“There’s not a lot of difference between court and a swamp. Colourful things are poisonous, lots of buried corpses, crocodiles are often involved.”
– Dread Empress Prudence the First, the ‘Frequently Vanquished’
Masego had forged his first dimensional pocket at the age of fourteen, the gruelling work of six months resulting in accessible space no larger than a cramped closet. Though the access and retrieval patterns had been flawless, the result was ultimately flawed: nearly half the power invested by ritual had gone to waste despite his best efforts. Father had refused him another attempt until he further improved his craft, as the costs of such an undertaking were… prohibitive. It was only in the days after the Liesse Rebellion, when he had a mage’s tower of his own, that he’d returned to the chalkboard and tried again. The power of his Name had granted him perception and control beyond that of any mortal mage, and though Masego had always disdained relying on those powers he’d hated the thought of an imperfect product even more. He’d come within razor’s breadth of the Due, and with a weaving of High Arcana made a full room only he could access. He’d considered it a worthy effort, then, though still short of the perfection he aspired to. His horizons had expanded since.
He had tread the grounds of Arcadia since, Winter and Summer and the hinterlands between. He’d laid naked eye on the silent line between Creation and other realms, shaped and breached it according to his whims. His path to understanding High Arcana did not lay in the study of boundaries, not like his father’s, yet he had learned. One could not witness the seams of what the Gods had sown together without deriving insight from the act. The boy he’d been, who watched the world end, stepping into the silhouette of the man he now was and understanding that, in the end, it was all a lie. An agreement, a lending of form and function that was by definition temporary. In time, all this would end. That which was beheld was moulded by the shape of the beholder, and as runes whirled around him in patterns the Hierophant smiled. The sun had burned sight from him and so he had made the sun his sight, carving open the stuff of miracles for his due.
No throne was so great it could not be toppled by madman’s writ.
Creation sang under his guiding hand, melody woven and folding unto itself. The fabric of the world wrapped itself around the demons before they could flee his reach, forcing them into a realm that was Creation and yet not. Foam on the wave, for a fleeting instant made a realm into itself. An instant was all that Hierophant was need, for so long as the unit existed the span was his to fashion. Masego stepped forward into the pocket he had wrested from nothing, his lie made truth by will imposed, and found the realm stretching as far as the eye could see. To bring strife to demons inside a closed realm, Father always said, was madness. Yet here he was, watching a shifting maze of smoke and mirrors, and in his bones he could feel the essences of his foes spreading. The Beast of Hierarchy wielded its own as a hammer, attempting to shatter the frame, but it was in a cage beyond its understanding. The realm broke, but all that did was set an ending. When that ending came was in the hands of the Hierophant, and he was not yet done done with his creation.
Madness whispered song sweet and insidious, echoing across haze and empty spaces, but found no purchase. The strife it sought to sow reflected upon itself, parted smoke without ruination. It was Apathy that sunk its claws into the realm, the scars it left wherever it tread beyond even his mending. No furrows in matter, no, simply… inertness. Matter made so still in all incarnations it might as well have been void. It had become the most dangerous of the three, yet this was not beyond Hierophant’s prediction. Apathy was the oldest foe of wonder, and wonder was now the lens he perceived the world through. To destroy his enemy had always been where the trick of this would lay, Masego knew. It was the Heavens that granted their own the power to unmake even foreign essence through burning indignation, for in their stale eyes there was no place for such contamination in the orderly world that was to be built. The Gods Below granted no such boon, and had taught their own different lesson. Though we all lose in this summoning, what does it matter so long as the foe loses more?
To Evil, victory mattered more than the aftermath of that glorious moment.
Akua Sahelian’s cohorts had learned this well, bringing their arsenal of ruin into the world. The flickering bindings he could see shackling the beasts spoke not of control, but of direction. A plague unleased with the understanding that it would bring ruin to all it touched until fear pulled the leash and ripped them from Creation. It would have been child’s play in this realm, for Hierophant to sharpen his will and rip through the runes. Yet in doing so he would sunder the means of recall. Summoning made into true presence, no longer contingent on the consent of mortal men. To catch the light of the Heavens and shine it a lantern upon this place would have done well, but Hierophant had seen too little. Glimpses of Contrition, before he knew how to watch, and stood witness to the corpse of an angel of which only white dry bones were left. There was no miracle for him to vivisect and assemble to his will, not even the shadow of one. He could not dismiss or destroy, and so only one path remained Hierophant.
