“My mother used to tell me it gets worse before it gets better, but I’ve found it’s usually the other way around.”
– Eudokia the Oft-Abducted, Basilea of Nicae
“Two bells,” Hakram complained. “I leave you alone for two bells and you get into a fistfight with a giant devil snake.”
“In my defence,” I croaked. “It started it.”
Countess Elizabeth’s former solar had once again been commandeered for my purposes, though this time I was seated mostly because I was unable to stand. I’d been half-tempted to ride into the room on Zombie but had ultimately allowed Adjutant to prop me up on my way here. The trouser leg over my broken bone had been cut off, the same for the sleeve on my bad arm. Hakram had been visibly uncomfortable at the hint of my smallclothes that could be seen on my upper thigh, much to my amusement. For someone who supposedly slept around so much he could be rather prudish. Apprentice felt up the muscles on my leg a little too hard and I cursed him out loudly.
“Why do you always involve goats when you insult someone’s ancestry?” the Soninke mused, and I had to resist the urge to kick him in the chin.
Oh it would have hurt like a bitch, but feeling his chin give in would have been so very satisfying. The mage frowned, not having noticed any of the debate raging through my mind.
“Catherine, did you use necromancy on yourself?” he asked.
I cleared my throat. “I’ve been known to dabble.”
“That shouldn’t be possible,” he noted. “While broken, the limb wasn’t technically dead. That does explain, however, why the inside of half your limbs is in the early stages of necrosis.”
“That sounds bad,” I said. “Hakram, doesn’t that sound bad?”
“I’m still at the part of this story where you punched a snake the size of a carrack in the head and it died,” Adjutant replied.
“It mouthed off,” I defended myself.
“Cat, if you punch everyone who mouths off to you we’ll be down half our officer corps,” the tall orc sighed.
“The surviving half would be very polite, though,” Apprentice commented drily.
I wasn’t sure whether it was having to men I rather liked fussing over me or because the banter was a reassuringly familiar feeling, but sitting here in relative safety the fresh horror of the battlefield I‘d barely escaped was starting to fade. Knowing Hakram, he’d probably done the latter on purpose.
“So what’s the damage, doc?” I asked Masego.
“I can fix most of this, but I’m not a priest,” the mage said a green halo wreathing his hand as he sunk his magic into my leg. “Broken bones will take a least three days to stop being brittle. I’ve already begun reversing the necrosis, but if you move the limbs too much the tissue won’t heal.”
“Not sure priestly healing would work on me at this point,” I said. “Took the wrong career path for that.”
“Squire isn’t a fundamentally villainous Name,” Apprentice replied. “It’s also the transitional Name leading into being the White Knight.”
“Necromancy’s a bit of a hint that this isn’t heading into White Knight territory,” Hakram snorted.
“There’s nothing inherently villainous about necromancy, Adjutant,” he spoke peevishly. “Or any kind of magic, for that matter. Cultural taboos are just that.”
“I’ve reached deep into my Name, Masego,” I murmured. “It’s not a pleasant thing.”
The chubby mage smiled thinly. “Spoken like someone who has never seen the aftermath of an angelic intervention. Angels are just as dangerous to mortals as devils, Catherine. Both are driven by absolutes. You only need to look at your nemesis’ sword to know that.”
I frowned. “That thing is related to angels?”
“A shard of one, if I’m not mistaken,” the dark-skinned man said.
“I’ve seen it slice into stone,” I replied dubiously.
“To embrace contrition is to feel the bite of regret,” he quoted. “The Hashmallim are not known for subtlety, or their understanding of metaphor.”
I raised an eyebrow. That was verbatim from the Book of All Things, and not one of the better-known passages either.
“The only other Praesi I’ve ever heard speak the Book is Kilian, and she’s Duni,” I said.
The Green Stretch had been through regular infusions of Callowan blood and culture from periods where Imperial power had waned and the Kingdom’s waxed, not to mention the era where most of Praes has been separated into crusader states.
