“There’s nothing better in life than the look on your enemy’s face when they realize you’ve played them every step of the way. Why do you think I keep starting secret cabals trying to overthrow me?”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous
Who was I kidding? I was definitely getting blamed for this one.
There were a few downsides to the whole villain thing, aside from the ever-worrying moral issues. The situation had gone from pretty even to bad in a pinch: with the goblinfire splitting the room in two there was no way for me to get my legionaries across to get into melee with the enemy. I still had the advantage at range, given my line of sappers and Kilian’s mages, but that didn’t mean shit if the Swordsman’s lackeys ran away up the stairs. Well, at least no one tried to kill me yet. A refreshing change, really. Not even a heartbeat later a man dropped from the ceiling like a demented bat and chucked a javelin at me – I barely got my shield up in time, deflecting the projectile to the side and dangerously close to Hakram’s legs. The ceiling. The actual ceiling. Heroes.
“One day,” I told myself out loud, “I will learn to stop doing that. I really will.”
“I’m told Evil is habit-forming, miscreant,” the newcomer sneered. “Don’t count on it.”
Considering the man’s outfit consisted of leather pants leaving little to the imagination and a matching vest that prominently displayed his tattooed chest, odds were this was the “streetwalker with a spear” Robber had earlier referred to. And would you look at that, besides the handful of javelins on his back he was also armed with a long spear currently pointed in my direction. The only surprise in this was that my tribune hadn’t made something out of the plethora of silver bells woven into the hero’s flowing locks.
“Miscreant,” I repeated. “That’s the best you could manage? I get harder sass than that from my officers, and they’re not even trying to hurt my feelings.”
“HUNTER,” the mage above yelled. “Stick to the plan! William told us not to fight her!”
Huh, so the Swordsman’s actual name was William. Good to know. The idiot up on the stairs made a valid point, though: now that he was on my side of the fire, the failed exotic dancer was mine. I pointed my sword towards the troops on the stairs without missing a beat.
“Spargere,” I ordered.
Scatter, in Old Miezan. The official command for the use of sharpers. Robber’s sappers obeyed like the well-oiled machine they were and I turned my eyes on the hero. That should have been enough keep the others busy for a while. Hunter stepped forward fluidly, clearly intent on a dramatic duel, but I was having none of that.
“Fireballs, Kilian,” I spoke over the roar of the flames and raised my shield as I made for the enemy.
The man’s look of horrified surprise was priceless as sharpers exploding in the background punctuated the scene. Was it villainous to delight in fucking over your enemies? Because the glee I felt at the sight of the man trying to dodge a salvo of fireballs with only five feet of space to work with felt a little unholy. He gave it a decent shot but my mages were professionals and he took one in the legs and another in the chest, sorcerous flames scorching his exposed skin like a pig on a spit.
“That’s why we wear armour, you bloody amateur,” I muttered under my breath.
The blasts had knocked him off his feet and before he could get up I was on him, kicking him in the chest like I’d done to so many Pit fighters back in the good old days. Unlike those same men, though, he rolled with it and deftly pricked at me with his spear. Maybe if I hadn’t trained with the likes of Black and Captain the speed would have surprised me, but as things stood I slapped away the pathetic effort for what it was and retaliated by scoring a vicious gash on his cheek. I’d aimed for the eye to cripple as early in the fight as I could, but the bastard somehow managed to twist away and land in a crouch. I would have been impressed by the flexibility displayed were I not currently doing my best to stab him. From the corner of my eye I saw a glowing blue projectile flying towards me but an identical one collided with it a heartbeat later, both fizzling out under the impact.
“The Magic Missile. You filthy dabbler,” Masego laughed behind me. “Please, Conjurer, allow me to school you in how a real mage fights.”
