“Ah, but every palace you destroy has to be rebuilt! You’ve single-handedly pulled the Empire out of a slump, hahaha. Once again sweet victory is mine.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful
The sappers strapped the demolition charges against the guildhall’s wall and scuttled away as fast as their feet could take them. The moment they’d gotten clear, two apple-sized balls of flame bloomed and struck at the munitions. Stone shattered, though few shards went in our direction – the goblins had long mastered the art of shaping the direction of the blasts. Two dozen regulars charged into the rubble before the dust and smoke cloud had settled, running into stiff fae resistance. This far into Old Dormer they’d started to hole up in the larger buildings, turning them into strongholds they used to sally out at the Fifteenth when our lines drove past them. My eyes sharpened and I made out the silhouettes in the smoke. Less than thirty, regulars one and all. The few set up on a balustrade were going to be costly to dislodge, but I couldn’t afford to stick my nose into every fight. I let the crossbowmen have at them as my legionaries rammed their shield wall into the enemy on the ground floor.
I’d left Hakram behind when we’d taken the walls, and hadn’t seen him in the better part of an hour. The fighting there had been brutal, especially with Masego’s ward gone, but Nauk’s vanguard had punched through and carved us a beachhead on top of the ramparts. It had been grim work after that, driving them back inch by inch until the enemy commander sounded a horn and they retreated into the inner city. The battle for Dormer was being fought on three theatres, now. Ranker and Afolabi held our backs, the Deoraithe infantry had resumed assaulting the fae dug in the east as soon as the siege engines had turned their fire there and now the Fifteenth was spilling into Old Dormer like a flood. The flood, unfortunately, had eventually run into dike. It would have been too much to hope for that the last stiff opposition we’d run into was the Immortals, holed up in their castle.
The most ancient part of Dormer was, I’d come to realize, built around a handful of low hills joining into a larger one. The baronial castle was atop that, overlooking the old city and the port, and just like Whitestone Quarter back in Laure the wealthy estates had clustered around the seat of power in the city. Weren’t a lot of high nobles this far south, but there’d been wealthy merchants and those who’d once been landed knights before that status was burned out of the social fabric of Callow. The Fifteenth had overrun most of the lower level of Old Dormer in swift order, save for a few strongholds that were being bloodily taken piecemeal, but it had stopped cold in face of fae lines on two fronts: the port and the lesser hills. The fucking nobles had built walls around their estate, because naturally it wasn’t enough to be rich you had to keep the rabble away from your statues and gardens too. Nauk had lost a full company trying the lowest hill, wiped out in a storm of flame faster than they could scream, before pulling back.
The port was crawling with fae, and I’d bet that was where the ten thousand who’d bailed from the second run at the engines had gone. Regulars alone the Fifteenth might have managed to drive into the river, but as it happened the rivers was swinging back. There was a Count in there who had water sorcery, and the prick had been cautious enough so far we hadn’t been able to reach him. When I’d gone to lead the charge he’d surrounded the entire port in a wall of water twenty feet high, and while I could have probably forced my way through that I was unwilling to exhaust myself on a second stringer. I’d linked back with the meat of the Fifteenth under Legate Hune and scried Masego, diverting him in that direction. It’d take a while for him to get there, though, so I’d gone with Hune’s boys to bring down the last few dug-in fae around the port. I watched in silence as the legionaries finished clearing the guildhall, and nodded in approval at the light casualties. Only five dead, and with the mage line close by the wounded would be back on their feet soon enough. Speaking of the devil, I thought. A thickly-built Soninke with lieutenant stripes on her shoulder and the light armour of our mage contingent was making her way to me. I turned without needing to be hailed, and discomfort flickered across her face.
“Ma’am,” she saluted. “Lord Hierophant had sent word he’s near the port, preparing a ritual to make a path through the water.”
I rolled my shoulder absent-mindedly.
“Then let’s give him a hand,” I mused. “Any word from Adjutant or Archer?”
“Last report has Lord Adjutant in pitched battle with a Summer baroness near the hills, ma’am,” the mage replied. “Neither the Archer nor the Thief have been in touch.”