“Father insisted I familiarize myself with the dominant theological movement on the continent,” the mage shrugged. “Dreadfully tedious stuff, by large, though its take on villainy was most amusing.”
“Organized religion,” Hakram scorned. “And you call us strange. Why would you ever want a middleman between yourself and the Gods? They’re bound to screw you over.”
“To be honest, Masego probably knows more about the theology of it than I do,” I admitted. “I skipped services as often as I could get away with.”
“Is this the part where we pretend to be surprised?” Apprentice asked, the green glow around his hand winking out.
He patted my bare leg, eyeing me for any sign of pain. When I showed no reaction he gave a satisfied nod.
“We’re done for now,” he said. “I’ll want to check on that necrosis in the morning, though.”
“Probably a good idea,” I agreed. “You should probably explain to me what that is when you do.”
I could see in his eyes that he knew I was yanking his chain, prompting a grin on my part, but he was already puffing up like an angry pedantic peacock when someone rapped their knuckles against the door.
“Come in,” I called out.
Juniper came into the room, Aisha and Nauk trailing close behind.
“Squire,” my legate grunted. “You look like shit.”
“If you keep sweet talking me like this, Kilian will get jealous,” I replied.
“Gods forbid,” the Hellhound spoke, rolling her eyes.
Nauk looked like he was about to burst, so I gestured vaguely in his direction.
“Out with it,” I ordered.
“Is it true you punched a giant snake until it died?” he asked eagerly.
“That’s… relatively true?” I admitted.
“Hah,” the large orc exclaimed, and Aisha cursed.
The Taghreb girl flipped Nauk a golden aurelius that the orc caught with a smug, sharp-toothed grin.
“Told you it was true. Remember when she punched out that ogre?” the commander reminded his colleague.
“Ogres aren’t the size of a small fortress,” the staff tribune muttered.
For a moment I debated stating, once again, that I’d never punched out an ogre. Or castrated one, for that matter, no matter what filthy lies Robber kept spreading. With a sigh I let it go: there was no killing the tale, at this point.
“I have the casualty reports, if you’re in a state to hear them,” Juniper broke in, silencing our common minions with a glare.
The shadow of a smile that had been stretching my lips disappeared at the words.
“How bad was it?” I asked soberly.
“No survivors from our wounded, as you already know,” the grim-faced legate said. “Out of the cohort you took we’ve got forty dead.”
That put our final numbers at a little above one thousand and one hundred. Less than one thousand in fighting shape.
“We can’t afford to keep taking fatalities like this,” I said.
“We weren’t significantly weakened by the battle,” Aisha noted. “Most of the dead were too wounded to be able to fight.”
“Defeat, Aisha,” I grunted. “Weakened by the defeat. Call it what it was.”
She lowered her head in concession.
“No point in wallowing either, Squire,” the Hellhound said. “I’ve had reports on the number of the devils, but I want your take. How many did you see?”
“My guess is around a hundred total,” I said. “We killed maybe twenty, likely less.”
“Devils aren’t technically killed, just dispersed beyond coherence. And necrosis is when flesh begins to die because of internal humours,” Masego burst out suddenly.
I raised an eyebrow. “Yes, we all knew that second one. Why mention it?” I asked earnestly, as if I’d had no idea what prompted the outburst.
“I hate you so much right now,” he muttered.
Still, that had been interesting. Had he literally not been able to help himself? Warlock’s son did have a tendency to want to be exact in all things, but did it really run this deep? Aspect-driven, I realized with a start. There must have been something about his Name that pushed him to be excruciatingly precise. That was a dangerous weakness, the kind of exploitable flaw that made you reveal your master plan because the hero bantered a little too close to home. There were more unfortunate implications, tough. Was I similarly affected by my Role? I’d wondered, once or twice, whether I’d gotten Struggle because I so often got in over my head – or whether it was the other way around. Does my Name push me to get into trouble?
“Anyhow, there will have been one hundred devils to start with,” Apprentice continued. “One hundred is a magically significant number, and “that one Empress” was known to field companies of them.”
“Would have been useful to know that beforehand,” Juniper growled.