I would have taken a break from my own fight to remind Apprentice that monologues were one of the leading causes of villain deaths, but before I could open my mouth the door we’d gone through was ripped off its hinges and flew through the air in the other mage’s direction twice as fast as the blue projectile had. Clearly, Apprentice had that one under control. My momentary distraction was rewarded by Hunter flicking the tip of his spear close to my chin, but I hunkered down behind my shield and let the probe go without retaliation. The hero was trying to edge around me so he could sink his teeth into the relatively easier targets that were Robber’s line and the orc survivors, but Hakram was having none of it. His rectangular legionary’s shield up and his sword ready in the middle line, he stepped into the hero’s path. Stuck between a better fighter and an orc wall of muscle and steel the Hunter naturally fell back on the time-honoured heroic tradition of talking shit.
“Typical villain,” he mocked. “Can’t take me on-“
My heater shield impacted brutally with his face and I felt the nose shatter with feral satisfaction. He roared and dropped his spear, which I would have counted a victory had he not promptly socked me in the mouth. I reeled back and paused to spit out a mouthful of blood. Weeping Heavens, I think he dislodged a tooth.
“Gonna be that way, is it,” I growled.
“Loos’ li’ t,” he replied in a tone that tried very hard to be intense.
The effect was somewhat damaged by the fact that the broken nose made him sound like a drunken Proceran with a cold. He brought up his fists and Hakram snorted, moving to flank him. From the corner of my eye I saw Masego pick up the pieces of the now-shattered door with a spell and wedge shards into the flesh of the men surrounding the Bumbling Conjurer, resisting the urge to wince at the sight. Those would be a little more unpleasant to get out than a splinter, assuming any of them survived. As the mage hero tried to muster a counterattack I heard Robber call for a volley of crossbow bolts and to my pleased surprise one of them sank into the Conjurer’s shoulder. The mage let out a cry and spun at the impact, taking a dangerous step towards the edge of the stairs. For a moment it looked like he’d manage to get his balance back, but then he tripped on his own robes and fell. He landed below on one of the tables taken by goblinfire, his fall flipping the now-flimsy structure and sending the large wooden circle rolling straight towards me.
“Oh for Heaven’s sake,” I snarled, throwing myself out of the way.
Kilian’s mages hit it with fireballs a moment later, doing nothing to hinder the flames but the impact was enough to knock the table top back down. By the time I was back on my feet, the Hunter had made a daring tactical retreat, landing on the edge of the stairs as he swung from a rope attached to a javelin stuck in the ceiling. My mages and sappers had thinned out the enemy soldiers despite their best effort to form a shield wall, but out of the four remaining one hoisted the Conjurer back up and cleanly cut through the part of the hero’s robes that was on fire.
“Shoot them,” I yelled.
The burst of lightning that was Kilian’s signature hit the wall besides the heroes with a clap but it missed and before the rest of her line could follow suit the soldiers ran up the stairs and out of sight, dragging the Conjurer with then. The Hunter lingered just a moment, eyeing me stonily in the hellish green light provided by the spreading goblinfire.
“Be will mee’ agin, Squiwe, anb-“
Without missing a beat, Robber pulled his crossbow’s trigger and the bolt ran through the bastard’s calf with a glorious ripping sound. I had never loved my vicious little tribune more than I did in that moment, as the hero squealed and scampered out of sight.
“I’m putting you up for commendation,” I told the grinning goblin before turning to Masego. “Apprentice, can you get us across the room?”
“One at a time,” he replied without hesitation. “And you’ll need to clear out around me.”
“Do it,” I grunted without bothering to ask what in all the Hells he meant by that.
Now was not the time to be picky, not with the goblinfire slowly swallowing up the entire room. This was going to be a long-term problem, I knew. Even a small fire like this could swallow up the entire Palace given enough time, and I was starting to have a feeling that this wasn’t the only arson the Lone Swordsman had ordered tonight. It made sense, the more I thought about it. If he knew most of his enemies would be in the same place and not in a position to even notice the goblinfire until it was too late, why wouldn’t he put the place to the torch? Masego took a deep breath and closed his eyes, throwing a hand forward as the trinkets and stones in his braids started glowing.
