“The moon rose, midnight eye
Serenaded by the owl’s cry
In Hannoven the arrows fly
Hold the wall, lest dawn fail
No southern song for your ear
No pretty lass or merry cheer
For you only night and spear
Hold the wall, lest dawn fail
Come rats and king of dead
Legions dark, and darkly led
What is a grave if not a bed?
Hold the wall, lest dawn fail
Quell the tremor in your hand
Keep to no fear of the damned
They came ere, and yet we stand
So we’ll hold the wall,
Lest dawn fail.”
– Lycaonese folk song, origins unknown, dated before annexation by the Principate
“Walk me through it,” Marshal Ranker of the Hungry Dog tribe said.
She still thought of herself by that name, though her tribe was decades dead. She’d slain it with her own two hands, conscripting every male of fighting fit and taking them up north to throw her lot with the rebels of the civil war that enthroned Malicia. The matron-attendants, women and children had been split among other tribes according to ties of kinship, the ancient records of the Hungry Dogs sent down into the dark beneath the Eyries to add to the ever-swelling chronicles of the fallen and the failures. The Black Knight flicked those eerie green eyes at her, unreadable.
“You were briefed on the plan before we followed it,” he reminded her. “You saw it unfold.”
He spoke Lower Miezan with that slight burr to his voice that was the mark of Callowans and Duni both, one of the thousand reasons Wastelands used to look down on the pale-skinned westerners.
“I know the plan as it was told us,” the old goblin said. “That is the surface. Tell me the underpinnings, how it was woven together.”
It was a guilty pleasure of hers, to tease out the inner workings of her old friend’s mind. The cold method in it was like poppy to her kind, cunning viciousness put to murderous purpose. Had he been born of her people, Ranker would have killed anyone with the slightest claim on him and made the man her consort. There were still matrons in the Eyries that whispered he was utterly wasted on humans, a species whose idea of thought was laughable at the best of times. Broad-teeth monkeys who stumbled through Creation blindly, never a moment of their lives aware of how fragile and vulnerable they were until the Gobbler swallowed them whole. Amadeus, though? Oh, he ever slept with one eye open. A frail creature surrounded by a sprawling world of hostile demigods, he was the closest that misbegotten species would ever get to whelping one of her people.
“Is there a point?” the dark-haired man mused. “Already it has ended.”
“There is always a point,” she said, and bared her yellow teeth at him. “I learn, you learn. All rise.”
His own words, these last few, thrown back into his lap. One of their very fist conversations, years before she sacrificed her reign to earn yet greater victory. The glint in his eyes turned amused. That would not have been enough to ply him, in the old days, but Captain was lost and Scribe currently set to other purpose. He would speak. The urge was there for all villains, and she was providing him a culvert that did not endanger him or his designs. The threats had passed with the coming of night, though dawn would bring them anew.
“There were three forces to reckon with, in this scheme of mine,” the Black Knight said. “The first was the heroes in the northern valley.”
Nine slayers sworn under the Heavens, leading the assault of the crusaders. The Legions had protocols to face these, but not in so great a number. Though far from invincible, they were a mighty force.
“Great power on the march,” Ranker said.
“At the time, significant only as an accumulation of strength,” the green-eyed man noted. “By gathering together without a single unifying story, they stripped themselves of Above’s protection. They made themselves fallible.”
“But remained a significant force,” she probed.
“That is so,” he agreed. “And they would have become truly dangerous if they were allowed to turn into the rear guard for the retreating army of Procer. Nine heroes, facing the horde? Most would have perished, but at the cost of thousands on our part. Therefore, they had to be dispersed.”
“Costly to achieve through force of arms,” Ranker commented.
“Ah, but this was no heroic band,” the Black Knight said. “Simply an assembly of heroes. And so, in the absence of a clearly dominant Named or a unifying threat, they developed a point of failure: lack of chain of command. Without central authority giving orders, the heroes had to rely on their personal judgement when presented with a choice. Judgement that was shaped by wildly different origins and cultures. There would be no unified response. To disperse the cluster of heroes, then, we needed only present them with a decision.”
