“The best defence is to have killed all your enemies.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Thorough
Even with Thief guiding the way, we ran into problems.
Apparently her place in the hierarchy of the city wasn’t as well-established as William’s: twice knots of rebel soldiers tried to refuse passage. The first instance of it wouldn’t have been much trouble if it came to blades – we outnumbered them, and the carts they’d upended as a makeshift barrier would fold like parchment in front of any Named – but the second was… tense. Five hundred household troops in Dormer livery, who didn’t even bother to hail us before they started shooting arrows. One of my Gallowborne was wounded and I was that close to forcefully clearing them out, but Thief jumped in between us and screamed sense into them. It took too long for my tastes to get through. The more we waste time here, the more of a head start Heiress gets on her objective. I got glares and muttered accusations of being a traitor as we passed the enemy soldiers, though this time I wasn’t the only one. The Gallowborne got their share of hisses accusing them of being collaborators, being obviously Callowan themselves. My personal guard seemed to take the accusations in stride, for now anyway. I knew from personal experience how much those whispers could sting.
Mostly because they had a morsel of truth to them.
I’d had my doubts William would manage to corner Heiress – she was a slippery one – but they were put to rest before we ever laid eyes on them. In the distance I saw a stream of black flame rise from an avenue, clipping the edge of a rooftop. The fire spread in the blink of an eye until it covered the entire rooftop and then snuffed itself out, leaving nothing behind. I honestly wasn’t sure whether I was hoping the Lone Swordsman had been hit by that or not. I believed Heiress would be easier to kill, if it came to a fight, but I doubted anything good would come out of her getting her hands on a hero’s corpse. I frowned as my men picked up the pace. Not that she could actually kill William, anyway. As long as he and I were still bound by our pattern of three, we could only die at each other’s hands. More or less. I’d gotten a reminder in Marchford that demons were not things of Creation and cared little for its rules. Thief left us as we turned a corner, bounding up to the rooftops with catlike grace. So much for her playing the intercessor.
“Shields up,” I called out.
The Gallorborne interlocked into a wall of steel in front of me, allowing me to focus on the scene ahead. None of Heiress’ little friends were with her, it appeared. Her only attendants were two dozen Procerans, currently panicking as they spectacularly failed to keep the Lone Swordsman contained. William was wearing his usual horribly pretentious longcoat over mail, boots skidding across the stone as he danced among the mercenaries and took them apart methodically. No helmet, his dark hair ran free as he smiled thinly. My eyes narrowed as I realized his abomination of a sword was nowhere in sight: he used a Callowan longsword, well-made but not angelic in the slightest. Things were already looking up. Parrying was a valid tactic again, it seemed. Heiress pointed a finger in the hero’s direction and seven dots of green light formed in front of it, each of them turning into an arrow point that immediately shot off towards the hero.
The arrows remained linked to the dot they’d formed from, the spell lights homing on William as he ducked and weaved around them. Heiress barked a word in the arcane tongue and the ligaments of light, scattered all around the hero, tightened in an attempt to bind him. Before they could touch him a flash of light emanated from the Lone Swordsman, dissipating the spell as he reached behind him and effortlessly plucked the javelin one of the Procerans had thrown at his back. Spinning on himself, he sent it back at the mercenary: the point took the man in the throat, killing him instantly. I’d give William this: he was an ornery little shit, but he could fight. Hunter had been a priceless asset the only time we’d been on the same side, and the deceased hero had been nowhere close to the Swordsman’ league.
“Willycakes,” Thief called out from a rooftop to my right. “I brought ‘friends’.”
The hero cast a glance in our direction. I took Zombie around the decapitated corpse of another horse, Akua’s if I was not mistaken. Explains why she’s on foot now.
“Foundling,” he spat. “Never far, when Callow bleeds.”
“Willycakes,” I greeted him drily. “And Akua too! Having a rough day, Heiress?”
“Just taking a walk, Catherine,” Akua said languidly. “Stepping on vermin, now and then. They do seem to be everywhere, in this city.”
The Soninke aristocrat had discreetly slipped one hand behind her back. Casting as we talked, I was sure. And we’ll be having none of that, thank you very much.
