“Oh, give me a bloodthirsty, fire-and-brimstone conquering villain any day. It’s the schemers you have to watch out for.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow
Before I could properly process the sight of a hero actually being helpful for once, I felt the metaphysical equivalent of a hammer fall down over the entire avenue. The pressure lightened after a heartbeat but… No, lightened wasn’t the right word. It had been gathered, into walls that sealed off the battlefield. I shot a look at Masego but he seemed as surprised as I was. Not his work, and neither of Lady Ranger’s pupils could do magic as far as I knew. A consequence of Hakram’s finally formed aspect? Ah. Juniper. Of course she had a contingency in case the demon actually showed up. We’d been fairly certain it wouldn’t but the Hellhound wasn’t one for leaving things to chance. The mages who’d helped Masego with the ritual had been given an additional set of instructions, was my guess. Why hadn’t she told me, though? Because I’d been crippled? The thought made me grind my teeth, but I dismissed it as unfair. Juniper had not treated me any differently after my failed foray into dream visions.
So what was it about the nature of our opponent now that would make her wilfully keep me in the dark? It was a demon, and very dangerous. Not much of a justification there, even if it was a demon of – corruption. Oh. It was a given I’d be in the thick of any fight with the abomination, and the longer I stayed there the higher the chances I got corrupted. She hadn’t told me the contingency plan because I might end up being the Fifteenth’s opponent, before the battle was done. I felt a flare of grudging admiration for my grim-faced legate: she didn’t balk in the face of bad scenarios. She prepared for them however she needed to, and if someone’s feelings got hurt then so much for that. Still the ward, for I was pretty sure that was what it was, that had sealed off the avenue wouldn’t be enough on its own.
Given enough time I might be able to break through it and Masego definitely could which likely meant the demon could as well. So it was meant as a containment measure, until the actual killing stroke could be readied. That might very well explain why I hadn’t seen trace of Robber’s sappers since their scrap with the devils, and I doubted this was the last contingency she’d had the Legion mages lay. Had Kilian been privy to all of this, I wondered? She must have been, as Senior Mage. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that, but now was not the time to linger on the subject of my lover. Hunter had been – well, doing pretty good against the demon actually.
“Feel the might of my wrath, hellspawn!”
Could have done without the heroic declarations, but I wasn’t about to look this useful of a gift horse in the mouth. The haft of Hunter’s spear spun and caught the bloody form of the demon in the mouth, scattering the guts that made it up. Lack of head did not seem to hinder it: it grasped for the hero with misshapen hands, only for a violent explosion of blinding light to knock it back. I had to close my eyes, and even after that my vision swam. Of the demon there was only a smoking smear on the ground left, but I knew better than to get my hopes up. Screams came from the few remaining Silver Spears as flesh and corruption began to flake away from them, sliding to the ground in trickles. From some of my legionaries too, I saw, and I found Nauk’s eyes across the battlefield. Feeling sick in the stomach, I inclined my head in their direction and slid a finger across my throat. He grimaced but nodded – crossbow quarrels took the afflicted men in the back moments later. It didn’t stop the demon. The flecks of flesh slithered across the ground until they formed some sort of foul pile, then began coalescing into a larger form.
“Apprentice,” I called out. “We need options. Can you banish it?”
The dark-skinned mage shook his head.
“Not from inside the threshold,” he said.
Bloody, Burning Hells. Had it planned that? Known that as long as we covered the city in a ritual, we couldn’t trap it in a ward and force it back to the Hell it had escaped? Demons weren’t supposed to be sentient but this one had proved capable of deception. Then again, so are animals. Anyhow, who knew what being bound to an Imperial standard for a few hundred years could do to a creature like that?
“What can you do?” I asked.
Apprentice let out a long breath.
“I can go all out,” he said. “But you’ll need to buy me time.”
Well, Black had never promised this would be an easy job. I glanced at Archer, who’d allowed the string of her bow to slacken as she eyed the forming body of the demon. No immediate solution from there. I found Hakram already looking at me when I turned towards him and sighed.
