Authors: Correia, Larry
INTO THE STORM
PART I: THE RECRUITERS
PART II: THE INVADERS
PART III: THE DEFENDERS
A knight of Cygnar follows a strict moral code. His integrity is beyond reproach, he conducts himself as a gentleman at all times whether dealing with friend or foe, and he values honor above all. For a man to be knighted by the King of Cygnar is to place the eyes of the entire kingdom upon him, as if to say, “Behold this stalwart hero, for he is all that a warrior should aspire to be.”
—Records of Chivalryby Lord Percival Rainworth 486 AR
PART I: THE RECRUITERS
Spring, 606 AR
He hadn’t been dealt a very good hand, but when you make a habit of gambling with your life, you learned to make your own luck.
Considering that the tavern was a seedy little place on the outskirts of a tiny village deep in the Thornwood, it was fairly crowded. The patrons were rough folk, gathered here to spend their ill-gotten gains on poor quality ale, bad food, and ugly prostitutes. The tavern was the center of a lawless, wild settlement. The entire village consisted of a handful of huts on stilts to keep them out of the mud, a flea-ridden stable, and this sorry excuse for a tavern. It was made of logs slowly being devoured by moss and was so ramshackle it didn’t even warrant a name. This place was still within the borders of Cygnar, but only in the loosest sense of where lines fell on a map. The village was a forgotten place and a haven for bandits, though he was only looking for one bandit in particular.
“You been pondering on those cards a long time . . . What’s your play, stranger?”
“I’m in. Knights over jacks.”
One of the other players scoffed. “Not bloody likely odds, that.”
“I’m feeling lucky.” He slid three farthings across the table “Give me one more.”
“Bold move, gambler.” The dealer shoved another card at him. He was a big, thick-armed man, with a bushy black beard that would make any Khadoran proud. The dealer matched the description of a certain bandit leader with a hefty price on his head. “If you’re so confident, how come only three coppers?”
“Well, after losing the last few rounds to you boys, I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got left to my name.”
“Times are lean,” the dealer agreed. His armored great coat opened a bit as he leaned back, revealing a holstered repeater. That confirmed every man at the table was packing at least one weapon, a reasonable precaution in the Thornwood. “You looking for work, gambler?”
The two other players exchanged knowing glances. Of course, they were all with the same gang, so they would know what was coming next. The Thornwood Blades needed recruits. He’d made sure he looked the part. These types always fit a certain mold.
The gambler picked up the card. It was the Black Knight.Appropriate.“I’m between jobs.”
“You strike me as a fella that knows how to handle himself.” The dealer gestured at the Caspian battle blade leaning against their table. “Seems like that sword has seen some use.”
“A bit.” He looked down at his sword. The metal grip had been polished smooth by hundreds of hours beneath callused hands. The cross guard was nicked and dented from countless impacts. “It’s gotten me by.”
“You’re a sight older than most of my men, but I figure a fella don’t get to be your age wandering around places like this without knowing how to take of himself. Marks on your face say you’re no stranger to getting cut.” The dealer ran his finger across his jawline, or at least where he probably had a jaw under all of that beard. “There’s work to be had here, good work, if you’ve got the guts for it.”
“When there’s enough crowns involved, I find the guts.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Their current round of Fellig’s Fortunes was forgotten. Their hands of cards were laid on the table, and now it was time to talk business. The dealer leaned over the table conspiratorially, though everybody in the tavern either already knew or suspected his identity, and they were all too crooked themselves to try and collect a bounty. “The name’s Devlin. You heard of me?”
Devlin Norwick. Leader of the Thornwood Blades. Killer of men, women, and children.“Can’t say that I have, but I’m just passing through.”
“My trade is on the roads to the east. Take what I want. Make a tidy profit doing so. Locals get a piece too, so they’re keen on keeping us around. I’ve got an outfit, and I could always use a good swordsman. I’m short a few hands—”
One of the other bandits loudly interrupted. “Only because of that bastard Madigan killing them!”
Devlin just shook his head. “We’ll deal with him in time, Rolf.”
But the outburst had attracted the attention of some of the other patrons, who had begun muttering as well. The name seemed to be well known by many of the local cutthroats and invoked either nervousness or anger.
“Madigan, eh? Never heard of him either. He seems like a beloved sort.”
“SirMadigan. Cygnaran Army. He’s been hunting our gang all up and down the Thornwood. Latches on like a war dog and won’t let go.”
Another bandit pounded the table for emphasis. “Makes life miserable for the workin’ man, he does!”
“Cage it, Nash,” Devlin ordered. The bandit shut his mouth. “We had us a nice arrangement with the authorities before this Madigan came along. Even the army don’t like him. They say he’s an evil type, brings bad luck wherever he goes. So they sent him out here to fight farrow or some scut work, but he had to go sticking his nose into other folks’ dealings. You know how them knights are.”
“Pushy know-it-alls, the lot of them,” he agreed. “But I’ve got an empty coin purse, an empty stomach, and an empty mug, so why don’t you buy us some dinner and a round of drinks, and tell me more about this job of yours, Mr. Devlin?”
“I like that attitu—”
“Attention, villagers!”The tavern fell silent as everyone turned to see who had shouted. The newcomer was a tall, handsome young man who was obviously, painfully out of place. Though his expensive wool great coat had recently picked up some traveling grime, it was probably the cleanest thing the tavern had ever seen. When he got a lungful of the thick smoke filling the room, he began to cough, then covered his mouth with a clean, white handkerchief. “Thank you. Pardon my interruption, villagers, but I am here to deliver an urgent message and would appreciate your assistance.”
The well-spoken young man might as well have entered holding a sign that readRob me and leave my corpse in a ditch.Rolf turned to Devlin and whispered, “I reckon he’s not from around these parts.”
“I am looking for someone. I was told at the fort that I could find Lieutenant Hugh Madigan here.”
It was silent for a long few seconds, and then nearly everyone in the room began to laugh uproariously.
“What’s so funny?” The room was uncomfortably hot from the roaring fireplace, so the newcomer unbuttoned his great coat, revealing the bright blue uniform of the Cygnaran Army. The laughter slowly died and hands moved toward guns or blades as the patrons realized this was no joke. “This is no laughing matter. I have an important message for Lieutenant Madigan.”
“Sorry, young sir.” The tavern owner approached cautiously. “I think you’ve got the wrong place and should be going now before anything bad happens.”
“Bad? What? This is important. Once again, I’m looking for Lieutenant Hugh Madigan, Third Platoon, 22nd Company. I’ve got priority orders straight from Corvis.”
“Ha, ha! Yes, very amusing.” The proprietor took the young man by the sleeve, trying to hustle him out the door before his establishment had yet another killing inside of it. “Please, sir. Right this way.”
“Are you daft, man?” The oblivious soldier pushed the tavern owner away. “I’m Sergeant Cleasby, and I’m on important business on behalf of the crown. This is a priority. You probably don’t get that much out here in the backwoods.”
“Hold on, now!” shouted a rat-faced man from the opposite corner. “What’s all this about Madigan being here?”
“I was told the lieutenant was in this village hunting for a bandit gang.”
Oh, you dithering imbecile.The gambler reached slowly for his sword. The bandits in the room were glancing about nervously now. The tavern owner retreated for safety.
“I’ve not met him, but he was described as being in his late forties, in excellent health, of average height, grey haired . . .” Sergeant Cleasby was glancing about the room as well but found he was the only person dressed in blue and gold. “He may not be in uniform.”
Devlin turned to study the newest addition to their game of Fellig’s Fortunes.
“He is a swordsman of some renown, favors a Caspian blade . . . Let’s see, what else?”
Rolf and Nash turned to stare at the big sword leaning against the table. Devlin’s eyes narrowed dangerously, then he shook his head slowly in the negative. “Easy there, gambler,” Devlin whispered. “Let’s hear the lad out.”
He stopped reaching for his sword and calmly placed his hands on his lap. There was bad luck, and then there was military incompetence. The two often went hand in hand.
“Oh yes, Madigan has distinctive scars on his face from the Scharde Invasions, sustained in an action for which he received the Star of Valor and knighthood—”
“Where’s these scars on his face at, boy?” Rolf asked as he pulled the hand cannon from his belt.
“Boy?” Cleasby grew indignant. “How dare—”
“Where are the scars?” Devlin demanded.
Several other men had risen from their seats. Knives and guns had been drawn. Many eyes were now focused on Devlin’s table and followed his gaze. Madigan had been a plague on every bandit in this part of the Thornwood for months. Other toughs were approaching Cleasby, who only now was realizing what he had blundered into. Cleasby raised his hands defensively as several weapons were pointed his way. “Gentlemen, calm down, please . . . I must have the wrong village. I’ll be on my way.”
This time Devlin roared.“Where are Madigan’s scars?”
Cleasby swallowed hard. “On his cheek and jaw.”
Everyone in the tavern was looking at him now. The gambler’s eyes flashed back and forth, a movement most would take for fear but a few would recognize as an experienced combatant assessing every potential threat. There were alotof threats.
Devlin grinned, showing off blackened teeth. “Pleasure to meet you finally, Sir Madigan. Good thing you got yourself uglied up to such a noteworthy degree.”
“I was marked by a Satyxis whip. Left me a face only a mother could love.” The gambler’s voice was cold, and he no longer sounded like a hungry bandit, but rather a commander of men. “Devlin Norwick, in the name of the crown, I hereby arrest you for murder, banditry, general lawlessness, and the theft of military supplies. Surrender your arms and stand down. Resist and I’ll kill you.”
“What do you think, Devlin?”
“I think if you’d brought help, they would’ve stopped this idiot from coming in here and mouthing off.” Devlin moved his head from side to side, making a big show of taking in the many well-armed and surly patrons. “You’re as mad as they say, coming in here alone, demanding my surrender.”
“I’ll take that as a no. Sergeant Cleasby, take these men into custody.”
“Uh . . .” The young soldier had been surrounded by a few members of the Thornwood Blades and was slowly being backed into a corner. “That’ll be just a moment, sir!”
“I’ll hand it to you, old man. You’ve got a pair on you.” Devlin chuckled. The great battle blade was still sheathed, resting against the table, only a foot from Madigan. Devlin eyed the sword. “But nobody’s that fast.”
Madigan raised his voice so every occupant of the tavern could hear him clearly. “I’m only here for Devlin Norwick. He’s not worth dying for. I don’t give a damn about the rest of you or what you may have done, but if you raise so much as a finger in my way, I swear I will begin to give a damn, and none of us want that.”
Devlin’s snarl displayed his rotten teeth. “Shoot him, Rolf. Shoot the knight in his big, stupid mouth.”
Rolf lifted the hand cannon.
The noise came from beneath the table. Rolf gasped as the bullet hit him in the pelvis.
When you leave a big sword in the open, people tended to focus on it rather than on the tiny hideout pistol hidden in your coat sleeve. Madigan dropped the pistol, stuck his hands beneath the heavy wooden table, and flipped it end over end, throwing cards, money, and drinks in every direction. Devlin was faster than he looked and managed to get mostly out of the way. Nash stumbled, tangling his feet with his chair. Distracted by pain, Rolf fired. His single heavy round blew a hole through the table before pulverizing several bricks of the fireplace. Madigan went for his sword.
The entire room had exploded into motion, but for Madigan time seemed to slow to a crawl. His blade was falling toward the ground. Devlin was going for his repeating pistol and represented the most imminent threat. Nash was still toppling backward. Thugs were rushing Cleasby, who was now in a full-blown retreat. There were a dozen other potential combatants in the tavern, but they weren’t committed yet. The best way to convince them to stay that way would be a show of overwhelming force.
The bandit leader had been right about one thing: you didn’t get to his age in a world like this without learning how to take care of yourself.
Madigan caught his sword by the handle and tugged, freeing three feet of hardened steel from the sheath in one practiced motion. He struck. The muzzle of Devlin’s repeater was coming his way, but Devlin cried out as the sword split his hand in half. The pistol went flying.
Nash hit the ground on his back but didn’t lose his grip on his pistol. The Caspian battle blade was designed for slashing rather than stabbing, but it made no difference when the wide, rounded point was driven with a great deal of force into a fallen opponent’s trachea. Nash made a horrible gurgling noise as he died.
Devlin stumbled away, holding his ruined hand to his chest, blood pouring down his arm. “Get him!” The command was pointless, as the other Thornwood Blades had already launched themselves in Madigan’s direction.
He turned to intercept two new attackers. A tankard was flung at his head, but he simply knocked it aside with his sword. He stepped back, avoiding the clumsy lunge of a man with a dagger, then used the superior reach of his sword to counterattack low, striking for the leg. Flesh parted until the sword removed a chunk of bone. The bandit howled and collapsed as his ruined leg buckled beneath him.
The second man had a banded club. Extremely strong, he struck with great enthusiasm. Strength and enthusiasm were no match for experience, however; with a flick of the wrist Madigan deflected the club to the side and then sliced through the bandit’s throat on the backswing. He was searching for the next threat long before the club-wielding bandit realized his life was pouring down his shirt.
The hideout pistol wasn’t a particularly powerful firearm, so Rolf was still alive. The hand cannon was broken open, and the wounded bandit was struggling to shove a fresh paper case into the chamber with badly shaking hands. Madigan brought the sword down on Rolf’s head, ending another wretched existence.
Devlin had spied his dropped pistol and was reaching for it with his uninjured hand when Madigan simply lopped it off at the wrist.
In trained hands, the Caspian blade was faster than it looked.
Only a few seconds had passed. Five men were dead or dying. The one with the leg wound was a noisy one, but that sent a message to the crowd. Many of the other low-life scum had pulled their weapons, but the example had been set, and none of them felt like risking their lives on behalf of the Thornwood Blades. The bandit leader stared in shock at his severed hand lying among the spilled food and broken mugs before slowly sinking to his knees. Madigan turned his attention back to Sergeant Cleasby.
He was surprised to find that the young man was actually a capable fighter. Cleasby had been attacked by three of the Thornwood Blades. One was lying on the floor, moaning, with a stab wound through the guts, while Cleasby was holding off the other two with a rapier. He fought quickly and efficiently, like a man who had some proper dueling instruction, and the only reason it wasn’t over yet was because a gentleman’s tutor would never spend time teaching how to take on multiple wastrels whose individual swordsmanship wasn’t fit to butcher a cow. Cleasby had ingrained skills, but he wasn’t used to combating savagery.
“An upper-class man.” Madigan shook his head as he righted a chair and sat down next to the stunned Devlin. “That explains his incredible lack of common sense. What say you, Devlin?” There was no answer. The bandit was still staring at his hand, the fight in his belly having escaped along with much of his blood. The grey of his skin and his shallow breathing suggested he would pass out in a few moments. “I suppose I should help him.” Madigan reached down, pried Devlin’s fingers off the repeater, and took up the gun. He picked one of the remaining bandits, carefully centered the front sight between the bandit’s shoulder blades, and pulled the trigger. The gun roared and the man went down.
Cleasby took advantage of the last fighter’s momentary distraction and ran him through the heart. That bandit made a surprised, almost embarrassed face before going limp and sliding to the floor. Cleasby looked nearly as surprised as the bandit, but at least he retained his sword.
Devlin was whispering something, so Madigan returned his attention to the bandit leader. “Speak up, man.”
“Took both my hands . . . If you’re takin’ me alive, you better do something quick.”
“Nobody wants you alive, Devlin. I only offered to arrest you because you were kind enough to buy a down-on-his-luck swordsman a drink.”
“S’pose I should’ve surrendered, then . . .”
“I suppose.” Madigan lifted Devlin’s repeater, cocked the hammer, and put the bandit out of his misery.
Cleasby was panting. The way he stood so long over the body of the man he’d stabbed, watching the red puddle spread, told Madigan this was probably the first life the young soldier had ever taken.Better get used to it, lad.
The tavern was dead quiet. The man with the leg wound had quit screaming. The smell of blasting powder mingled with other assorted unpleasant smells. “Anybody else have an issue?” Madigan waited to the count of five. “Very well, then. There will be no more attacks on military convoys in this area. Living here in this godforsaken farrow wallow, you may think you’ve been forgotten by the kingdom, but you’re still Cygnaran subjects, and you’d damn well better act it. King Leto’s soldiers protect your miserable lives every single day. Do not think you can deprive the men who defend you the tools they need to survive and not face the consequences.” Madigan got out of the chair, took another patron’s mug of ale, and finished it. Sadly, it was watered-down swill. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Sergeant Cleasby!”
To his credit, the young soldier snapped out of his stupor. “Yes, sir!”
He kicked Devlin’s corpse. “Carry this body outside and put it on the back of your horse.”
“My horse, sir?”
“I don’t want to get blood on mine.”
Sergeant Kelvan Cleasby had a cold, uncomfortable lump in his stomach as he rode along beside the infamous Hugh Madigan. Between the cold fog of the mysterious Thornwood, his traveling companion’s nefarious reputation, and the fact that he’d just stabbed someone to death, Cleasby was feeling a bit nauseated. The dead body pushed up against his backside and hanging over both sides of his horse, flopping about, wasn’t helping either.
“Well, it seems we’ve got a bit of a journey ahead of us. We’ll take the Bramblerut Road to Corvis and then a long train ride to Caspia.” It was the first time Madigan had spoken since reading the message. They had been riding for nearly an hour, and the only sound had been the slow clop of hooves. “How’re you feeling, Cleasby?”
“I’m fine, sir.”
“You don’t need to lie to me. The last time I saw a man’s face that shade of grey he was a Cryxian. Disgusting undead monsters.” Madigan hawked and spit on the ground. “So that was the first time you’ve taken a life.”
It wasn’t a question. “That was the first time I’ve seen combat, yes.”
“Combat?” Madigan smiled. “Heh . . . That’s a quaint notion.”
Cleasby felt his cheeks burn. Madigan had a foul reputation, but his martial skills were never in doubt, only his character. “Lieutenant Madigan, I meant no—”
“It’s fine. You can die just as easily at the hands of a good-for-nothing thief as you can leading a magnificent cavalry charge that bards will write songs about for generations—or slipping and hitting your head getting out of the bath, for that matter. You did well in that fight.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Even though there wouldn’t have been a fight to begin with if you hadn’t been a sodding idiot. I wanted them to lead me back to their hideout, where we could have swept up all of them at once. As it is now, we’ll have to make do with killing their leader, but the rest of the gang will reform, thanks to your inability to pay attention.”
Cleasby bit his tongue. Madigan was the one who had thrown away a promising military career. No superiors wanted Madigan under their command, no officers wanted to serve alongside him, and no men wanted to follow him. Of course, he should expect rudeness from the man who had outright murdered one of King Leto’s best friends. “Won’t happen again, sir.”
“Don’t they still give lessons in reconnaissance at the Strategic Academy?”
“I didn’t go to the Strategic Academy.”
“No, sir.” Cleasby swatted a mosquito that had landed on his cheek.
“Hmmm . . . interesting. An enlisted man, but obviously educated, with good breeding. Absolutely no common sense, no combat experience, and too young to have been in long, but already a sergeant. Your father must be a fairly rich man.”
“My father was a cobbler.” Promotions could come along for things other than a strong sword arm or steady aim with a rifle, but men like Madigan wouldn’t understand that. Cleasby happened to be very good at preparing and expediting vitally necessary reports and paperwork. “Actually, until recently I attended the University of Corvis.”
“A scholar? Well, that’s handy, I suppose. I met Viktor Pendrake on his travels. Good man. Learning everything he could about monsters and beasties and how best to deal with them. Fascinating, useful information.”
“I only took the required introductory class in the Department of Extraordinary Zoology, so I never studied with Professor Pendrake.”
Madigan turned on his saddle, looking honestly disappointed. “Whatdidyou study then?”
“History and classical literature, mostly.”
“Morrow preserve us.” Madigan let out a long breath. “That explains a lot.”
“I did go through the officer training program, sir. And in my defense, your . . .operationamong the local criminals was rather unorthodox conduct for a knight.”
“I wasn’t given that title because of my courtly skills, Cleasby.” Madigan chuckled. “I was knighted because King Vinter thought I was especially good at killing things.”
“Is that why you sided with him during the coup?” Cleasby immediately regretted saying it. Sometimes his mouth had a bad tendency to run before his mind was done deciding if things were better left unsaid.
“What was that?” Madigan pulled on his reins and brought his horse to a stop. Cleasby wasn’t as good a horseman, and it took him a moment to get his mount under control. When he had wrestled the horse about, he saw Madigan was giving him a cold stare, not too different from the one the man had been wearing before he’d started chopping up bandits. “If you’ve got something you want to say, spit it out.”
“I . . . I meant nothing by it, sir. I’ve just heard . . .”
“What’ve you heard?”
“Just soldiers talking. When I was told to fetch you, some people may have said a few things about your . . . history.”
“History, eh?” Madigan scowled. Cleasby realized the grizzled knight’s eyes were an eerie shade of blue, nearly the color of ice. Cleasby’s horse took a few nervous steps and snorted. The dead man’s damaged arm swung forward and bumped Cleasby’s boot heel. “I suppose you found my history fascinating, then? A little personal glimpse into the minor events surrounding the Lion’s Coup?”
“No, sir! I—”
“So thesepeopleof yours told you about what I did to Earl Hartcliff?”
By “people,” Cleasby had meant the officer who had given him this message to deliver and then every other officer in the command staff of the 2nd Division he’d spoken with. The details differed, but the point remained the same: if you wanted to have a career in the Cygnaran Army, avoid Madigan like the plague. There was nothing to be gained by serving with the man who had butchered King Leto’s childhood friend during the coup and had remained remorseless about it ever since, but rather than say all that Cleasby only nodded.
“Listen carefully, Sergeant. Vinter Raelthorne was ourking.I followed his orders then exactly like I follow King Leto’s now. When a soldier gets orders, he doesn’t question them; he follows them. Right now my orders are to go with you to Caspia.” Madigan forced a smile that was almost worse than the glare. “So relax.” Madigan made a clicking noise with his tongue and his horse obediently set out back down the road.
Cleasby realized he’d been so tense he’d stopped breathing. He thumped his horse with his boots and they followed along. The Thornwood was eerily quiet.
Half a mile later, Madigan addressed him again, but this time he didn’t bother to turn around. “I’ve been away from the chain of command for so long I wasn’t sure anyone even remembered I was still alive. What else did they tell you about me? And consider answering that question truthfully as a direct order from a superior officer.”
“Well . . .” He swallowed hard. He had been given quite an earful. Driving his blade through someone’s ribs had been easier than this. “They said you’re bad luck.”
“Wherever you go, bad things happen.”
“Maybe I have a knack for knowing where trouble is going to be and getting there first.”
“They say you cut corners, break rules, get your soldiers killed.” Madigan jerked his head just a bit at that last one. “That you’re without honor, compassion, or any other knightly virtues. That the king is remarkably merciful for not executing you. Let’s see, what else . . . You’re a sorry excuse for a knight . . . you—”
“You are a remarkably honest man, Cleasby. That’s admirable, if somewhat stupid.”
“Uh . . . thank you?”
Madigan raised one fist. “Hold up.”
Cleasby managed to stop his horse faster this time. The knight was carefully watching the thick underbrush. “What is it?”
“Shhh.” Madigan tilted his head to the side, listening.
Cleasby couldn’t hear or see anything different. His horse seemed jittery, but Madigan’s horse was fine.
“Dismount and cut that body loose,” the older man said.
“Remember what I said about following orders, Sergeant Cleasby?”
“Sorry, sir,” Cleasby grumbled as he dismounted. Leather creaked as his horse stomped nervously. It took him a moment to untie the knots in the rope securing the corpse, and by the time he looked up from his work, he was surprised to see a gigantic, heavily armored ogrun standing in the middle of the road. “Bandit!”
The beastly figure had to be nearly eight feet tall and was carrying a mace big enough to smash a warjack, and it had come seemingly out of nowhere. Cleasby drew his rapier and then realized the little blade would be next to useless against someone that big and wearing that much armor.
Then the bandit corpse slid off the back of his horse and Cleasby yelped as it fell on him.
The ogrun was watching them with beady black eyes that seemed comparatively tiny compared to his wide mouth. “Your friend is mighty high strung,” he said to Madigan in a raspy voice loud enough to fit his massive stature. Then he turned to Cleasby. “Put the pig sticker away before you accidently poke somebody.”
“Stand down, Cleasby.” Madigan dismounted as the ogrun approached. “How’ve you been, Hutchuck?”
“Youknowhim?” Cleasby asked nervously as he tried to disentangle himself from the dead man, but the corpse had become remarkably stiff and uncooperative.
“No. Hutchuck is a common ogrun name and the old human got lucky,” the ogrun said flatly. “Where did you find this bright one, Madigan?”
“He found me. I’m to be transferred to Caspia.”
“Good. With you gone, the fort will go back to being lazy, patrols will slack, and crime will go up. More bounties for me to collect means more gold to buy alchemical supplies for my experiments. Everyone is happy.”
“You’rean alchemist?” Cleasby was incredulous.
Hutchuck ignored him and turned to Madigan. “They will letyouback inside the City of Walls?”
“I was never officially banished.”
