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Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

For twenty years the Dread Empress has ruled over the lands that were once the Kingdom of Callow, but behind the scenes of this dawning golden age threats to the crown are rising. The nobles of the Wasteland, denied the power they crave, weave their plots behind pleasant smiles. In the north the Forever King eyes the ever-expanding borders of the Empire and ponders war. The greatest danger lies to the west, where the First Prince of Procer has finally claimed her throne: her people sundered, she wonders if a crusade might not be the way to secure her reign. Yet none of this matters, for in the heart of the conquered lands the most dangerous man alive sat across an orphan girl and offered her a knife.

Her name is Catherine Foundling, and she has a plan.


A Practical Guide to Evil is a YA fantasy novel about a young girl named Catherine Foundling making her way through the world – though, in a departure from the norm, not on the side of the heroes. Is there such a thing as doing bad things for good reasons, or is she just rationalizing her desire for control? Good and Evil are tricky concepts, and the more power you get the blurrier the lines between them become.

Updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

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Chapter 71: Ozone

“A ruler must consider all necessary injuries before beginning to inflict them on an enemy, for through repeated opposition they will learn your virtues and your faults. Strike once, thoroughly.”
-Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)

Nefarious’ own Dark Council had once held session in this room, though in practice it had been the Chancellor’s council and not the Emperor’s. Amadeus had sat at this table before, when nominally in the service of the Tower, but he much preferred the current circumstances. It was only the two of them here today, as if often was: only Tyrants losing their grip on Praes regularly called full sessions. Those who felt secure in their rule did not bother with the pretence of seeking the opinions of others.

“We can’t keep this up much longer, Maddie,” Alaya said. “The last time taxes ran this high for more than a few years Pernicious lost his throne.”

It would have been easy to engage on the basis of technicalities, Amadeus thought. Dread Emperor Pernicious’s reign had been plagued by constant rebellions for reasons broader in scope than mere tax rates: his attempt to raise a new capital replacing Ater in the heart of the Wasteland, his inability to keep a Chancellor loyal for more than a few months and his failure to take the Blessed Isle back from the Kingdom of Callow despite three sieges. Still, it would have been beneath the both of them to play that particular game. Allie would not have begun the conversation were there not a true threat looming out of sight. Not for the first time, Black wondered how many such messes might have been avoiding by putting the nobility of the Wasteland to the sword after the civil war.

“I understand the burden is most keenly felt by the most influential among them,” he delicately replied. “But the Reforms have produced tangible results, Allie. We’re building an army truly capable of winning the wars to come.”

She leaned back into her seat, and even after all these years that she allowed herself such weaknesses in front of him warmed his heart. She’d come in formal dress, today, but left behind her proper regalia. As in everything she did, there was deeper meaning to be found. Formal attire for matters of state, lack of crown to make it clear this was a discussion between partners.

“I know that,” Alaya said. “You know that. But in court, they can speak of the fortune being sunk into the Legions of Terror without conquest to show for it. The Truebloods are pushing for either immediate war or dismissal of the military taxes.”

“That would be disastrous,” Amadeus bluntly said.

“The amount of professional soldiers we’re fielding is nearly without precedent in Imperial history,” she mildly pointed out.

“It’s not about winning the battles, Allie,” he sighed. “Our core legions under Grem would have been capable of evicting the paladins from the Blessed Isle as early as two years ago. It’s the aftermath that’s the issue.”

“I understand you have worries about heroes,” Alaya frowned. “And I don’t agree in the slightest with the time table suggested by the High Lords. Yet I do have to wonder if your level of caution is actually warranted.”

“We can’t leave them banners to gather around during the occupation,” Amadeus said. “Not the Order of the White Hand, not the Fairfaxes, not even the knightly orders. It’s not a question about the practical power of those entities, it’s what they represent. The Principate had massive city garrisons during its own occupation and they changed nothing. As long as there was a Fairfax loose, Callow still had fight in it. From there it was a question of what would give first: Callowan stubbornness or Procer’s willingness to bleed.”

“One rarely takes the pot when betting against Callowan spite,” Allie conceded, tone darkly amused.

