“Sometimes you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, executing the hens who laid them on trumped up charges and setting the most rebellious henhouse on fire as an example to the others.”
– Dread Empress Maleficent II
Behind me the Fifteenth formed into a battering ram.
Cohorts repositioned smoothly as Juniper’s orders were relayed, forming a long broad column with myself and the Gallowborne at the head of it. The Procerans and the devils still suffered the occasional shot from Pickler’s engines but the mercenaries had largely been allowed to flee. I’d had a hard conversation on the subject with the Hellhound mere moments ago – she’d been of the opinion that Nauk’s kabili should sweep through them so we’d have fewer to fight inside the walls, where my legion would be constrained by the size of the streets. She’d given in, though, when I’d pointed out one important fact: Heiress was after something inside the walls. She would not have burned so many bridges otherwise, resigned a commission handed to her by the Black Knight himself and summoned an godsdamned actual host of devils. This was no longer a siege, it was a race – and I’d need every soldier inside with me.
Since then, what felt like too long had passed. Barika’s execution had cooled my blood somewhat, but the fury had been replaced by restlessness. More than once I’d considered just taking the Gallowborne and going in without the rest of the Fifteenth, but it was just too much of a risk. The kind I couldn’t afford, not with heroes on the prowl and Heiress just one fig leaf away from open rebellion against the Tower. Masego was still hunched over his scrying trinket, eyeing the unfolding battle inside the walls.
“I thought we couldn’t scry behind the city walls,” I said.
“The devils disrupted the wards,” Apprentice replied. “I can have a look anywhere short of the Ducal Palace itself. And the lake. That place is swimming in so much holy power I doubt either of us could even eat the fish from it.”
“How’s it looking for the defenders?” Hakram gravelled.
“Their commander set up concentric rings of defences inside the city,” the bespectacled mage said. “The walls are lost, but in their retreat they set on fire all the houses behind them. It appears to be slowing the devils down and the soldiers are gathering on the first ring for another stand.”
“The Lone Swordsman?” I asked.
“I found him twice,” Masego said. “At the moment he appears to be single-handedly holding an avenue against the devils.”
“Keep an eye on him,” I ordered. “We’ll be headed in his direction as soon as we’ve established a beachhead.”
Apprentice replied with a gesture that was half-agreement half-dismissal of the conversation, eyes still peeled on his instrument. Behind us the horns finally sounded, signalling it was time to begin the advance. Like a great beast coming to wake, the Fifteenth began to march. I set Zombie to a trot and the Gallowborne followed. From the corner of my eye I saw Hakram gently remind Apprentice that he was supposed to be walking, jolting him out of his thoughts. I couldn’t tell exactly where it had begun, though I thought it might have been the middle of the column. One voice started, then hundreds joined in and the avalanche swept over the entire legion. My soldiers were singing.
“He was a prince and a handsome lad
On a pretty white horse, all iron-clad
His lance was silver but his heart gold
A peerless champion, or so we’re told
Oh! The Lord of the Silver Spears!”
Most of my legionaries were terrible singers, though with that many voices in chorus it was hard to even tell. I cast a look at Hakram, who was whistling the tune and trying not to grin.
“So he cornered us on a muddy hill
His knights were up and eager to kill
But he said halt! We need not fight!
Only the she-witch will die tonight!
Oh! The Lord of the Silver Spears!”
Well, at least they were moving. The tune had been set to the cadence of a legionary’s quick march, because of course it had. We got in range of bowshot from the walls fast enough, but there was no one left to shoot at us. All the defenders had retreated. That showed foresight on the part of the commander on the other side: they’d been given orders in case the walls were breached.
“He rode up to us and rang his horn
Called out the Boss with all his scorn
Then sat there idle, proud as all Hells
Waiting while she bid her farewells
Oh! The Lord of the Silver Spears!”
The river barges were no longer smoking but they were messy terrain to go through. The Gallowborne had to break formation around what had once been a prow, shields up and casting wary looks ahead. Hakram’s axe – he’d changed weapons after Marchford, and proved deadlier with this one than he’d ever been with the last – had been in hand since we’d started moving. Once in a while he nudged Masego in the right direction with it, since the Soninke still refused to look away from his instrument.
“So we shot him, right through the throat
So much for that armour and all the gloat
So learn the lesson from that sad day –
Fuck with the Fifteenth and you’ll pay
Oh! Poor Lord of the Silver Spears!”
I snorted. Well, that was one lesson to derive from Three Hills. If singing what was essentially trash-talk as they marched kept my legion’s morale up, I wasn’t going to mess with the formula. The Gallowborne formed a wedge as we approached the gates, slowing down. Said gates had been propped up where they were supposed to stand, but even from my saddle I could see there was nothing holding them there but their weight.
“Adjutant,” I said.
