“… such wanton deviousness had been unseen since the days of Dread Emperor Traitorous, who famously passed for his own Chancellor through cunning use of a wig and a pair of cantaloupes…”
– Extract from “The Most Illustrious Histories of the Inimitable Dread Empire of Praes”, volume IV
The clamour died down before long.
The Fifteenth had been positioned according to Juniper’s plan for the forcing of the city, with Hune’s irregular kabili of over a thousand men taking point. Heavies in the front, with the strength of our sapper corps behind them. Nauk’s legionaries were split between the wings, placed so that they would be able to reinforce weak points rather than engage the enemy on their own. I would have preferred for the orc commander to be the tip of the spear but Juniper had brought up the valid point that he was a lot more likely to commit to too deep an offensive than Hune. The ogre would not let her legionaries step even once over the imaginary line set by the Hellhound. I had not cheered with my legion, sobered by the knowledge that this was just an opening blow. With the gates open my own instinct would have been to rush through and take the enemy while they were still unprepared, but Juniper had pushed back against that idea hard. The Lone Swordsman had a history of trickiness that could not be denied, and she didn’t want to have to learn what he’d planned the hard way.
“So what do you have for us now, Willy?” I murmured.
Sharpening my vision with my Name, I frowned and peered through the broken gates. Like we’d anticipated the Stygian spears were surrounding the entrance into the city – whether or not there were archers behind I did not have the angle to see, but I’d bet that there were. Neither the Baroness Dormer nor William himself were noted military commanders, but the older Stygian spear-slaves were said to be schooled in tactics and strategy. It was one of their selling points: the few Free Cities that used the slaves for war did not usually have an officer corps of their own to provide. A few heartbeats passed without any response from the other side, a fact that was almost more troubling than reassuring. Meanwhile, Senior Sapper Pickler’s boys got to work. The trebuchets began targeting the ramparts to the sides of the gate bastion, massive stones smashing into them with professional regularity. Our pair of ballistas had been pointed at the bastion itself. There was no expectation that the smaller stones would actually able to bring it down, and we didn’t actually want them to. They just had to clear the fortificiations of archers and mages, while the trebuchets made sure there wouldn’t be flanking fire on the Fifteenth when it advanced.
I glanced at Heiress, who’d been silent since my last cutting retort. Barika trailed behind her, eyes on my moving legion. They’d be giving me trouble anytime soon now, but whatever they had planned the contingencies I’d set up should hobble them. As long as Akua didn’t have the Procerans at her beck and call, all she could put forward was a small retinue of her own guards and her noble minions. Dangerous, but not so much that I couldn’t step on them if I wanted to. Getting her right here, where she couldn’t get up to any shenanigans away from prying eyes, had been the most important part. I wondered if this was how Black felt all the time, measuring risks and moving enemies over traps you could trigger at any time. It would explain a lot about the man if he did: there was nothing wondrous or adventurous about this. It was just… work. Like bartending, if more dangerous. They didn’t talk about these parts in the stories. The sleepless nights you spent anticipating the actions of your enemies, the grind of preparing your counters to their moves. All the while knowing that you might never need the work at all, or that it might turn out you’d made the wrong kind of efforts entirely. And he did this for all of Callow for over two decades.
The thought was chased away the moment the rebels finally gave answer to our drawing first blood. A lone silhouette passed through the gates, gait assured and unhurried. For a moment I’d thought it would be the Lone Swordsman, come to defy an entire army on his own, but my Name sight found an entirely different face: Thief. The heroine was strolling with her hands in her pockets, whistling if the shape of her lips was any indication.
“Not the Named I was expecting,” Hakram gravelled.
“Preaching to the choir,” I said. “Angling for single combat, do you think?”
“She doesn’t have a fighting Role,” the orc frowned. “I could more or less handle her before I came into my Name: she tries you and she’ll end up bleeding on the floor.”
There was no flattery in that reply, just a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of how good I’d gotten at killing things.
“Even if she calls for a duel, she’ll be getting the princely reply,” I said. “We don’t have time to waste on posturing.”
The Thief agreed, apparently. She stopped sixty feet away from the gate, on the open field but still out of crossbow range. A ballista stone flew over her head, hitting the wall without making a kill but keeping the archers crouched behind the fortifications. She flipped a finger in our general direction then took up a leather pouch from her side, turning it upside down as if to empty the contents on the ground. A heartbeat later, twenty-odd river barges fell in a crash of wood and floodwater. I blinked just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
“What the actual fuck?” I said eloquently.