“We’re not just planning the war, Alaya,” Amadeus said. “We’re preparing for the peace afterwards, and moving before the pieces are in place for that is wasting the entire effort.”

“Concessions will have to be made,” Allie said. “I know you have your doubts about the Imperial governorship system-“

“It’s ripe for abuse,” he flatly said. “And abuse unmakes all of this. The rule we bring must be, if not just, then at least fair. I trust not Wasteland lords to know even the shadow of that.”

“Then I’ll wrangle a role as overseer for you,” Alaya told him. “If nothing else, we can use the limits we place to weed out the ambitious when they overstep.”

Amadeus rose to his feet, pushing the chair back.

“This is the moment where I agreed,” Black said, turning towards me. “The first mistake I made after the war, though it would not be the last.”

My feet were on solid ground. Stone, the Tower’s own. I scuffed my boot against it and flinched at the sound. It felt too real. I’d had Name visions before, but this was… different. I’d never had any agency in them before. I glanced back up and found him patiently watching me.

“Black, what is this?” I asked.

“Remonstration,” he said. “Old favours were called in.”

My fingers clenched. I did not like the sound of that in the slightest.

“What happened?”

“Unimportant,” he dismissed. “It is your latest campaign that we must speak of, Catherine.”

“You shouldn’t know I’m here,” I frowned.

“I know a lot of things I shouldn’t,” he smiled, but the trace of mirth vanished quick enough. “You head towards a debacle. I am ashamed you cannot see as much, for I must have failed you deeply for that not to be obvious.”

“I came here because everywhere else was a dead end,” I bitterly replied. “Even you, playing your games in Procer. How’d that turn out for you?”

“My flaws are many, but no excuse for yours,” Black chided. “This scheme is flawed. Oaths can be broken, and bereft of that why would any of them obey you?”

“It’s a blinking game,” I told him. “If the Heavens break the oaths, there’s a nation’s worth of drow loose in the middle of their backyard. They can’t afford that.”

“There is no win condition to your plan,” he bluntly said. “Only different ways you can lose or put off those losses. You cannot even claim a purpose for this army you’ll mass beyond the current wars.”

“That’s not true,” I bit back. “I know exactly where I’ll settle them.”

“And where would that be?” he skeptically replied. “Your kingdom would not survive the process.”

I paused. It was an effort to keep my face loose.

“It’s fated,” I said. “I doesn’t need to be me who does the heavy lifting.”

“Fate is a useful tool,” Black said, tone irritated, “but it does not-”

I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth, interrupting him.

“So that’s what this is,” I mused.

His face blanked. He’d always been eerily pale, but as blood-red lips split into a fanged grin I saw he’d become pale as driven snow. Our surroundings broke apart, ripped away by howling winds – entire chunks of not-Tower whisked away by the raging blizzard. The two of us stood ankle-deep in the snow, facing each other. Above us there was only an endless pitch black night, unknowing of moon or stars. There was only one source of light in here: the burning blue eyes set in my teacher’s face.

“And so we resume the lesson,” he said, voice echoing of Winter.

His sword left the sheath with a quiet hiss and he advanced. Around us I felt other silhouettes rise and there we no need to look to know whose they were. It would be the Woe, at first. Then Juniper. Aisha. Ratface. Nauk. Robber. Pickler. Kilian. Everyone I’d ever shared a laugh with, everyone I’d ever given the smallest speck of affection to. Anyone I’d ever loved, no matter the manner of it. This was not an unfamiliar sight. While my armies struggled through the Battle of the Camps, Masego and I had been… otherwise occupied. I’d visited his own fever dream, taken him out of it. Mine though, I’d never spoke about. With good reason. They would come for me, swords high. They’d curse and scream and die and poison everything we’d ever shared with their last words. Then I’d stand alone, for a heartbeat.

And it would start again.

The backlash from our broken gate had entrapped Masego in his own desires. Mine, though, had ground away at me one murder at a time. Winter did enjoy matching its torments to the disposition of the tormented.

“It would be capable of doing this, it’s true,” I spoke out loud.

The raging winds drowned out my words to even my own ears, but that hardly mattered in here.

“But it would also have known about Black,” I calmly continued. “You could only reach old Name dreams, couldn’t you?”

