They took to calling themselves the dead. That was the name of my new army. I suspect Nogilian began it, though I did nothing to fight its spread. It asserted common experience, bonding the men together. It reminded them of what they fought for and who had done it to them. And it connoted a certain invulnerability: you can only really kill the living.
Oh, I would have tried that last upon myself. In the end, Ash had to tie me to my cot until the delirium passed. Though he would never admit it, for most of three days Nogilian had been in command. Afterwards, I tried to convince him to stay that way.
“You’re clearly more suited,” I said. “The men worship you every time they stand.”
Ash had finally explained that strange hand motion with the crooked thumbs. It’s both a religious gesture and salute, with the fingers. They’re showing eight, the number of the inhabited regions of the world, the number of the months, of the days of the week and hours of the day. It’s also the number of the Guardians, the number of the parts of the temples, the number of years of significant life phases. Hell, Elmy, it’s probably the number of times they shit.
It used to terrify them that the Augers came in ranks of nine. That meant the universe was out of whack. It meant excess and chaos and cancerous disagreement. And wouldn’t you know it, it also signified the end of the world, which turned out to be more or less correct.
Nogilian did not respond. Elmy, I lost one interstellar battle. Nogilian had lost two armies. “You have the infantry, then,” I said. “Someone’s got to see to the purely military side of things. Get my people trained.”
When his eyes fell I knew he had accepted. I was sorry. But only his heart had broken, and a great deal of his will. His talent for command remained intact. And he retained too much honor to let his grief affect his duties. He knew what needed doing, and I needed everyone who could get it done.
So I behaved capably myself. Those old softies the apes, I soon discovered, did not even attack parties larger than fifteen or so. I kept all our squads to ten, and my knowledge to myself. I was playing this one to win. We needed the experience.
We soon filled the archipelago. Ki had non-combatants shovel new islands into being, which may have also been a suggestion from me. There came a day when I ordered a leviathan hunt. We lost as many men doing that as we did during the average monkey raid. But Ki said we did it by the book, that the ones standing as bait understood they took their chances.
“How many today?” I asked Nogilian. We were all meeting outside my tent in our nightly confab. Just as the Academy taught it. Identify, delegate, and reassess. Each led a portion of the army but took different additional duty.
“One in the morning. None this afternoon. We’ve exhausted all the grids.” He was bored but did not say so. In even our brief conversations, it was clear that he was the most sublime tactical mind I had ever met.
I turned to my logistics man. “Tevantes?” I asked.
“If we go much further into the swamp, our foragers will have to take rations with them.”
“Right, that was what I thought. Ki?”
She knew what I was asking. “We’re right at five thousand. Cohesion is what it is. They can march, they’ll do what we say. We’ve done a lot of training, and we know they’ll stay together in most situations. The mixed ranks are doing well, but the civilians have never fought an enemy they could actually see.”