“Tyrants do not lose. We face temporary setbacks.”
– Dread Empress Maledicta II
Staying in the woods was a good way to head for premature retirement, so I spurred Zombie on to get us the Hells out of there.
“This could have been a pleasant evening, you know,” I complained out loud. “Sure the blood-coloured moon is a bit of a mood killer, but when’s the last time I just went for a ride?”
“Little girl,” another hooked thing spoke from the trees, “why do you-“
Without missing a beat, I raised my sword in its direction and allowed my Name to coalesce in a spear of shadows – the projectile flew faster than the eye could follow, tearing a smoking hole through the devil’s head. Its iron claws kept it on the branch, but it stopped moving. No blood but they can still die. That’s a start. My mount wove around the trunks and branches with preternatural ability, though not because of any great riding abilities on my part. Controlling Zombie became easier with every passing month, and by now was merely took an afterthought: most of my attention was on our surroundings. And a good thing it was, too. A I took a turn a long snake-like thing dropped from above and barred my path. Oh Gods. No, not a snake. I’d seen centipedes before, but this one was large as a small horse and covered in small pincers all over its length. They were constantly moving and on its back I could see they formed patterns like human faces screaming and weeping. I could almost make out what they said, but – I stopped myself right there.
“Catherine, we don’t stare too long at the eldritch abomination that makes a mockery of all that is good and decent,” I reminded myself, guiding Zombie to jump over it.
The devil’s front reared up, opening up into a jaw lined with four weeping thorns that snapped at my horse’s tail. Yeah, I wasn’t sticking around to see anymore of that. On another note, I had a feeling the spark of guilt I’d used to get when stepping on centipedes was gone permanently.
“Little girl,” one of the devils called out in a sing-song voice that sent a shiver up my spine.
“I’m seventeen, you prick,” I yelled back, because I had never quite managed to learn when to shut up.
I ducked under a branch and finally emerged into the open, where my usual run of luck was continuing: my cohort was getting mauled by what must have been upwards of twenty devils. It was hard to tell in the dark, since the whole formation had fallen into chaos. I picked out a few gaping holes in the ground that likely meant the things had burrowed under my legionaries when setting up their ambush. Merciless Gods, I thought devils were supposed to be mindless. How long have those been around, to start thinking ahead this much? Didn’t matter, in the end. I was still going to have to clean up the mess before retreating. Speaking of messes, I cast a look west and winced. My wounded were getting torn apart, there were no two ways about it. They’d managed to get weapons out, at least, but they were in no shape to handle a pair of devils, never mind the thirty or so they seemed to be dealing with. A large silhouette the size of a supply wagon was rampaging around, goring men with a pair of curved horns sprouting off its head with unsettling agility. A heartbeat passed as I considered my options.
Could I get my cohort in order quick enough to come to their rescue? Screams were filling the night, both my legionaries’ and the creatures’. Every moment I spent hesitating, my soldiers were dying. I knew I should at least make the attempt, but In the back of my mind eerie green eyes looked back at me. The only clean victories are the ones in the stories, Catherine. I could see no way to turn this into a victory, but the point still stood. I couldn’t save everyone. I couldn’t even save most.
“Gods forgive me,” I whispered as Zombie galloped for the cohort.
Captain Ubaid was the first officer I found, screaming at the top of his lungs so his orders could be overheard over the ruckus. His company was trying to form a square but one of the monsters had burst out of the ground in the middle of their position. It looked almost like a man covered in filthy rags, but a jackal’s head sprouted from the back of its head and from the looks of it its grip was strong enough to pull apart steel and crush bones. Zombie scattered a handful of my own men as he picked up speed and headed straight for the devil. I could have taken us a little to the side to swing my sword as we passed, but arming swords were not designed to be used from horseback – instead my mount reared up and a pair of hooves slammed into the devil’s back, battering it down. The thing apparently did not have bones, but there was a sound like a door hinge breaking. I reached for my Name before it could get up, a blade of darkness extending from the tip to sever the creature’s neck. It flopped uselessly on the ground, perhaps not dead but no longer able to fight.
“Hack that into smaller pieces,” I ordered the closest legionaries, who were looking at me with something like awe.
“Lady Squire,” Ubaid called out, pushing through the ranks. “We must-“
“Get your men into tighter lines, captain,” I interrupted, tone flat. “We’re pushing forward to take the pressure off Tribune Galia.”
“She’s dead, ma’am,” Ubaid replied. “Some sort of giant snake creature burst out of the ground and swallowed her whole.”
I cursed in Taghrebi. “The other captain?”