I paused.

“No, more than that,” I corrected. “I’ve never had one of those with the Dark Council room featuring. You’re riding a vision I could have, if my Name took the fore. You can probably look at most of what I’ve dreamed before as well. But for the personalities, you had the bare bones that gives you with guesswork grafted on.”

The fakes ceased marching towards me and I took a deep breath before raising my hand. Will against will, that was all there was to it. I ripped away the veil and met my enemy’s eyes. Deep and perfect silver on pitch-black skin. The last time the glare of them had blinded me, but we were in my head now. My rules ran deeper than hers.

“I’ve gone rounds with demons and fae, Sve Noc,” I said. “If you want to fuck with my mind, best sharpen your game.”

The drow’s long hair flowed endlessly behind her, turning into gargantuan strands of Night the further they were from the silver light. She did not seem pleased.

Child, she said. Your arrogance beggars belief.

“Mine?” I laughed. “You think you get to win this because I’m close to your domain? I carry mine with me, Priestess. And you stepped in it of your own free will.”

Your doom comes, she said. You will drown in despair, alone and lost.

“And we got off to such a good start,” I drawled. “Whatever happened to ‘I await you in Tvarigu’?”

Sudden rage suffocated me. A wrath beyond understanding, beyond any single person’s capacity. I buckled under the weight of it, but there was something behind. Small, almost like a whimper. Fear, I thought. There was fear.

And wasn’t that interesting?

“That wasn’t you,” I said.

Sve Noc snarled.

All is Night, she proclaimed.

“Which are you, I wonder?” I grinned, slow and mean. “The rider or the horse?”

She did not answer with words. The pressure should have crushed me. Would have, if this was her realm and not mine. But old words echoed and rippled, the whisper of a pair of crows surrounded by a sea of birds of paradise, and it washed over me like rain. It was not my truth, but I had partaken in it.

“Uninspired,” I said, and the dream shattered.

My eyes opened with perfect clarity, lacking the transition between sleep and not.

“That’s a little off-putting, I’ll admit,” Indrani sighed.

I wiggled out from under her arm, already missing the warmth, and sat up. The blanket slid down, baring the upper half of my body, but Archer didn’t even bother to leer. She just snuggled deeper into the covers, to my mild offence.

“Dare I ask?” I said.

“The heartbeat thing,” she elaborated. “I got used to the cool and skin and stopped noticing when it wasn’t there, but it started up the moment you woke up. How does that even work?”

“Fuck if I know,” I admitted, passing a hand through my tangled hair. “Zeze says it has nothing to do with pushing blood anymore, so it might just beat when I remember it should.”

The fire had gone out while we slept but that changed little for me. The sensation between different temperatures still came to me, it just… didn’t matter. It was more like a colour than a feeling. It wasn’t the same for Indrani, though, because my toes informed me she’d put on pants at some point I definitely remembered taking off. Among, uh, other things. I cleared my throat awkwardly. Indrani cranked open a bleary eye.

“You’re not gonna get all skittish about this, are you?” she said. “Considering how enthusiastic you-”

“I remember, yes,” I coughed. “It’d been a while, ‘Drani.”

She laughed musically.

“Yeah, well, it shows you’ve been mostly with women for a few years,” she said. “You’re a lot better than I thought you’d be at giving h-”

“If you keep dishing it out, it’ll burn out the embarrassment,” I tried.

She mulled over that for a moment.

“True,” she said. “I should probably ration it out.”

She finally deigned to rise, pushing herself up and stretching out like a lazy cat. Considering the blanket had completely fallen, that did rather interesting things to a frame I was now intimately familiar with. She caught me staring and grinned.

“Already?” she smugly said.

“Any port in a storm,” I sneered.

“Ouch,” she said, putting a hand over her heart. “That one drew blood, Cat.”