“Close enough.” The ogrun’s armor rattled as he shrugged. It seemed to be made up of bits and pieces from various other suits—most of them too small—and even metal scraps and plates torn from ’jacks. He was wearing a bandolier which held several very large, roughly fashioned grenades. Cleasby felt even worse when he realized someone that heavy and that explosive had managed to sneak up on him. “They say there will be war there soon, against the Menites. They are smart to bring you back. War is all you are good for.”
“You’ll get no disagreement from me on that. Come on. I’ve got what you want.”
Hutchuck stomped over to the corpse. He gave Cleasby a suspicious look before kneeling and pulling the burlap sack from the bandit’s head, revealing the face. The ogrun growled—a low, dangerous sound—then pulled a rolled piece of paper from inside his breastplate. It was a wanted poster. He looked at the picture, then the body, then back at the picture. “Hard to tell. You humans get puffy when you die, but the beard is right.” He pried open the dead man’s mouth with two giant fingers. “Bad teeth, too.”
“As big as that reward is, it should buy you plenty of corrosive reagents to keep you occupied for a while. It’s Devlin. You’ve got my word.”
“The monetary value of your word couldn’t buy a goat anywhere in Cygnar.” The horrendous bellowing noise that came next had to be ogrun laughter. Hutchuck removed a large coin purse from his belt and tossed it to Madigan. “Always a pleasure doing business, my friend.” The mace went over one shoulder, and then he effortlessly picked up the corpse in his other hand, carrying Devlin by the belt like a piece of luggage. “Farewell, Madigan. May you have a very good war.”
“Until next time, Hutchuck.” Madigan stuffed the bulging coin purse into a saddlebag, then climbed back onto his horse as the ogrun walked in the opposite direction. “Come along, Cleasby.”
He waited until the mighty brute was out of earshot. “What was that?” he demanded, even though he suspected he already knew the answer.
“A mutually beneficial transaction. Military officers can’t collect bounties; Hutchuck’s trade is bounty hunting. So Hutchuck gives me half up front, I bring him the body, and then he goes to the fort and collects the whole reward.” Madigan didn’t seem even the least bit ashamed. “No use letting a perfectly good dead bandit go to waste.”
“That’s against regulations!”
“Which is why I used the ogrun.”
“But . . . butregulations!”
Madigan didn’t seem interested in explaining himself further. “Mount up. We’ve got a train to catch.”
Offended and angry, Cleasby followed. He didn’t want to disobey orders, and he certainly didn’t want to be caught on the road in the Thornwood alone after dark. When he’d first heard the rumors about Madigan, he’d thought maybe, just maybe, they were exaggerated, but now he wasn’t so sure. This man was supposed to be a knight? Where was the dignity and the honor like he’d seen from the command staff in Corvis? Those knights had been models of chivalry. Surely, none of them would seek out personal profit for doing something that should be done simply out of duty. Such a lack of propriety was disgusting.
Cleasby knew he could be idealistic at times, but Sir Madigan was proving to be as bad as everyone had made him out to be.
Cleasby watched out the train window as they approached the biggest structures he had ever seen. The capital of Cygnar was one of the largest cities in Caen, a magnificent testament to the greatness of their people. It had been the only city in western Immoren never to fall before the Orgoth invaders, and it had only grown more impressive since. He had read much about it, but this was the first time he’d actually seen Caspia. It hardly seemed possible, but the city was even better than he’d imagined.
The first thing he noticed when approaching Caspia was the walls. They were ancient and overwhelming. He’d been taught they were two hundred feet tall in places, and some were a hundred feet thick. To the east, on the other side of the great bridge that spanned the Black River, rose even more great walls, painted white and gold.
That was Sul. It had originally been the eastern slums of Caspia, but the worshipers of Menoth had taken it during the civil war and named it after their rebellious Hierarch Sulon. As a historian, Cleasby was giddy. This place was absolutely filled with history.
The train entered Caspia’s north gate, and Cleasby looked around eagerly, drinking it all in. Great walls reached up everywhere, seemingly without order, creating dozens of separate neighborhoods and districts. People had even builtintothe walls. As for those people . . . Cleasby had never imagined so many people in one place.
“It is absolutely wonderful,” Cleasby spoke his thought aloud.
“Indeed.” His reluctant traveling companion, Lieutenant Madigan, was watching out the same window. The two of them hadn’t spoken much over the last few days of the long train ride. Cleasby had passed the time rereading the few books he’d packed, while Madigan had spent the days visiting with the civilian passengers and sleeping a lot. “Caspia is as beautiful as she is merciless.”
“We’re living during a revolution of industry, and this is the center of it all. I’ve been told Caspia is growing at a rapid pace. There are over a million residents now.”
“First time in the capital, Cleasby?”
“It is, sir. I’m to be stationed here. Headquarters, 33rd Battalion.”
“The 33rd? That’s Storm Lance heavy cavalry.” Madigan sounded suspicious; Cleasby suspected the man didn’t regard him very highly. The feeling was mutual. “You didn’t particularly strike me as a horseman.”
It had been a long journey, but they were too close to their destination to bother getting offended now. “Can’t say I’m much inclined to the horses, sir. I can stay atop one provided it travels in a straight line, and not too quickly. I believe I’m needed for an administrative post.”
“Is that why you joined the military, Cleasby? Administrative duties?”
“Of course not . . .” The young soldier hesitated. “That’s where my superiors felt my talents would be of the most use, sir.”
“I’m not degrading it, lad. It’s a necessary assignment, as any solider who has ever been in a unit with bad logistical support can tell you. Campaigning is bad enough as it is, but it’s worse on an empty stomach and without proper boots. Every unit needs an organizational man, but nobody signs up for a war effort to shuffle paper, especially a young scholar with a university education and no shortage of prospects in society.” Madigan absently scratched at his scar. “So why did you enlist, Cleasby?”
“Does it matter, sir?”
The old knight’s ice-blue eyes seemed to bore a hole in Cleasby. “I say it does.”
The truth would sound stupid, so he said what was expected of him. “Because I felt it was my patriotic duty. The kingdom needs every able-bodied adult in this time of need.”
“Of course.” It was odd how Madigan could go from seemingly uncaring to focused interrogator in the blink of an eye. “And what else?”
Cleasby sighed. He was resigned to the idea that Madigan would simply laugh at him. “This.” He reached into the pack on the floor beneath his feet, rummaged around, and came out with a small, leather-bound book. He handed it over.
Madigan studied the book for a moment.“Records of Chivalry?”He opened the front cover and read from the table of contents. “‘A history of various brave heroes, knighted by the kings of Cygnar, for their uncommon valor and love of country.’”
It was only one book of many but was a particular favorite. “Since I was small, I’ve been fascinated by stories of knightly accomplishments. I always knew it was the sort of thing I would never be brave enough to do myself. I set my interest aside when I began my serious studies, but I was in Corvis when the skorne raiders attacked a few years ago, and I was . . . well . . .”
“Completely useless?” Madigan asked without malice.
“Correct, sir. It made me think back to stories such as this, and I knew what I had to do. I was inspired. I enlisted in the hopes that I could become as brave as those who have come before. Of course, I have no delusions of ever being knighted myself.” He nodded his head respectfully in Madigan’s direction. “True knights of Cygnar, warriors such as yourself who are knighted by royalty, are extremely rare—as they rightly should be, of course—but I thought I could join one of the knightly orders, such as the Storm Knights, and perhaps prove myself . . . However, it was felt my aptitudes lay elsewhere.”
Madigan shook his head and smiled. He continued flipping pages. The smile slowly grew until it turned into a laugh. He turned a few more pages, and the laugh turned bitter. “You realize, of course, that most of these stories are bunk?”
“That’s not true! These are heroes of Cygnar.”
“These stories speak of noble virtues, as if a man can be categorized so easily, but it isn’t a soldier’s job to be merciful, or generous, or any of that nonsense. It’s his job to do as his king tells him, hold ground or take it, defeat his enemies, and above all, achievevictory. Behind each of these stories was a hardscrabble bastard who was just meaner and tougher than everybody else, or a rich man with a lord who owed him favors. Then, after they died, scribes prettied them up so they could tell stories to children. You want to end up as a story in a book, Cleasby? Then you need towin.”
Cleasby felt his face go hot. “You truly believe that’s all there is to knighthood? I’ll have you know I’ve met proper knights and they were the model of chivalry. Only the best among us is knighted by the king, and they are the epitome of what a warrior should aspire to be.”
Madigan handed the book back. “I used to feel that way myself, once.”
“Before the coup?”Damn it.Cleasby bit his tongue, but it was too late.
“Yes.” The old warrior went back to looking out the window. “Before the coup.”
They traveled the rest of the way in silence.
The air of the Sixth Division Headquarters held a certain tension he had come to know well. The place practically thrummed with the low buzz of activity from the staff and officers, the sound of constant, focused actions with an underlying sense of urgency. Madigan could almost feel the vibrations in his bones.
War was coming.
“Major Laddermore will see you now.”
Madigan stood up from the bench and followed the aide into the office. The major was seated on the other side of a desk that was covered in maps, reports, and lists. A huge map of Caspia and Sul hung on the opposite wall. She was far younger than he’d expected, though considering her last name and who her father was, rapid promotions were not too surprising. He honestly wasn’t expecting much in the way of leadership abilities or tactical acumen.
He saluted. “Lieutenant Hugh Madigan, reporting for duty.” The aide closed the door, leaving him alone with the major.
“At ease, Lieutenant.” Major Katherine Laddermore looked up from her tables of personnel and equipment and frowned at him. “What happened to your uniform?”
The blue had long since faded to a sort of fuzzy grey. Holes had been patched. Rips had been stitched. “There’s not much in the way of resupply on the frontier, sir. My apologies.” Folding his hands behind his back, he waited for his next—inevitably degrading—assignment.
“Well, I suppose there aren’t many opportunities for parades in the Thornwood, either.” Laddermore gestured at a chair. “Have a seat. Do you know why you’re here, Lieutenant?”
Madigan sat down. “No, sir. I do not.”
“The Protectorate of Menoth continues to harass our kingdom and violate our treaties. The Menites demand blind obedience to their faith; their Great Crusade is a war against all non-Menites. King Leto has ordered a punitive invasion into the city of Sul.”
The resolution of the Cygnaran civil war two hundred years ago had carved the Protectorate of Menoth from Cygnar’s borders and broken the great city of Caspia in half. A reckoning between them was not a surprise.
The major continued. “King Leto has given Lord Commander Stryker unprecedented control over this operation, and he has declared we order up every last man possible. He believes the Protectorate is not to be underestimated, so we are holding nothing back.”
Madigan knew virtually nothing of Coleman Stryker beyond his reputation as a brilliant commander and a powerful warcaster, but he had heard enough about the Menites to know that was a good decision. Many officers would be quick to underestimate the Protectorate as merely backward-thinking religious fanatics, but those devoted to that faith fought with a fervor most modern men could never understand. “Wise.”
“Our new Storm Division is the most advanced military force the kingdom has ever fielded. We’re armed with the best warjacks and the newest mechanika, and we’re going to breach the walls of a city that is supposed to be impregnable.”
“How do we intend to do that?”
“That is Major Brisbane’s department. My assignment is actually getting this fancy new Storm Division to function as a coherent military unit. Lord Commander Stryker has ordered all hands on deck for the invasion of Sul. Every available resource is to be utilized, and when I say every, I meaneverysinglesoldier, regardless of current status. We’ve built this division practically from scratch. I’ve spent the last few months cobbling together and staffing new units, and now I’m down to the last one. Do you understand my meaning, Lieutenant?”
“Not really, sir.”
“Stormblades and Stormguard infantry are the backbone of the new Storm Division. Welcome to the Storm Knights.”
It made no sense. That was an honored position—and the Storm Knights were consideredLeto’s Boys.Leto had created the order himself and expanded them during his time as Warmaster General. They had followed Leto during the coup and were considered his most loyal troops. “That’s . . . not what I expected.”
“Normally, only the army’s most promising troops are selected for a position in the Storm Knights, but this rapid expansion has forced us to increase recruiting. We had rosters to fill, so we requisitioned troops from other commanders, and we’ve had to work with whatever they’ve sent.”
Shuffling your troubles off onto some other commander was a military tradition, but Madigan merely nodded in acknowledgement.
“We’re training up soldiers who’ve never touched a storm glaive before, but most of those will get by. However . . .” She picked out one of the many lists on her desk and handed it to him. There were names, ranks, service dates, and a final column of notes.Disciplinarynotes. “These are the men nobody wants. This is the bottom of the barrel.”
He read through a few. “Insubordination, drunkenness, absent without leave, criminal activity . . .”
“There are a few experienced Storm Knights in there as well, but as you are well aware, even the most promising soldier can stumble. When you draw up twenty-two thousand men in a hurry, you’re bound to end up with a few troublemakers.”
“General lawlessness, incompatibility with other soldiers, possible insanity . . . Lovely crew you’ve got here.”
“You meanyou’vegot. They’re your problem now, Lieutenant Madigan.” Laddermore had a smile nearly as cold as his.
“I need a sixth platoon to fill out this division’s roster. Your assignment is to build this platoon for me from the names on that list. Of course, the worst offenders have already been hung, so you won’t have to deal with any murderers or rapists we know of. You can collect most of the soldiers from the brig or the stocks. The rest you’ll have to track down. Then you’ll form them into a functioning unit and have them prepared for the invasion within two months. Any questions?”
Madigan blinked. “Two months?” He didn’t know which seemed less likely: being able to gather these men and train them to be Storm Knights in that time or breaching the walls of Sul.
“Major Brisbane is a very determined individual. Anything else?”
He paused only a moment.
“Why me?” He knew the answer, but it was better to get it out in the open.
“Do I really need to spell it out for you, Madigan?”
“I would prefer we are perfectly clear, sir.”
“No officer in his right mind wants to be assigned these dregs, and in any other time we’d boot them out of the army altogether. We both know this unit will probably be one step removed from mutineers. It will more than likely be an embarrassment to whoever is unfortunate enough to lead it, an inevitable black mark on someone’s career. At best it will be given the most unimportant, non-strategic assignments—which we can only hope will be completed without incident. As such, Sixth Platoon will be the last to be issued new equipment and resources, so as to not be a draw on the abilities of ourfunctioningplatoons. On the other hand, it isn’t like your career can get any worse. How long since your last promotion?”
“I was a captain. I got busted back to lieutenant twelve years ago.”
“Because of what you did during the Lion’s Coup . . . I’m assuming the rumors are true?”
When he closed his eyes, he could still see the fire. “More than likely, sir.”
“And you’ve been sent to every backwater duty station in the kingdom since then.” Laddermore stood up and walked around her desk. She paused in front of the map. “Our new king is far too honorable a man to ever speak ill of a knight who was following his old king’s orders, but he and Earl Hartcliff were friends. The earl had many friends, in fact, and most still hold a grudge. The entire military was divided during that time.”
“If I recall correctly, your father was on the wrong side, too.” There was a hard edge to Madigan’s voice. “But then again, I’m not an archduke with vast estates in the Midlunds.”
Major Laddermore turned from the map. He expected a sharp rebuke, but she surprised him by laughing instead. “If you think I’m about to defend Fergus Laddermore’s morals, you will be disappointed.” She walked over and sat on the edge of her desk. “Listen to me, Madigan. You were picked for this assignment by my superiors. They said, who better to lead a unit of failures than an officer who’s already a failure? Any new lieutenant fresh out of the academy would be eaten by these thugs, but at least you’re a right hard bastard who’ll keep them in line and out of trouble. For my part, I agree with the assignment wholeheartedly . . . but not for the reasons you might expect.”
“And what are your reasons, sir?”
“They dismiss you for what you’ve done, but I’ve read up on you. They see you as a disgrace, a reminder of the Inquisition and every maddened excess of Vinter’s rule.” She leaned forward and looked him square in the eye. “But I see an officer who does whatever he has to in order to succeed. That’s what you did in the Scharde Islands. That’s what you did during the Lion’s Coup. And ever since, no matter what awful assignment they’ve shoved you off to in the hopes that you’d quit or die, you’ve completed it.Every single time.”
Madigan nodded slowly. Archduke Fergus Laddermore was an arrogant, manipulative politician. Sometimes the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, but in this case it appeared the apple had rolled clear into the next province. Katherine Laddermore struck him as a very capable officer. He glanced at the list again. “Any further orders, Major?”
She had stood and was moving back around the side of her desk. “You’ll be reporting to Captain Schafer. I will warn you, he’s ambitious, though he’s not knighted yet. Also, he’s a scion of a family I believe you may have once offended, so it would be best to tread lightly.” She stopped and eyed his uniform again. “See the quartermaster and get yourself kitted up . . . and get a new dress uniform. You look like a disgrace.”
“Yes, sir.” He stood up. “One request, if I may? I’d like Sergeant Cleasby assigned to Sixth Platoon.”
“The messenger who was sent for you?” Laddermore seemed slightly incredulous. “Are you aware he filed a report about you breaking some regulation relating to the collection of bounties, thirty seconds after he reported for duty?”
Madigan almost smiled. “I figured he would do something like that, sir. All the same, I’ll take him.”
“He’s all yours. Sixth Platoon of the 47th Storm Knight Company is your responsibility.”
“Yes, sir.” Madigan gave her a crisp salute.
Laddermore returned the salute. “One last order, Lieutenant Madigan. Certain officers on the general staff expect you to fail miserably. Surprise them.”
Madigan was at the quartermaster’s when Captain Schafer found him. One look at the captain’s perfectly tailored uniform, the spit-shined boots, the Strategic Academy graduate’s ring, and the polished medals—not one campaign ribbon among them—told Madigan quite a bit about the young officer. Most postings in the military were based on experience and ability rather than solely on birth, but in a kingdom where bloodlines mattered so much, it was inevitable that unqualified fops with influential parents wound up in positions of authority. He would hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
The captain was red-faced. “Madigan! What’s the meaning of this?”
He stayed perfectly calm, even outwardly cheerful. “No idea what you’re talking about, sir.” There were a few other personnel in the area, and Madigan noted they were quick to avert their gazes and go about their business when they saw Schafer enter. That was never a good sign. “How can I help?”
“By getting back on the train and riding back to the swamp they pulled you out from,” Schafer said between gritted teeth. “I was just informed of your new assignment. The 47th doesn’t need a platoon of rejects!”
It was to be the worst, then. “My apologies, Captain. You’ll have to take that up with Major Laddermore.”
Schafer sneered. “I already have, and her mind is made up. I don’t know what Laddermore is thinking. Know this, Madigan: I’ve heard all about you. I’ve got a company to run, and this invasion is my chance for glory. As far as I’m concerned, your platoon doesn’t exist. I’ll not have the reputation of my company damaged by a bunch of miscreants. Stay out of my way. You keep your head down. The less embarrassment you cause for me, the less trouble I cause for you.”
“So that’s how it is going to be?” Madigan asked quietly.
“That’s how it is!” Schafer yelled.
“Very well.” Madigan stayed cool and professional. “You may want to keep your voice down, sir. The staff will talk. You don’t want to get yourself a negative reputation.”
“You’recorrectingme?” Schafer wasn’t used to having a junior officer speak in such a manner, which told Madigan he hadn’t had any junior officers worth a damn.
Madigan shrugged. “I know a bit about how reputations grow. You don’t want to be remembered as a screamer on your first combat command, Captain—and yes, I can tell this is your first combat command. You’re trying to emulate some combat instructor from the academy, but that only works on recruits. It’s a drill instructor’s duty to yell, and it’s a recruit’s duty to be frightened; here, you just come off as petty. Soldiers don’t respect an officer who throws tantrums.”
“What?!”Schafer yelled in rage. Catching himself, he glanced around and glared at Madigan before continuing in a lower voice. “You are an embarrassment! You’d speak to me of reputations? Your name is a stain on all knighthood. You’re a dishonorable cheater and a murderer!”
“Perhaps . . . but I’m not a screamer.”
He hadn’t intended to use his “war face,” but young know-it-all officers brought out the worst in him. It wasn’t that different from his regular face, but he’d been told by many a soldier it was a terrifying expression. He was always calm, but they had said that in combat he seemed disturbingly calm, like a dead-eyed, dispassionate killing machine. Schafer flinched when he saw the change in Madigan’s expression. It was almost unfair to use his war face for political matters, but he had work to do.
Madigan leaned in close so no one could overhear. His voice was a dangerous hiss. “I dare because I was knee-deep in blood and necrotite while you were still playing with toy soldiers. I’ve been stabbed, shot, and burned by warriors who were ten times the man you are, and I still killed every last one of them before they could finish me off. I’ve gutted Khadorans that would make you look like a weakling on your finest day and beheaded Cryxians that would devour your soul. Don’t think you can intimidate me. Now you say something, and I’ll nod like we’re having a nice, professional discussion.”
Schafer swallowed. He’d begun to sweat. “I understand,” he croaked.
Madigan nodded as if the captain had just given him a valuable piece of advice. Men like Schafer were motivated mostly by their own doubts and worries of what others thought of them, so it would be counterproductive to make him look bad. Schafer would probably be brave enough in battle—if there were people watching.
“If you think this invasion is nothing more than a chance forglory, then you’re a fool, and I only pray you don’t have to bury too many of your soldiers before you understand that. I’ll keep my rejects out of your way. We’ll be no trouble at all. Your career is safe. I am a ghost. When the invasion comes, tell me where you want me. Until then, keep out of my face and let me do my job.”
The captain bobbed his head in agreement.
“Now salute your subordinate like a proper officer of Cygnar instead of a petulant child.” Madigan stepped away, snapped to, and saluted crisply. “Thank you, Captain!”
Schafer returned the salute. His hand quivered just a bit as it reached his brow. “That’ll be all, Lieutenant Madigan. Carry on.”
Laddermore had suggest he tread lightly around Captain Schafer . . . Sadly, that was Madigan’s idea of “lightly.”
Sergeant Kelvan Cleasby reported to his new duty station to discover they were living in a slum. In fact, to call this barracks a slum would be to insult proper slums. The building was really more of a barn currently unfit for livestock. It even had gaping holes in the shingles and pigeons living in the rafters. When he opened the front door, it promptly fell off the hinge.
“Hello?” he called. “Anyone home?”
Lieutenant Madigan came around a corner, looking presentable in a new uniform and even wearing the rare Star of Valor he’d earned. Cleasby’s new orders had been rushed, so he hadn’t been sure who his new commanding officer was supposed to be. Madigan must have found out about Cleasby reporting his bounty violation, and this was to be his punishment.So this is what it feels like when your career dies,he thought as he saluted.
Madigan waved off the salute and said, “Welcome to the Sixth Platoon, Cleasby. You’re late.”
“I’m sorry, sir. This barracks was rather difficult to find, the way it was hidden between a slaughterhouse and the cattle pens.”
“Only the best for Sixth Platoon.”
“Sir . . . May I ask why I’m—”
“No. Familiarize yourself with this.” He handed Cleasby a clipboard with a list of names on it. “Now hop to. We’ve got some recruiting to do.” Madigan strode out of the room. Cleasby dragged his equipment to the side, leveraged the door into place so it was approximately closed, and then rushed after his new commanding officer.
Sixth Platoon’s barracks wasn’t located in the military district with the rest of the army, but with the spin up to the invasion, the city was filling with troops. It was quite a walk across the busy streets of Caspia to get back to the main body of the army, and Cleasby was curious as to why they were stuck so far outside the regular boundaries. Then he scanned the list Madigan had given him and came to a terrible realization.
“Sixth Platoon is to be made up of criminals and madmen!”
“Indeed,” Madigan snapped. “And you are one of their NCOs, so you’d better act like it. The first one that gives you trouble, you’ll need to bust his head to set an example of proper military discipline.”
“That’s rather unorthodox.” Cleasby jumped out of the way as several massive trollkin in colorful tartans crossed the street. Then he hurried to catch up with Madigan, who walked at a very fast pace.
“When you’re dealing with such men, you can’t show weakness or they’ll eat you. Here.” Madigan handed Cleasby a letter. “See that this is telegraphed today. I need it delivered immediately.”
Cleasby looked at the address. “Five Fingers?” The Ordic city was well known as a base for pirates, mercenaries, and sell-swords. “Why Five Fingers?”
“Just do it.”
“Yes, sir.” Cleasby tucked the paper into his bag and rushed to catch up to his new commanding officer.
When they reached the edge of the military district, Madigan paused. “Now, which way is the mechanik’s yard?” he muttered. The area was a sea of blue uniforms and commotion.
Cleasby looked back at the list he carried. “Most of the men on here are in the brig, sir. It’s right over there—”
“Not yet. When you build a house, you lay the foundation first. You put up walls with no foundation, the walls fall over. Now hurry up. I hear hammering over this way.” Madigan pushed his way through the crowd.
They had to stop again as a pair of massive Ironclad warjacks crossed the street ahead of them. The ground shook as the six-ton metal machines lumbered past, smoke pouring from each set of dual stacks. Their controlling marshal walked ahead of them, directing them with a series of short verbal commands and hand gestures. Cleasby was awed by the sight, but Madigan only seemed annoyed at the delay. Once the ’jacks were past, Madigan crossed the street and Cleasby hurried to keep up.
