“Do not ever speak of victory before the last foe is dead.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow
Juniper of the Red Shields spat to the side. This was going to be messy business, and she told Aisha as much.
“The Lord Warlock should be able to hold the gate until we arrive,” her old friend replied.
The Named had mustered up a storm of green acid in front of the opening, and for now nothing was coming out but already the spell was thinning.
“The Lord Fucking Warlock wants us to establish a beachhead on the other side,” the general said. “He better pull his godsdamned weight if he wants it done.”
Spellcasters, always a finicky lot. Orcs as a rule put little stock in them. The Miezans has slaughtered the old shaman lines wholesale and what remained after was little more than bone-tellers and mystics. They made ceremonies worth bearing with, but in a fight they were decoration. The Clans lived and died on steel. Praesi were made for them, though, meddled with all kinds of nasty shit in the blood to get better with the ‘Gift’. No wonder the whole breed was half-mad. Mages had their place in the modern legions, as field artillery and field healers, but something like the Sovereign of Red Skies could only make her uneasy. You couldn’t have that kind of power without it costing you somewhere else. Even Catherine had changed, since she’d killer her way to a fae title, and not just that her temper froze tables now. She only had one foot on the ground now with the rest of them, now. Juniper could live with it. Foundling’s mind had always been like a bag of rabid badgers, as long as she kept that pointed at the enemy it wasn’t too much of an issue.
She’d ordered the Fifteenth to begin reorienting before she ever got the order from Lord Black, reading the lay of the battlefield. Someone needed to plug the gap, else the Fourth would be cut off from the rest of the army, and only her legion was in the right place. The Deoraithe were technically closer, but they were a fucking mess at the moment. When Sahelian’s people had brought out the demons, aside with screwing with Legion scrying it had also made an impassable wall in the enemy centre. The three legions sent in as the first wave had moved around smoothly, the Fifth taking to the left and the Sixth to the right with the Twelfth behind it, but Kegan’s soldiers weren’t legionaries. Most of them hadn’t seen combat except with the Fifteenth, gone soft now that the Clans no longer raided the Marches. The grinder that had been the Summer Campaign had already cut away the worst of the chaff, but getting blooded didn’t make them any better trained. The Duchy of Daoine didn’t usually go on the offensive, and it was showing badly today.
The first wave of archers, right behind the three legions, had split in two. One half heading for either side, circling around the demon grounds. But they were shit at it. They’d lost all cohesion, their formation turning into some kind of wavy column instead of the tightly packed ranks they should have been. The entire left half had slowed to a crawl the moment the Hellgate opened, afraid of being flanked but opening themselves to it just by milling around like scared herd animals. The infantry behind them was worse, in a way. They’d kept to the long rectangle formation they’d been sent forward as, but they fucking idiots kept advancing. When the front ranks realized they were about to either hit the tail ends of both archer contingents or tread too close to the demon grounds they’d tried to stop, but the officers in the back hadn’t cottoned on yet. There was nothing quite like watching over ten thousand Deoraithe warriors trip all over themselves to make a woman wonder how exactly these fucks had managed to hold the Wall in the face of her people for over a millennium.
Marshal Ranker was now in command of the army and she was trying to clean up the mess before it got them all killed, but scrying was still touch and go even with the warlock’s get putting the demons in some kind of egg bubble. At least they weren’t running rampant – if Hierophant managed to keep that up until the battle ended, she’d kiss him full on the bloody mouth. Wouldn’t even complain about his ugly soft cow teeth. According to protocol the Legions had gone back to flag and horn signalling, but the Deoraithe weren’t familiar with most of those. Trying to order them around like that would only add to the chaos. Juniper had managed to get one of Marshal Ranker’s staff officers in a scrying link and gotten authority over the Deoraithe for the moment, but she’d already sent messengers on foot to Duchess Kegan by then. It rankled to break the line of command like this, but it was her men going into the breach now. She wasn’t taking any chances, even if it ruffled feathers. Juniper watched the battle unfold in front of her, splayed out for her to see, and then closed her eyes. She breathed out, and let the pieces move.
The Fifth under General Orim had managed to take the leftmost bastion after Catherine slaughtered her way through the mages there, but it was having trouble to pierce further in. Her mother’s Sixth had the rightmost bastion, but they’d gained too much ground under the Black Knight: they wouldn’t be able to go back on the offensive until they’d consolidated their lines. General Afolabi’s Twelfth was getting ripped apart taking a swing at the last remaining bastion, but they’d earned their cognomen the hard way. Holdfast. They’d proved the truth of that at Dormer against Summer nobles and they were showing it again: losses were heavy, but they were going forward and they weren’t flinching in the slightest. Gods, the Twelfth would be a skeleton of a legion by nightfall. The Ninth under General Sacker hadn’t even tried to swing around the entire army to get at the Hellgate, they were headed straight for the fields of stakes making up the flanks beyond the right palisade. If she got there quick enough, she could smash into the wights form the side and take the pressure off the Sixth.
