“Don’t think of it so much as a fall, but rather as an opportunity to learn how to fly.”
– Dread Emperor Venal, in the act of succeeding his predecessor
Of the original hundred I’d begun the evening with, there were barely forty left. More wounded among the missing than dead, but it was a hard man who could fight with an eye or a few fingers missing. There was only so much I could ask of anyone without a Name, and even with mine I was starting to feel the exhaustion set in. I’d used too much power, I decided. I’d have to be careful about that in the future. Learn to use my Names in ways that burned through my reserves slower that the tricks my teacher had taught me and the ones I’d taught myself from that. I kept us moving as fast as could be managed, guiding us through mostly unfamiliar streets. The night was lit up in the distance by bonfires and mageflame, as clear a beacon as I could hope for. I’d trusted Juniper’s plan to see us through this battle, and so far that trust had been rewarded. Anything that would tip the scales for the Battle of Marchford from here on out would be on my head: the Hellhound could forge me a chance at victory, but I’d have to be the one to wield it.
We started hearing the fighting long before we saw it. Screams, splintering wood and steel meeting steel. There was no other clamour like it in all of Creation, and there was some part of me that gloried in the sounds. Had Black seen that, when he’d chosen me? Had he stared into my eyes and glimpsed something in there, creeping under the ideals, that relished in the fight? It wasn’t something I was proud of. I knew, deep down, that the sword wasn’t enough to change the world. Not in any way that lasted. The real work began when the fighting was over, picking up the pieces and trying to fit them in a better way. But, Gods help me, fighting’s the part I’m actually good at. I put the thought away: it wasn’t a problem I’d solve tonight. If I didn’t survive until morning, it wouldn’t be a problem at all.
When we came upon the Silver Spears I saw with mild surprise that they had taken a beating. There were corpses in the plaza Juniper had ordered prepared and fielded with our single siege engine, but the mercenaries had been pushed back into the avenue. There we bare a hundred of them left. Nauk’s legionaries had splattered the entire width of the road with the blood of their enemies: the only place their formation broke was when the shield wall had to split around the corpse of some enormous tangled abomination of horse and man flesh. Someone had apparently climbed on top and skewered it to death with its own lance. Weeping Heavens, my legion was full of crazies. What was Ratface feeding these people?
As if to make my point for me, up ahead a horse whinnied and there was a burst of cheers from Nauk’s men. I tried to look at what was happening, but these were flat grounds and every single fucking legionary in my army was was taller than me. I was one more incident like this from having a goblin with a stepladder follow me around everywhere, I really was. I let Farrier – the only remaining lieutenant in the Gallowborne, looked like – bring my company into the fold as I looked for a better vantage point. The ballista was on a platform and I could see Hune standing next to it from where I stood. So were Pickler and a handful of other goblins, but they paid me no mind as I approached: they were lining up their next shot, my Senior Sapper letting out a little pleased sigh when the rock scored a bloody line of broken flesh in the Silver Spears.
“Lady Squire,” the ogre greeted me as soon as I came close enough, fist thumping against her armour.
“Commander,” I replied. “What’s this with a horse?”
I scanned the battlefield even as I asked the question. Nauk’s men had pressed by the large corpse, reforming a solid shield wall. The Silver Spear infantry was trying and failing to push them back, only retreating in time to let what remained of the corrupted cataphracts attempt charges. My other commander had their number, though. He was keeping his mages ready for those, drowning the tip of the cavalry wedge in mage fire every time they tried. I found the horse in question just as Hune offered me an explanation.
“One of the mounts was improperly corrupted,” the ogre told me. “They’ve adopted as a… pet.”
The last word was spoken with open distaste. Commander Hune had very steady notions about professionalism, which was half the reason she got on so well with Juniper. I watched as legionaries herded a horse without visible marks of corruption on it towards the enemy – it kicked their shields a few times but eventually ran away and bowled over a few of the men-at-arms, kicking one’s head in and spilling dark fluids all over the ground.
