“It is true, Chancellor, that a house divided cannot stand. Why do you think mine is the only one I left standing?”
– Dread Emperor Callous
Legionaries were dying like flies. I’d never seen infantry assault a dug-in position held by mages and engines before, and now that I had I could only say it was ugly work. The enemy had been trained in counter-siege tactics, that much was obvious. The first killing grounds were the trench, deep and wide and filled with stakes at the bottom. The men of the Fifth set down planks to bridge it, but planks were mere wood and wood was no match for the sorcery being flung at it. The bridges rarely lasted longer than twenty heartbeats, forcing the legionaries to come at the palisade in clumps instead of a single overwhelming wave. The palisade itself was nothing special – tall and well-built, but lacking wards or anything arcane – but behind it stood an awaiting sea of wights. Goblin munitions made half a dozen breaches along the length of the fortification, but the legionaries were failing repeatedly to push back the undead behind the openings. This, I thought, would be where we began.
Men scattered around the three of us, as much because they knew what we could do as because of some animalistic instinct that screamed Named, move aside while you still can. I could have leapt the trench easily enough, but that would be defeating the purpose. My sword arced along the ground and thick, dark ice formed in a bridge large enough for ranks of ten to pass. Retaliation was immediate. The fluid, silvery spell that flowed towards my chest I cleaved through without missing a beat and felt the sorcery coming apart at the seams. The five scorpion bolts were a touch more difficult to deal with. My Name pulsed and I let the world slow around me, Winter coursing through my veins. The first bolt froze and shattered with but a twist of will and the two behind it followed suit effortlessly, but the trajectory of the other two was angled too far. Clucking my tongue I ducked under the shots, but the sound of screaming and flesh being pierced behind me told me the men of the Fifth had not been so quick on their feet.
They were not the first legionaries to die today, nor would they be the last.
“Archer,” I said. “Silence those engines. Leftmost bastion.”
The arrow she nocked was more javelin than anything else, not even fletched – given the ridiculous size of her bow, though, it still fit. Golden stripes ran down the side of the wood, glinting with something like power. Not a spell, I thought, but power inherent. That was much more dangerous.
“Cover your ears, my darlings,” she drawled.
Thunder sounded with the loosened string. The javelin roiled with lightning before it was even released, and it flew ina crisp trajectory. Panes of power lit up above the bastion’s ramparts like fireworks in shades of blue but the arrow sailed right through them. Lightning tore through a scorpion’s wooden frame, shattering it like it’d been swatted by some irritated titan. I didn’t know how many of those fancy arrows she had, but I’d leave her to it. This alone had been enough to panic the mages in the bastion, though I knew better than to think it would last.
“Adjutant,” I said, idly spinning my blade to limber my wrist. “Let’s make the Fifth a beachhead.”
I heard Archer cackle behind me as I strode across the ice bridge, followed by the sound of spells tearing into the ground where she’d previously stood. Hakram and I advanced shields raised and found nothing but palisade ahead – the legionaries pouring in behind us were already making for the sides where breaches had been made instead of remaining here.
“Hold,” I barked.
Just wood, I thought, and almost snorted. There’d been a time where that would have been enough to slow me down, but I’d left that behind me years ago. My shield whipped into the palisade and there was a loud splintering sound. I’d felt the braces on the other side shake and so I struck again. Again, again, five times in whole before the entire section collapsed ahead of me. There was a heartbeat where the palisade fell back and that was all within my sight, but then the wights raged forward and the fight began. In the distance thunder struck again, Archer’s laugh like the ring of doom, and then I rammed into the enemy ranks. There was no place for elegance or subtlety, here. It was just a slog through mud, blood and steel. The kind of graceless fight that had first seen me rise, back in Laure and the Pit. It was almost like coming home and there was a beat to it, a song of crushed skulls and scattered men, and as I sunk deep within myself I embraced it. Adjutant’s blurring axe was another of my limbs, moving in accord to a will that was not entirely my own but still mine to shape.