The tall orc laughed and moved forward, my personal guard splitting around him. Holstering his axe in the loop of leather he used to hold it, Hakram brought up his tower shield and hunched his shoulders. I felt his Name flare up and squinted in his direction. To my senses his Name felt like something steady and large, almost like stone. It was strange that I could get even that much from him – I never had from Apprentice and Heiress, or even Black. He bullrushed almost faster than I could follow with the naked eye, shield impacting the metal gates with a sound like bell ringing. A heartbeat later the whole thing toppled, falling to the ground in a cloud of dust. Almost instantly arrows fell all round him, a pair sliding off his shield with a metallic clatter. He backpedalled and the Gallowborne formed a ring of shields around him. Through the smoke and dust on the other side, I could see burning buildings and a handful of archers already retreating.
One lingered to try to take a potshot at me, but one of my guards popped out from behind the shields and placed a bolt in his chest. The man fell, likely dead, and that was enough to make the others flee outright. Scouts, I decided. Placed here to tell William when we’d be crossing the gates. Were they still under the impression that Heiress and I were working together? They couldn’t be, not after Pickler had turned the ballistas on the mercenaries. It might not matter to them at all, I thought. As far as the heroes were concerned any force but their own managing to hold the city was a disaster.
“Forward,” I ordered. “Secure the area.”
The Gallowborne sprang into movement as the first legionaries began catching up to us. Hune’s regulars, with sappers behind them. Juniper wanted to establish at least basic fortifications around the gates in case we had to defend the chokepoint from the devils. So far it looked like our taking of the entrance wouldn’t be contested, but I doubted that would last. The way I saw it, the defenders had two problems at the moment. First, they had to hammer back the devils. Otherwise they’d rampage across the city and kill anyone they could get their hands on. Second, they couldn’t allow the Fifteenth to dig in past the gates. If we did there was no getting us out: urban warfare was not a specialty of the Legions of Terror, but we had the professional soldiers and the munitions to force our way in one city block at a time. The moment Juniper had a solid beachhead it was all downhill for them. Zombie took me past my personal guard and into the plaza behind the gates, leaving them scrambling to catch up.
From the corner of my eye I saw movement around a rooftop and instantly brought up my shield. It was a devil. One of the winged creatures I’d glimpsed earlier, looking like a hairy dwarf gargoyle with claws and bat wings. The devil sat there on top of a burning roof, apparently not inconvenienced by the smoke and flames.
“Devil,” I called out. “Get ready for a wave.”
Captain Farrier bellowed orders and the Gallowborne tightened formation. I remained on my horse, calmly studying the devil as Hakram strode to my side.
“It’s not attacking,” I said.
The tall orc made a thoughtful sound. “Waiting for reinforcements?”
“Heiress will be trying to push deeper into the city, not hit as we enter,” I said. “Otherwise she’ll overextend right in front of the Lone Swordsman.”
Something that was not likely to end well for her. If Masego was to be believed, the hero was turning any street he was in into a one-man meat grinder. If he ever ran out of devils to kill, he’d be going on the offensive for sure.
“She could be looking through its eyes,” Hakram suggested.
More likely. No need to allow that to continue any longer.
“Farrier,” I yelled. “Crossbows on the devil.”
Before fifteen heartbeats had passed the creature was trying and failing to duck under shots, shrieking as its leg was nailed to the thatch. It’s not fighting back at all, I frowned. Masego arrived at my side, finally bothering to look up from his scrying. I leaned to the side in my saddle.
“Can you capture it?” I asked.
He raised an eyebrow and flicked his wrist upwards, muttering a few words. Panes of blue light formed a pyramid around the devil, neatly imprisoning it. Another flick of the wrist and the pyramid was ripped off the roof, skidding against the ground as it was pulled in our direction. Half a dozen crossbows were trained on the imprisoned creature before it had even finished moving. Getting down from my horse, I ignored the protests of my guards and walked to the devil. I knelt in front of it.
“Apprentice,” I said. “Open the panel in front of me.”
Immediately everyone but Masego began protesting, but I gestured for them to shut the Hells up.
“It’s not going to fight me,” I said.
The panel flickered out of existence and I leaned forward, pointing a finger at the devil. It shrunk back, screaming in dismay.
“It can’t fight me,” I said.
Apprentice knelt at my side, speaking in the arcane tongue. He clicked his tongue disapprovingly.
“Only nine layers of binding,” he said. “Sloppy work, even by mass-summoning standards.”
Nine lines of runes made of light formed in the air in front of him. The dark-skinned mage ran a finger down them, stopping at the eighth line.
“They can’t attack anyone part of the Legions,” he said, sounding surprised. “If they touch a legionary they have to just… stop moving.”
I closed my eyes, letting out a breathless laugh.
“Of course they can’t,” I said. “The angle Heiress will work after this is that she was trying to make sure the angel wouldn’t have anyone to convert, in case I failed. She was just covering all the bases like a good Imperial citizen.”
Hakram let out a sharp breath. I hadn’t even realized he was standing behind me.
“If she wants to pretend that, her devils can’t kill legionaries,” he said. “Otherwise she was getting in the way of a Tower-sanctioned military operation.”
“Well now,” I murmured. “Doesn’t that just change things?”
I grinned, slow and mean and showing too much teeth for it to be friendly. It looked like I wasn’t the one getting hampered by politics, for once.
