“Oh, woe is me, you’ve destroyed my army… Hahaha, you fell for it again! I haven’t paid them in a year, they were about to depose me. Once more, Irritant triumphs against all odds!”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful
Orim was dead.
Ranker had hoped otherwise even after seeing his standard go down, but now that Wekesa’s boy had disappeared the demons scrying links were stable again and confirmation followed swiftly. The Fifth’s mages had commanded that his senior legate was now in command. Even worse, the bloody havoc was not singular to the left flank. Istrid was gone, allegedly to sorcery, and Afolabi had been hacked to pieces by his own dead men. It’d been a long time since the goblin had seen one of her own kind fearful, much less one of matron blood, but when Sacker had contacted her there’d been that recognizable ugly glint in the other woman’s eyes. The reformed command structure of the Legions of Terror had been born of long conversations around fires she’d had with Black and Grem back in the days when they had been rebels on the run, and so Ranker knew the legions would not be taken out of the battle by the death of their generals. To blunt that old weakness of Praesi armies, who had once collapsed the moment the Black Knight or the Emperor was slain, had been one of their first reforms. Yet it would have been wilful blindness to say morale would not be butchered by the sudden deaths of old and beloved commanders.
Reputation always cut both ways.
The chain for supreme mastery of the host now ran three deep: herself, Sacker and then young Juniper. Istrid’s daughter was making sweeping advance against the devils but was too far to be of true use. Sacker was on the wrong side of the battlefield, and fresh in engaging the wights through the field of stakes. After them legate seniority would be the rule of law, but Ranker trusted no career second with a battle like this. It would have to be her. Salvaging the remains of the Fifth had been her first manoeuvre, and to achieve this she had not been shy in spending the lives of the Callowan levies. They came back undead, true enough, but better guards arisen than legionaries. She was willing to trade three Callowan for every proper soldier pulled out, if not four. Some tried to run, after the first bloody clash. She had crossbows tear through the deserters, and calls made that the same fate awaited all cowards. It put spine in them, long enough for it to matter. Less than two thousand of the Fifth Legion pulled back behind the barricades, losses utterly disastrous. A year would not be long enough to train replacements for that, she thought. And Procer will not even give us that much.
The ditch that had once been meant to hinder Legion advance had now become its very line of defence, shield wall clustered tight behind it as sappers turned the thin space between ditch and palisade in a storm of munitions. The Fifth’s siege engines were trained on the horde of wights, and her own hastily assembled to join them. The left flank steadied, slowly but surely, and the danger of complete and utter rout passed. For now. Legate Bagram had led the Sixth and Twelfth into similar retreat on the other flank, his giving ground made easier by the Ninth swinging at the wights from the side. The rebels in the last bastion saw opening in that, and took it. The moment the Ninth stood alone the wights turned towards it as one, to break the solitary legion, but they were not dealing with an orc. Sacker was a cunning old fox, and she’d prepared the grounds: the undead tumbled through a field of buried munitions and razor wires with mass casualties as Sacker retreated at her own pace, long gone by the time the undead had broken through her traps. The Ninth marched down to anchor the side of the bloodied Sixth and Twelfth, and Marshal Ranker had that side’s combined command officially ceded to the only general there.
They would hold long enough for the Deoraithe advancing to prop them up. Cursory reading of the field would have one think that would allow their side to turn the tide, begin a counterattack backed by Daoine bowmen and fresh infantry, but the old goblin had been watching more than troops movements with her rheumy eyes. Numbers. It was always about the numbers, and if nothing changed Marshal Ranker knew this battle was lost. Casualties were starkly heavier on the side of the rebels now that the Legions had a proper position, but that moment of overextension had been too costly. They’d been weakened, and now the rebels were grinding away at them with their own dead. A Legion of Terror was a complex and carefully crafted engine, meant to serve multiple purposes and consequently involving a great many specialized parts. There was a truth underlying that Ranker had never put to ink in any of her treatises, and neither had the other two architects of the Legions: there were a series of lines in the sand that dictated the combat efficiency of a legion. Lines defined by casualties and supply expenditures. Not simple ones, as a legion was made of too many parts for that. But the two most salient points of failure were dead regulars and lack of goblin munitions. One of these lines crossed would cripple a legion. Two ended it as a fighting force.