The howling corpses of my people came for my head and they were swept aside. My shield smacked a wight into a spreading pool of green fire as my body pivoted to turn a sword-blow into a wasted swing, Hakram’s axe tearing straight through the neck of the undead who’d swung it. Like a whirlwind we advanced, and the hordes of the dead were no match for two Named at the peak of their transient power. The Fifth Legion followed behind, rows of red shields streaked with mud, and what ground we gained was not given back. It wasn’t enough, I thought. I went deeper, let the beat guide my hands and feet. Swifter, sharper, until they were just wheat before the sickle. The cold part of my mind knew this was dangerous, remaining in this place where all that existed in Creation was blades in motion, but victory did not come to those who hesitated. What ended it was the song, because it had refrain to it I’d not first heard. Threefold it crooned, feeding me whispers of destruction unending, and when I realized where it came from my blood ran cold. I tore myself out of the trance, limbs trembling, and prayed to any deity listening that it had not been too late.
“Hakram,” I croaked, “stop. Now. The demons…”
He let out a hiss that reeked of fear.
“Hierophant should be containing them,” he said.
“Can you really contain something like that?” I muttered.
The thing that had been coursing through our veins was gone, and though we still stood strong before the tide our advanced had stopped cold. I didn’t want to use an aspect, not out here before I’d even caught glimpse of Akua and the reckoning that lay between us, but the Fifth alone would not be enough to break through the wights. Thunder struck again, Archer a weapon in my arsenal not even the Praesi had answer for. The stone in my mouth warmed with sorcery, and Black’s voice cut through the racket of battle.
“Squire,” he said. “Leave the Fifth on its own. Move on the left bastion. I need you to draw fire if you can.”
My eyes flicked to the right flank, and I finally noticed I had not been the only one to punch through the palisade. Black was on foot now, leading the Fourth’s heavies, and where he went death followed. Tendrils of shadow punctured the ground with impossible precision, triggering one array of defensive wards after another while tight ranks of shields drove back the dead. Before long he would be at the foot of the bastion, though the only way up for the legionaries would be the ramp descending from the back of it. It was no mystery why he’d asked me to draw fire: the mages from the two closest bastions were filling the air with sorcery, and though the legionaries under his mantle were not so easily killed the spells still tore smoking holes in his formation every few moments. Casualties were mounting, faster than he could afford.
“Understood,” I said. “The demons are proving an issue, Black.”
“Purge protocols will be put in place after the battle,” he simply replied, and the sound cut.
Joy. That was going to be a glorious aftermath, herding together men who’d fought for us through literal Hells and torching anyone even remotely contaminated. Still, if the alternative was letting soldiers touched by demons back into the wild… There was no winning when it came to dealing with demons, only limiting the damage as much as possible.
“Hakram,” I said. “Go back for Archer. We’re hitting the left bastion in full force. Tell her… tell I don’t care how she gets there, as long as it’s fast.”
I was going to regret that, I suspected. The orc nodded.
“And you?” he asked.
“I’m going to remind Akua’s minions why she keeps running when we fight,” I grimly said.
Slogging through the wights barring the path to the bastion would take too long, I decided. But I had option. A platform of ice and shadow formed before me and I leapt atop it, beginning my trek to the enemy.
There was a very important difference, I mused, between fighting one angry demigod in the sky and fighting a hundred mortal mages at range. The mages didn’t hit nearly as hard, sure, but they hit a lot. That was proving to be something of a problem, given how gravity kept being a bit insistent about the whole falling thing. The orb of spinning black light hit me in the chest and knocked me straight off the platform – I smashed my shield into it but the steel began to boil, so instead I let myself drop half a dozen feet before making another platform. Under me the sea of wights grasped upwards, some clever enough to begin piling up to reach me. Right, upper grade undead. Fucking Praesi and their endless magical bullshit parade of horrors. My shield was dripping liquid steel but I froze it back into a semblance of usefulness, part of my mind already forming another platform as I did. I’d learned pretty early on that picking up the pace was the most important part of this game.
I was halfway there, but this close they were having an easier time pushing me back. I could see their faces from here, behind the glowing panes, and there was as much terror to behold as there was sneering. The way I kept stubbornly not dying was probably the reason for the former. Two leaps before I got my shoulder clipped again, and that had me slipping long enough for a lash of lightning to crack down at my head. I hurriedly hid under my cloak and the sorcery washed past, but then the fuckers shattered the platform under me and I dropped down onto the wights. I landed on one’s head and even as a hundred hands and blades went for me I coiled my legs and jumped back up. The pane of ice I made at an angle, immediately leaping off it and ending up already in flight when the mage volley came calling. Steady, Catherine, I told myself. Steady and careful is how we get there. I faked a forming platform to the right then veered to the left on another, lips quirking at how eagerly they fell for it.
