“Fifty-seven: the greatest of powers is not an enchanted sword or cataclysmic spell, it is simply to be in the right place at precisely the right time.”– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
The Black Queen’s own favourite trick had been turned against the Fourth Army, and the results were a bloody ruin.
At least two thousand dead in less time than it took to boil a cup of water, that much again in wounded and even worse: siege engines, as well as the sappers who manned and built them, had been pulped by the great sheets of waters that had fell like a wave of stone from the Heavens. The Dead King’s sorceries had been aimed foremost at the positions above the rebuilt gates of Hainaut, the siege platforms Sapper-General Pickler had ordered built before the enemy came, and there was not a soul left alive there. The results of that were immediately disastrous, for though the Fourth Army was hastening to reinforce the lost grounds the enemy had not missed the opening: beorns were already there and emptying their bellyfuls of soldiers, as great snakes of dead flesh bit into the wet stone and opened their maws to make themselves into siege ladders.
Worse, a pair of wyrms had landed atop the siege platforms and was terrorizing the attempted reinforcements. They monstrous dragons of flesh and bones, magnificent examples of what the greatest necromancer to ever live could achieve at the peak of his skill, were shrugging off Light and sorcery alike. It would take concentrated volleys of either to drive them back, and the Fourth was still on the backfoot: with so many officers dead, it was struggling to move priests and mages where they needed to be. It was a miracle, General Zola Osei thought, that the Fourth Army hadn’t outright routed. Nearly every other army on Calernia would have, after seeing nearly half its number killed or wounded in so short a span. But the soldiers, first hardened on the grounds of Arcadia and then against the horrors of the Folly, held.
For now, at least. How long would that last? General Zola Osei of the Second Army of Callow let the urge to wince pass through her, refusing to indulge, for it would not do to show weakness to her staff when disaster loomed so tall. She set down the Baalite eye, choosing her words carefully as her staff tribune and senior mage awaited her opinion.
“If we do not immediately reinforce, the gate is lost,” General Zola said.
“If fully commit, we risk losing the gate anyway and being swept away entirely in its wake,” Staff Tribune Adnan frankly said. “I would argue in favour of ordering the Fourth to retreat while we fortify the entrance to the city and prepare for battle there.”
“Should the Dead King hold the gate, the city’s wards are at risk of collapsing entirely,” Senior Mage Jendayi replied, shaking her head. “I won’t pretend that it will not be bloody to take back the gate, but even on purely tactical grounds it is the superior decision.”
They were disagreeing, Zola considered, because they were starting from entirely different premises even if neither had stated as much: Adnan considered this battle lost, and was now looking to mitigate, while Jendayi still believed victory achievable and so was willing to spend lives to reach that end. General Zola herself was not yet certain which way she leaned, though she was aware a decision needed to be made urgently. Already she had sent her two senior legates to prepare the grounds behind the city gates in case of a breach but now she either needed to send companies into the stairs leading up to the siege platforms, which the dead were certain to turn into a meat grinder of brutal proportions, or send messengers to the Fourth before it overcommitted. And the truth was that, even beyond tactical considerations, Zola was not certain if the Second had the stomach for the kind of fight taking the gates back would mean. Not since Maillac’s Boot.
The general had always admired the Black Queen’s almost alchemical knack for transmuting battles into loyalty, but the Boot had left scars in the Second. Losing General Hune had been a blow, even for Zola herself, but the casualties taken that day… Many still had nightmares of the hordes that never ceased coming, of the things crawling out of the much and in those dreams the gates into Twilight always closed too early. If Her Majesty had been there with them, perhaps, but now? The rumours had spread. The Black Queen was wounded, unconscious, and now her armies were wavering. Catherine Foundling had never been defeated on the field, but that legend did not apply to the Army of Callow when it stood without her. If I don’t give the order to take back the gate, General Zola thought with cold clarity, then I have declared this battle a defeat. It will not be possible to win, afterwards.
Before she could speak, however, she caught sight of strange movement atop the gates. An eddy in the flow of the dead. Zola’s grandmother had been a Mosa, and though the blood had since thinned she could still perceive motion uncannily well even in the dark. She pressed the Baalite eye against her face again, the enchantment lending her better sight through the dark, and started in surprise.
“General?” her staff tribune worriedly asked.