“Cocytus, curse of traitors, tyrant of winter,” he spoke in Mthethwa, his voice going unnaturally deep. “By my borrowed blood I call on you. Contracts were made, debts incurred.”
Apprentice’s eyes opened, now a deeply disquieting shade of gold. Even through the smoke choking the room I could smell brimstone.
“My will is paramount, here and forever. Drown the world in ice.”
A shiver went down my spine that had little to do with the freezing cold that somehow took over a room largely on fire. If that wasn’t calling on a contract with a devil, I would shave my head and become a nun. A wind howled that all of us felt without it actually being a physical thing and from Apprentice’s hand emerged a small globe of ice-clear water. It flew through the air until it stood a few feet in front of the edge of the goblinfire, then suddenly dropped. The moment it touched the ground a stream of ice burst out of the point of contact, Masego gritting his teeth as he moulded the constant flow into a large bridge that stretched all the way to the stairs on the other side of the room. The Warlock’s son let out a grunt of effort when the bridge was finished, barking something out in the caster’s tongue before dropping to his knees, panting in exhaustion. Most of my legionaries eyed him with quiet awe and more than a little fear, so I cleared my throat.
“Good work, Apprentice,” I congratulated him. “So, now we move to the pressing issue: who’s going across the creepy frozen demon bridge first? Volunteers, please step forward.”
Hakram cussed out a laugh. I shot Kilian a smile, and the responding one split her soot-covered face.
Masego was looking better by the time we finally engaged in pursuit. He was still drenched in sweat but his hair was no longer doing the torch impression, which I took to be a good sign. I patted him on the back and he pushed up his glasses, looking a little bemused.
“Any reason you didn’t decide to go all mage of mass destruction during the actual fight?” I asked, taking care not to sound accusing.
He wasn’t an idiot, likely there was a good reason.
“Being interrupted while calling on a contract would be… bad,” he grimaced. “A golden opportunity for the Conjurer to bumble his way to victory. Or at least a common defeat.”
“How bad are we talking?” I questioned, morbidly curious.
“An entire wing of the Palace frozen for at least the next century,” he replied.
“That’s pretty bad,” I agreed.
Considering we had been in said wing at the time, that would have been a less than optimal result. My trust in Apprentice’s judgement grew accordingly, though the whole devil contract thing was definitely getting brought up again in the future. The heroes had been helpful enough to leave a trail of blood for us to follow so I knew we were headed in the right direction, but where they were headed was puzzling me. The roof of the palace would certainly be a dramatic place for a showdown, especially if the place was on fire, but they had to know they were putting themselves in a corner. Unless that was the point? Was the Swordsman deliberately engineering a situation where his band of heroes was up against the wall and outnumbered? That was definitely a setting where a hero could make a last-minute comeback and carry the day, but the Lone Swordsman had so far been pretty careful to always stack the odds in his favour when he could. This would be unusually risky of him, especially when Warlock had yet to take the field. He didn’t have a Bard to advise him before, though, I thought. He might have adjusted his tactics since we last met. Gods, I hoped not. My own plan had been designed with his usual behaviour in mind.
So far the situation was still relatively under control. General Afolabi was still alive and under heavy guard, Commander Hune should have the palace surrounded for when the heroes tried to escape and William’s lackeys had been driven back. I wasn’t sure how many soldiers he’d brought with him, but it couldn’t have been too many. That we’d caught two dozen early must have cost him, and the casualties they’d incurred in the earlier skirmish would only widen the gap. I’d dispersed about a company and a half inside the Comital Palace as fast response teams, which were still alive as far as I knew, and legionaries from the Twelfth should had begun to mobilize. What I’d put into place wasn’t so much a plan as it had been a palette of tools for me to use, when it came down to it. I’d taken a page from Juniper’s book and put my soldiers in key positions so I’d always have resources at my disposal to meet anything the Swordsman could dish out. I’d learned from the war games: elegant, complicated plans always collapsed before they could work properly. I had a talent for improvisation, so I might as well make use of it. Still, I had the niggling feeling I’d missed something. Why have the Bard scope out the banquet hall if he hadn’t meant to assault it? More than that, why set the Comital Palace on fire if he intended on fighting inside of it?