“To borrow the fang of the beast, and strike the beast with it,” Masego sighed. “How very crude.”
Runes flared around his hand and the skin bubbled like water, until it parted bloodlessly and a drop of ichor flew from it. It had remained there since Marchford, so weak as to be cauterized and contained yet never entirely gone. Corruption. A perfect drop of it. The dark-skinned man turned to the maze of his own making, and felt the weight of his foes’ attention bearing down on him.
“Let us play a game, creatures,” he said mildly. “I call it ‘burning down the house with everyone in it’.”
The drop of ichor sunk into the ground and Hierophant began.
Brandon Talbot, Grandmaster of the Order of the Broken Bell, leaned forward on his mount. Heliotrope’s flanks were covered with sweat under the armour, but the Liessen charger was still far from exhausted. They were a hardy breed, raised for war. Once the favoured mounts of many chivalric orders, when their kind had still been the pride of Callow instead of the last remnant. But that remnant still stood, under its own banner if one suborned to the Tower through complicated ties of rule and authority. That was worthy of pride, if only a little, and today the last scion of House Talbot allowed himself to feel it. This, he thought, was the kind of battles he’d been born for. That they had all been born for. Not bitter struggles with fae or the petty butchering of traitors in his liege’s own camp. Though the foot at the side of his knights was Legion instead of Royal Guard, against them both was arrayed the old enemy. Hellspawn garbed in stone, with the fangs and faces of rabid dogs baying for the death of all men. There was purity to this moment that he’d sorely missed from his days as a rebel vagrant in the south, a beautiful clarity. One one side rode knights, to protect the people of Callow. On the other stood devils and sorcerers, spawn of the vicious East. It was the manner of battles his ancestors had fought, and there was honour to be found in this.
The painting was marred by the truth that his comrades were often greenskins and Wastelanders, but Brandon had been taught patience by the woe the Liesse Rebellion had brought to the cause. A lesson his aunt had once known, but discarded when she began to believe she would not live to see the kingdom of her youth forged anew – save if she struck deal with the Procerans, a bargain with the devils to the west who preached fellowship yet warred as much as the Praesi. Brandon was not so old as to grow desperate, not yet, and so he had looked to the lay of the kingdom and made his choice. Better a tyrant born of Callow than the Empress’ own leash at their throat. And he’d been right, he knew that now. Already so many of the Fifteenth were Callowans, and the further Queen Catherine broke with the Tower the more she would grow to rely on her own people. Not rebellion, no, not in the Grandmaster’s day. But there would be a day. Where Callow would be kingdom in truth even if the Wasteland denied it the name. Where a great and fierce army having learned from the victors of the Conquest would give the Tower pause should it seek to overstep again.
He would play the long game, and win.
But for that scheme to bear fruit, Brandon mused, he first had to survive this day. The Order had sallied out at the order of that scowling orc general, the one they called the Hellhound, and at first the Talbot had thought it foolishness. A young girl’s blunder, for General Juniper was said to have seen barely twenty summers. The Grandmaster had once been heir to Marchford and Elizabeth Talbot, once held to be the greatest commander of the Kingdom of Callow when that name was more than a dream. He had fought in no wars before the Arcadian Campaign but he had been taught strategy and war-making, to lead men in battle as his forbears had for centuries. He’d thought it best to have his knights stay at the flank of the legionaries, ready to swoop on the enemy when they engaged the infantry. Yet the Hellhound had oddly staggered her foot and sent him out into the wilderness to await signal for a charge. It had seemed an ever-worsening blunder as he obeyed and impotently watched the devils spill out from the gate and spread along the length of this oblique formation of he general’s. Oblique. That had been the word that led him to understand.
