“Prayer and a sword gets better results than prayer alone.”
– King Jehan the Wise
The words had barely left Masego’s mouth that my officers exploded into chatter, the panic-tinged voices struggling against one another. Two exceptions stood apart: Hakram rose to calmly pour himself a cup of wine he tossed back instantly, then frowned and poured himself a second. After a heartbeat he grabbed another cup, filled it and handed the wine to the other exception – Juniper, who took it without looking. She wasn’t paying attention to the mess of voices, instead eyeing a bare bones map of Marchford county. It wasn’t Imperial work, so it wasn’t as precise as the fare we’d both becomes used to. I allowed the babble to go on a moment longer, then slammed my palm against the table. It made a sound like a sharper exploding, and in the wake of it silence fell. A moment later a crack spread across a whitewood table that looked like it was at least a hundred years old, but I valiantly managed to ignore the fact I’d just messed up an heirloom worth twice my yearly salary.
“Now that I have your attention,” I spoke calmly. “You’re the ranking officers in the Fifteenth, fucking act like it.”
I met their eyes calmly until the message had sunken in, then continued.
“Good. Masego can you narrow down where the demon is? Wait, scratch that, can you tell me what it is?”
Apprentice grimaced. “Hell Egg. There’s a Hell Egg in the hills. That’s what Lord Black was trying to say,” he said after a moment, my teacher’s title sounding almost sardonic in his mouth.
He was more used to calling him Uncle Amadeus, much as I found the idea of Black being anyone’s uncle utterly horrifying.
“Pretend I don’t know what that is,” I sighed.
“Dread Empress Triumphant-“
“May she never return,” everyone but him and I muttered, pressing a knuckle to their forehead.
“That’s going to get old fast,” I noted.
“That one Empress,” Apprentice spoke peevishly, “used demons and devils when she conquered Calernia. Most demons were bound to the standards of her legions, though she kept several on hand for her personal use. By the time she died and collapsed the Tower on top of the heroes that came for her, there were only a handful of standards left.”
He paused, gratefully taking a cup of wine I hadn’t seen Hakram pour for him. I suppose we could all use a liquid courage, right now.
“Black assigned Father to find those in our newly-acquired territory after the Conquest,” he continued, already forgetting the lordly courtesy he’d tacked on earlier. “There’s one near Harrow he built additional wards over. He suspected there was one in the hills around Marchford, but he could never be sure – there was some kind of priestly ward protecting it, and Imperial policy is to leave those alone unless they’re a direct threat.”
I cleared my throat. “The history lesson is nice and the Harrow location is as of now under seal by my authority as the Squire, but that doesn’t tell us what kind of demon it is. It it a madness one, like the one she dropped on Laure?”
Nine inhabitants out of ten had died in the wake of that particular abomination of a war tactic, including the entire Alban royal line. He shook his head.
“It has to be absence or corruption,” he replied. “All the others are accounted for. I’m inclined towards corruption, considering we remember why we need to have this conversation at all.”
A shiver went up my spine at that, I was unashamed to admit. Every Callowan was raised on stories about what demons could do when let loose, and both of those kinds had famous legends to their names. An absence demon was widely believed to be the reason the entire Yan Tei Empire had no mention of it anywhere during two centuries and then had suddenly reappeared in the histories. People hadn’t even noticed it was gone, or even that anything had been missing at all. As for corruption… there were tales of an elven forest kingdom on the other side of the Tyrian Sea, where a stranger had once laid a single finger on the jewel that was the heart of the woods. Within a fortnight the entire kingdom had been turned into ravening beasts that fed on blood and bones, killing thousands before the were mercifully put down by heroes. That was perhaps the most terrifying thing about demons: most of what they did could not be undone. It scarred Creation permanently.
“We’ll operate under the assumption of corruption for now,” I said. “Any objections?”
Shaken heads all around.
“Lord Apprentice,” Commander Hune spoke softly. “Do you have any idea who could have set this demon loose? Did the Silver Spears disturb wards in their flight south?”
Oh, Weeping Heavens. The mercenaries were in the hills, where the fucking embodiment of corruption was. That wasn’t going to end well for anyone involved.
“-has been the target of sabotage on her part several times before, I’m given to understand,” Masego was saying when I started paying attention to her again. “Wolof has the best historical records in the Empire, I wouldn’t put knowledge of the location past her.”
“It’s Heiress,” I spoke flatly, cutting to the chase. “It’s always godsdamned Heiress, when things go to shit like this. The Lone Swordsman is a first rate prick but he’s not the demon-summoning type. I doubt anyone else on the rebel side would have the ability to break wards good enough to hold back a demon or the balls to go through with it.”
