A story of a siege
The triple walls of Knossus have stood inviolate for centuries. During the long age when Sigmar retreated behind the gates of his realm and plotted his mighty counterstroke against the Dark Gods, Knossus survived, ensconced behind its great barriers. They are permanent fixtures in the landscape of Chamon, as enduring as any mountain. I have been told that the outermost wall has only been breached twice since its construction. The third wall, the highest and mightiest, has never been so much as attacked. It is an impressive feat, both militarily and architecturally. But the Age of Chaos is over. Sigmar returns to the realms, bringing with him the promise of a new dawn and a new era of striking back against the evils that have so long plagued the lands of the free peoples. And so I, Lord-Ordinator Cignirus of the Sigmarite Brotherhood, stand before the mighty defenses of Knossus tasked with their destruction.
It is a common misconception that all the free peoples that remain within the realms have welcomed Sigmar’s righteousness back with open arms. Safely tucked away in Azyrheim, the lords and ladies of the Celestial Realm quibble about the foolishness of the Sylvaneth and their mystical queen, or shake their heads at the folly of the Kharadron or the Fyreslayers who turn their backs on open acceptance of Sigmar’s grace. They forget, or perhaps, pointedly ignore, the fact that there are many men who do not march back into the fold of the god that seemingly abandoned them. When they do deign to acknowledge these wayward kingdoms, the powdered courtiers of Azyrheim attribute their reticence to the influence of the Dark Gods, a common enough cause, I will admit, but not always the case. For many, neither the independence of survival nor the bitterness surrounding Sigmar’s withdrawal, no matter how justifiable it was, are easily wiped aside. Thus, it happens that the Stormcast Eternals, crafted to destroy Chaos and pave the way for humanity’s return to glory, are forced to turn against the very beings we are made to protect. Such is the case with the proud Knossians.
Knossus in and of itself is not the most prosperous or mightiest of cities. The depredations of long years of survival have done little to enhance its power, though its people are relatively wealthy in comparison to many of its less fortunate neighbors who suffered under the yoke of Chaos. Rather, it is Knossus’ strategic position that makes it worthy of interest. Sitting on the edge of the rolling green dunes of Chamon’s Malachite Desert, the city provides a key, if not absolutely essential, post for supporting any campaigns or trade routes into and around those thankless veridian wastes. In a sense, Knossus is the gateway to the malachite expanse, and with the forces of Chaos still present within this realm, and quite possibly within the desert itself, the city must be part of Sigmar’s empire.
There is also the very simple fact that an independent human kingdom refusing to align with the forces of the Azyr presents tangible political and diplomatic problems for the God-King. Not only does it inspire opposition among other local hegemons that our forces may encounter, it leaves a potential vulnerability in our growth. While Knossus has stood strong against Chaos for centuries, who is to say if the Dark Gods will turn the full force of their gaze upon it in their desperation to combat Sigmar’s surging strength? In leaving it to its own device, we risk it one day falling into a corrupted kingdom of Chaos and then remaining poised to strike like a Nurglite’s rusty knife held to our throats.
The worthies of Knossus will not make a compact with Sigmar. They rebuffed our ambassadors and rejected any overtures for peace. After so long standing alone against the forces of destruction, they refuse to bend the knee to what they view as yet another would-be conqueror. Their defiance is misguided, but I cannot fault them for it. If I were in a similar situation, cloaked in some of the greatest fortifications of Chamon with generations of experience in the art of siege warfare under my belt, I would most likely feel the same. As blasphemous as it may sound coming from one such as myself, Knossus owes nothing to Sigmar or the forces of the Azyr. All they have built and maintained during the darkest of times is their own. I can respect that, admire it even, but that does not change my purpose here. They have marked themselves as the God-King’s foes and will be dealt with as such.
For the last three years, Marshal Henrik Rothgau has laid siege to Knossus with an impressive force of Freeguilders and a sizable detachment from the Ironweld Arsenal. They have not even come close to breaching the first wall of the city. At every turn, the defenders of Knossus stifle Rothgau’s assaults and baffle his siege efforts, thanks in no small part to the genius intellect of the city’s greatest engineer-savant, Hypatia the Wise.
With a variety of tricks and traps built up through centuries of experience, the Knossian garrison remains inviolate. Three years is too long for this siege. With the forces of Chaos potentially regrouping in Chamon to push back against the advancing armies of Azyr, control of the Malachite Desert cannot be left uncontested. At the order of Sigmar himself, I have been told to take command of this siege and end it. I will do just that.
In truth, I think Rothgau is relieved. This siege is a thankless task for an ambitious man. Master Engineer Orthcoe, leader of the Ironweld detachment, was less thrilled about my arrival at the head of a small cohort of the Sigmarite Brotherhood Stormhost, but he does not have the authority, or the courage, to countermand me. Reluctantly, he turned over control of his precious weaponry to me in all but name, and now I count the Ironweld’s resources alongside my own siege forces brought from Azyrheim. He is foolish to complain. I am a Lord-Ordinator of the Stormcast Eternals. There are no better masters of siege warfare in the entirety of the mortal realms. We are handcrafted for the task. I am even more unique among my brothers. Most Lord-Ordinators are siege-masters, but they do not relish it. They are creators first, concerned with the construction of Stormkeeps and raising new cities for the glory of the God-King. They revel in building up, not tearing down.
Not so for Cignirus of the Sigmarite Brotherhood. I am a destroyer. Some of my fellows consider me strange for this, but I care little for their commentary. Many Lord-Ordinators know that they were architects or sculptors or philosophers in their past, before their ascension. I was not that. I was never that. I was a destroyer in a past life as well, but not a barbarian potentate or skilled champion like some of my kind. Among the civilized lands and civilized warfare of the Perugian kingdoms of Chamon, I was Dandolio, also known as the Architect of Death. In a culture obsessed with sieges, my fellows viewed me as the preeminent master of the trade. Why Sigmar chose to elevate me when the realms of Perugia collapsed one by one under the relentless tread of Chaos, I do not know. Dandolio was not a hero, was not even a good man. But he was brilliant and he was ruthless. Maybe Sigmar simply needed more Stormcasts like that in his ranks. Stormcasts who can handle situations like Knossus without qualm or hesitation.
I put out one last call for parley with the Knossians. This is the only chance for them to rethink their decision, for even the most stubborn men tend to change their views when faced with the might of a Stormhost. Clad in the stark white and purple armor of the Sigmarite Brotherhood, I march out into no man’s land between our siege lines and the first wall of the city. My chosen second, Liberator-Prime Malthusian, is with me, as is Knight Vexilor Centra, bearing her banner high for all to see. Looking distinctly uncomfortable within bow range of the walls, the portly Marshal Rothgau and a hand-picked honor guard of the Akkadian Janissaries that serve with him follow behind us, their silver breastplate glinting in the harsh light of the Chamonian sun.
The worthies of Knossus stand arrayed before us in a tight huddle, attended to by a contingent of the elite of their military, the Cathrapactii. These heavily armored knights remind me somewhat of Stormcast Eternals, though their bronzed scale mail and faceless helms are distinctly unique to their city. A man, who Marshal Rothgau has reliably informed me is War-King Damon, the de facto military leader of Knossus, steps forward out of the huddle to address me.