His aunt had once spoken it to him when he’d been a boy, in her solar at Talbot Manor as she sat him in a chair and placed iron figurines on a drawn map. The Fields of Streges, she’d been showing him. It would have been a lie to call them the first ones, for that stretch of field had seen a hundred battles between Callow and Praes, but the battle she showed him had been the one before the Carrion’s Lord massacre on that plain. When Dread Emperor Nefarious, fresh to his throne and cocksure of his might, had attempted an invasion. Good King Robert had met the old legions and their hordes of greenskin auxiliaries on flat grounds, and staggered his advance much like this. Even as the Wizard of the West fought the Emperor, the Black Knight of those days had ordered greenskins to pour down the staggered side and sweep it aside. It’d been a bloodbath, though not the one the Wastelanders wished for. And now Brandon stood in the place of the old knightly orders, under banner of bronze and black, ready to unleash death at the end of a thousand lances.
The stage General Juniper had crafted them went like this: at the back lay the Hellgate. From it flood of devil still poured, but that flow was slowed for lack of space. In the face of the approaching Fifteenth the dog-devils had formed ranks, at least in part. The Fifteenth was staggered in three sections. The rightmost was most ahead, followed after beat by the centre and a beat after by the left. The hellspawn stood steady before the right tip of that oblique line, but they were pouring unheeding down the left. Without line or formation, without even the semblance of orders. From where his horse stood, Brandon could see the shape of it as a long diagonal line. At the bottom of which was the Order of the Broken Bell. Before the the Hellhound ever sounded the horns, the aristocrat prepared his knights in three wedges. Three blades ready to plunge in the enemy’s flank. The Grandmaster raised his lance, and within ten heartbeats all the knights had gone silent at the sight as he cantered ahead of his riders.
“Knights of Callow,” he said, voice pitched and clear across the field.
Truth’s not the point of a battle-address, Brandon, Aunt Elizabeth had taught him. Put fire in the bellies for the fight ahead.
“You all know it was Her Grace, who named us,” he said.
Silence, to heighten what was to come.
“The Order of the Broken Bell,” the Grandmaster said slowly, enunciating precisely. “Long have I pondered the sense of this, for our queen is a woman of few words and deep meanings.”
He raised his lance high, steel tip shining bright even under this shadowed sun.
“It was no slight, my knights,” he said. “It was a reminder, that in years past we failed. The fracture across our banner is warning, remembrance of that dark day where our weakness broke Callow.”
There was murmur across the lines, but no denial. They had all been raised to the truth of this, that for all the might of the old kingdom the might of the Praesi had been greater still.
“But there is still a bell on our standard,” he shouted. “We have a people still, if no kingdom. And now before you stride forth the hordes of Hell, to destroy even that.”
He raised his voice.
“Knights of Callow,” he said. “Will you fail them today? Or will you redeem the truth of your standard?”
Lances struck shields, a thunder crafted by the souls and hands of men. No, the shouts came. Redemption in steel, the calls went. Once, twice, thrice the horns sounded. All knights charge, the call old as the soul of this ancient land. Lances lowered, shields rose and horses swept across the field as the last knights of Callow went forth to meet their ancient enemy. Brandon Talbot laughed the laugh of a man who had finally found his place in the world.
Istrid smashed the head of a boy who’d been one of her own until moments ago. One of the fucking wights ran him through, and within a heartbeat of hitting the ground dead he’d risen as one of the enemy. The rebels had pulled a new trick. Raising legion dead was no great innovation: they’d done the same half a dozen times, during the civil war. But back then it’d been a ritual, one sweep and done. Enough for the protocols to be amended with sappers watching corpse-piles, but no great worry. The orc had thought this to be the same old trick, and one wasted – her goblins had munitions breaking her dead within moments of them rising. But the ritual had not ceased. The wights had turned savage, and now every legionary they killed rose. It was grinding at her frontlines brutally, every death twice as costly. The Sixth had gotten its shit together after Black went to murder his way to an ending, consolidated the grounds and brought the sappers to bear, but now the tide was against them. If this were a raid, Istrid would have called for a retreat. But it’d been a long time since she’d gone out to kill her kind for cattle and glory, and this was a battlefield. Retreat here would mean casualties in the thousands as they tried to disengage from the undead horde.
So her men stood, fought and died.
