The first of the sun’s golden light was creeping across the horizon. They had spent the night camped in the forest, sleeping without fires so that no smoke would give their position away. Losena could be seen smoldering in the not-so-distant distance, its walls blackened by hellfire but still standing. Even though Holland knew what they were in for, she felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight of the legions. She’d never seen an army so vast, even in service to Saraqael—united, the Imperium was titanic in its power. More than a hundred thousand soldiers marched on that field, easily. Her own army was large, the largest the east had ever mustered, but it was still not enough. This was not a battle they would be able to win through strength of arms alone, not when faced with that endless sea of soldiers and demons. Holland gripped her reins a little more tightly.
“Are we ready?” Cadeyrn asked, his hand rising to the visor of his helm.
Lieren flicked her fingers, sending out an unspoken message to the mages. She waited for a long moment as each one checked with their unit commander before responding. Finally, she nodded. “We are. Shall I sound the advance?”
“That would be appreciated,” the Lord Protector said. He lowered his visor. “No battle cries or horns. Not yet. The more unexpected we are, the better.”
“Once you have their trebuchets under control, I’ll call the Desolate Throne,” Holland said. She knew her hands were shaking a little, but her gauntlets made it impossible to tell. She thanked the gods for that small mercy and said a silent prayer to the Eternal Watcher. She would be closer to the goddess of death now than she had ever been in the past.
“Gods go with you, Holland,” Cadeyrn said before tugging at his reins, pulling his horse away as he headed over to meet with the heavy cavalry. They would be lagging behind the infantry, waiting for the formations to break.
Lieren plucked at invisible strings and a ripple spread out towards their forces, alerting everyone that it was time to move. Thousands of shields were lifted at once and weapons drawn. They moved forward with grim purpose, following the curve of the forest towards the trebuchets. The elf flashed Holland and her small group a smile. “Be grateful you evaded having to give an inspirational speech, darling. It’s a pity you won’t be here to rally the troops.”
“There are no words for a war like this,” Holland said quietly. “Good luck, Lieren.”
“It’s been a rare pleasure, darling.” The elf laughed, urging her horse forward. The silver bells on the mare’s harness were soft and musical. “I’ll see you on the other side!”
The Imperial legions had fortified their position around their artillery, but not heavily. After all, they had destroyed Ethilir’s armies except for the desperate few penned in at Losena. Who would attack them from the rear? Naris had no way of sending word to Saraqael with Laenus gone, so the fact that their soldiers had left Yssa was something that seemed to have escaped the Divine Prince’s notice. The treeline grew close to the fortifications even though many trunks had been felled for their wood to construct the mammoth weapons of hellish destruction. By the time the legionnaires and engineers stationed with the trebuchets realized what was happening, the orc njoshari were already halfway up the embankments surrounding the weapons, given supernatural speed and endurance by their own magic. The mundane orcs followed next, giving in to their blood frenzy. They were a foe like nothing the Imperials had ever encountered before.
It was a bloodbath, the first crimson spray of what would become an ocean of red.
Murdak was right at the vanguard, wielding his greatsword with such ease that it might have been a toy, a tempest in the trenches. Thadash followed close behind him to guard his back, hurling bolts of force at any foe who came too close. It was satisfying to strike them, to watch their armor crunch inward or their faces smash in on themselves. Daag and his engineers were the next over the earthen walls, with the Năluci and Orobas at their heels. The main body of the army was still advancing and forming up into ranks as it did so, preparing to meet the onslaught of the legions’ full force.
Daag brought his axe down on the head of a centurion about to send up a signal. The helmet offered little resistance to such a powerful blow and a keen weapon. A single blow was all it took. “Adjust the trajectory!” the dwarf shouted to his people, who immediately scurried to their task as the orcish vanguard mopped up the rest of the mess. The full body of the orcish horde was waiting for the cavalry charge. They would take over the flanks of the knights, preventing them from being surrounded.
From a distance as they rode towards the western edge of the battlefield, Holland couldn’t see the battle behind the embankments, but she knew what had happened when hellfire flared to life and was sent on its lethal journey, straight into the ranks of the closest of the legions. The Imperials wouldn’t panic, but they were enveloped in an unexpected chaos and confusion, something the knights took full advantage of.
