“The Kharsum word for war is derived from the one used for a full cookpot. That tells you everything you need to know about how the Clans think of Creation.”
– Extract from “Horrors and Wonders”, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran
“That was a mistake,” Lieutenant Balker offered.
“It got worse,” Captain Clipper suggested instead, flirtatiously allowing her teeth to peek through her chops.
She did have superb canines, Robber was forced to admit, but she was no Pickler. It was his curse to always be interested in the unattainable ones, he’d found, and the Senior Sapper was as unattainable as it got. A Rock Breaker tribe boy like him with the direct daughter of a Matron line? That was the punchline to a joke about overreaching, not a plan of action. Unlike humans, the Tribes didn’t glorify people trying to love above their social stature – they buried them in shallow graves. And for all that the Fifteenth was not the Grey Eyries, there would always be that invisible line there. He’d long made his peace with that.
“You’re all amateurs,” he told his minions. “And no, that wasn’t another suggestion. Clearly we should be going with I can’t believe that worked.”
There was a murmur of approval from the ranks, though some filthy traitorous elements dissented.
“Fear the goats,” someone called out. “The one true motto of the Fifteenth.”
“Captain Borer,” the tribune addressed his second-in-command loudly. “Write up that man for insubordination. And poor taste.”
Borer was one of his very favourite people in Creation simply because the other goblin had no sense of humour whatsoever. Probably because he was Deep Pit tribe, that whole bunch breathed in all sorts of nasty stuff when they were young. Borer squinted at the traitor, then sighed.
“That’s a woman, sir,” the captain told him. “Lieutenant Rattler.”
“You sure?” Robber asked, cocking his head to the side. “That’s clearly a man’s nose.”
Rattler flipped him off.
“Add to the list that she was emotionally hurtful,” the yellow-eyed goblin added without missing a beat, grinning at the wave of jeers that got.
Running a sapper cohort wasn’t like leading regulars. For one, sappers were all insane. You had to be, to willingly choose a career path that would see you deal with notoriously volatile munitions on a daily basis. There was also the fact that they were the mostly lightly armed soldiers in the Legions of Terror yet regularly saw action on the frontlines. That was fine because leading crazy people, in Robber’s opinion, was a lot like being in prison. If you wanted your authority unquestioned you had to walk up to the biggest prisoner on the cell block, rip out their eyes and make a necklace out of them. Metaphorically speaking. So far, anyway. A whistle came from further ahead, lilting and then going high. Enemy in sight.
“You hear that, ladies and gentlemen?” the yellow-eyed tribune called out. “That’s the sound fun makes when it begins.”
He saw more than a few sappers shiver in eager anticipation. Crazy, the lot of them.
“So let me hear it, before you get to battle positions,” he called out. “What’s the operational creed of this cohort?”
“KILL THEM, TAKE THEIR STUFF!” the call came back.
Robber faked wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. Considering goblins didn’t even have tear ducts, the absurdity was delightful.
“Go forth, my minions!” he cackled.
“Our guests have arrived,” Aisha said.
Juniper could see the devils trickling in through the scrying bowl herself. Foundling’s assessment of how many she’d killed seemed roughly accurate: a quick headcount put the enemy at around eighty. Most of them were the smaller types she’d had reports on, the iron-clawed creatures with fur and a swarm of fireflies. The larger ones would be more dangerous, given their ability to shrug off crossbow bolts, but Pickler’s traps had been designed specifically to deal with their kind. The legate looked away from the bowl and absent-mindedly adjusted the figurine representing Squire and her Forlorn Hope – it had moved a little to the left of the accurate spot when someone had jostled the table.
“Word from the west?” the Hellhound asked.
“The enemy hasn’t engaged,” the mage overlooking that particular bowl informed her.
The grim-faced orc repressed the urge to sigh. Humans, she thought unkindly.
“I’m aware of that,” she said. “What do the Silver Spears look like, sergeant? How were they modified by the corruption?”
The man frowned, peering into the softly glowing water. “Gods Below,” he said, looking nauseous. “You should take a look yourself.”