Good. The front wasn’t in danger of collapsing, so long as General Orim remained cautious and Hierophant didn’t drop the ball. The Fourth under Marshal Ranker had made a well-oiled turnabout and was now headed for the Hellgate from behind, but that’d take most an hour if she didn’t want her men dead on their feet when they got there. The only arrows in Juniper’s quiver were the Fifteenth and whatever Deoraithe she could scrape up. Eight thousand under her direct command five thousand legionaries and a half. Two thousand and a half heavy horse, though. Callowan knights. There was much that could be done with that, at least on this side of the gate. She had no intelligence on what lay on the other side, so initial approach would have to be centred around advance and containment. The breach would have to wait until she had area secured, and she was not looking forward to sending men into that. Much as she hated to even think it, she was missing Nauk. The man was an unseemly emotional brute without finesse, but if you hand to send a vanguard into Hell he was the breed of officers you wanted at the head of it. Senior Tribune Jwahir was steadier than the legate had been, but she didn’t have the same bite.
“Juniper,” Aisha said. “The storm’s broken. I don’t know how many they gathered on the other side, but it’s not a trickle coming out. Full battalions and – shit. Akalibsa. Those are are akalibsa.”
Taghreb loan word. The orc’s mind spun back to the lessons at the College until she found where she’d heard it before. Imperial civil war, Battle of the Black Grounds. Summoned by the Warlock of the time to bolster the usurping Chancellor’s expedition into the Steppes.
“Dog-devils,” Juniper said.
Incarnations of blind hatred. An old favourite of Taghreb mages, much like the walin-falme for the Soninke. No wings, but swift on their feet and they bore their own arms and armour. It had long endeared them to the desert tribes, who in ancient times had lacked the means to provide these to their war-summoned devils. The general opened her eyes, and watched the flood pour out.
“Aisha, sound the horns,” she said, baring her teeth. “The horse is to peel to the left and await my signal to charge. The Fifteenth is to stagger as follows: right forward, then centre, then left.”
Her friend’s slender face creased, but she nodded. Juniper watched her legion move and waited. The waltz had begun.
Hierophant cocked his head to the side.
He was a mile away from his foes, but that little mattered nowadays. His eyes had been touched by Summer sun in the fullness of its glory, and little that was under the sky lay hidden to them. What had once been sight of sorcery’s shaping granted by the enchantments Father had laid upon his spectacles was now part of him, and fae flame had filed that working down to sharp point. The press of sweating and bleeding soldiers between himself and his quarry were ignored, gone from his vision with but a thought, and all that remained was foe. Threefold summon had brought them into Creation, an oddity he would have enjoyed discussed with his father had there been time. He’d believed the concept to have been discredited, for while in theory the overlapping of Dues helped lower the power required in practice the fine tuning required made it too risky for the benefits. No mage fool enough to take chances when summoning a demon lived long, much less three.
Admittedly, it had been something of a challenge to contain all of them simultaneously. It had to be a single working, for three different wards of that magnitude were beyond his ability to maintain and if he’d attempted to split between a ward covering to and the other one the imbalance of power would have been… difficult to deal with. Overall efficiency was lowered by containing such different entities with the same spell, but this way lowered the risks of calamitous failure. Still, the amount of bleed displeased him greatly. It was the demon of Order that was hardest to handle, as Father had suspected he might. Whether the Beast of Hierarchy truly was the old monster that shattered the city of Shango and ripped it from Creation he could not be certain, but it was proving rather troublesome. By their nature the breed was difficult to contain, though thankfully much less prone to fast-spreading infection than the likes of Madness and Corruption. The issue was that the demon’s effect on Creation was… selective, for a lack of better term.
Beasts of Hierarchy took creational laws, the hierarchy of the world as set by the Gods, and replaced them with something superficially similar but at cross-purposes. Air still existed, yet could not be breathed. Solid was as liquid, friction added where there should be none. Points became fixed without rhyme or reason, and so many other weavings: there were as many ways for the demon of Order to act as there were creational laws, if not more. There’d been reports that – ah, perhaps another time. Masego frowned as the demon of Apathy ceased its attempts to bleed through the Ivory Globe, instead gathering its essence into itself. Clever thing. Demons were not truly sentient, of course, or at least not in a way mortals could understand. At best they could imitate such intelligence. But they could solve problems, regardless, and this demon was attempting to turn its own corruption onto the very ward containing it. Apathy, this kind had been given as a title, but it ran deeper. It slowed and ended the movement of all forces, physical and metaphysical. The trick at work was an attempt to make his ward cease to flow, becoming so brittle it would shatter.