On both flanks, the numbers were teetering dangerously closed to both red lines for most the legions on the field. Her Fourth and Sacker’s Ninth were fresh in comparison, but also the most fragile of the legions: they had higher proportion of sappers and engineers, and lower proportions of heavies. There was a reason the Ninth was nigh-always paired with the Sixth, the largest heavy infantry force in the Empire. Her own legion was not quite so delicate, but it was still far from the heavy assault force she needed now. Good for holding grounds, as it currently did. But breaching the barricade anew would cost her more dead regulars than she could afford, or this entire army for that matter. Marshal Ranker’s eyes studied the enemy lines, and the rate at which the dead rose. Her lips tightened. It would take until nightfall, she thought. Several hours yet. But when the sun came down, the largest army assembled by the Dread Empire in over twenty years would effectively be ended as a fighting force.
The Fifteenth, if taken from the Hellgate, could perhaps tip the balance. Wekesa had implied it could be dealt with, and so Ranker grit her teeth and sent near half the forces of Daoine to hurry that fight along. The Watch, even, though it could have been used elsewhere to great effect. It was too much like rolling the dice for her taste, but she was short on alternatives. A miracle was what they needed. Answer came, to that unspoken prayer. A miracle of sorts. It was not great sorcery or a clever trick, a Calamity unleashed or strategy revealed at the last moment. It was a screaming fool riding a flying horse, dragging an orc by the neck as they crashed into the central bastion.
Which then exploded.
Wekesa was unused to feeling admiration for others. It was a sentiment usually reserved for Alaya or Amadeus, whose aptitudes shone brightest in areas of no real interest to him. Dumisai of Aksum, the father of the girl currently giving them some trouble, had occasionally earned a sliver of respect for his research as well: though not ground-breaking work by any means, the man’s enlightened refinement of old Wasteland rituals was often worth a second glance. But even the insights of the man who might have once contested his Name were ultimately the work of a second-rate sorcery. Dumisai was to sorcery what goblins were to engineering – a skilled craftsman, but very rarely the herald of true innovation. He improved but did not create. His daughter, it seemed, was of a different breed. The Warlock silently studied what appeared to be a perfectly stable Greater Breach and inclined his head in genuine respect at the other mage’s achievement. This was match for any work of his that fell under the Dark Day protocol, and truthfully above most his own devices.
The core of the work was hopelessly Praesi, of course. Pure Trismegistan design, from the set of secondary stabilizing arrays to the the displacement of the energy source to the sky in order to limit the effects of the bleed on the immediate surroundings. Yet Akua Sahelian had starkly surpassed ever single preceding effort ascribed to that branch of magical theory with her magnificent use of escapements to ensure even Keter’s Due did not go to waste. It was, he would concede, a masterful thing. The precision involved was mind-boggling, likely the result of years of calculations, and the sheer variety of arrays involved was worthy of praise. Liesse had runic base for flight, for planar displacement and for repeated Breach ritual use. This might be the single most variable magical weapon in the history of Praes. It would be delight and the occupation of entire decades to study her work, after the Diabolist was killed. Still, reproduction was not possible. This much he’d already determined. The Greater Breach before him was… simplistic. There’d been a binding inscribed in the heart of the Hellgate that bound any devil crossing it, along with a mild compulsion to cross for any who looked upon it, but the binding itself could only be called incomplete. To function properly, it required one with the Name of Diabolist to be the one initiating the ritual.
This city-artefact was tailored so that only one soul in all of Creation could use its full potential, the very same villain who’d built it.