The mechanik’s yard was easy to find once they got closer. It was the noisiest, smokiest, hottest part of the military district. The huge gate, adorned with the symbol of crossed wrenches, stood open. A veritable army of ’jacks loomed inside the walls, most of them perfectly still, almost as if they were standing at attention. Among them Cleasby saw everything from nine-foot-tall light warjacks to massive heavy warjacks, most of which he guessed were at least twelve feet tall, alongside laborjacks of all shapes and sizes. Hundreds of mechaniks were working frantically.
Near the gate a gobber was working on a partially dismantled Defender, scraping at a patch of rust. The little creature’s legs hung out of an opening in the heavy warjack’s torso. Madigan approached, and Cleasby had to step over a pile of gears and hoses that had been ripped out of the ’jack and then duck under its arm cannon. “Excuse me.” Madigan called to the gobber. “I’m looking for Neel MacKay. Is he around?”
“The angry human?” The gobber demonstrated why his species was so talented at working on machines as he effortlessly rolled around inside the confines of the Defender’s chest. His green skin was covered in rust and grease. He pointed with his wire brush at a small building. “Follow the shouting and profanity.”
“Thank you, friend,” Madigan said as he set out for the indicated shed.
Cleasby checked the clipboard. “There’s no MacKay on here.”
“There should be. MacKay’s about as antisocial as you can be without getting drummed out of the army. We served together during the Scharde Invasions. He hates people. Loves ’jacks, though.” Madigan reached the shed and slid the door open without bothering to knock.
A beefy, overweight, older fellow with a white bushy mustache the consistency of the gobber’s wire brush was leaning over the fist of a ’jack, using a cutting torch to remove a damaged knuckle. He cursed at the sound of their arrival. “Blasted interruptions! How’s a man supposed to fix all this poorly designed junk when every dunderhead in Caspia keeps bothering him?” Goggles swung their way. “What’s the meaning of—” His mouth fell open. “Madigan?”
“Sergeant MacKay. Been awhile.”
The old mechanik hurriedly turned some valves to kill his cutting torch and set it down carefully on his workbench. “They busted me back to corporal for punching some wet-behind-the-ears journeyman warcaster in his stupid mouth for insulting one of my ’jacks.” MacKay had a strong Thurian accent. He came over and engulfed Madigan in a bear hug. “Good to see you, boy!” The knight returned the hug. When they broke apart, Madigan’s new uniform was stained with grime. The mechanik grimaced. “Sorry about that.”
Madigan waved off his concern. “It needed to be broken in. How you been, old man?”
“Bored! Fixing things that shouldn’t get broken in the first place. Stupid officers. I swear they come out of the academy too proud to read the stupid manuals. I’m afieldmechanik. This look like the field to you?” MacKay waved one heavy work glove around the shed. “They stuck me here and said I’m too old to fight in the invasion. Can you believe that?”
Cleasby could easily believe it. The Scharde campaign had ended eighteen years ago. Cleasby had been a baby.
“Their mistake, and their loss,” Madigan agreed. “I need a favor.”
“If it hadn’t been for you I would’ve died at the hands of those godforsaken Cryxians. Anything for you, my boy.”
“Sixth of the 47th needs a warjack. That’s my new command.”
MacKay went to a very full chalkboard on the wall and scowled. “Orders from a Captain Schafer, no warjacks for that platoon. Says here your boys are ‘low priority.’”
“Get me a warjack.”
The mechanik scratched at his grizzled chin. “That’ll take some doing.”
“Do it, then.”
“Can’t promise nothing new or fancy.”
Madigan folded his arms. “I want a Stormclad.”
“And I want to bed Ayn Vanar, but neither one is likely to happen.” MacKay paused, thinking it over. “The Stormclad’s the top of the line. Every Stormblade unit wants a Stormclad. Getting one would be hard, but not impossible . . . You’ll still need a ’jack marshal to run it, though. Get me on your platoon and I’ll get you your ’jack.”
Cleasby couldn’t believe his ears. “That’s against regulations. You can’t work outside of regular procurement, and you can’t just go moving assigned personnel around!”
MacKay looked like he was thinking about hitting Cleasby with a wrench, but Madigan just ignored the protests. “You know how to work a storm glaive?”
“Better than you do, I’d wager, since I was there when Sebastian Nemo unveiled them. Hell, I know how tobuildthem.”
The knight rubbed his scar thoughtfully. “You’ve let yourself get fat, MacKay . . .”
He patted his gut. “My Evie can cook.”
“You’ve got two months to squeeze yourself into a suit of storm armor. It won’t do me any good to have a warjack if its controller is too fat and slow to run along behind it.”
“Deal.” MacKay’s toothy grin could barely be seen beneath his huge mustache. He used his thumb to wipe the wordlowfrom the chalkboard. “Now Sixth Platoon ispriority.”
“I’ve heard they call him the Ascendant,” Madigan said as they made their way through the streets just outside of the walls of the Sancteum. “Supposedly he’s a remarkable fighter.”
“We probably shouldn’t call him the Ascendant. He’d probably consider himself unworthy and take offense.” Cleasby was master of the clipboard. “It says here that Sergeant Wilkins is quite possibly delusional. His last commanding officer found him to be insufferable, obnoxious, and a detriment to morale.”
“Then you two should get along splendidly.”
The Sancteum within Caspia was the home of the Church of Morrow. Thousands of faithful pilgrims flocked to this place every day. The Sancteum itself was a walled city within a city. A holy, contemplative place, filled with the offices and headquarters of various orders of the church. The neighborhood around the Sancteum’s main gates was anything but quiet, though. It was filled with businesses catering to the needs of countless pilgrims, visitors, clergy, and scholars. Vendors sold totems, statues, trinkets, and even supposedly holy relics. Street preachers shared their particular messages at nearly every corner. As Cleasby and Madigan passed the open gates and the sergeant caught sight of the legendary Archcourt Cathedral, he couldn’t help but gawk at its magnificence.
“You appear moved, Cleasby.”
Of course Cleasby believed in the ascendency of the Twins and the rightness of the Morrowan faith, and he attended services occasionally, but beyond that he didn’t pay such matters much heed. His appreciation was more scholarly; so many important historical decisions had been made and miracles manifested within the walls of that cathedral it was staggering. The Menite faith was about blind obedience to the Creator, whereas the Morrowans believed in nuanced morality, ethics, and intellectual achievements. The world would still be in darkness if it wasn’t for the Church. “Not really, sir. I appreciate the clergy very much, but I’m afraid I’m not particularly devout.”
“Well, our Sergeant Wilkins is, so let me do the talking.”
“Are you schooled in the doctrine of Morrow?”
“That’s the good twin, right?” Madigan asked, completely deadpan.
“Sir!” Cleasby choked. Everyone knew that Thamar was Morrow’s sister, the dark to his light, and that she was the goddess of selfishness and the merciless search for personal gain, worshiped only in secret in exchange for giving her followers dark powers.
Madigan chuckled. “I’m joking, Cleasby. Wilkins is a fanatic, but we’re about to go to war with some fanatics, and it wouldn’t hurt to have one of our own. Look for a street preacher with a Precursor’s shield. I heard Wilkins carries that with him everywhere. Thinks it’s a holy relic or some such thing.”
They found Sergeant Wilkins two streets over, standing on top of a crate giving a passionate discourse on his interpretations of doctrine to a small crowd that included pilgrims, several trollkin, a few gobbers, and an ogrun. Resting against the crate beneath the burly, square-jawed preacher’s feet was a battered steel shield bearing the symbol of Morrow and the Precursor Order.
“The ascendants have taught us there are many righteous paths to Morrow’s domain in Urcaen. Rowan renounced her wealth and helped ease the suffering of others. Doleth gave his catch to the hungry and risked his life to save drowning sailors. Gordenn tilled his fields and used that bounty to feed the poor. What do they all have in common?”
“Sacrifice!” shouted one of the listeners. “Sacrifice!”
“Correct, my brother. Though there are many paths and many philosophies, sacrificing for the good of others is the ultimate display of devotion. The wretched Menites do not sacrifice for their fellow man but instead sacrifice each other to their merciless god!” He raised his voice so the entire street could hear his words. “The Creator is a petty, jealous god. Every soul is born with the ability to choose between righteousness and wickedness. Morrow would encourage that choice, allowing us to better ourselves. We choose to sacrifice! We choose to be good! We choose to be willing servants.”
There were murmurs of assent from the crowd. Even the Dhunia-worshiping trollkin, gobbers, and ogrun seemed moved.
“But Menoth doesn’t want servants; he wants slaves. Menoth would take that agency and crush it beneath his heel until we are all ground into dust. We must not be enslaved by the Protectorate, a government that focuses only upon the rigid inflexibility of their god. No, my brothers and sisters, they must be destroyed and Hierarch Voyle cast down from his palace of gold! We all must sacrifice in our own ways to stop this Menite menace!”
The crowd cheered. Wilkins’ talk was certainly animated, though it was more militant than Cleasby was used to. Yet if Madigan had one personality trait that showed consistently, it was impatience. He wasn’t the type to waste time listening to a lay preacher. The knight stepped forward. Several members of the audience, seeing the medal on his chest, respectfully moved out of the way. “Sergeant Aiden Wilkins?” he said above the clamor.
The preacher looked down. “Yes, my brother?”
“You’re not my brother. You’re my subordinate. Get down.”
“We all must answer to Morrow eventually, and if we’re to have victory over the Menites, we will need his light to guide us.” He glanced at the patch on Madigan’s shoulder to ascertain his rank. “So tell me, Lieutenant, who among the ascendants do you follow most closely? It appears you are knighted, and Ascendant Katrena is the patron of knighthood and nobility, yet you carry yourself as a common soldier, and they are watched over by Ascendant Markus. So who guides your path?”
Cleasby was actually curious about the answer to that question.
Madigan’s expression did not change. “King Leto Raelthorne guides my path, by way of his holy prophets Lord Commander Stryker and Major Laddermore, and they’ve ordered me to scrape together a unit to go ruin some Menites’ day. So if you want a piece of that action, shut your mouth and get off the crate.”
“Yes, sir!” Wilkins hopped down.
The crowd, disappointed that the fiery preacher was done, began to drift away. Cleasby found himself apologizing to a disgruntled trollkin who muttered something about the army ruining the best shows before stomping off.
Wilkins approached them and saluted. “The opportunity to bring the light of righteousness to confront the evils of the Protectorate fills my heart with joy.”
“If you ever question my orders again, you’ll have the opportunity to fill your backside with my boot. Understood, Sergeant?”
“Yes, sir!” Wilkins stood at attention.
“Cleasby. Clipboard.” Madigan thrust out his hand. Cleasby gave him the list. Madigan pretended to study it, though Cleasby was fairly sure he’d already memorized it, and addressed the sergeant again. “You were a Precursor knight, a soldier for the Church. Why did you leave the order?”
Wilkins stuck his chest out a bit. “I had a prophetic vision, sir.”
“Yes, sir. Ascendant Katrena spoke to me in a dream. I saw a world filled with lightning. I understood then that Morrow’s path for me required me to become a Stormblade. I enlisted immediately.”
Cleasby scratched his head. That explained the possibly delusional part. Even in a world with magic and miracles, it wasn’t like the ascendants made a habit of talking to people directly.
“And how’s that path working out for you?”
“There have been . . . setbacks.”
“As in you’re a self-righteous busybody and nobody wants to serve with someone who’s always judging them and telling them what to do.”
Wilkins scowled. “It is my sacred duty as one of the pious to point out when my brothers and sisters are faltering, distancing themselves from Morrow’s light.”
“I bet they love that.” Madigan scowled. “I’ve been told you’re good in a scrap.”
“Morrow has blessed me with courage and a strong arm.”
“Do you really want to protect the good citizens of Cygnar from the wrath of Menoth?”
“Of course I do, sir.”
“Excellent—but no matter how strong you are, you’ll never get the chance if you can’t function as part of a unit. You want to be a Stormblade, you have to fight as a Stormblade, but they won’t have you. That’s quite the conundrum, isn’t it, Wilkins? Good thing your sermon holds the answer. What was it you were saying all the ascendants had in common?”
“I believe they all chose to sacrifice something of great value.”
“Then you’re going to have to learn tosacrificebeing judgmental and telling your comrades what to do. The only demands to the men I want to hear from you should be related to the quality of their soldiering and not the state of their eternal soul. You want to lead them to Morrow, you’ll do it by example.”
Cleasby was grudgingly impressed. He hadn’t expected Madigan to use the Morrowan’s own sermon against him.
Wilkins swallowed hard. “That will be very difficult for me, sir.”
“It wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice if it wasn’t difficult, now would it? Welcome to Sixth Platoon, Wilkins. Now, let’s get you two sergeants properly suited up. I want to make a grand entrance for this next one.”
The area around the Black River docks was the roughest part of Caspia. It was a rather stark difference from the pristine marble churches of the Sancteum. The buildings here were just as tall, only instead of being filled with books, artwork, and holy relics, they were packed with poor people. The farther they got off the main road and into the warren of tenement buildings and smoke-belching factories, the more uncomfortable Cleasby became.
It didn’t help that he and Wilkins were clanking along in full suits of blue and gold heavy storm armor and carrying huge galvanic swords, so everyone was coming to their windows to gawk. He felt awkward, clumsy, slow, and loud. The armor hadn’t been properly sized yet, and bits and pieces chafed against his skin in the most obnoxious manner.
It was very late in the day, but the street still held many people. Most of them seemed rather shady. Near the gates they had seen beggars, but none seemed to try their luck here. He imagined this was first because there was no money to beg and second because as soon as any unfortunate closed his fingers on a coin he’d be mugged for it. Cleasby had been trying to pay better attention to such things since his embarrassment in the Thornwood. “There’s a notable lack of city watch in this area.”
“The few guards around are probably bribed easily enough,” Madigan agreed as he looked around. “Good choice of location, clever use of existing terrain. The area is perfect for this sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing would that be, sir?” Cleasby asked.
The lieutenant had forgone armor, and the other two still didn’t know why they’d had to suit up. They might look impressive, but Cleasby had never worn the insulated, electricity-proof armor before, and he’d never wielded a sword capable of channeling lightning. He hadn’t powered up the sword yet and was frankly a little nervous to do so. At least Wilkins seemed confident.
More alert, too, he noted when Wilkins shifted to the side and lifted his shield as something small moved in a nearby alley. It was a female gobber, barely three feet tall, with grey skin and clothing made from old flour sacks. “You Madigan?” she hissed as she looked both ways, making sure none of the locals saw her talking to the army.
Cleasby and Wilkins exchanged a glance.
“That’s me. Where’s the ring?”
“Coin first!” the gobber insisted.
Madigan flicked a gold crown toward the alley, and the gobber snatched it from the air with one tiny fist. She bit the coin to satisfy herself that it was real and then told them, “End of the road, go left, half a block. Big warehouse with green doors.”
“Thank you.” Madigan gave a small bow.
The gobber turned and scrambled away, quickly disappearing into the warren of garbage and boxes.
“You sure seem to have a lot of friends wherever you go, Lieutenant,” Cleasby said.
“Enemies too, but I’ve outlived most of those. Come on, lads. We’ve got work to do.” He started walking again. The lieutenant’s fast pace had proven difficult to keep up with in the best of circumstances. Cleasby practically had to jog in the armor, which just made the pinching worse.
They reached the end of the street and turned left. This area looked even worse, if that were possible. Some of the tenements had been damaged by fires and never repaired. Although most of Caspia had a good sewer system, from the smell he’d say either this area didn’t or it was backed up and leaking into the streets. The air was cold and damp, and he saw people sleeping in alleys and huddled around barrels, burning trash for warmth.
“Rowan weeps, this is shameful,” Wilkins said. “These poor souls. The Church should do something about the poverty in this place.”
Madigan grunted. “When the war is over, you can help here all you want, Wilkins.”
“When my shield is no longer needed to defend the righteous from the Menite scourge, maybe I will. These poor souls need to hear the words of the ascendants and pull themselves up from this filth.”
“Good luck. The Church does a little, sure: feeds the hungry, hands out a few blankets in between building marble cathedrals in Caspia. But some neighborhoods aren’t inclined to take help. Sooner or later some gang gets tired of being preached at. The pushy preachers end up taking a swim in the harbor.” He turned his head to Cleasby. “Remember when I asked why you enlisted? I grew up not far from here.” The lieutenant gestured at a crumbling tenement. A mangy dog ran past them, tail between its legs. A young gobber chased after his escaped dinner with a stick. “Thisis whyIenlisted. Three square meals a day made fighting Cryx sound like a fine deal.”
That explained a lot.
Madigan stopped in front of a rundown warehouse. “This is the place.”
“Should we power up our swords?” Wilkins asked, eager.
Cleasby activated the weapon by rotating the haft in opposite directions until it locked in the armed position. It took a moment for the storm chamber to warm up. Then the sword began to hum at a very low pitch. The coils running through the copper tube in the center of blade began to glow with a pale, flickering light. Energy that had been gathered in the arcane accumulator flowed through the conductive lattice of the blade. There was a trigger stud beneath the guard to discharge the energy. Cleasby had never seen one of these used, but he’d heard they were absolutely devastating against tissue—including the user’s own, without proper attire. Suddenly he found that the storm armor didn’t seem quite so uncomfortable.
Wilkins was grinning. “Who are we fighting?”
“Nobody. You two just need to look official and intimidating. Lower your visors.”
Cleasby reached up with one insulated gauntlet and moved the visor down. The world seemed to close in as his vision was drastically curtailed. His breathing seemed very loud.
Madigan went up to the door and knocked. A small portal rasped open, and a pair of eyes appeared. “Password?” Then the guard saw the two glowing, fully armored Stormblades flanking an officer. “Uh oh.”
“The place is surrounded. Open this door now or I’ll have my warjack make a new one.”
“Right away!” The portal slid closed. They heard the scrape of a heavy metal bar being moved on the other side of the door.
“Warjack?” Wilkins asked in a low voice. “Surrounded?”
“Does Morrow have a problem with lying in order to gain a tactical advantage, Sergeant?”
“Not that I’m aware of, sir.”
“Good. Me and him will get along fine then.” The door opened. The guard was a fat, unkempt thug, but he got right out of their way, apologizing profusely. As soon as Cleasby was past him, the man took off running down the street.
The front of the warehouse had been portioned off by walls made of old boards and canvas curtains. The sound of many loud, excited voices echoed in the large space—easily dozens of voices, cheering and booing. It sounded like a sporting event. Madigan led the way through the curtains and bumped into a man wearing an armored great coat on his way out. The two men studied each other for a moment. They seemed to recognize each other. The man in the great coat looked over at the Stormblades, then back at their leader. “Madigan.”
“Caine.” Madigan nodded in return. “Here on business?”
“Always.” Then the man in the coat brushed past the Stormblades and walked outside.
“Who was that?” Cleasby asked Wilkins. The other sergeant shrugged.
Their commander shoved the last curtain aside and entered the main area of the warehouse. There had to be at least a hundred people inside. Crates and shelves had been arranged around a wide space in the center, almost like the seating of an amphitheater. In the open center of the warehouse two shirtless men were beating each other to a bloody pulp in a bare knuckle boxing match. Throughout the crowd money was changing hands rapidly as bets were placed. The crowd went wild as a gob of blood, spit, and a few teeth were sent flying across the ring by a particularly nasty right hook.
Madigan didn’t bother trying to shout over the racket. “Wilkins, get their attention.”
There was a wooden barrel off to the side. Wilkins looked inside, probably to make sure its contents weren’t dangerous, then lifted his sword. It hummed as the storm chamber charged, and he brought it down hard against the wood.
The release of electrical energy was far louder than Cleasby had expected. He flinched and closed his eyes, but a glowing blue afterimage remained etched on the inside of his eyelids. When he opened them again, the barrel had been blasted into splinters. The metal barrel rings lay in a pile, scorched and blackened.
That had certainly gotten everyone’s attention. The crowd was still, all staring their way, wide eyed, trying to decide whether they should bolt or not. Even the fighters had stopped—one, because he’d passed out.
Madigan cleared his throat. “That’s better. It’s against army regulations for soldiers to be participating in underground gambling establishments, especially while on deployment. A violation of this regulation is punishable by flogging and a dock in pay . . .”
He noted a lot of panicked looks being exchanged in the crowd.
“But today is your lucky day; I’m only here for the Storm Knights. They can stay seated. Don’t even think of trying to sneak out, because my men will be checking everyone outside, and they don’t take kindly to sneaking,” he lied. “If you’re a civilian you’re probably breaking some law, but that’s not my problem, soget out. If you’re regular army, you’re also not my problem, soget out.”
The vast majority of the spectators got up and hurried for the exits. Cleasby stepped out of the way so they could file past. Everyone was wearing cloaks or coats, but he caught glimpses of uniforms beneath: long gunners, mechaniks, even stormcallers. The unconscious fighter was carried out by two trenchers, which suggested he was one of them.
Cleasby leaned toward Madigan and spoke through his visor. “We should at least take their names and report them to their commanding officers. They’re all in violation.”
Madigan was just scowling at the soldiers as they shuffled by. When he turned to Cleasby, the scowl was gone, and it was obvious the lieutenant was trying not to smile. “You shove twenty-two thousand extra troops with energy to burn into a city, and these sorts of things are to be expected.”
“Morrow warned against gambling,” Wilkins said to the soldiers as they filed past him. “Gambling will attract the gaze of Scion Bolis. Do not let yourself fall under the influence of the Dark Twin or her minions!”
“Wilkins, shut up,” Madigan ordered.
Once the room was cleared, Madigan walked to the interior. One man and two women still sat on an overstuffed leather couch that looked like it had been removed from a baron’s estate. The man had his boots up on a table and an arm around each woman. Judging from the piles of coins on the table as well as the chalkboard marked with betting odds, he was the fellow running this operation. He was a thin, pale, young man dressed in an aristocrat’s fine suit. Cleasby couldn’t help but stare, not that anyone could tell with his visor down. Both women were very attractive and not wearing much in the way of clothing.
“I said civilians can leave,” Madigan said.
“There was some confusion on that, since they’re employees,” the young nobleman answered with a smile. “Care for a drink, Lieutenant . . . ?”
“Madigan. No thank you. I’m on duty. You must be Corporal Gilford Thornbury.”
It took Cleasby a moment to get the clipboard out of the leather sack on his belt. The gauntlets made that difficult, but taking them off would increase the risk of getting electrocuted by his own sword. Thornbury’s name was on the list next to “Conduct unbecoming a soldier.” He found that a rather vague charge.
“Call me Thorny. Madigan, eh? I’ve heard of you.”
“And I’ve heard of you.” Madigan roughly kicked the young man’s boots off the table and sat on it. Thornbury looked mildly offended. “Sorry, ladies,” Madigan continued, “but this is a private conversation.”
They looked to Thornbury, who nodded. The women fled, though they flashed smiles at the two Stormblades on their way past. Wilkins turned away, somehow refraining from warning them about their dangerous path even though there was surely a scion of harlots.
Thornbury was the first to speak. “Madigan . . . that’sSirMadigan? You’re the one Laddermore has putting together a unit of misfits. Aren’t you the knight who burned an earl to death, along with his wife and children, back during the coup?”
“That would be me.” Madigan spread his hands in mock apology. “Things happen.”
“My father was knighted, and he never felt the need to burn any children. So I take it you have an issue with the aristocracy?”
“Oh, no, Corporal. I’m landed gentry myself now, though King Vinter only saw fit to grant me a few useless acres of rock in the Wyrmwall. I’m not here with a grudge. I’m here to inform you of your reassignment to the Sixth Platoon.”
“Ah. I can see there’s been some confusion.” Thornbury picked up a goblet, swirled the wine a bit, and took a sip. “That whole military service thing was a big misunderstanding. You see, my father is a very important nobleman, and in some social circles being a Stormblade can be seen as rather prestigious—even dashing. I don’t think anyone ever expected me to do any actual soldiering, especially amid all this unpleasantness with the Menites.”
“Permission to teach this dandy a lesson, Lieutenant?” Wilkins asked.
“Permission denied . . . for now.” Madigan leaned forward. “Let me break this down for you in very clear and simple terms,Thorny.If you know who I am, you know how little I care about who your father is. I’ve already been given the most god-awful, dead-end assignment in the kingdom. It doesn’t get any worse.”
Thornbury scowled. Obviously he hadn’t thought of that.
“As of right now, you are guilty of dereliction of duty and criminal activity. The army thinks you are a spoiled, useless, cowardly fop. You can either come with me, do the duty you signed up for, and prove them wrong, or you can spend the next year in the brig.”
“We both know I’d be released as soon as someone on the command staff heard. They wouldn’t want to be disinvited from the best parties.” He laughed. It was a bluff; even for nobles the repercussions for such behavior were severe, and everyone knew it. “Come on, Madigan. I don’t know why you’d want me anyway. Sure, my father was a great warrior, but me? I’ve no gift for soldiering.”
“I’ve got no shortage of men who can swing a sword.” Madigan gestured around the warehouse. “Look what you’ve accomplished here.” Madigan picked up one of the coin purses that lay beside him and weighed it appreciatively. “Good night’s work.”
“Not so. There are associated costs of doing business. Local gangs get a cut for using their turf. Gate guards get a cut for letting all these soldiers through. Fighters get a percentage of the house . . . With you cutting me off after only five fights tonight, by the time I pay everybody, I probably won’t even cover my advertising costs.”