Juniper stepped closer, elbowing the sergeant aside. The mage on the other side of the scrying spell was holding up a mirror pointed at the enemy, standing on the roof of a house beyond the sapper-built wall. What the sorcery revealed was… troubling. The men-at-arms had been visibly mutated, growing cysts of flesh filled with dark pus. Some had eyes blinking from all over their faces, or even their hands, though the most disgusting of it was the way their bodies now overflowed their armour. The cataphracts were cleaner, but somehow that made it worse. Their silvery armour looked like it had melted shut and there was no delineation where the man ended and the horse began. The mounts themselves looked sickly and the hair over their skin was largely gone, patches of flesh falling away from their flanks in long strings.
The spell focused on the cataphract at the head of the pack, whose helm had been twisted in a sordid unmoving metal grin. The mage shivered at her side, but the Hellhound remained unmoved. That last cataphract seemed a likely candidate for the leader of the host, though how led the Silver Spears still were was debatable. Worth making a priority target, but not launching a specific assault to take out: she doubted morale would be an issue for the former mercenaries, as far gone as they were. Unfortunate that the usual shock and awe tactics that were the Legion’s bread and butter wouldn’t work, but this could lend advantage in other ways. If the minds of the Silver Spears were affected, they were unlikely to be able to manage sophisticated battle tactics. Bait and switch will be effective.
The legate calmly put her orders through the spell and waited for a messenger on the other side of the city to carry them to Nauk. Foundling’s insistence that the orc commander be the one handling the front with the mercenaries had come as an unpleasant surprise, though she understood the internal politics driving it. Squire was still whipping herself over the death of Nilin, she decided, and so hadn’t had the heart to refuse Nauk’s request. Hune would have been a better fit. She was a coldblood, Juniper suspected, much like she’d once thought Hakram was. Incapable of anything but the shallowest of emotions, unmoved by fear and with natural assertiveness. Had the ogre been anything but a legionary that would have made her very dangerous indeed, but as an officer of the Fifteenth that meant she could be relied on not to lose her head. Nauk had too much of a temper, much like her own mother. Though Mother does not sink into the Red Rage when displeased.
Still, for all that the other orc was a skilled commander and cleverer than he looked. Or acted, sometimes. With the spectre of Foundling’s disapproval driving him, he should manage to keep himself in line. The parts of Hune’s kabili that hadn’t been assigned to him would remain posted in strategic locations as a quick-deployment reserve, ready to plug in gaps when they inevitably arose. She’d spent days and nights going over the contingencies for this fight.
“You’re smiling again,” Aisha observed.
Was she? The Hellhound wiped her face clean of emotion. The dark-skinned aristocrat that served as her second-in-command – and closest friend – snorted.
“It’s still in your eyes,” she said. “The thirst.”
Had anybody else been speaking to her this way, she could have harshly chided them.
“I have no such thing,” Juniper replied gruffly, knowing it was a lie.
It came from her mother’s blood, she was sure of it: that deep, dark part of her that looked upon the battlefield and bared its fangs in joy. General Istrid was famous for being one of the only Praesi generals who fought in the ranks, and while the Hellhound believed that Marshal One-Eye’s way was best there was a trace of that hunger in her. She’d dedicated her whole life to the art of war because there was something in her that sang, when she gave orders and the arrow loosed by her mind found the enemy’s throat. Orcs are born in love with death, the old saying went, and what mortal lover could possibly compare? That was the boon and the curse of her people. Gods forgive her, but she was almost grateful to Heiress for having laid out such a fine banquet in front of the Fifteenth. When Juniper was done sinking her teeth into the Battle of Marchford, the blood spilled would splatter all over the pages of history. This she knew in her bones, like she knew there was no after the war for people like her. Just one battlefield after another until she went out in a glorious bloody mess that would shake the pillars of the very Heavens. Some part of her looked forward to that end… but it would not be today. Her quiver was still full.
“The sappers have engaged the enemy,” Aisha conveyed.
The Hellhound smiled, and nocked her arrow.
The bolt took the devil in the eye and it screamed. This wasn’t one of the smaller ones so a good shot would do little more than tickle it, unfortunately. The beast looked like the particularly dumb offspring of a bull and gazelle, if both of those creatures had been morbidly obese. All in all, it was the size of a supply wagon and seemed intent on acting like a living battering ram.
“You really let yourself go, buddy,” Robber informed it, “you should be ashamed of yourself.”
