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The Infernal Battalion (The Shadow Campaigns #5)
Author:Django Wexler

The Infernal Battalion (The Shadow Campaigns #5)

Django Wexler



Once again,

for Mom and Dad





Map





Prologue



The Beast



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 never-?ceasing 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.