“Next time you should hire some of the local guttersnipes for lookouts. They work cheap. Good insurance.”
“You’re a strange sort of officer, Madigan.”
“And I’m putting together a strange sort of platoon. I need a scrounger.”
“When you’re campaigning, living off the wilderness, every unit picks a scrounger. That’s the man who can find you food to eat and a dry place to sleep. He’s the one who collect favors and make things happen. Right now my platoon is at the end of the logistics chain; Captain Schafer’s got no use for us. We’re the runt of the litter, and the runt always eats last. Worst equipment, worst supplies, worst mechanika, you name it. I need a man who can alleviate that.”
Once again, Cleasby spoke before thinking. “It’s true. Wait until you see the barracks they assigned us.”
“A scrounger?” Thornbury seemed thoughtful. “What’s in it for me?”
“Come on. I’ve ridden past your family estates. We both know you aren’t doing this for the money. You’re bored. That’s why you play these games. I’ve known men like you. There’s no point if there’s no challenge, and where’s the challenge in having everything in life handed to you on a silver plate? You come with me, right now, and you’ll have your challenge—and when this war is over, you’ll have stories to tell all your little aristocrat friends. The noble ladies swoon over a war hero.”
Thornbury adjusted his silk cravat. “I don’t need much help in that department, but I’m intrigued.”
“It is the way of the Dark Twin to think only of your personal benefit—” Wilkins began.
“Sacrifice, Wilkins, sacrifice.”
Wilkins sighed. “Yes, sir.”
“Tell you what, Madigan. I’ll check it out. I’ve got nothing better to do.”
“Good, good,” Madigan smiled, but his eyes stayed cold. He leaned in even closer, right into Thornbury’s face. The aristocrat shrank back into the couch. Cleasby had seen that expression on the lieutenant a few times now, and it was unnerving, like the only reason you were still alive was that it wasn’t worth his effort to kill you.
“A few things we have to clear up, though. That’sLieutenantMadigan from now on. They might think we’re the dregs of the army, but we’re still the army.” The next part was a whisper that could barely be heard. “And if you ever bring up Earl Hartcliff’s children again, I’ll make you regret it. Understand?”
Thornbury nodded quickly.
“Good. That’s settled then.” Madigan patted Thornbury on the shoulder. The aristocrat flinched. “Let’s be going.”
“Uh, sir?” Wilkins nodded his helmet toward the improvised fighting arena. “We’ve still got company.”
One of the boxers remained, sitting on a stool in his corner. The man was huge, with a torso that was a solid block of muscle. His head was down, blond hair covering his eyes. His face and hands were badly swollen and dripping red.
“That’s the champ,” Thornbury explained. He pointed at one of the chalkboards showing the odds. “That monster took on five challengers in a row tonight and whipped them all. He’s strong as an ox and can take a beating like you wouldn’t believe. I think he must be half ogrun.”
“I never took any of Pendrake’s classes at the university, but I’m fairly certain that isn’t biologically possible,” Cleasby said.
“Is he dead?” Wilkins asked.
“He’s still breathing.” Madigan raised his voice. “You, fighter! What’s your name?”
Surprisingly, the battered man got to his feet, wobbling for only a moment, and then raised his arm and saluted. “Corporal Nestor Pangborn, sir! Stormblade Infantry Storm Gunner!” he shouted. “Currently unassigned, sir!”
Cleasby checked his clipboard. “Pangborn . . . He’s on here. Disciplinary problems. Fighting. Fighting. Andmorefighting.”
“You don’t say.” Madigan stroked his scar. “You like to fight, Corporal?”
“It’s all I’m good at, sir.”
Cleasby was a bit unnerved by some of the notes on Pangborn. “He was released from the brig yesterday, sir. He was there for getting into it with some long gunners. He put five of them in the hospital . . . using only his bare hands.”
“One of them called me dumb. I’m from farm country, and never went to school or nothin’, but I’m not dumb, no sir.” The huge man lifted his head proudly. His nose was currently smashed flat and blowing frothy blood bubbles, but he didn’t seem to notice. “They all laughed, so I went at them. I don’t like people thinking they’re better than me, especially those that laugh all mean at folks. There was ten of them, but I only got through half the squad before the MPs clubbed me down. Would’ve gotten them all, but a few ran too fast. Sir.”
Thornbury sounded disappointed. “If I’d known that beforehand, I would’ve made a lot more money on the odds tonight.”
Madigan smiled. “Well, Pangborn, I’m happy to say you’re no longer unassigned.”
It had begun to pour on the way back from the docks. It was miserable. Cleasby’s heavy storm armor made walking exhausting, but at least it held his body heat in and kept him warm. The old mechanik, Neel MacKay, was waiting for them at the entrance to their barracks, standing under an awning smoking a cigar. “Evening, Madigan.”
The lieutenant didn’t waste time on hellos. “You get me a ’jack yet?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Work faster.” Madigan introduced him. “Lads, this is Corporal MacKay, the ’jack marshal for the warjack we don’t have yet. He’s going to bring us a nice Stormclad.”
“Lieutenant Madigan certainly reaches for the stars,” MacKay said in a dry tone. “At this point Imightbe able to get us a one-legged Lancer and some crutches. Turns out Captain Schafer doesn’t hold a particularly high opinion of your platoon.” He took a big puff from his cigar, then held his hands up when Madigan scowled. “Fine, fine, don’t put those scary eyes on me. I’ll get you your lightning ’jack.”
The door to the barracks had fallen on the floor again, so Madigan simply stood on top of it as he held up a lantern and gestured expansively at their lodgings. Water was drizzling in through the many holes in the roof. “Gentlemen, welcome to your new quarters.”
“This ain’t so bad.” Pangborn dragged his bags inside and dropped them on a rotting bunk. The wood collapsed in a cloud of dust. He coughed. “At least the smell of the slaughterhouse next door reminds me of my village.”
Thornbury entered last, stepped over a mummified rat, and then covered his mouth with a handkerchief. “Say the word, Lieutenant, and I can get us rooms at this really nice inn from now until the invasion starts. The proprietor owes me a favor.”
Cleasby looked to Madigan hopefully. Even though it would go against regulations, a warm, dry inn sounded preferable to this place.
Madigan hung the lantern from a peg on the wall. “Tempting as that may be, we’ve got another fifty names on Cleasby’s clipboard to gather up, and this is our base. You men are the foundation of this new unit. I’m counting on each of you to make this work.”
“Well, how about we foundational leader types sleep in the nice inn while the grunts sleep here?” Thornbury asked. “No?” He sighed. “Well, I’ve always wanted to contract a case of flea plague.”
Wilkins spoke from the corner he was inspecting. “Permission to set up a unit shrine, Lieutenant? It will be small, I promise, just to honor Ascendant Markus, read from thePrayers for Battle,and ask for his blessings on this platoon.”
“Permission temporarily denied. When you go one week without annoying me, ask again. Get some rest. Tomorrow’s another busy day. Speaking of which . . .” He turned to Pangborn. “You said you grew up on a farm?”
“You know how to patch a roof?”
“Sure thing.” He sounded funny with the bandages shoved up his broken nose. “I’m gonna need some supplies, though.”
Madigan reached into his coat and pulled out a big coin purse. He tossed it to Thornbury. “Take Pangborn shopping tomorrow. And get us new bedding. The rest of you, I want it scrubbed clean while they’re gone. I want this place livable.”
Cleasby recognized the coin purse. It was the payment from the ogrun bounty hunter, Hutchuck. “That’s—”
Madigan cut him off. “That’s our entire operational budget from Laddermore,” he lied. “So make it last, Thorny. I don’t trust our good captain to keep us supplied, and we’re probably going to need to supplement our rations with that too.”
“I won’t spend it all in one place.” Thornbury hid the money in his cloak.
“Good. I want the men warm and well fed, and I don’t want any of them falling ill.”
For once, Cleasby didn’t know what to say. This whole time he’d thought Madigan had taken his share of the bounty for himself. Madigan shot him a glance, and Cleasby knew he wasn’t ever to mention it.
The knock on the door frame was entirely unnecessary, as there wasn’t anything stopping the man from coming inside. “I’m looking for Sixth Platoon,” he said.
“You’ve found it.”
“I was told to report to Lieutenant Madigan for assignment.” He shook the rain from his cloak, came in, and pushed his hood back, revealing the dark hair, dark eyes, and tanned skin of someone of Idrian blood. He was tall, thin, and probably only a few years older than Cleasby. He saluted. “Corporal R—”
“Rains!” Wilkins clanked forward in his armor. He pointed one gauntlet at the stranger. “Begone, you wretched Menite dog! Go back and lick the boots of your hierarch in Sul!”
“Easy, Wilkins,” Madigan cautioned.
“That’s a Protectorate spy!” Wilkins shouted.
“I’m Corporal Enoch Rains.” He glared at Wilkins. “Stormblade, Army ofCygnar, and loyal subject to King Leto Raelthorne.”
“Your own evil doctrine says you can place none above Menoth. You can’t serve two masters, traitor.”
“I no longer worship the Creator.” Rains let his cloak fall open, revealing his sheathed sword. “But call me a traitor again and I’ll arrange it so that you can explain it to him in person.”
“You claim to betray your merciless god and declare yourself no traitor?” Wilkins lifted his galvanic sword. “His jealous commandments hold no sway over the righteous.”
“Stand down, Sergeant,” Madigan ordered.
The former Precursor took another step toward Rains, who placed his hand on his own sword and readied himself. The other soldiers looked between them, surprised by the sudden confrontation, but Madigan had lost his patience. He grabbed Wilkins by the open visor of his helmet while simultaneously kicking the back of the man’s knee. Wilkins’ leg buckled beneath his armored weight, and Madigan used his leverage to swing him around and hurl him in a great clanking mass to the floor. Madigan put his boot on Wilkins’ neck and applied some pressure.
“I saidstand down.”
Wilkins was turning red. “Yes, sir,” he managed to croak.
“Can’t rightly call it standing down if he’s lying on the floor,” Thornbury said.
Madigan removed his foot, and Wilkins gasped for air. The lieutenant turned back toward Rains. “What’s this spy business?”
“I am originally from Sul,” he said simply. “But I am no longer a citizen of the Protectorate.”
MacKay was leaning against the wall, still puffing on his cigar. “So you must be the one they call the Apostate.”
“I have been called that by some, but rarely so casually to my face.”
Cleasby had been so distracted by Wilkins being tossed around by the smaller and older Madigan that he’d nearly forgotten his clipboard. He got it out and scanned until he found Rains’ entry. “He’s on the list. He’s got an exemplary service record, including a commendation for bravery during a skirmish against the Khadorans in Llael. The only problem listed is ‘Personal issues with squad mates.’ Currently unassigned.”
“‘Personal issues’ means no one wishes to serve alongside someone born and raised in the Protectorate of Menoth in a war against the Protectorate of Menoth,” MacKay pointed out. “I’ve heard some of the soldiers talking about him around the military district. How can you trust a man to fight against his own people?”
“They are no longermy people.” Rains’ voice was firm. “Cygnar is my country and has been for five years. I have served this king and protected its citizens. Do not question my honor.”
MacKay didn’t respond to Rains. Instead he addressed Madigan. “Some folks say he’s a Protectorate spy. Now I’m not saying he is . . .”
“He’s a spy!” Wilkins insisted from his spot on the floor.
“I’m not saying that, but a soldier’s got a right to wonder if his squad mate would hesitate to raise a sword against his former countrymen.”
Rains gestured rudely at Wilkins. “He’s my current countryman, and I wouldn’t hesitate to raise a sword against him.”
MacKay chuckled and took a puff from his cigar. “Fair enough.”
“Why did you leave the Protectorate?” Thornbury asked, suspicion tingeing his voice. “I understand that doesn’t happen very often in a country full of fanatics.”
Rains’ eyes narrowed. “My reasons are my own.”
Cleasby was still studying the clipboard. “You were already serving in a Stormblade unit in the north. You had to request a transfer to get back to Caspia, where we’re about to invade your home city.” He didn’t need to point out why that seemed odd.
“My reasons are my own,” Rains repeated.
An uncomfortable silence fell. Rains was staring down all of the others. Madigan had been listening intently but had not spoken. Rains turned to him. “Your orders, Lieutenant?”
He rubbed his scar thoughtfully. “You know your way around Sul?”
“Yes, sir. I know it like the back of my hand.”
“And you’ve got no problem spilling Menite blood?”
“None whatsoever, sir.”
Madigan smiled. “Pick a bunk, Corporal.”
Rains gave Madigan a formal bow. “I swear on my life and my honor I will not fail you. Thank you for this trust.” He straightened, then walked to the back room and set his pack down in an isolated corner.
Madigan looked down to where the sergeant still lay on the floor. “Yes, Wilkins?”
“With all due respect, I think you’re making a big mistake. After he finishes informing on us, and we’re in Sul, he’ll slash our throats in our sleep—or worse, get us captured, tortured, and wracked.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. Remember when I said you needed to go a week without annoying me before you could have your shrine? Make that two.” Madigan walked off.
Wilkins, red-faced with embarrassment, rolled about a bit in his armor, then looked to Cleasby. “Help me up?”
The troops were assembled in the open yard between the slaughterhouse and their crumbling barracks. Forty men stood in two sloppy ranks, unkempt and unruly. Madigan had no doubt a few of them were still hung over as well. They’d been dragged here from the stocks, from the brig, and from various flop houses and taverns, and they looked it. Madigan walked in front of the line, inspecting each man carefully. Some had given into laziness and turned to fat. Some looked down as he passed, ashamed to be here. Others met his gaze, cocky or even belligerent.
He certainly had his work cut out for him.
Sergeant Cleasby had taken roll. Satisfied everyone was accounted for, Cleasby announced that the lieutenant wished to address them.
“Welcome to the Sixth Platoon. I’m Lieutenant Hugh Madigan, your new commanding officer. I’m not one for giving flowery speeches and I figure you lot aren’t the kind that likes to listen to them, so I’ll save us all some time. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t screwed up somehow.”
“Neither would you,” one of the men in the second rank muttered. Several of his fellows laughed.
Backtalk was to be expected from a lot like this, and Madigan was prepared for such an eventuality. A reputation was just another tool to be used. He walked up to the soldier who’d spoken. “What’s your name, Private?”
“Why yes, Langston. I understand what it means to be in trouble, to be on the outs with the army. You are here because you drink too much and have a stupid mouth and a bad attitude.” Madigan leaned in close enough to smell the ale on Langston’s breath and looked him in the eyes. “I’m on the outs because I slaughtered a family of nobles during the coup. If I cared so little about personal friends of Leto Raelthorne’s, just imagine how much less I care about you.”
Langston took a step back.
Madigan went back to pacing. He preferred to stay in motion. “I don’t care what you’ve done in the past as long as it doesn’t get in our way. Every last one of you, at some point in time, showed enough potential to be appointed into the elite of the kingdom’s military. Now I expect you to show mewhy.”
He stopped before another private, one who he knew had been accused of cowardice because he’d dropped his weapon and run during a skirmish against the Khadorans. “I will not accept excuses. I will not accept weakness. Some of you may have your hopes up that because of the unique nature of this platoon, we won’t see significant combat. You may think there’s no way we’ll be put on the front line. Anyone who believes that is a chump who doesn’t understand the nature of war. There is nothing worse than fighting in a city. In a city, there is no front line.”
The private who had fled was shaking. Madigan leaned in very close and spoke low enough that no one else could hear. “Will that be a problem?”
“They were doom reavers, sir. I was overcome,” the private whispered back.
“That sounds like an excuse.”
“No. No, sir.”
“Khadoran doom reavers.” Madigan continued whispering. “They’re terrifying, I’ll give you that. Lunatics wielding cursed Orgoth blades.” He made an exaggerated shiver. “But they die like anyone else. I know because I’ve killed them myself, even though they walk in an aura of pure, quake-in-your-boots, piss-your-britchesterror. I still killed them, because that was my duty, and you put aside the fear until your duty to your squad is fulfilled. You can be afraid on your own time, but not on mine. Do you understand that?”
“Then it is forgotten.” He said this part loud enough that all could hear, then started walking again. After a moment he continued addressing the assembled men. “I could give a speech about how Cygnar is the greatest kingdom on Caen, and how our citizens enjoy freedoms unimagined by the rest of the world, but you already know that. I could talk about how our kingdom is beset on all sides. About how Khador has invaded and conquered our ally Llael, and they’re building up on our border in the Thornwood. About how desert raiders, these barbaric skorne, have come from the east and are terrorizing our settlements with a cruelty you have to see to believe. About how some of the trollkin kriels within our borders are in open rebellion. About how while all these things are happening, the Protectorate of Menoth, our former countrymen who betrayed our forefathers in a civil war, are using these events as an excuse to harass us and assault the very gates of Caspia, thinking we are weak and distracted, unable to respond. And then I could say a few words about how the kingdom needs you now more than ever. But why bother?”
The troops were glancing about, confused.
“All those things? That is the big picture. We aresoldiers.We don’t care about the big picture. We care about one thing.Victory.We don’t get to pick the fight. We don’t get to pick the enemy. We don’t care about the politics of kings or hierarchs or lines on a map. We care aboutwinning.That means killing the enemy and staying alive in order to do it again the next day. Do you understand me, Sixth Platoon?”
The ones who still had some discipline shouted an affirmative response. Some of the others caught on a little late, and a few didn’t respond at all. It would have to do for now.
“We are going to invade a city filled with fanatics eager to die for their god. I saygood!” Madigan shouted. “Let them be eager to go to Urcaen, because we’re happy to send them there. You will strike them with lightning and cut them with steel. We’re going to destroy anyone who gets in our way. We’re going to cut out their Menite guts and use them to grease the joints of our ’jacks.”
About half the men cheered.Good. It was a start.
“My job is to make sure you are ready to do it. Sergeant Wilkins!”
The former Precursor stepped forward. “Yes, sir!”
“Run these men until they vomit, then run them until they think they are going to die, and then run them some more. Dismissed.”
Cleasby really didn’t know quite what to make of Madigan’s leadership. On one hand, he was absolutely nothing like the cultured, chivalrous knights Cleasby had so much respect for, but there was no denying the man’s effectiveness. The last few weeks had been a whirlwind of activity. The barracks of Sixth Platoon—or the Barn, as the men had taken to calling it—was almost full. They were at nearly fifty men, which was understrength for a Storm Knight infantry platoon but respectable nonetheless.
They had tracked down nearly all of the soldiers on the list, and Madigan had spoken to each one personally. Cleasby had been there for most of the conversations, and he’d been surprised to see that Madigan treated each individual differently. Sometimes he was a harsh commander with threats and orders; other times he was like a kind father with advice and counsel. He would be cunning and manipulative with a self-interested noble, and then a few hours later he would listen patiently and offer advice to a scared private. A few soldiers had even broken down into tears and admitted they were afraid of going to war, and Madigan’s approach for each situation had been unique. The lieutenant had told one new soldier that he was simply a coward who needed to become a man; hours later, he’d told a veteran of multiple campaigns that he understood the weariness because he’d felt it himself, and then he’d appealed to the soldier’s patriotism.
Madigan was a cipher. He was unreadable until he wanted to be read, and then he put on whatever face he needed to in order to accomplish his mission. Cleasby had watched him change tactics for each soldier, finding out what they needed and then guiding them toward it. Even though serving as Madigan’s right hand was going to be a black mark on his career, participating in the process had been fascinating from an academic perspective.
A few times Madigan had sat down across from a soldier, looked them in the eyes for a moment, and then gotten up and left without a word, later telling Cleasby to mark the name off the list as being unacceptable. He never gave an explanation.
The bounty money from the ogrun had been put to good use. The Barn was repaired. The vermin had been chased away, and a few of the troops were passable cooks. They still hadn’t been issued their equipment, so they drilled with wooden practice swords shaped roughly like Caspian blades, which were similar in size to their anticipated storm glaives.
Other than Madigan himself, Sergeant Wilkins was the most experienced combatant of the Sixth, having seen considerable action during his years with the Precursor Knights and then one tour as a Stormblade in Llael. Madigan had turned the drilling and training of the men over to him. A few of the men had remained belligerent and quarrelsome until Corporal Pangborn had been appointed as Wilkins’ drill assistant.That solved two problems, as nobody wanted Wilkins to sic the giant Pangborn on them, and occasionally beating the tar out of an unruly soldier kept Pangborn content. When the brawler wasn’t busy intimidating people, he wandered over to the nearby livestock pens to lean on the fence and look at the livestock. He said it reminded him of home. Nobody made fun of him.
“You told no one you were coming here?” Captain Schafer asked.
“The orders said not to, sir.” Cleasby answered truthfully.
“Please, have a seat,” Schafer gestured at one of the chairs in his office. “Would you care for refreshment? Tea, perhaps? One of my aides brought cookies.”
“I’m quite all right, thank you,” Cleasby said. The captain struck him as a gentleman and a proper officer. “Is this about my request for a transfer?”
Captain Schafer sat across from him. “Yes, Sergeant. I’ve heard from some of the officers you served with in Corvis that you are an exemplary staffer with a keen eye for organizational detail. You are a man who appreciates order and decorum.”
“Thank you, Captain. I hate to be a bother, and I will gladly go wherever the kingdom needs me, but I am concerned—”
The commanding officer of the 47th waved his hand dismissively. “No need to explain yourself. I am aware of the contemptible nature of your Lieutenant Madigan. Any proper soldier would be worried some of this stain might rub off on them, and I’d hate to see such a promising career cut short.”
“So I’m to be transferred then?” That was a relief.
Schafer gave him a gentle smile. “Sadly, no. I have need of you at the Sixth.”
Cleasby tried not to let his disappointment show. “Whatever best serves the needs of Cygnar.”
“A fine attitude to have, and I am sure your talents are being wasted. Which is why I need you to do something for me. I will look upon it as a personal favor. I have been promised a promotion—after this campaign is concluded and I have proven myself, of course. My uncle is the general of the Tenth Division at Point Bourne, and I have been groomed for a position on his staff. I will need good organizational men there, and I would like to keep you in mind. Do this favor for me and it will be remembered.”
Some said he was naive, but Cleasby certainly wasn’t stupid. If the request was above board, they wouldn’t be meeting in secret about it. Schafer would just give the order and that would be that. “What do you need?” he asked hesitantly.
“I need you to keep a detailed record of everything the members of the Sixth Platoon do that is against regulations.Everything.When Laddermore’s folly has totally embarrassed himself, I don’t just want Madigan drummed out of the army. I want him shamed. I want his title revoked. I want him hung. Do you understand?” Schafer’s composure had slipped a bit. “I want his head on a pike in front of the military district. You will record every wrongdoing, violation, and transgression, compile them, and present the report to me at the conclusion of the campaign.”
Cleasby didn’t like where this was going at all, but he was by nature an honest man. “Uh . . . well . . . I am already doing something like that.”
“Really? That’s what I like to hear. I knew I could count on you, Sergeant.”
“I bear no special animosity toward Lieutenant Madigan. I’m just following the regulations. They are rather clear on the matter, sir.”
Schafer leaned forward in his chair. “My, you really are a stickler, aren’t you? Very well, then. I will remember this favor.” The captain seemed very pleased. “Don’t let Madigan catch you. I hear he’s a crafty one. That will be all.” Schafer picked up some reports from a pile on his desk and began reading them. “Dismissed.”
Cleasby stood up, adjusted his uniform, and thought it through. He could just walk away and reap the career benefits later, but that wasn’t the proper knightly thing to do. It needed to be said, no matter how awkward it made things. “Sir, I’m afraid Madigan is already aware of my cataloging the transgressions.”
The captain tilted his head to the side. “What? How?”
“Uh . . . Well, because I told him.”
Schafer’s hands clenched, crumpling the report in his hands. “Youtoldhim?”
“Yes, sir. As per regulation fifteen dash two zero five of the handbook, I have alerted my superior as to any inadvertent violations. I have been rather open about it.”
The captain turned a funny shade of red when he was angry, Cleasby noted. Schafer pointed at the door. “Get out of my sight.”
Cleasby saluted and then ran for his life.
“It is the fifth of Cinten. If rumor’s to be believed, Brisbane’s bombardment against the walls of Sul will begin any day, and Stryker wants those walls down by late Rowen. That gives us less than two months to turn this rabble into a proper fighting unit.” Madigan and most of his “foundation” were watching the troops drill with wooden swords, which weighed slightly more than their still-to-be-issued galvanic blades.
“We’ve only been issued four storm glaives, six voltaic halberds, and eight suits of insulated armor for the entire platoon,” Cleasby said. “Not a single storm rod, either. So even if we don’t mind a couple of men risking electrocution, less than a quarter of us are actually combat effective.”
“From how hard Wilkins is pushing these men, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could kill a few Menites with just those planks at this point, but that won’t do. Pull eight men at a time and run them through the weapons in shifts. I want everyone to have a chance to practice on what issue equipment we have. Thorny?”
The aristocrat was leaning on the fence, eating a cupcake decorated with pink frosting. Cleasby had no idea where he’d found such a frivolous thing. “Yes, Lieutenant?” Thornbury asked, with his mouth still full.
“I’m tired of waiting for logistics. I think Schafer’s reaming us on principle. Get me the rest of my gear.”