“Firefly landed on his eye, burst through the skull,” a legionary with lieutenant’s stripes contributed, bleeding from her cheek.
My fingers clenched. We were going through officers faster than godsdamned rations, these days.
“Ubaid, consider yourself a tribune for all intents and purposes,” I said. “We’re still moving forward. I’m not leaving half the cohort behind when we retreat.”
It was a sign of how badly we were getting hurt that not a single one of them suggested we try to extract the wounded. The man nodded, exhaustion showing for a moment before the Legion discipline kicked in and his face turned into a professional mask. I dismounted and rolled my shoulder, trying to get it to pop so it’d stop aching under the plate. I glanced at the lieutenant who’d talked earlier, frowning as I recognized the features under the blood and steel.
“Kamilah,” I said. “Is that you?”
“Ma’am,” she replied with a wan smile. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to see you again, but under the circumstances…”
She’d been a sergeant in Rat Company. For a moment that almost made me reconsider what I was about to order, the sight of Nilin’s corpse wreathed in green coming up to haunt me. Calmly, I grabbed that burst of sentimentality by its metaphorical neck and snapped it. Sentiment is no longer a luxury I can afford.
“How’s your line, Lieutenant?” I asked.
“Down two men, Lady Callow,” she replied. “But we’re still in fighting shape.”
I almost smiled at the reminder of the name I’d assumed during my College days, tightening the strap holding my heater shield to my arm.
“Then get your men ready, Lieutenant,” I said. “We’re going hunting.”
For my cohort to be in a position to retreat, I needed two things.
The first was for our formation to be free of enemies inside its confines. That much I knew I could achieve. The second thing was a little trickier: I needed to finish this part of the fight before the devils in the woods and the ones killing my wounded moved on us. That was the reason was why I was currently wrestling down one of the two-faced monsters as Kamilah’s legionaries surrounded it. Good goblin steel slid in the thing’s sides but it only struggled harder against my grip. Its fingers ripped into my plate, scoring long gouges on the surface. I cursed and rammed my helmet into the teeth of the jackal face. It reared back with a howl and the lieutenant herself hacked into the bared neck with her sword, putting it down for good. I forced myself up. The second company that had made up Tribune Galia’s cohort was scattered in small pockets, fighting whatever devil had seen fit to prey on them. Numbers were starting to tell now that my legionaries had recovered from the surprise, but we weren’t out of the proverbial woods yet. Ubaid was advancing his company as a three-man thick shield wall, enveloping individual devils in a circle of steel to overwhelm them – but there were outliers that were too strong for him to deal with.
That was where I came in.
From where I stood, I could see two of the hook-bearing devils from the woods and one of the pale eyeless ones. Those I let go, leaving them to Ubaid. The firefly shapeshifters weren’t too troublesome as long as they were in that humanlike shape, and after the second time the hooked ones had used the shields of my legionaries as a jumping point to tear out the throat of the man behind they’d adjusted their tactics accordingly. The real problems were the unique ones, like the large skinless ape who’d just caved in the head of a legionary a little to my left.
“Skinless,” I called out. “Left.”
Kamilah’s line fell in behind me without a word, shields up and swords in the middle line. We moved forward at a brisk pace but the devil noticed us before before we could get too close. Leering in a way that displayed its oversized human teeth, it picked up the corpse of the legionary it had killed and tossed it at me like a rag doll. I barely had the time to wish it had killed a human instead of an orc before the body hit my shield like the load of a trebuchet. Gritting my teeth, I anchored my feet on the ground but the impact was so ludicrously strong it pushed me back a dozen paces, my armoured feet dragging lines into the ground. The legionary right behind me was thrown to the ground when we impacted, but I wasted no time looking back: snarling, I charged forward. Unsurprisingly, whatever ungodly place had given birth to devil had decided that just a pile of ape-shaped muscles and bones wasn’t a horrifying enough appearance. Under the red flesh I could see wriggling maggots, some falling to the ground and crawling towards corpses as the devil ran in my direction. Its fist was the size of my head, but there was no subtlety to its attack: I saw the strike coming and ducked under the swing, closing the distance. My sword sliced up through its belly, tearing muscles and spilling maggots all over my shield. The monster barely even noticed, delivering a kick to my abdomen that knocked the wind out of me and sent me tumbling to the ground.
“Gods Below and Everburning,” I snarled, pushing myself back up. “Summoning you shits should be illegal.”
“I hear that, ma’am,” one of Kamilah’s legionaries muttered.