I had a few more relevant questions in mind, but that was the one that came out. I glanced at Heiress, whose face was emotionless. Not tell to find there, unfortunately. Had the Thief… summoned boats? This was aspect stuff, there was no doubt about it, but she wasn’t a mage. That I knew of, anyway. I gestured for one of the Gallowborne to come closer.
“Tell Apprentice to hurry back here,” I ordered. “This was, uh, not part of the plan.”
“If this turns into a naval battle, we’re down a fleet of our own,” Hakram commented drily.
“Less sass, more figuring out what the Hells was the point of that,” I ordered.
There hadn’t been much water, and it was already seeping into the ground. Still, I somehow doubted making a little mud had been the plan there. There was no sign of the Thief anymore, but I knew it’d be too much to hope for she’d been crushed under the barges.
“They’re blocking access to the gate,” Hakram said.
I cursed. True, the boats had fallen all over the place: some forward, yes, but some backwards also. The ones in the back probably forbade entrance to the same gate we’d just knocked open. The heroes had replied to our forcing a way in by dropping a mountain of wood in front of that path. I might have picked up on that faster, had I not been befuddled by the absurdity and overkill of the answer.
“They’ll be putting the gate back up as we speak,” I grimaced.
“We can order Pickler to smash the boats to kindling,” Adjutant said.
“That’ll take too long,” I said. “And I doubt our trick on the gate will work twice.”
The orc cast me a cautious look.
“You only have so many cards up your sleeves,” he warned me.
“I only have so many hours before the actual bloody Heavens show up,” I replied, then turned to another of the Gallowborne. “Run to Juniper. Tell her I’m slapping down my first trump early.”
There’d be no need to be any more precise than that, not with the Hellhound. I closed my eyes and reached for my Name, opening pupils on a corpse far to my left. The ox rose to its feet. I’d been meaning this particular surprise for Willy, a way to make swordsmanship irrelevant to our coming fight. I’d had several of our labour oxen slaughtered and stuffed with goblin munition loadouts, including one full of goblinfire. He’ll be expecting them after this. The ox I’d reached for was one heavy on demolition charges, the flesh carved deep and filled to the brim. It would have been enough to casually level a city block, Robber assured me, so it should be enough for the barges. If not, I had another six oxen to finish the job. I set the undead construct to a steady trot, only then opening my eyes. Hakram was looking at me, trying not to grin. I sighed.
“Out with it,” I said. “What did they call this one?”
“The Oxis of Evil,” he confessed.
Sappers were, I reflected, the worst of the worst. As if to prove my point the ox I controlled came into my field of view and I noticed there was someone riding on it. A goblin. I couldn’t use my Name sight and control the corpse at the same time, but there was no real need to.
“Remind me to demote Tribune Robber,” I told Hakram.
“I’ll make a note of it,” the orc said.
“Lesser footrest,” I decided. “That’ll be his new rank.”
“You don’t have another footrest,” Adjutant pointed out.
“But if I did,” I replied vindictively, “he’d be beneath them.”
Heiress, to my surprise, had not taken the occasion to snipe at either myself or the Fifteenth. She was looking at the scene, turning her back to me. Discreetly, I gestured at Captain Farrier to have another two crossbowmen ready to take her out. I didn’t trust how quiet she’d gotten. With Pickler’s engines keeping the enemy archers busy, Robber and his mount covered the ground with only a handful of pot-shots taken at them. One arrow hit the ox right in the brains, but the corpse wasn’t exactly using those at the moment. A few moments before impact Robber leaned forward and struck a match, setting off a fuse before rolling off. Landing on his feet, the goblin spread out his arms at the soldiers on the rampart and yelled out something. I was too far away to hear, and anyhow I was busy cutting the strands connecting me to the ox before it exploded. The corpse hit the side of the closest barge, horns getting stuck in the wood, and a moment later Creation lit up.