“Challenge accepted!” He pondered a moment. “I may need to raid our operating budget, though. There’s a lass in the quartermaster’s office who is rather fond of the opera. It’s sold out, but I know the Ordic ambassador cancelled, so his box is open. I bet if I seduce the quartermaster’s assistant, I can get a few lightning swords out of the deal. I’m willing to take one for the platoon.”
Cleasby raised an eyebrow. He’d continued keeping meticulous notes about the many regulatory violations of the Sixth, but he didn’t even know what this would be categorized under. “That hardly seems like a sacrifice, Corporal.”
“You haven’t seen her!” Thornbury laughed. “She’s got a face like a Tharn. Don’t ever say I don’t give my all for this platoon.”
“Enjoy your opera,” Madigan said. “Then go see MacKay at the mechanik’s yard. If you can get him parts or broken weapons he can make us new ones. And I want my Stormclad! I don’t care if you have to back a wagon up to one, shove it in, and gallop off.”
Their scrounger saluted. “I’m on it.” Thornbury vaulted the fence and took off at a jog.
“He’s motivated,” Madigan said.
“You have that effect on people,” Cleasby said, and he meant it.
“I bet . . . Rains! Come here.”
The former Menite broke out of formation and ran over. “Yes, Lieutenant?”
“I’ve been watching you with the soldiers. Are you having any problems with them?”
“A few,” he answered truthfully. There had been some talk of the apostate Menite being a traitor, but Rains worked twice as hard as everyone else to make up for it. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“I’ve seen your swordplay. Bevy and Hellogand tried to spar you. They’re good, but you smacked them about easily. Some of these men, especially the ones sent from the long gunners, can’t fight worth a damn with a sword, but you’ve killed Khadorans using a glaive. You’ve been through real Storm Knight training at Fort Falk and know how to run storm equipment. I need another squad leader. Congratulations—you’ve just been field promoted.”
Rains looked shocked. “Thank you, sir, but I can’t accept this honor. I’m not a leader.”
“You are whatever I say you are,Sergeant. Next up, how much do you know about Protectorate troops and tactics?”
“Truthfully, not much.”
“Nobody here has faced them, so that’s more than the rest of us. Put together a briefing. Everything you know. What they field. How they fight. How they think.”
“I never served in the Protectorate military, sir,” he protested. “I fled when I was a teenager—” He stopped, as if realizing that was the most he’d ever said about his past. “I apologize. Many in my family served, and I’m familiar with how they move about Sul. I’ll do my best.”
“If what you share now saves even one of these men’s lives during the invasion, then it will be time well spent. Get to work, Rains.”
He saluted. “I’ll get right on it, sir.”
Madigan returned the salute and moved on to the next problem. “Wilkins!”
Cleasby smiled. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face when you tell him you just promoted Rains. That was a violation of the rules of conduct, by the way. You needed Captain Schafer’s permission to do that, and it has to be approved by the Bureau of Personnel.”
“Throw it on the list,” Madigan snapped. Cleasby made another note on the clipboard. Wilkins arrived and saluted. “How are the men shaping up?” the lieutenant asked.
“Most of the ones who have been through real Storm Knight training will do well, provided they are able to resist drink and they don’t give in to anger and try to murder each other over imagined slights and bruised pride. The trenchers are quite fit, but they have been trained to duck and look for a protective hole, and they are having trouble fighting that instinct. The long gunners? Most of them can get their boots on the right feet, I suppose, but as far as combat effectiveness as heavy infantry goes . . .”
“You’ve got two months.”
“It will be done.” Wilkins nodded. “But it would help a great deal if we could train with our actual equipment. I’m having the storm gunners point sticks and yell ‘Boom!’Also, we both know it takes time to get used to maneuvering in plate armor, let alone fighting in it, and some of these soldiers have never done that.”
“Thorny’s working on it.”
“That boy’s manipulative soul is in grave danger of corruption . . .” Wilkins muttered, then continued in a rush before Madigan could correct him. “And I thank Morrow every day that Thornbury is on our side. Speaking of which . . . if I may be so bold, Lieutenant, it has been a few weeks. I sincerely believe a shrine to Ascendant Markus will give us a proper soldier’s blessing. I’d lead a nightly prayer—but only for volunteers, you have my word.”
Madigan scratched at his scar. “My answer depends entirely on how well you handle what I tell you next. I just promoted Enoch Rains to sergeant.”
“The Apostate?” Wilkins blinked rapidly for several seconds. For a moment Cleasby thought he might have broken something inside his brain. “Very well, sir . . . That’s . . . Well . . . Huh.”
Madigan folded his arms. “Is that all you have to say, Sergeant?”
“Rains fights well. He’s probably one of the best among us, but he’s a Menite—orwasa Menite.”
“That’s not against the law, and there are soldiers in this army fighting and dying for Cygnar this very minute wearing Menofixes beneath their shirts, keeping their faith secret so as to not draw the ire of people like you.”
Wilkins swallowed hard. “I will defer to your judgment of his character. I am certain Morrow has inspired you, and perhaps it is our righteous destiny to be led into an ambush and have our throats slit by Menite assassins, and you are my commanding officer, so I’ll be quiet now.”
“Good enough. Build your shrine. You can have a short ceremony for the pious before lanterns out. First day of the week you may have abriefsermon. Before you ask, if my tea has time to get cold it has gone on far too long. And no dirges—so help me, I can’t abide mournful singing. Dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir.” Wilkins ran back to the drills with a renewed spring in his step. His bellowed orders seemed to have even more enthusiasm than before, if that were possible.
Cleasby had to smile. “All things considered, sir, that went better than I expected.”
“They all may all have problems now, but they have to have shown some potential at some point to be assigned to the Storm Knights. We just need to remind them of that. In the meantime, I’m just happy we’ve kept the stabbings to a minimum.” Madigan rubbed his face with both hands, an unusual display of fatigue from the normally stoic lieutenant. Cleasby had noticed he never allowed himself to show weakness in front of the men. “They’ve got a long way to go,” Madigan continued. “We have some solid men here, but a soldier is only as strong as the ones watching his flanks. They need loyalty to each other. What little they’ve got is as fragile as glass. They’ve got potential. I can see it, even if nobody else can, but I don’t want to see this unit shatter the first time it faces a test. If that happens, men die.”
“You said yourself it’s doubtful the War Council’s plans will put us in any place of importance.”
Madigan gave a sardonic laugh. “War has a funny way of changing plans. Time’s not on our side, but our job is to get this unit as ready as it can be regardless. Building a unit is like playing Fellig’s Fortunes. You stack your deck with every card you can get, but it’s hard to win a hand when all you can draw from is the discard pile.”
There was some commotion at the front gate. A visitor on horseback was hailing them and asking for directions to the Sixth. Madigan glanced over, and a broad smile formed on his face when he saw the visitor. “Well, I’ll be . . .”
Cleasby didn’t recognize the man. He was a tall, broad-shouldered, unshaven fellow wearing a battered, dusty great coat and a wide-brimmed hat. The coat looked like it might have been part of a military uniform once, but it was so faded Cleasby couldn’t hazard a guess as to which kingdom had issued it, and it bore no insignia now. The visitor carried a rifle on one side of his saddle and a scattergun on the other. He dismounted—revealing that he was wearing at least one pistol, a sword, and a bandolier of ammunition—quickly tied his horse to the hitching post, and then walked their way.
“Who is that, sir?”
“That, Cleasby, is the continued stacking of our deck.” Madigan turned to shout at their visitor. “I didn’t expect you so soon.”
“Five Fingers is far away.” He was a very dark-skinned Tordoran, in his thirties, and he spoke with a thick Ordic accent. The man removed his hat, revealing that he’d gone completely bald. “Lucky for you I wasn’t home.”
“I figured the postmaster in Ramarck would know where you were working.” Traveling dust was knocked free as Madigan shook the man’s hand. “I’m glad you came, Savio.”
“You always manage to pick the best battles. So who is in need of killing this time?”
“The Protectorate of Menoth.”
“Excellent.” The Ordsman’s smile was eerie, even predatory. “I have never had the opportunity to kill them before. It should be enlightening.” He looked at Cleasby. “This is your second?”
Madigan nodded. “This is Sergeant Cleasby. Cleasby, this is Acosta. He’s an old friend of mine. Take care of whatever he needs.”
There was something frightening about the way the Ordsman immediately sized up Cleasby, like he was seeing if there were any possible challenge there. “You are a duelist, no?”
How did he know that?Cleasby shook his head. “I’ve had some training.”
“Not enough to be worth my time to fight. I am Savio Montero Acosta. I will require this . . . how you say?Storm armor. And one of the swords which makes lightning.”
“A storm glaive?” Cleasby asked.
“Madigan promised I would have the opportunity to master these lightning things in exchange for killing his enemies. I will need thisstorm glaiveimmediately so I may begin practicing.” He turned back to Madigan. “Where do I sleep?” Madigan nodded at the Barn. “Good. I have been awake for three days. Have someone care for my horse and bring me the rest of my firearms.” Then the Ordsman just walked away.
Cleasby watched as Acosta entered the barracks. “Uh . . . sir? I don’t think he’s from Cygnar, let alone the Cygnaran Army. I can’t—”
“Just give that man whatever he asks for.”
Cleasby held up the clipboard. “I know he’s not onhere.”
“Sure he is.” Madigan took the clipboard and scanned the list until he found a deserter they hadn’t been able to track down. “As far as the army is concerned, that’s Private Aldous Whitman from Bainsmarket.” Madigan handed the clipboard back. “His friends call him Savio.”
Had Madigan just hired amercenary?“I can’t even count how many regulations this breaks,” Cleasby stammered.
“Once we get into combat, you’ll thank me.”
It was a few days later when a commotion woke everyone in the Barn. Cleasby snapped awake, sleepily unsure if he should reach for his boots or his sword first, when he realized the sound wascheering.
He stumbled into the yard to discover Thornbury had returned, and he’d done so in style, driving a train of four big wagons. The guards were hooting and clapping as Thorny pulled away tarps, revealing . . .plunderwas probably the correct word. There were weapons, armor, and all the equipment necessary for a unit of Storm Knights.
The men were streaming out of the Barn, and when they saw their gear had arrived, they became excited. Cleasby was surprised to see that they were actually enthusiastic. Madigan was there in full uniform, holding a lantern.Does that man ever sleep?
“See that, Cleasby? Treat a soldier like a soldier, and soon enough he’ll act like one. Now grab Wilkins and Rains and have them make sure nobody starts playing around and electrocutes themselves.”
Cleasby found the other sergeants and passed along the order. Sure enough, ten seconds later a private managed to charge up a storm thrower, and the resulting bolt into the sky temporarily deafened everyone and startled the nearby cows enough to make some of them crash through the fence to escape.
After a few moments of chaos, Wilkins shouted for order while Pangborn and a few soldiers ran to herd the cows back into their enclosure and Rains berated the private. Cleasby found the lieutenant talking to an agitated Neel MacKay, who was gesturing wildly. Cleasby followed the hand signals and saw that the last wagon’s huge load remained covered. Whatever it was, it was so heavy it needed to be pulled by twice as many oxen as the other wagons. He went to his commander’s side.
“You’re a genius, old man,” Madigan said as he clapped the mechanik on the back.
“Don’t get too excited. He’s got a few issues that might require some work around, but he’s a Stormclad, just like you asked.”
“Let’s see this mighty warjack of yours.” Madigan put one hand on the tarp.
MacKay sighed. “I’ve got to warn you—”
“You see how much the morale has improved just because these soldiers know they won’t be fighting with planks? Let me show them they’ve got a ’jack.”
“If it’s morale you’re worried about, Madigan, I’d leave the tarp on until they get inside. He’s one powerful ugly warjack.”
Madigan let go of the tarp. “Wilkins!” he shouted. “Have the men secure all these crates in the Barn and then lights out. Busy day tomorrow.” Wilkins began barking orders, and the men fell into line, quickly dragging their weapons and armor inside.
The rest of the foundation drifted over without being summoned. Cleasby wasn’t exactly shocked to see Acosta appear, and Madigan seemed to expect him to be there. With his beard shaved except for a Tordoran-style goatee and now wearing Cygnaran dress blues, the Ordsman no longer looked like a mercenary.
Thornbury joined them, proud as could be. “I worked my magic, Lieutenant. The opera wasn’t half bad, either, though I did get into a fight afterward when I had to protect the young lady’s honor from some thugs I am totally certain I’ve never met before in my life. It was convenient how I chased those rogues off like that and impressed her so.”
“Good man,” Madigan said. “Captain Schafer hasn’t had you arrested, so I’m assuming all went well.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but at least my new friend at the quartermaster’s will make sure Captain Schafer won’t see this requisition paperwork cross his desk for a few days. It’s funny how his signature and seal wound up on this logistics order. He must have been distracted. Imagine him signing off on a shipment of munitions for Sixth Platoon instead of ordering himself that new horse.” Thornbury shrugged. “But such are the dangers of bureaucracy.”
Cleasby sighed. He’d left the clipboard inside the Barn.
A few minutes later Wilkins came back. “The men are settled inside. I told them the first one unable to resist the temptation to charge up a storm chamber gets to do pushups until his arms fall off. That should buy me ten minutes.”
Madigan lowered the shutters on the lantern, leaving them in relative shadow. Cleasby found he was extremely excited. Warjacks had always impressed him—there was something simply incredible about the huge steel war machines. He felt like a child about to unwrap a present. From the looks the NCOs were sharing, he wasn’t alone in the feeling.
“Just remember, I warned you . . .” MacKay pulled away the tarp to reveal the warjack.
They crowded in close to see. The warjack was in a sitting position, the soles of its giant feet pointing toward them. It was hunched over, but even in the dark it was obvious something was wrong. “Why is it painted red?” Cleasby asked, shocked at seeing Khadoran colors on a Cygnaran ’jack.
“That’s not paint. That’s rust,” MacKay answered. “Nothing a little tender love and care can’t fix up good as new.”
There wereholesin it. Bullet holes from the look of it. The once-mighty Stormclad was dented, battered, scratched, and even burned. The furnace door was missing, and the boiler was cracked. Powered down, the ’jack looked like it had crawled onto the wagon and died.
“It’s all broken,” Pangborn said. “We had an old laborjack on the farm in better shape than this.”
MacKay was indignant. “This isn’t no laborjack, you big moron. This is a top-of-the-line warjack.”
Pangborn didn’t take insults well, but apparently he had enough respect for the old mechanik to let the comment slide. “Then how come its arm fell off?”
“Give me some strong lads and a small crane, and I’ll have that back on in no time.”
“If this machine were a horse, I would put it out of its misery,” Acosta stated flatly.
“He isn’t a horse!” MacKay was getting offended. “This is a fine ’jack who has just had a spot of bad luck!”
There was a long hesitation while everyone waited for Madigan’s response.
“You weren’t lying about hurting morale. What happened to it?”
“He took some damage from a Khadoran barrage in Llael, then got loaded onto a train car that was rerouted and got lost. He’s been sitting in a train yard forgotten and neglected, and the train car had a leaky roof. They found him and were going to scrap him for parts.” MacKay climbed up into the wagon. “That’s how come I was able to get him for you.”
“Honest answer, MacKay. Can you fix this thing in time for the invasion?”
“I swear on my righteous mother that this here Stormclad will do you proud, sir. The cortex is undamaged. Everything else I can repair or bodge together. By the time the invasion rolls around he’ll be blasting thunder and calling down the lightning, stomping Menites underfoot like rats.”
Madigan nodded. “That’ll do. The rest of you are dismissed. MacKay, I want to talk to you for a minute.”
The foundation of the Sixth walked away. Their ’jack might be busted up, but at least they now had their individual load outs, so they were in good spirits. Cleasby was pleasantly surprised to find he was feeling optimistic. Sixth Platoon was actually starting to look like a real unit, on paper at least. Then he realized he needed to ask the lieutenant a question about issuing the equipment, so he returned to the wagons.
“All right, Madigan. You got me. I’ll come clean,” MacKay was saying. Cleasby stopped just outside the muted ring of lantern light and waited, not wanting to interrupt. “There’s more to it.”
“No matter how inefficient the army can be at times, they don’tloseStormclads. This is too new and too advanced.”
“Maybe notlost,exactly. It would be more accurate to say he waswillfully forgotten. Nobody really wanted to mess with him after his run of bad luck. Cortexes can get quirks, even high-quality ones from the Fraternal Order of Wizardry like this one. Warjacks are smart and dumb at the same time, and sometimes their cortexes get a little wonky on you, pick up bad habits, and need to get wiped clean, to start fresh.”
“And why didn’t they do that?”
“Oh, they did. They wiped it before they shipped it home. It’s ready for a fresh start, but we mechaniks can be a superstitious lot. The boys in Llael said this Stormclad was bad luck, and that sort of stuck.”
“What’s the problem with it?”
“Well . . . Keeping in mind this was before we wiped his cortex, he was kinda . . . homicidal.”
Madigan chuckled. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a war machine.”
MacKay took a deep breath. “Maybe a better term would be bloodthirsty. He was aggressive. Angry even, though I don’t know if that’s really possible. He has a hard time exercising restraint. He . . . well . . . how to put this gently? He got uppity and electrocuted his last controller for telling him to hold back. Just fried the poor ’jack marshal on the spot. They said there was nothing left but a black scorch mark and a pair of boots with feet still in them.”
“So you can understand why even though he’s got a clean cortex, the boys have been hesitant to fix him up and take him out for a spin. So that’s why I said ‘willfully forgotten.’”
Madigan seemed to think about it for a long time. “You’re the ’jack marshal. If this thing is going to obliterate anyone, it’ll be you. So if you’re fine with it, so am I.” MacKay’s shoulders relaxed as relief tinged his expression. “One more thing, though. I want you to leave this Stormclad ugly on the outside for now. Make sure it runs and is reliable, but don’t pretty up the exterior until I give you the go-ahead.”
The old mechanik’s eyes bugged. “You want me to what? That’s an insult to my skills as a mechanik. People will talk, me not keeping up a ’jack proper! A man can have an ugly wife and nobody will disrespect him to his face, but an ugly ’jack? Inconceivable.” Even in the dim light, Cleasby could see the mechanik’s argument wasn’t gaining any sympathy from the commander. MacKay tried another tack. “Fine, then. Let them talk bad about Old Neel’s skills. But what about the soldiers’ morale when they think the platoon’s heavy hitter is a walking pile of scrap?”
“I’m taking the long view on that. You’ll see.” Madigan turned and walked away. “And you still need to lose some weight if you plan on keeping up. Good night, Neel.”
MacKay kicked the wagon wheel. “The things I’m willing do to get back to the action,” he muttered.
Madigan saw Cleasby standing there and frowned. “Spying?”
“Of course not, sir. I’m rather overt in keeping records of our many indiscretions. I’d call this more eavesdropping. So I take it our new ’jack is a murderer with a bad reputation? It’ll fit right in.”
Madigan picked up the unfamiliar weapon from the rack. The storm glaive seemed slightly unbalanced compared to a proper Caspian blade, but its arcane capabilities would more than make up for that. Conductive elements ran through the center of the blade and connected to the large special accumulator set into its hilt, a complex and ingenious mechanikal apparatus made from layers of zinc, copper, and brass bathed in alchemical solutions and inscribed with runes. Somehow that mechanikal marvel generated and distributed arcane energy in the form of electricity, enabling the user to strike with the power of lightning.
The storm chamber, as that accumulator was called, was one of Sebastian Nemo’s most famous inventions. How it worked was far over Madigan’s head, but his job wasn’t to understand it. All he needed to know was how best to kill people with it.
“How do I turn this damned thing on?”
“Twist the haft in opposite directions,” MacKay explained. “You’ll feel it click when it locks into the on position.”
Madigan knew he should have found the time to familiarize himself with their issue equipment sooner, but there hadn’t been much to work with, and he’d been too busy. Such was the burden of command. He put his insulated gauntlets in the indicated places and twisted. The storm chamber began to make a buzzing noise.
“Worse comes to worst, it always functions as a sword, but when you release the built-up arcane energy of the storm chamber, it is really something to see. It takes a moment to charge up between uses.”
“How will I know when it’s ready?”
“Trust me, Lieutenant.” MacKay lowered his visor. “You’ll know.”
The storm glaive was glowing blue. Energy began crackling down the steel. It felt unnatural. “I see what you mean.”
Madigan found the trigger stud beneath the guard, pointed it at the wooden stump the Sixth had been using as a target, and fired. The magical energy was hurled seemingly instantly across the space with an intense noise and flash. A flock of pigeons took off from the roof of the barn and fled. He blinked a few times, then cursed under his breath when he saw he’d missed the stump and blasted a hole in the ground instead. Dirt came raining down from the sky. “I suppose that’s why I’m doing this while the men aren’t watching.”
“Of course, lad,” MacKay said. “It takes some getting used to. It isn’t like aiming a firearm, and the electrical discharge isn’t real accurate either. Ideally, we’ll be using these together with one storm rod per squad, provided Thorny can get some for us, but those storm rods are in short supply. The storm rod augments the glaives around it, adding to power and range. Or if a target is hit by a storm thrower, the discharges from the less-accurate glaives will follow along, like water flowing into a gutter, to go the same way and hit the target. The weapons were meant to be used together, and each piece bolsters the others. Even our Stormclad feeds off the energy. Just being close to all these storm chambers charges him up. The squad with the voltaic halberds should have an NCO armed with a nexus generator, which will send electricity leaping from one man to another when they strike in close combat. Those halberds can absolutely lay waste to enemy ranks. Thorny got me most of the parts from a busted generator, so I’ll see what I can do to make one.”
The Sixth had a few different kinds of troops. Most were Stormblades armed with glaives like this, but Madigan also had a squad of Stormguard armed with the voltaic halberds and a handful of men armed with the longer-range storm throwers.
“The more equipment we can scrounge, the better off we’ll be. I’ve got faith in you, Neel.”
“Glad somebody does. Evie thinks I’m mad, volunteering for this.”
Madigan lifted the storm glaive again. Arcane energy flickered down the blade, leaping across his hands. It was strange, as the insulated layer of his armor was the only thing protecting his body from the deadly force. It took a moment for the power to build back up, but even then he realized the storm glaive actually felt quicker in his hands, like a proper sword.
MacKay noticed the way he was holding the sword. “Runes make if feel lighter when they’re powered up by the accumulator.”
“Impressive.” Madigan fired again. Lightning smashed into the stump, throwing chunks of smoking bark in every direction. “Very impressive.”
“Wait until you see what it does to a body when all that energy goes shooting through it. Blood flash boils into steam. Skin crisps up like a pig turning on a fire. Organs pop. A solid hit will blow chunks right off you . . . But you’re a swordsman, lad.” MacKay nodded at the stump. “You know you want to.”
Madigan walked forward as the storm chamber charged. Taking the storm glaive in both hands, he swung from the shoulder and struck the stump. There was a flash and he was pelted with bits of flaming wood. The shock traveled up his arms, but it was more muted than it should have been. The sword had cut far deeper than expected. Madigan wrenched it free, studying the charred gash. “That’s unexpected.”
“It isn’t just hitting with steel. The mechanika augments the blade itself. A proper swing when the storm chamber is fully charged will slice regular armor like cloth and put a hurt on even the finest plate. A real good blow can even crack a warjack open. I tell you, Nemo’s a genius.”
“No wonder we lost in the coup,” Madigan muttered.
MacKay laughed. “We? Speak for yourself, boy! I was on leave, drunk as could be for a week, when all that happened. I woke up hung over, and when I heard the news my response wasall hail the new king!But I suppose some of us are smart enough to know when to stay out of trouble.”
“I was never good at avoiding trouble, and I don’t suppose much has changed.” Madigan studied the storm glaive and smiled. “Except maybe thevolumeof trouble . . .”
Rains waited for the Morrowan ceremony to finish before entering the Barn. It wouldn’t do any good to rile up the others. He’d been in enough fights already. Tempers would flare and words would be exchanged, then blows, though he was a capable enough swordsman that nobody had been so stupid as to cause an actual duel over it yet. At least here in his adopted kingdom people enjoyed the freedom to have differences in their beliefs. In his homeland all differences were considered heresy, and heresy always led to the wrack.
Sergeant Wilkins was leading the prayer. Unlike many Morrowans he had met, Wilkins really was as pious as he acted. He was a true devout with absolute faith in the rightness of his beliefs. Rains recognized such individuals because he’d grown up in a city filled with them. Someone so devout would never waver in his suspicions.
I should have stayed in Llael.
At least there it had been straightforward. His heritage hadn’t mattered. He’d been one Stormblade of many, united against the fearsome Khadorans. His unit had fought as one, and even then the toll had been terrible. What was coming would be far worse. Rains feared what would happen to this motley band once they crossed into Sul, for only he truly understood the absolute commitment of the men and women they would be facing.
Because he’d felt such commitment himself once.
Someone joined him at the doorway. “They’re not done yet?” It was the mysterious Ordsman, Acosta. He watched the other soldiers continue their service for a time, his dark face scowling. “I too, tire of their nattering.”
“I really don’t mind it so much,” Rains said truthfully. In a way, it reminded him of his youth. “People take comfort in their rituals.”