He scuttled off inside the nearest house as another crossbow volley picked off a pair of the iron-hooked devils: he’d earlier thought that taking one of the ugly bastards in the head would kill them, but when the first volley had failed to make a single kill he’d been roughly disabused of the notion. Fill them with enough bolts, though, and they stopped moving. The horned devil bellowed and charged after him, ripping through the door he’d slammed shut behind him like it was made of wet clay. Cheerfully, the yellow-eyed tribune threw some poor soul’s good tea set at the thing and legged it towards the window, jumping through and landing in a roll on the street as the shutters came apart.
“Bring it down,” he ordered the two sappers awaiting.
The hammers fell with unseemly enthusiasm, breaking the keystones Pickler had marked and weakened a few days back: the house collapsed on top of the devil. It probably wasn’t dead yet, unfortunately, since the roof had been mere thatch. Robber casually lit a pinewood match as the other two sappers threw oil jugs on the rough location of the monster, setting the whole thing aflame without missing a beat.
“How’s the main street?” he asked.
“Demolition charges took one of the big fuckers out when it tried to pursue,” Lieutenant Rattler told him, wiping her hands clear of the oil.
Callowan-made, those jugs. Sloppy work. If they hadn’t confiscated them from local stocks he would have complained about the quality. He still would, of course, but he’d have done it more if the Fifteenth had actually paid for them. There was the pop of a sharper detonating in the distance, the sound of an iron-hooked devil getting blown off a roof by his lovely minions. Goblins knew the passage of time more intimately than any human or orc could, and the tribune knew he’d been lingering where he stood too long. Already devils were honing in on his position, the dark failing to hide their silhouettes from his night vision.
“On to the next choke point,” he ordered, casting one last look at the burning wreck.
This little kip of theirs was the brain child of Pickler and the Hellhound: goblin engineering married to the steel trap that was their legate’s mind. Give ground one block after another, bleeding them dry all the way as they tore themselves to pieces going through the traps. Pickler’s love letter to the sapper corps, he liked to think of it.
And who was he to refuse such a heartfelt confession?
“Shield wall,” Nauk of the Waxing Moons ordered.
Clan names didn’t mean much here, where the true clan was the number on the legion standard they fought under. His ancestry still followed him, though, the Rage always whispering in his ears and waiting for an opening to take hold of him. It had gotten stronger since his brother’s death, fed on the grief and anger to become an even more ill-begotten thing. But there would no anger today. He would take his revenge the Praesi way, cold and patient and utterly absolute. Nauk had thought orcs ruthless once, for they took lives the way other races took breath: he’d learned better since. The Tower was built on blood and hatred, a monument paved with a hundred thousand lives sacrificed at the altar of boundless ambition. How could a few corpses strewn across the Steppes ever compare? Nauk of the Waxing Moons wanted to sink his teeth into the enemy’s flesh and feed until his belly was full, but Commander Nauk of the Fifteenth Legion would remain where he stood and see the Silver Spears ripped out root and stem. Another pyre for Nilin, one whose screams would be heard all the way to the Underworld.
The legionaries spread across the street and knelt as they put put down their scutum against the cobblestones, spears jutting out in anticipation of the charge of the damned. Three rows of longer spears from the men behind them bolstered the wall, his legionaries calmly watching the cataphracts form in the field. The Legions of Terror were no match for the heavy phalanxes used by the Free Cities, but they had suffered the charges of Callowan knights for centuries and learned from the defeats. The Reforms had formalized the infrequent tactics some past Black Knights had used to good effect against the Order of the White Hand, standardizing the formation into the four rows of spear the Legions now used against cavalry. Horses usually refused to charge a wall of spears unless they were trained destriers, but the mounts of the Silver Spears had been raised for war even before the demon had gotten its hooks into them. They would charge, Nauk knew. He was counting on it.
“Filthy abominations,” Senior Tribune Jwahir spoke with distaste.
The Taghreb woman narrowed her almond-shaped eyes at the Silver Spears, resting a hand on the pommel of her sword. Half the reason Nauk had promoted her to Senior Tribune was that she had nothing in common whatsoever with her predecessor, whether it be in gender, race or even general disposition. Even in the light cast by the torches and bonfires covering the entire front that much was obvious.
“Soon to be dead ones,” Commander Nauk growled. “They’re taking too long to form up, Jwahir – send them an invitation.”