I heard a hoarse yell, and my brow rose as I saw a trebuchet stone hit the wights ahead. The Legions had finally set up their engines in range, looked like. Then a silhouette rose slowly from atop the stone, resetting a broken arm with a scream, and Adjutant tossed his crumpled up shield at a wight’s head. Had he just… That had worked? I knew he was tougher now that he was Named, but this was ridiculous. He got hit by a fireball right in the chest and thrown off the stone so I hurriedly made a series of platforms and reached him before he could get his idiot ass killed. I leaned over the hoist the orc by the scruff of the neck, smacking aside a smoky-looking spell, and resisted the urge to chew him out in the middle of an active battlefield.
“Where’s Archer?” I asked instead.
“Fire,” he replied, eyes going wide.
I cursed and dragged him through another jump – less than a hundred feet now, they were getting quicker.
“She said something about ‘stealing your stuff’,” he got out.
“She would,” I bitterly complained.
I focused on the little bundle in the back of my mind and found Zombie the Third in flight, Archer on his back and whooping joyfully. Her tone was not any less obnoxious heard through a necromantic abomination’s ears, apparently. I’d learned something today.
“This is going to hurt,” I told Adjutant.
I threw him, right at the bastion. My armour creaked under the strain but the orc flew and smacked right into the blue panes of light. Ah, they’d adjusted for physical stuff after Archer kept destroying their engines. That was unfortunate. On the bright side, they were now panicking so another two platforms had me landing atop the bastion while they did their level best to incinerate Hakram with hellflame. Break was on the edge of my lips, just waiting to be brought out and shatter their little protections, but I pushed down the urge. Not an aspect, not against second-stringers like these. My sword dug into the shield and my Name flared, sorcery impossibly turning into ice and cracking beneath the force. It shattered, and their protections must have been tied because the whole thing gave as one. I landed in a crouch, my frost-tinged armour glinting even in the shade, and let out a steamy breath. Hakram dropped down like a stone a heartbeat later, crashing without even the pretence of control and cursing loudly in Kharsum all the while.
Bastion, I thought as I placed it all in my mind’s eye, was the right word for this. From the outside it looked like a broad tower of hewn stone, but up here it was revealed for what it was: a large fortified platform, for the use mages and engines. Fewer than a hundred mages left – attrition had taken its toll – and maybe thrice that in household troops and men who worked the engines. Actually taking the bastion, I thought, was perhaps not within my means. Wrecking it, though, absolutely was. It would have to do. The Fifth was lagging too far behind to be counted on for this.
“Though I be a speck of dust, I-“ a man began incanting, and without blinking I raised my hand.
His throat filled with ice, his eyes froze over and just like that he died.
“Oh Merciless Gods,” a woman whispered, then gathered herself. “WARDS.”
Too late for that, I thought. Adjutant was back on his feet, though given his armour always looked like it had been put to the torch it was hard to tell whether the earlier flames had hurt him or not. He was moving fine, though. That would be enough: all I needed him to be was a target. The buzz of sorcery filled the air and the household troops advanced, but I ignored them entirely. I’d not come to kill rank and file, however pretty the armour. I dashed forward and lowered myself under a man’s swing then slipped past him, shield coming up to swat aside the man behind and then I was through, past their forming defensive line. There were shouts behind but I paid them no attention, running to the mages. I carved through the first man’s chest before he could even finish making a ball of flame, moving to the next before his corpse had even dropped. Taghreb and Soninke all of them, in rich robes and jewellery. The finest of the Wasteland. They died, one after another. Once I might have thought there would be something cathartic about scything through the very kind of people who’d plundered my homeland for decades, but I’d been wrong. All I felt was sickened.
This wasn’t a fight, it was a massacre.
They formed their first ward before I’d slaughtered my way through the first dozen but it had been done in haste. I let Winter flow my veins and it broke under two swings, a pair of mages falling to their knees bleeding out of their eyes and nose when it shattered. I flicked my sword and a spear of ice went straight through a Taghreb’s stomach even as I broke a man’s skull with a smash of my shield. They were terrified, and the Beast was drinking it in like fine wine even as bile rose in my throat. A few of them banded together and managed to bind my shield with lightning, convulsions running up my arm, so I dropped it immediately. Before a heartbeat had passed I was elbow deep in a man’s ribcage, flesh parting like mud under gauntlet and Name strength.