“Mad,” Zola Osei softly said. “Utterly mad.”
Goblins, it was goblins. At least a cohort’s worth of them, maybe more, but it was not a battle they had come from. Zola saw as they climbed atop the great necromantic constructs – the beorns and the snakes and even one of the wyrms – as lesser dead clumsily tried to pursue. Nimble and utterly fearless the sappers, for those bags they bore could not be mistaken, spread out and every heartbeat a few more of them died from being shaken off monsters or caught by undead. And still they went, until a horn was sounded and like candles in the darks the monsters lit up. One after the other, matches struck and devices triggered as jets of green flames burst and Keter’s great beasts screamed.
Robber’s Marauders were not a legend without reason.
“We go forward,” General Zola Osei said, throat tightening. “The Second will take back the gate.”
The Army of Callow had not yet bent the knee to even odds overwhelming. It would not break that custom on her watch.
Like most great catastrophes, Adjutant thought, it had not been neatly done. The Grey Basin – le Bassin Gris, to the locals – had occupied maybe a fourth of surface of the plateau on which the city of Hainaut had been built, an uneven oval that began south where it ended on a waterfall over the edge and went up the middle of the capital until it ended at the beginning of the great district facing the city gates. The basin had been a major boon to the city, for both sanitation and drinking water purposes, and it’d been kept full by both underground aquifers in the rock below and regular rainfall. It was also, as of a half hour ago, entirely gone.
It had been expected that the undead would dig under the city, for it was one of Keter’s favourite tactics and one of the few weaknesses of the city-fortress, and the Firstborn had been the natural answer to such an assault. They too were familiar with fighting underground, Night was well suited to such skirmishes and unlike humans they could see perfectly in the dark. And as far as Hakram could tell, when the dead had finally dug their way up into the city the fight had gone overwhelmingly in the favour of the drow. On all fronts they’d either held or outright beaten back the dead, in some cases even counterattacking deep below where the dead were massing for their offensive. And then it had all gone horribly wrong, somehow.
Sve Noc had been caught in a trap, of which the nature and purpose was still unclear, and it seemed that to free themselves from it the Crows had made sacrifices. Swaths of dzulu had suddenly fallen unconscious, and even Mighty had seen their powers suddenly falter. Worse, the angry throes of the goddesses had shattered the bottom of the Grey Basin and the water had poured into the tunnels dug by Keter. They too had broken, in some places too fragile, and it had begun a disastrous chain of collapses that’d essentially hollowed out the heart of the city. Now where the Grey Basin had once stood there was a sheer drop of a at least a hundred feet instead, with massive rubble and the corpses of both drow and broken undead strewn everywhere.
“Hard to tell how many died,” Secretary Amelia said. “The Firstborn are shit at coordinating with other forces, they never told us how many they sent down into the tunnels.”
“Concentrate on finding the Losara,” Hakram said, leaning on his crutches. “They are most likely to have numbers for us.”
“The curves of the cliff seems to curve inwards,” Secretary Prattler noted, crouching at the edge with an interested look. “Dangerous. The plateau’s structure became unstable.”
“And the tunnels?” Hakram asked.
“They didn’t go anywhere,” Prattler, once a lieutenant in the sappers, replied. “If the dead climb the side of the drop, they’ll be able to access them and enter the city by other paths than the edge. We need to close them as soon as possible.”
“Send word to the sappers,” Adjutant ordered. “Save for the situation at the gates, this is the highest priority.”
“Won’t be many left of us, but I’ll see what I can do,” Secretary Prattler saluted.
The reports from his phalanges were increasingly staggered, but the flow had not yet been impeded. The difficulty at the moment was keeping the Alliance high command informed, and Vivienne in particular. Irritatingly, the situation with the Firstborn remained unclear. The nature of the consequences of what had happened save for a fourth of the plateau shattering were still to be determined. Night had weakened, observably, but was that it? Answers came when his picket informed him that Masego and the Pilgrim had strolled out of the dark, that overly ambitious creature Ivah with them. Hierophant looked invigorated, the Pilgrim wearied, and neither wasted time on niceties as the ‘Lord of Silent Steps’ stood in the distance and seemingly entranced.
“The Dead King laid a trap for Sve Noc in a cavern below the city,” Hierophant said. “And through the sister he captured, he attempted to siphon the Night.”