Damon is clad in a more elaborate suit of Cathrapactii armor, his ornate helmet tucked under his arm, revealing an old face, lined with scars and adorned with a magnificent grey beard. Despite the fact that three Stormcasts stand before him, crackling with the power of the Azyr, the general seems undeterred. He reminds me of one of the great plains lions of Ghyran, facing down against the beasts who would threaten his pride. I preempt him before he can speak, my voice booming with the power of thunder. Let it never be said that Lord-Ordinators are more seen than heard.
“War-King Damon,” my formal words roll across the churned earth between us, “worthies of Knossus, I am Lord-Ordinator Cignirus of the Sigmarite Brotherhood. By the authority of the God-King, I welcome you back to the fold of the free peoples of the realms. Let us lay down our arms and enter into compact with one another.” Damon stares at me, seemingly unimpressed.
“So you are as big as they say. I really do wonder what they feed you in the Azyr,.” The old man smiles at me, his air jaunty and courageous, “I will admit, I had always wanted to see one of your kind in person.”
“Ask and you shall receive.” The War-King snorts as I continue, “I did not come to bandy words, War-King. What is your answer?”
“Our answer is the same as it has always been,” a clear, calm voice rings out from the huddle before the War-King can reply. An older, stately looking woman dressed in the flowing cream robes of a scholar steps forward. She seems even more formidable than Damon, who gives her a sideways look before bowing his head. The woman’s hair is shaved, another scholarly mark, and her bright blue eyes shimmer, not with fear but with keen interest. For a moment, I feel like one of the Ironweld’s machines under the scrutiny of Master Orthcoe. There is a kinship here with her that I rarely feel with mortals. I smile behind my faceplate, though they cannot see it.
“You are Hypatia the Wise.” The woman bows, seemingly uncaring of whether her robes are dirtied in the mud of no man’s land.
“My reputation precedes me, Lord-Ordinator Cignirus, as does yours. I have heard some in Knossus say you were once Dandolio of Perugia, the infamous Architect of Death.”
“And if I was Dandolio once?” I rumble, amused.
“I have read your treatises,” she replies, her eyes glimmering, “I would be most eager to test my siegecraft against yours.” Despite myself, I find I am impressed with this old woman and her defiance.
“Bold of you, my lady,” I declare, “but it need not come to that. What is your answer?”
“The answer is no, of course.” Hypatia’s voice is firm and unrelenting, like a teacher lecturing a wayward student, “For generations, Knossus has stood against every invader that has thrown themselves at our walls. Orruks, ogors, the dead that walk, even the servants of the slavering gods. We did not fight and die for lifetimes to throw away our independence to your God-King simply because he wields the magic of the skies and demands our fealty.”
“It does not have to be this way,” I reply, extending a second chance and feeling a strange bite of regret. These are a proud, capable people. “You can join with us, as many others have. Together, we can fend off all the enemies of humanity.”
“Oh, but it does,” Hypatia responds. “We will not yield, not even to you, Lord-Ordinator. You will have to pull down our walls, brick by brick, before the people of Knossus will swear fealty to a tyrant, even a shiny, golden tyrant such as yours.” Liberator-Prime Malthusian tenses at that and War-King Damon’s hand falls to his sword hilt, but I gesture slightly at my second and he relaxes, though he too now has his hand on his hammer. Hypatia seems unphased.
“You speak brave words, Hypatia the Wise.” I heft my hammer up onto my shoulder in a casual gesture of strength that draws a few murmurs from the crowd of Knossian dignitaries. “I assume she speaks for all of you?” I direct the question at War-King Damon, who simply nods, his hand still on the hilt of his sword.
“So be it. There will not be another parley. Prepare yourselves, people of Knossus. The wrath of Sigmar is upon you.” The worthies of the city mutter among themselves at my declaration, but their engineer-savant silences their concern with her words.
“We will weather the storm, as we always have.” Hypatia remains unimpressed. For a second, our eyes meet and we reach an unspoken understanding. She is not a fool and knows this is the end for Knossus, I can tell. I would not be surprised if she felt that way from the moment she saw my fellows and striding across the battlefield towards her. Everything that comes after this is merely delaying the inevitable. But the Knossians, who have built themselves around their walls as much as their walls are built around them, will not surrender. This will be the magnum opus of Hypatia and the magnum opus of her people. I will grant them a siege worthy of it.
“You have one hour before hostilities resume.” I take one last look over the worthies. They all face me unbowed, though I imagine more than a few have knocking knees. War-King Damon yawns as if bored with it all. I pause and linger on Hypatia for a second longer than the rest. She bows her head slowly as if in acknowledgement, her blue eyes still glimmering, and I respond in kind. Then I turn my back on them and march away.
It is time to destroy.
One of my few real, clear memories from my time before my first death is from childhood. My father, whose name and face I cannot recall, gave me a gift for my seventh, or perhaps eighth, birthday. It was an ornate, elaborate puzzle box from some Chamonian tinkerer, a beautiful thing with sliding tiles and switches. Each time you moved the wrong tile in the sequence it reset, scrambling part of the pattern again and forcing you to relearn things you already knew. It was infuriating. I remember someone, maybe my mother or a sibling, referring to it as impossible. I think I solved it before I was ten. All sieges ever since have been that box, a complex puzzle that requires precision and careful decision-making, where each misstep is punished with the scrambling of the pattern in new and confusing ways. And so, I begin to test.
Under my guidance, the Freeguilders and Ironweld laborers dig salients and saps at the correct angles, getting the trenches ever closer to the wall but denying the deadly fire of the enemy’s ballistas and onagers. Celestar batteries with Stormcast crews are emplaced in forward positions alongside the guns of the Ironweld, and the crackling blast of lightning is added to the percussion of blackpowder and the whump of catapult stones. The wall shudders under the increasingly close impact of our siege weapons, but it does not break. Woven through with metals and soaked in the natural magic of Chamon, the walls are far too solid to collapse under such a generalized barrage.
My first true assault takes a week to prepare. Four siege towers, built to my specifications and the exact measurements of the wall, rumble forward across no man’s land. Marshal Rothgau, standing next to me as we watch the engines advance, reminds me for the upteenth time that he has tried such a frontal assault before. I nod but say nothing. In truth, I do not expect it to succeed. The towers are loosely manned with what Rothgau assures me are entirely volunteers from his Freeguild forces, and thought I doubt that I do not challenge him on the point. This is merely the first part of the pattern, the first move on the puzzle box. A scribe next to me marks down the position of each battery of enemy artillery that opens fire on the towers as they advance, so that we can target them later.
One tower does not reach the wall. The enemy focuses almost all their batteries on the trundling edifice. I have designed these weapons to be sturdy, but the constant barrage viciously rocks the engine. Holed with onager stones, a ballista bolt tipped with a jar full of Knossian balefire slips through its defenses and impacts inside. Hungry red flames, generated through some sort of chemical compound or alchemy known only to Hypatia the Wise, swarm up the wooden interior of the tower. Men fall screaming to the ground, engulfed in fire, as the tower itself quickly collapses into a crackling pyre that burns for two days straight. The other three engines, however, align along the wall relatively unscathed, the sturdiness of their construction ensuring their path.
Before the ramps atop the towers can drop and release the troops within, the defenders reveal one of their secrets to me. Vents, previously unseen to any observer, open halfway up along the wall, allowing gouts of searing steam to blast out across the fronts of the engines. The steam surges through any gaps in the defenses, broiling the men inside and setting the internal structures alight. It is brutal and effective.