The tawny-skinned officer raised a hand and the legionary behind her hoisted a banner. There was a rustle of movement behind them as two hundred goblins raised their crossbows, aimed and let the quarrels loose. Most of the monster-cataphracts were out of range, in Nauk’s estimation, but the tip of their formation lingered close to effective killing range. The projectiles fell in an arc and most of them ate dirt, but a handful of cavalrymen took hits. No kills, the commander assessed. Whatever demon buggery had mixed man and horseflesh had made it so that not even a headshot was enough to kill the abominations.
“Tell the Hellhound we’ll likely have to put down the horses to kill the horsemen,” he told the mage hovering behind him.
The bolts might have been mere fleabites, but they served their intended purpose: the Silver Spears were on the move. The damned mercenaries had placed their host as a mirror of his own, more or less. His own men were spread across the makeshift wall save for the main avenue the sappers had kept clear, where his cohort of four-deep spearmen held the ground from one side of the open ground to the other. Behind them he’d placed his sappers, though these ones were without munitions: fucking Robber’s group had gotten what remained of those to deal with the devils. The monster-cataphracts faced his spears, all three hundred of them, while they’d split their infantry into two groups of two hundred and fifty on the sides. The men-at-arms moved first, charging forward without so much as a word.
“Mages,” Commander Nauk barked. “Fire.”
Balls of flame bloomed all over the rampart, and the Battle of Marchford began in earnest.
“They’re facing our spears with their horse,” Juniper observed, frowning.
Aisha drummed her fingers against the table. “Could be the corruption scrambled their brains more than we thought,” she said.
Neither of the two women expected the legate to reply. The Hellhound spoke aloud to focus her thoughts: Aisha’s contribution was to serve as a sounding board by throwing around ideas to be adopted or dismissed.
“They have a surprise up their sleeves,” the grim-faced orc decided. “Have Hune prepare the first fallback point.”
The dark-skinned staff tribune drifted away to see it done. The Hellhound glanced at the latest report from the southern front, which had that little wretch Robber’s casualties already nearing the forties. Not a sign of incompetence, though an untrained observed might have thought as much. She’d predicted heavier casualties when projecting the numbers for the engagement: a running battle through streets and alleys against devils was going to be a butchery, one way or another. The insolent twerp did have an almost providential sense of when to push and when to fold, though, which was why she hadn’t protested when the goblin had been nominated for the action in the first place. There were few officers in the Fifteenth who’d be able to see their cohort split in half a dozen smaller forces and not lose track of most of them. Yet, aside from a line getting stuck in a dead-end and slaughtered to a man, the yellow-eyed tribune had managed to keep casualties to a minimum. Good. We don’t have the men to spare.
Marchford, she’d grasped early, would be as much a battle of attrition as one of tactics. The Fifteenth could field a little above a thousand men, four hundred of which were sappers. Goblin munitions stocks were half-empty from Three Hills and there wasn’t enough goblinfire left to deploy in any significant matter – not that she could, since it was likely to collapse Apprentice’s ritual. What she did have was one of the Legions of Terror, arguably the finest infantry force to ever grace Calernia. That her forces were heavy on sappers was a minor liability, particularly in a siege setting: if she’d had only a single cohort of them she’d not have managed half as many preparations as she had.
What did the enemy have? Eighty-odd devils, most of which she could and had planned for. The threshold ritual had allowed her to dictate where they would enter the city, which simplified the matter even more. About eight hundred corrupted Silver Spears, an unspecified amount of which would be cavalry – three hundred as it turned out. In the upper reaches of the scenarios she’d planned for: the success margin for a retreat would be uncomfortably thin. In most sieges cavalry wouldn’t have been a factor at all and Pickler had suggested pulling down a few houses to fortify the main avenue into the west of city, the one linking to the road into broader Callow. It was an obvious weak point, after all. Even the Fifteenth had taken it when seizing the city. Yet Juniper had refused. If that gap was plugged there was no telling where the Silver Spears would strike: the tactical disadvantage it gave her was worth the strategic asset of being able to prepare a specific point for static defence.
“Robber’s entering the last stretch,” Aisha told her, having reappeared at some point.
“Good,” Juniper growled. “Let’s tidy up this Empire.”
“I’ve come to a realization, Captain Clipper,” Robber panted, casting a look into the alley.
Shit. Still a bunch of the fireflies and that scaled tiger monster that had ripped a man’s head right off.
“And what would that realization be, Tribune Robber?” the captain replied, loading her lever-action crossbow.
The yellow-eyed miscreant cast another wary look into the alley. Where the Hells were his crossbowmen? At this rate they’d arrive too late. Ah, well. Let’s change this around a bit.