“Fuck it,” I said. “Not like running’s going to help.”
He snorted and we moved towards the enemy as one. Getting the child-form brutalized by a hero had apparently prompted the abomination to trade up for a larger model: the coalescing shape was easily the size of a two-story house. Not as thick though: two clawed legs with half a dozen articulations had already formed to supports its spindly torso, but offhand I counted at least five arms aggregating flesh into long limbs touching the ground. That the fingers at the end of those limbs looked suspiciously human-like wasn’t something I wanted to think about too much. At first I thought it wouldn’t bother to make a head but when a long, thick strand of skin formed and started dangling from the torso I realized with disgust I’d been wrong. At the end of the strand a bubble of flesh expanded, sprouting eyes by the dozens that were set in dark purpled flesh. Muscles popped from underneath the bubble and grew large horse-like teeth, because apparently it hadn’t been looking nightmarish enough.
While Hakram and I moved, Hunter hadn’t been wasting his time. The tip of his spear wreathed in light, he charged forward with a wince-inducing war cry. The hero scythed through one of the arm-limbs effortlessly, only to back away with haste when it started crawling close to his legs. While he put some distance between them, the demon picked up the limb with another arm and casually shoved it into what was likely supposed to be its spine. With a wet squelch, the severed limb re-joined the whole. Well, that’s going to be problematic. We arrived at Hunter’s side just as the abomination put on the finishing touches on its form.
“If we can hold it back for a while, Apprentice has something that will harm it enough for you to finish it off,” I said.
“Squire,” he greeted me with disdain. “You are only slightly less of a blight upon Creation than this thing.”
“If I could cut off your hand twice, I would,” I replied cheerfully. “There, we’re friends now. Maybe we could attend the thing that wants to swallow all of the city?”
He sneered, but did not disagree.
“I’ll take the lead, minion of Dark,” he decided, and before I could argue he was charging again.
“You know he has another hand, right?” Adjutant said. “So technically…”
I didn’t have time to reply because the fight had finally started again. Hunter, either entirely fearless or magnificently stupid, had slipped under the demon’s jaw and was evading its limbs with impossible swiftness while scoring wounds on its abdomen. The light on his spear had dimmed, but heroic Names must have been painful to the monster: it was ignoring us and focusing on him. Even limping close to the demon was enough for me to feel the corruption wafting from it, creeping at the edge of my mind. I gritted my teeth and pushed back against the feeling, ducking under a flailing limb and hacking through the tip with my sword. The dark ichor that spilled from the wound blackened the steel, but I’d have to worry about that later – as long as it didn’t touch my skin I should be fine. I could have used a helmet right about now, though.
From the corner of my eye I saw movement headed for Hakram’s back, but there was a sharp whistle and an arrow took the corrupted man-at-arms in the throat – the mercenary collapsed to the ground twitching, then suddenly burst on fire. Archer has a few tricks up her sleeves, apparently, and we could stop worrying about the last of the enemy host getting to us. Arrows kept singing as Hakram and I started methodically going for one limb after the other, one of us getting close enough to bait a strike and the other hacking through while it was overextended. Eventually it realized that while Hunter’s spear was more painful the villains were doing more actual damage: it flexed its legs and with a push forced itself upright on two hands, spinning in a whirl of limbs that forced all of us back. Hunter got slapped away by a hand and the part of his bare chest it touched started warping but he screamed and another burst of violent light burned away the corruption, leaving only singed flesh.
The legs wriggled back into the demon’s torso with a squelch and spray of ichor, bursting back out in front as it steadied its footing. I frowned. Staying too close wasn’t an option for Hakram or me, given how much more vulnerable to corruption we were. Hunter would have to handle that part. What could we do that would actually hurt it, though? Three times we’d cut away an arm, only for it to shove it back somewhere more convenient to attack us with. I glanced at Apprentice, who fifteen feet away from all this was kneeling on the ground with his eyes closed and his palms held upright. Gods Below, Masego, you could have at least gone further away. Sweat was dripping from the bespectacled mage’s forehead, and even from where I stood I could feel the weight of the power he was gathering. No incantation though. Unusual, that. How much longer would he need? There was no way to know for sure.