“Steam cannons,” murmurs Orthcoe alongside me, lowering his telescope shakily as the towers begin to collapse, “by Sigmar…”
“Never seen those before,” Rothgau adds with a grunt, “damned shame.”
I say nothing, merely making the mental note of the vents locations and capabilities. As the burning towers fall away from the wall, I turn and head back to my command tent. One piece of the puzzle, at least, is known.
For the next two days, my artillery batteries smash the locations we noted during the tower assault. I focus the celestars on the hidden vents, and before long they begin to crack, revealing gaps in the walls exterior that my artillerists continue to slam bolt and shell into. For the first time, the possibility of a breach becomes a real threat to the defenders of Knossus. They respond accordingly.
The first raid of the flying men takes even me by surprise. A wave of winged shapes swoop down from the third wall, gliding over the other two bastions and straight above the artillery pits. Strapped into mechanical contraptions made from light metals and fabric, lightly-clad men of Knossus fly in a gentle curve over our forward trenches, dropping jars full of balefire and handfuls of small darts that slam down into the earth, often through anyone unfortunate enough to be hit with one. Laborers, engineers, and Freeguilders scatter in panic as blooms of red flames burst seemingly out of the ground, vaporizing cannons and their crews before men even have a chance to react. By the time I have rallied the Judicators among my contingent to return fire with their mighty bows, the raiders have flown back over the first wall and out of range, their deadly cargoes expended.
It takes time for us to get the aftermath under control. In order to smother Hypatia’s balefire, we are often forced to simply bury the burning gun pits with dirt, granting the mangled wreckage of both weapons and men hasty graves. The defenders harass us the entire time, hurling ballista bolts and stones at work parties desperately fighting to keep the fires from spread. Orthcoe is beside himself, for the Ironweld Arsenal and its machines have suffered the most from the raid, but I ignore his bleatings. More guns will be summoned, the Ironweld will be paid for their losses, and the attack has not done enough to deter our assault. Within hours, many batteries are firing again, and the defenders are back in the same situation they were. I have lost none of my Celestar ballistae, and I have them take over the heavy aspects of the barrage until the Ironweld engineers can repair and refit.
At dawn on the next day, the Knossian flying men appear again, just as I expected. As they swoop past the first wall, Brother Venatos and his three fellow Prosecutors tear down from the clouds above on golden wings, hurling their javelins with pinpoint accuracy. So far, I have kept the wrathful sky warriors of Sigmar well-concealed, hoping to use them to destroy siege engines at critical moments, but I cannot deny them this.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Knossian fly machines are a marvel, but the Prosecutors cut through the air like star falcons, as if they were born to it. Indeed, it could be argued that they are, all things. The machinery of men, no matter how well-designed, cannot stand before their wrath. Flying men explode in midair as Prosecutor javelins trigger their payloads of balefire. Like a flock of Azyr sparrows with an aetherhawk in their midst, the Knossian fliers panic, scattering and attempting to reach their walls. Some lose control of their frames, tumbling to the ground below in a chaotic jumble of wire, linen, and metal. More drop from the sky as javelins transfix them, splintering their harnesses and smashing their wings. The Prosecutors continue to pursue them until they reach the first wall, where a barrage of darts, arrows, and stones drive the Stormcasts back. It is a good hunt for the Prosecutors, and Brother Venatos is beaming with triumph as he returns to me, a mostly intact flying frame in his hands.
“A gift for you, Lord Orindator,” he rumbles cheerfully back at our camp, laying the frame down on a table in my command tent.
“Beautiful,” I reply, running a hand carefully over the device, testing wires, probing joints. I have no idea how he managed to get it off of its owner without damaging its intricate mechanisms. I will ask another day. “Thank you, Venatos.”
“It was my pleasure,” he chuckles, “We must show them who the true masters of the sky are.”
“Indeed,” I remark, my mind already starting to drift from the bluff Prosecutor and focusing almost entirely on the device before me. “Can you cross the walls?” I add absentmindedly, removing a pair of overly sized spectacles from my work apron’s pocket and putting them on. Concentrated as I am on the device, I pretend to ignore Venatos rolling his eyes at the eccentricity. Of course, I do not need the spectacles, but for some reason, it feels right to wear them, so I do. There is nothing more to it.
“No, Lord-Ordinator, we cannot” Venatos continues, his smile replaced with a brief flash of annoyance, “I will credit them for that, the amount of projectiles these Knossians can throw at us is truly impressive.” I look up from wiggling the wings of the flying frame, using a brilliant system of cords that seem to tie around the flyer’s individual fingers.
“Fear not, Venatos. I will find work for you and your cohort yet. Be ready for the flyers to come again, do not wander far.” My response to his concerns is half-hearted, I know, but as I said, my mind is already on other things. The Prosecutor nods and heads out into the camp to celebrate his victory, leaving me to marvel at the work of Hypatia and the Knossian craftsmen as I dismantle it, piece by piece.
With the flying machines grounded, the defenders of Knossus have little choice but to turn to other means to try and silence the weaponry pounding the vulnerabilities in their wall. The raids start to come at night within days of the flyers’ defeat. Small groups of men, sneaking around in the darkness, hurling jars of balefire or simply cutting the throats of sleeping crews or bivouacs full of exhausted aborers. Only once do the raiders attempt to destroy a celestar battery. The resulting bloodbath as the unsleeping Sacristan Engineers manning the ballista turn their short, stabbing blades on the lightly-armed and armored attackers is enough to convince the Knossians not to try such a strike again. They stick to the mortal elements of the force, and at Marshal Rothgau’s request I begin having Liberators patrol the trenches regularly throughout the night, though the solution is tentative at best.
It is a group of Freeguilders, the Iban Rangers from Ghyran, who break the monotony of the raids, and in doing so grant me the means to quickly breach the first wall. Scouts and trackers, they quietly follow a group of raiders back into the no-man’s land on their own initiative and discover two carefully hidden sally ports at the base of the wall. It is all the information I need, and I congratulate their beaming chieftain on his men’s skill and success after he delivers the news to a disgruntled Rothgau and myself. Rothgau, no doubt jealous that his Janissaries must share glory with someone else, is angry with the Iban for not consulting with him before going on their hunt. Both the chieftain and I ignore him. The Rangers have just opened up the opportunity to crack the first wall of Knossus for the third time in the city’s history, they do not need the approval of one Freeguild marshal.
After discussions with my Stormcast brothers and one brief but victorious skirmish with a screaming Master Engineer Orthcoe, I put my plan into motion. Two batteries of the Ironweld’s most powerful guns are placed as close as possible to the hidden sallyports without exposing them to enemy fire. The cannons relentlessly pound the gap being opened in the wall, slamming shot after shot into the damaged section over the course of two days. A handpicked guard of Liberators under my lieutenant Malthusian sends a nighttime raid attempt fleeing in shambles, closing that option off to the defenders. It is too much for them to bear. At noon on the third day of the bombardment, the sallyports fly open with the wailing of horns and the rolling of drums. The thundering of hooves heralds the emergence of a massed wedge of Cathrapactii, their armor glittering brilliantly in the midday sun, harnesses and weapons jingling in the desert air. It is an impressive sight, those nobles warriors surging forward to defend their city, enough to stir the heart of any warrior. I watch through a spyglass as the wedge forms, spearing straight for the guns. A despondent Orthcoe grinds his teeth next to me, nervously fidgeting with his own telescope as the enemy elite draw closer and closer to his beloved machines. At the last second, I give the signal, and a Stormcast clarion rings out across the siege lines.