I’d earlier thought it made sense for him to try to take out the majority of the enemy leadership inside their own stronghold with goblinfire, but his own people were inside too. For that plan not to be imbecilic, his crew should have been outside of the palace waiting in ambush to take us out when we fled. Instead he’d very loudly assaulted the place before starting with the goblinfire, tipping his hand early and allowing to interrupt his minions.
“Hakram,” I murmured, turning towards my right hand. “I think we’re being played.”
The orc’s dark eyes met me from under the shade cast by his helmet.
“I’m getting to that conclusion myself,” my adjutant grunted. “Something’s wrong here. Robber saw the Swordsman earlier, so where the Hells is he? If he’d been with the other two heroes earlier, he might have tipped the balance.”
“The whole skirmish could have been a distraction,” I guessed. “So he’d be able to get at Afolabi without my getting in the way.”
The tall orc shook his head. “Doesn’t fit. He hasn’t targeted the general so far, and he had plenty of time before we arrived. He’s not been shy about taking out Legion leadership so far.”
“He could have held off until now to maximize the chaos,” I replied, but it felt like I was grasping at straws.
“You need to stop thinking like a general, Squire,” Masego interrupted, catching up to us. “We’ve had this conversation before, remember? The Twelfth has never been the target here. Neither was Summerholm itself.”
I started. “You think your father’s still the target,” I realized, then shook my head. “Doesn’t fit, Apprentice. We know the Swordsman was here not long ago, he was seen. He’d never attack Warlock without being the tip of the spear.”
The Soninke rolled his eyes. “Gods save me from Callowans. They have a mage, Catherine. Not a Legion barely-literate thug, someone who went through an apprenticeship. Do you really think they can’t cast an illusion that basic?”
I let out the filthiest curse I knew, absent-mindedly deciding it was a good thing Kilian and her line hadn’t been close enough to hear that.
“Robber,” I barked out. “When you ran into the heroes in the cells, did the Swordsman actually kill anyone?”
The tribune blinked.
“… No,” he said after a moment. “The streetwalker was the one who did all the heavy lifting.”
Shit. So while we’d been running around like headless chickens putting out fires and pursuing his minions, he’d been loose in the city. Where Warlock was defenceless, at least as defenceless as a Calamity could ever be. That was the thing, though. Warlock was a legend, a monster straight out of the stories that could level half a city and call on the worst denizens from Below. Exactly the kind of enemy heroes are supposed to face and kill. Finally making it up to the rooftops, we stood overlooking the city. A little further ahead a rope was swinging in the wind, making an escape route down the back of the roof, far away from the fire.
“Don’t look so worried, Squire,” Masego said. “The bastion is slightly askew from Creation, remember? If they try to break in they’re in for some very nasty surprises, heroes or not.”
I looked into the distance and felt my stomach drop.
“Goblinfire eats magic, right?” I asked.
Apprentice frowned. “Correct. Why would that matter?”
“So what would happen if someone set the bastion on fire with some?”
The mage paled. “That would… the interior is the part that’s dimensionally removed, it’s still contained by the physical structure. Oh, Merciless Gods. The power has to go somewhere, Catherine.”
Kilian’s words drifted back to the fore of my mind. Massive, she’d called the ward.
“Can he bring down the ward, Masego?” I asked quietly. “Before it turns Summerholm into a field of ashes?”
And his son along with it, I finished silently. Apprentice nodded.
“But the backlash…”
“Would weaken him,” I finished. “Enough that a group of heroes might be able to kill him, if they hurry.”
In the distance the western bastion burned green, a candle lit to announce the death of a legend.