I’d again underestimated how much munitions were amplified by Name power, it seemed. The hand of an angry god swatted aside the centre of the boat pile, smouldering planks of wood catapulted in every direction. One large piece hit the first rank of Hune’s heavies, slapping down an orc nearly as large as Nauk like he was a child. I winced. Broken bones for sure, even if he’d caught it on the shield. When the mess settled down I saw that something resembling a path had been cleared. Half a barge was still in the way and would make passing under the bastion much trickier, but it would also be usable as cover. Like I’d suspected, the gate was already back up. Our way to get rid of it had left it largely intact, after all, even if I doubted they’d have repaired the hinges so quickly. I was beginning to think I should have used the oxen on the walls, surprise or not. With the Fifteenth ready to pour in the gap the moment it settled we might have avoided the mess at the gate entirely. Too late for that now.
“You were using your sight on Robber?” I asked Hakram.
He was actually better as sharpening his senses than I was, nowadays. He still lacked a second aspect but the few tricks Black had taught me he’d taken to like a fish to water.
“I was,” the orc agreed.
“What was he yelling?” I asked with morbid curiosity.
Adjutant smothered another grin.
“I believe it might have been ‘knock knock, motherfuckers’,” he informed me.
“Lesser lesser footrest,” I muttered under my breath.
Behind us, horns sounded and the Fifteenth began to stir itself to movement. The foreplay was over and Robber fled back to the safety of our lines to the loud acclaim of his cohort of insane murderous hooligans. That they were actually my cohort of insane murderous hooligans was something I was trying very hard not to think too much about. In the distance I saw that Apprentice was coming back in my direction, then frowned when he started gesticulating wildly. I gazed in the direction he was pointing at. The Procerans, I saw, were not moving in formation. They were supposed to slip in front of Hune’s men to harass the Stygians before impact was made, but they were splitting off my host to the left.
“Heiress,” I barked.
There was a chorus of swords being unsheathed and two dozen crossbows instantly covered Akua and Barika . My rival cleared her throat daintily.
“As the Sahelians have unfortunately been put under a strong financial burden by Her Most Dreadful Majesty, I’m sad to inform you we can no longer afford to keep the mercenaries in our pay,” she said. “As a result, I no longer command them and therefore no longer qualify as an auxiliary officer according to Legion regulations.”
“They’re in the Tower’s employ,” I said.
“They’ve never signed any contract with the Tower, or been handed gold by it,” she smiled.
“Get off your horse,” I spoke softly. “Hands on your head, and the same with your minion. You so much as make a vaguely suspicious move and my men will drop you.”
Akua did not move.
“On what grounds do you demand this?” she asked curiously.
Apprentice barrelled onto the scene a moment later, panting and looking like he was about to throw up.
“Catherine,” he said, his robes now sweat-stained. “That’s not Heiress.”
Without missing a beat I reached for the knife at my belt, palmed it and threw it. It spun and sunk to the hilt in the leg of whoever was wearing Heiress’ face. The illusion shattered with a tinkling sound and the sight of Arzachel, bound and gagged, was presented to my eyes. Barika laughed.
“Too late,” the heiress to Unonti said.
The haft of Hakram’s axe caught her on the temple a heartbeat later, throwing her down the horse and sending her straight into unconsciousness before she even hit the ground. There was surge of power in the distance, from among the mercenaries.
“The demon,” I said. “Masego, are we-“
“It’s not getting through,” he interrupted.
And like he said, a moment later, there was a responding surge of power from where Kilian’s task force of mages was waiting. We’d prepared for this, thank the Gods. Horns sounded again and the left flank of the Fifteenth turned to face the Procerans. They didn’t seem interested in giving battle, though. They were fleeing towards the walls. Not that Juniper cared: before twenty heartbeats had passed the legion’s ballistas had been repositioned and a pair of bloody furrows was carved in the mercenary ranks. Pickler’s sappers had managed to hit the ground at the right angle for the stones to bounce and continue rolling, killing dozens instead of mere handfuls with every shot. Wouldn’t have worked as well on better armoured men, but these were light infantry. I glanced at Masego, whose face had turned ashen.
“We have the wrong target,” he said. “She’s not bringing something through.”
Ripping one of the silver trinkets from his hair – this one with a reflective surface – he spoke a few words and an image appeared on the side of it. Zombie moved closer to him and I hunched over. We were looking at the Stygian spears, arrayed behind the gates.
“They’re the target?” I asked.
“Not them in specific,” he muttered. “This is High Arcana, it works through… associations. Metaphysical concepts.”
One of the former slaves in the front ranks staggered, his muscular body turning into a weak husk in the blink of an eye before he dropped dead on the ground. One after another, the Stygian spears dropped. Two thousand, they were. Before thirty heartbeats had passed every single one of them was a corpse.