The rest of the line spread into a loose circle around the ape and I ignored the ache in my legs as I returned to the fray. I wouldn’t kill this one by going for vital spots, that much had become abundantly clear. I’d have to cripple it enough that the legionaries could help me finish it off. The devil stepped forward lazily, the wound I’d inflicted it now filled with writhing worms. I loosened the straps on my shield and shook it off my arm, rolling my shoulder. Blocking would be pointless here, I’d have to dodge.
“Come on, big guy,” I grunted. “Let’s have another go.”
“Squire,” the ape replied in a scared child’s voice. “Please, Squire. It hurts, it hurts so much.”
“I’ve walked the Hall of Screams,” I spoke calmly, keeping the horror I felt off my face. Was it – was there actually a child in there, under all the maggots? “You’re going to need to do better than that, if you want me to flinch.”
It struck without warning, but I’d not dropped my guard. A half-step put me just out out of the punch’s path and my sword came down just under its shoulder with all the strength I could muster, cutting through flesh until it hit the bone. I felt the humerus break, but I couldn’t go any further. Maggots started crawling up my blade and hastily whipped it out, barely dodging out of the way when the ape tried to cave in my torso with its foot.
“Why won’t it stop,” the devil screamed, the child’s voice going shrill. “Mother, where are you? Why is it so dark?”
The ape reached for the wrist of its damaged arm and ripped the entire thing out of its socket, the voice of the child screaming in pain as it swung the appendage at me like a mace. I took a deep breath and Creation slowed, all distractions fading away as my Name pulsed against my ears. I’d been wary of its power once, but compared to what stood in front of me? Gods, even the worst my Role could make was clear water compared to that filth. I steadied my footing and brought my blade down on the arm. I sliced clean through it, spilling worms as the lower half of the appendage flew in the distance and the rest passed me. Feeling my focus already beginning to wane, I ran forward. The ape had dropped its makeshift weapon and tried to grab me but I spun around the fingers, angling my body downwards and my sword to the side as I slid between its feet. The blade cut through the flesh of its lower leg, stopping only when it hit the bone: I ground my teeth in effort and hacked again, this time going all the way through. The devil toppled forward with crazed laughter, grasping at my legionaries who’d cautiously edged away from it. The moment after, as I crawled away from the remains of the leg that was were already spewing maggots like a fountain, Kamilah’s line fell on the downed devil like a pack of wolves.
Methodically they chopped away the limbs, the lieutenant herself dodging an attempt from the beast to bite through her arm before ramming her sword in its empty eye socket. By the time I’d gotten back on my feet, all that was left was a pile of wriggling flesh incapable of moving.
“You’re getting rather good at this,” I told Kamilah, trying to keep my mind away from the very real possibility that there was still an innocent child’s soul kept prisoner in the devil’s remains.
“Practice makes perfect,” the woman replied, serenely bringing her boot down to squash a worm that had gotten too close.
I couldn’t help a smile. That little sentence was the essence of the Legions, wasn’t it? The ironclad belief that as long as they remembered their training and kept the shield wall steady there wasn’t a force in Creation – or beyond – they could not beat. What did it matter, if they were facing angels or devils? A crossbow shot every twenty heartbeats and good goblin steel would see them through it. There was, I reflected, something very Callowan about that. The again perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me. How had my teacher put it, if Warlock was to be believed? When trying to understand someone, look at their enemies. The Legions had been shaped by Callow as much as Callow had been shaped by the Legions. Shaking away the musing, I focused on the there and then. Now was not the time to get lost in thought. As far as I could see, the handful of remaining devils were fleeing the field. Yet another thing they should not be clever enough to do. Ubaid’s company had swelled with almost all the survivors from the other one: this was, I recognized, as many as I’d be able to salvage from this fiasco. I forced myself to look west. My heart clenched at the sight of the last of my wounded being swarmed over by devils, but I knew how forcing that engagement would go.
“We’re done here,” I told Lieutenant Kamilah. “We’re marching back to Marchford, as fast as we can manage. Send word to Cap- Tribune Ubaid,” I corrected myself.
“Thanks the Gods,” my old follower from Rat Company breathed out in relief. “I’ll go myself, ma’am. We can’t leave soon enough for my taste.”
She clapped her sergeant on the shoulder and made it three feet before the ground burst out under her and enormous jaws snapped shut around her body. The snake’s head was the size of a barn, but while its features might have been reptilian there was not a scale in sight. Flesh, I realized. It was made of flesh. A hundred thousand faces sown together in a patchwork of features that still moved. The devil turned its eerie cat eyes at me, then noisily crushed Kamilah inside its mouth. I felt a red haze descend on me. I did not recall bringing up my arm, but I snarled and shadows formed into something that was more a ballista bolt than a spear, flickering into movement faster than even my Name-sight could grasp. It hit the snake just under the jaw, and the shadows splashed harmlessly against the skin. The devil swallowed, then opened its gaping maw.