“The Tenth,” Ranker smiled.
“O Great Destroyer,” Legate Obasi said, kneeling at his general’s feet. “The time has come to strike.”
The ancient creature known as Nekheb let out a sigh, nearly sending him tumbling down the slope. Scales like midnight and eyes of gold that stood tall as a horse, the dragon was one of the living wonders of Creation. Magic made flesh, holiest of all the children of the Gods.
“I was just getting comfortable,” General Catastrophe said, wiggling in its nest of melted stone. “It can wait until tomorrow.”
Obasi had learned to understand the mood of his draconic master and winced at the tone. In court such a visible betrayal of his thoughts would have been disgraceful, but Holy Nekheb had never bothered to learn to read the faces of men. It was beneath them, admittedly. The dark-skinned legate still panicked at the idea that his general might decide to slumber then and there. It might be for mere hours, but there was no guarantee. After the Conquest the ancient creature had slumbered for seven months on the Blessed Isles and eaten anyone trying to wake it. The Soninke’s predecessor had been stuck in the very uncomfortable position of needing to explain that to the Tower.
“The scheme of the Carrion Lord is in need or your greatness, O Peerless Ancient,” Obasi tried. “Without your grace, the might of the Empire can only fail today.”
The massive dragon clicked its teeth unhappily.
“This is true,” they conceded. “You are all idiot hatchlings.”
Legate Obasi prostrated himself, sincerely hoping no rivulet of liquid rock would make it down to him while he did.
“Your discernment is without rival, O Mighty One,” he said. “Yet have the men of Procer not defied your greatness? Only yesterday, did one of their own not attempt to slay you?”
The dragon’s nostrils flared.
“An archer,” it rumbled. “I hate archers. They’re worse than sea snakes, though not nearly as clever. You speak true, minion-thing. I name you one of my heralds for the worth of your advice.”
This made it the third instance this year the legate was granted this boon. Holy Nekheb had some difficulty telling apart humans, he had come to suspect. Or simply did not care enough to try. Obasi stayed prostrated as long as he could, though he had to hastily crawl away when the dragon rose to its feet and spread its wings. The master took flight without further deigning to engage in conversation and the legate hurried towards the rest of the officer cabal. The other necromancers looked as exhausted as he did, even though they’d inhaled one strengthening concoction after another during the night on the march. The Carrion Lord had sent the Tenth Legion into mountains that separated the valleys north and south, and only a mere bell ago had they reached their destination. Beneath the cliff they stood atop fortifications could be glimpsed, walls and towers and some peasant bastion. No living host could had taken the hard paths through ravines and harsh slopes the Tenth Legion had marched through in the dark, but theirs was not the strength of the living. Only a mere three hundred of their legion drew breath, and they’d been the ones to trail behind as the undead advanced silently. Obasi gestured for one of the corpses to bend and sat on its armoured back, catching his breath.
“The Great Master takes the field,” he said.
“They were in a mood?” Legate Kalaman asked.
“Settling down for a nap,” Obasi sighed.
They shared a grimaced.
“Well, the crusaders will know we’re here soon enough,” Kalaman said, brushing back her dark tresses. “Best we get the dead moving before they send the rear guard after us.”
The sorcerers huddled together and wove their magic, taking the reins of the army spread across the mountains.Silently, inexorably, Legion X Horribilis began to climb down the cliffs.
Towards the lightly-guarded enemy camp.
“Some would stay,” the Black Knight said. “But few. Undead and a dragon would by the lure of promised victory. The Procerans would shortly panic, realizing they had lost their camp and risked encirclement.”