“Monster,” a sorcerer hissed.
“Amateurs,” I judged them.
I withdrew my hand from the dead man, dripping red, and conceded the stranger might have something of a point. I stepped around the ten bolts of shadow he threw at me and ran him through anyway, because it was too late to flinch now. Not when I was surrounded by an army made up of my dead countrymen, lashed to these people’s will. That I had blood on my hands did not make these mages better in some nebulous way: all it meant was that we were sharing similar gutters. The household troops were trying to get ay my back, but they’d run into a problem called Adjutant. By the way he was moving, swifter and stronger with every swing, he’d called on his first aspect of the day. Rampage, I thought, would be enough to keep those out of the way for a while. I danced around another volley of spells, too quick for any of them to handle this close up, and Archer joining the fight was heralded by the loud crack of shattering wood. Zombie whinnied as he crashed into a trebuchet, his rider fluidly leaping down before impact, and my lips thinned. If Archer had broken my flying horse I was going to be cross. It wasn’t like I could just waltz back into Arcadia to get another one.
“Sorry I’m late, had to make a detour,” Archer called out.
“Mages first,” I replied, in no mood for banter. “Then the engines.”
It was poor form, I supposed, to tell the enemy or plan before it was carried out. I’d have hesitated if they actually stood a chance of stopping us. It’d been bad enough when I was the only fox in the henhouse, but with Archer having her knives out the mages were finished. After she cut the first one’s throat any semblance of coordination went out the window and from there on it was just… work. Red labour, moving from one soon-to-be-dead man to another. Cut through the half-summoned devil, go around the spell, and then another corpse hit the ground. Dimly I realized I felt like throwing up. I pressed on anyway. After the last mage was dead Archer went to back Hakram and I turned to the engines. Seven trebuchets, twice as many scorpions. There’d been a few more of each before, but Archer had taken her toll earlier. I’d anticipated some fighting before breaking them, but apparently there’d be no need: all the people operating them had fled down the ramp while I whet my blade. Scorpions were easily dealt with, finicky things that they were: rip out the string, shatter the frame. The trebuchets were hulking masses I only vaguely understood the working of, so I kept it simple. There was a thick beam connecting the sling to the counterweight, going through the pivot above. I put my hand to the part of the beam next to the string and froze the wood, then shattered it with the pommel of my sword. It should be enough to take them out of the battle. I turned to the still-ongoing scrap with the household troops and my brow rose.
They were still keeping in formation, to their honour. But Archer kept killing their officers whenever one spoke, so what had likely been meant as an orderly retreat down the ramp and into the wights was turning into a rout. Adjutant, I saw, was beginning to wind down. His Name thought the fight was spent, so the aspect was petering out. That could be dangerous, if he was still surrounded by soldiers. There was a mass of wights below the ramp in the back, but they’d not engaged. They were… fighting? But there were no legionaries down there. Ah, I realized. We killed the mages guiding them. Now they’re just tearing at anything in sight. Some pockets still seemed to be orderly, and my guess at the culprit for that was the mages on the central bastion. The battle wasn’t done because we’d softened up the left flank, though now the Fifth would have a much easier time punching through. I looked at the other strongholds, and saw the one on the right had already fallen. The Sixth’s banner flew above it, now, and unlike me Black had been followed by legionaries. He’d not destroyed the engines: he’d ordered them turned on the undead. Of him I saw no trace, but in truth I didn’t look for long.
The Twelfth, I saw, had followed behind the Sixth. They were fighting their way to the central bastion, though advance was slow and costly. How long had all of this taken? An hour, in whole? And Akua must have prepared this field for months. Even without the other Calamities, Black was a weight on the balance unlike any other. I went to reinforce Archer and Adjutant, and that was the last straw. The household troops fled into the clawing field of wights, judging all too accurately that they had better chances of survival down there than against the three of us. There was a heartbeat of silence, the three of us panting atop a stronghold surrounded by corpses, and I closed my eyes. I willed a sliver of my Name into the Link, finding it highly receptive. I had no fondness for Masego’s father but he knew his way around enchantments.
“Black,” I said. “My bastion’s done.”
There was the sound of steel against steel on the other side.
“Can you see the way into Liesse?” my teacher asked.