It’d been over half a day now, I thought. Any longer and I was going to have to get concerned, though worrying for Archer was not unlike worrying for a forest fire at summer peak – it was usually wiser to worry about the fire than for it. As for Thief, well, of all the Named I’d come across she had the most splendid survival instinct. If Diabolist ended up breaking the world, Thief would be the last human alive to share it with rats and cockroaches.
“Tell Hune to back up Adjutant with whatever mages she can spare,” I frowned, and looked around.
Hard to tell my way around an unfamiliar city, though the massive water wall in the distance was a bit of a hint as to where I should be headed.
“Should I send word to Lord Hierophant you will be reinforcing him, ma’am?” the mage called out as I began to walk away.
“Let it be a surprise,” I said. “He loves those.”
“You know I despise surprises,” Masego said, glaring at me.
Impressive, considering he had no eyes. He was getting better at that. I clapped his shoulder, and even being careful nearly sent him tumbling to the ground.
“What happened to your spirit of adventure?” I replied.
“That’s a myth,” he said disdainfully, slapping away my hand. “Father’s dissected several heroes and never found any trace of it.”
Ah, Warlock. If I was the kind of girl to pray, I would that I never had to go digging through that man’s basement. I had a feeling whatever I’d find there would give the Tower a run for its money in the ‘horrors beyond understanding’ department.
“It’s a metaphor,” I said. “I know you don’t know what those are, but-“
I grinned at the deeply offended look on his face and barrelled on before he could interject.
“- I just don’t have the time to educate you tonight. Your ritual is ready?”
“Yes,” he glared.
“Go on, then,” I said, vaguely gesturing. “Do the thing.”
The water rampart loomed ahead of us, showing no sign of collapsing on its own. It bisected houses in some parts, and the legionaries had checked inside only to find out it had gone straight through stone and wood. I didn’t have the heart to ask if any of my men had been in the way when it was made. Runes bloomed around Masego, and it was difficult for me to keep their image in my mind. High Arcana, then. A curtain of transparent power made a tunnel through the water across the length of the street as Hierophant’s face creased in concentration. After a moment, he relaxed. Good enough for me.
“It’s a figure of speech,” he said.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” I airily replied.
A full cohort was already forming ranks in front of the tunnel and without missing a beat I took the lead. The commanding officer was a hawk-faced Taghreb, and like most my staff would have been too young for his rank in most other legions.
“Captain Fazil, Your Grace,” he introduced himself when I glanced at him.
“Keep your ranks tight and your shields up, Captain,” I said. “This is going to be a ride.”
His lips quirked in that subtle Praesi way denoting polite amusement.
“Well,” he said. “Can’t be worse than Marchford.”
“I hear that,” I muttered.
I’d say this for the fae, while they were a pain to deal with at least they weren’t godsdamned demons. I was really hoping Diabolist was out of those to call on, but stood ready for bitter disappointment.
“Shouldn’t we be behind the shields?” Masego said after catching up to me. “That is what they’re meant for.”
“Chin up, Lord Hierophant,” I said. “Make it look like we know what we’re doing.”
“I thought we knew what we were doing,” he said.
He glanced at me worriedly and I whistled loudly.
“Catherine, tell me we know what we’re doing.”
“FORWARD!” I screamed, unsheathing my sword.
“I could be in my tower,” he complained. “My nice, comfortable tower. Fadila never takes me to battles, you know. She makes me tea. She keeps very tidy notes and lets me sleep in.”
I didn’t bother to suppressed my snort of laughter at that, letting out ring loud and clear. That must have left an impression on the fae awaiting us on the other side of the tunnel, because their line wavered at the sound. I felt the first volley before they let it loose, the blooming of power just out of sight. With trails of flame the arrows filled the tunnel with burning light that reflected eerily in the waters around us. Slow, compared to how they’d felt when I first encountered them. It was easy enough to pass under the curve when I picked up the pace, though most hadn’t been aimed at me. The sound of sorcerous shields pinging told me Masego had seen to that, at least for now. I ripped into the frontline like storm, silhouettes flickering one after another as I immersed myself into the reflexes of my Name. One, two, three and what was the point in keeping count? They came and died. The flowed around me, after a while. Made room, and that was when I realized they’d known ranks would do nothing to stop me. I could see the long warehouses of the port in the distance, and atop them fae stood in knots. Spears of Summer flame were being formed, like the ones they used to pound at the siege engines.