A roar went up from the ranks of the heavy cavalry as they charged, audible even at distance. “Death or glory!”
Yssa’s finest broke through the treeline in a line, lowering their lances side by side. Their powerful horses took a good distance to hit their full stride, but once they did, nothing was going to stop them. They smashed into the shattered legion’s broken formations. It was a horrible collision for both sides, lances punching through armor as though it were paper with the full force of a horse and rider behind it, but the spears of the legionnaires plunged into the bodies of horses and knights alike.
The Yssans didn’t break stride in the slightest, going to secondary weapons or dismounting without a thought. They were not farmers like the feudal levies—these were men and occasionally women who had spent a lifetime at war. They were masters of the battlefield, every bit the equal of the Imperials they were fighting. There were just far fewer of the knights than their enemies.
Daag’s dwarves were working furiously, tailoring the arcs of the trebuchets to hit the next series of formations to keep some of the pressure off the knights while the infantry caught up. The centuries that were abruptly reversing direction to recapture their own siege weapons found themselves hit with a hail of arrows and then violent spells from the Leyan magi, the wicked distortions rippling through the air and blowing apart formations.
It was a good start, but as the hellfire sigils flashed up into the sky, Holland knew reinforcements were already on their way. This was far from over.
Holland tightened her grip on the shard of Deus. “If you want me, hold up your end of the deal,” she whispered.
Power exploded outward from the fragment with a howl worthy of a damned soul being dragged into the deepest pit of hell, almost more felt in the bones and the stomach than heard. It shattered air even over the sounds of the battlefield, freezing blood in veins. The fabric of the world twisted and warped, the ground cracking apart beneath their feet. Zajar launched himself up into the air to escape and their horses bolted forward as the first of the black spires broke through the earth, rising into the sky like ebony fangs tearing into the heavens themselves. They had to run and run to get free of the rising structures, stopping only when they reached the edge where the outer gate and walls were surging upwards. Holland could feel the energy buzzing in her body, the sorcery in her veins answering the call of the Black City. Somewhere inside those massive, forbidding walls was the Desolate Throne. The Princes of Iron would no doubt immediately notice it. She and her team had to hurry.
“The animals aren’t going to go inside,” Ardashir said, swinging down off his horse. “Well, Zajar will, but not our horses.”
“Fine by me,” Vladan said with a grin. “I don’t mind hoofing it.”
“Vladan, I’ve seen your feet. You don’t hoof it anywhere,” Holland muttered as she dismounted. Seva followed suit with a little smile, as she’d caught the comment.
“I’ll stay in the sky until the battle is joined and keep watch,” Khagra said. She leaned down and kissed Ardashir. “I love you, vosu. I’ll see you soon.”
He gave her leg a fond, if worried, squeeze. “Love you too. Be safe.”
Zajar launched himself and his rider up into the sky, catching wing quickly. Even now, it was obvious that large figures were heading their way. The Princes of Iron were coming. They had mere minutes, if that. And they were bringing some of their legions with them.
The small group could see the forces moving their way from where they stood at the gates. “Five of us, fifteen thousand of them…seems fair,” Vladan said with a chuckle.
Seva turned and faced her lover. “Go for the Throne,” she said. “We will wake the defenses. Let nothing stop thee in thy hunt.” The queen framed Holland’s face in her hands and kissed her, letting it linger only for a few seconds. “Thou art ever in my heart.”
“Marry me,” Holland breathed, touching her forehead to Seva’s.
“Holland, you have to go,” Ardashir said urgently.
Seva didn’t seem to hear him. She could feel tears in her eyes. “Aye,” she whispered. “The moment we meet again. I love thee.”
“I love you too, Seva of Essen,” Holland said. She kissed her lover again quickly, then turn and ran towards the heart of the city. She didn’t know where the Desolate Throne was, but she had an inkling that it would be at the epicenter of the power that was so overwhelming that it flowed through her body like a river.
The three left on the ground at the gates hurried into the city after her. Vladan immediately went into the gatehouse. There was no wheel or obvious mechanism, but he found a series of mirrors that glowed with flickering lights when he neared them. He tapped on one and the lights swirled, forming a map of the area. He could see the gates, but there was no obvious way to close it and so the anthroparion did what he did best: he punched it. There was a horrible crashing sound as the gates slammed shut behind them. He poked his furry head out through the door, wrinkling his nose happily. “That’ll slow them down.”