The mage huffed.
“I would have mentioned it if I’d known it was relevant,” he replied. “I already told you most records from back then were destroyed.”
I raised a hand.
“We know now, that’s what matters,” I intervened. “And it changes things.”
“Evacuation is no longer a viable plan,” Juniper agreed. “Not even for the Fifteenth alone. You don’t fight devils on ground they picked.”
“How defensible is the city?” I asked.
“We have no walls,” Aisha said flatly. “And even if we did, we wouldn’t have the numbers to cover everywhere we need.”
“One of those I can fix,” the Hellhound spoke calmly. “Marchford is built in stone, thankfully. Pickler is currently collapsing the outer ring of houses. I’ve drafted from all companies for additional manpower. We should have at least a rudimentary fortification before the city is hit.”
I nodded in approval, then hesitated. “The people owning those houses can’t have been particularly pleased,” I mentioned.
“We’ve had a riot,” my legate acknowledged. “Adjutant dispersed the crowd before it turned too bad.”
I cast a surprised look at Hakram, who shrugged.
“I pointed out they could either let us tear down the houses or share them with a demon,” he informed me. “Funny how that word sobers up even angry young men. I’ve also committed the Fifteenth to rebuilding them when the battle is done.”
“That won’t work twice, Deadhand. City’s a pot about to boil over,” Nauk gravelled. “As soon as the light of day comes and word spreads there’ll be more rioting, mark my words.”
I passed a tired hand through my hair.
“Bulk up our patrols, and forbid legionaries to wander off alone,” I ordered. “If the city rises, this is over. We can’t allow that to happen.”
“They’re not making protecting their ungrateful hides very easy,” Aisha spoke disdainfully.
“They’re panicking,” I retorted sharply. “Civilians do that.”
There was a pregnant pause in the room.
“I didn’t mean it as a comment on Callowans in general,” the Taghreb said carefully. “My apologies if offence was taken, Lady Squire.”
I felt a spark of guilt at the wariness on her face. I already knew Aisha wasn’t the kind of Praesi aristocrat that thought of my people like cattle. She was, if anything, roughly egalitarian in her distrust of individuals of every background. I gestured half-heartedly at her.
“It’s been a long night,” I apologized. “My temper is finding targets unworthy of it.”
“Think no more of it, my lady,” the brown-skinned girl replied politely.
“Manpower’s going to be an issue,” Hakram broke in, thankfully changing the subject.
“More than you think,” I grimaced. “Some of the devils can take the shape of a firefly, and others can dig underground. We can’t leave the city itself undefended and look only after the outer parts.”
“Fireflies?” he repeated. “Shit.”
I frowned. “They’re actually the easiest breed to deal with.”
“For you, sure,” he said. “You’re not what they’re born for. They’re mage-takers.”
“I have a feeling,” Juniper gravelled, “that I’m not going to like what follows.”
“They bury in the back of a mage’s neck and take over the body,” Apprentice explained. “The practitioner’s ability to use magic is significantly improved, so there’s rituals where diabolists bind them to themselves, but if we’re not the ones who summoned them…”
“Well, let’s take checking all our mages to the top of our priority list,” I said. “And get the word out to the civilians – there aren’t as many mages born in Callow as in the Wasteland, but there’s bound to be a few left in a city this size.”
“Here’s a thought,” Nauk said. “Conscript those. We need the firepower and we’re asking them to fight for their own bloody home.”
“I’d conscript everyone in fighting shape in the city, if I could,” Juniper said. “But it’s pointless if we don’t have weapons for them to use. Our stocks don’t have that many extra supplies, and most of those were with our wounded.”
I blinked. Sometimes I forgot they hadn’t been born here, hadn’t been raised to the culture. That they didn’t really understand the people the Empire was ruling over.
“This is Callow,” I told them. “Half the houses in the city will have swords and spears stashed under the floorboard or hidden away in the attic.”
Surprised faces all around, with quite a bit of confusion.