Three days earlier, when the batteries were dug in the night, Retributor-Prime Borduna and her fellow Paladins were hidden not far in front of the guns, carefully concealed under camouflage coverings and a thin layer of turf to deter detection from the wall. They have waited there ever since, as still as the statues of heroes lining the Worldwall of distant Sigmaron. When the call reaches their ears, they surge up from their hiding place, throwing off dirt and netting, and rumble forward to meet the charging Cathrapactii. To the Knossians, it must seem as though the giant warriors clad in immense white and purple sigmarite simply sprung up from the ground. Their shock is undoubtedly absolute, but they are too close to do anything else but lower their lances and continue the charge.
On the field before the first wall, the flower of the Knossian military meets the greatest infantry in the Stormhosts. For a moment, it feels as if the entire battlefield holds its breath, waiting for the clash. Then all is noise as the two sides meet and Borduna’s warriors sheer through the Cathrapactii like the keel of a ship splitting a wave. Men and horses scream between the thundering booms of the Retributors’ lightning hammers, which send the elite of Knossus hurtling through the air with each blow. The scale mail of the Cathrapactii is nothing against the magically empowered strikes of the Stormcast weapons, and their lances snap and shatter against the heavily armored forms of the Paladins. As per my instructions, Borduna and her cohort carry straight on through the broken wedge of Cathrapactii, rolling towards the open sallyports like one of the raging green sandstorms that scour the Malachite Desert. Desperately, the remaining defenders try to seal the portals, but the assault is too sudden and their efforts far too late.
Armor coated a deep red with the gore of men and beasts, the Paladins carry on into the exposed sallyports, lightning hammers whirling and booming. Screaming Bashi-Bazouks of the Akkadian Janissaries rise up out of the siege trenches and surge after the Stormcasts, piling their armored bodies in to exploit the gap. Within a matter of hours, the first wall has fallen and the forces of Sigmar are storming through the city’s outermost ward. My army cheers as the wall’s mighty gates swing open and the banner of Azyrheim is raised over the gatehouse. In my mind, I hear the snap-click of the first puzzlebox lock opening. I smile.
We find the broken body of War King Damon among the corpses of his Cathrapactii. Marshal Rothgau, Malthusian, and myself converge on the dead general, while a bodyguard of Janissaires keeps watch at a respectful distance. Damon’s magnificent white beard is stained a wine-dark with blood and his eyes, so full of defiance upon our one meeting, stare sightlessly into the sky out of the broken remains of his helmet. For some reason I cannot explain, I bend down and gently close them. There is a moment of silence before Rothgau pipes
“That’ll set the ****** back a bit, make no mistake.” I sigh, looking up at the first wall, the top of which is now swarming with watchful Freeguilders and note-taking Ironweld personnel.
“Indeed, it is almost as damaging for Knossus as losing the first wall. They will fight harder now though.” The marshal spits and grunts in vague agreement. He looks down at the corpse and chuckles darkly.
“We should string the old heretic up. Run him around in front of the next wall like a damned marionette. Let them see what becomes of those who defy the will of Sigmar.” Though I say nothing, I feel an unexpected sense of anger rising inside me as Rothgau continues darkly, “I say, we don’t even need the whole body. Just the head would do. We could wire it up even, make it look like it’s talking. See how the Knossians like their War King coming back to say hello, eh? Huh, what do you think, you decrepit bloody traitor?” The marshal punctuates his last words with a kick, flopping Damon’s already broken form over onto its side.
“Marshal,” I spit out, my voice lashing like lightning in a summer storm, “may I see your blade?” The portly man stares at me confused, a slightly incredulous look on his porcine features. “Your blade? If you please?” I repeat again, just as firm as last time. Hesitantly, unsure about what is to come, the Marshal draws his sword and hands it to me. I grab it by the middle of the blade, unconcerned with the thought of it cutting through my sigmarite gauntlets. It is a beautiful weapon in the style of an Akkadian scimitar, though Rothgau himself is not from that culture. I study the jewel-encrusted hilt for a moment and note the beautiful patterning of the steel.
“A magnificent blade, Marshal. A weapon worthy of great respect.” The Marshal nods, still confused.
I smile darkly under my faceplate and snap the blade with a clench of my armored fist. The broken pieces of the scimitar thud into the mud of the battlefield, except for one shard I grind in my fist. I lock eyes with Rothgau, who seems to have turned a lighter shade of pale, from fear or from anger. It is probably a mixture of both.
“My apologies, Marshal,” I say, ensuring that my tone conveys anything but, “I appear to have broken your weapon. It is so easy to forget proper respect during trying times such as these, wouldn’t you agree?” Eyes still fixed on the bulging orbs of Rothgau, I open my gauntlet and let the dust that was the center of his sword flutter to the ground. The Marshal nods and swallows, going another shade paler. Behind his bodyguards watch the exchange in stunned silence.
“Good, I’m glad you understand,” I continue, “You will grant War King Damon a proper burial with full honors. It is the least he deserves for his bravery. In fact, we shall do so with all these warriors, they have earned that right. Am I understood?” Rothgau nods again, his double-chin wobbling slightly as he swallows once more. “Excellent, I knew you would agree. Let us meet tomorrow to discuss our plans for the second wall.” I turn my back on the Marshal and his men, looking once more at the wall and already turning my mind towards what lays behind it. The Freeguild commander says nothing as he leaves, simply scurrying back to his bodyguard and departing as quickly as he can. He leaves the broken remnants of his sword behind, another addition to the detritus of the battlefield. All is quiet for a long time before Malthusian’ stentorian tones break the silence.
“You should not antagonize him, Lord-Ordinator.”
“Should I not?” I reply forcefully, turning to face my lieutenant, “He is a fool. In two weeks, we have done what he was unable to achieve for years. A lazy, gutless pig of a man. Now that,” I add, pointing at the dead War King, “is a hero worthy of name, an actual leader of men. Would that we had him with us instead of that useless Marshal.”
“But he would not follow Sigmar.”
“But he would not follow Sigmar, Liberator-Prime,” I sigh, “and so I destroyed him. As I will destroy all this.” My arms sweep out to encompass the walls of Knossus. “Because that is what I am meant to do, whether I like it or not.” I feel him tense at those last few words, so against my reputation. In truth, I have surprised even myself with that sentiment. The Liberator-Prime chooses not to mention it.
“You admire them, these Knossians?” Malthusian’s voice is not judgmental, though I cannot see the look on his face behind the helm.
“Do you not, Malthusian? How many men, true men, uncorrupted by the Dark Gods or driven by fear of that vicious bag of bones in Shyish, can actually stand before Stormcasts and defy us? It is an admirable thing.” The Liberator-Prime shrugs noncommittally.
“A foolish thing, Lord-Ordinator.”
“The two are often intertwined.” My lieutenant chuckles darkly at that. “Please see that the burials are done properly, Malthusian. It is not much to ask. If Damon and his people fought with us, he would number among our heroes.”