In his estimation, with the right modifications part of the functionality could be maintained without Sahelian. A Greater Breach would still be possible to open, though with nowhere as large of breadth of range and precision. But the devils pouring through that Breach would be so loosely bound as to be effectively independent. At best, given six months, Warlock could ensure they were barred from a specific territory. Any modifications more extensive would require years of research and a complete redesign of all major arrays: everything was interlinked. The slightest change would unbalance every other system. It was no wonder, he thought, that Diabolist had chosen displacement as a protective measure. Devices this sophisticated had a dangerous tendency towards fragility, one of the many reasons Wekesa himself preferred to rely on imbricated forces rather than runic arrays. Amadeus and his liability of an apprentice were currently traipsing the belly of the beast, and he was glad to have impressed on his old friend the dangers of meddling with such delicate arrangements. He would know better than start breaking every array in sight, and though the girl was an ignorant thug who did not she would be reined in by her teacher’s orders.
Gaze leaving the Breach, Warlock considered the soldiers fighting before it. The Fifteenth was making short work of the devils – akalibsa, of all things, how very provincial of Sahelian. Some things were not so easily outgrown, it seemed. The Knightsbane’s daughter, by the looks of it, had arranged some sort of tactical trap and torn apart the devils with the same horsemen her mother was famous for breaking. The irony was not quite worth a chuckle, but close. Annihilation did not seem to be the intent here, curiously enough. A path of retreat had been left open to the akalibsa and the devils were fleeing through it, simultaneously destroying the last of their formation and preventing more devils passing through the Breach by their panicked stampede. Within moments a mass of shield-locking legionaries had the opening secured, and sappers lined up behind them. A killing field in the making, Wekesa thought. Clever girl. This was, he decided, nearly sufficient preparation for him to beging intervening. Lashing the the shapeshifted devils that dragged his chariot, the Sovereign of the Red Skies began his descent.
Masego had always deeply disliked when scholars spoke of sorcery as an art, for it was anything but. Mages were often compared to painters and singers, spellcrafting termed as a piece instead of the precise formulas they truly were. It was only the ignorant who found more beauty in such subjective matters than in the perfect arithmetic of imposing one’s will upon Creation. There was greater splendour in one flawlessly balanced formula than in all the statues and painting of the world. It was why Hierophant had become who he was, the reason for his love of witnessing that which was previously unknown: to fit and explain what was once a mystery within the greater frame of sorcery was the most genuine act of grace possible to one of mortal flesh. Every such truth brought into the light of day expanded the span of Creation as a whole, perhaps the only action that could ever accurately be called selfless. After all, beyond the petty squabbles of Above and Below lay a deeper truth. We are rats in a cage, one and all, and the choice spoken of in the Book of All Things is but a trick. The true choice is this: to claw at the other rats, or seek the edge of the cage.
Masego, like his father before him, had chosen purpose beyond the largely pointless vagaries of transient existence.
It was unfortunate in some ways that the insights he had gained following that purpose would not be used in the very kind of squabble he would rather avoid entirely, but on occasions concessions must be made for the ones we loved. Besides, he would gain much from victory today. The Sahelian artefact that allowed one to scry beyond Creation, for one, and unrestricted study of the Diabolist’s own sorcerous efforts. Of course, victory had to be obtained first. This was proving more tedious than he would have liked. It was a noted fact that demons, for reasons not yet understood, did not affect each other. When two different such entities attempted to contaminate with their essence the same portion of Creation, one saturated the fabric of reality first and the other’s effect simply washed over it. The phenomenon had not been studied in great depth, sadly, or rather it had but that research had not been preserved. Practitioners who kept extensive notes on matters demonic tended to be… affected by the very keeping. Their immediate surroundings as well. Even too much knowledge of such entities had its costs, and it was not false archetype to consider diabolists as particular prone to derangement. If not worse.