“The Royal Guard was never as large as the Legions, even at its peak,” I reminded them. “Whenever Procer came through the Vale, whenever Emperors marched on Summerholm, the bulk of the Kingdom’s host was always volunteers. Families keep arms and pass them from generation to generation.”
I half-smiled, drawing on those nights I’d spent serving drinks in Laure.
“So pick up your sword, boy
Here they come again
And down here in the mud,
It’s us who holds the line,” I sang, the refrain of a song as old as the Kingdom.
“I’ve heard that tune before,” Hakram said.
“Here They Come Again,” I told him. “It was never officially banned but Imperial authorities frown on people singing it. A little too rebellious for the Tower’s tastes, I imagine.”
“Having weapons is one thing,” Juniper grunted. “Do they know how to use them?”
“I’m less optimistic about that,” I admitted. “The men and women with martial training, however slight, will have been taken with the Countess when she left for Vale.”
“Disorganized rabble can hold a chokepoint, given sufficient motivation,” Aisha spoke flatly. “I imagine not wanting their homes become a demon-infested wasteland might do the trick in that regard.”
Hakram cleared his throat.
“That’s not something that can be assessed from this room, so arguing over the subject is pointless,” he reminded everyone. “I wouldn’t discount the possibility that Countess Marchford left with most of those weapons, either.”
Damn, I hadn’t thought of that. The aristocrat was one of the richest women in Callow, but having too many arms and armour forged at once would have rung alarms with the Empire. It wasn’t even worth considering that Black didn’t have agents embed in every major blacksmithing guild in the country.
“I’ll get started on the organization for all this, then,” Juniper sighed.
“I’ll put a pot of tea on the fire,” Aisha told her, almost getting a smile out of my grim-faced legate.
They both looked at me and I nodded my dismissal, already discussing logistics as they left the room. Nauk lingered a little longer.
“Kinda wished you’d brought me along for that last fight, boss,” he gravelled.
“Hells, so do I,” I muttered. “If I’d had a pair of cohorts instead of the one we would have swept through the bastards and gotten our people out.”
“We’ll get a second round soon enough,” the large orc conceded, then paused to choose his words.
That was unusual enough he got my full attention immediately.
“When the Silver Spears come back, after they’ve had a nice moonlit stroll with the demon… I’d like for my kabili to be the one facing them.”
“We won’t know where they attack for sure,” I frowned.
“Between you and the Hellhound, I’m sure a good guess will be made,” he grunted.
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. His reasons were obvious enough, though I didn’t like them. A commander focused on getting payback instead of his actual tactical objectives might make mistakes. On the other hand, a commander with strong personal motivation to carry a fight might perform better than one less… driven.
“Will you lose your shit, if I put you in front of them?” I asked bluntly.
Nauk’s brutish face hardened, though not out of anger at me. He knew the question was not undeserved, and that him going into the Red Rage in the middle of a battle would fuck up his kabili’s entire chain of command.
“I swear to you I will not,” he gravelled. “On my father’s blood, I make that oath. May my Clan bury me unmarked if I lie.”
Hakram took in a sharp breath, so that wasn’t an oath lightly made.
“Done,” I finally said.
Selling that to Juniper was going to be a pain and a half, but there was a debt there to settle. He might not see it that way, but I did. The image of our friend wreathed in green flames, looking so damnably peaceful, was not one I would soon forget.
“I knew you’d understand,” the large greenskin said. “Rest well, Callow. Tomorrow the real war starts.”
And with that ominous bit of talk, he left the three of us behind. Apprentice was the first to stir.
“I’ll leave you to your sleep, then,” he said.
“Not yet,” I replied. “Conscripts and bastard walls aren’t going to get us through this, Masego. All of us know that. I need alternatives. How good are you with wards?”
He shrugged. “I could prevent anything from outside of Creation from entering this room, given a bell and the right tools.”
“I don’t mean for you to ward a room,” I replied. “How hard would it be to cover the entire city?”
“That’s…” he began, then stopped. “Insane, yes. But not impossible.”
“Didn’t think you had that kind of juice in you,” Hakram noted, sounding a little surprised.