“If it helps them to fight better, so be it. Whatever gives a man more strength is right. To be strong when the steel is drawn, that is all that matters. If words read from an old book over little statues and trinkets gives them fire in their bellies, then good. Let them have their prayers.” Acosta studied Rains for a moment. “You do not pray because you despise your old god . . . Don’t be surprised; your bitterness is easy to see. But it doesn’t matter, because your strength comes from anger and old hurts. You’ve killed men already, no?”
Not enough yet.There were rumors about Acosta’s background. All Rains knew for sure was that the man could spar far better than anyone else in the platoon—and even then he always seemed to be holding back—and that Madigan trusted him completely. “What do you know of such things?”
“I’ve seen the Rhulfolk pray to their Great Fathers and I’ve seen the druids pray to their trees.” Acosta was contemptuous. “There are gatormen who pray to dark things that dwell deep in the swamps. The Cryxians pray to their Dragonfather, and they have overcome death itself. All can fight well in their own ways, all paths have something to offer, so all can be learned from.”
“Perhaps I am only remembering the traditions of my youth, but some things are best left unlearned.”
“A good philosophy . . . for a coward.”
That made Rains uneasy. Ord was a civilized kingdom, mostly of the Morrowan faith, much like Cygnar, but Acosta certainly didn’t talk like a Morrowan. They tended to shy away from the dark secrets almost as much as those of the Menite faith did. “Who do you pray to then, Acosta?”
“Does it matter?” Acosta looked him in the eyes. In the darkness, it was like staring into two black pits. “One who prays speaks the words to his god, but who else is listening? You should try it again sometime. You might be surprised who answers.”
The prayer was concluded. The pious were returning to their bunks. Wilkins had seen the pair standing in the doorway and was walking their way. “I’d be careful saying such potentially blasphemous things in front of our would-be witch hunter,” Rains warned before Wilkins got within earshot.
Wilkins gave each of them a brief nod of greeting. It was coldly polite. “You did not join our service, but I wish you to know that all are welcome.” He looked to Rains. “Perhaps doing so would demonstrate your conviction to the men.”
“Thank you for your concern, but in the upcoming battle I will demonstrate my conviction with my sword.” Rains was tired of having his patriotism questioned by this man.
“What are you hoping to accomplish, Wilkins?” Acosta asked, seeming genuinely curious.
“We were asking Ascendant Markus to hear our pleas.”
Acosta shrugged. “I do notplead.”
“So you are not devout, then?” There had been talk that Wilkins suspected Acosta of being a secret Thamarite. Holding such beliefs was distasteful but not illegal, as long as the believers didn’t congregate into cults or practice black magic.
“Oh, I am very devout, my friend.” Acosta had an unnerving smile. “I have enjoyed our discussion. Good night.”
They watched the Ordsman walk away.
“I don’t know which one of you two worries me more,” Wilkins muttered under his breath.
For once, Rains found himself in agreement with Wilkins. “Him. Definitely him.”
No official word had come down yet about the date of the invasion, but it had to be growing close. The men of Sixth Platoon were as charged up as their voltaic blades. They had been training hard. Madigan was a ruthless taskmaster, driving his soldiers on, forcing them to practice from before dawn to long after sundown every day without fail. Their lightning-based weaponry had been getting a lot of use—so much, in fact, that the nearby livestock, so panicked early on, had all gone deaf from the constant thunder. Armor that had been awkward a month ago was now like a second skin, often worn for days at a time. Madigan even made the men sleep in it, which was a terribly uncomfortable experience.
Whether it was hot or cold, wet or dry, they trained. Depending on the weather, the ground around the Barn was either packed hard as rock or churned into mud, but no matter what, they trained. It was after a continuous three-day stretch in the armor with very little sleep and constant physical exertion that Kelvan Cleasby found himself at his breaking point. He had never thought it was possible to be this exhausted, but still Madigan watched them, constantly shouting orders and corrections.
The men were disgruntled. Many of them had wound up here because they had taken issue with authority, others because they were naturally quarrelsome. They were being kept in line by the sheer force of Madigan’s will, and sometimes Pangborn’s fists, but even those threats had their limitations.
It was raining. Savio Acosta was leading the men through a series of drilled maneuvers. Whatever the Ordsman had been before—and the platoon had no problem coming up with all sorts of ideas and rumors, including bandit, mercenary, and even pirate—Acosta was an extremely knowledgeable warrior and seemed to enjoy teaching soldiers to fight as part of a cohesive unit. At the moment they were shoulder-to-shoulder, standing as a line, and Sergeant Wilkins was directing another squad to crash into them over and over and try to break through.
From a scholarly point of view, Cleasby was delighted to discover he could actually be mostly asleep, yet his mind was still capable of giving and following orders and his arm was still capable of swinging a sword. It would have been fascinating if it hadn’t been so damned painful.
Someone failed to pull their blow and a padded halberd struck with far too much force, putting a soldier into the mud. Tempers flared, and soon friends of the fallen man were in a real fight with friends of the attacker. It was interesting to see all the practiced martial discipline quickly turn into a free-for-all of canvas-wrapped swords, steel gauntlets, and insulated boots.
Cleasby was an NCO, but he was also too tired to care, so he stumbled to the side, sat on a log, and waited for the fight to resolve itself. He opened his visor and the interior of his helmet, already wet with sweat, began to fill with a cold rain.
Lieutenant Madigan sat down next to him, seeming totally oblivious to the fisticuffs. “So how goes it, Cleasby?”
“Not well, sir.” He gestured with one gauntlet toward the pile of muddy soldiers doing their best to murder each other. “It’s like you said. They’re made out of glass. Ready to shatter.”
“Better that I break them here than the Menites break them in Sul. I’ll spill tears, but the Protectorate will spill blood. Your books about heroes didn’t cover this part, did they?”
“No, they seem to have left this part out. The soldiers need a rest . . .” Cleasby exhaled and it blew water out the front of his helmet. “We all need a rest.”
“This is nothing compared to a real campaign, lad.”
Wilkins and Rains were trying to break up the fight. It was funny; though the two still hated each other, they were both natural leaders. When their interference didn’t work, they called for Pangborn, who started muscling soldiers from the crowd. Then somebody got in a lucky swing and tagged Pangborn in the face, and the big man began tossing soldiers violently through the air.
“If this were Khador these men would be flogged until they had no skin left on their backs,” Acosta said as he approached, shaking his head sadly. “It seems Cygnar’s finest has some troublemakers among its ranks. Would you like me to kill them for you, Madigan?”
“That won’t be necessary, Acosta.”
“As your Cygnaran Army frowns upon summary executions, I could make it look like a training accident . . . Or perhaps suffocate them in their sleep?”
Cleasby was a bit befuddled, but he was fairly sure the Ordsman wasn’t joking. One of the rumors was that Acosta was secretly a devotee of the Dark Twin, but everyone other than Wilkins found the idea that Lieutenant Madigan would bring a murderous Thamar worshiper into their unit absurd.Probably.
“Don’t worry. This is expected. These men are good soldiers, or they were good soldiers once. They just need to be reminded of it. Now, Sergeant Cleasby, I may soon be absent for a bit. If so, you’ll see to the organization while I’m away. Have the squad leaders continue the training.”
He was very tired, but he was fairly sure he’d heard right. “Why would you be absent?”
“With enough time I could mold these men into a properly functioning platoon, but time is a luxury we don’t have. You know what this unit really needs, Cleasby? They need to be like brothers, united as one, fightingforeach other instead ofagainsteach other. Easiest way to do that is to give them something to be united against.” Madigan turned toward the gate. “This will do . . .”
“What?” Cleasby turned his aching neck to see what Madigan was looking at and was surprised to see a large group of soldiers approaching on horseback. The man in the lead wore the insignia of a captain, and he certainly didn’t look happy to be here.
“Right on time,” Madigan said, unsurprised.
He realized it was Captain Schafer. “An inspection?” Cleasby looked around their practice yard. Their barracks, though repaired, was crumbling. MacKay had erected a rough shelter next to the Barn and their ’jack was visible inside, still rusty, battle damaged, and hideous. And their men were covered in mud and acting like buffoons. It certainly wasn’t looking good for the Sixth. “Why now?”
“I had Thorny drop off a thank-you note for our warjack this morning. Schafer has a grudge against me, so I thought I’d poke him with a stick. And it appears he brought his entire staff. Good. The peacock will feel the need to strut.” Madigan stood up. “Remember what I said.”
“This is your commanding officer, no?” Acosta asked, and when Madigan nodded, the Ordsman quickly closed his visor. “I will be elsewhere now.” He quickly walked away.
“What are you doing?” Cleasby whispered to Madigan.
“Getting in trouble,” Madigan whispered. before he stood, saluted, and shouted, “Good morning, Captain!”
Captain Schafer rode up to the lieutenant and returned a brusque salute. One of his accompanying soldiers rode near him, and the others stopped their horses several paces back. “What’s all this?” Schafer snapped.
“Some minor disciplinary issues, sir,” Madigan replied. In the background, Pangborn was being pulled off of another soldier by four men. Most of the others had realized they were being watched and were snapping to. Within a few seconds they had gotten themselves sorted out, as nobody particularly wanted to go back into the stocks. “And it would appear that my squad leaders have it well in hand.”
“I see,” Schafer said dismissively as he looked over the muddy soldiers. “What a pathetic lot.”
“So what brings you to the Sixth today?” Madigan asked.
“I’ll ask the questions here, Lieutenant!” Schafer snapped. One of his junior officers snickered, and Cleasby was suddenly filled with an inexplicable urge to knock him off his horse. “It would seem there’s been a mistake made by the quartermaster’s office.”
“I’m unaware of what that would be, sir.” Madigan was being very polite. “We’ve put in requisitions for our basic table of equipment and those were recently fulfilled.”
The men were listening intently now. Nervous eyes flicked between Madigan, the devil they knew, and Schafer, the one they knew only by reputation.
“The Sixth wasn’t supposed to be issued a warjack, let alone a Stormclad. Those are valuable material items meant forrealStorm Knights.”
The men began to mutter. Madigan spread his hands apologetically. “We might not be pretty to look at, but I assure you, my men are a real Storm Knights.”
Schafer laughed bitterly. “Please. These malcontents? If it weren’t for Lord Commander Stryker’s orders most of these men would either have been drummed out of the army or placed in a prison chain gang.”
“Treat a man like a criminal, and don’t be surprised when he acts like one.” Madigan raised his voice so everyone around the Barn could hear him. “I prefer to think of my soldiers as soldiers. My men are Storm Knights and should be treated with the respect due to an elite unit of the kingdom.”
The captain sneered. “Some were at one point, but look at them now!” The soldiers glanced at each other in their muddy, disheveled state. “They’re a disgrace! They’ve all embarrassed themselves, or they wouldn’t have wound up with you.”
“Insult me if you want, but I will not abide you insulting these men.”
Schafer didn’t seem shocked by the reply. It was almost as if he’d come expecting a bullheaded response from Madigan. “I’m their captain.I can say whatever I feel needs to be said. I can say this platoon is as sorry an excuse for soldiers as I’ve ever seen, and you’d have to like it.”
“And you would be wrong, and I’d ask you to apologize to them.”
Cleasby looked to the men. They all seemed as surprised as he was. They were not used to anyone standing up for them.
“One more word of disagreement from you, Madigan, and I will have you officially reprimanded for insubordination!”
“That’sSirMadigan, you whelp.”
“What?”His men shifted nervously. Even their horses sensed the sudden change. “What did you say?”
“My patron king may have been a murderous tyrant, but I have not been relieved of my titleyet,”Madigan explained in the most reasonable manner possible. A few of the men had to quickly stifle laughs.
The captain turned to his nearest subordinate. “See to it thatLieutenantMadigan is docked one month’s pay and issued an official reprimand for insubordination.”
Madigan shrugged. “I’ll throw it on the pile with the others. These are good men, sir. Sixth Platoon is as fine a group of soldiers as I’ve ever known. You obviously misspoke when you said they weren’t Storm Knights. Some earned that appointment in the past, and regardless of their transgressions since, they are Storm Knights again today. Others were assigned to this post, and they will prove themselves Storm Knights in battle soon enough.” Madigan walked through the mud, gesturing at the men standing behind him, and as he did so, they pulled themselves up, a little straighter, a little prouder. “It is an honor to serve as their lieutenant, and you would be proud to be their captain if you hadn’t so quickly dismissed them.”
“That’s enough out of you, Madigan,” Schafer snarled.
“Of course, sir.” Madigan nodded. “Now will you be apologizing to my troops or not?”
Cleasby hadn’t known it was possible for someone’s face to turn that red. “Trent, Dobbins! Take Madigan into custody.” Two of Schafer’s staff dismounted. “Have we ever put an officer in the stocks before? There’s a first time for everything, I suppose.”
There was a lot of grumbling and some swearing at that. A few of the men started forward to help Madigan, and Cleasby surprised himself by shouting “Stand down!” Even more surprising, they did.
The two staff soldiers seemed leery of the infamous knight, but Madigan offered no resistance. “Sergeant Cleasby, you have active command of the Sixth in my absence until otherwise directed.” Madigan nodded at the soldiers. “Carry on, lads.”
“Now, where’s this stolen Stormclad?” Schafer demanded.
“According to the table of equipment, a Stormclad warjack is to be standard issue equipment for a Stormblade infantry platoon. We can’t properly steal something that’s supposed to be our standard issue,” Madigan said. Schafer ignored him.
Schafer’s nearest soldier pointed toward MacKay’s improvised shack and the rusty, battle-damaged ’jack inside. “There it is.”
Schafer scowled in the direction of the shed, then laughed hard. “That piece of refuse is their Stormclad? I rode all the way out here in the rain forthat?” Some of his staff joined in his laughter, though the few who realized just how badly things had unfolded did not. “That thing isn’t even worth the effort to load it into a wagon. Come on, men, let’s get back to the business of therealarmy.” Schafer pulled on the reins and directed his horse back toward the gate. His soldiers caught up the reins of the extra mounts and followed.
Lieutenant Madigan walked along behind the horses, flanked by two very wary soldiers. He took one last look back at the troops assembled around the Barn.
“Sixth Platoon!” Cleasby shouted. “Commanding officer departing!” There was a loud clanking of metal on metal as dozens of Storm Knights saluted simultaneously. It was the single most orderly military tradition anyone had yet seen from the Sixth. They held the salute, standing parade ground straight. The honor certainly wasn’t directed at Captain Schafer.
Madigan gave his soldiers a small nod of respect, and then they were gone.
The men were watching, muddy, cold, and tired, but they were all thinking the same thing. Madigan was a tough old bastard, but he wastheirtough old bastard. There was some muttering, mostly related to Schafer’s parentage, but then Sergeant Wilkins barked an order and the soldiers quickly fell back into line. Wilkins shouted, “What’ll it be, Sergeant Cleasby?”
He wanted nothing more than to take off the damp, chafing armor and lie down to sleep for a week, but that’s not what Madigan would have wanted. “You heard the lieutenant. We carry on.”
Spite is one of the basest motivators, but it’s also one of the most effective. The men took up their weapons with renewed enthusiasm. As of that moment they were no longer a collection of problems but a unit of Storm Knights.
“Nicely done, sir,” Cleasby whispered as he flipped down his visor and got back in line.
Luckily for him, Captain Schafer came to his senses enough not to put a knighted officer of the Crown in the stocks. The occupants of the stocks were subject to very public ridicule—any sod on the street could mock and throw rotting fruit at them—and one simply did not do that to a knight, even one with as dark a reputation as Madigan’s. Certain societal covenants should never be broken, for the good of the kingdom.
Military order had to be kept, however, and not only had Madigan been insubordinate to a superior officer, he had done it in a public manner. That deserved punishment; not to punish him would be to invite chaos. So Madigan had been placed in the brig. As a knight, he had even been given his own private cell. It was far more comfortable than the Barn, and best of all, it was quiet.
It was a rare treat for an officer to have time alone to think.
His platoon would either solidify in his absence or come apart at the seams. It was a gamble, but such was life.
Three days passed before he had a visitor.
Madigan, who had anticipated being placed in the brig well before insulting the captain, had stashed a deck of cards in his pocket. He was sitting on his cot when keys jangled in the lock, a solitaire game of Fellig’s Fortunes spread on the blanket before him. He checked his pocket watch, but it was too early for dinner.
The heavy wooden door creaked open. “Sir Madigan? Sorry to disturb you, sir,” the jailer said.
He could only assume most guests didn’t receive such deferential treatment. “Yes, Private?”
“There’s someone who wishes to speak with you.” The jailer stepped out of the way so an elderly gentlemen could enter.
The old man walked with the aid of an ebony cane. He was dressed as a civilian but still carried himself with a military bearing. His suit was finely tailored, and a silver medal shone on the breast. It was the Royal Order of the Cygnus, the highest honor awarded in the kingdom.
Madigan stood and saluted as soon as he realized who it was. “General Durham!”
“No need to call me ‘General’ anymore. I’ve been retired for years.” Lord Durham waved away the salute and sized up his surroundings. “Nice accommodations you have here. I think I may have spent a few nights in this brig myself due to a few youthful indiscretions. I remember more rats, though.”
“Our rat catchers are the finest in Caspia,” the jailer said proudly.
“Wonderful. Leave us,” Durham ordered. The jailer seemed rather happy to escape. The old knight pulled up a wooden stool and took a seat. “Forgive me. These knees aren’t what they used to be.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“It has been a very long time, Sir Madigan.”
“Twelve years.” The last time Madigan had seen his old friend, mentor, and former commanding officer had been during the Lion’s Coup, where they had been on opposite sides and had met in battle, making this a rather awkward meeting. “Forgive me, Lord Durham, but I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Ha! Meaning you thought surely I’d be dead by now, though I could easily say the same for you. Please, sit down. I’m no longer your commander so you don’t have to stand there making this uncomfortable.” Madigan reluctantly sat on the edge of the cot. “Still playing Fellig’s Fortunes, eh?” The older man’s eyes flicked over the spread of cards. “It appears you could win in three if you play your priest, then your ’caster . . .”
“You always were the superior tactician.”
“Cards are a vice, but everyone needs a hobby. I must say, Madigan, I was rather entertained to hear you were back in Caspia and up to your old tricks. You’ve not changed much at all, have you, lad?”
“How do you mean?”
The former General of the Second Army made an exaggerated show of looking around the cell. “Let’s see . . . Refusing to give up despite being given a bootless assignment. Disregarding the rules in order to get the things you need to get the job done. Goading a young officer for your own ends. Stop me when one of these sounds familiar.”
“You’re remarkably well informed for someone who is retired.”
“When you’re stationed in this city for twenty years, you make a few friends. Insulting a superior like that could be seen as fomenting rebellion. That’s a serious offense in war time, Madigan. Just because we’re about to launch an attack and nobody else wants to be saddled with you doesn’t give you the right to break tradition. My heart nearly failed me when I heard they had summoned you back to Caspia. Those fools don’t seem to realize what they’ve done.”
“I was given an order. I intend to see it through. Isn’t that what you taught me it meant to be a knight?”
“We both know I taught you more than that, but you paid no heed to the parts of knighthood you weren’t inclined toward, like chivalry. No, Madigan, you haven’t changed a bit. I thought maybe your exile would have dulled the edge, but I suppose some swords stay forever sharp.” Durham’s voice grew hard. “At least until they break.”
“The sharpest swords cut both ways, Lord Durham. I am what the army made me. If you’ve come here expecting me to beg for your forgiveness, I’m afraid you’ll leave disappointed. I did what King Vinter ordered me to do.”
“Vinter was a bloodthirsty madman, but he had a talent for sending the right man for the job. Earl Hartcliff was a popular leader among Leto’s supporters, with his own private army and an estate that was a veritable fortress. Who better to send against him than a knight who would sacrifice anything to achieve victory? You’ve never apologized, have you? Not even to King Leto himself.”
“Don’t preach to me about knightly ideals. Do you want me to weep bitter tears, old man? I’m a soldier. My duty is to win for my king. I gave Hartcliff a chance to surrender, but his ‘knightly honor’ required him to fight even though I’d already outmaneuvered him and had him trapped. He was the idiot who turned it into a siege—but I didn’t know his family was inside when I ordered that mansion burned down.”
Durham shook his head ruefully. “I wonder, would a man who would so readily sacrifice anything in order to achieve victory have held back the torches even if hehadknown there were children inside? I think Vinter already knew the answer when he sent you.”
Madigan was quiet for a very long time.
Durham leaned back and placed arthritic hands on top of damaged knees. “I ask you, Sir Madigan: What is the worth of a knight who would sacrifice his honor so easily? His compassion, his mercy, even his good name? Is he a truly a knight at all? If a man would sacrifice everything to win a fight, then what does he have left to fight for?”
“You always were one for the philosophical games. I’m a simple soldier. What brings you here, Lord Durham?”
“A certain morbid curiosity. The people who sent for you do not realize what they’ve done. They do not understand what lengths you will go to in order to succeed. I suspect Laddermore does, because she is a clever one. She believes you can reform these fallen soldiers, but even she does not realize she does them no favor by placing their lives into your bloodstained hands.”
“Building Sixth Platoon is my mission, and I’ll have them ready and in shape for this invasion, no matter what.”
“I have no doubt they will be taken care of, just like any other assignment set before you.” Durham took up his cane and leaned on it heavily it to rise, then stood on shaky legs. Some war wounds never heal. Madigan got to his feet as well. “Enough beating around the bush. Do you know why I busted you back to lieutenant?”
“I thought it was because during the battle between your army and the loyalists, I personally gave you that limp.”
“You assume everyone is so petty.” Lord Durham let out a long sigh. “That was war. Many of Vinter’s loyalists, even members of the vile Inquisition, still serve the kingdom today, because unlike his older brother, King Leto is a merciful and forgiving man. No, I demoted you and sent you off to the hinterlands because an officer so consumed with a desire to achieve victory despite the costs is a greater danger to his men than the enemy they face.”
“Sixth Platoon is my problem, Lord Durham. I’ll see to them.”
“No doubt. You say they are your problem, and like any problem, you will sacrifice whatever you have to in order to solve it, but I wonder . . . What happens when there is abiggerproblem presented to you? Will you be so quick to sacrifice your men to solve it?”
He had no ready answer for that.
“You were one of the most promising officers I ever served with, but there is a darkness in your soul.” Lord Durham limped to the door and knocked on it firmly with his cane. “Farewell, Sir Madigan.”
The jailer opened the door to let out Lord Durham, who did not look back again. Madigan returned to his cot and his card game.
The invasion began while Madigan was still in the brig. The artillery bombardment against the walls of Sul started during the night and woke all of Caspia with a continuous roar of thunder. During his career he had been on both sides of artillery barrages, but he had never heard one as awe-inspiring as this.
The legendary Walls of Caspia had kept out invaders for a millennia, but time and technology had changed, so the ancient walls which now protected the breakoff portion known as Sul would surely fall eventually. But how long would it take? Would the faith of the Menites crumble as well? Would this punitive invasion go as smoothly as the military hoped, or would the Protectorate stand firm? It did no good to dwell on such things, so Madigan went back to sleep. They would be coming for him in the morning.
Sure enough, the keys rattled in the lock just after dawn. He was already awake, dressed, and ready. He followed the jailer out, signed some paperwork—the army had paperwork for everything—and the officer of the watch told him he was free to return to his unit.
Except his unit was waiting for him just outside the brig.
“Sixth Platoon!” Sergeant Wilkins shouted.“Attention!”
Fifty men, all of them wearing polished, gleaming storm armor, moved as one, fell into two neat ranks at the base of the steps. The squad of Stormguard slammed the hafts of their weapons into the flagstones simultaneously. The noise was rather impressive. Then they held perfectly still and waited for his orders.
Sometimes a gamble paid off.
A Storm Knight approached, saluted, and lifted his visor. It was Sergeant Cleasby. “Requesting permission to turn the Sixth back over to you, sir.”
“Acknowledged.” Madigan was grudgingly impressed. “They’re ready for the parade ground, but are they ready for an invasion?”
“I believe so. MacKay is still putting a coat of paint on the warjack, sir, but we went ahead and brought the new standard with us . . .”
“We’re flying colors now? My, Cleasby, you lads have been busy.” Such a thing was good for morale. “I wasn’t expecting you to come up with a flag.”
“Unsurprisingly, Thornbury knows a seamstress.” Cleasby turned back to the ranks and shouted, “Present standard!”
A pole was lifted and their banner unfurled into the breeze. Sixth Platoon of the 47th Company.
“I like the name.”
Cleasby grinned. “I believe Captain Schafer came up with it, sir.”
Most Storm Knight standards had more eloquent mottos, often long sayings relating to honor, duty, and valor or even quotes from kings or the wisdom of the ascendants, but the Malcontents’ motto consisted of a single word.
Woe unto any foe who would draw the ire of a king of Cygnar, for ours is a peaceful land, slow to anger and invariably just. In times of grave emergency a wise king may see fit to send forth his mighty armies to punish the wicked in other lands. When such campaigns occur, they are usually swift and glorious, as honorable enemies recognize the righteousness of the Cygnaran liberators and correct their shameful ways, and dishonorable enemies swiftly fall before the silver blades of our heroic knights. When Cygnar declares war, clear justice follows.