Not really, if her deeply amused tone was any indication. I rested my bare back against the stone and closed my eyes to wallow in this passing moment of peace. Soon enough I would have to arm myself for war and strike the first blow of the Battle of Great Strycht, but just for a little while I could enjoy this. The world outside our nook could remain a faraway abstract a little bit longer. If I’d done this with someone else I might have feared that it would change what lay between us, but not with Indrani. She had a rather cavalier attitude towards bedplay, as a rule, even if she’d largely refrained from indulging since becoming part of the Woe. That’d been a choice on her part, though. She was attractive, a well-known war hero and Named besides: if she’d actually sought out company, she wouldn’t have spent a single night alone since Second Liesse.

“And what great thoughts are we having?” Indrani said, sitting up at my side.

I opened my eyes and found her looking at me with fond amusement.

“I was wondering about the self-inflicted nature of your dry spell,” I admitted.

“Was trying something,” she shrugged. “Still on the fence about it. Besides, you’re one to talk. When we first met you could hardly keep your hands off the redhead.”

Kilian, I thought, but no pang of blurry regret came. It’d been a while since it had ceased to. It’d seemed so much more important when I was in the middle of it. But now my hours were filled bargaining with empires and waging desperate wars, when the stewardship of Callow did not swallow them whole, and the intensity had faded. It seemed such small thing, compared to what was behind me and what still lay ahead.

“It was new for me,” I admitted. “I’d never stuck that long with anyone before. Never wanted to, either.”

“Heartbreaker, were you?” Indrani snorted.

I shrugged.

“I knew I was going to leave someday,” I said. “So there was no point.”

“I can’t imagine you married,” she admitted. “Or even settled down.”

“I was kind of proposed to the once,” I mused.

She grinned.

“Now this I’ve got to hear,” Indrani said.

“I used to work at this tavern in Laure, the Rat’s Nest,” I said. “The owner hinted pretty heavily that if I married his son I’d inherit the place after he died.”

“Truly a love story for the ages,” Archer commented gravely.

“He was kind of an ass, and pretty busy ploughing our bard,” I noted. “Harrion didn’t push when I made it clear it wasn’t happening, he was a good sort. Now if Duncan Brech had gotten on his knees, my tender maidenly heart might have skipped a beat. That boy was fit like you wouldn’t believe.”

“And no one else has tried since?” Indrani said, sounding genuinely curious. “I thought popping out heirs was the queenly thing to do.”

“Talbot mentioned it once or twice,” I agreed. “And everyone influential with spare kin paraded a prospect at court. But I’ve no intention of staying on the throne, so why bother? I was only ever a temporary measure.”

The Foundling dynasty would be short-lived, which was probably for the best. If a successor bearing my name got into even half the messes I had, they’d be more curse than king.

“We children of dew and lightning,” Indrani murmured. “Transient and terrible in our passing.”

She did say beautiful things, sometimes, for all her cheerful crassness.

“Where’s it from?” I asked.

“Some poem the Lady taught me when I was kid, from far across the sea,” she said. “Her father loved it.”

“It’s a big world, isn’t it?” I said. “We’ve seen more than most on this continent, the two of us, and it’s still such a small fraction of it.”

“It’s not about how long we last, I don’t think,” Archer said. “Who could possibly live long enough to see it all? We just have to make the most of what we get.”

“We’re probably the first humans to walk the Everdark in a few centuries, if not more,” I offered.

“Oh, we’ll do a little more than just walk,” Indrani said, lips quirking.

The certainty in her voice forged a smile of my own, though it faded after a few moments.

“I dreamt, while I slept,” I said.

“Winter again?” she asked. “Hakram said whatever you’re seeing must be pretty fucking grim, if you’re not even willing to talk to him about it.”

“Yeah, well, Winter doesn’t do nice as a rule,” I muttered. “But it wasn’t that, at least not tonight. I got an important visitor.”

“No shit?” Archer said. “Our old buddy Sve Noc showed up? What did she want?”

“They, I think,” I said. “And I don’t mean it the way it’s usually meant for drow.”

“A two woman show,” she frowned. “Didn’t see that one coming. They tend to watch each other’s back the same way Praesi do – considering where to plunge the knife. Did she drop in for a bit of trash talk? It’s only traditional before villains throw down.”

“She wanted me to believe that real bad, by the end of it,” I said. “But she played tricks early on trying to get me to answer questions.”

“O Mighty Catherine, would you pretty please tell me your battle plans?” Indrani mocked in a high pitched voice.