Ardashir stepped into the small room with Vladan, Seva right on his heels. He sighed a little bit at the sight of the shattered mirror, but at least there were a few others that were whole. “My lady, can you read any of this?” he asked, motioning towards the flickering golden script playing across the glassy surface of the mirrors.
“Seva,” she corrected before frowning at the illusory characters. “‘Tis much like the marks on the Tuama, but ’tis naught I can read. Vladan’s solution seems to have worked on at least the gate.”
“Just hit it,” Vladan advised.
“We don’t want to open the gate again.” Ardashir looked serious when he spoke.
“The gods warred against the Deceiver. They used magic against his sorcery.” Seva’s blue eyes were thoughtful. “Perhaps the use of magic within these walls will wake it.”
“They’ll attack us, then, and leave the Princes,” the knight said.
“Maybe if she tags them with magic, like a clinging ward?” Vladan said.
There was a thunderous explosion from the gate and all of them tensed for a moment. Seva poked her head out. She couldn’t see any damage, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t there. “We must reinforce the gate. I may be able to do it with magic. If that wakes aught up, well…we will think of what to do then.”
Vladan nodded. “Do you have enough in you to do it?” he grunted. “Might have to pull from one of us. I don’t see any sign of any living thing in here.”
“Aye, I should. And when they breach the gate, there will be no shortage of sources.”
Ardashir nodded reluctantly. “If Khagra takes wing with you, Seva, that should give you a line of sight on at least one of the princes to place your ward. I really hope this works, or we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”
“Doesn’t matter whether we live or die,” Vladan pointed out. “All that matters is that Holland makes it to the Throne in time.”
“Aye,” Seva agreed. “And I ken Holland. She’ll make whatever minutes we can win for her count.”
Above them, streaking hellfire struck an ebony tower, sending the spire crumbling towards the ground. It collapsed just behind the gate, reinforcing the hold somewhat. It wasn’t what the assaulting forces had intended, but Seva would take it gladly. She looked one last time at the mirrors, hoping she would see something she recognized from Orobas’s occasional descriptions.
Seva tapped the mirror when she saw the symbol for lightning appear on it. A sudden buzzing charge filled the air. They stepped outside to see clouds forming in the blue sky, dark and ominous. Lightning crackled from cloud to cloud before striking the field outside, but it was not behaving like proper lightning. It hit the siege engines rather than any of the Princes, melting the metal and blowing apart wood. The engineers working on them either died or dove down, wounded. Above, Khagra gave a tight smile and guided Zajar back to the others. More strikes of lightning were hitting the field.
“We have a plan!” Ardashir called to her as she came in for a landing. “Take Seva up with you, she’s going to mark a Prince with magic!”
“Sounds good!” Khagra shouted over the thunder as Zajar skidded to a stop beside them. “Let’s hope it doesn’t hit us the second you cast that spell!”
The orc helped Seva up onto Zajar’s back. Instead of sitting behind Khagra, the blonde sat in front so Khagra could hold her on while she chanted and cast. She was unarmored and light enough that she wouldn’t weigh the drake down while riding with the orc on too. They took wing with a single, powerful launch upwards. The flight might have been enjoyable without certain death looming immediately in their future. More hellfire hit the walls below. Seva could see rivulets of molten metal and stone running like water down the face of the wall. From her new vantage, she could also see the legions and the whole of the battlefield.
A lot more than fifteen thousand were converging on the Black City and seven massive, hooded figures were nearing the walls. Seva felt her stomach clench in fear, but she ignored it. Instead, she started to invoke. It was going to be draining at this distance, but the nearest Prince wasn’t even a quarter mile away and he was moving fast towards them. She conjured up the ward, painting him as a source of magical energy. The effect was immediate. There was another screeching howl and figures flickered to life on the wall-tops. They resembled gargoyle-like demons, but they seemed more sorcery than body, crackling with electricity as they launched themselves from the walls and took wing on glowing, hexagonal-patterned translucent wings. There were thousands of them, and they hit the formations with a force worthy of the trebuchets that were doing their work across the field. Some of the city’s defenders did actually focus on the marked Prince, distracting him from his attempts to destroy the gate.