“I’m actually invincible,” he told the younger goblin, offering a vicious grin. “Truly, I’ve been ignoring the evidence for too long. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
“Oh Gods,” the captain moaned.
She watched with horror as he checked his gear one last time, cleared his throat and ran out into the alley screaming at the top of his lungs.
There were five devils in there, and they paused for a moment at the sight of him. They were, he supposed, used to people running in the opposite direction.
“Well, this is awkward,” the goblin tribune said slowly unsheathing said blade with his right hand. “I was aiming for that other alley, the one without all the devils in it. Do over?”
The scaled tiger glanced at the fireflies, then again at him. A heartbeat later it had already crossed half the distance separating it from the tribune.
“I hope you bastards have eyes,” Robber spoke at the fireflies, tossing the brightstick he’d lit with his good hand while keeping them looking at the other.
The munition blew up right in the scaled tiger’s face, but he didn’t stick around to find out what happened – Clipper should have gotten moving while he was distracting them, so he legged it as fast as he could. Mage-takers, he discovered a moment later when one expanded into a pale-skinned silhouette with a wet squelch, did not actually have eyes. There went, like, half his arsenal. Still, he’d not made it this long in the Legions without stabbing a few people in dark alleys where no one could see him. Allegedly. He rammed his short sword through the devil’s stomach, spun around and deftly planted his good knife in its neck. Well, Hakram’s good knife. Probably isn’t very good anymore, he decided, that blood looks pretty nasty. Still, being the exemplary friend that he was, he took the filthy murder knife, forced his sword out and ran for the next choke point. If there’d been no crossbowmen for this one, it meant some of his sappers had gotten their idiot skulls caved in. Hellhound would get snippy about it, no doubt.
He ran down the street and turned the corner without slowing down, sliding on the blood-slick cobblestone and reflexively dropping to the ground when he heard a goblin’s voice yell “Duck!”.
A hail of very late crossbow bolts passed overhead, puncturing the scaled tiger’s body half a dozen times. The devil twitched, then dropped. Robber carefully picked up a loose pavement stone and threw it at the monster’s head – it did not react. Nodding to himself, the tribune wiped some of the black blood off his face and took a look at his saviours: Rattler’s boys, though not from the tenth he’d been expecting. That had unfortunate implications.
“First, I’m claiming full credit for this kill,” he announced.
One of the sappers reloaded his crossbow and eyed his kidney area thoughtfully as the others loudly protested. It just warmed his heart that someone was keeping the old tradition of goblin field promotion alive.
“Second,” he spoke over their treasonous whinging, “where are the others?”
“You’re the last, sir,” the shady one with the loaded crossbow said. “Captain Clipper just came through; the others are getting the reception ready.”
Robber casually flicked dirt off his shoulder, smearing twice as blood over in the process.
“Well, gentlemen, let’s get moving,” he ordered. “As soon as you all thank me for saving your pitiful lives from that monster, anyway.”
No wonder their infantry hadn’t thought twice about charging a wall, Nauk thought as he watched another man-at-arms jump ten feet high and land on top of the fortification. The warrior was immediately caught in the chest by a burst of mage fire and went back down without so much as a sound, but others had managed to establish a foothold. The fuckers fought better than they had before the demon had touched them, fearless and immune to pain. His men on the walls were taking a mauling, even with mage lines backing them. Still, they were holding. By the edge of their teeth, they were holding. The orc commander didn’t have any more time to grant the situation on the walls, because the enemy cavalry had finally stirred. They started at a walk, then a trot, and fell into a gallop twenty yards before reaching his line. At that point the ground gave under them, revealing the trick-ditch Pickler’s lot had dug just for the lot of them. The full first rank went under but the rest pushed through with their lances up. That was when the crossbow volley hit them. Killed few enough, but it slowed them some before they rammed into his spearmen. Still, the crash of steel against steel was deafening.
“Shit,” Senior Tribune Jwahir spoke feelingly as they both watched the first line of their formation collapse under rampaging hooves.
“Line’s steady,” Nauk disagreed, watching his legionaries waver and then solidify their formation.
Shock cavalry like lancers was good for exactly that: shock. After the initial impact they were just men on horses with an unwieldy weapon. Legionaries pulled down riders when they could and killed the horses when they could not, doing their grisly work in the dirt and blood under the torchlight. A messenger came from his back and leaned forward to speak quietly.