Ranker sucked at her teeth, pleased at the cunning involved. That part had unfolded exactly as he said. Of the nine heroes leading the host, only four had remained when Nekheb appeared behind the crusaders and displayed his wroth. The rest had hurried back to kill the draconic general before it could slaughter the entire rear guard. The gates of the Twin had opened when they were too far to easily return, and out had poured the Legions of Terror. The sortie had run straight into the four heroes and been stopped cold as the four Named scythed through legionaries like ripe wheat. Impressive, but ultimately doomed. It took five mage lines assembled for ritual to drive them back, but back they were driven. From there, the steel wrote the song. Veteran legions under Grem’s personal command hammered through the levies at the front until they broke and fled, collapsing the lines of fantassins behind them. The actual casualties the Procerans took, by Ranker’s reckoning, were fairly light for a rout. Two, maybe three thousand. It was the enemy commander that salvaged the mess, riding down with her Neustrian cavalry to put iron in southern spines. The moment the front was stable she ordered a full retreat, the Legions in close pursuit.
The rest of the morning was spent breaking a sequence of holding actions by the Procerans as the crusaders tossed away men trying to slow the Legions. Heroes swelled those ranks more often than not, but they were offered the greatest of all insults: irrelevance. They stood proud and powerful, unbroken by the steel of the Legions. Yet the men died around them as they did, and they could not hold back an army by themselves. It was unfortunate that heroic presence meant the trade of lives involved always sharply in favour of the Procerans, but it was the trade of casualties for a tactical advantage and so had remained acceptable in Ranker’s eyes. More so because, all the while, the Tenth Legion had been forming at their back. Nekheb allowed itself to be chased away when the heroes arrived spoiling for a fight, but by then nearly three thousand undead were on the ground. The heroes engaged as reinforcements continued to climb down, preventing further advance but little else. They were still fighting when the first ranks of the Proceran retreat arrived shortly after Noon Bell.
“Winning the battle was not the objective,” Ranker said.
“Not at that juncture,” Amadeus agreed. “There was a temptation, I will not deny. With the Tenth in the camp, there was no real chance for the crusaders to man the fortifications. Which were built to face the opposite direction of our advance, regardless. If I’d taken the field myself and we’d pressed the advantage, we would have slain a great many of them.”
“You didn’t,” Ranker said.
“Because it would have been committing too early,” Black said. “The second force to reckon with had not yet been neutralized. It would have left us exposed if we’d acted without considering her.”
“The Witch of the Woods,” the old goblin said.
The tower had cracked, like wet clay left too long under the sun. Wekesa still felt dismay at the memory. It had been purely kinetic force, that much he’d ascertained, but there had been no record of such a working in the Tower’s scrolls and his study of the creational cascade had failed to divine anything useful. He’d tied the tower’s protective wards into the the flanking mountains after the first blow, but all that had achieved was the powdering of at least half a ton of stone when the Witch struck again. There’d been few legionaries left inside, by then, but those that remained were instantly pulped by the impact. Warlock had been wary enough he’d moved out of the tower towards the mountains, and it was the only reason he wasn’t dead. The Procerans had swarmed the broken tower, afterwards, but most of the legion that’d defended it had already retreated. It was all he’d promised Amadeus, and he gave it no more thought after that. That pair of spells had heralded the escalation of the duel into a higher realm of arcana, and the failure of his defence had forced him to go on the offensive.
More than an hour had passed since then, Wekesa thought, and he idly adjusted the bubble of force around him to dampen sound as the peak to his left exploded.
Illusions were allowing him to keep one step ahead. The girl had a working that allowed her to see through them – Dion’s Gaze, he recognized – but she had to abandon her offensive to find him every time she used it. She’d followed him into the mountains, and now they could fight without concern for their surroundings. A storm brewed in the sky above them, this one not of his making. He could feel it strengthening, the lightning concentrating in a killing stroke she would cast down when she found him. Her casual shattering of mountaintops was an attempt to flush him out, though an unsuccessful one so far. Wekesa had been biding his time thinning boundaries to place his own killing blow, allowing her the run of the range. There was advantage in making her act in the open, as he now intended to demonstrate. With the storm now nearing its peak, the conditions had become acceptable.
“Imbricate,” he said.
