“Oh, I get it. The real treasure was the people I had executed along the way!”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful
“Something’s coming through,” Kilian said.
Dawn was beginning to warm the stones of Marchford’s central plaza, but there would be no bustle of humans today. There hadn’t been for half a fortnight: the Hellhound had closed off this entire section of the city and garrisoned it heavily at Apprentice’s recommendation. Nauk brushed off a speck of ash from the stripes on his shoulder that now marked him a legate of the Fifteenth, irritated at the way the burnt wood got everywhere. The very redhead who’d just handed him the latest bit of bad news had ordered for braziers full of holly and apple tree to be set up in all four corners of the plaza and kept ever-burning.
“How big, this time?” the orc asked.
The Senior Mage muttered in the mage tongue and squinted at the runes that formed in the air.
“Still minor,” she said. “The frequency is increasing, though. They’re building up to something.”
Nauk spat to the side.
“Those are scouts, Kilian,” he said. “Like a clan would send before a killing raid. They’re looking for weaknesses.”
Spikes of iron had been hammered into the stone in irregular patterns on the first day to make it harder for the Fae to step into Creation, but the border had been getting thinner with every dawn anyway. Juniper had prudently ordered that containment wards be set up around this section of the city before moving in legionaries, deploying most of the Fifteenth’s mages to attend the defences. Nauk had been put in charge of manning the defences with his jesha of two thousand, the largest combat deployment of the legion since the Liesse Rebellion. While Kilian went around marking stones and muttering to herself with her posse of mages following, he’d looked for more pragmatic means of making sure anything that wandered into the plaza didn’t make it any further.
Pickler had set up half a dozen engines of her own design on the rooftops that offered the best lines of fire, sappers huddling around them in quiet clusters even now. Fortifying the alleys was old hand for his legionaries, after the battles of Marchford and Liesse, but Nauk wouldn’t bet on stone doing much to hold back fairies. The scrawny little shits were basically magic poured into a body, as he understood it, and he’d seen the kind of damage a properly motivated mage could wreak. Grabbing his now-cold mug of tea from the table where he’d left it, the large orc rose to his feet and drained the bitter brew. Drinking leaf water still struck him as the most absurd of human habits, but unlike a good slab of meat the tea wouldn’t leave him indolent afterwards. One of the first lessons they taught young raiders, in the Waxing Moons: always hit the enemy after a meal, if you can. They get sloppy and slow.
There was no great flash of lightning or pretty lights, when the fairy entered Creation. A slight shimmer in the air, then a sparrow was flapping its wings at the centre of the iron spike maze. It narrowly avoided running into the iron-wrought invisible wall that had flattened the first of its kind to come through, skilfully weaving around it. Nauk left behind the informal command centre of his jesha, well behind fortifications and lines of legionaries, and strode to the edge of the plaza where he could get a better look. The fae-sparrow began threading through the maze, unaffected by any wind born of Creation as it flew.
“They’ve been watching from the other side the whole time,” Kilian said quietly.
Nauk had already deduced as much yesterday: the fae never made the same mistake twice. Kilian’s course track at the College had been the magic one, though, so he wasn’t surprised she hadn’t gotten her hand in the broth until now.
“No mischief in this,” the orc said. “They’re not behaving like tricksters. Something bigger and meaner is telling them what to do.”
“My wards wouldn’t even slow the Wild Hunt down,” the redheaded mage said. “So there’s that, at least.”
“Don’t know shit about fairies,” Nauk admitted.
Which wasn’t entirely true. He had an old family recipe for braising them with southern spices, but Kilian was quarter-fae and might be displeased by the revelation. Humans always got all offended when orcs mentioned eating other humans, like eating each other wasn’t the most natural state of Creation. You’d think they’d never eaten a rabbit, by the way their hackles got raised. You just had to accept that, to the Clans, everyone else might as well be rabbits.
“The Tower might have reliable records about them, but anything we have is useless,” the mage said, brushing back a strand of her short red hair. “Whichever is lord and lady of what might change thrice before one of our days is over. There’s supposedly four Courts of Arcadia – one for each season – but the delineation between them isn’t clear. They don’t all exist at the same time, either.”
“That sounds like a problem for General Juniper to figure out,” Nauk said cheerfully. “And the Boss, whenever she gets back.”
“She’s only a few days away now,” Kilian said absent-mindedly.