“Legate Juniper orders a retreat, sir,” the man said.
“Now?” Nauk started, then frowned.
The Hellhound didn’t give orders without reason, and she’d be well aware that he’d bleed men every step falling back to the next stronghold.
“Sound the retreat,” he told Jwahir.
Before she could, though, a sharp uptick in screams drew his attention. The centre of his spearmen was being blown through like leaves, though calling cavalry what was achieving that would have been a misnomer. Some great hulking beast made of what must have been at least five horses and as many riders intertwined in a grotesque embrace was rampaging across the formation, picking men off with spears and ripping at them with too many hungry mouths. Nauk unsheathed his sword, pushing down the swell of Rage that ran through his veins.
“Sound the fucking retreat, Jwahir,” he barked. “We’re pulling back.”
The Hellhound slowly sat down in the armchair someone had provided her when they’d taken the guildhall, but that she was only now using for the first time. She closed her eyes and allowed her fingers to clasp the – admittedly poorly – sculpted arms. She remained there for a long moment, feeling the weight of all her staff’s eyes on her.
“Nauk’s front is still salvageable,” Aisha assessed. “And Robber’s casualties still aren’t as high as our worst case scenario.”
Juniper did not answer. She simply allowed the images she’d been glimpsing all night to come together in her mind, forming the pattern of the engagement. Forces in motion, some set by her and others by the enemy. She could see where instinct would drive her opponent, to seek that decisive blow that would knock the Fifteenth out of this battle. And yet…
“And yet,” she murmured, fangs glinting in the lamplight.
“Juniper?” Aisha said. “What will we do?”
“I’m going to take a nap,” Juniper replied.
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“Should I just wake you when the battle’s over, then?” her tawny-skinned friend asked sardonically.
The Hellhound smiled without opening her eyes.
“It already is.”
The armoured boot came down and crushed the soldier’s sword hand, then came down again and broke the bastard’s neck. Nauk spat on the abomination and wiped his blooded sword one of the the still-blinking grown eyes.
“In good order, you weak-kneed prissies,” he growled.
His men reacted like the sound of his voice had been a lash, tightening their line as they slowly backed away from the enemy. The Silver Spears infantry was being a hellish pain, what with the way they ignored battle lines and threw themselves into his formation with their weapons out. He’d ordered his legionaries into the testudo to take the hits, but some scraping of tactics must have remained in the cataphracts for they’d immediately charged – the first time had cost him a full line before they’d drawn back, and that was without counting their bitch of a trump card.
“It’s coming again,” Jwahir called out, dripping blood through the openings of her helmet.
“MAGES, FIRE,” the commander bellowed.
Four dozen fireballs impacted the massive abomination who’d wrecked his spearmen, blowing it back. It careened into a house, wrecking the wall and slowly getting back to its feet. Only a matter of moments before the cataphracts hit again, Nauk knew, but he grinned nastily under his blood-streaked helmet. They were just a corner away from the plaza now, and that meant… Just in time, Nauk’s remaining legionaries fell into position at the head of the alley. The sounds of the cavalry’s hoofs against the stone rang as they charged, but they did not impact his men. The ranks split smoothly in two, letting them through to meet the line that had emerged from the plaza: twenty ogres in full plate raised their warhammers and brought them down on the riders, killing man and beast alike in a single stroke. The legionaries closed around the riders as they tried to retreat, taking their revenge for lives already claimed.
A cry of warning came that the great beast was coming again but he was not worried because Pickler, beautiful glorious Pickler, had been the one to build this fallback point. The stone the ballista threw hit the monster right in its centre of mass, a textbook perfect shot. Horse legs and unwary necks broke, though the creature wasn’t dead. It crawled forward and Nauk strode to it, elbowing aside any legionary in his way. At some point he’d dropped his shield but he had no need for it for this kind of work. The soldier closest to the abomination was run through by a spear a heartbeat after he reached the enemy, but the orc did not stop. He felt the Red Rage welling up in him, like a tide about to tip him over, but he did not fight it. He rode the wave, let its anger strengthen his limbs as he caught a lance about to skewer him and ripped it out of the rider’s arm – the hand came with it, but what did he care?