If I actually got hit by one of those I wouldn’t die, I didn’t think, but I wouldn’t be getting back up on me feet for a while either. They’d meant, evidently, to draw me in and keep me pinned. Arrows from all sides flew, and I had to conceded that if it’d been just me they might well have caught me with this. I wasn’t, though. Alone. Sorcery slithered around me, shining blue, and began to spin blindingly fast. The arrows struck it first, and were drawn into the spin flawlessly. The spears struck one after another and flame filled my field of vision for long moments – but, in the end, was drawn in as well. The spinning ended abruptly, and a forest of arrows clattered against stone as Masego made his way to my side.
“Reckless,” he chided.
“Kept them busy,” I replied.
I’d bought my legionaries their beachhead, and wasn’t going to hold their hand through the rest of this. The Count had been the problem here, and with Masego backing me we should be putting him down in short order.
“By the river,” Hierophant said. “I believe he’ll be releasing the wall soon.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good thing,” I grimaced.
“The sheer weight of water will crush anything near it,” he noted. “A shame we’ll be otherwise occupied; it would have been interesting to witness. It is quite rare for water sorcery of this scale to be used save by the Ashurans, you know.”
That would have been interesting enough a line to warrant encouragement if we were drinking in a tent, but we had other priorities at the moment. I took the lead and we advanced towards the river. It was different fighting with Masego than it was with Hakram. Hierophant had been with me since my first real campaign, true, but we’d only really began fighting together near the end of the Liesse Rebellion. It was in the months after that we’d developed the technique, and it hadn’t been truly tested yet. Tonight would see to that. The theory was simple: Masego was a fortress, and I was the garrison. Panes of solid light forming a rough sphere around us hung in the air as we moved forward, and I darted out of their protection to clear the way whenever we met opposition. Arrow fire petered out after the first two volleys did nothing to dent our defences and the fae came in close quarters instead. That was my part to deal with. My shield caught the edge of a swinging blade and forced it down, my sword point taking the fae in the throat before I lightly stepped back. Another filled the void before the movement was even finished.
“Clear,” I called out.
The panes flickered out of existence and as I stepped aside Masego finished murmuring an incantation, a burst of howling wind tearing into the mass of fae before us. Doubtful it’d killed anyone, but it did buy me room. I sallied out the moment the burst ended, blade high and carving through the fae that tried to plug the gap. Moments later I saw movement in the distance from the corner of my eye and calmly retreated just as Hierophant restored the panes of light, safely behind the walls as the arrows burned harmlessly. It was a slow way forward, but for foes who’d never faced it before it was very, very hard to deal with. The two of us ploughed through fae lines even as my legion fought in the distance, clearing two streets in a row with only minimal exertion. The dark-skinned mage didn’t even look winded. I could feel the bundle of power that was the Summer Count near the water, but frowned when I saw there was a row of back-to-back warehouses in the way. We’d have to go the long way around if we kept to the streets, and that was more time than I cared to give the enemy. Cutting through a fae’s wrist and half-stepping back behind the panes, I spun the blade slowly to limber my wrist. There’d been a lot if killing tonight.
“Warehouse to the left,” I said. “Burn.”
Masego looked at the wooden walls and raised an eyebrow, red runes lighting up around him. The smell of sulphur spread thick in the air and even as the panes broke, a stream of black flame emerging from his hand and turning into a snake with gaping jaws open wide. The construct tore through the warehouse wall, the crates piled behind it, what looked like dried fish hanging form the ceiling and then the second wall before disappearing in a flash. The fae had been ready for us, this time, and arrows flew the moment the shields were gone. I stood vigil, blade scything through the first few in perfect arc and a twist of will flash-freezing the few that hadn’t take care of. The panes were back before a fuller volley could be sent and we resumed our advance, going through the still-smouldering shortcut. The moment we saw the inside was empty of fae our pace went brisk, though Masego stilled before we left the warehouse and finally reached the docks.