Still, it was quite fascinating to watch the spreading corruption of Hierophant’s own creation check the efforts of the three demons that were attempting to destroy him. Like ink in water the drop of ichor he had inserted in the thread of the dimension had spread, but unlike ink had not thinned in the spreading. It had, if anything, strengthened. This had proved problematic in some ways – he now had to regularly craft a secondary control spell for his guidance and transfer the reins to it lest the corruption reach him directly – the effectiveness could not be denied. Already he had smothered Madness in a globe of corruption it was completely failing to breach in any way. There was, as far as he could tell, not so much as a single mote of bleed.
“Fascinating,” Hierophant murmured, cocking his head to the side.
The Beast of Hierarchy was proving more difficult to restrain. Abandoning what could be considered ‘offensive action’ for its kind, it had instead replaced a law regarding space that Masego had yet to grasp. Even within this closed realm, where the boundaries and rules had been defined by his will alone, it managed to escape his sorcery effortlessly. He’d been reduced to using a defensive screen of corruption to prevent the demon of Order falling upon him, which was little different from setting fire to his own garden so thieves could not get at the cabbage. Apathy was something of a mixed bag. Though once the largest threat it was no longer, yet to consider it contained would be something of a stretch. While immobile, it was so because its essence had forged an envelope of inertness around it. Corruption could not breach it, and it kept disrupting efforts to wrap fully around its envelope. Frustrating, this. Anything less than perfect containment was no containment at all, with creatures such as these. Still, this was only preparation. The attempts at containment had been purely to sate his curiosity, the true thrust of his offensive would begin – ah, now. Sufficient corruption had been spread. Hierophant extended his hand, and from his pocket dimension a long shaft of wood fell.
A gift from Catherine, who truly could be a good and understanding friend when she tried. The old standard was long rid of any cloth but the runes were what truly mattered, carved into the old wood, and with a subtle shiver they responded to his will. The same demon of Corruption he’d once fought in Liesse came out screaming into his realm, leashed to his will. Within moments, not that time had much meaning here, it cornered the Beast of Hierarchy. With the others stationary, he could finally act. Trying to kill demon with demon would, of course, be as attempting to drown a fish. But it was not the demons he sought to affect. Corruption crept down the bindings the rebel mages placed upon their arsenal of ruin, sliding down the sympathetic links like thick oil. Masego smiled, and without ever leaving his realm found himself looking into the terrified eyes of mages hidden behind layers and layers of ward.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he said.
The demons struggled and screamed. For a moment he pondered offering a pithy line to send them off with, but he did not have a knack for such matters.
“Try not to scream,” he suggested. “It only makes it worse.”
Corruption surged. They did not listen.
Juniper watched the devils scatter like rabbits before her legion and felt only visceral satisfaction at the sight. Minimal casualties. The three wedges of Callowan cavalry had struck the dog-devils like a falling hammer. Collapse complete and immediate, thousands of bodies friend and foe moving according to her will in perfect harmony. The Hellhound had never enjoyed a roll in the hay half so much as she did this single moment. It must have been the way Pickler felt, she thought, when some device she’d made worked perfectly. That instant where the cogs turned and the chord snapped and the perfect suddenly clarity it brought. She felt flushed and feverish, and beyond that hungry for more. Another battle, another moment where the arrow loosed by her mind found the target and hit the bullseye with that palpably pleasurable thump. Gods, she had been blessed to be born in these years of the Empire. With war after war tumbling towards her like a drunken lover, offering the bounty of one field of steel after another with open arms.
Juniper felt Aisha’s stare lingering on her, and so wiped away the unseemliness on her face before the Taghreb decided to comment on it. Teasing would only detract from the glorious lightness now running through her veins, no matter whose mouth it came from. Besides, she knew Aisha had touched this feeling as well. The orc remembered the war games of the College, the bright eyes shining on Aisha Bishara’s face when Wolf Company tore into the flank of some astonished company of fools with fire and sword. Her Staff Tribune saw more parchment than steel, these days, but it was inside her still. The desert tribes of the Taghreb had been raiders as famed as her own people, in the olden days before the Miezans came. The Empire liked to paint a veneer of civilization over its peoples, nowadays, but blood always ran red. No one could escape the truth of that.