Wreathing my sword with my Name was no longer an option, both because I was running low on power and because I didn’t like the looks of what the demon blood had done to the blade. Don’t think of this as a fight, Catherine, it’s a puzzle. How do you solve it? To keep it contained, its mobility needed to be hindered. Simply cutting off the limbs was useless. What else did I have in my arsenal? The avenue was thick with corpses and I could probably raise one, but given the nature of the demon that would be more liability than asset. I didn’t know what would happen if it touched a corpse with my Name’s power invested in it, or if it could reach through the strings I used to control my necromantic constructs. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. No obvious solutions, so I’d just have to try things. Hunter charged in again with a cry, so it was time for round two.
Adjutant moved like an extension of my body, always where I needed him to be exactly when I needed him there. Something about his Name, or had we simply been through enough battlefields together? I half-stepped out of an arm’s way and scored a long mark against the side but it wasn’t a strong enough hit to go through. No matter, Adjutant finished the work a moment later with the side of his sword, bringing up his shield to prevent the blood from touching him. The demon picked up the arm but disdained putting it back this time: instead it swung it at us like a mace. I knew, even as I saw the hit coming, that I wouldn’t be able to get out in the way in time. Not with the way my leg was hobbled. Hakram squared his shoulders and I felt his Name flare up, but it wouldn’t be enough. I still remembered how drained using an aspect for the first time had left me: that he’d been able to fight at all afterwards was a testament to orc constitution. With a sharp whistle, an arrow fell on the mace limb. Larger than the previous ones, and spinning wildly on itself, it tore through the flesh and dispersed it like smoke before clattering uselessly against the ground.
Saved, for now. I glanced to where the Silver Spears had been and now stood only a field of corpses. Weeping Heavens, she’d killed at least forty corrupted men in less time than it took to say morning prayers. A good person to have on yours side, Archer. Oversized fingers spread against the ground and pushed the demon up as it tried to swing its legs at Hunter, but the man deftly dropped to the ground and let the limbs pass above him. That was as much attention as I could grant the hero, because some of the other fingers weren’t merely holding up our opponent. They were scrabbling around the broken pavestones and took a handful, carelessly tossing them in Masego’s direction. I cursed: it had been too much to hope for that it wouldn’t notice what was going on there.
I reached for the last scrapings of my power, formed a spear of shadows and shot it without missing a beat, bursting through a pavestone and clipping another. There were four other rocks flying and the same spinning arrows took out one, then a second, then a third – until the angle took the last beyond Archer’s angle of fire. It would hit Apprentice in the head, I gauged. And kill him instantly. Fuck, fuck fuck– Adjutant stepped in front of Masego, shield up and legs spread. The impact caved in the shield and broke the arm behind it, but the orc remained on his feet and the stone fell to the ground. Teeth bared, Hakram ripped away the useless wreck of steel and forced back his arm in its socket with a horrible cracking sound. Gods, he hadn’t even screamed or flinched. Just… taken it, and moved on. Slowly, Apprentice rose to his feet. I called out for Hunter to run and he did so without argument for once, scything the lesser half of an arm on his way out and leaping through a house’s window with all the grace of a rushing bull.
Lines of flame rose from the ground into the sky from all over the city, too numerous to count. The threads of fire linked into a single point high above the demon and I finally understood what Masego had been doing. He’d broken his ritual, piece by piece, and taken the wild flames that would have exploded from the hearths as his own. Usurpation is the essence of sorcery, Apprentice had once told me, paraphrasing some Dread Emperor. He’d usurped his own work, and was now bringing its full strength to bear against our enemy. From the point where all the flames had gathered an enormous pillar of flame descended, enveloping the demon in the blink of an eye. I’d half-excepted the spell to disappear after a moment, but it kept on going. There was a strange sound coming from our mage’s direction, and I realized with a start it was a laugh. Masego was grinning madly as he convulsed in laughter, the glare of the flames reflecting on his glasses as he peered over them at his work. His hands were thrusting forward, unmoving as the fire raged and waves of heat scorched stone and distorted the air.