“A pet,” I repeated, not sure whether to be amused or appalled.
“Some of your former Rat Company men are calling it ‘Magic Goat’. They seem to think this amusing, for reasons that escape me. Is it magical because it is not, in fact, a goat?” Hune frowned.
“You use undead goats one time and nobody ever lets it go,” I muttered, dodging a proper explanation.
One of my legionaries tried to mount the thing when it escaped back to my forces, managing the feat for a solid ten heartbeats before it whinnied in distress and tossed him back into the ranks – he was caught by a dozen other men, landing unharmed. Still, there was only so much time-wasting I was willing to allow. Hakram and his picked line had been charged with keeping an eye on the back of the enemy to ensure none of the mercenaries split away from the mass and made a run for another hearth where they could disrupt the ritual, but if the Silver Spears all dispersed it wouldn’t be enough. We hadn’t anticipated the men-at-arms would be able to leap like they did, and against that the barricades Pickler had built to bar the surrounding streets would be useless.
Masego had recommended we evacuate the surroundings of all the hearths involved in the ritual and I’d signed off on that immediately, but even if there were no civilian casualties a third of Marchford would still be put to the torch by the magic going wild. We’d already turned Marchford into half a ruin, I’d rather it wasn’t a smouldering one if I could avoid it. The Silver Spears weren’t giving ground at the moment, though, even with their numbers running thin. Whenever their assaults failed they clustered around a cataphract in the back, one who never participated. It was more armour than man, the metal fused together seamlessly like a carapace – save for where the visor would have been, where it was twisted into a maddened grin instead. I sighed. I was going to have to take care of that one, wasn’t I?
I was already gauging the fastest path to the front of the line when Apprentice stumbled onto the scene. The dark-skinned mage was panting and his robes were drenched in sweat, braids in disarray. A tenth of mages followed closely behind, in much better shape.
“Masego?” I prompted with a frown.
“Demon,” he got out. “Demon’s in the city.”
My blood ran cold. I’d thought it would remain out in the hills, slowly spreading its corruption.
“How did it pass the threshold?” I asked.
The bespectacled man rested a hand on another soldier’s shoulder, pushing himself up.
“It’s inside one of them,” he said, gesturing towards the Silver Spears.
Oh, Hells. That was why the grinning cataphract was staying in the back. Corruption spread almost instantly through touch, but given enough time just standing close to my men would do the trick. Even if it lost the battle, all it had to do was wait.
“Shit,” I cursed, the expletive deeply heartfelt.
I closed my eyes and considered my options. The longer I let the demon work its power, the worst the situation got. How many of my legionaries were already beyond salvation? Yet the memory of my last fight with the creature remained fresh: I’d gone in unprepared and been effortlessly crushed. There was no longer anything glorious about any of the sounds of battle: every scream was a reminder that my men were slowly being ripped away from me.
“Are you combat ready?” I asked Masego.
He heaved drily, then wiped his sweat-dripping mouth.
“I’ll manage,” he replied.
I cast a look at Commander Hune, who’d been observing the conversation with an utterly expressionless face.
“Get word to Hakram,” I ordered. “We’re taking out the grinning cataphract.”
She nodded and strode away without comment. The direness of the situation was not lost on her, it seemed. I waited for Masego to catch his breath another few heartbeats, then gestured sharply for him to follow. My Name was already roiling, preparing itself for the coming fight, and I could feel a pulse of responding power come from Apprentice. It felt like lightning and morning dew, something clear and crisp and deceptively cruel – steel under silk, the bite of it felt only too late. Fitting, for a man whose soft exterior hid such a deep well of merciless power. Soldiers split away for us without there being a need for orders, driven away by the old instinct branded into the minds of all the peoples of Creation: Named are coming. Stand and die, run and live. I spared no time looking at them. The horse from earlier whinnied plaintively.