“The Deoraithe,” Juniper said, gathering herself together. “Report.”
Aisha’s face bobbed down, though not deep enough to hide the smirk on her lips.
“Lord Hierophant’s removal of the demons further muddled their deployment,” the Staff Tribune said. “But we have three thousand archers and the same in foot headed our way. Duchess Kegan has, reluctantly, ceded operational command over them.”
“And the Watch?” Juniper gravelled.
“Marshal Ranker has granted us use of it,” she replied, cheeks dimpling. “The Lord Warlock’s statement that the gate could yet be ended has her… invested.”
The battle’s other front was too far for the Hellhound to have a good look at what was happening, but the situation did seem dire from what she could see. Both flanks had fallen back behind the palisades and ditches they’d once taken, and the Deoraithe in the centre were rushing too slowly to fill the void left by the demons. If the Hellgate could be taken care of quickly enough, the Fifteenth could move up to reinforce the flagging legions. Swiftness was of the essence, more than ever.
“The Order of the Broken Bell is to pursue the fleeing devils,” Juniper said. “Prepare fresh lines for a push into the Breach. I’ll want the Watch to back them as soon as possible, too. But before that… The Warlock said he needs us to clear a space. So we’ll clear him a fucking space.”
General Juniper of the Fifteenth Legion bared her fangs.
“Tell Pickler her moment’s come – engines free.”
Senior Sapper Pickler of the High Ridge tribe hopped from one foot to the other, feeling like the young girl she’d never before been. Finally, finally the Hellhound had let her off the leash. All this talk of strategic surprise, of comparative advantages and blah blah blah. Gobbler be witness, the orc could prattle on like an old raider sometimes. A depression in the grounds had one of her engines bumping as the oxen tore it free and the goblin turned on the legionary driving the beast.
“You,” she hissed. “If there’s a single cog askew, I swear on all the Gods I will flay you piece by piece and make you eat it.”
The goblin paled and started babbling excuses, but she cared little for his inanities. She crept to her lovely scorpion and stroked the rough wood, checking the beauty for damages. Nothing. Good. Not that she’d take back her words. Pickler was not her mother and despised all she stood for, but she was matron-blood nonetheless. Punishments as unusual as they were cruel were her birth right.
“I’m watching you,” she barked at the legionary. “If you don’t have any use for your eyes, you despicable little vandal, maybe Robber should have them instead.”
Satisfied the ignorant masses had been sufficiently cowed, she stalked forward to the gate. Juniper was fronting heavies with sappers behind them, breaking up the devils that had begun pouring out again with sharpers and then letting them wash up against the shield wall, but that was just a temporary arrangement. They needed to pierce through, since the Warlock apparently had some kind of scheme to close the gate. Not her concern, and she’d not asked for further information. Instead she made her way to the front and began haranguing the legionaries to prepare themselves for a parting when her precious ones arrived, which would be soon though if the oxen-drivers hurried and messed up her engines there was going to be a rousing bout of crucifixions following shortly. And not the nice kind. She’d find the rusty nails herself, if she had to. Ten scorpions of her own design were set down as she hovered, and two of the never-before unveiled Spitters. Getting Ratface to sign off on the logistics of providing ammunition for her two latest wonders had been like pulling a bald dragon’s teeth, but she’d gone above his head and arranged for the Squire to stamp her seal of approval. It had been an easy sell, given the other woman’s love affair with all forms of wanton destruction.
That the half-blood Deoraithe had immediately suggested goblinfire be used as ammunition as well was one of the things that helped Pickler believe there might be worth in following her.