“Weeping Heavens,” I whispered. “What kind of a ritual is this?”
“She fed them, didn’t she?” Masego said. “She gave them water and rations. Hers. And she just retrieved that gift.”
“If it’s retrieved, that means she got it back,” I hissed.
Two thousand lives in fuel. The power to the east had not dimmed, it had grown. And even as I thought, I could feel it taking shape. The ballistas continued taking their toll but they were irrelevant now. Heiress had never intended for the Procerans to be the force she used today. They’d been a red herring for me to focus my efforts on, thinking I was scoring victories by hobbling them. In front of the fleeing mercenaries a tear in Creation formed, pouring out a geyser flame and sulphur.
“Contact the task force,” I ordered Masego immediately. “Shut this down, now.”
The image on the trinket shifted and Apprentice immediately began talking in a low voice to someone. I didn’t stick around to supervise: he knew how to handle that situation better than I did. I passed by Hakram and the Gallowborne securing the unconscious Barika. Someone had gotten Arzachel off the horse and handled the wound, but he wouldn’t be talking: his tongue had been removed. So that’s why the Procerans are listening to Heiress. Odds were someone with Arzachel’s face was giving them their orders. When had she made the switch? I doubted she’d managed to put a prisoner on a horse under my nose without my noticing, so she must have found a way to fool Apprentice’s spectacles from the beginning. But then how did he figure out she wasn’t the one on the horse when he came back? Suspicion gnawed at me, but I set aside the matter for now. My eyes turned to the ritual gate, and what I saw there had my limbs going numb. Devils were spewing out of it by the hundreds. Ironhooks, jackalheads and the lizard-tigers. Other kinds I’d never seen before too, with wings.
All of them were going for the walls. The ironhooks would be able to climb them with no trouble. Some would die going up, shot by archers, but eventually a foothold would be made. And then the levies would panic, and the whole infernal host would spill into the city. Thousands would die, I already knew. Tens of thousands, even, since the civilians would be so tightly packed. All of it because I’d thought Heiress would use an old trick again instead of pull out a new one. My Name was silent. It should have been howling in anger and outrage, but there was not so much as a ripple in the pond. The stillness in my mind was all mine. So was the vicious, frozen fury going through my veins. Eventually Kilian’s task force managed to shut down the ritual gate by following Masego’s instructions, cutting through a giant snake as it did. It didn’t matter: another one had passed through unhindered, and it was closing its jaws on the top of the ramparts. Lesser devils were already beginning to use it as a way up.
I got down from my horse and walked to Barika’s prone form, crouching to slap her awake. I felt like my body was not my own, like I was puppeting myself the way I did corpses. The Soninke opened her eyes with a pained gasp.
“You breed are ever sore losers,” she sneered the moment her eyes swam back in focus.
I felt myself exhale.
“It truly is a game to you, isn’t it?” I said. “Even when people die. Just part of the steps.”
“You’re in over your head, Foundling,” Barika said. “You have been since the beginning.”
“You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about things on the march here. After Marchford, you see, I seriously considered assassinating Heiress even after Black essentially warned me off the idea. Do you know what held me off?”
“Fear,” the aristocrat mocked.
“Yes,” I agreed softly. “You’re right. I was afraid, Barika. Not of her but of… escalation. How much worse would she get, if she felt that her life was on the line?”
“Your mistake,” the Soninke said, “was to think that you should only be afraid of us when you threaten our lives.”
“Right again,” I chuckled. “Not in the way you meant it, but there it is. I keep expecting you lot to have lines you won’t cross. But you don’t, do you? You weren’t raised to think that way. Anything goes if it gets you what you want.”
“Torture might be preferable to your petty moralizing,” Barika said. “Not that you’ll get anything out of me. I’ve been trained to resist the likes of what you can bring to bear.”
“You probably have,” I acknowledged, and rose to my feet. “Thank you, Barika Unonti, for this valuable lesson.”
Calmly, I took the crossbow of the closest Gallowborne and placed a bolt through her eye. She was dead before she even realized what was happening.
“Masego,” I said, looking down at the corpse. “Scry Juniper. I’m ordering a full frontal assault.”
“And what will we be doing meanwhile, Catherine?” Hakram asked.
I spat to the side.
“We’re going to have a conversation with the man who cut off your hand.”