Hakram’s jaw tightened. That would have been too disastrous for words.
“Did he succeed?”
Hierophant shook his head.
“I was invited to use one of my aspects onto the Night through one of the sisters,” Masego said. “What Trimegistus seized, I ruined.”
“Along with most of the Night itself,” the Peregrine quietly added. “The Crows hid away a portion of their power in a mortal receptable beforehand, but most of the Night itself was unmade.”
“It was a measured action,” Hierophant calmly said. “It will have hit dzulu the worst, as they had reserves of Night but none of the protections of the Mighty. Nisi will have gone entirely unharmed.”
“And Mighty?” Hakram asked, licking his chops.
“Weakened,” the Pilgrim said. “Significantly so.”
Then the Gloom that defended Serolen was likely gone as well, Adjutant thought. Dark news.
“When will the Sisters return to the field?” he asked.
“That is why we are here,” the Pilgrim admitted. “You are, as always, the man who can find the needle in the haystack. The Sisters cannot reclaim their power, Hierophant tells me, until their imprisoned half is freed. Else we risk simply resuming the disaster on a smaller scale.”
“One of them’s still trapped?” he flatly said.
“Yes,” Masego said. “The ritual was quite comprehensive, though I expect it was primarily meant for a godhead shard and not the possession the net caught. It allowed the halves of Sve Noc to keep communicating.”
“It is,” the Grey Pilgrim said with grim face, “still down there.”
He pointed down below, into the field of soaked rubble, and for a moment Adjutant’s mind went blank. Saving someone down there? Impossible. Not, he adjusted, merely impractical. Which meant… mhm, perhaps he would be able to Find a solution after all.
“The Second Army has engaged at the gates,” General Bagram grimly announced. “It is gaining steadily, but there is no telling the outcome of the engagement.”
“And your Fourth?” Prince Klaus Papenheim asked.
“We’ve stabilized the flanks and are focusing on evacuating the wounded,” the orc replied. “The situation is stable.”
Vivienne let out a long breath and spoke the truth no one else seemed to want to.
“It has been confirmed that the Grey Legion is approaching the gates, the defences of which are still in enemy hands,” she flatly said. “I am the least seasoned military leader at this table, but it seems to me that those gates are about to be smashed open.”
Just a few soldiers of the Grey Legion, hulking masses of moving steel that they were, were enough to serve as a battering ram. The entire frontline of that silent army hitting the seven gates as once would be worse by an order of magnitude.
“We can still hold,” General Bagram insisted. “So long as the walls do not fall, the enemy can be bottlenecked in that district.”
“The east holds,” Captain Nabila said. “No beachheads remain and we have mastery of both rampart and bastions.”
Proud as Vivienne was of the Army of Callow, she had to admit that in the battle for Hainaut the Dominion that had distinguished itself. Almost half the western rampart, held by Alamans troops, had collapsed after being struck by Scourges until Catherine had led the Woe – and Akua Sahelian – to slay one and drive away the other. Unfortunately, the reinforcements led by Princess Beatrice had never materialized as instead they’d run into enemies in the streets of the city. They’d won that clash decisively, at the price of the Princess of Hainaut being wounded, and at the moment it was Prince Arsene of Bayeux that was theoretically the commander of that flank.
The man was not here, however, having instead sent his niece Lady Marceline to speak for him.
“The Brabant levies broke and ran,” Lady Marcelline frankly said, “but we’ve contained the breach to a single bastion. Captain-General Catalina survived the attentions of the Archmage and she’s leading the local effort while my uncle oversees the norther stretch of the rampart.”
“Anyone would have buckled, hit by that kind of magic,” General Bagram said with rough sympathy. “But can the mercenaries clear the enemy’s foothold? If they’d don’t, this all falls apart.”
“Perhaps if Chosen were to lend their strength the matter could be settled more easily,” Lady Marceline leadingly said, turning her eyes towards Vivienne.
It rather amused the heiress that even though she had not held a Name in years, by simple virtue of having once been the Thief people believed she still had influence over Named. As if even Catherine – Vivienne’s heart clenched, but Indrani had promised she would survive – Catherine, with all her strength, did not struggle to keep their kind in even a semblance of order. The privileged information that Vivienne Dartwick did hold in regard to their kind was not a consequence of her thieving past at all, but of Hakram Deadhand being fiercely meticulous even when calamity was at the gate.