“Was she precious to you?” it asked, but the voice did not come from the mouth. The faces all over its skin were speaking in unison, a hundred men and women. “She was; I can see it from your anger. That’s fine. You might still save her if you’re fast enough. It takes a while before they become part of me.”
I found, to my surprise, that the rage taking hold of my bones was so deep it was stilling my tongue. I stepped forward, sword in hand, but the devil laughed.
“Come and play, Named,” it invited me, slithering back into the hole it had torn through the ground.
I took hold of my rage. I would not make decisions angry. Anger made you sloppy, clouded your judgement. This once, though, my burning desire to brutally murder that creature coincided with what needed to be done. I had no idea how quick it could move underground, but there was no way I could afford to let it harass us on the way back to Marchford.
“Sergeant, begin the retreat,” I ordered, voice deceptively even.
The orc saluted, then hesitated.
“Will… will you be coming with us, Lady Squire?” he asked.
I spun my blade in a loose circle, loosening my wrist.
“I’ll be following shortly,” I replied, and jumped into the hole.
Immediately I regretted that decision when the serpent’s head burst out of the hole and rose into the air, faces cackling. I only barely managed to catch the open mouth one of of them with my free hand as we kept getting higher. It tried to chomp down, but teeth were pointless against good plate.
“Got you,” the nearest face crowed as the snake continued rising in the air.
Sixty feet at least before it stopped, and there must have been at least that much underground to support it.
“Can you fly, little Named?” the face asked mockingly.
Grunting in effort, I rammed my sword into the open mouth and used the pommel as a handhold. I had enough of a grip I could hug my body closer and slip my feet into another mouth and an eye socket – I had to kick until the eye fell off, but eventually I made enough space.
“And down we go,” a woman’s face announced above me.
To my horror, the devil tipped back and let itself fall. The wind howled around me and the ground got closer with every heartbeat as I desperately tried to scale the side so I wouldn’t be stuck between the massive weight and the floor. I was only half successful: earth sprayed and corpses flew, masking the sound of my left arm and leg breaking. I bit my lip until it bled to force down the primal scream of pain that almost escaped me. The snake shook itself, then slowly rose again.
“That must have hurt,” the woman’s face mused.
“One arm and one leg left,” an old man snickered. “How long can you hold on?”
Under me I could see my cohort beginning to panic, though the officers were doing their best to keep them moving. The devil begun to waddle back and forth like a grotesque pendulum, my body shaking with it. Shit. My arm and leg were – I blinked, then rasped out a laugh. As good as dead. Gods, I really needed to add some tricks to my arsenal did not rely on me being halfway into the grave. My Name howled in approval, spinning threads around the useless limbs. With the crack of multiple fractures worsening, I forced my broken arm to reach up and force its way into another face’s mouth.
“Pointless,” a puppet from around my knee mocked me.
I hoisted myself up, kicking through its teeth to use its mouth as a foothold. Inch by inch, I started making my way up to the head. It tried to shake me off, shouting insults all the while, but the threads held. Tightened, but did not snap. The devil screamed and let itself fall forward, counting on the momentum to flip me off its head. I rammed my sword through the nostril of another face at an angle to give me a counterpoint, feeling the muscles in both my arms tear as I pushed myself in the opposite direction. Immediately it tried to push the other way to use it against me, but something that size could not move fast enough – I’d already found other handholds by then. The higher I got the more it panicked, shaking and screaming imprecations at me.
“You can’t kill me,” it screamed when I finally hoisted myself over the ridge of the head. “I am hunger incarnate, I-“
“Talk too much,” I finished coldly, shoving my free hand in the mouth.
The shadows formed into a spear and kept growing as I tapped into the furthest depths of my Name and kept feeding into it, growing and growing until I could no longer hold the power. With bared teeth I released it, and felt it burrow inside deep inside the devil’s head. The mouth closed over my forearm like a bear trap, teeth shattering against steel, and every single face went silent. Slowly it dipped forward and fell, crashing against the ground with a thunderous roar. I slipped off the side of it and landed on my bad leg with a hoarse cry, guiding Zombie to me with a thought. I leaned on my mount from my good side and hoisted myself up with only two suppressed yells of horrible pain, which was a victory of sorts. I only then noticed I’d landed less than a dozen feet away from my cohort, every single legionary of which was looking at me in utter silence.
“I don’t remember telling you to stop retreating,” I croaked out, sheathing my sword.