Seven-hundredth and twenty-second Hell. A hellscape of unending sprawling tempests, bereft of all devils save those who crawled beneath the earth. His thoughts burned as he oversaw the alignment, blood thrumming with sorcery, until Hell and Creation snapped into place. It had been wise precaution to mute sound, Warlock decided, for the howl of wind was deafening. Lightning thundered down, hundreds of strands, and flashing lights danced across the peaks. The roar of avalanches by the dozens devoured the rest of the song and he laughed, runes shining around his wrists as he wove the lightning into spears and struck at the Witch. The murderous child took it in stride, force spinning around her and making a wheel of the power he sent at her. She released it when his strikes ebbed, released a ring of pure lightning that shattered another two peaks. As he rode the storm, so did she. Discarding any notion of digging him out of his hole, she called on the Helian Sun and parted the storm with dawn’s coming. Scorching light burned all in sight, but destruction was an old friend to Wekesa. He knew it better than her.
“Reflect,” he hissed.
His mind spun, sights in the thousands flooding it, until he found the realm he’d sought. The most beautiful of his tricks, the one truest to the essence of sorcery. A lie told Creation: that its lay was as that of the Hell he had sought, as if they were perfect reflection. No great toil of alignment here, only the barest of efforts as he matched the realms. The sky went crimson, great shapes forming in depths that did not exist within Creation, and hellflire began to rain. The Witch would learn today why men had named him Sovereign of Red Skies.
“The landslides cost us more than them,” Ranker said.
Amadeus conceded the point with an inclination of the head. As well he should. The last word from the Ninth was that Sacker had lost over seven hundred to an avalanche. While a mile away from the duel of the mages. Her entire rear guard swallowed by rocks, along with more than a few engines. In the northern valley, the costs had been no less steep. The mage officers of the Tenth had still been in the mountains when the two Named had begun slinging their spells, and half of them had been lost making their escape even as the battle around the Proceran camp erupted. The matron had forgot quite how terrifying Warlock could be, when let loose, but for all that terror the Witch had been every bit his match. And in their struggle, they had wrecked the Vales beyond recognition. The southern Twin was buried in stone along with most the valley before it, while a stray lance of lightning had hit the peak above the northern one, making half the mountain collapse atop it. That alone would not have cut retreat entirely for the Legions, but then Warlock had begun throwing down mountains to replace those he’d broken and it had gotten much, much worse. Half a city’s worth of brimstone had tumbled down the slope of the northern valley after being batted aside contemptuously by the Witch of the Woods, and there was no going around that.
Even now they could not be certain of how much of the Vales had been wrecked by what was already being called the Waltz of Wroth. Both passes were now closed, that much was certain, but scrying across the broken mountain range had proved impossible and so no fresh report could be had from General Sacker. Assuming she was still alive.
“Only the third force remained in play, after that,” Black noted. “It was always going to be the most difficult to predict, as its nature was bound to be reactive. In a sense, Wekesa’s enthusiasm was a boon. It created an obvious opening, and the Heavens never can resist a spectacular entrance.”
“Militarily speaking, the entire notion was absurd,” Ranker said. “If one of my staff officers suggested such a thing, I would have them demoted back to the ranks.”
“That there would be intervention was a given,” Amadeus said. “We were, at that point, winning. The Tenth weakened when we lost the officers, but Nekheb was still looming and we had them bottled up.”
The Princess of Neustria had exerted herself all morning in the prevention of a rout, but when the battle around the camps unfolded she’d plunged back into the deeps. It was a simple question of room. There were only two gates allowing entry into the fortifications where the Procerans had placed their camp, and limited space within. It’d been impossible for her to get a significant portion of her host through before the Legions under Grem hit her back, and from there the beginnings of a massacre had taken place. The crusaders had trampled each other trying to flee Legion blades, and though heroes had attempted to hold the back Nekheb had kept them on the backfoot by making the occasional pass. Squeezed by the Praesi shield wall, drowning in crossbow fire and munitions, the Procerans had died in droves.
“The Champion was holding the line,” Amadeus mused. “Ah, the pretty bait that was. If I’d gone to kill her, before the hour was done I would have died.”