Zajar dove down again, narrowly avoiding a streaking blast of hellfire. Seva and Khagra were almost singed by the heat, it had passed so close.
“We’ll see if we can hold it now,” Khagra said as she slid off Zajar’s back. “That should slow them down, at least.”
“Nicely done,” Vladan said with a chuckle. “Now we wait, the hardest part.”
Out on the fields, another conversation was taking place, this one at the lines of the Imperial forces not currently being smashed with hellfire-imbued stones flung by those trebuchets or contending with the eastern forces.
“This is not a request, Silana!” Avitus bellowed from horseback, his sword still in his hand. “The Divine Princes command that you withdraw and turn your legions to the Black City!”
“If I leave, Ralla’s flank will collapse,” Silana repeated. Her eyes were still fixed on the wreckage of formations below her overlook. She had barely glanced at her fellow legate. It was complete chaos. The orc berserkers had done grievous injury to Ralla’s lines. She could see the soldiers drawing together in clumps to fend off cavalry. Signals were still going up and Ralla’s legion was continuing to fight, but without reinforcements, they wouldn’t be able to hold. Saraqael had taken the other legions that wore his color. The sight of the other legates withdrawing, even if just to pursue the Princes, was lending enemy forces a sudden surge of resolve.
Saraqael had abandoned Ralla and the legion under his command. They would die on this field if she left them. It was entirely possible that they would die even if she didn’t.
“His whole line is collapsing, Silana! You have been ordered to withdraw!”
“No.” It was strange how loud one little word could sound despite the roar of battle.
Avitus’s eyes went wide and he gaped at her for a moment before hardening again. He looked over at his second in command. “Longinus, kill Legata Silana and follow with her command.”
Silana snatched a javelin out of the hands of her own second and hurled it before the man in question could even draw his blade. It pierced Longinus through the middle of the chest, knocking him off his horse. “The next one is yours, Avitus!” she snarled.
Her fellow legate spurred his horse, headed back towards his own formations. He didn’t have time to fight her, not when every second counted. The Divine Princes had given him an order to carry out and he would do it.
“Legata?” one of her tribunes asked seriously. When she turned, she saw that his eyes were wide. All of them were wavering. “Your orders?” She was the rock in the storm.
She realized her body was shaking at the magnitude of what she’d just done. There would be no forgiveness for active insubordination—even if the battle spared her, she would die. Slowly, painfully, and publicly. However, it seemed that her subordinates weren’t ready to turn on her yet. She picked up her helm. “Marshal for a push and have the heavy cavalry form up,” she ordered. “We need to relieve pressure on the front. We do not abandon our own.”
There was a sudden relief in the faces of her officers. She’d just given them an impossible task, but it was a clear order and that was purpose. The legions did well with purpose. “Understood, Legata,” he said before cupping his hands around his mouth to shout to the others waiting nearby. “Sound the advance!”
Silana donned her helm, the steel face that formed its front as grimly purposeful as her own. Ralla was somewhere down in that chaos. It was entirely possible he was dead already, nothing more than a carcass and a memory. If that were the case, she had every intention of defending his corpse until she had no strength left. She swung up into her saddle and raised her sword. They would die as they had lived: fearlessly.
The roar went up along her lines as hellfire flashed in the air with the signal for the advance. It rolled across the battlefield like thunder, thousands of spears slamming against shields in unison as Silana’s legions started to move. She could feel herself swept up in the energy, every bit as powerful and electric as the wrath that the Princes could call down from heaven. Ralla and his legion would see the signal. They would know that even though the vastness of the Princes’ armies had left them to die, she and hers remained.
“Tuebor!” The sound of her battlecry coming from the whole of her forces made her heart lift. It was the oath she had made not to her Imperator or her Divine Prince, but to her soldiers: I will protect.
Now the real battle started, perfectly organized legions that had not been hit with surprise turning on their eastern foes. They moved like a well-oiled machine, perfectly in step as they advanced. Finally, a battle worthy of them.
For the first time in years, Silana’s grim lips curved up at the corners ever so slightly. I’m coming, Titus.
The exact same expression could be seen on the faces of the four who were about to stand alone against the Seven.