“Now,” he said. “Cat, he’s not releasing it. He’s repurposing it. Hid the intent from me by delaying ‘til the last moment.”
“He’s going to smash us with it,” I sighed.
I broke at a run immediately and the overweight mage followed as best he could. The Count stood at the edge of the docks, alone, and I thanked any Gods listening for the fae pathological need for melodramatic scenes. If he’d had an honour guard of Summer soldiers this would have been a lot harder. Turning too-large deep blue eyes on us, the fae smiled gently.
“Welcome, Duchess of Moonless Nights,” he said. “Allow me to-“
By the time he’d gotten to the word ‘Nights’, I had the sharper out of my satchel and lit. The toss was a beautiful arc that would have the explosion happen right in his monologuing face. A tendril of water snaked out of the river and caught it before, though, the munitions never detonating.
“This is-“ the Count began.
“I’ll handle the water,” Hierophant interrupted, tone interested as he looked behind us.
“I’ve got him,” I replied, and charged with my shield angled up.
The first tendril of water was caught on it and ricocheted upwards. I smoothly spun around the second and leapt over the third, landing in a roll at his feet. His hand whipped forward and there was a gargantuan groan but the distinct lack of downing that followed meant Hierophant was good as his word. My shield caught him on the shoulder and I felt bones break. He didn’t even try to fight the impact, allowing it to throw him into the river. He landed on his feet, never actually going through.
I followed, letting Winter flare under my feet. It froze the water on touch just long enough for me to be able to make it from one stride to the next. I was on his chosen grounds now, though, and it showed. Instead of the handful of tendrils I got a full three dozen, coming in a flawless circle. Couldn’t afford to slow down or I’d sink, so I’d have to time this just right. I picked the highest tendril and froze a smooth shard of it, then leapt atop the attack meant to kill me. Immediately the others adjusted course towards me, but while his sorcery was versatile it was too slow. I wasn’t surprised Princess Sulia hadn’t taken him to the Battle of Four Armies and One, the Winter fae would have eaten this one alive. My sword came down as I fell atop him, cutting straight through his shoulder and the pale blue mail that covered it. The Count screamed and before I could response I was thrown away by a waterspout, the back of my plate dragging along the length of the docks and ripping through the planks. Fuck, that hurt. I’d cut off the arrows the Count of Green Yew had shot in there, but there were still bits inside and they’d wiggled horridly into my back muscles. I got back on my feet slowly, keeping a sliver of attention on the presence in the back of my head. The fae was in the air, now, red and gold wings keeping him aloft.
“Finally,” he hissed. “This is absurd. You have no respect for the proper courtesies, child. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“One day,” I replied, “you guys are going to stop falling for this one.”
Zombie the Third ploughed into him from the back, screeching loudly as his wings flapped and the hooves smashed into shoulder blades. My mounts must have weighed twice as much as he did, and fae or not that took a toll. The Count plunged into the docks headfirst with a broken back, and much to my amusement got stuck between the planks I’d already ripped. I didn’t waste time on anything fancy and just punched through the back of his neck with the tip of my sword.
“Godsdamnit, Catherine,” Masego moaned.
Oh right, he still had all that water to deal with. I guided Zombie into landing at my side and dragged the Count’s broken body off of the docks just in case leaving it close to river would heal it somehow. You never knew with fae. Hierophant’s arms were held up and shaking as he dealt with what looked like a small lake of levitating water. That was a lot bigger than I’d thought it would be. I, uh, left him to that. It looked under control. He eventually managed to make an escapement that slowly emptied the water back into the Wasaliti, though he was panting by the end of it. I patted Zombie’s back.
“Who’s a good abomination to the laws of men and decency,” I praised it. “You are.”
It preened, blue eyes glittering.
“Are you indulging yourself?” Hierophant said, sounding like he was rolling his eyes.
No there was an image, but I didn’t linger on it because I stood frozen.