It was not sorcery but regular messengers, which admittedly some might argue were harder to arrange in a city besieged.
“They’ve had heavy casualties,” Vivienne said. “On the Silver Huntress survived out of her band after they were caught in that ambush, and only barely. It might be possible to request the Headhunter and the Rogue Sorcerer lend a hand, but they have been highly mobile so mustering them may take time.”
It’d been a slaughter, according to the report she’d gotten. A well-crafted ambush by what had appeared to be a half a dozen Revenants in a narrow street had taken a lethal turn when the Prince of Bones had torn through a wall and pulped the Young Slayer’s head with a single blow. A black-feathered arrow had taken the Summoner in the throat almost simultaneously, and the rest had been overwhelmed. The Grey Pilgrim and Masego had arrived in time to save the Silver Huntress’ life, but both the Silent Guardian and the Rapacious Troubadour had been lost.
All that with nothing to show for it, aside from a few destroyed lesser Revenants. The Prince of Bones had managed to retreat into Arcadia under fire by both the Peregrine and the Hierophant, indifferent to even their harshest attacks, while the Hawk had been long gone by the time those two arrived. The gate the Prince of Bones had used had been found and closed by the pair, but it was expected by everyone in this room that the Scourge would be back to lead his Grey Legion when it breached the city. Lady Marceline made a moue at Vivienne’s answer, displeased.
“Perhaps the band of the Barrow Sword instead?” she asked. “The Blessed Artificer alone-”
“The survivors of that band are already tasked, by order of the Adjutant himself,” Vivienne mildly said.
The mildness was not one that invited further argument, and with ill-grace Lady Marceline accepted the help on offer instead of the one she’d wished for. Vivienne sent out the messenger promptly, even as argument resumed as to whether or not the battle for Hainaut could still be salvaged. There was some optimism that it still could, so long as the drow managed to rally and help the Lycaonese keep walls of the pit created by the collapse of the Bassin Gris from being climbed by the dead. For now the sheer quantity of rubble and water was making it effectively impassable, but it would not last forever.
“The Neustrians could reinforce,” Lady Marceline said, “at the moment they are not-”
It was like an itch, Vivienne thought. Or perhaps simply the slightest of pressures, tickling like a feather. Not the first trick of the sort she had learned, back when she was the Thief, but the first she had been taught. That was almost nostalgic, in a terribly dangerous kind of way. Vivienne Dartwick kept her breathing steady, concentrating as the talk of the commanders washed over her, and listened to nothing save the sound of her own breath. In, out. In, out. There, the itch again. The… weight. She had not been wrong. Idly, the heiress-designate to Callow pushed back her chair seemingly to make room for her legs as she reached for a carafe of water. Leaning covered one of her arms from sight, gave her free hand, and a heartbeat later she was moving.
The knife flew, perfectly thrown, and would have caught the hooded figure in the throat if it’d not been parried by a serrated dagger.
Prince Klaus, who’d been about to get his throat slit, was the first to draw his sword. General Bagram was but a heartbeat behind, and even as Lady Marceline backed away so she’d have room to draw her rapier Captain Nabila palmed a throwing axe. Vivienne, though, had already leapt atop the table with a fresh knife in hand. The Revenant flickered, as if made of heat mirage, and for a moment her eyes stung but she focused through the pain and flicked a second knife. It was parried, but the flickering ceased.
“Varlet,” the Iron Prince hissed, striking hard.
The Revenant turned the blow aside, punching the old man in the stomach hard enough it emptied his lungs, but Bagram hacked at its shoulder and it was forced to step back. The orc’s blade bit into the Prince of Hannoven’s shoulder but only shallowly, and Vivienne reached for the back of her belt where she kept a pouch even as she finished crossing the table. Captain Nabila’s throwing axe was swatted aside and General Bagram’s charge ended badly, the Varlet sweeping his legs and tossing him at the table. Vivienne’s fingers closed around a handful even as she leapt, the table flipping below her as Bagram stumbled into it, and she watched as the Iron Prince’s swing was not only parried but riposted with a vicious cut that ripped across his face.
And the Varlet turned to her, even as she flew through the air, but Vivienne Dartwick smiled unpleasantly and threw a handful of golden dust into her face.