I squinted in the distance, towards where Kilian had pointed on the map earlier. There was, I saw, a pit. I couldn’t see what was in it and it was surrounded by wights, but it was the only thing close to a gate I could find.
“I think so,” I said. “Hole in the ground?”
“I will arrive momentarily,” he said. “Have your Named join with the Twelfth for the assault on the last bastion. You and I will proceed into the city.”
“I don’t like the shape of that,” I admitted.
“It has been taken into consideration,” he replied. “Do not dawdle. Resistance is intensifying close to the pit, I will not be able to wait for long.”
The sound cut and I frowned, trying to look for him on the field. There was a single man on a horse, swiftly cutting his way through the wights. Huh. He wasn’t even fighting them, not really. He trampled exactly as many as he needed to go forward and ignored the rest. And he’s getting close, I thought. Time to go.
“We’ve got orders,” I said.
“Because I’m so fond of those,” she said.
“They involve a lot of killing,” I said.
“You have my attention,” the wretch grinned.
“The two of you are going with the Twelfth to hit the last stronghold,” I said. “Follow into the city after if you can, but that might not be feasible.”
“You’re going on without us?” he said.
“Bonding time with Black,” I said. “I assume some form of murder will be involved, possibly also a chilling speech on the nature of power. As prelude to further murdering.”
“You have the weirdest relationships with people,” Archer muttered.
Archer. Archer had said that. I did not dignify it with a response. I whistled sharply and Zombie rose from the trebuchet wreckage where he’d been lazing about this whole time, trotting up to me. I slipped a foot in the stirrup and mounted the saddle.
“Try not to bite off more than you can chew,” I said. “I have a hard time believing this is the best Diabolist could do with months of preparation.”
“I’ll keep her out of trouble,” Adjutant said.
Yeah, from that look on her face that wasn’t happening. Ah, well. So long as neither of them died I’d live with it. Sheathing my sword, I spurred on my mount and after a gallop to the edge of the bastion his wings unfolded and we took flight. Black, I saw, was already at the edge of the pit. He’d either dismounted or lost his horse, but didn’t seem all that hindered for it. I winced as I saw his shadow and blade move simultaneously, tendrils severing three spines and sword sending a head flying over the span of the same heartbeat. I used more power making a platform than he had using his shadow right then – he’d be able to keep this up for hours, no matter that he’d told me to hurry. Still, I guided Zombie in a low pass and threw myself down. I landed at his side, legs bending, and watched a dead hand flop the ground neatly severed. Charming. Zombie flew off and I straightened my back. Green eyes took in the state of me, then returned to the enemy.
“So is there a secret knock to get in?” I asked, glancing at the pit.
All I saw inside was darkness, and not even a kind my Name sight could see through.
“We’re going to jump,” he said.
“You’re enjoying this,” I accused.
“Am I?” he hummed, and pushed me.
I said some very unkind things about his ancestry in Taghreb as I dropped, and didn’t stop even when he started falling at my side.
“You’ve considerably improved your vocabulary,” he noted.
I sighed. Around us was only darkness, anchored by the sensation of falling. Considering this place was out of phase with Creation, I was wary of the fact that this felt like so long a drop. Akua had already shown she could meddle with the span of time in her little horror bubbles. After half an eternity our fall slowed and we landed softly on what felt like stone. Nice touch, that. She wasn’t even going to pretend she’d not expected company. There was a tunnel ahead, its boundaries not marked by solid so much as absence. I could see again, at least. And what I saw was a large and looming silhouette at the end of it, ram horns sprouting from its head.
“A gatekeeper,” Black said. “Quaint.”
“She’s a real traditional girl, our Akua,” I drawled. “Twenty denarii she yammers at us through a runic array when get in.”
“Twenty more she compares herself to Triumphant,” Black replied amusedly. “They always do, Catherine. I’ve heard three dozen variations on that speech by now.”
“They quote the play,” he said, pained. “Every time. I know the entire third act by rote.”
“I’ll take that,” I mused. “She probably thinks she’s above name-dropping, like this isn’t basically a glorified flying fortress.”
I raised my voice.
“That’s right, Diabolist, I went there,” I catcalled. “Your whole plan is so last millennium, and I bet you actually call your lair a lair when talking to other people.”
I didn’t look, but I got the impression Black’s lips were twitching. Heavy footsteps sounded ahead, followed by the cloying smell of brimstone wafting up to us.
Two blades left their scabbard as one, and we advanced.