“Apprentice,” I said. “Be a dear and shut that down, would you?”
The bespectacled mage chuckled. “Now you talk sweet to me. Typical.”
Pushing up his sleeves, Masego cracked his fingers and grinned maliciously.
“If you would grant me this dance, Lady Akua? Here, I’ll lead.”
The dark-skinned man’s clothes shuddered, as if caressed by a breeze, and he pushed his open palms forward. The Procerans surrounding Heiress were scattered like toys by an invisible force, while the Soninke herself hastily brought her hidden hand forward and traced a single sigil in the air. A bubble of nearly-transparent magic formed around her, turning opaque under the force of Masego’s own spell trying to hammer it down. I left them to it, for the moment, and turned to William.
“I can cripple the devils all over the city,” I told him.
“But,” he sneered.
“You’ll need to reach into the deepest parts of your will and manage… not to contradict me instantly,” I said.
“I make no such promises,” the Lone Swordsman said.
“I’m trying to save your godsdamned hides here, Willy,” I snarled. “For once in your life, do the smart thing instead of polishing your principle codpiece.”
“William,” Thief broke in. “Some of the barricades are already buckling. Whatever she’ll do can’t be worse than children getting killed in their cribs.”
The Lone Swordsman met my eyes, green to brown. If he was expecting me to be intimidated by it, he was barking up the wrong tree. I’d stared down more intimidating things than the likes of William. The sound of fire and screams drifted in from the distance.
“Fine,” he said, looking away.
“Apprentice,” I said.
The overweight mage casually tossed me one of the trinkets from his dreadlocks, eyes never leaving Heiress. Their little scuffled had changed in nature while I negotiated with the idiot: Masego’s force and Heiress’ shield were now a shifting landscape of differing pressures, some parts buckling in and others jutting out. He’d yet to manage to power through. I snatched the silvery pyramid out of the air and brought it close to my mouth. I cleared my throat, and the sound of it resonated broadly: like Apprentice said, once it was activated any sound touching the trinket was massively amplified.
“Under my authority as the Squire, I declare the city of Liesse under martial law,” I announced, my words drowning out everything else for a moment. “As of this moment, every human inside the city walls has been conscripted into the Fifteenth Legion.”
The silver trinket darkened the moment I finished speaking, losing its shine and even cracking in some places. I dropped it into a saddlebag, reluctant to disturb Apprentice from his contest of will by tossing it back.
“As long as the acting commander of the forces inside the city doesn’t do something stupid like, you know, openly contradicting me,” I said, “the devils can’t touch anyone anymore.”
“So now, that we’ve all joined the Legions I have to ask the most important question: how’s the pay?” Thief asked.
Hakram shrugged. “For the enlisted? Not bad. Silver though, not gold.”
“Adjutant,” I sighed. “Stop humouring the heroes.”
William absent-mindedly walked over to one of the Procerans who was trying to get up, opening his throat with a flick of the wrist. The others scrabbled away in panic.
“And this protection holds even if you’re dead, I take it?” the hero asked.
I unsheathed my sword.
“I’m not sure I like the direction this conversation is heading,” I said mildly.
There was a pop ahead as Heiress’ shield finally gave way. She swept her arms gracefully in a circle and with a triumphant smile redirected whatever spell Masego had been using in our direction. Apprentice frowned and tapped the ground with his foot: the invisible force exploded halfway to our group in storm of invisible power, ripping out pavement stones and tossing them around. I ducked under one, pressing against my mount.
“Two hundred paces,” Heiress said. “Eight binding, lifted. Attack.”
Three heartbeats later, a jackalhead leapt down from a rooftop and landed in front of the recovering Procerans. It leered hungrily at us.
“William, remember that time we had a truce until everyone else was dead?”
And then you pretty much split my belly in two and left me dying on the ground, I refrained from adding.
“Granted,” the hero said. “And not a moment longer.”
I’d heard that one before, and though he’d observed the truce to the letter the red scar across my chest was a reminder of how short a truce like that could be. I slid down from my horse, sword still in hand.