The orc eyed the human amusedly until she coughed to hide a blush and looked away. He had a feeling there’d been precious little military business discussed during that scrying session. It was an open secret in the upper echelons of the Fifteenth that Kilian and Cat were involved, though only among officers who’d been there since the founding of the legion. The fresh blood wasn’t trusted yet. Nauk didn’t have much against Callowans – they were steady in a shield wall and they died spitting in the enemy’s face, so there was spine to respect – but he wouldn’t be trusting any of those boys until he’d shared a proper battle with them. There was an unspoken line in the sand between the legionaries who’d fought in the Liesse campaign and those who hadn’t, one that had overtaken the weaker lines once drawn by race.
The sparrow made it out of the maze after a little while more, landing on the ground. The bid’s form shimmered and in its place came a kneeling man wearing silken robes all in shades of blue. Pale-skinned, like the locals, though fine-boned and taller. He was the first one to made it all the way through, and that did not bode well.
“Get that thing out of my backyard, Kilian,” Nauk ordered. “Before it can make a mess.”
The Senior Mage raised a hand, then made a fist. There was an eldritch crackle and the smell of ashes spread across the plaza as thin spikes of light gathered around the redhead’s hands. The fae’s silhouette twitched, but it did not disappear. Kilian gritted her teeth.
“O lords of iron, bar my gate through your embrace,” she barked. “Choke it that trespasses, smother in coils unmoving.”
The twitches identified until there was a sound like bone breaking and the fae dispersed into thin air. Kilian panted for a moment afterwards.
“They’ve got a foothold,” she said. “Prepare for combat.”
“Finally,” Nauk grinned, rolling his shoulder with a loud crack.
The legate cast a look at the legionaries forming a steel-clad circle around the plaza, dug in behind wooden spikes and fields of caltrops.
“UP AND AT IT, YOU WHORESONS,” he called out. “THEY’VE COME KNOCKING.”
All around the formation swords were drawn, shields raised and crossbows armed. The veterans who’d defended this very city from devils now ready to give the boot to the latest idiots to believe they could get a slice of Catherine Foundling’s fiefdom. That was probably the best part about following Squire, Nauk thought. There was always someone trying to knock her off and they made the most hilarious faces when fed their own entrails.
“Outer boundaries are holding for now,” Kilian said quietly. “My mages are feeding the wards, though, so don’t expect magical support.”
“I brought my own support,” Nauk said, baring his teeth at the spindly scorpions Pickler had built.
Whatever arcane bullshit had been making it hard for the fairies to cross was gone now, the orc saw. Before there’d never been more than one coming across at a time – the only time two cats had manifested, they’d disappeared before even touching the ground – but now he could count at least three dozen shimmers in the air. The twinkly bastards must have been out of sparrows, because what came out was over thirty tall men and women in splendid court dress. Long-sleeved tunics of frost and woven shadows played off dresses of snow and bones, the fae wearing them even more striking than the otherworldly clothes. They were not humans, Nauk thought. Their faces were too long, their eyes too large and bright. Their teeth were the teeth of killers, not prey. Shades of skin went from dark as ebony to driven snow, not a single one of them resembling another. All were armed. Spears of bone and bronze, swords of translucent ice set with lapis-lazuli, even a few bows of dead wood whose string appeared to crafted from wind.
“The Fair Folk,” Kilian said, tone halfway between longing and fear.
“Twits should have worn armour,” Nauk grunted, unimpressed.
One of the ladies idly touched an iron spike with her foot. It shattered like glass. So much for that line of defence, the legate thought.
“Lovely children,” the same fae spoke, tone carrying everywhere without ever being loud. “Who speaks for you?”
Nauk pushed aside the legionaries in the front line and made his way through. Kilian followed, hands hidden behind her back. Some of the legionaries had almost dumbstruck look on their faces, the orc saw. Mostly humans. There’d been something lilting in the fairy’s voice, like a buzzing in his ears, but after years of dealing with the Red Rage it might as well have been tickling.
“Legate Nauk of the Fifteenth Legion,” the orc introduced himself.
He’d stopped sixty paces away, though he still felt exposed so far from the shield wall.
“Senior Mage Kilian, of the same,” the redhead added a moment later.
The fae’s gaze lingered on the mage, but turned to the orc soon enough. She smiled in a way that was probably meant to be enchanting. She might have succeeded, if she didn’t look like a skinny pale pack of twigs in a dress. Nauk like women a little greener, and with a talent for engineering.