“Butcher that beast,” I ordered.
I had not Spoken, but my legionaries moved as if motivated by the crack of the whip. My eyes were ahead, fixed on the enemy. There were maybe a hundred mercenaries left, horsemen and men-at-arms mixed in an unruly throng. I felt Apprentice at my side, breath and pace steady as his magic crackled. The Silver Spears charged and I stilled my heartbeat, letting the world slow down around me. The muscles of the deformed horse at the head of the pack rippled under my dispassionate gaze, the tip of the lance headed for my throat. I considered it with disdain, stepping around the shaft and patiently placing my blade. Two impacts, and as a I continued advancing the horse and the rider’s heads tumbled on the ground. The wave of corrupted flesh and steel threatened to sweep us aside but Apprentice barked a word in some arcane tongue and a flash of fire race along the ground in long stripes, scattering the host. Neither of us broke our stride.
The grinning abomination was considering me. It came forward at a light trot, only charging when it was too close to change direction. Around us the flames formed a circle keeping us in and the enemy soldiers out, though they tried to push through the fire and fell away with shrieks. The demonhost wielded a lance but it used it like a staff, sweeping away paving stones as it swung the shaft at me. I danced around it, sword and dagger coming up to trace thin lines on the steel that bedecked horse and rider both. The corruption ran deep in this one. A lash of lightning left Apprentice’s hands, coiling around the rider’s head and trying to drag him down. In vain: though the body convulsed, it seemed otherwise unaffected. The horse’s hooves reared up to cave in the mage’s head but bounced off a flat field of blue magic, shattering it in panes of light.
“There’ll be none of that,” I snarled.
My sword whipped to scythe through the horse’s back leg, wreathed in shadows for the blink of an eye – it cut through steel and grinding bone effortlessly. Dark liquids burst out and the rider fluidly leapt down from the falling horse, landing on its feet. It turned to meet me without a word, unsheathing the longsword at its hip as it held its lance with the other hand. A shrill sound resounded throughout the battlefield and a ray of ugly black light pierced the horse’s flank: its flesh and steel shrivelled away in a matter of heartbeats, leaving behind only an oily stain on the ground. The demonhost seemed indifferent to the loss, its perfectly still metal grin still in place. Its heels rose from the ground, leaving only steel-clad toes touching it, and with swiftness I had rarely seen surpassed it struck again.
My sword parried the shaft and I ducked under the sword stroke. Not quick enough: the sword shorn straight through the top of my helmet. I limped back as fast as I could, dagger hand clumsily tugging off the straps holding the helmet together. I shook it off and I fell to the ground. Apprentice cast a spell that rang like a thunderclap, an explosion of invisible force detonating right next to the abomination’s head. It bought me a few moments, but besides forcing it to tilt back its neck there was no mark made by the sorcery. Masego had its attention, though. In a single heartbeat it had crossed the distance to the mage, sword shattering the restored blue field of light – though a second one came into existence it shattered it. It dropped the useless handle and caught Apprentice by the throat, ignoring the ring of fire that formed around its wrist and tightened instantly.
A legionary’s shield impacted its side, knocking it back and breaking its grip as Hakram entered the scene. The orc let out a guttural howl, shield battering the demonhost down again and again in unrelenting assault. Unharmed for all that rage, it moved back as if yanked by the hand of some unseen god. Its toes were barely touching the ground, I saw, and no earthly muscles were lending it the speed it had displayed: an eldritch thing was moving it according to ways beyond that of Creation.
“Apprentice?” I called out.
“You are going to burn for that, abomination,” the mage rasped coldly, ignoring me.
The gauntlets had left a pale mark matching the fingers on Masego’s throat, but aside from that he seemed unharmed. I worried anyhow, knowing corruption did not always have to be visible – but there was no time to worry about that now.
“Though I hunger I am never sated,” he spoke in Mthethwa, tongue cadenced.