The Scourge hastily retreated but it caught her anyway, the Revenant screaming as the Concocter-made compound burned at the dead flesh and glowed brightly. Let her try to disappear with that. Vivienne tumbled into the animated corpse, the two of them landing in a sprawl, and as she slid out a third knife the other tried to slice open her throat. She caught the wrist in time with her free hand, struggling to keep the blade from going into flesh, but she was losing in strength and she had to abandon her knife to help with her second hand. She was losing anyway. Fortunately, the Iron Prince then kicked the Varlet in the head.
She fell to the side and Vivienne snatched up her knife, stabbing into her foe’s wrist even as the Revenant tried to punch through the back of Klaus Papenheim’s knee. She nailed the dead flesh, preventing the blow, and by then Captain Nabila had joined the fray with a war axe. Vivienne backed way so they’d have freer hand, getting back to her feet as General Bagram brushed past her to lend his sword to the cause of keeping the Revenant from rising. Lady Marceline, though armed, was staying far away from the foe. Vivienne threw her a scornful glance, passing the fallen table to snatch first a magelight globe from the wall and then a candle from a candlestick. She deftly turned back just in time to see Bagram rip through a wrist and then hold down the limb.
“Keep her from moving,” Vivienne ordered.
“She-” Captain Nadila began.
“Do it,” the Iron Prince grunted, hacking at the hood.
They managed, barely, and even then Vivienne had to dodge a kick as she approached.
“You will-” the Varlet began, but the words were interrupted by someone shoving magelight in her mouth.
“I could sneak better than that at eighteen,” Vivienne Dartwick scathingly said, pressing the candle’s open flame against the magelight globe. “You ought to be embarrassed.”
And after five heartbeats exposed to fire, exactly as Masego had shown her it would, the Jaquinite magelight exploded with a loud pop. The tongues of flame exploded outwards, incinerating the Revenant from the inside as a jet shot out from her mouth and Vivienne avoided it by reclining her head to the right. The heat licked at her face, but she did not close her eyes. The Revenant, head mostly consumed save for charred bones, stopped moving.
“Decapitate it to be sure,” Vivienne said, drawing back.
Captain Nabila did, rather eagerly, and the corpse fell listlessly. Feeling the eyes of everyone in the room on her, Vivienne cocked an eyebrow. Had they believed her harmless because these days she wore dresses instead of leather? She was able to fit more knives in a gown than she’d even been able to in trousers. I spent my fighting years as one of the Woe, Vivienne thought, matching their gazes. Does even a single one of you grasp what that actually means? She picked up one of the knives she’d thrown, carefully placing it back against the hidden strap.
“General Bagram, I leave this in your hands,” she said. “I’ll be heading out.”
The orc slowly nodded.
“Where to, my lady?” Bagram asked.
“Where the hammer will fall,” Vivienne replied. “The gates.”
Amusingly enough, the Barrow Sword was the only member of his band who turned out to be useless to the purposes for which it had been sent for.
Ishaq took it in good humour, proving to be in a rather amenable mood overall. His successes before members of the Blood, his usual foes, had put him in a fine mood. Hakram spent little time speaking with the man, instead guiding the efforts of the rest of the band. No one was inclined to climb down, especially now that dead from the plains below had begin to crawl all over the rubble, but the Harrowed Witch was the solution to that: the bound soul of her brother, which she could sometimes force to obey her commands, had been sent instead. With the help of Hakram’s own aspect the place where General Rumena was buried had been found, which had been when the Vagrant Spear moved out.
Passing through Twilight, as she was a fair hand at sidling, she emerged even as the Blessed Artificer began raining down Light on the dead in a hail of javelins. Striking with Light and the power of her Name she’d quickly pierced through the mass of stone, allowing a haggard Mighty Rumena to stumble out. The first stumble was an appearance by the Hawk, who from her high perch atop a vulture let loose an arrow. Aimed at Mighty Rumena, Hakram discerned, but it was not to be. Another arrow hit it mid-trajectory, Archer having finally found trace of her prey, and before a second could be loosed both the drow and the Vagrant Spear disappeared into Twilight.