In a moment of perfect clarity, Commander Nauk saw the hoof about to cave in his chest and howled, ramming his sword in the horse it belonged to. Hands and teeth were grasping at him but he climbed the abomination until he reached the summit of it. Under him was the roiling nest of corruption, flesh convulsing and pulsing like a repulsive heartbeat. With a laugh of heady battle-joy, he plunged the lance into it. Then he ripped it out and did it again as the abomination broke its silence for the first time, screaming through every mouth it had. Again and again he plunged the lance, until finally the monster stopped moving. Rising to his feet, covered in pus and blood, the orc howled at the night sky and the red moon filling it. Seven hundred voices took up the scream and he bared its teeth and looked down at the remaining Silver Spears, watching them mass for another assault.
Hear that, Nilin? Isn’t it better than a pack of mourners at a funeral?
Reception Alley, as the planning committee consisting of Robber and everybody within hearing range of him fondly knew it, was a cramped mess of wooden walls and stone foundations that had already looked about to collapse before the sappers got their grubby little hands on it. It was currently filled to the brim with devils trying to push their way through to the goblins shooting at them from the neck of the alley, most of them adding insult to injury with gleeful enthusiasm. He had trained his minions well, the tribune decided.
“Gotta be at least twenty in there,” Lieutenant Rattler commented, spitting to the side as they both watched another volley take a jackal-faced devil in the throat.
A heartbeat later another quarrel punctured the thing’s crotch with a dull thump. Robber made a mental note of finding out whoever had done that and giving them a commendation. It was the little things that made this career so much fun.
“I figure we’ll have taken forty total, by the time we’re done,” the yellow-eyed officer replied.
And taken over twice that in casualties for their trouble, but it just wasn’t a party if half the guests weren’t dead on the ground by the end of the evening. Another of the mage-takers burst in the middle of his men but it was taken out within moments, long knives plunging into its flesh from every direction. Situational awareness was a natural goblin trait. They wouldn’t have lasted very long as a species otherwise, either because of predators or each other. The single mage Juniper had assigned them for the scrying link was in the back and well-guarded, though the sight of an orc twice the size of the goblins watching over him had been most amusing. Once in a while the fireflies made a play for the man, but it turned out they could be swatted like actual fireflies when they were in that form. Who knew? Well, Apprentice knew. And had told them. Which was how they knew. Details.
“This is as much as we’ll manage to sucker in,” Robber said. “They’ve gotta be making their way around by now. Light them up.”
The thing about sharpers was that they didn’t burn, not exactly. The alchemy as it had been explained to him released something called “kinetic force” which was obviously a made-up mage word. Still, all the heat that accompanied sharpers blowing came from friction with whatever they hit: you couldn’t set something on fire with a sharper. Not on its own, anyway. The only good thing about Marchford he’d found was that one of the main merchant guilds in the city had a great big stock of oil jugs that had been overlooked by the Countess when she’d stripped the city clean of useful stuff before bailing for her rebellion. About nine out of ten jugs from that reserve were currently inside the houses making up Reception Alley, along with all the sharpers and smokers they’d been able to put aside.
Pickler was more interested in mechanics than munitions, but Robber himself had always been more of an explosion sort of fellow. Kept the blood flowing. So he’d designed the network of makeshift explosives that dotted the alley himself, and he watched with unholy pleasure as his minions lit up the initial charges and scampered away. One sharp whistle from Robber himself and all his remaining cohort bailed, giving ground to the devils who clawed their way in pursuit immediately.
The explosion still flattened him. He rose to his feet to witness a burning wasteland of rock and splintered wood, strewn with the cooked corpses of devils. Billows of toxic scalding smoke covered it all, too heavy to rise in the sky even with the wind trying to move them.
“I’m a little turned on right now,” he admitted.
“Aren’t we all?” Lieutenant Rattler spoke in a reverent tone.
He shook himself out of his reverie after a moment. Silhouettes were already prowling the smoke, hissing in pain but still pushing through.
“Full retreat, my lovelies,” he called out.
Their part in this was done. By now Apprentice should have finished the second part of his ritual, the one that closed the threshold-free rectangle behind the devils. The door to retreat had been shut down, and now they were stuck with a real monster. He almost pitied the poor bastards: stuck in a box with the Boss and a hundred angry Callowans? Someone was going to have a bad time, and it sure as Hells wasn’t going to be the Boss.
Fifty yards away from the burning, Catherine Foundling slowly unsheathed her sword.