The grinning demonhost moved to end him, but Hakram and I knew our work. Seamlessly I flanked the monster as Adjutant stood his ground, shield up and short sword in the middle line. The abomination did not turn to face me but it stomped a foot on the ground: wind howled and stone flew, forcing me back. Hakram, though? Hakram squared his shoulder and smiled a devil’s grin.
“Come on, you bastard. Here I Stand,” he laughed.
The lance, edge first, struck the scutum. Corrupted steel met the work of goblins and was found wanting, for in that moment even if all the Celestial Choirs had sought to move my Adjutant they would have found their strength matched. Again and again, with mightthat split the air and screamed havoc, the abomination tried to pierce the shield and its strikes pattered like rain on a lake of oil.
“Through grass and ground I crawl, devouring all I behold.”
As the words left Apprentice’s mouth I felt my Name howl for the first time since I had last matched my strength to the demon’s. It wanted vengeance, for an aspect stolen. It wanted to even a scale that could not be evened, but would settle for the harshest price that could be exacted. A single droplet of liquid shadow fell on my blade, the ripples spreading inky darkness until it had swallowed it whole. I sped through the rubble and rammed it in the abomination’s back, finally finding purchase as I punched through the carapace. With a great heave I ripped out my sword, dark pus falling to the ground in a hissing rain. I stepped away just in time.
“My blood knows the call, my flesh the craving. Nameless eidolons, thieves of Heaven’s grace, grant me flame.”
Twin threads of flame sprouted above Masego’s shoulders, growing into great snakes of flame that obeyed this time without further command: their heads the size of a chariot, they fell like hammers on the form of the demonhost. Spellflame raged against an unseen resistance, melting away steel until it dripped on the ground and instantly searing the soft matter beneath. The spell had a hunger to it that had lacked at Three Hills, an eagerness to devour the enemy whole driven by Apprentice’s implacable anger. When the fires finally gutted out, a smoking carcass rested on the stone, trying to crawl back up. I silently stepped forward. With unforeseen violence the demonhost raked its mutated hands upwards, drawing lines on my cheek. I did not flinch.
“Wrong side of the face,” I told it, still-dark sword falling down to end the fight.
The point of my sword thrust through the thing’s head and into the stone beneath. Finally, it stopped moving. I let out a sob half relief and half surprise, power sifting through my fingers like sand. Hakram knelt at my side, his own legs shaking like leaves.
“It’s still here,” Apprentice said, voice bewildered.
My eyes flicked to the grinning abomination’s body, but it was unmoving. Oh, Weeping Heavens. It was never this one. All the demon needed to spread its plague of corruption was time and touch. Why would it have picked the leader of the pack to serve as a cloak, blindly cunning as it was? Subtlety was ever the mark of their kind. There’d been one creature, harmless as it was, that my legionaries had been entertaining this entire fight. Taking as a pet, even. I turned and watched as the horse some poor damned soul had called the ‘Magic Goat’ allowed its stomach to open, spilling out guts that took the shape of a misshapen child.
“Gods save us all,” I whispered as I finally realized how badly I’d been played.
How many legionaries had it corrupted with a kick or a ride, I wondered? To how many others had the plague spread as they stood should to shoulder in the shield wall? The demon crawled on the ground with limbs too small for its body of gore, twisting and turning against the stone. In the back of my head I heard a laugh that turned into a mockery we all heard, though the abomination had no mouth to voice it. It felt like hot knives ripping in my mind, scattering my thoughts. A heartbeat later, an arrow nailed one of its limbs to the stone. A one-handed man wearing clothes that were more decoration than true cover landed on the ground beside it. His spear rose and shone with white light as he offered a feral grin.
“Have at thee, demon,” Hunter announced, as Archer knocked a second arrow.
I rolled my shoulders and gestured for my own Named to follow. Do or die, looked like. I was starting to hate how familiar that feeling was.