—Records of Chivalryby Lord Percival Rainworth 486 AR
PART II: THE INVADERS
The swirling smoke from the burning houses parted briefly, revealing a blasted street covered in blood and corpses. Then the wind shifted and the smoke washed back over the line, concealing them again, but in those few brief seconds Sergeant Kelvan Cleasby could see a veritable wall of Protectorate shields marching toward them.Temple Flameguard,he remembered. According to Rains’ briefing, these were the backbone of the Protectorate infantry. Incredibly hard to punch through, they specialized in holding choke points like this one.
“Will they break when we fry them?” Wilkins asked. The other leaders of the Sixth looked to Rains, though none were surprised at his response.
“Of course not! Their faith keeps them steady.”
“Throwers ready. On my mark!” Lieutenant Madigan was shouting to be heard over the incredible racket of the explosions, cracks of lightning, gunshots, and the rumble of warjacks all around them.“Fire!”
Their three storm throwers ignited simultaneously. Lightning flashed, filling the street, driving holes through the smoke. On the other side, Menite troops were blasted into smoking pieces of meat. It wasn’t that their longest-range weaponsshotas much as that a blinding white line formed between the muzzles and their targets and then disappeared, leaving only ruin.
It would take a moment for the storm throwers to recharge for another blast. But the Menites were still coming. They roared with one voice, screaming for the invaders’ blood. Those at the forward ranks raised their flame spears and whirled them overhead, forcing the flammable oil inside to the tips so that the spear points blazed with fire. The whistling noise this made, combined with the swirls of smoke and fire, was fearsome. Then the Temple Flameguard lowered their spears and charged as one gigantic, angry mass.
“Halberds up. Prepare to receive the charge!” Madigan ordered. There was no hesitation in his decision making. “Blades will countercharge on my mark. Wilkins’ squad up the center. Rains’ squad, flank left.” The two squad leaders responded that the order had been received, then ran back to their men to relay the command. “Cleasby! Take your squad and one thrower and go right. Go through the market and stick to the stalls until their first ranks are past, and then come out and hit them from behind.”
Cleasby wasn’t even conscious that he’d responded. He was too busy staring at the rushing mob of Menites. The perforations of his protective visor made it hard to see. The ringing in his ears made it difficult to hear. Within moments battle would be joined.How could the lieutenant be so calm?Madigan didn’t even seem to care that they were about to be swarmed by a much larger force. The only reason he was even raising his voice was to be heard over the commotion. Madigan glanced around. “Acosta, where are you?”
The Ordsman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. If the lieutenant was unnaturally calm, Acosta seemed almost lackadaisical. “Where do you want me?”
“Go with Cleasby. He’s new at this. Keep him alive long enough and I think we might make a leader of him one of these days.”
Acosta gave that odd, slightly frightening smile. “My pleasure.” He flipped down his visor. “After you, Sergeant.”
“Third squad on me! I need a storm gunner. Come on, Pangborn!” Cleasby shouted as he ran behind the line of halberdiers. He remembered his lessons and made sure he had a visual confirmation that his Stormblades had heard and were following. He had Thornbury, Watersford, Dunfield, Crispin, Allsop, the giant Pangborn on the storm thrower, and the mysterious Acosta as his minder, and they were right behind him.
The marketplace was far quieter than the street. It must have been a busy place once, as there were hundreds of stalls, but they’d all been evacuated. After the supposedly impenetrable city walls had fallen, the panicked populace of Sul had fled eastward deeper into the city, abandoning tons of food and goods here in their haste.
A terrible thunder sounded as the storm throwers fired another barrage, and then the other squad’s Stormblades let out their shorter-range electrical discharge. The Menite battle cry turned into an incomprehensible roar as the two sides clashed and steel rang out against steel.
He resisted the urge to look back and kept moving. He probably wouldn’t have been able to see his squad through all the stalls, tents, curtains, and flags anyway. It was a very confusing place—he really should have been in an office neatly filing papers. Forcing himself to focus on his training, Cleasby picked out a nearby bell tower to get his bearings and used that to navigate the aisles.
The insulated armor was heavy, but he was used to it now. His body was fit and his mind was running so quickly that the armor didn’t seem to matter. He leapt over a discarded pile of produce just as a Protectorate soldier came around the side of a wagon. They saw each other at the same time.
Apparently the Menite commander had followed the same idea about flanking through the market as Madigan had.
The Temple Flameguard reacted just a bit faster, jabbing his flame spear at Cleasby’s chest. Cleasby didn’t even think about using the buckler on his left arm to swat the fire-heated spear point aside; the motion was instant, automatic, ingrained by thousands of drills. The galvanic blade in his right hand was already charged with magical energy, and Cleasby swung.
The glaive caught the Menite low in the side. The sharpened steel alone would have been enough to end the man’s life, but the crackling release of electricity made it certain. There was a flash, a vibration up Cleasby’s arm, and then the Menite was spinning away in a flash of sparks.
The sharp smell hit him, burned hair and ozone, and he gagged. For some reason, he hadn’t expected the stench.
Several more Flameguard had shoved their way through the hanging curtains, having seen their companion felled, but the other Stormblades had been right on his heels, and the battle turned into a chaotic melee, squad against squad, as the two groups collided. Thunder boomed and wooden walls exploded into splinters as electricity was discharged. A Protectorate soldier crashed backward through a tent, taking the whole thing down as a Storm Knight followed, slashing wildly through the fabric.
There were Menites everywhere. The two squads had blundered right into each other. Thornbury, who had claimed no inclination to soldiering, savagely attacked another Menite, but the Flameguard simply shield-slammed him into the ground. Before the enemy could finish the aristocrat with a spear thrust, Pangborn lowered one armored shoulder and crashed into the Menite hard enough to put him through a stall filled with caged chickens. Pangborn fired his storm thrower into the stall, and there was an explosion of feathers. The big man began to laugh, then ran another Menite through with the thrower’s bayonet.
Too late Cleasby realized other Flameguard had come around the wagon, and they were already on top of him. Three figures with three flame spears, all aimed at his heart. There was a flash of blue and gold as Acosta flew past, a movement to one side, and then the other, and suddenly the merchants’ tents were splattered with blood and two more Menites lay dying. The third stabbed at Acosta, but he simply moved out of the way, flowing like water around the spear, and drove his storm glaive through the last soldier’s guts.
Except for Cleasby’s pulse pounding like a drum, the market was quiet. Private Allsop helped Thornbury up. The entire clash had been decided in a few brutal seconds. They were alive, and their opponents were dead. It was a lot to take in.
“Hells.” Acosta kicked the dying Menite off his sword. “I forgot to turn on the storm chamber.” He twisted the haft and the blade began to hum. “Such complicated things.”
Cleasby had studied with a Corvis duel master, but that was the fastest he had ever seen a mortal being move. “How did you do that?”
“You study books; I study weapons. Now we will see what this marvelous device of Nemo’s really does! Come, my friends.” The Ordsman continued on through the market.
“Maybe Wilkins is right,” Pangborn whispered. “Acosta has given his soul to Thamar in exchange for power.”
By all rights, Cleasby knew he should have been impaled on a Menite spear. “I don’t care who he prays to, as long as he’s on our side.” The battle was continuing in the street. The Sixth needed them. “Keep moving.”
They came out the far side of the market. The smoke was thicker here, and several nearby homes were being consumed by fire. They were close enough he could feel the heat. It was hard to ascertain the situation with such poor visibility, but the Menites had their backs to them. The Temple Flameguard were focused on the main body of the Sixth, trying to force their way through the halberd line. The Menite’s impressive shield wall wouldn’t do them much good from this angle. Cleasby pointed his storm glaive. “Attack!Attack!”
His squad rushed forward. The Temple Flameguard never knew what hit them. They plowed into the enemy, glaives swinging, blood flying. Flesh scorched and clothing caught fire. The air was filled with crackling energy that rippled across the steel of their armor, but the insulation beneath kept it from their vulnerable skin. The cobblestones were singed as the lightning danced from body to body.
The shield wall broke apart, and the entire street dissolved into a general melee, soldier against soldier, stabbing and slashing, invader against defender, in a savage fight to the death.
Madigan had been right. This was nothing at all like the stories.
Cleasby lifted his sword and brought it down on the shoulder of a Menite. The man screamed as his collarbone was split in half. The sergeant wrenched the glaive out and turned to the next target. Already the Temple Flameguard were reacting, turning to face this new threat. One of Cleasby’s men cried out and collapsed to the ground as a flame spear pierced his armor. Cleasby couldn’t even tell who it was in the confusion, but he pushed forward and slammed his buckler into the attacker’s face before he could finish the Storm Knight, then grabbed his fallen man by a strap on his armor and dragged him back toward the market.
It was Private Crispin, screaming and trying to hold in his guts with his hands.
He had to get him away from the fight. “Hang on, Private!” Cleasby shouted. The ground shook beneath his boots. Something big was coming their way. He turned in time to see a great, white shape smashing its way through the market stalls as if they were made of paper.
“Incoming warjack!” someone cried.
The Protectorate ’jack seemed impossibly tall as it loomed over them. One giant hand held a shield bearing a scarlet Menofix, the symbol of Menoth seen throughout the Protectorate army, and the other hand was pulling up a length of heavy chain. Dangling from that chain was a horrific ball of spiked steel as big around as Cleasby’s torso. The chain rattled as the warjack lifted the massive flail, preparing to swing.
“Look out!” Cleasby ordered as he threw himself to the ground, but it was already too late for some of the others. Metal joints rotated smoothly as the warjack’s arm moved in a wide arc. The chain whistled by inches above Cleasby’s visor. The flail stretched outward, tearing effortlessly through friend and foe alike, sending bodies flying in every direction. The ’jack pushed forward, swinging again, heedless of who it was tearing through.
It was almost like it was clearing a path . . . but for what?
Cleasby rolled over and forced himself up as quickly as he could. The Protectorate ’jack was practically on top of them. Crispin had gotten to his knees, the lower half of his breastplate covered in blood, but then he disappeared as the flail struck again, obliterating the young knight and driving him into the ground.
“No!” Cleasby shouted, and before he realized what he was doing, he was hurling his body at a heavy warjack.
The flail head was yanked from the hole it had made in the road, but Cleasby was already past, rushing beneath the giant machine’s boxy head. Dirt and stones pelted him as the ’jack lifted one metal foot to smash him, and his glaive struck the thing in the leg. Electricity sparked and the plate scorched and buckled. The machine barely seemed to notice. It swiveled at the waist and its huge shield crashed into Cleasby.
It was like being hit by a train.
Cleasby spun through the air and then hit the ground hard, bouncing and rolling, armor clanking. His storm glaive went skittering away across the cobblestones.
He could taste his own blood. The Protectorate ’jack took a halting step forward. Lingering sparks fell from its leg. Flakes of burning paint floated away. Then it took another step, and the steel toes hit the ground only inches from Cleasby’s visor. He tried to scramble away, but the other foot rose, ready to stomp him flat—
The Protectorate warjack went tumbling away, falling and tearing through the cobblestones.
A huge shadow fell over Cleasby. He looked up to see the massive figure of the Sixth’s Stormclad standing over him. The head rotated slightly as it studied him through the two glowing yellow slits that served as eyes, and for the briefest moment Cleasby could have sworn the great machine was considering stepping on him. He flinched as it lifted a foot over his body, but tons of steel touched down carefully just past him, and then it was moving after the fallen enemy ’jack. The Stormclad’s generator blade, a gigantic version of the knights’ storm glaives, positively churned with electrical energy as it went after the Protectorate warjack.
“Come on, boy!” Strong hands grabbed Cleasby’s armor and pulled. It was Neel MacKay. At some point he had lost his helmet, his face was blackened with soot, and his mustache was singed. “Get back into the fray.” MacKay turned to run after his ’jack. “Get him! Thrash that Protectorate junker!”
The twin smokestacks on the Stormclad’s back belched black smoke and tufts of fire as it burned hot. The huge generator blade rose and fell, striking the Protectorate war machine as it struggled to stand. There was a blinding flash and a boom. The Protectorate ’jack got to its feet, but the arm holding its flail remained on the ground. Oil was pumping from a severed line. Heedless of the crippling injury, the machine collided with the Stormclad and the two fell into one of the burning houses.
He found his storm glaive. The street was pandemonium, blue and gold desperately clashing with white and red. Cleasby didn’t know where his squad was. At this point he wasn’t a leader and he certainly wasn’t a scholar or a gentleman; he was just another soldier with a blade. “For Cygnar!” he shouted as he threw himself back into the fight. He knocked down an enemy soldier and began hammering against the man’s tower shield as he tried to hide beneath it.
There was the pounding of hooves and the noise of wheels being driven far too fast. Cleasby looked up to see a wagon carrying several passengers and a driver who was whipping the horses like mad. Riding alongside the wagon were several mounted Protectorate soldiers wearing what had to be the heaviest and most intricate armor he’d ever seen. His stomach lurched as he realized they were some of the dreaded Exemplars, elite knights of the Protectorate.
Then he realized they weren’t here to join their comrades at all but were retreating through the gap created by the Protectorate warjack.
They werefleeing . . . ?
He had studied everything he could about all of the knightly orders of the Iron Kingdoms. The fanatically obedient Exemplars were not the running type.
A single Storm Knight cut his way through the mob, trying to intercept the horsemen. A few of the Exemplars were armed with crossbows and launched bolts at the brave soldier. One missed and the knight caught another with his buckler, and then he was among the galloping horsemen. He triggered an electrical blast, which caused one of the horses to rear in terror, exposing its unarmored underbelly. The knight slashed with his glaive and the horse toppled over, taking its rider to the ground.
The lone Stormblade was Enoch Rains. The apostate leapt over the kicking, thrashing horse and went after the other riders. A sword fell, striking Rains in the shoulder, but his armor held. Rains inexplicablyhurledhis glaive. Another horse screamed and its two riders, one masked and unarmored, were thrown from the saddle. Then Rains was knocked aside by another armored warhorse.
The Exemplars could have easily finished Rains, but they were focused on protecting the occupants of the wagon. In the space of a few breaths they were free and riding hard away from the battle, eastward, deeper into Sul.
He’d been so distracted by Rains’ display of suicidal courage that he’d nearly lost track of the man he’d been trying to kill. The Temple Flameguard had been protected by his shield, and he was trying to maneuver himself up enough to stab his spear at Cleasby’s legs.
Lieutenant Madigan lopped the fallen man’s head off. “Pay attention, Cleasby. The battle’s almost over, so don’t get murdered now.”
“Sorry, sir.” He pointed. “Rains is down. Over there.”
The old knight lifted his visor so he could see more clearly. He scowled when he saw the wagon. “It can’t be . . .” They lost sight of the wagon behind a wall of smoke. Looking like he’d seen a ghost, Madigan shook his head and flipped his visor back down. “The Flameguard are routed.” Cleasby hadn’t realized it, but the Menites had sounded a retreat. The Stormclad, its banner still on fire, had come lumbering out of the wreckage and was chasing after the running enemy. Wilkins’ squad was still fighting a group of Flameguard who were standing their ground as a delaying action. “Don’t just stand there. Go help Rains.”
Heedless of the pain in his legs, Cleasby ran as fast as he could toward where Rains had fallen. One of the horses was on its side kicking and thrashing, its armored rider partially pinned beneath it and taking blows from its flailing hooves. The other horse lay barely twitching on the street, bleeding heavily near its fallen riders, neither of whom moved. Rains was on his hands and knees, with the breath knocked out of him. Unable to get out from under the thrashing horse, the pinned Exemplar freed his sword, swung at its neck, and killed his mount. With the horse still, the enemy knight struggled to free himself.
Cleasby swung his glaive at the Exemplar’s helmet. Surprisingly, his enemy got his sword up in time to block. Lightning flashed as the blades met. “For Cygnar!” Cleasby attacked again, but the Exemplar knocked that blow aside as well. Even pinned beneath a horse the man was a superb swordsman.
Rains reached the Exemplar, and since he was missing his glaive, he slammed the edge of his buckler into the Exemplar’s helmet again and again, causing him to grunt and denting the helmet but not accomplishing much else. The Exemplar grabbed hold of Rains’ leg and pulled with a yell, sending the Stormblade down. Cleasby struck with a clumsy overhand blow, but the glaive was turned aside on the heavy steel of the Exemplar’s shoulder. The armor was so intricately carved it was practically a work of art, but it also worked infuriatingly well. The enemy counterattacked and the edge of his blade hit Cleasby’s knee. The armor plate stopped it, but the blow was enough to make his leg go numb, and he fell backward, off balance.
“Allow me, Sergeant,” Acosta said as he walked past Cleasby. The Exemplar stabbed at the Ordsman, who calmly batted the tip aside, and then stomped on his opponent’s sword so it was pinned to the earth. The Exemplar cursed and tugged, but Acosta didn’t budge. “This is a good learning opportunity. You two have obviously never fought someone in such heavy armor before.” Surprisingly, Acosta turned the storm chamber on his glaiveoff.
Cleasby tried to reply, but he was panting too hard.
The Exemplar got both hands on his sword and pulled. Acosta’s glaive brutally struck the man in the hands, breaking his fingers. The Menite yelled in pain, and his sword fell into the dust. “You can’t just hack at your enemy. The hard part is knocking them down. Then you must be precise. Methodical. Think of it like opening a tin of meat.”
The Menite put both of his injured hands on his armored horse and pushed, straining, trying to free himself before he could become a lesson in armor cracking. Through the emotionless mask of the man’s ornate helmet Cleasby could hear a prayer to the Lawgiver.
Acosta continued, “This weapon is designed for cleaving rather than thrusting, but it will still serve, if you use the tip of your blade. Insert it into a seam like so.” He jammed the end of his storm glaive into the crease where the two halves of the heavy torso armor came together. Acosta shoved. The prayer stopped and the Exemplar bellowed in pain. “Yes . . . This is truly fine plate, very well fitted. In such a case you must work through it using the principle of leverage.” He placed one hand on his glaive, about halfway up the blade, and kept the other on the handle. “Your gauntlet will protect your palm. Then work the blade like so . . .” He began to lever the blade back and forth, prying the breastplate apart.
The Exemplar began to scream as steel pierced flesh. Blood spilled from the widening seam. Still Acosta moved it back and forth, with no more expression than one of the butchers from the slaughterhouse next to the Barn nonchalantly performing a mundane task. Cleasby cringed.
The Ordsman stopped. “I have had an intriguing thought.” He twisted the glaive’s hilt, charging the storm chamber. “Since I have this magnificent lightning device, let’s see what happens when we get to the delicate bits.” Acosta triggered the release. The Exemplar’s body jerked and thrashed, and he made a terrible gurgling noise. This lasted for several awful seconds before Acosta powered down the sword. The Exemplar’s helmet hung limp. Smoke came out the eye holes. “That seems to work too.”
Cleasby felt dizzy and nauseated. He looked to Rains, but the other Stormblade had retrieved his glaive and was moving to the unarmored Menite. The other fallen Exemplar lay in a still, silent heap with his head at an odd angle from his body, but this one had landed flat. Cleasby could hear quick, shallow breathing, indicating the Menite wasn’t long for Caen. He’d seen a classmate die in such a manner back at the university, which was one reason he’d neglected his practice in horsemanship.
Rains reached down, took hold of the iron mask, and ripped it from the fallen Menite’s face. It was a woman, and she was bleeding from her ears, having struck the back of her head against the cobblestones hard enough to crack her skull. The apostate stood there, looking down at the dying Menite, not saying a word. Cleasby and Acosta approached. Rains seemed transfixed, but Cleasby saw nothing special about the woman. “Who is this?”
“A vassal of Menoth . . .” Rains muttered, but he didn’t elaborate. “Menoth took her as a slave in life, and now he can have her in death.” He hurled the iron mask to crash against a nearby wall, then turned and walked away.
“What was that about?” Acosta asked. Cleasby had no answer. “It appears the others are mopping up the resistance. The Menites do not strike me as being fond of surrender.” He pointed. “But Sergeant Wilkins has them on the run.”
All that remained of the Menites in the street was a small group fighting a delaying action, buying time for the others to retreat, and Wilkins’ squad was assaulting them. Wilkins had forgone the standard Stormblade-issue buckler in favor of his prized Precursor shield, which he was using to push against the Flameguard’s shields, striking over the top with his glaive. As they neared, Cleasby could hear that Wilkins was loudly praising Morrow and cursing Menoth, which seemed to infuriate the few surviving Temple Flameguard to no end.
By the time they got there the last of the Menites were completely surrounded, though they continued to fight ferociously. Their leader shouted a command, and then Wilkins was engaged in single combat with the officer, while the other surviving Menites tried to reform their shield wall for one last push.
“This is your only chance,” Madigan offered. “Surrender or we will cut you down.”
The officer struggling against Wilkins shouted his defiant response. “We will fight to the last for the Creator’s glory!” His few battered troops cheered. Cleasby and at least twenty other Stormblades approached, but the handful of fanatics seemed excited for their end.
But Madigan was done losing men for the day. “Storm throwers! Light them up!” There were a series of booms and flashes, and then all but the Menite officer were dead. The Stormguard approached and poked at the smoking corpses with their halberds to be sure.
The Menite officer took a few halting steps away from Wilkins. His helmet was missing, revealing a remarkably young, handsome face above the tattered, bloody rags of his uniform. His shield was broken, his spear shorn and useless. He’d been severely burned by their electrical charges and had terrible wounds on all of his limbs, yet somehow he was still standing. The officer looked at Wilkins and snarled when he spied the Morrowan symbol upon his shield. “Your god is weak. Menoth stands with us and cannot be defeated. You will be expelled by the faithful. Every home, every road, every corner: we will be there, waiting to bleed you. You do not know what you’ve done.”
The flutter of a curtain and a quick glimpse of someone at a second-story window across the street caught Cleasby’s eye, and he realized there were still citizens of Sul here. They had not all evacuated. Scanning the buildings, he could see frightened faces risking glimpses out of windows or peeking out from various hiding places. It made him very uncomfortable.
“The faithful will fight. We will never stop fighting, for Menoth compels us, and in death he embraces us. Hierarch Voyle speaks with Menoth’s words and strikes with his fury.” The officer stumbled but braced himself with what remained of his spear. “Repent! Repent and flee before the righteous! It is your only hope.”
Wilkins looked to Madigan. The lieutenant held up one hand, indicating that the sergeant should stay his blade, and then he opened his visor. “I am Lieutenant Madigan of the Cygnaran Army. Tell me who those Knights Exemplar were protecting in that wagon.”
The Menite smiled with red-stained teeth. “One who will bring the fires of purity to burn your evil from this world!”
“Sergeant Wilkins. Do this man a favor and send him to the Creator.”
“Yes, sir.” Wilkins approached cautiously. The wounded young officer pushed his shield into the Cygnaran’s with surprising force. The Menofix on one shield crashed against the Radiance of Morrow on the other. Wilkins struck, quick and clean, and the two devout men wound up eye-to-eye. “Go to your eternal labors, you poor deluded bastard.”
“Nicia, my love . . .”he whispered. The Menite took a few halting steps back, sank to his knees, lowered his head, and died as if kneeling in prayer.
Wilkins stared at the dead officer for a moment. “If this is the measure of the men we face here, may Morrow preserve us.”
Madigan sighed. “So much for the idea that this invasion would be simple.”
Sixth Platoon’s first contact with the enemy had left them with three dead and six wounded, with two of those severely enough that they needed to be evacuated back to Caspia. Cleasby had lost one man in his squad. When he closed his eyes he could still see Wayne Crispin being smashed beneath the warjack’s flail so hard it had left a crater in the road. They’d almost had to pour Crispin out of his armor. Up until a few days ago he’d been just another name on a clipboard, assigned to the Sixth because he couldn’t control his urge for petty thievery. Then he was Cleasby’s responsibility, and suddenly he was dead. It was a lot to take in, but all Cleasby could feel was numb.
What was more, he knew the Sixth had been held back to a minor position. There had been no reason to run up against so many enemy troops there. This fight had been over an unimportant, strategically insignificant, out-of-the-way market, and the Menites had still fought for every inch. Madigan had sent a runner to Schafer with a report, and other runners had passed through. The word was the same each time. Resistance was far heavier than expected. Serious casualties were being taken all across all of Sul.
They’d been told to hold this block, so they’d set up a defensive position inside the marketplace while they waited for new orders. Cleasby found that the inside of Sul looked a lot like the inside of Caspia—which made sense, as they’d once been the same city—though the huge maze of walls here were painted white, and the newer buildings weren’t quite as chaotically designed. Sul struck him as a bit more orderly.
Thornbury had gone right to work scrounging whatever supplies he could from the stalls. Cleasby wasn’t sure if that was technically considered looting, but he noted it along with the other infractions just in case.
MacKay and his Stormclad warjack were back. The old mechanik was trying to accomplish a quick field repair, hammering out dents and replacing a few leaking hoses. His armor looked a bit different than the rest of the unit’s; Madigan had said he needed to fit into a suit, but he’d never specified MacKay couldn’t modify the armor in order to contain his extra girth. The mechanik also wore a leather apron full of tools and a backpack full of miscellaneous parts, so he appeared to be the bulkiest man present.
The Stormclad’s fresh coat of paint and new banner had lasted all of one day into the invasion, and already the warjack looked beat to hell again. Despite rolling around in a burning house, it had utterly demolished the enemy warjack. Cleasby had found out later that the Protectorate machine had been a Templar, a design with a reputation as an infantry-shredding monstrosity. They’d been lucky to have their Stormclad to counter it.