“As you wish. This will not earn you any favors among the Knossians though.” Shrugging, I turn and begin to walk back towards camp.
“That is not the reason for it, Liberator-Prime, as you well know.”
Sitting slightly higher than the outermost defenses, the second wall of Knossus is just as impressive of an edifice. The city runs to within a short distance of the bastion, where well-ordered houses and streets give way to an open killing field, pre-sighted for bombardment from the defenders’ artillery. I spend some time alone, wandering the streets of the captured ward of the city, examining architecture, making notes with a stylus, mapping out the grid upon which it all is constructed. In truth, I am impressed with the Knossian buildings. They are mostly simple, yet surprisingly elegant, two story affairs, made often of marble but primarily of green bricks created from the malachite sands of the desert nearby, giving each street a hue that would not be out of place in distant Ghyran. Even ruined as many are from wayward artillery strikes or the depredations of looting Freeguilders, they remain solid, impressive domiciles, laid out on a detailed system of streets that makes it easy to find one’s way almost anywhere in the city. Truth be told, the organization of it all puts Azyrheim to shame, though I do not say it aloud.
I am standing in a deserted open market square, admiring a statue of a scholar crafted from some rare mineral compound, when the first rumbles shake the streets. Frankly, I should not be as surprised as I am. The Knossians, canny defenders that they are, have left behind parting gifts for any invader that breaches the first line of defense. Hidden caches of balefire roar into life across the captured districts, sending men screaming through the streets and destroying many wagons and supply carts that have already moved into the city. Worst of all, I witness a handful of lightning bolts crack upwards into the Chamonian sky, signaling the first Stormcast losses of the siege.
It takes two days for us to get the raging fires left in the wake of the traps under control. Two days without sleeping, battling the crimson concoctions of Hypatia while the defenders on the second wall hurl a seemingly inexhaustible barrage of artillery fire down on anyone they can spot. At the end, when the last fire is out, Malthusian informs me that almost three hundred men and four Stormcasts died in the initial release of balefire and subsequent burning and bombardment.
Significant losses. Many commanders would balk, some would blame themselves or pray for guidance or swear vengeance on their enemies. I do none of that. Under my helmet, free from Malthusian’s appraising gaze, I smile. These detonations are not done from far away. The Knossians lack the ability to achieve that particular feat. That means someone has come from behind the second wall and sprung these horrors upon us manually. That means there is a vulnerability to exploit. That means I will find it.
If I need any further proof of my theory, the raids confirm it. The night after the fires are extinguished, as the army prepares to rest, the attacks come hard and fast. The Knossians, experts in their craft, show us just how well they have prepared the interior of their city for defense. Men die as hidden pots of balefire gut the houses they are sleeping in. Entire buildings collapse as carefully built-in mechanisms are triggered to bring them crashing down. Secret passages open in walls, revealing knife-wielding killers that pounce upon unsuspecting men. It is a night of chaos and the next that follows is not much better. Hypatia reveals a new weapon, a throwable clockwork device, the size of a small pot, that spools out thin wire and spins it around at incredibly high speeds until it is exhausted. The whipping strand mangles limbs, breaks bones, and slashes worse than any Azyros Starblade. Freeguilders take to calling them “topac”, which Venatos explains to me is the name of spinning tops all Akkadian children play with. I trust his explanation, for the Prosecutor-Prime has a strange way of knowing such things.
Whatever the origin of their nickname, the topac prove to be yet another deadly threat in the Knossian arsenal. A pattern to the raids soon becomes clear. First comes a pot of balefire, hurled near a gunpit or into a house. As men panic to escape and others rush to assist, a handful of topac are thrown nearby, causing carnage among anyone caught in the open. The raiders slip back into the darkness before anyone even knows where they are. It is brutal and efficient.
Such an attack costs us the life of Master Engineer Orthcoe. A topac shreds the cautious Ironweld leader as, in a moment of surprising boldness, he rushes to save one of his beloved guns from an expanding balefire. It is a lamentable loss, but not a significant one. Marshal Rothgau, looking pale, informs me that they had to clean him up in buckets. I’m not sure why he felt the need to share that detail, but it seems important to him, so I do not comment.
Orthcoe’s replacement, a stern, one-eyed Duardin named Bardik Grimgok, seems far more amenable to working with me and, unsurprisingly, far more proficient at siege warfare than his predecessor. I explain my theory about the tunnels for access and the squat, grey-bearded Ironwelder agrees almost immediately. His engineers, in particular those drawn from the Dispossessed, begin hunting for the passageways that we assume run beneath our feet. In the meantime, I step up Stormcast patrols and encourage Rothgau to set up a nightly rotation of Iban Rangers to stalk the darkened streets. Raids continue, but their impact begins to lessen as parties of saboteurs are caught out and killed before they reach their targets.
Stroke and counterstroke. Slide this tile, push this piece, solve the puzzle. It is as simple as that.
I admire the ingenuity that went into the topac, and spend long hours with my spectacles on examining them in my tent, fiddling with the mechanism, analyzing Hypatia’s near flawless craftsmanship. For the first time, I consider what wonders she might have created in times of peace. There is an uncomfortable sensation in my chest as I follow that line of thought. Guilt? Regret? Sadness? I am not sure and try my best not to dwell on it. Sigmar took a destroyer and made a greater one. At night, wandering the shadowy streets of Knossus, I wonder how such a discerning architect could have left room for this weighty sensation in my soul.
The second wall falls after almost a month. It is longer than I would have liked, but it takes time for Grimgok and his engineers to map out the subterranean network and launch their counterattack. Beneath the streets, in tunnels far too small for the likes of Stormcast, the Dispossessed and other Ironweld laborers fight a brutal battle for supremacy. Mine and countermine are dug, tunnels are collapsed on pursuers, tapocs and balefire slaughter to match the deadly explosives and grudgeraker blasts of the engineers. As stories of these fearsome battles beneath the surface emerge, I hear Freeguilders speaking thankfully of only having to face the continuous barrage of arrows and artillery fire from the second wall. I smile at that.
Unsurprisingly, the Knossians reveal a handful of mining devices that make it far easier for them to counter our efforts. Powerful, hand-cranked drills for close in work, self-propelling clockwork devices that shovel dirt at impressive rates, steam cannons that fill entire tunnels with scalding blasts of moisture, and even automata that dig and pick like laborers. The Duardin encounter all these and more.
But Grimgok and his fellows will not be deterred. This is their realm, and the Knossians, no matter how adept, are intruders there. Eventually, they triumph. The Ironwelders reveal their fearsome Drakkthrunds, which spear gouts of liquid flame down tunnels and through even small boreholes, roasting Knossian engineers and warriors by the dozen. Automata are smashed with hammers and steam cannons redirected or simply blasted away with explosive charges. Finally, a dirty, grinning Master Engineer arrives in my tent to give me the good news. The Ironweld have secured enough space for a mine and have started preparing to bring down a section of the wall. I smile back and shake his hand in the traditional Duardin fashion, congratulating him on his work and informing him that I will honor his clan in the records of Sigmaron. I pretend not to notice when he blushes under the grime that coats his face.