The third force had been the White Knight, riding through the broken mountains with every single horseman under Prince Kaus Papenheim charge the flank of the Legions at the darkest hour.
Grem heard them long before he saw them. His people knew that sound better than any other on Creation, the thunder of hooves. The doom of horde and clan, the mounted killers from the West. That these had sworn oaths to the First Prince instead of the King of Callow made little difference. The odds of there being a usable pass after Wekesa and the Witch smashed apart the mountains were infinitesimal, he knew, but the Heavens had worked with lesser numbers. He’d been warned, that there would be a hidden knife near the end. His warlord’s instincts had not dimmed with age. The Marshal of Praes glanced at the signal mage that had been his shadow all day.
“All mage lines for the Third,” he said, “are to send fireballs and echoes in the pass, try to collapse it. And get Mok started on contingency Misfortune.”
For any cavalry not led by a hero, this would have been an imbecile’s suicide. The source of the charge was a narrow break in the mountainside atop a rocky hill at an almost ninety degree angle, all of it leading straight into a dark upright crevasse. With the White Knight at the tip of the charge, all these damning details would mean was mild inconvenience. Sorcery flared and the opening was drowned in flame and booming sounds, but no avalanche took. It had been worth making sure. Grem One-Eye watched grimly as the flank of Mok’s legion pivoted to meet the coming enemy. Sappers ran ahead to sow the fields with caltrops as the two cohorts of trained pikemen formed in ranks. The ogre general’s men were no Ironsides, but they were a heavy infantry legion nonetheless. Regulars dragged to the fore spikes of iron or wood and hammered them in a line three deep according to the standard pattern, angling them so they would be aimed at the belly of the horses.
As a welcoming gift, a pair of sappers with munitions-loaded crossbows shot clay balls at the narrow opening and green flames took to the rock. Thin was the hope that this would stop the enemy, but all eventualities should be covered if the cost was appropriate and two spheres was cheap enough. Mages, crossbowmen and sappers formed up behind the pikemen in good order, ranks of regulars serving as shield. Ranker’s Fourth and the Twelfth had the front, so he could put his entire attention into this. The battle for the Vales would be won or lost here, and as Wekesa had so kindly deigned to drop a mountain down their only path of retreat there was no room left for mistakes. You have to let them win, Amadeus had said. The Heavens need their due, before we steal it, else another path will be taken. It might be his old friend was right, but Grem would not send men to die without doing his utmost to keep them alive.
The enemy appeared in a flash of blinding Light, evaporating the goblinfire-touched stone as the White Knight charged through. Behind him followed the mounted strength of Procer, pouring out like a stream of steel-clad death. He did not need to give orders in the matter of answer. Balls of flame bloomed across the ranks of the Third and hit the charging enemy, but Light burned and dispersed them like wisps of smoke. Crossbows fired in a perfect volley, and these drew some blood, but none touched the White Knight or the men behind him – as if the hand of some god steered away harm. The horsemen charged down the slope with unnatural grace, not a one stumbling over the harsh incline or jagged stones, and so the entered the killing field. The caltrops lasted a single heartbeat before the hero raised his blade high and a searing flame swept before him, clearing a path. The sappers fired their opening salvo, sharpers and brightsticks. It was like throwing an egg at a wall. Explosions that should have shredded men and horses instead merely singed them, the light that should have seared eyes into blindness was laughed off.
Horns sounded, deep and promising ruing. The horsemen took three volleys, before reaching Mok’s pikemen. Arrows and fire, the billowing poisonous clouds of smokers and the hard bark of sharpers killing less than thirty. This, Grem thought, was the face of the enemy. Of the Heavens putting their hand to the scale, making mockery of the strivings of men. For a single moment, as the pikemen clashed against the cavalry, it seemed like the legionaries would hold. It passed, pikes glancing off armour as the entire first rank of the cohorts were brutally trampled. In that first heartbeat, Grem One-Eye lost at least two hundred men. The relentless brutality of the carnage almost awed him. Horsemen continued to pour out of the passage and slowly the Third Legion began to bend. Like a man with a knife slid into the belly, groaning in pain. Now, Black, he thought. Now, damn you.