“Captain Farrier,” I called out. “Hold the back of the street. Don’t interfere otherwise – this one’s above your pay grade.”
“Good hunting, ma’am,” the captain replied, already getting his men in position.
Hakram rested his axe on his shoulder, baring his fangs.
“Priority target?” he asked.
“Heiress,” I said. “Masego-“
“Battlefield control, like we practiced,” he interrupted easily.
I felt my Name pulsing under my skin, eager to sink its teeth into my enemies. Well, it wouldn’t go hungry tonight. Already I could see devils swarming in our direction from the east, jumping over rooftops and gathering in the sky. What Heiress had done must have served as a beacon for them, because every single one I saw was coming for us. Joy. For the first time it occurred to me I wasn’t sure what would happen to the bindings on the hellspawn if Heiress died. Would they just all be unmade? That would be… bad. They’d rampage across the city. On the other hand, I couldn’t afford to spare someone like Akua. She was likely to escape if I took her prisoner, and as long as she held a modicum of control over the devils she had the largest stick to swing out of the three Named currently fighting for control over Liesse. Not an acceptable situation, so I supposed I’d have to burn that bridge when I got to it. I wasted no more time over the thought: the longer I dallied, the more devils would be on us.
With my left hand I unsheathed the knife at my hip and strode forward, Hakram covering that same flank. Unlike Adjutant, I had no shield. Since my leg had been crippled by the demon I’d been forced to admit that this kind of fighting no longer worked for me: I couldn’t afford to take hits from behind a shield anymore. My footing wasn’t as solid as it used to be. Instead I had to focus on footwork and attack, timing my movements precisely and going for killing blows. One of these days I’d seen about getting a bow or a crossbow to use to widen my range of options, but for now I’d make do with belt of throwing knives strapped across my plate chest piece. And also the handful of… other surprises I carried in the satchel attached to the side of my belt. My first real opponent of the day was an ironhook who jumped straight off the roof to sink its claws into my throat: I ducked under it, letting it land behind me and turning to sink the point of my sword into the back of its neck.
I was already moving again before the corpse dropped to the ground. Already there were a dozen devils standing between Heiress and us, but when she’d made her decision she clearly hadn’t factored in heroes. The Lone Swordsman was on the offensive, and I saw that Masego hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said the man could single-handedly hold a street off: the hero moved forward at a walking pace, and everywhere he went devils died. There were no bursts of light, no displays of Heavenly wrath or even Name-enhanced strength as he fought. William simply waited for their attacks, avoided them by a hair’s breadth and sent heads rolling with a single measured swing. I’d studied swordsmanship under one of its greatest living practitioners for a year, sparred with a woman who could tear through steel with her bare hands and fought a demon of the Thirteenth Hell on foot with only five people at my side. And yet, in that moment, the sight of the Lone Swordsman calmly dispatching one opponent after another sent a shiver down my spine. That was what the Mandate of Heaven looked like, I thought. An inexorable march forward against which even the most monstrous of strengths failed.
One of the hairy dwarf gargoyles tried to sweep down on me but its head was instantly pulped without any intervention on my part, the rest of its swarming companions dispersing with cries of fear. Apprentice was keeping the distractions off our back, like he was supposed to. Hakram and I impacted the mass of devils a heartbeat later. My Name flared up and I let myself sink into it, not to shape the power but to use the awareness that came with it. Everything came in flashes: a hand reached for my throat and I spun my wrist, slicing cleanly through it. I glimpsed a scream jackal head before I rammed my knife between its eyes, spinning around the devil as I tore out my blade. An ironhook came for my legs but Adjutant’s axe split its head in two before the orc kicked the corpse into the open maw of a lizardtiger. Another monkeybat landed screaming on my back but it instantly began to turn to dust as Apprentice took care of the problem while I opened the throat of another ironhook. A jackalhead bounced off of Hakram’s shield and tried to tackle me but my knife flicked up and opened it from crotch to throat. I abandoned the knife in the devil’s body and caught a garygoyle by the throat, squeezing until it’s head popped off. I half-stepped away from a lizardtiger’s lunge, crouching to take back my knife as Hakram’s axehead tore through its neck.