How long we stood there, watching the son of the Sovereign of the Red Skies proving the truth of his lineage, I did not know. Long enough for my limbs to turn mellow as the stress of the fight left me, and long enough for Hunter to burst out of a different house than the one he’d entered and join us. Archer leapt down from her perch moments later, eyes wary.
“Will that kill it?” she asked.
I chuckled tiredly. “Well, it probably won’t be moving for a while. We’ll still need Hunter to finish the fight: I don’t think Masego will have enough juice left to cage and banish it after that.”
She arched a fine eyebrow.
“That was an option?”
“From what I understand,” I said, “our chances of managing to trap it if it saw us coming were… not promising. This is probably as good as the Fifteenth can reasonably have expected this fight to have gone.”
Hunter himself was studiously ignoring us, and I returned him the courtesy. He’d been eager enough to attack so far, I had no doubts he’d finish the monster off when the time came. Hakram was more important to me, and I had to limp as quick as I physically could to catch the orc when he began to collapse.
“I think I’m done for the night, Cat,” he rasped.
“You did good, Hakram,” I murmured, gently setting him down against a wall. “Better than anyone had a right to expect.”
“I-” he started, but exhaustion caught up with him.
His mouthed closed and unconsciousness finally took hold of his body.
“Steady fighter, this one,” Archer commented.
“The steadiest,” I agreed softly.
Masego’s spell showed no sign of thinning. I limped to his side and put a hand on his shoulder.
“How much longer?” I asked.
He remained silent for a moment. At the edge of my sight, Hunter raised his spear – immediately, my hand dropped to my sword and I cursed myself for having ever sheathed it. I’d thought the hero too straightforward to turn on us, but now that the battle was done he must have thought he could take us out when weakened and then take care of the demon on his own. Shit, what side was Archer going to take? She was the least tired among us.
Hunter spat blood, and the demon’s hand finished ripping its way through his chest.
It looked almost human now, though naked and with unsettlingly large eyes. Archer’s retort hit him in the throat but it didn’t even seem to notice. It withdrew its hand from the dead hero and tossed him at Masego, breaking the mage’s concentration – the column of flame immediately rippled, then went up in an explosion that flattened all of us to the ground. I forced down a scream of pain as my bad leg snapped at an angle but desperately scrabbled back to my feet just in time to see the demon go for Apprentice. The same blue panes of light that had stopped the corrupted monster earlier materialized in front of the mage when the abomination leapt at him, holding it at arm’s length as its caressed the magical shield. Masego grunted as I moved to flank the demon, the shield light bursting and throwing it back. The impact had wiggled the arrow in its throat, spraying blood in an arc as it landed fluidly on its feet.
A single drop landed on Apprentice’s left wrist. Immediately he brought up the other hand, the tip of a finger glowing red-orange, and with a hoarse scream he cauterized the skin. Would that be enough? Shit. It had to be. I heard Archer unsheathe her blades and the demon lazily turned to look at me. It took a step, and then stilled. The sound of hooves against stone was heard in the distance, coming towards us from where the Silver Spears had once stood. The pace was unhurried, like the rider had all the time in the world. I let out a breath of relief. Black. My teacher had come for us. Through the smoke and dust kicked up by the breaking of Masego’s spell, a single silhouette rode. A cage of bright red and green flames formed around the demon, spinning slowly at first and then quickening until it took the shape of a whirling cone and then burst, tearing into the sky so high the whole city must have been able to see it. Behind it, no trace of the demon remained. The horse was reined in twenty feet away from us, and finally I was able to make out the rider.
“Well,” Heiress spoke with a pleasant smile. “Quite a mess you’ve made here, Squire.”