Ratface had later redeemed himself of his sins by using his ‘talents’ to ensure her childhood dream came true. Before her, delicately being set down on the ground and deployed, were the first ten built examples of the gloriously-named Pickler Model of the Imperial Artillery Templates. The Supply Tribune had managed to push the official acceptance of the design in Ater with only three separate instance of blackmail and bribery, a splendid navigation of the maze of squabbling and obstructionism that was the Imperial bureaucracy. Fast-tracking the review had not even required a murder! The Taghreb would truly have made a halfway-decent consort to a Matron, had he been born of her people. Not a breeding partner, of course, or even a first consort – those were expected to be properly demure and covered in scars – but perhaps a fourth or even third.
The scorpions she ordered set in a straight line, with some room between them, and the sappers taught to handle them eagerly began field preparations. The two Spitters were set at an interval behind, the munition carts behind them very carefully unloaded. Even with cloth-filled crates carrying them on wheels had been risky business, but if that much had not been possible the Hellhound would have never allowed them to be deployed. She had no appreciation for real engineering, their general. Pickler did not usually hold battlefield command, save in case of sieges, but in this particular instance she had left behind the general staff to personally supervise. She’d told the others it was to keep an eye on finicky machines, but that was an ugly lie. Her designs were flawless. She just wanted to seem them unveiled for the first time from up close. Sauntering ahead, the Senior Sapper gauged the wind and distance before ordering a last series of adjustments. Then she screamed for the legionaries ahead to part, and glory unfolded before her very eyes.
Ten bolts sprang forward, steel-tipped, and shattered their way through the first three ranks of stone-garbed devils. Before the killing was even over, the strings on her scorpions loosened and with a mere pulling of the lever reset. The wooden store above the scorpion’s length unclenched and another bolt dropped. Chak, and death flew. Lever, drop. Chak, and death flew. A manic grin split the goblin’s face as she watched the poetry of the world in motion, the work of her mind and hands unleashed. This, she thought, was worth every strapping she’d received for stealing chalk and drawing designs on den walls. Worth every bleeding she’d suffered through for tinkering with her own hands, disgracing her line by doing man’s work. It was worth her mother smilingly telling her she’d slit her throat and leave her body to the buzzards if she ever tried to return to the tribe. The Pickler Models scythed their way through the devils, until the six shots in the stores were emptied and the wooden boxes had to be changed. In that heartbeat, as the devils surged again, the Spitters fired. It pained Pickler to say it, but these were not her sole work. The engines were, of course, but not the ammunition.
Alchemy – the use of it of course, not the production as that secret would never leave the Eyries – had never been a true interest of hers. She had designed the clay projectiles, but within the concoction that awaited was Robber’s own recipe. Three sappers had gone blind in the experimental process and twice that many deaf, but as she saw the Seedlings fly she thought it had been entirely worth it. Only one per Spitter, who as machines were almost more a long sling than anything resembling a scorpion. Flat but angled upwards, kept as close to the ground as possible to limit the shaking. They were not yet able to be fired from behind a shield wall, though already she was planning a second model that would remedy that weakness. The Seedlings, each half as large as trebuchet stone, arced up and then fell among the throng of devils. What ensued was sheer artistry. First an explosion, for sharpers had been used to make much of the substance, but then spread a blinding white flame spilling from that blast. The devils screamed, screamed as the fire seared flesh and stone and cooked them alive. After seventeen heartbeats the flame went out, the longest Robber had been able to maintain the burn when exposed to open air.
When the flames winked out, the scorpions had been pushed forward five feet. The stores began their mechanical work as the Spitters were advanced five feet as well thenloaded anew. And so began the push forward, heavies closing on the sides of the gate and forcing the devils into a hall where only death awaited. Senior Sapper Pickler of the High Ridge tribe cackled, and paid no attention to the weak-bellied legionaries around her that flinched at the sound.
Screams filled the air as firing resumed, and it was the song of progress.