The Firstborn could see to themselves, then. He had done what he could. An opinion seemingly shared by Masego and the Grey Pilgrim, who had lingered talking to each other quietly but were not clearly intent on leaving. Hierophant absent-mindedly bade his goodbyes, mentioning he was headed towards the gates, but the Peregrine stayed for a longer conversation.
“The Firstborn situation seems as settled as it can be,” Adjutant said.
“We but tied a bandage over a gaping wound, but it is better than nothing,” the Peregrine quietly replied. “I am simply glad that we were able to free Sve Noc.”
The tired-look old man, Hakram considered, had been fully prepared to kill the two goddesses rather than let them fall in the hands of the Dead King. Soberingly, he seemed to believe he would have been capable of the act.
“Losing the Firstborn entirely might have lost us the battle,” Hakram warily agreed.
There was a long pause as the old man studied him, those rheumy blue eyes piercing in ways that were beyond simple sight.
“The Ophanim believe the battle is lost regardless,” the Grey Pilgrim murmured.
The orc’s pulsed quickened.
“And do they care to share their reasons why?” Adjutant calmly asked.
The situation was not favourable, to his knowledge, but it was not yet disastrous. The walls largely held, and though the gates were threatened they were yet to fall. In the longer view the great pit that had replaced the Grey Basin was a liability, but salvaged sigils and the still-fresh Lycaonese should be able to hold them. The battle had certainly grown more arduous, but it seemed to early to write if off.
“There is a Crab,” Tariq Fleetfoot said. “It nears. They can feel it approaching.”
Hakram froze. The massive necromantic creatures were as moving small cities that the Dead King used to keep the armaments of his armies in fighting fit. They were a massive resource investment, and so jealously guarded that few had even been seen, but one had been seen earlier in this campaign. The Rogue Sorcerer, when scouting Lauzon’s Hollow, had believed he’d glimpsed the spells keeping one invisible to the naked eye. And though it was not the purpose of that construct, given its sheer size it would represent not so much a siege tower as a siege fortress.
“Masego and yourself are both capable of destroying constructs of that scale,” Hakram finally said.
And perhaps the Blessed Artificer as well, or Catherine were she awake, but there were not certainties with either.
“A monster, yes,” the Pilgrim sadly smiled, “but a city, with wards and protections as this Crab will have? No. Already the Ophanim tell me their influence is being restricted by some working of the Enemy’s. The battle is lost, Adjutant.”
His bone hand clenched.
“You want us to begin a retreat,” he said.
“That I leave to military minds,” the Peregrine said. “But I say this: we cannot leave a twilight gate in the hands of the Dead King.”
“We can’t afford to lose this battle either,” Adjutant growled. “If we do, Hainaut collapses. Perhaps all of Procer with it.”
And if Procer fell, the rest of Calernia would not be far behind.
“There is a way,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It would be ruinous, but there is a way.”
Adjutant’s brows knotted.
“What is it you want of me, Peregrine?”
“We need to wake up Catherine Foundling,” the Pilgrim said. “And for that I require your help.”
They had taken the gates, inch by inch.
General Zola had watched as the army already bloodied at Maillac’s Boot bloodied itself anew taking the same wide stairs that Callowan sappers had built but days earlier, tight ranks of legionaries heaving and screaming and they drove back the howling dead. Nothing was held back. Sharpers were thrown freely, shredding the enemy’s tightly packed hordes, and fireballs struck in volleys as spears of Light tore into the side of massive monsters. And the Second Army, living up to the excellence for which the Black Queen had honoured it, bled and won. The bodies fell, until all that was left was green flames and corpses no longer moving. Zola gave her orders, connecting her lines with the Fourth Army’s and evacuating the wounded through the twilight gate. There were no longer mages to spare to send them back into the fight, as too few healers.
Then the gates broke.
The Grey Legion strode through the wreckage, ranks and ranks of silent steel bearing thick shields and great weapons. Light barely bit into them, sorcery was useless, but munitions made a dent. Goblinfire most of all, though the dead simply made some of the legionaries lie over the flames so they would not spread and walked on. Through traps and pits, through caltrops and spikes, lumbering but indifferent. And when the Grey Legion reached the barricades, the lines wavered. Thousands of pounds of stone and wood were shattered in moments, and then great swords and hammers scythed through the frontline of the Second, but still the Second Army held. Zola Osei rode up and down the line, sending heavies into the gaps and ordering concentrated fire from the priests. Ineffective as they were, they still fared better than swords.
