Exhaling, Brandon nodded. “Lord Dietrich.”
Calling a lord a sir was selling the lord’s accomplishments short in the best case, and insulting them in the worst, so he’d call a spade a spade. “I believe we are currently in the western outskirts of the Unicorn Duchy, and we are headed towards the foothills, where I’ve heard reports of an orc encampment.”
Unfortunately, he had little more information to offer than that. He’d been neither important enough to hear nor driven enough to seek out further information about the encampment, and the rest of what he knew were simple rumors—fear- and humor-driven accounts passed through the ranks of soldiers frequenting the border. “Travelers usually avoid the foothills, so the fire ahead should be that of the encampment, or of a group split off from it. From what I’ve heard, it doesn’t seem like a war party. A scouting party, perhaps, or just a nomadic group passing through.”
What he’d just said was a combination of basic geography and a conservative estimate of the encampment that any patrolling soldier could offer, but such was the extent of Brandon Unicorn’s responsibilities. He led patrols alongside experienced knights twice his age and attended ceremonies to smile and wave at crowds. With his academy days behind him, his recent education had been limited to war theory and jousting tournaments, to knowing what troop formations worked best against each other and which ladies tended to fill the spectating stands. How to fight orcs with an infantry? Prioritize ranged troops and distance and whittle away at the barbarians until they closed the distance. Magic made all the difference against them, and successfully fending off the initial onslaught usually meant winning the battle.
But that was for empire troops equipped with steel and years of training. A knight at their helm was enough to galvanize them, and priests and sisters in the back helped widen the difference between a good offense and a better defense. With the dead, however, Brandon was lost. The textbooks had covered their weaknesses and strengths, but with a focus on how they matched up against human armies, not how they compared to other ones. All that came to mind about skeletons were how they were the fodder for necromancers, disposable and as easily reanimated as they were dispatched. Their numbers were what made them threatening, but he was in the process of building a legion, not wielding it.
Nervousness had begun to pool in Brandon’s gut, but he focused on the next steps. “Are there any strategies I should keep in mind against orcs? Against their goblins, warriors, and centaurs?”
He did his best to sound confident, but even he could hear the falseness of it in his voice.
Thinking that he’d be able to sneak up on the camp had been too ambitious, it seemed, but perhaps it was for the better. A small pack of goblins noticed them just as they reached the edge of the foothills, and they scampered over, the sound of their shrieks and yelps pitchy and wild enough to raise the hairs on the back of Brandon’s neck as they scampered over. A few deeper-toned calls supported the higher-pitched ones, making Brandon aware of a few leaders in their midst, and his hand clenched down on the skeletal vertebrae he’d been holding onto.“Goblins led by some orcs.”
He looked to the army at his sides, heart racing. This was it. His first battle, and alone, if having a seasoned necromancer in his head could be called being alone. “They’re probably a scouting party, or a patrolling one.”
Goblins and warriors—what was the strategy against those? “Archers, to the back!”
The skull faces grinned at him as they moved, their bone surfaces gleaming white under the moonlight. His riders were already at his side, and the footmen were scattered around them, the hounds at their feet. Looking at them, at their unwavering stillness and utter lack of life, Brandon wondered whether directing them like human infantry would be enough.