Above ground, amid a raging artillery duel, my siege trenches finally reach close enough to enable a direct assault on the bastion. When the signal is given, the Duardin light their charges and detonate the mine. The resulting explosion shakes the earth, sending men stumbling, rattling windows, loosening doors, and driving animals into a panic. There is a massive dust cloud, and for a moment, it is as if the entirety of the city is coated in a dirty, clinging shroud of dust. As the detritus starts to settle, the massive gap in the walls is revealed, wide enough for an entire regiment of men to march through twenty abreast. The Duardin have done remarkably well.
With a battle cry for Sigmar, the Janissaries pour through the gap once more, but this time the Knossians do not even try to contest it. They fall back to pre-built defense positions in the streets of the city’s middle quarter and fight us for every inch. The full might of Hypatia’s inventiveness is released in that street brawl. Self-propelled battering rams rumble down alleyways, steam cannons blast through open windows, topacs whirl, and even the previously seen mining automata are repurposed for violence, carving into Freeguilder assaults as if they were rockfaces to be smashed asunder. As Rothgau’s men battle through the butchery, a column of Stormcast under Malthusian drives straight through the street defenses towards the main gate of the third wall, like a spear cast from Sigmar’s very hand. Above them, Venatos and his Prosecutors dip and dive, hurling lightning javelins at rooftop snipers and smashing any war machines they see. Columns of lightning occasionally spike into the air as here and there one of my brethren succumbs, but the Knossians can truly do little to stop us.
As the formation punches through the last few lines of defense lying between them and the third wall, the defenders begin a rapid withdrawal of their forces into the final stronghold. A rearguard of Cathrapactii, hungry for revenge, hurl themselves suicidally into the Stormcast column, and somewhat miraculously, briefly halt its advance. I arrive to support my brothers with Borduna and her Paladins in tow, but by the time we dig our way through the determined knights, the great gate is shut and barred. Still, the second wall and middle district now rest firmly in the hands of Sigmar. One more lock on the puzzle box clicks open for me and I cannot help but feel accomplished.
“I have lost more men in these last two months than I have lost in three years!” Marshal Rothgau is raging at me over the map table in my command tent, even his mustache is quivering with anger. Honestly, I am impressed that he found the courage. Since the death of Orthcoe, the Freeguild commander has looked worse and worse. His skin is paler, he sweats more, he is more temperamental and on edge than ever before. He was not prepared for this.
“We have also made far more progress.” My response is quiet. I will allow him this anger.
“More progress?” He roars, “More progress? My Janissaries are gutted! The Ironweld have lost men and machines at an almost constant rate!” Grimgok, sitting in the corner of my tent smoking a pipe, says nothing, merely grunts and sucks on his pipestem. Rothgau continues, heating up to his subject, “The second wall cost us a thousand dead! A thousand! The raids, the weapons, the engines, you are destroying my army.”
“Sigmar’s army.” I note, and the Marshal flusters, his mustache wiggling and his double chin wobbling. He slams his fist down on the table I am leaning over.
“Sigmar’s bloody army then, you pedant. At this rate, you will kill us all! When that last wall falls, there won’t be anyone left to see it except you Stormcasts. They should never have sent you here, you thrice damned butcher!”
“Enough,” I rumble, raising my hand to indicate he should stop. He pauses, the anger still smouldering in his eyes. “That is enough. You forget your place, Marshal Rothgau.”
“I forget my place?” He spits, “You care more for these ****** Knossians than you do for the true sons of the Azyr! You seem quick to forget who you actually fight for, Stormcast. Some chosen of Sigmar you turned out to be.”
All noise in the tent stops. The junior officers of the Freeguild and Ironweld who have been wincing their way through the commander’s tirade gape open-mouthed. Next to me, I can feel the tension rippling through Malthusian’s armored frame. Even the unflappable Grimgok takes out his pipe and raises his eyebrows. Rothgau realizes he has gone too far and starts to gawp like a fish pulled out of water. I stare at him over the rim of my spectacles, letting him squirm.
“You are fortunate, Marshal, that you said such things to me. There are those among my Brotherhood that would’ve killed you just now.” Rothgau says nothing and fails to meet my gaze. “I know your men are dying. I know they are at their limit. I know that I have asked much of them, more than has been asked of them since this siege started. But we have done much. “We,” I raise my voice so that everyone in the tent can hear me clearly, “are the first army in history to attack the third wall of Knossus. Not the spawn of Chaos, nor the Greenskins nor the chittering ratmen hordes. No one else could have done this. No other army. I am proud of you all.” I stab a finger down at the map of the third line laid out in front of me. “Will you lose your courage now? The end is in sight. You must stay strong for a little longer. I believe you can.”
The Marshal’s face has turned red. In his corner, Grimgok nods thoughtfully, blowing another puff of smoke. The other leaders present in the tent visibly take heart in my words. Such praise from a Stormcast is not easily ignored.
“I believe we are done here for the day, gentlemen,” I sigh, “we will continue tomorrow morning.” The dismissal is clear. Rothgau says nothing, merely picks up his shako off the map table and strides out, his officers following silently in his wake. The Iban chieftain winks at me as he leaves, flashing a brief grin before ducking out the tent flap. Only Grimgok and Malthusian are left. The older Duardin eases himself out of a sitting position, grunts in my direction, and tromps out of the tent, pipe still clenched in his teeth, no doubt to go check his gun pits for the umpteenth time that day.
“He is not wrong, Lord-Ordinator,” the Liberator-Prime admonishes when the tent is clear.
“For Sigmar’s sake, Malthusian, not this again.” I throw up my hands in a gesture of exhaustion.
“You’re bleeding them white, I know you realize that.” He stares down at the map table, refusing to meet my gaze. “They are only mortal.”
“They are tools in the service of Sigmar, like you and I. You know this.”
“So clinical, Lord-Ordinator, so cold. I expect nothing left from the famous Cignirus, master of destruction.” I close my eyes and sigh, taking off my spectacles and placing them back into a pocket into my work apron. Absentmindedly, I rub the bridge of my nose with giant fingers.
“We are at the end, Malthusian. The Freeguilders have done enough, more than enough even. This third wall will be the duty of the Brotherhood alone. All I need is for Rothgau and Grimgok and their forces to man the guns and protect them. I will batter a hole in the wall and we Stormcasts will take the breach.”
“As simple as that?”
“Yes, do you find it acceptable? Or will you call me butcher too? Insult my dedication to Sigmar and his people?”
“He should not have said that,” Malthusian notes, unhooking his helm from his belt and placing it back on. “If it is to be the Brotherhood, then let us end it quickly. They all deserve that much.” I bow my head in agreement as the Liberator-Prime makes for the entry of the tent.
“Malthusian,” I add, stopping him for a moment, “you did not mention my interest in the Knossians.”
“I did not,” he replies over his shoulder, “there is nothing to say.”
“Nothing, Cignirus,” he continues, using my given name for the first time since our arrival in the city, “save that, perhaps, you are not so different from your brother Ordinators as you believe.” He leaves me with those words. They rattle around my mind as I turn back to my map and focus on laying out the siege lines. Malthusian is right. I will end it quickly. They all deserve that.