“I, uh, didn’t make him do that,” I admitted quietly.
“Her,” Masego corrected.
“How do you – never mind, I don’t want to know,” I muttered. “They don’t usually do that.”
“Your necromancy has grown different than Uncle Amadeus’,” the blind mage mused. “That has interesting implications.”
“This,” I decided, “feels like an issue for Tomorrow Catherine to deal with. She’ll bitch about it, no doubt, but she hasn’t had to kill her way through a fucking army of murderous fairies so screw her and her whining mouth.”
“Usually when villains started referring to themselves like this, it is before they go deeply and irrevocably mad,” Masego informed me. “It is a well-documented phenomenon.”
I could always count on this one for reassurances, couldn’t I? I was picking my particular shade of scathing sarcasm when movement above stilled my tongue. To call what was happening there flying would have been somewhat generous, I decided. It was, if anything, falling at a slightly forward angle. I imagined the fae’s ability to flap its wings was somewhat affected by the fact that Archer had sunk two knives in its back and was trying to guide it with them. By their angle, they’d come from the castle. That was good. The way the fae died in mid-flight was slightly less so. Archer’s lips moved in what was no doubt a vicious curse and she jumped after retrieving her knives, spreading her arms wide.
“She’s aiming for us, I think,” Masego said, frowning.
“Going to hit that warehouse instead,” I noted. “Her ride died too early.”
We began to stroll towards the likely end of her trajectory when Hierophant suddenly smacked a fist into a palm.
“I could ease her way down, like I did with you,” he offered.
He had, huh. I gauged Archer’s fall. Nowhere as bad as mine would have been, though she’d bruise for sure. And if I remembered correctly, after catching me the wench had dropped me.
“Nah,” I smiled. “I’m sure she has it under control.”
Twenty heartbeats later Archer crashed through a thatched roof in an explosion of straw and wood. Masego and I casually walked into the warehouse and found her lying sprawled on broken crates full of salmon. She moaned.
“You didn’t catch me,” she accused.
“My hands were full,” I said.
“You could have sent your horse,” she bit out.
“It’s a sensitive soul,” I defended. “Didn’t want to risk hurting it.”
“Ugh,” she groaned. “You two are the worst.”
I looked around and found no sight of her expected shadow.
“Where’s Thief?” I asked.
“Last I saw her she was telling me I was a horrid idiot who didn’t understand the meaning of stealth and that I deserved to die,” Archer mused. “She was smiling when she said it, though. I think she’s warming up to me.”
I coughed to hide my laugh.
“I’m sure she is,” I lied. “How much did you get done?”
“Right, report,” Archer breathed, vaguely flapping a wrist at me instead of rising. “So, we stole a bunch of banners and planted the goblinfire but then we ran into these guys. So Thief was all like ‘Archer, you peerless beauty whose approval I secretly crave-“
“Sounds just like her,” I said flatly.
“- we should run’. But then this guy was all like ‘Yeah, you better run’. So, you know, I shot him in the eye. And I’m going to be honest with you here, Catherine, they didn’t take well to that. At all.”
“You don’t say,” I murmured.
So that was why Black never took my reports unless he had a bottle of wine at hand.
“So anyways this other guy comes in and he’s all ‘I am a Duke, the Queen is going to kill you all’, you know the usual stuff. So I tried to stab him but he threw me through a window and then set fire to the stables I landed in. Now,” Archer firmly stated, “I could have taken him.”
“Of course,” I agreed, without the faintest hint of irony.
“But I know how worried you get and I’m a good friend, so I came back instead. Grabbed some fae, stabbed it to get its attention and now here I am.”
She flapped her hand again.
“Report over,” she cheerfully told me.
I ripped a salmon from its hook and threw at her head, ignoring the loud protests about respect due to those wounded in the line of duty.
“Masego,” I said. “Please heal this idiot, then scry Hune’s staff. Adjutant is to drop whatever he’s doing and wait for us at the frontlines. It’s time to end this.”
The fae, I learned when he got in touch with Hune, apparently thought the same: the Immortals had come out.
It went downhill from there.