“I don’t,” the mage replied. “I can’t think of a practitioner who would, save perhaps the Dead King. But warding isn’t about the power you can provide, it’s about what you can accumulate. The whole point of ritualistic magic is that the impetus doesn’t come from the caster’s personal strength.”
I grimaced. This was going to end up being a blood magic thing, wasn’t it?
“We’re not bleeding people, Apprentice,” I stated. “We’re not that desperate.”
He blinked, then looked offended.
“I’m not a hack, Catherine. I don’t need sacrifices to brute force my way into higher arcana,” he snapped.
“In her defence,” Hakram intervened, “when mages start talking about grand designs someone usually ends up strapped to an altar.”
“Inferior sorcerers, maybe,” Masego scorned, but he looked somewhat mollified. “What I need is a census of the number and location of hearths in the city. All of them.”
I was about to ask him why when the window burst into shards of glass. I wasted a precious heartbeat in pure surprise before my training kicked in and I reached for my sword. Which, I immediately remembered, wasn’t at my side. It was on the table. By the time I was on my feet, Hakram’s blade was out and Apprentice was casting. My hands closed around the handle of my sword and I unsheathed it, biting my lip so I wouldn’t let out a scream and the brutal flare of pain that standing suddenly on my broken leg was causing. I’d expected to be looking at a devil, maybe one of those mage-takers come for Masego, but what I was looking it was completely different. Who I was looking at, rather.
A woman, dressed in fine white chainmail going down to her knees in a skirt. Over it she wore a leather coat that covered her arms up to the wrist and came up in a hood. Her lower face was covered by dark linen, but I could still see her dark ochre skin betraying a bloodline from across the Tyrian Sea and delicate hazelnut eyes. On her back there was a quiver and almost absurdly large longbow strapped, but the weapon she had out was the longknife in her hand. Adjutant, true to form, did not waste time on banter. He took a swing at her without missing a beat but she caught his wrist and twisted it, using his momentum to spin him around and have him face the spell Masego had just let loose. The mage’s eyes widened in panic and he barked something in the arcane tongue but there was still a flash of heat and Hakram went flying.
I made to go around the table, not confident in my ability to flip it and power through. The stranger moved towards Apprentice but with a snarl he cast another spell: dark, squid-like flesh grew around his outstretched hand and a flurry of tentacles spread towards the enemy at breakneck speed. The woman snorted and stepped out of the way of most of them, hand snapping out to grab a tentacle and tugging. The bespectacled mage fell forward and she lightly jumped over him, ignoring the fact he was already halfway through another incantation. She was coming for me, there were no two ways about it. Assassin? No, the bow would be out of character and if a Calamity had been after my head I would never have seen them coming.
“Who are you?” I asked.
She dashed forward and I grit my teeth. Talking was apparently not an option. I made as if to take a swing at her, but instead brought up my free hand: the spear of shadows coalesced almost instantly and tore in her direction. She sidestepped it with insulting ease, ducked under my sword stroke and socked me in the stomach. Before I was done wheezing in pain and surprise, I felt cool steel resting against my throat as she lightly put up the blade without drawing blood.
“Stop casting that web of lightning, love,” she spoke in perfect Lower Miezan. “We’re done here.”
“Are we?” I said calmly. “I’ve walked away from having my chest more or less split in half. If you think a slit throat is going to do the trick, I have a surprise for you.”
I was, of course, lying through my teeth. But if I’d learned anything about having a Name, it was that if you said anything confidently enough people usually took you seriously.
“Is that so?” the stranger laughed. “Good to know.”
She took away the blade from my throat, then sheathed it with flourish.
“I have to say I’m a little disappointed,” she continued. “Lady Ranger always speaks very highly of the Black Knight, but if I’d wanted everyone in this room dead you would be.”
I started in surprise.
The woman lowered the linen covering her face, offering me a dashing smile.
“Archer,” she introduced herself. “As the mandated representative of the Lady of the Lake, I’ve come to take custody of Hunter.”