It takes three more months to end the siege of Knossus. Three months of all the artillery I can sight relentlessly pounding the same spot of wall. The Knossians attempt desperate repairs, but they cannot stop the force of so much weaponry. They throw all that they can against our positions. Mobile rams, automata, flying men, raiding parties lowered down the face of the wall, portable steam cannons, devices that fling hundreds of darts at a time in a wall of pointed death, but none of it is enough. Under such a relentless barrage, even the amazingly sturdy walls of Knossus must break, and they do, with a section collapsing wearily but hesitantly one day, like an old prizefighter losing his final bout. Alongside Master Engineer Grimgok, I study the breach that the Sigmarite Brotherhood must take. It is a sharp slope, difficult to ascend, but not impossible. The scree and loose dirt could prove challenging, and the defenders will have time to fortify the gap, but it is not insurmountable. At least, not for Stormcasts.
“A fine breach,” Grimgok mutters, lowering his telescope, “still, glad it’s not me going up it.” I chuckle.
“I appreciate the sentiment, Master Grimgok. I assure you my brethren and I are actually looking forward to the assault.” The Duardin shakes his head and puts away his telescope.
“You’re leading it then?”
“I could not do anything else.” I put away my own telescope, and think of the brutal battle to come. No one has ever taken a breach easily. This one, I imagine, would be particularly difficult.
“A fine thought, Lord-Ordinator, fine indeed,” the Duardin materializes his customary pipe from some pocket or pouch and lights it, staring out over the defenses. “When will you go?”
“Tonight, if Sigmar is willing. Marshal Rothgau is mustering his Janissaries and the Rangers to follow us up. This will end now.”
“By Grungi, I hope so. Been a brutal siege, these last few months. I tell you, these Knossians can fight hard, for manlings that is,” The Master Engineer puffs on his pipe contemplatively. “We’ll keep the guns firing right up until you go, slow down their chance of setting up a nasty surprise for you lot. Don’t you worry. Go with Sigmar, Lord-Ordinator.” I nod respectfully and shake his hand in thanks. I am glad to have him managing the guns at my back.
Night falls, and as the Sigmarite Brotherhood musters in the forward defensive lines, I stare up at the breach as shot and shell light up the darkness again and again. The Knossians are there, massing on the crest. I see their outlines with each flash. Somewhere behind them in the city, our mortars must have ignited a supply of balefire. Red flames burn hungrily in the middle of Knossus, backlighting the walls with a sinister crimson glow. It looks like a scene out of the apocalypse. For the beleaguered, tired defenders of the city, it truly is. I step out to the top of the trench, looking back over the small force of Stormcasts assembled behind me. They were never a big contingent, less than fifty warriors and a handful of Sacristan Engineers, down to forty-five after the siege. I pray they will be enough as I heft my hammer.
“This is the end, my brethren. The last test. We go into the crucible of war, but it shall not melt us.” They nod at that, readying weapons, checking shield straps and bow strings one last time. “We are the Sigmarite Brotherhood! Chamon’s metal is in our very bones! There is not any enemy alive that can stop our advance! What are we?”
“Forever unbroken!” The traditional war cry of the Sigmarite Brotherhood rolls up the breach ahead of us. Let the Knossians know what comes for them.
“WHAT ARE WE?”
“FOREVER UNBROKEN!” Louder now, as the cohort climbs out of the trenches, falling into a familiar formation as we begin to trudge up the breach. Some Freeguilders call it the tortoise, others the snapback, after a particularly aggressive breed of turtle. To me, it is the testudo, an old name I recall from Perugia. The Liberators advance, holding their shields tightly in front and above for cover. Judicators follow along in the center, firing their arrows through small gaps in the shields. The Paladins are here too, waiting for the formation to get close enough before rolling out into the front ranks to bring destruction to our enemies. Above, Venatos spins and whirls with his fellows, dropping down like birds of prey to pepper the defenders standing at the top.
The guns fall silent as we begin our climb, but the peace lasts not even a split second before the Knossian defenders set to work. Flaming bales of hay are thrown down the slope, skidding over shields and landing behind us, illuminating the testudo’s advance for the defenders above. Arrows and darts rain down like a Ghyran monsoon, smacking against our formation and occasionally whickering off of the armor underneath. Searing bolts of light lunge outwards, ahead of our advance, as the Judicators slay unfortunate defenders silhouetted too long above us.
Soon, the balefire begins to rain, sticking to shields, clinging to tunics, burning fiercely. But the testudo is undaunted. We continue our slow advance, even as topac are added to the avalanche of death crashing down up on us. Wires whip and whirl, slashing through sigmarite plate. Finally, a Stormcast falls, the crack of lightning and blinding flash of a bolt arcing skyward signalling his demise. Another collapses as his shield is split asunder. A ballista bolt, carefully aimed from a device on the ridge line, slams through his , chestsending him tumbling back through the formation before he dissolves. Above, the Knossians begin to cheer.
“Forever unbroken!” I cry, pushing the Liberator before me forward, keeping the formation moving. Malthusian takes up the cry, and it becomes a chant as we approach the top. A wall of pike meets us there and the testudo begins to dissolve. Screaming Knossians fling themselves over the lip of the slope, their eyes wild and manic in the sickly light of the hay bales as they hurl balefire pointblank into our faces. Another Liberator collapses, consumed by flames, and his killer screams as he suffers the same fate.
I push my way to the front of the shieldwall, Borduna and her Paladins following in my wake. I emerge into a thicket of pikes, one of which pierces through the gap in my shoulder plate. With a grunt, I snap the shaft in my hand, ripping out the offending point and hurling it back like a javelin towards the defenders. Others press forward to take its place, but I batter them aside with my hammer and push on. For a moment, a strange thought strikes me: Dandolio could never have done this. It is knocked out of my mind in an instant as I shove my way forward through the forest of points, cracking shafts and driving their owners backwards.
A Cathrapactii pelts out of the enemy spearmen, swinging a large, thin, two-handed blade. The haft of my hammer intercepts the blow, snapping the sword, and I slam the butt of my weapon into the knight’s chest, crushing armor, ribs, and organs. With a cry to Sigmar on my lips, I swing my hammer in a figure eight, knocking aside spearmen in a welter of gore, and the Paladins swarm up into the gap. Hammers rise and fall, exploding with force, pulping Knossian bodies like rotten fruit. The Liberators push in behind our armored wedge, and the battle spills over the top of the escarpment. A group of Cathrapactii charge forward in an attempt to solidify the wavering line, and I surge into them, hammer whirling in a storm of destructive fury.
Enough Liberators are over the edge now to form a shield wall. Judicators fire up from below, shooting in between their fellows’ legs, punching arrows into the guts of screaming spearmen and furious Cathrapactii. The defenders fight with the mad fury of the truly hopeless, but once the Sigmarite Brotherhood sets a shieldwall, it is inviolate.
To their credit, the Knossians hold out against us for nearly an hour atop the third wall before it is over. The defenders die to a man and take ten more Stormcasts, including the indomitable Borduna, with them. Venatos informs me much later that it may be the longest recorded stand of truly mortal troops against any Stormcast force. I trust him on that. The corpses are piled knee-deep as I turn to Malthusian. His armor is colored crimson like mine, and somewhere in the melee half his helmet was cracked leaving half of his face exposed. Behind us, there is a dull roar as the Freeguilders below witness Knight-Vexilor Centra raise her banner high. They come charging forward up the scree, ready to pour into the city and finish the siege.
“Take them forward,” I yell raspily over the noise of the army’s ascent. “You know what to do.”
“Of course Lord-Ordinator,” he bellows to be heard, “and you?”