Everything was crisp-clear, like the air on a cold morning, and I felt a sort of savage joy welling up in me. From the corner of my eye I saw Thief wading across the devils on the rooftop behind Heiress, weaving around the grasping creatures like she was running an obstacle course. She leapt towards Akua’s back but was intercepted halfway through by a gargoyle. Undeterred, she somehow bunched up together and used the devil as leverage to jump again, landing in a crouch behind Heiress. The aristocrat pointed a palm at her, green runes appearing in a linked circle around her hand: there was a detonation like a sharper exploding and the heroine was blasted through the wall of the house behind her in her shard of wooden splinters. I wasn’t worried. Even heroes with Roles unsuited for fighting were remarkably hard to hurt. Another wave of devils came for us by Hakram’s side but they didn’t manage to get far. Collars of whirling wind formed around their throats, tightening and dragging them back.
I hacked through the shoulder of a jackalhead Adjutant battered down with his shield and allowed the orc to finish it as I pressed ahead. One last ironhook, who managed to weave under a sword stroke only to take a knife in the belly, and finally I was on Heiress. All that stood between the two of us was the last few Procerans – who eyed me with undisguised fear. To my right I saw the Lone Swordsman cleaving through a devil and casually stepping between the halves of the corpse. I ignored him for now, eyes on Heiress. Who smiled.
“Almost,” she said.
There was a flash of blinding light and immediately I back stepped, grabbing a devil by the throat and pulling it between myself and the light as I clenched my eyes shut. I opened them the moment I felt the devil bite into my shoulder, fangs somehow managing to dent the steel plate. Tossing the devil away, I looked in Heiress’ direction and cursed. There were nine of her now, all running north.
“Masego,” I screamed. “Get her.”
If she got away now, we were in trouble. Shit, which one was she? William started running, slicing a devil in two without stopping and headed after the closest Akua. I called on my Name, feeling it respond eagerly to my anger. A bolt of lightning threaded through the crowd, hitting one of the Heiresses in the back – the smoking corpse of a Proceran mercenary fell to the ground. The Lone Swordsman lopped an arm off another one, not even bothering to finish him off. Shadows coalesced into a spear as I tried to pick a target. A jackalhead tried to break my neck but Hakram had caught up and his axe sent the lupine head tumbling to the ground. Not the one in the middle, I thought frantically. Too obvious. To the left? It was away from William. I cursed and chose one of the three on the left, the one getting away the fastest. The spear of shadows flew straight, clipping Heiress in the shoulder.
Another mercenary fell to the ground, half his chest missing.
“Fucking Hells,” I cursed again.
The Lone Swordsman relieved another Heiress of her leg, but it was a decoy again. Only five left now. I couldn’t follow, damn me. I couldn’t run, not like I used to, and the devils were continuing to stream in. Without Apprentice to cover the skies, I was having to fend off the godsdamned gargoyles every time I wasn’t putting down some other devil going for my throat. William though, bless his Callowan hide, was hounding the fleeing Heiresses with all the viciousness he could muster. Another decoy died to an explosive ball of red light courtesy of Apprentice, and the last four were clustered together. The Lone Swordsman ran one through, didn’t even stop to look whether it’d been the real Heiress – it hadn’t – and burned another one alive with a blast of almost blinding light. Only two now, and William was closing in.
That was when the fireball caught him in the face.
The hero was thrown back, rolling on the stone. Ahead of him Fadila Mbafeno, on a horse and holding the reins of another, withdrew her hand. A dozen devils surrounded her like a hellish honour guard. One of the Heiresses deftly slid atop the free mount, claiming the reins and wasting no time in making her getaway. More devils poured in, filling the gap between the Lone Swordsman and my other rival, and I had to admit then and there we would be catching her right now. I hissed in anger, taking out my temper on the closest devil – my sword blade hacked through the chest, the jackalhead screaming in pain before I put it of its misery.
“Retreat,” I called out to Hakram.
We needed to regroup, and then get ready to press forward again. I sure as Hells wasn’t done with this fight.