“Victory is transient. To seek it is to remain so. I have seen the face of that which is eternal, and it stands beyond struggle.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
Flight was markedly less exhilarating when people kept trying to kill me during, I decided as I guided Zombie the Third into a sharp dive to avoid a bolt of black lightning. Half a league up in the sky, the wind howling around me, I watched disaster unfold on the field below. The order of battle agreed upon had been fairly simple: the first wave would be the Legions. The Fifth, the Sixth and Twelfth would strike the initial blow, as the Fourth and the Ninth moved to the sides of Liesse bolstered by Callowan levies. The Deoraithe bowmen would move behind the centre, followed by the men-at-arms, and the Fifteenth would remain as a reserve. I was to soften up the enemy fortifications with Archer’s help and a wildfire trick, and until the aftermath of the green rain everything had been going to plan. Then Akua had opened a fucking Hellgate and Liesse had just… disappeared. Gone into thin air.
She’d chosen the place for the gate perfectly, I had to admit. Behind the Fourth’s advance, though the gated was oriented towards the Deoraithe second line. There were only a few devils coming out of the woodworks right now, but if that trickle turned into a flood our armies were going to break. The Fourth would be cut off and overwhelmed, the back of our centre up to its neck in hellspawn from behind and fortified casters from the front. The entire host would be splintered, and of the only two forces still in play – the Fifteenth under Juniper and Ninth with half the levies – the Ninth was positioned on the opposite side of the field where it needed to be. With out entire centre in the way. In the span of a single heartbeat, Akua had fucked both our left flank and centre while making our right wing useless. I would have admired that a little, if I wasn’t too busy being furious. Zombie responded to my spurs as a living beast would, though I could still command its undead flesh regardless of its own will, and we arced down gracefully.
The staff officers of the Fifteenth parted for me in haste and I reined in the winged horse before someone could get trampled. Juniper, leaning over a table, ignored my entrance. Her brows were creased in thought. I cleared my throat.
“I heard you coming, Foundling,” she said. “Now shut up. I’m thinking.”
Yeah, that was about par for the course. I sighed and dismounted, Hakram appearing just in in time to be handed the reins. Hierophant and Archer were still out of sight, but I could feel them approaching. No, feel was perhaps the wrong term. It was an instinct, like the the one that warned me of danger, whispering that they were coming close. Whatever we’d done in Dormer, when all of us save Thief had fought as one, it had left a mark. The implications of that worried me.
“The Carrion Lord’s advance has not slowed,” Adjutant said.
“I saw,” I grunted back.
There was danger in that, though I knew better than to assume Black wasn’t aware of it. With the legionaries he had under the mantle of his Name advancing so much more swiftly, what had once been a wave was turning into a sloppy wedge. If he got too far ahead… He wouldn’t, I told myself. Black had been winning battles before I was even a look in my mother’s eyes.
“Senior Mage, report,” Juniper growled.
I almost jumped. I hadn’t noticed Kilian was there at all. Red hair free, she’d had her eyes closed and a loose chord of interlocked runes clutched between her fingers. After a moment she flinched in pain and opened her eyes.
“The Hellgate is beyond my ability to understand,” she announced. “As for Liesse, I have some notion. The city is not gone, merely phased a step out of Creation. There is still a point of access to it.”
The Hellhound made room at the table, hairless brow raised.
“Here,” Kilian said, pointing down at the map.
I leaned over to see and winced. That was behind the palisade and trench, in open space overlooked by all three bastions and currently filled with wights. This one was on us, I thought. We’d all been so convinced the field fortifications were a battle measure none of us had taken the time to inspect them for anything like this. Not when we’d barely scratched the surface of understanding the kind of wards covering the walls. Juniper did not reply, brow creasing deeper. Archer and Hierophant passed the ring of legionaries exactly when I knew they would, the brown-skinned woman the only one smiling of the two.
“Masego,” I called out. “I need an opinion.”
“My preliminary analysis is over,” he replied. “This is a Greater Breach, Catherine.”
Kilian sucked in a sharp breath, but everyone else seemed as confused as I was. I assumed bad. Very bad, even. Usually the best bet to make when it came to Diabolist.
“A stable Hellgate,” Hierophant added when he noticed the lack of understanding.
He sounded a touch irritated. I sucked my lip. If this had just been a play to pull out reinforcements like Akua had done at Liesse, the gate would have eventually closed on its own even if we didn’t manage to shut it first. A major danger, but something that could be handled. This was different. There was a hole in the fabric of Creation in the middle of Callow and on the other side was a literally endless horde that wanted to devour everything in existence. At least I assumed. I didn’t know much about the lay of the Realms Below or the beings that dwelled inside, but I doubted Diabolist had reached for Hell that was all about weaving straw baskets.
“Withdrawal is not feasible,” Juniper said, calm tone cutting through the silence that had followed Masego’s words. “The god bound above the Palace is not gone, and regardless time plays in her her favour more than ours.”