Runes forming under his fingers, the braided mage hummed. The globe of cleansing ivory light shattered and the demon moved without hesitation – indeed, it was incapable of such a thing – but Hierophant was not longer a green boy. He had seen wonders and horrors, had them seared into his soul so deeply they had changed his very nature.
“Glint on glass, stolen yet earned,” he murmured. “Passing jewel, foe’s crown: dawn.”
For a single glorious moment, he saw all of it again. The sun of Summer in all its furious implacable might. Even the mere remembrance the ground scorched for thirty feet around him in a perfect circle. It was no kinder to the demon. Scathing light burned the envelope of thick murky skin around the core of it, ripping it to black shreds as the creature let out a sound that was neither pain nor anything at all – there mere excretion of it was a burden upon Creation wherever it sounded, a slowing of all it touched. The demon folded upon itself, surrendering its outer essence, and as the dawn passed Masego formed the Ivory Glow anew around it. It had gone, he saw, twenty feet forward. Another forty and it would be close enough to affect nearby soldiery, who would have panicked had they enough of their mind left to do so. The touch of Apathy would fade after a few more moments, but never entirely leave them. There would always be that empty space within, sapping away at all they were.
The Beast of Hierarchy had changed law while he’d been distracted, and with a downturn of the lips Masego adjusted the Ivory Globe’s frequency. Too much went through anyway. Keeping the demon fixed in its current position, he mused, would not be the issue. It could not apply its essence to the Ivory Globe itself, for Hierophant had usurped the properties of the divine in crafting them. His study of the angel’s corpse near Liesse had borne fruit in this regard. Yet their struggle was, ultimately, one of repertoire. So long as Masego could grasp the creational law being substituted and knew of a working to remedy this, its grasp outside the ward would be highly limited. The moment he failed on either counts, however, the spread would begin to work its way through the battlefield. The demon of Madness was proving difficult enough already, concerning that. Though in no danger of escaping, at the very moment his ward ebbed low a sliver of the creature’s essence pushed through. With Order and Apathy, this was regrettable but of no great concern. Madness was another story.
Its effect lingered, accumulated and spread. Already for twenty feet around it the fabric of Creation was irremediably tainted and would have to be purified beyond recognition, lest anyone wandering these grounds from here to the end of time be taken by red madness. Though not the most dangerous of breeds to fight, the true ability of their kind was in the spread. The longer it remained, the more dangerous it became. It was no wonder that when Triumphant had come upon Liesse, though she had myriad demons of all Hells it was a demon of Madness she had sent to the city. Half a night had been enough to destroy the entire city, and the taint would have spread to the entire region if left unchecked much longer. Even as Masego adjusted the Globe again to check the Beast of Hierarchy, it occurred to him that he was but a single man trying to contain a flood with his bare hands. He would, in time, fail. He’d been reliably informed by Archer that some performers in Levant walked tightropes tall in the air for the entertainment of screaming peasantry, and perhaps this was an apt metaphor. The dark-skinned mage could, in fact, walk the metaphorical rope.
He could not, however, keep doing it for hours without slipping.
Adjusting the Globe again – the Beast was becoming swifter in recognizing when it failed to wade through, which was worrying – Hierophant turned his eyes to that tall platform of stone that still remained in rebel hands. There was a technical name for it, he mused, but he could not remember. Flat, low tower? Fat, short stronghold? The lack of precision was like an itch he couldn’t scratch, but he forced himself to move on. Sorcery was being woven there, of no small scale. Were they to resume assaulting his wards? That had been deeply unpleasant. Unable to strike directly at them he’d had to pour power to fix the holes being made, which would have exhausted him into sloppiness if they’d kept it up for much longer. He simply could not abide sloppiness. The glass eyes took a broader view of the threads of sorcery being braided, but after a moment he dismissed it. Necromancy, which was none of his concern. His sight returned to the demons. Brushing back a braid Masego thought of a conversation he’d once had with Catherine, years ago. They’d been speaking of the hero Hunter, then still among the living, and she’d uttered the strange saying that when that kind of man smiled you called what he showed arrow-catchers.
He’d naturally informed her that even for a Named, attempting to catch an arrow with one’s teeth would likely result in either shattered teeth or an arrow going through the roof of the mouth. She’d looked at him with that tolerantly amused look of hers, and explained that that was the joke. A very poor one, in his opinion, but it had to be said most things to come out of Callow were hopelessly shabby. Still, the little talk had stuck with him. He looked at the demons and traced runes, High Arcana one and all. The Ivory Globes winked out.