“That I wouldn’t have minded,” I admitted. “It’d mean she thinks it could go either way. But what she was actually asking was where I intend to take the drow down the line, and I mislike the shape of that. It feels like she’s playing a different game.”

And Captain’s death was proof enough of how costly that sort of disconnect could be.

“We’re the outsiders here,” Archer said. “It was given we’d have to go in blind. But two heads, huh. Wonder how that came about.”

“I’m more interested in how it can be used,” I said. “The first one I spoke with had a fairly different take on this mess than the other.”

“Think there’s an angle there?” she asked.

I breathed out slowly.

“There was a story I used to love when I was a kid,” I said. “The orphanage was an Imperial institution, when it came down to it, and the tavern I worked that was heavy on Legion clientele. Neither was in the habit of peddling Callowan stories to impressionable young minds.”

I half-smiled, thinking of those days where the trifling had loomed so tall.

“But I got my hands on this old book at the Rat’s Nest,” I said. “Called Stirring Tales of Chivalry.”

“Was it all about lances and ladies?” Indrani asked, wiggling her eyebrows.

I rolled my eyes.

“It was water damaged, so most of it was just blurry ink – probably why the family never managed to pawn it,” I mused. “But there were a few stories in it that were readable, and one I must have read a hundred times. It was about this giant ogre, you see, that lived somewhere in the south of Callow. It had two heads and it could do magic, so even though knight after knight tried to slay it all that happened was that it made a house of their bones.”

“They call their city in the Wasteland the Hall of Skulls, right?” Indrani said. “It holds up.”

I imagined General Hune would have some issues with the story if she ever heard it, but then most my high-ranking officers would have problems with Callowan folk tales. They, uh, tended to get killed in them. To popular acclaim.

“So there’s these three knights that head out to slay it,” I said. “One’s strong, one’s quick, the last is clever.”

“Clever survives at the end,” Indrani immediately predicted.

“The last one listed always survives, you’re not impressing anyone,” I grunted. “Anyway, they go up to the ogre one after the other. Yes, bad tactics I know so don’t even start. Strong and quick get fried, because magic is perfidious and all that. Each of the ogre’s heads eats one of the dead.”

“I thought it was using the bones for its house,” Archer said.

“Look, I never said it was high literature,” I said. “Clever knight goes up, and then says ‘I surrender’, flatters them and says they’re invincible.”

“And then it asks which head is going to eat him after he dies,” Indrani said.

“Exactly,” I said. “The heads start arguing, the clever knight makes it worse, and eventually one head clubs the other in anger and they both die.”

“I thought it was a mage ogre,” she said.

“It also had a club,” I sighed.

“This is why people make fun of Callowan literature, Cat,” Indrani said, not unkindly.

“My point,” I said, valiantly pressing on, “is that creatures with two heads can be of two minds.”

There was a pause.

“Was that all?” Archer asked.

“There’s another version of it that I came across later,” I said.

“No doubt it will be as stirring as was promised by the title,” Indrani replied, smothering a smile.

“In that version, the third knight is a young Elizabeth Alban,” I said.

“The Queen of Blades herself,” she said. “She plies a clever trick as well?”

“No,” I said. “She straight up murders the ogre, because that’s what Elizabeth Alban does.”

That surprised a laugh out of her and so I left it at that. We shared a comfortable silence for a little while longer, until I could no longer even slightly justify lingering. Reluctantly I rose up, somewhat pleased she was finally taking the time to ogle my nakedness, and picked up my clothes. I shimmied on my trousers as she reached for her leathers and I was surprised by the muted intimacy of getting dressed together. It wasn’t domestic – the word would never feel anything but forced matched to Indrani – but it was a kind of closeness we’d never shared before. There was, I thought, nothing to regret about last night. Belts tightened, weapons at our hips, we left the dead fire behind us.

There was a war to wage.

Chapter 70: The Calm Before

“Own what you are, no matter how ugly the face of it. No lies are ever more dangerous to a villain than those they tell themselves.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent

“So this is going to be the big one, I hear,” Indrani said.