“Hierophant, can you close this?” I asked.
He snorted, then realized I’d been serious.
“Catherine, a Greater Breach cannot be closed by definition. It is a permanent bridge between layers of existence,” he said.
“Can you just pop a cork in the hole, then?” I pressed.
“Theoretically,” he agreed. “It would be temporary, however. And require power superior to that employed in the original breaching.”
“He means no,” Archer cheerfully said.
I kind of wanted to hit her in the face for that.
“If we shut down her ritual, does the gate close?” I pressed.
“You do not seem to grasp the principles involved,” Hierophant said flatly. “The ritual is done. The gate is there. The Breach was made. There is no unmaking this.”
I turned my eyes to Kilian, who raised up her palms in surrender.
“Diabolism is not a field of study covered in the College,” she said. “I know nothing of this.”
“Juniper?” I tried, grasping as straws.
The orc’s hands left the table and she folded them behind her back.
“If we do not contain the Hellgate within a half-hour, the battle is lost,” she said. “And so will be all of Callow west of Summerholm and south of Daoine, within amonth.”
The weight of that announcement rang like a bell. How many people was that? Most major cities fell within those borders. Vale, Southpool, Laure, Denier and even Ankou. I couldn’t quite remember the exact numbers from the last Imperial census at the moment, but Laure alone was almost half a million souls. I spat to the side.
“Then get your blades out, people,” I said. “We’re going for a walk.”
Whatever answer I might have gotten to that was drowned out by the sound of neighing and crackling flame, followed by the pungent smell of brimstone. The chariot landed with a crash, pulled by two pitch-black winged horses, and in it stood a man decked entirely in scarlet: the Sovereign of Red Skies, dressed in his full glory of war.
“Belay that,” he said, and there was nothing lazy or amused in his voice.
That had me even warier. He was not a man to take the situation seriously unless he had to, in my experience. With a flourish of the wrist the Warlock produced a small flat stone and tossed it at me. I caught it without missing a beat, raising an eyebrow.
“Into your mouth, Squire,” he said. “Welcome to the Link.”
My eyes flicked to Masego, who nodded absent-mindedly. Safe enough, then. Gingerly I put the stone in my mouth and shuddered in discomfort when I felt it move on its own, fusing with the flesh beneath my lower teeth. A heartbeat later sorcery gently flared and I heard the sound of flesh being run through directly in my ears.
“Catherine,” Black said. “Good.”
“Black,” I murmured. “We’re in deep shit.”
“Perhaps less than it seems,” he replied, and on the other side something screamed and died. “You are to join me on the front along with Adjutant and Archer. The bastions must fall, and quickly.”
“The Hellgate?” I asked.
“Wekesa has a theory,” Black replied.
“That leaves Masego free,” I frowned.
“He’s going to-“
My teacher was interrupted by a sound I’d heard once before. A faint scream, rising higher and higher in pitch. Then another. Then another. Oh Gods. Had she really? Even for Akua this was playing with fire. The ‘Link’ cut out, before I heard Warlock grunt and sound returned as suddenly as it had gone.
“Hurry,” Black ordered. “The Fifteenth is to accompany Wekesa against the Hellgate. Overall command is ceded to Marshal Ranker as of now.”
Silence returned to my ears and I turned to face my officers. Several of them had gone pale, hands shaking.
“Demons,” I said.
“It was a given they would be used here,” Warlock said conversationally. “Not even Sahelians are so mad as to call on the Unmakers within a closed realm. Masego, you are to contain them.”
Hierophant’s glass eyes did not move under the cloth, but I could feel his attention move across the field and find the unfolding catastrophes.
“Madness,” the dark-skinned mage said. “Apathy. And…”
“Order,” the Warlock finished. “That one seems to be the oldest. It might be Shango’s Doom itself, the contract is still unaccounted for. Begin with Madness nonetheless, before we lose half our men to the spread. They devour grounds unlike any other breed.”
Hierophant nodded, not bothering to reply, and strode ahead without paying attention to any of us. So much for planning together. I forced myself to focus even as in the back of my head threefold song began to be sung. How much worse, I thought, did it have to be close to them? Unless my sight betrayed me, the rebels had brought forth the madness right in front of the centre of their outer palisade.
“General Juniper,” I said. “We have our orders.”
The orc’s eyes flicked to the most powerful mage in the Empire.
“We are meant to escort you,” she deduce. “Am I to take this as meaning the Hellgate may be closed?”
The Warlock smiled.
“Oh, that clever child’s work is not so easily undone,” the man said. “The gate will remain. Destruction, though, is the tool of the uncreative. I have other means.”
That cleared up very little. Was is something that came with the magic, the urge to be a mysterious jackass? The dark-skinned man rolled his shoulder to limber it and cast a wary eye to the looming Hellgate in the distance.