Hierophant bared his teeth, and tried to catch an arrow.
“Bless that child,” Marshal Ranker said quietly, watching the Fifteenth move. “She inherited the best of both her parents.”
The goblin was not a withered old witch like the Matrons in the Eyries, obsessed with bloodlines. It was true that goblins of matron lines were larger and stronger, cleverer and even lived longer – but Ranker had learned the reason for it when she became Matron, and wondered if the price for it was not too steep. Her people had done ugly things to survive on the surface, after losing their ancient underground kingdom to the dwarves. Yet, for all that she put less stock in breeding, it could not be denied that few girls had been better bred for war than Juniper of the Red Shields. Istrid Knightsbane was living legend, earned on the Fields of Streges, and the girl’s father had been worth stories in his own days. Oguz Sharphand was the reason Grem One-Eye was called such, and few champions had been more acclaimed among the Clans until his legs were crippled. No, General Juniper was worthy of her rank regardless of youth. She’d begun sending the Fifteenth forward before the orders ever came, and now as Ranker watched the legion stagger as the cavalry peeled off she felt a sharp grin split her face. She knew that formation from reading her histories. The Callowans had used one much the same, when they’d crushed Dread Emperor Nefarious at the Fields of Streges.
Few of her own officers would have thought of using the old kingdom’s tactics, even with knights under their command. For all that Legion doctrine was flexible and comprehensive, it encouraged one to think within a certain box of tools. Some of the sharpest tools on Calernia, yes, and they had proved their worth again and again. Yet for a commander to ever be considered for marshal, they had to prove they were able to think beyond that box. Istrid’s daughter had that steel in her, though it was not yet properly tempered. Grem is come again, she thought. The torch had hands worthy of being passed to. The Fourth was heavier on sappers than most legions, and so turning it around after the Hellgate opened had not been so slow as it should have been. The regulars would lag slightly behind, but if General Juniper succeeded in seizing this side of the gate then sappers would be useful in keeping it even alone. There was need to hurry, regardless. The Sahelian chit had pulled a fast one on them with that gate, deploying it just after Ranker’s legion was too far gone to pull back in time.
Orim was getting the short end of the stick, much like he had after the Conquest when he’d been sent to watch over Liesse and a pack of squabbling Callowans. The Squire had fallen onto that flank like an avalanche of death and ripped straight through the bastion, but she was gone now and the Fifth had to stand its ground against foes that outnumbered it brutally. The wights without necromancers guiding them were not as much as a threat, however, and in truth the lot of them had not impressed Ranker overmuch. If the Dead King’s host was of this make, then the Procerans must be even more shit soldiers than she’d thought. Any nation that warred so much had no business being so bad at it, though she wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth considering the fights ahead. Her Fourth was halfway to the Hellgate, when she felt the ripple. Felt it, like a physical thing. Rheumy eyes turned back to the battle behind, and what she saw had her blood run cold.
The rebels were raising the dead. This, they had expected. It was an old Wasteland trick to have the enemy’s own dead turn against them halfway into the battle. The Legions had followed protocol, keeping sappers near corpse-piles when feasible. But it was more than that. The wights, it was the wights that had been the true intent. They’d thought that killing the mages meant they could no longer be controlled, that more casters were needed, but now the tide turned on the overextended legions as one. And they were no longer mindless. The undead stood in ranks now, in formations instead of an unruly mass. They moved and killed with purpose. Marshal Ranker had seen more battles than nearly anyone alive in the Empire. This, she realized in moment of perfect clarity, had been a trap. Since the beginning. From the positioning of the demons in the centre to split their forces to ground being given, all to draw them in as deep as possible with reinforcements split and too far behind. The rebels had sacrificed hundreds of their own mages, the favourite sons and daughters of Praes, to set up this very moment where the jaws closed in on the Legions of Terror. They’d been too used to winning, Ranker understood with anguish. We didn’t think they’d learned.
Mind spinning, she unfolded what was going to happen. The Fifth, too far deep, was about to be overwhelmed. Afolabi’s Twelfth Legion would be ground into the Sixth’s flank until it collapsed, weakened as it was. And though the right flank would hold, Orim would break and the wights would spill through. Either they’d swing around and hit Istrid, or they’d ram into the back of the Fifteenth while it attempted to contain the gate. If the Fifth was scattered, the battle was lost.
“Sound the horns,” Ranker ordered hoarsely. “We’re reinforcing Orim. Now, at running speed.”
Then the wards keeping the demons contained winked out and screams beyond mortal understanding sounded across shadowed sky.