Hune blinked. “She’s an Imperial citizen,” the ogre said slowly. “We are in the middle of military operations against a threat to Praesi hegemony. This is… absurd. What could she possibly gain from this?”
“She wants to bleed the Fifteenth, I’d imagine,” I replied. “Or discredit it us so that her own contributions to the war effort look better in comparison. She’s only invested in putting down the rebellion insofar as it advances her own position, Hune. If she’s the last woman standing when the dust over this mess settles, she gets all the rewards.”
“Trust a human to manage fucking up a perfectly good war,” Juniper growled. “No offense meant, Aisha.”
Ratface, it seemed, did not even rank a half-assed apology. I probably shouldn’t have been as amused by that as I was.
“A little taken,” Aisha replied drily. “Akua Sahelian is a wretched bitch with more ambition than sense, if you’ll all forgive my language. Wolofites are a notoriously proud and fickle lot.”
Well, if there was one constant in Creation it was that whenever there were two Praesi nobles in a room there’d be at least three differing opinions offered about every subject. Still, I filed away the distaste in Aisha’s tone for further reference – I’d taken her into the Fifteenth at Juniper’s request and had never been given reason to complain about her service, but it had not escaped my attention that she was the most politically-connected of my officers. If she were a mage, she’d be my strongest candidate for who was leaking information to Heiress. It didn’t matter how far down the line of succession she was, in the Wasteland blood had a way of telling.
“So, corruption,” I spoke, getting us back on subject. “Apprentice, you’re the closest thing to an expert we have on this. Any chance the Silver Spears will get out of the hills before they get all…”
I waved a hand around vaguely to get my point across, the precise adjective for this situation escaping me. The Soninke mage massaged his forehead as he thought.
“No,” he finally replied. “Demons of corruption become a locus of the concept the moment they’re in phase with Creation. The area they can affect grows over time, but the Tower has anecdotal evidence implying that even from the first contact it can carry over several miles.”
I frowned. “Nobody’s ever tried to chart this?”
“Once,” Apprentice admitted. “The Warlock who did went mad while trying to write down the numbers and three floors of the Tower had to be torched before the… things that formed could spread any further.”
Well, that wasn’t ominous at all.
“So marching the whole legion on the bastard isn’t a solution, then,” Nauk grunted. “Fine, if numbers don’t work we can still solve this the way the Fifteenth deals with most problems. This whole corruption bullshit takes time, right? We’ve still got goblinfire. Let’s send a sapper company in and set the fucker on fire.”
“I’m not sure whether that would work,” Pickler replied. “As far as I know it’s never been used on demons. Part of that it that the substance has only been around for two hundred years and demon summoning is rare, but we’d be committing on a long shot.”
“We’re not committing to anything,” I said. “We’re bailing, is what we’re doing. Masego, can you narrow down its location? Unless it’s right on top of us we’re getting the Hells out of here.”
“Demons leave marks in Creation wherever they are,” Apprentice acknowledged. “I know a ritual that could triangulate its location. I can’t use it much, though, Catherine. It will notice, and corruption works on magic too. Three times at most.”
He didn’t need to elaborate on how much damage an embodiment of corruption could wreak, given a thaumaturgical link to a mage of Masego’s calibre.
“Legion doctrine when presented with first class special asset is to retreat to a choke point, fortify and send for reinforcements,” Juniper said. “We could make it back to the ford in four days with forced marches, and from there we should be able to scry for further instructions.”
I shook my head. “We won’t be able to go that fast,” I told her. “The people of Marchford are civilians, they can’t keep that kind of pace.”
There was a moment of silence. I realized with a sinking feeling that everyone in the room had expected me to leave them behind.
“Catherine,” Ratface said hesitantly. “There’s at least eight thousand people in the city right now. Just getting them in shape for an evacuation would take days, and that’s if they cooperate. Which they won’t.”
“By that time we will have corrupted cataphracts to deal with and worse,” Hune spoke softly. “We don’t have the men to protect a body of people that large when on the move.”
Aisha said nothing, only casting a look at Juniper whose face had gone utterly blank. Without a word Nauk moved around the table and came to stand by my side. Pickler cursed softly, then did the same. Hakram poured himself a third cup of wine. Masego claimed a chair and propped up his feet on the table, looking fascinated with the whole situation.
“They’re rebels,” the Hellhound said flatly.
“They surrendered,” I replied. “They are now Imperial citizens again, with all entitled protections.”
“Until that surrender has been accepted by the Tower their legal status is unclear,” the legate growled. “Regardless, decisions about legion deployment are at the discretion of field commanders when higher authority cannot be reached.”
“We have a mandate to protect imperial interests,” Adjutant contributed mildly.