The clash had spawned an odd rumor about their warjack. A few of the men insisted that when the Stormclad had come out of the burning building it had been carrying the Templar’s severed head, which it had then presented to MacKay. It sounded far-fetched, but the Templar’s scorched metal headwassitting there on MacKay’s improvised work bench . . .
“Hey! You, big man!” MacKay shouted at Corporal Pangborn. “Come over here and help me for a minute. I need some muscle.”
Pangborn approached. It was striking how somebody so physically powerful made a habit of moving so cautiously. “What do you need?”
“I need some help with this ’jack. I’ve seen you fixing up the Barn, so I know you’re not afraid of hard work.”
“Well, I’m not really good at much. I tend to break things when I don’t mean to.”
“Son, this is awarjack, not a flower-arranging ’jack. I need some brute force. Take this here hammer, take that there armor plate, and beat those sodding dents out. Go!”
“Are you sure?” Pangborn eyed the Stormclad. Still active, its boilers barely running, it turned its head slightly to study the big man threatening it with a hammer. “It won’t get mad?”
“Ah, its fine.” MacKay shook a finger sternly at the Stormclad and pointed to Pangborn. “No smash! Be good!”
Pangborn took up the hammer and gently tapped at the dent. The Stormclad looked at him quizzically but didn’t react.
“Ach, boy! No! Hit it like you mean it. If I needed some effeminate, thin-wristed debutante, I’d have called for Thorny.”
“I’m right over here!” Thornbury exclaimed from the other side of a tent. “I can hear you.”
“Whatever . . . Shut up and find me some more coal,” MacKay said impatiently. “Sometimes you need an aristocrat, but most times you need a farmer to get stuff done. A proper mechanik ain’t comfortable unless he’s got dirt under his nails. Didn’t you say you had an old laborjack on your farmstead you kept running?”
Pangborn nodded. “Sure, but it wasn’t like this. That thing was old and dumb. This fella is . . . well, kinda scary.”
“Same general principles. Only this one’s built for killing instead of plowing. Tell you what. You seem mechanikally inclined. I’ll teach you the fundamentals of how to command a warjack, then if he gets uppity, you’ll know how to control him. Now, hit it like he owes you money!”
Pangborn did. The Stormclad didn’t seem to mind. So then Pangborn went to work and the market filled with the sound of hammering metal. MacKay nodded approvingly.
Enoch Rains entered their temporary encampment. “Cleasby, you’re needed.”
“Is the perimeter secure? Are the Protectorate forces coming back already?”
“I don’t know. Madigan wants to show us something on the other side of the square. Come on.” He led them away from the others and deeper into the market. Rains was still limping from being run over by the horse. Cleasby knew the feeling. He didn’t dare take his armor off to see, but the way his arms and legs felt, he was covered in bruises, and his head ached from when the Templar’s shield had crashed into him. When he had removed his helmet he’d been surprised to see it had a huge dent in it and all the paint on one side had been scraped off by skidding across the cobblestones on his face.
Things were still awkward between the two of them, as it was for most of the men with Rains, though Cleasby had seen no indication the former Menite was anything other than a loyal citizen of Cygnar. “It’s been quite the day already,” Cleasby said, trying to make conversation as they crossed the square.
“For you?” Rains looked around. “My mother used to shop in this market. I remember walking down that very street with her. I played here. All of us children would take up our imaginary swords and fight each other, declaring ourselves mighty warriors for Menoth. The unlucky ones had to play the villains—Cygnar, of course.” He laughed bitterly. “Oh, how we would beat on them.”
“I’m sure you never dreamed you would invade your own city.”
“It is . . .odd.But we’re not invaders, we’re liberators. By the way, thank you for helping with that Exemplar.”
“It was my duty. Though I think Acosta’s brutal demonstration was simply to prove some odd point.” He probably should have dropped it there, but scholars are by nature curious people. “Why did you go after a squad of Exemplar on horseback by yourself, anyway?”
“I wasn’t going after them. I—” Rains grimaced. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. It was stupid.”
“You said in your own briefings on the Protectorate forces that the Exemplars are deadly and not to be underestimated.” Cleasby stopped walking. “Wait . . . It was the woman in the mask. You called her a vassal, a vassal of Menoth. You were after her, weren’t you? Why?”
“Vassals are vital to the war effort, so we should target them whenever possible.” Rains kept walking in an obvious attempt to avoid the conversation. “They are arcanists.”
“What matter of magic do they have? What makes them so important?”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Now the man was just being evasive.
“I’m not some Enkheiridion thumper who thinks that just because you were raised here you’re a Protectorate spy. I’m a scholar, Rains. Try me.”
The other knight finally stopped. He seemed to be debating what to say but then gave up and leaned against a market stall to take the weight from his swollen ankle for a moment. “In Cygnar, when a child is found gifted with the ability to weave magic, they’re valued—given opportunities, fine schooling, no shortage of employment.”
That was true. Cygnar, as the freest and most advanced nation in the history of the world, also had the most enlightened appreciation of the arcanely gifted. “Sure. They can join the Fraternal Order of Wizardry or, in the military, the Arcane Tempest.”
“Exactly. They canchoose.” Rains had a faraway look on his face. “Not in the Protectorate. Here there is no choice, and being able to touch magic and twist it to your will is not agiftbut a curse. It is seen as a deviation from Menoth’s divine design for mankind. So here, the gifted are chained and enslaved.”
“That’s barbaric!” Cleasby ignored the irony of his reaction; it wasn’t as if his own nation hadn’t flirted with such dark ideas in the past, though now their witch hunters were limited to targeting those practicing evil forms of magic, such as necromancy or infernalism. “How can the people stand for such practices?”
“‘The people’? You don’t understand the Protectorate. It’s not up to the people. There is no discussion or debate. Any deviation from accepted doctrine is apostasy. And the punishment for apostasy is wracking.”
Cleasby felt an involuntary shiver. He’d heard of the wracks—every one of the soldiers had. Being captured by the enemy was a chilling thought on its own, but the Protectorate frequently tortured their prisoners to death on the horrific devices. “Are the gifted murdered, then?”
“The Protectorate isn’t stupid enough to throw away resources. They need people skilled in the arcane in order to build their warjack cortexes, and though they preach about how magic is blasphemous, they still use it on the battlefield. No, Cleasby, when the Protectorate finds a gifted child, the child is taken from its family and enslaved. They do it to anyone they conquer, too. The arcanists are locked away for years of ‘training,’ until they have no mind of their own, all in the name of Menoth. They exist only to do the will of their Creator.” Rains spit on the ground.
“The way I see it, every one of them we kill, we’re doing a favor.” Rains pushed himself off of the stall and began limping along. “Now hurry up. You know how impatient the lieutenant gets.”
Cleasby followed the apostate. Some of the others didn’t fully trust him, but Cleasby had heard the hate in his words and he knew Enoch Rains truly despised the Protectorate with all of his heart.
So why had he hesitated to ask why Rains had felt the need to see the vassal’s face?
Madigan now had some idea what, or rather who, had been so important as to merit an evacuation by a reinforced platoon of Temple Flameguard, a squad of elite Exemplars, and a Templar warjack. The site was an alchemist’s laboratory, or at least it had been before the Protectorate had burned it to conceal the evidence of whatever had gone on inside.
He had sent for his squad leaders—Wilkins, Rains, and Cleasby—and hadn’t been surprised when Acosta had just shown up as well. The Ordsman had a habit of materializing seemingly out of thin air. “So, Savio, was this battle to your liking?”
Acosta had his helmet tucked under one arm. “It was rather interesting. As I’ve said, my friend, you have a gift for finding the best fights.” His smile was cold. “Between observing the tactics of the Protectorate and mastering this new storm technology, attending this war serves my interests, for the time being.”
The old knight chuckled. “All these years I’ve known you, and I still couldn’t say exactly what your interests are . . . Other than finding exciting new ways to stab or shoot people, that is.”
“I follow a path of enlightened self-interest, and for now, my interests coincide with yours. Do not worry. I will let you know when I feel I have learned enough. I will not, as you Cygnarans are fond of saying, leave you high and dry.”
As always, Acosta’s motivations were a mystery, but he knew of nobody more capable in a fight. “Thank you for guarding Cleasby. Since I don’t have a conscience, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to draft one. The lad is an idealist, but he has potential as a leader. How many times did you have to save his life today?”
“Three. I believe he only witnessed one.”
“I blame this clumsy armor. It slows me.” Acosta said before falling silent. The squad leaders had arrived.
They were all battered, bloodied, and a bit worse for wear, but considering the overwhelming odds they had faced today, the Sixth and its leadership had made a good showing of themselves. The sergeants saluted, and Madigan returned the gesture with pride.
“Good work today, lads. I, for one, would love to see the looks on the faces up the command chain when they read the after-action reports. Not too shabby for a bunch of discards. Make sure the men know you’re pleased with them.” He pointed at the smoldering wreckage of the alchemist’s shop. “Rains, do you know what was here?”
He shook his head. “I can’t recall, sir.”
“Can’t recall, or won’t?” Wilkins asked. “For all we know, this was where they performed some secret rite. Seems like the sort of thing a Menite wouldn’t be too proud of sharing.”
“Why yes, Wilkins. This is where we conducted our human sacrifices to the Lawgiver.” Rains sighed, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I must be tired from killingso manyMenites today, but are you trying to insinuate I’m a traitor again? Because if you are, we can finish this right—”
“Enough,” Madigan said sharply. Wilkins and Rains glowered at each other but shut their mouths. He noticed Cleasby was kneeling at the edge of the wreckage, inspecting the rubble. Despite his obvious physical and mental exhaustion, the young scholar seemed intrigued and completely immersed in his surroundings. He had pulled off one of his gauntlets and was poking through the ash with his fingers. At one point he even licked a finger, then grimaced at the taste. “What would you say this place was, Cleasby?”
“Clearly, Lieutenant, this was where that wagon came from. It was an alchemist’s laboratory or something of that nature, something involving volatile mixtures and explosive chemicals,” he answered without hesitation. “Also, they worked in mechanika.”
Wilkins looked at him. “What?”
“Mechanika. A machine imbued with a magical effect through the utilization of rune plates.” Cleasby rattled off the definition.
“I know what mechanika is. I mean, how do you know it was being used here?”
Cleasby held up a partially melted piece of mangled brass. The runes on it were too damaged to read, but its purpose as a detonator was obvious.
“Interesting.” Madigan had recognized the alchemical nature of the place from the smell. His old friend Hutchuck used homemade grenades that had a similar acrid scent. “And how did you arrive at your conclusions?”
“From the size and pattern of the blast. This building didn’t just catch on fire; it burned long enough to spread to the surrounding buildings, then something on the second floor exploded outward. Note that the fire spread as it should have, given proper time to burn, but then it was blown out, more than likely by a concussive blast of pressure outward.”
“That is odd,” Rains said. “Every window in a hundred yards has been shattered as well.”
“Whatever this was burned at a far faster rate than blasting powder,” Acosta said.
“How do you know a stray round from Major Brisbane’s artillery barrage didn’t land on it?” Wilkins asked.
“No.” Cleasby shook his head absently. “There’s no cratering. This explosion was above the surface and blew the walls outward. A shell is hardened enough to keep the two components of blasting powder separate, or else it would detonate in the barrel, so it doesn’t explode until there’s an impact strong enough to mix the two components of the powder. I doubt the thin clay roof shingles the Menites use would have been enough to make that happen.”
Madigan was impressed. “I thought you studied historical literature?”
“A proper education requires a well-rounded outlook, so we were required to take classes in the fundamentals of natural sciences, alchemy, and engineering before picking our specialty . . .” Cleasby muttered, still distracted. “Besides, it doesn’t smell of blasting powder. This was something else. I don’t know what this smell is—it’s sort of oily, but different. Could it be Menoth’s Fury?”
They were all well aware of the Protectorate’s use of the oily and highly flammable substance in a variety of incendiary weapons. The flame spears of the Temple Flameguard held small reservoirs of the substance, primarily to sustain a flame of intense heat at the point, which caused searing wounds. Rains had explained during his briefings on the Protectorate that the heavy liquid slowly seeped up through the sand in the Bloodstone Marches but could also be pumped from below like water from a deep well.
Rains said, “It’s certainly similar. I had an uncle who worked in an armory, and whenever he came to visit, my mother would complain of the smell on his clothes.”
“Does Menoth’s Fury explode like this?” Wilkins asked as he gestured at the blasted remains. “This is impressive.”
“I don’t think so. The oil is sticky and extremely flammable. I’ve heard of tremendous fires caused by accidents transporting it, but not explosions.”
“Perhaps it is some new derivative, designed to act more like blasting powder,” Cleasby said. “And there was significant machinery here related to it, because you can see gears and springs and bits and pieces of the machines spread outward from the blast site.” Cleasby found a badly damaged gear that had been partially buried into a nearby beam. He tried to pry it out with his fingers but gave up. “My guess would be that the wagon was being loaded with whatever device was inside this shop when we arrived in the neighborhood, so they set fire to it and then raced to try to escape before we could control the exit. We might have even heard the explosion; we wouldn’t have been able to differentiate it from the noise of so many others coming from across the city.”
Madigan nodded. This neighborhood was under Cygnaran control for now, but the rest of Sul was still getting hammered. The sound of gunfire and thunder was so constant he’d begun to tune it out.
“And how do you know this was where the Exemplars came from?” Wilkins asked, still suspicious.
“Up until the chaos of the evacuation, it appears the Sulese kept a very tidy city.” Cleasby pointed at the ground nearby. “Yet there’s horse dung here.”
It was obvious several animals had spent some time tied here recently. “Thornbury noticed the same thing when he was out scavenging,” Madigan said. “That’s why he alerted me.”
Wilkins slapped himself in the forehead. “It’s a sad day when a nobleman and a college boy notice dung and I don’t!”
“Don’t feel bad,” Rains said. “You’re very good at spotting things thataren’tthere.”
Cleasby ignored them and continued with his hypothesis. “So somebody was working on an undetermined explosive alchemical mixture and mechanika of an unknown nature, and they were important enough that the Protectorate sent some of their elite to get them to safety ahead of our invasion. They used a wagon, which means the machine or the mixture itself was of value, and not just the person, or why else use the wagon instead of just putting the alchemist on a horse? They likely brought the Templar ’jack here on the wagon to save coal, then fired it up for protection. The fact that they ran into us suggests that the machine or mixture took longer to load than expected, indicating either volatility or complexity. And whatever it is, they didn’t want us to see it or to leave enough evidence for us to reconstruct it. They’d rather run to protect it, even if they have to sacrifice a ’jack in the process.”
“Very good,” Madigan said. Wilkins did an exaggerated slow clap.
Cleasby turned to Madigan. “You thought you recognized one of them, didn’t you, sir?”
“I did, but I thought I had to be mistaken, as the man I thought I saw is dead.” He hadn’t believed his eyes earlier. He’d blamed it on the smoke and the chaos. But this was too fitting. The possibility was simply too dangerous to ignore. “His name was Groller Culpin. We’ll send a message to Captain Schaffer right away. Both the War Council and the Reconnaissance Service need to be alerted that he may still be alive.” Madigan began walking quickly back toward their post. Cleasby had blinked at the name and now seemed lost in thought.
“What makes this Culpin so special?” Wilkins asked.
“He’s a brilliant arcane mechanik and inventor. Culpin was a Cygnaran loyalist, like me, but he was supposedly killed during the coup. Yet I could have sworn it was him in that wagon.”
Cleasby looked troubled. “I learned about some of his work at the university. But even if he’s still alive, what’s he doing in the Protectorate? Do you think he fled here?”
“Pray I am mistaken, because that man will bring a nightmare down on us like you won’t believe.”
The refugees broke his heart. Especially the children.
Kelvan Cleasby watched as hundreds of Sulese citizens trudged past, broken, tired, wounded, in a line that never seemed to end. Some of them limped along on crutches made of scavenged wood, their wounds bandaged with rags. They carried what they had salvaged of their worldly possessions, and it was odd to see what some people thought of as precious. An old man carried a rocking chair. A young woman held a violin case in one hand and her crying baby in the other. Everyone was filthy. They appeared hungry, though most were too proud to beg food from their invaders.
Not all, though. A boy, not more than six, ran up to Cleasby and tugged at his gauntlet. “Do you have any food, sir? We haven’t eaten anything in days. Please?”
Cleasby reached into the leather pouch at his belt, searching for a ration tin. He found one: potted meat, rations surely produced by the lowest bidder from some unspecified type of animal. In normal circumstances he would have found it a greasy, disgusting, congealed mass of nearly inedible byproducts. “This is all I’ve got.”
The child took it reverently, tears cutting a path through the soot stains on his cheeks. “Praise Menoth. Thank you. Thank you.”
But then a woman appeared, surely the boy’s mother. “Get away from him!” She swatted the tin from the boy’s hands. “We’ll take no handouts from these heretics!” She spit in Cleasby’s face. “The Creator will provide.”
He stood there stunned as the mother dragged her child away.
Wilkins approached. “Menoth doesn’t care if you go hungry!” he shouted after her. “He expects you to serve him, not the other way around!”
She gave them a rather offensive hand gesture that probably meant the same thing in Sul as it did back in Caspia.
Wilkins stopped next to Cleasby, picked up the potted meat, and handed it back to him as he wiped his face. “Don’t waste your rations. The priests of Morrow have set up camps for the refugees where they could be warm and eat their fill. They’ll be hungry enough eventually to swallow their pride, or they’ll starve.”
“I thought someone so pious would have more mercy in his heart for refugees.”
“Two straight weeks of watching these fanatics carelessly blowing up their own people in order to strike at us and I’m fresh out of mercy. Morrow forgive me, but I just want to tear this city down and salt the ground.”
There was a chuckle from behind them. “Are you daft, Cleasby?” It was Thornbury. The aristocrat came up and snatched the tin away. “You don’t actuallyeatissued rations. This garbage is for trading off to units not fortunate enough to have me in their ranks. If you’ve been reduced to eating pork anus and jellied horse hoof, then that says I’ve failed.” Thornbury gave a sharp whistle. The crying child looked back, but thankfully his mother didn’t. The aristocrat tossed the tin. The boy caught it and quickly hid it in his tattered cloak before his mother could notice.
A shout rose from the front of the column. “Incoming deliverers!”
It was a good thing they had been spotted quickly. The deliverers were little more than a ragtag militia. They carried flimsy tubes to fire rockets that seemed as likely to misfire and kill the user as they did their target, but when those rockets worked, they worked extremely well.
The lieutenant was toward the front of the column. “Get out of the open, into those buildings.” Madigan pointed to the south. “Move! Move!”
The squad leaders repeated the order. All the Sixth ran for cover just as the first of the Skyhammer rockets whistled overhead. The refugees began to cry out in fear. “Run, fools!” Wilkins shouted at them. “Your army doesn’t care who they kill!”
Cleasby flipped down his visor—he’d seen what shrapnel could do to eyes—and was thankful he’d done so as one of the rockets landed only fifteen feet away. The detonation swept him from his feet and pelted him with debris.
Wilkins was immediately on one side, large shield raised to protect them. Thornbury was on the other, pulling him up. “Move to cover!” A second rocket struck, but the fragments clanged off the Precursor shield. “Damn them!” Wilkins roared as dirt showered down on top of them. Cleasby found his footing and the three ran after the rest of the platoon.
They reached the building and took cover near the front door. Already Madigan had spotted where the deliverers had launched from and had directed their throwers to engage and electrocute the enemy. Several thunderous booms later, the rockets stopped falling.
They called out names for a head count, and nobody in the Sixth had been seriously injured. When the dust cleared, though, they could see that the refugees hadn’t been as lucky. One of the indiscriminate rockets had deviated right into the mass of fleeing bodies. When the shock wore off, the screaming began.
“Such carnage . . .” Wilkins seemed stunned. He rushed back into the street to help the wounded, heedless of danger. Several other members of the platoon did the same.
Half an hour later, Thornbury approached Cleasby and without a word, handed him back the tin of potted meat. The young nobleman just shook his head sadly and walked away.
Cleasby was glad he’d lowered the visor of his helm, because it wouldn’t do to let the other Storm Knights see his tears.
The Sixth had holed up in a church for the night. Wilkins seemed to take special delight in the idea of Cygnaran Storm Knights sleeping in one of Menoth’s sacred places, but in truth it made tactical sense, as there were many such buildings in Sul, and they were more solidly constructed and defensible than most of the other choices. The Stormblades had shoved aside most of the pews and smashed a few others to make cooking fires.
Their Stormclad wouldn’t fit through the front doors, so MacKay had ordered it to smash a hole in the wall, and now the giant machine squatted in the vestibule. Warjack heads seemed far too small for such large bodies, and the way they were set low in the chests made the machines seem extra hulking to Cleasby. With its boiler barely running, only a little bit of smoke was coming from its stacks. If it had been alive, it would have appeared to be resting, though Cleasby had noticed its head was always slowly moving from side to side, yellow eye slits constantly scanning. He was no expert on ’jacks, but this one seemed extra jumpy.
It didn’t help that Pangborn had started decorating it with the severed heads of its mechanized foes. It now had two enemy ’jack heads hanging from a chain over its shoulder plate. One was the burned head of the Templar from their first battle, and the other was the smaller head of a light Repenter warjack the Menites had set against them during their fourth week of campaigning.
Despite the late hour, MacKay and Pangborn were still up as well, working on a project for the lieutenant. Pangborn caught Cleasby nervously eyeing the Stormclad. “He’s a bit of a collector is all.”
Cleasby had been trying to write, keeping a careful record of the platoon’s activities as he’d been ordered by Captain Schafer, but under the circumstances he found it hard to stay focused. He put the clipboard away. “I thought you said its cortex had been wiped.”
“Supposedly it was, or maybe this one just has a glitch straight from the Fraternal Order of Wizardry.” MacKay came over, stroking his mustache. “When he beats a ’jack, he cuts its head off and shows it to me like when a cat gives its owner a bird it caught. Pangborn welded them to the chain just ’cause the big fellow was carrying them in his hand everywhere.”
“This doesn’t strike you as odd?”
“Odd thing was the other day when those Sulese nutters set that old laborjack against us. Poor rusty old thing had been loading crates for thirty years. Our Stormclad beat it to pieces in the blink of an eye, but he didn’t bother to take its head. Oh, no. It was like an old laborjack wasn’t worth taking a trophy.”
“Well, sure,” Pangborn said. “When you bag a big deer or an ulk, you put the antlers on the wall to show off to the other hunters. But that laborjack wasn’t a fight—it was more like putting an old plow horse out of its misery.”
“So our homicidal warjack collects the heads of his defeated foes. Lovely.” That probably should go on the list, but he wasn’t even sure what to call the offense.Encouraging negative warjack behavior?He knew the regulations better than most, but he certainly hadn’t seen that one. On the bright side, the head of the Templar that had almost crushed him wasn’t nearly as intimidating burnt and hanging from a chain. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Madigan, who didn’t seem to sleep much, joined them in the vestibule. “How goes it, MacKay?”
“Campaigning’s a hell of a thing. You hate every minute of it while you’re about it, but when you’re home you sure do begin to miss it at times—the excitement and the purpose, you know? Nothing I did there matters near as much as what I do out here. I’d say all is well, sir.”
The idea was an odd one to Cleasby. He couldn’t imagine ever coming to like this sort of thing, but MacKay’s entire life had been spent as a soldier. It changed a man’s perspective.
“I’ve missed it myself, old friend. How goes your investigation?”
Their two mechanikally inclined Storm Knights had set out a tarp, and arrayed across it were all the bits and pieces of destroyed machinery they’d found at the site of the mysterious alchemical explosion on their first day in Sul. “Fair, I think. I surely can’t rebuild it, but we’re pretty sure we reasoned out what it was used for.”
Cleasby, ever curious, got up so he could see. There hadn’t been much left to work with, and most of the remains had been partially melted and spread across half a marketplace. “I’m impressed, MacKay. That was quite the puzzle.”
“Wasn’t me, lad.” MacKay reached up and thumped Pangborn on the shoulder. “’Twas Nestor here. Personally, I was stumped.”
“Imagine that.” Madigan didn’t seem surprised. “I thought you said all you were good for is fighting?”
The giant shrugged. “Wasn’t nothing.” He seemed rather bashful.
“He’s as good at fixing things as he is breaking them,” MacKay said proudly. “That’s rare. A man’s skills usually tend one way or the other.”
“Headhunter likes me all right, too,” Pangborn said. “At least he hasn’t tried to electrocute me yet, so I think that means he likes me.”
Cleasby was almost afraid to ask. “Headhunter?”
“That’s what I call him.” Pangborn grinned.
“I’d better not see a Storm Knight helmet on that necklace of his anytime soon,” Madigan said. “So what have you found? What was the device for?”
“It’s not too different than something I saw once. This crazy inventor made a machine that would suck the milk right out a cow.”
“How does the cow feel about that?”
“Don’t rightly know, sir. It was madness, using an expensive machine for something just as easy done by hand.” Pangborn squatted down next to the tarp. He picked up a badly burned tube. “But ’cause of that I know this was from a mechanized bellows pump.”