“Hakram,” I said, rising to my feet. “Send a runner to Commander Hune. The moment we have enough troops in the city I want her forces to swing east in force and flank the devils. They are to slaughter any hellspawn they see and engage the defenders only if attacked.”
Adjutant saluted and immediately got to it. I offered a hand to Apprentice, hoisting him up.
“You still have a general idea where the Lone Swordsman is?” I asked.
“He moved further east,” Masego replied, “but I can find him. Is that where we’re headed?”
“As soon as Hakram is back we’re moving out,” I said.
“You take me to such interesting places, Catherine,” Apprentice spoke drily. “What’s next, a church full of demons that is also on fire?”
I shrugged. “Day’s still young.”
We hugged the wall on our path east, as much to run into devils as to avoid running into rebels. A single company of regulars and we still must have killed twenty of the creatures on our way through: the Gallowborne realized early that if you ran in their direction they just backed away without fighting, making them really easy to corner. Jackalheads and ironhooks, mostly, but one of the lieutenants was a deft hand with a crossbow and brought down a couple of the already-nicknamed monkeybats. Time was hard to estimate in a city on fire, which was unfortunate given how often I seemed to run into those. Twice we ran into small crews of scouts, but they retreated without fighting. Couldn’t really blame them: not a lot of people would want to scrap with a company of hardened veterans led by three Named. The further east we got, the thicker the crowd of devils became. They started fleeing at the sight of us, which was irritating but could be worked to our advantage. If we cleared wherever we stepped just by being there, we could take the pressure off the defenders.
It would be a fine line to walk. I didn’t want William and his troops to get off too easy or they’d give the Fifteenth trouble later, but if they collapsed now we were all in trouble. I’d had an idea, when I’d realized how Heiress’ devils were bound, that might neuter them savagely. I needed to be in the right place for it to work, though, and that place was the thick of the fight. Where all the enemy soldiers were. That was not, I reflected, ideal. On the other hand, if I didn’t start improvising now this whole battle was fucked. Even worse, there was no telling where Heiress currently was: Apprentice could find no trace of her when he scried, and I still had no godsdamned idea what she was actually after. I couldn’t help but think that the devils were another distraction, something for me to get stuck in while she had free hand to accomplish… whatever it was she’d set out to accomplish. But I can’t take care of that until I’m done with William.
If the Lone Swordsman burst onto the scene while I was dealing with Heiress, I was pretty much dead. All the contingencies I had for him involved a degree of controlled conditions, which was half the reason Masego would not be leaving my side for the rest of this battle. The best outcome I could hope for with the heroes was a truce until the devils were out of play, but that seemed… unlikely. Not opening an additional front on each other might be more feasible, but if Heiress was already past their lines I’d have to pursue – and somehow I doubted they’d just clap me on the back and let me through. That could get messy. Weeping Heavens, my life was a series of progressively worse messes. I’d been kind of hoping the worseness would eventually reach a plateau of awful and stop, but so far that height was nowhere in sight. Anyhow, I need to survive today to witness that shining ray of hope, I thought darkly. I slowed Zombie’s gait with a twist of will, the Gallowborne following suit around me. I’d had an itch between my shoulders blades for a while now, one I’d first believed to be the result of sweat and rough clothes. But it wasn’t going away.
“Hold your fire,” I told my guards. “Thief, come the Hells out. Let’s have a chat.”
There was a long moment of silence afterwards and I almost began to think I’d read too much into this. I hadn’t, though: the short-haired woman strolled out of a nearby alley, hands casually in her pockets. No weapons in sight, but considering she’d thrown two dozen boats at the field earlier that meant less than nothing. She was smiling, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“I love talking,” Thief said. “It allows me to ask all sorts of questions, like ‘why the fuck did you summon a bunch of devils, you unholy twit?’”
“Wasn’t me,” I said. “We’re clearing them out wherever we can.”
“If they’re not on your side,” Thief said, narrowing her eyes, “why aren’t they attacking you?”
“It’s complicated,” I replied, “Long story short, Heiress is running a scheme.”
“Well that makes it all better then,” the heroine said with an unpleasant smile. “ Does that mean we’re friends now? Wanna hold hands, maybe braid my hair?”
“Heiress wouldn’t have had the excuse to pull something like this if you assholes weren’t summoning a brainwashing angel,” I retorted sharply.
There were limits to how civil I was willing to be with these people, and the kind of incivility I was willing to take from them.
“Desperate times,” Thief said, face turning blank. “What do you want, Foundling?”
“I want to talk with William.”
“Not sure he’ll be all that interested in talking,” the heroine said.
“That’ll be my problem to deal with,” I replied.
Thief mulled over that for a moment, then shrugged.
“No skin off my back if he puts you down, I suppose. Follow me,” she said. “Last I heard he was on the hunt for your little friend.”
I frowned. “Heiress?”
“That’s the one,” Thief agreed. “They should be playing the ‘who’s losing an arm’ game by now.”
The heroine leaned forward.
“Here’s a hint: the answer is usually ‘not him’.”