“Imperial interest here is not to destroy the Fifteenth failing to save people who support a rebellion against Praes,” Juniper barked. “You’re not thinking with your head, Foundling. This is sheer fucking sentimentality, and feelings have no place in the thought process of an officer.”
Slowly, carefully, I let out a breath.
“I could tell you,” I spoke softly, “that feeding that many people to corruption is the makings of a disaster. I could tell you that if word got out a legion abandoned a city to a demon every major city in Callow would rise in rebellion before summer comes. Gods, I could even say that the demon is a Praesi mess and the Praesi should clean it up.”
My eyes hardened.
“But that’s not why I’m making this decision. There are eight thousand innocents in Marchford, Juniper. I refuse to abandon them.”
“And by doing that, you’re risking the life of every man and woman under your command,” the grim-faced orc said. “Your soldiers, dying so your conscience is clear.”
“Is Callow part of the Empire?” I asked. No reply, and Juniper seemed wary. “Anyone, feel free to answer.”
Ratface cleared his throat. “I don’t think anyone is denying that, Lady Foundling” he said.
I bared my teeth.
“That’s funny, because if this was Aksum or Kahtan we were talking about I don’t think anybody would be arguing about how we should or shouldn’t be feeding eight fucking thousand people to a demon,” I snarled.
“Marchford rebelled against the Tower,” Aisha said, though she did not meet my eyes.
“So did every city in the Wasteland, at some point,” I retorted. “Hells, not even fifty years ago two thirds of the High Lords were backing the bid for the throne of the Empress’ sworn enemy.”
“There’s been seven goblin rebellions, and nearly an eight under Nefarious,” Pickler added in an undertone, and for that I could have kissed her.
“The Empire’s talked a good game since the Conquest,” I said. “But now’s the time where we find out whether it was all empty words after all. Does Praes stay the course, when it costs something to do it? Taking a country isn’t enough to rule it, Juniper. That has to be earned. If Callow is part of the Empire, then our oaths apply to it. Every soul within its borders is under our protection, whether that means fighting Procer or the Free Cities or the children of Hell. We don’t get to pick and choose who those oaths apply to.”
My eyes swept across my officers.
“The eyes of the rest of Calernia are on us. So tell me, all of you – are we hypocrites or not?”
“Not,” Nauk chuckled, running his tongue over his teeth. “Doesn’t matter who we fight, Hellhound. The Fifteenth wins, that’s all there is to it.”
“Not,” Pickler agreed. “I’ve always been curious as to whether a trebuchet can kill a demon. I doubt I’ll get another opportunity to find out.”
“Not,” Ratface sighed. “Though I’d like to live to collect my pension, so let’s not get any heroic ideas.”
The goblet in Hune’s hands looked like a small toy compared to the size of her fingers – earlier we’d all pretended not to notice when she’d partially crushed it by accident.
“This is foolish,” the ogre commander complained, then clenched a fist. There was the sound of metal crumpling like cheap parchment and wine dripped through her closed fist. “Not, ancestors forgive me. I was not raised to go meekly.”
I cast a look at Hakram, who shrugged.
“Do you even have to ask?”
That left two. Juniper’s face had gone pale green with anger, eyes burning. Aisha had slipped back into the court mask she’d no doubt been taught as a child, expressionless save for a polite smile.
“We set a pace before moving out,” the legate said. “Anybody who can’t keep up gets left behind.”
This was, I knew, as far down as I’d be able to bend her neck. I could make it an order, of course. Respect for the chain of command was so deeply ingrained in Juniper that she’d follow an order she thoroughly despised without argument. But if I do that, I cross a line I can’t uncross. What little trust we have between us will be gone, and it’ll never come back.
“Agreed,” I conceded.
Masego cleared his throat. “Delightful little bit of drama, ladies and gentlemen, good show all around. Now if we could get back to the matter at hand?”
“Highest priority is to get the locals ready to leave as fast as possible,” I said. “Kilian’s still overseeing the garrison, she needs to be brought up to speed.”
“We have a higher priority than that,” Juniper replied. “Our worst wounded are still half a day’s march away from the city, Foundling.”
Shit. I’d totally forgotten about that. They’d been too slow to keep up when we’d marched on Marchford, so they’d been allowed to trail slightly behind with our extra supplies.
“Apprentice, how likely are they to be targeted?” I asked.
“Normally I’d say the odds are low,” Masego grimaced. “But stronger corruption demons can affect the creational laws of time and space – there could be a force headed there as we speak.”
“Infantry wouldn’t move fast enough,” Ratface mused. “But the cataphracts might.”
I clenched my fingers, then slowly unclenched them.
“Hune, I’m taking one of your cohorts to back them up on the way here,” I announced. “The rest of you need to get this evacuation moving.”