A roar older than even the coming of knights cowed the battlefield, and the orc grinned with all teeth bared. Orcs had never quite forgot that sound, even though the dragons that had once ruled the Steppes were long gone. Above, wreathed in the noonday sun, a madman was riding a dragon. And in the claws of that great beast was a massive chunk of stone, still dripping melted rock where it had been burned out. A silver arrow punched through the dragon’s wing, and as it screamed another buried into its flank, but still the glorious bastards flew and down went the stone. Dropped in front of the very opening from which horsemen poured, sealing it shut.
“First Legion,” Grem One-Eye roared. “Forward!”
Invicta was the cognomen bestowed upon his men by the Tower. Undefeated. They would not fail that name today.
“They managed to retreat anyway,” Ranker said.
The heroes, even after it all, had held long enough for a retreat. Only two of the nine had perished, the White Knight joining his fellows to escape. The horseman he had brought were not so lucky. Amadeus shrugged.
“There was only so much victory to be had,” he replied. “Papenheim came to us with sixty thousand men. He should now have slightly under forty.”
The Legions had bled as well, she thought. Twenty-four thousand had garrisoned the Red Flower Vales, when the Iron Prince came calling. Sixteenth thousand now camped on the western side of the passage the battle had been fought over. Sacker’s legion should still have the better part of it intact, but even so the losses had not been negligible. At least, she decided, five thousand in full. Against an army of mortals, the Vales could have been held against two hundred thousand until the end of time with the numbers they’d had. How starkly heroes turned the tide, even when checked by stratagem. Ranker shook her head, the two of them standing under a moonless night as exhausted legionaries slumbered in the distance. Too tired to even make cooking fires for what few rations they had.
“Has Warlock made contact?” she asked.
The Black Knight shook his head.
“He might be dead, Amadeus,” she said as gently as her people knew how.
The pale-skinned man shook his head again.
“I would know,” Amadeus simply said.
She left it at that, the two of them standing in silence. Grem’s tent, she saw even from so far away, was still lit. The orc did not know the meaning of rest, even in his old age.
“We have lost the Vales,” Ranker finally said.
“There are no more Vales to be had,” he replied. “It will take months for the crusaders to dig through the collapse, even with sorcery. Not unless the Witch intervenes and if she does…”
“Warlock strikes,” Ranker murmured.
If he was still alive, of which there was no proof.
“If Hasenbach could so easily employ the Stairway ritual,” Black said, “she would not have stopped at a single passage through the Whitecaps. Multiple points of entry into Callow would have been a much greater strategic threat.”
That was true enough. The Black Queen’s army was strong and well-trained, but it also had limited numbers. She would have been forced to allow one of the invading armies free hand in Callow while she dealt with the other, which would have been disastrous on many levels.
“True as that might be, we’re still on the wrong side of the pass,” Ranker reminded him. “Our supply lines are cut, the full muster of Papenheim’s reunited army is less than a day away and our only paths for retreat involve months of marching through enemy territory.”
If they succeeded at giving the Iron Prince the slip, she thought, smashing the Proceran border army in the south and retreating through the lands of the League of Free Cities might be feasible. The alternative was heading for the Stairway, which was much less appealing even though the march would be much shorter. An army under Princess Rozala Malanza was retreating towards the pass, as of the last reports. The old goblin was not eager at the notion of forcing a narrow passage filled with hero-led Procerans.
“Are we?” the dark-haired man asked.
Ranker’s large eyes blinked.
“You see us as stranded, old friend,” Amadeus said. “I see us as freed. Callow is safeguarded for some time yet. No longer in need of our vigil.”
The goblin licked her lips.
“And we’re at the gate of the Principate’s heartlands,” she murmured.
“Come, Ranker,” the Black Knight grinned. “Let’s have a drink with Grem, and discuss our invasion of the Principate of Procer.”