“So strong,” the fae praised. “So wilful. This will be a day to remember.”
What was it with supernatural creatures and thinking creepy worked for them?
“You got a name?” the orc asked.
“I am the Lady of Snags and Bones,” she smiled. “The-“
“You’re trespassing,” Nauk interrupted flatly.
She looked a little miffed at that, the first time her mask of perfection was marred.
“This land belongs to the Lady of Marchford,” he continued. “You’re walking her street and breathing her air, without permission. Fuck off.”
It might have been for the best he’d never taken any of the diplomacy classes, Nauk mused.
“Ah, but we like it here,” one of the men said. “I think we’ll stay.”
There was a round of perfect laughter from the rest of the fae. The man strode forward and bowed theatrically.
“I don’t really care,” Nauk admitted bluntly.
“Nauk, let the man finish,” Kilian chided. “We’ll need more than one name for the report.”
“There will be no report,” the Lady of Snags and Bones smiled. “This place belongs to Arcadia now, and we do not bother with such bores in the Land Resplendant.”
“You must have many questions, Legate Nauk,” the man said in a conciliatory tone. “We will help you in this.”
“Only the one, really,” the orc said.
“Ask us, dearest one,” the woman encouraged.
“Iron,” Nauk of the Waxing Moons said, baring sharp fangs. “Does it spoil the taste?”
“Pardon?” the man said, blinking in surprise.
“For when you end up in the cookpot,” he explained.
Kilian finished casting the signal, the number five in Miezan numerals forming out of fire above them, and the scorpions began spitting out bolts of cold iron. The orc unsheathed his sword and began backing away as the first wave of bolts speared a handful of fairies, dragging out horrifying screams as their veins turned dark and pulsing all over their bodies. Now, typically speaking, would have been the dead moment between two scorpion volleys when the sappers reloaded the engines. These were not the classic design of the Legions of Terror, however, they were children of Senior Sapper Pickler of the High Ridge tribe. Bolts dropped down from wooden magazines, a lever was cocked and the scorpions fired again.
Commander Jwahir, one his Senior Tribune after – well, even now thinking of that too much was likely to make him lose control, so he forced his thoughts out of that path. Jwahir’s voice had been the one calling out, the Taghreb well-briefed on their defensive plans and her role in them. Even with the steady stream of scorpion fire coming from the rooftops, the fairies were not pinned down. Immediately they scattered in all directions, which unfortunately involved down the path of Nauk’s own retreat. The so-called Lady of Snags and Bones was one of two that did, as well as some dark-skinned fae with a long barbed spear.
“This could have been painless for all of you,” the Lady mourned, advancing with a sword that could have been either crystal or ice.
A crossbow bolt from the ranks sailed straight for her neck and she batted it aside without even looking.
“I feel like this might be the weak part of this plan,” Kilian said, hands quickly tracing runes in the air even as she retreated with him.
“Don’t be a killjoy,” Nauk said. “How often do we get to kill anything ourselves, these days?”
“Us killing them is the weak part,” the mage replied.
The Lady leapt forward like a great cat but the orc was ready for her. His rectangular legionary’s shield caught the translucent blade and it bounced off the red-painted steel, though not before heavily denting the surface. Nauk had been a heavy before being an officer, so he wasn’t armed like a regular: his longsword swung before she could retreat. She ducked under the swing with a mocking laugh, scoring a blow on his greaves that frosted over immediately. Fucking fairies, now he’d have to requisition another set. Kilian would have been in more trouble than him, since she didn’t have a shield of her own, but when the other fae came for her she barked out a word in the arcane tongue and lightning flashed. The fairy parried the bolt of electricity with its spear without missing a beat and went to run through her throat only to hastily retreat when the lightning swung around and went for him again.
New trick, that. Her talks with Apprentice must be paying off. Feet steady, Nauk continued retreating with his shield up even as the Lady continued to assault him. She was too nimble for him to get a proper hit in, especially when wearing a full set of plate. Kilian kept her opponent away by weaving her streak of lightning, constantly murmuring under her breath even as she broke it into separate pieces and finally managed to sink part of it into her opponent’s shoulder. The fae twitched uncontrollably, skin burning until a volley of crossbow bolts from their left put him out of his misery.
“You cannot defeat the Court,” the Lady of Snags and Bones snarled, face turned ugly by hatred. “We will not die, will not relent, until we have our due.”