“There’ll be riots,” Aisha said. “And without your… skills in defusing those, we have fewer options to deal with them.”
I closed my eyes.
“Marchford is under martial law,” I finally replied. “Do what you have to.”
The awareness that a fortnight ago I would have used Nilin’s cohort for this was like a throbbing wound in the back of my mind. Tribune Galia was a solid officer, an orc nearly as tall as Hakram with skin a shade of green so dark it bordered on black, but she was not my friend. She’d not been with me since Rat Company, hadn’t followed me through thick and thin in the war games. I kept those thoughts away from my face as well as I could while she hurried the cohort down the road. For once I’d bothered to bring Zombie along to a possible fight, riding ahead of the column to serve as the scouting line we were lacking. We’d already been marching for over a bell without any signs of the wounded, but we should be coming across them any moment now. The night was dark and the now blood-red moon cast treacherous shadows everywhere, so I rather wished I’d thought to bring goblins along – I was the only person in the cohort with any real night vision to speak of. I’d ordered for us to go without torches as not to warn the enemy we were coming.
Skilfully guiding Zombie through the trees that bordered both sides of the road, I reined him in when I finally caught a flicker of movement in the distance. Breathing in, I focused and sharpened my Name vision to get a better look. And there you are. About two hundred legionaries with still-limited mobility, most on foot but some on the oxen carts that also carried our additional stacks of weapons and foodstuffs. They seemed to be ploughing along at a good pace, no doubt spurred forward by the fact that even the sky had apparently gotten licked by the Hells. I turned Zombie around and galloped back to the cohort, skimming our moving lines and slowing when I found the tribune. Captain Ubaid, in command of her second company, was engaged in quiet conversation with her. They both quieted when I stopped by them.
“Found our wounded,” I announced bluntly. “They’re just up ahead, they don’t seem to have run into anyone.”
“Still no sign of the enemy then, Lady Squire?” Galia asked.
“Apprentice said it was only a possibility,” I noted. “Could be the demon’s not strong enough to be a threat so quickly.”
Just the word for what we’d be facing was enough to have both battle-hardened officers flinch. For all that Tyrants had not been above calling up those creatures in the past, they were not counted as friends by any of the Praesi.
“We’re not home safe yet, anyway,” I grunted, diplomatically ignoring their reaction. “Until we’re back in Marchford no one should let their guard down.”
“Oh, I don’t think anyone will be closing their eyes on the job tonight,” Ubaid murmured. “Not with that thing out there.”
“Should I sound a horn in warning of our approach, my lady?” Galia said.
I shook my head. “Not yet.”
I trusted Masego, strange as that was to say. Maybe not to carry all my secrets, but he had an obsession with being exactly correct that predisposed him against lying. He wouldn’t have brought up the possibility if he hadn’t genuinely thought I should be prepared to deal with it. With a polite nod to the officers I rode ahead of the column again. I took Zombie into the woods more out of habit than any real need, moving forward at a trot. Eventually I pulled my mount to a stop, simply watching my forces coming closer together. I’d never been particularly fond of forests – it was the city girl in me, I imagined – a taste ever reinforced by the horror tales about the things that lurked in the Waning Woods and the Greywood. The red tinge cast by the moon over everything turned the mess of trunks and overgrown roots into a hellish labyrinth it would be easy to get lost into. A firefly passed in front of me, then circled around and came to rest on my outstretched hand. Huh. Lucky omen, that. Fireflies were rare in this part of Callow. The insect flew up the nearest tree and I followed it with my eyes until it came to rest on a branch.
Where a creature sat, looking down at me.
It was the size of a man, with large dark eyes and long legs ending in feet pointing both ways that were adorned with claws looking like iron hooks. It bared iron teeth at me, rustling its red-brown fur as it jumped. My sword cleared its scabbard before I even thought of it and I ducked under, blade striking at its body as it flew over me.
“AMBUSH!” I screamed, but I was too late.
Horns sounded from both my cohort and where the wounded were. I’d sliced the creature, I saw, but there was no blood on my blade. Devil.
“Little girl,” the hooked thing said in Mtethwa, putting its human-like palms up. “I mean no harm.”
“I do,” I replied, swinging for its eyes.
It scampered away up a tree before I could touch it, chittering something in the Dark Tongue. The firefly gently landed on Zombie’s neck, and before I could so much as blink it expanded into a human shape with a wet squelch of forming flesh. A pale-skinned humanoid without eyes leered at me, baring rust-coloured fangs. My pommel struck it in the mouth, breaking teeth as it let out a cackle like a hyena’s. More shapes were clustering in the trees.
“Well,” I said. “This could be going better.”