It was worse for the others. Afolabi’s legion had taken rough beatings in the Arcadian Campaign and even worse making a go at the central bastion, and the sudden turn had found them bloodied and overextended. Now they were being torn apart company by company, every break hastening the next. Sacker and her Ninth were giving pitched battle over the fields of stakes north of this mess, but no amount of sharpers would allow her boys to break through in time. The Ninth was too light on the offense, they weren’t built for a hard brawl. It took off the pressure some, wights moving there to ward them off, but not enough to pull them out of this mess. The Fifth Legion, she could see even from where she stood, had it even worse than the Twelfth. Orim was retreating back to the palisades he’d taken as Marshal Ranker hurried to his aid, but she was too far and the wights were in close pursuit. How much of the Fifth would be left, by the time they had the palisades protecting them? Half, maybe less. Unlike the Twelfth, they had no other legion to hold one of their flanks.
Istrid spat phlegm on blood-sodden ground and left the frontlines, legionaries filling the gap she’d left. She needed better vantage before making a decision, or better yet Bagram’s take. Her legate would have been watching the whole time. Making her way through closely-pressed ranks took too long for her tastes, though it was no fault of her men’s. The more the wights pressed around them, the tighter the shield wall became to compensate. She felt the current of it as she moved, the way ground was being lost inch by inch. The Sixth was no longer fighting forward, it was trying to hold its grounds – and failing.
“General,” Bagram saluted when she found him, arriving blood-streaked and tired.
“Legate,” she rasped. “The Twelfth. How long do they have?”
“Every legionary will be dead within an hour,” he said, not mincing words. “General Afolabi’s own standard went down not long ago. He may very well be dead.”
Fuck, Istrid thought. She had no love for the arrogant Soninke, but commanders of his calibre didn’t grown on fucking trees. There were few better generals to hold a fortress than him, and they were going to need men like that when Procer came knocking. She turned to watch the battlefield, and her lips tightened when she watched another of the Twelfth’s companies shatter then rise howling at their comrades. The only good news, as far as she could tell, was that the godsdamned demons were gone. They’d just popped out of existence after the warlock’s get let them out. The Deoraithe were marching forward to fill the void, or at least some of them. Their army was a fucking mess, the left half of the foot and and bowmen being pulled down to the Hellgate. Where her own daughter was trying to face down an entire Hell with less than ten thousand men and no help from Ranker. Gods, this had all turned into a fuckup faster than you could blink. The entire army was falling to pieces, and no one was in a position to do anything about it than her.
“I’m taking our reserves,” she told her legate. “We’re backing the Twelfth, then withdrawing behind the palisades.”
“We’ll be thinly spread, general,” he said. “If the wights punch through our lines the enire formation will collapse – we’ll have no men to plug the gap.”
“We’ll be surrounded on three sides if Afolabi’s boys break,” she growled. “Better bloody than buried.”
And so she went, near a thousand with her. Heavies and regulars, sweeping through the dead at her command. Advance was slow, slower than she would have liked or the Twelfth could truly afford, but what choice did she have? If she hurried she was handing her men to the enemy as fresh fodder to spend against her own. They hammered into the wights pressing down on the other legion, buying enough time for them to retreat with a semblance of order. Holdfast, a cognomen earned. Even with half the Twelfth gone terror did not rule its ranks. The sorcerers guiding the undead struck back at the reverse, the horde turning on them like a pack of hounds. Her Sixth was made of sterner stuff, but the centre of the Twelfth crumpled like wet parchment when wights threw themselves over the shields and Istrid had to lead berserkers to prevent the whole formation coming down on her head. Howls filled the air as Red Rage held back the tide where Legion discipline had failed, and she screamed until the Twelfth fell back in line and the retreat was shored up. Elbowing men aside, Istrid of the Red Shields moved like flame through the ranks and hardened resistance. She was tiring, she knew, but far from done. Neither was this battle, if she had anything to say about it.
Tumbling through a knot of legionaries too slow to withdraw she slapped a man upside the head and swatted down a wight too eager for the kill with a backhand, barking order for them to pick up the pace. She’d taken wounds, she felt as the red haze ebbed low, but nothing that would kill her. More scars with stories for the telling. Yet one stung. She passed a steel-clad hand over the throb and her gauntlet came back with yellow as well as red. Istrid blinked, and twisted to look at the cut on her flank. Shallow little thing, she thought as her heartbeat slowed. Just deep enough to get the poison in. Istrid Knightsbane fell to her knees, but her last thoughts were not of her husband or daughter. Goblin steel, she rasped as the world went dark.
Goblin steel had made that cut.