It tightened her stomach, watching orcs and humans and goblins pile themselves on the steel-clad dead to topple them and die and drove to destroy even a single one. Spells and Light came down in volleys from the ramparts and even the burning gatehouse, lines from the Fourth having dared to venture there, but it was not enough. The Grey Legion was pushing them back, slowly but surely. Blood and guts flowed down the street until the pavestones were so slick her men tripped on the entrails of their comrades, until smoke and ash stung their eyes to weeping and munitions slowly began to run out. A barricade collapsed entirely, a street routed, the shield wall collapse and then as if by a spell the breach was closed.
The Mirror Knight had come.
General Zola had heard the man called a fool by people high and low, but in that moment she felt only awe. That sole silhouette, marred by smoke and dust, smashed into the Grey Legion as if a cliff had decided to turn back the tide. He shone brightly, glimmer of Light, and as he advanced the enemy bent around him. Steel shells cracked, armoured dead went flying and an army of one sent the darkness howling back. Zola shouted herself hoarse organizing volleys to support him, sending in heavies to hold the ground taken back. Gods, they could still win this. They could still turn this around. Slowly, one at a time, the numbers of the Grey Legion were dwindling. The Second Army would not bend before they did. And forward the soldiers went, screaming their songs in defiance.
Then the Crab came, and the hope went out of them like a candle snuffed out.
Every gain made over hours of fighting gone, just like that. The monster-fortress stood above the ramparts, ramps coming down with iron hooks to disgorge undead atop the gate wherever the goblinfire had not spread. The shape blotted out even the sky, a tall shadow belching out acrid smoke the mage lines of the Fourth fled but not always quickly enough. The spell volleys sputtered out, and below the Grey Legion smashed into the ranks with fresh ferocity. The Mirror Knight was, before too long, a sole island of resistance in a sea of steel. And he fought on, but he could not win the war alone. Perhaps before Maillac’s Boot they would have been braver, Zola thought. Perhaps if the Black Queen had stood with them, as she had through the last nightmare.
But Maillac had happened, and the Black Queen was not there. The Second Army broke.
It was a retreat, at first. Almost controlled, soldiers edging away from the enemy. But the panic spread like a stain on lace, and steps turned into a run. And once a few had begun to run, thousands did. The Grey Legion were terrifying even as part of a shield wall, who wanted to fight them without it? The streets and barricades clogged with soldiers trying to flee, and in the wake of the Second breaking the remains of the Fourth Army broke as well. The only saving grace was that the Grey Legion were too slow to capitalize and that the streets were too narrow for the rout to make it far. The same barricades meant to be held against the dead instead bottlenecked fleeing soldiers, the blind panicked stampede killing hundreds.
General Zola had ordered spells fired into the broken ranks to turn them around, at first, but it changed nothing and she would not be party to butchering her own soldiers like animals. She tried to organize two fresh lines of defence but both buckled under the sheer mass of the routing soldiers who were in no mood to listen to shouting officers. There was, she bitterly realized, little she could actually do. She’d lost control over her army. They might as well be utter strangers now, for all the sway she had over them. Should she arrange for a more orderly retreat? The battle was good as lost now, but perhaps she could still salvage an army out of this. The sun shook out her out of her thoughts, absurdly enough. The sun, in the middle of the night.
And still there it was, hanging in the sky above them, red and burning and casting golden light. A miracle, Zola thought, and remembered the strange lights that burned under the eyecloth of the Hierophant. They were, she thought, eerily similar to what now shone above her army. Which slowed in its flight, confused and worried. And slowly, as General Zola watched, something changed. One of the barricades being toppled calmed, and when she sought the sight with a Baalite eye she found that a banner had been raised. The Crown and Sword, the Black Queens own, but it was not the Black Queen flying it. Lady Vivienne Dartwick, armed and armoured and mounted as the Order of Broken Bells rode around her, headed into the fray.
And wherever she went, under that burning sun that somehow had the Grey Legion buckling, the terror turned to shame. And shame turned into determination, soldiers streaming behind her.
The tide slowed.
The tide halted.
At last the tide turned around, and as the broken armies headed back into the fight General Zola Osei thought that while Callow might only have one queen this night it had gained a princess.