“Well, no time dawdle,” he sighed. “General, I will need your men to establish a solid beachhead on the other side of the gate. Do be quick about it. I’ll limit the spill until you arrive on the scene.”
The reins came down like a lash and the winged horses neighed, the very sound unnatural. Within moments he was tearing through the sky again. My fingers clenched, then unclenched.
“Juniper,” I said, turning to meet my general’s gaze. “Can you do it?”
The was a heartbeat of silence, then the Hellhound chuckled and her lips split into a grin that was nasty little piece of work.
“I am,” she said calmly, “a general of the Legions of Terror, anointed and sworn under sacred standard. If a Hell wages war upon the Empire, then I will invade that Hell.”
Her voice did not rise, or her intonation shift. It was, as she said, as simple statement of fact. There was something in her eyes when she spoke that wasn’t quite a Name – she did not have the weight behind her for that, likely never would – but was just as fearsome in its own way. It was cold, absolute and merciless certainty. The stare of a woman who had killed the enemy a hundred times in her mind already, and knew all that remained was acting out the movements. The tremors left the limbs of her officers, straight-backed pride flowing to fill the gap. Named did not have a monopoly on greatness, I thought. Sometimes all that was needed was the unshakeable will of one who never even considered defeat a possibility.
“Then hear my order, General,” I said, and my mantle stirred at the shape of this. “Even if it is impossible, even if all that rules Above and Below stands arrayed against you – win. I will allow nothing less from you.”
“Warlord,” she said, chops bared and head bowed.
I left it at that, because between the two of us nothing more needed to be said. There might be a day where Juniper failed in the face of ruin, because in the end did we not all fail? No matter how clever or powerful, an ending always came. But, I thought, it would not be today. Not against this. Adjutant stood at my side, loosening the leather ring holding his axe, and I found Archer staring at me with a pleased smile.
“Zeze’s playing with the hellspawn and Fury Green’s got her own battle to win,” Archer drawled. “So what do you have for us, Cat?”
My eyes found the distant silhouettes of the bastions, flickering with sorcery and siege engines.
“String your bow, Archer,” I said. “The three of us are taking down the strongholds with Black.”
Had the day not been so dire, I might have been unsettled by how feral the grin I got in response was. Today, though? I was counting on it.
Zombie the Third got us near the front, but that was all I would ask of it. Three people were too much to have any room to manoeuver, and twice we were nearly torched on our flight forward. We made a slow, fat target for any mage with a little juice to send out. I sent back the undead horse behind the lines and took a deep breath. Shit, steel and blood. The scent of battlefields. I’d landed us close to General Orim’s Fifth Legion, which currently made made up the left side of assault. He trailed behind Black still, even though my teacher had abandoned the centre for the right, but he’d caught up some since I’d last had a look. Black had run into some heavy resistance at the palisade, and had yet to pierce through the enemy centre. That wasn’t the part of this battlefield that worried me.
Hierophant’s lid on the demons unleashed was paper-thin, it was obvious to see. Not only had he been ordered to maintain three sets of wards against demons simultaneously, but he was facing constant pressure by the mages in the bastions trying to undo his work. It was worthy of a little awe, I thought, how he was still managing to keep his head slightly above the water for all that. I could not even see the demons, save for the occasional heartbeat-lasting glance, since they were surrounded by smooth globes of ivory-like solid sorcery. Around those wards sticks of incense floated, slowly burning out only to be engulfed in ivory flames at the last moment and from ashes born anew and full. The strength of the wards? It made sense. I’d seen some sticks burn much more quickly when the ovals came under fire. Regardless, those few moments where the demons were not completely contained were enough to twist their immediate surroundings. I saw legionaries but also wights, things that should have no soul of their own, begin howling and tear at themselves and everything close to them. Others simply… ceased. Fell down, dead for their hearts no longer beat.
The creepiest was the work of the third. What it touched of Creation became… unwoven, in some fundamental way. Air was breathed, but gave no breath. Flesh remained fixed even as men moved, sliding off like oil. Ground became like the sea, and I even caught sight of a man who took a ball of flame to the face rise and walk back, flesh mending, only to advance as he first had and be struck by the very same spell. It was not that the demons ran amok. If they did, the Legions would have broken already. But just by being contained in front of the first palisade protecting the bastions, they created a rampart of death that could not be passed. The legionaries had to go around them, and not come too close, which took them straight into the enemy fire. Tough the goblinfire still burned and had thinned the ranks some, the wights were still thousands and bitterly contested the palisades. Most of the killing, though, came from the bastions. Sorcery lashed out in never-ending waves, trebuchets and scorpions that were the deadly work of goblin engineering carving bloody streaks in the advancing men. Already at least a thousand dead carpeted the field, and dozens more died every heartbeat.
I breathed out and unsheathed my sword, gathering power. Archer idly nocked an arrow and Adjutan’s grip tightened against the shaft of his axe with a crisp leathery sound.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s get this started.”