Her strike sheared off the upper third of Nauk’s shield but the legate smashed the rest into her stomach. She flinched, which bought him just long enough to toss the useless thing at her head. She batted that away easily enough and even managed to catch his downwards swing with her sword. Muscles flexing, Nauk tried to force his blade down. Useless, he realized. Even one-handed she was stronger than him and worse her pretty little sword was digging into goblin steel. A crack appeared, then the longsword shattered as she smirked triumphantly. She thought he was unarmed, now. Orcs are never unarmed. He lunged forward and his fangs sunk into her throat, his useless remains of a sword clattering against the ground. Nauk ripped out a chunk and pushed on the the ground, swallowing bloodless flesh as the Lady screamed. Ugh. Tasted like bad pork. A spear of flame erupted from Kilian’s hand and dispersed the Lady of Snags and Bones for good.
“A gorget would have covered the throat,” Nauk told the puddle of water. “That’s why we wear armour, you bloody glittering amateur.”
The closing wall of shields and the crossbows fired from behind them had managed to pick off the fae not run through by Pickler’s repeating scorpions. The Fifteenth Legion was, once again, master of the field. Nauk returned for lines as cheers spread, Kilian at his side.
“We’ll need to send Juniper a report,” he said. “First incursion was repulsed, but it won’t be the last.”
As if to prove him right, a sharp keen immediately erupted in the centre of the plaza. He glanced back, and the way there was only a single shimmer in the air was not as reassuring as it should have been.
“Kilian,” he growled urgently.
The mage was already looking at her warding runes, face pale.
“There’s nothing I can do to stop that,” she spoke in a low voice. “Nauk, whatever it is it’s huge. It has a bigger draw on the wards that the last band put together.”
The moment he was behind the shield wall he began barking orders. Whatever was crossing, they were hitting it with everything the moment it was corporeal. He’d been expecting some sort of giant winter monster, but what actually arrived was a single woman. Decked in an armour of twisted dead wood from head to toe, her long dark hair was the only part of her visible under the helmet – save for the eyes, an eerie unnatural blue. A sheathed longsword was at her hip and a spear made entirely of bronze was in her hand. The fae glanced at the storm of arrows and bolts headed for her, then tapped the bottom of her spear against the ground. Frozen out of the air, the projectiles fell in useless piles.
“We may have a problem,” Kilian said.
Mist rose from the bolts on the ground, obscuring the field of vision. Nauk’s officers were not prone to panic, though, and ranks tightened quietly. The mist thickened, then began swirling. Wicked-looking shards of ice began to form in the whirling mess and the legate grimaced at the idea of that spell hitting his lines. One of which, he noticed with a flare of anger, was splitting in two. A single man in robes passed through them, scowling heavily at the growing storm even as the ranks closed seamlessly behind him. Dark skin, spectacles, could stand to lose a few pounds. Apprentice had finally decided to intervene. The Named strode into the storm, tracing symbols, and a heartbeat later it erupted into a column of steam. The fae stood unruffled where it had been, pointing her spear at the Soninke.
“Do you have any idea,” Apprentice snapped, “how many experiments I’ve had to put on hold to come here?”
Nauk choked out a laugh. The warlock’s get was in a mood – this was going to hurt. A dozen blades of ice formed in the air in front of the spear and shot off in Apprentice’s direction, so swift they were but pale blurs. The mage extended a hand and they were yanked to the side, passing to his left before turning around his back and forming into a single large spiked sphere as they returned to the sender. Kilian let out a sharp breath. The orc glanced at her curiously.
“He rewrote the formula halfway through,” she said.
“That’s nice,” Nauk said.
“Nauk,” she said. “That’s like… solving an equation with blind variables, replacing those variables with the values you want to get an entirely different result and doing the whole thing in the span of three heartbeats.”
She sounded admiring, and more than a little envious.
“There can’t be more than six people alive today who can do that,” she said.
“Look, now he’s making a friend,” Nauk contributed helpfully.
The fae was hovering in the air now, desperately trying to reach for its sword even as Apprentice glared at it.
“Whoever sent you is still listening, right?” the Soninke said. “Allow me to make this perfectly clear: if you interrupt my research again, you will be the next test subject.”
Apprentice closed his fist and the fae wrenched into a ball with a sick crunch before falling to the ground. The Soninke was already walking away, complaining under his breath.
“I will abuse my rank to get out of writing the report for this,” Nauk informed Kilian, making a tactical retreat before the redhead could protest.