“Leave me,” I reply, hefting my hammer to my shoulder, “There is something I must do.”
I make my way through the streets of the inner ward of Knossus. Once I am down from the wall, it is pandemonium. Knossians hurtle through the streets, torn between fighting the balefires consuming their city and engaging the attackers that seek to do the same. While some try desperately to extinguish the fires, others throw themselves into burning buildings. A woman and her child run screaming from me, disappearing into the fire-licked shadows of an alley. As I turn another corner, a charred Cathrapactii crawling along the ground reaches out vainly to me with a gurgle. I bring my hammer down swiftly, fulfilling his unspoken request. All around me is destruction. I feel liquid running down my face and tell myself it is sweat. The puzzle box is finally open, and I am afraid I do not like what I find inside.
My route, which Venatos spotted painstakingly from above three days ago, leads me through the chaotic streets to a tower in the center of the city. Two Cathrapactii, wearing elaborate plumes in their helms, stand sentinel in front of the door, unmoving despite all that is occurring around them. They draw their long, thin blades, almost simultaneously, when they see me emerge out of the darkness and smoke. To them, I must look like a monster from nightmares, but they do not hesitate. Their swords whirl and swing and I smack the strikes aside with my hammer. They deflect my return blows with the skill of swordmasters, lashing back with ripostes that scrape across my sigmarite, probing for gaps in my armor.
Back and forth in front of the door we fight, before finally my hammer breaks through the first knight’s guard and smashes him into the dirt. His fellow doesn’t hesitate, using the opening my killing blow leaves to slam his own blade through a ****** in my waist armor. I roar in pain, backhanding him with a fist and snapping his neck. Grunting, I pull his blade out of my gut and throw it to the ground. The wound aches, but I do my best to shrug it off as I slam open the door before me.
At the top of the tower, I walk down a long hall, with large windows gazing out across Knossus. It is a breathtaking view of the doom that I have wrought. The harsh red light of the balefires is all that illuminates this place, casting rippling shadows on the lofty ceiling. I realize, with some trepidation, that fire has started to spread into the hall itself, licking through a broken window near the stairs and setting curtains alight. I ignore it for now, striding past inventions, models, easels crowned with drawings, and a variety of workbenches that crowd the space. I take care not to damage any of them. A solitary figure stands outside on a balcony, gazing out at the burning city. Hypatia the Wise has changed little since I last saw her, still clad in her simple cream scholar’s robes.
“Lord-Ordinator,” she says calmly, turning towards me as I step out of the workshop and into the night air. It is cooler here, above the flames. Her features are haggard in the crimson glow, but her eyes are still bright and sharp. “I must congratulate you on doing what no other has done.” I bow slightly in acknowledgement.
“I could say the same of you, my lady. Few in the Mortal Realms could withstand what your city has for so long.” She smiles sadly, her blue eyes echoing the heartbreak in her soul.
“We lost though, didn’t we? I knew from the moment I saw you that it would end this way, but even I could not imagine… this.” She gestures back at the city. I say nothing, standing like a statue in the flickering light. The fire inside is starting to catch, burning models and inventions, consuming the parchments and their easels.
“What will become of my city?” she says wistfully, looking out at the destruction. “What of my people?”
“Those who surrender now will be shown mercy. They may stay and see what is to come, or will be granted passage to wherever they choose in the Realms.” She nods at that, as I continue, “As for your city, I will rebuild it. It will not be the Knossus you fought for, but its spirit will survive. I swear it.” She makes a strange sound, at odds with the horror around us, and I realize that Hypatia is laughing. “
“You will rebuild it? You are a destroyer. A man cannot change his ways so easily.”
“I am not a man,” I rumble.
“Indeed, you are not, Lord-Ordinator.” The engineer stops laughing and pulls something out of her robes. It is a thick leather tome, filled with parchments, many of them loose. Fire is filling the workshop now, but neither of us pay it any attention.
“I have a favor to ask of you, my enemy. This,” she sets the tome on a small table on the balcony, “is everything. The sum total of my life’s work. All that I have done. Will you take it? I know you are a destroyer, Lord-Ordinator, but can you preserve this one thing?” I nod solemnly.
“I will, my lady.”
“Thank you,” she sighs, as if any immense weight has lifted from her shoulders. “May I ask one more favor of you?”
I nod again.
“Can I see your face?”
I reach up and unclasp my helm, hooking it to the belt at my side. She looks at me for a moment, observing my scars, my beard, staring into the grey flints of my gaze with her own blue eyes. Tentatively, she reaches up and touches my face gently, before withdrawing her hand.
“You are such an amazing creation, Lord-Ordinator. Thank you.” Hypatia takes one last look at her burning city, then bows her head before me. She does not kneel to me, even now.
“Make it swift,” she says softly, “precise. As all things should be.” I raise my hammer and grant her request.
Malthusian finds me in the morning, sitting on the edge of an immense decorative fountain is some dirty, smoky market square. His armor is covered in ash and blood, and at some point in time, he has discarded his broken helm completely. He approaches me calmly, but does not sit. I look up at him over the rim of my spectacles, lowering the material I am reading.
“What news, Liberator-Prime?”
“It is over, Lord-Ordinator. The Ironwelders have brought the fires under control, and the Paladins have dealt with the last few remaining holdouts.” There is a weariness in his voice, but he remains standing.
“Some,” he remarks, absentmindedly kicking over a loose green brick with the toe of his sabaton. “Most Knossians are dead, but a handful surrendered. They are in shock now, the Janissaires have them under guard until we can deal with them correctly.” He narrows his eyes and looks at the book in my hand. “Reading something, Lord-Ordinator?”
“A gift,” I remark, “of sorts.” He leans on his shield, digging into the dirt and soot that coats the square.
“She is dead then?”
“Yes,” I look past him, to the still smouldering ruins of Hypatia’s workshop tower. A fitting pyre for her, in truth.
“She was quite brilliant.” There is a timbre of sadness in my lieutenant’s normally unruffled voice.
“Yes,” I reply, looking down at the drawing of some advanced farming implement on the page in front of me, “a true genius, they are hard to find.” Malthusian says nothing, and the two of us wait in companionable silence for a while.
“Rothgau is dead,” Malthusian eventually mentions, “his heart gave out apparently, right at the foot of the escarpment.” I am surprised that I feel an actual twinge of sadness. The Marshal was a disrespectful fool, but to labor so long at this task and not see it completed, that is a tragedy. I say none of that, merely grunting in response.
“What will you do now, Lord-Ordinator? Which siege calls us onwards?” I look up at Malthusian and shake my head.
“No siege, brother. I think I will stay here, help rebuild this.” I gesture with one hand around the ruined square, “There is much to be done.” The Liberator-Prime says nothing and I pretend not to see a small smile creeping across his normally stony face.
“As you say, Cignirus. As you say.” He stretches and slings his shield onto his back, “Do you require anything else?”
“No thank you, Malthusian. You are dismissed.” He bows and stalks off into the streets, snapping a few words of command at a group of Janissaries struggling to move a dirty statue across the square.
I watch him go, before staring up at the clouds of smoke still forming over the city. Briefly, I think of an old puzzle box and wonder airily what became of it after it was solved. I can’t seem to remember for the life of me. Shaking my head, I push up my spectacles, open the tome, and continue to read.