It would have been inaccurate to call… this a habit. It didn’t happen regularly enough for that, given the demands on our time. But once in a while, when the silent clamour of a thousand duties and foes became too much, I found there was a fire in a nook tucked away from my army and that Archer was waiting there, feet propped up and bottle in hand. Ironic in a way, that a woman who’d been raised in a place called Refuge had become so apt at providing the same. Like all of Indrani’s kindnesses, the seemingly careless granting of them belied the keen perception behind their nature. I tended to think of Akua as the most skilled manipulator among us, capable of spinning exquisite lies at the merest prompt, but some days I wondered.  Diabolist was known to get her way, by hook or crook, but I’d had different lessons from her. The most useful talent is that which no one knows you have, Black had once told me. Archer drank like a fish, was largely led by her whims and professed indifference as to much of what went on around her. The very last person, in a way, that you’d expect to nudge events the way she wanted them.

I forced the thought away. Suspicion, once entertained, was like a drop of ink in water. No matter how thinned, it would always cloud the brew. I did not have so many friends left that I could afford to start ascribing them hidden motives. The colder part of me noted that willing blindness led to dark surprises and that the duties of queenship demanded vigilance regardless of costs to myself, but for once I turned deaf ear to it. Trust had seen me through the storms so far, and though it had brought me some disappointments it had brought me wonders as well. In this, at least, I will indulge sentiment, I thought.

“The Battle of Great Strycht,” I agreed. “It will decide the campaign, if not the outcome of our entire stroll through the Everdark.”

“Sve Noc, huh,” Indrani mused. “She’s allowed us our fun so far, but that won’t last. It’s one thing to throw a rabid hound scraps when there’s a bear coming, another when the hound takes a hand.”

“We’ve observed the rules of her game,” I said. “What we wield, we took.”

“And that’ll matter why? This entire place reeks of Below, Cat,” she said, and raised a hand when I began to object. “I’m not talking about dusty shrines or red-slick altars. Not even about prayer, really. It’s the way this place was made. Kill and rise, kill and fall: every single drow spends their time either clawing for power or slowly dying.”

I studied her in the flickering light of the flames, the shadow cast by the twisted rock around us dancing across her face. Halfway between tattoos and feathers, I thought.

“You’re saying it doesn’t matter if they pray,” I frowned. “They pay the dues regardless.”

“I’m saying this entire place is a prayer,” Indrani quietly said. “And we both know whose it is.”

The Priestess of Night. Sve Noc. We’d not crossed paths since that last probing look at each other, but I knew she was everywhere down here. In every custom, every ritual. Maybe even every drow.

“That sounds,” I murmured, “like a recipe for apotheosis.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d considered that, truth be told. After crossing the Gloom and realizing the Everdark was a kingdom turned towards itself, ever only sending dregs to the surface, I’d wondered as to the purpose of that. An entire civilization whose foundations had been ripped away and replaced with codified murder and infighting – what sane person would want that? It might have made sense if the entire purpose was to cultivate demigods and send them out. I’d not forgotten my fight with Mighty Urulan, how what could only be considered a second-stringer by drow standards had batted me around and come close to killing me more than once. Me. I could, without too much arrogance, claim that among the Named of Calernia’s surface I ranked in the ten most dangerous. If the likes of Urulan had been sent to rampage across Procer or Callow, it would have been bloody mayhem. If a cohort of Mighty that powerful had gone? Half the heroes on the continent would have needed to mobilize to end them, and there’d be casualties. I could not deny that Sve Noc’s orchard of killers had grown some particularly murderous peaches. But they’d never been used, had they?

Night could be grown from harvesting other peoples, but when had real raiding parties last troubled Calernia? Long enough ago the Everdark was just a footnote in the histories of nations, either a pointed lesson in the dangers of following Below or the subject of casual contempt from more ‘successful’ villains. Which was madness, because if I’d led the army I currently commanded against Diabolist at Second Liesse we would have ripped her to shreds. Hells, unless the Lone Swordsman had a very good story at his back Urulan would have torn through the poor fucker in an hour’s work and gone for a drink afterwards. But Sve Noc had never sent her apostles out of her realm, and there had to be a reason for that. At first I’d wondered if it was as simple as where the Everdark was. Surrounded on three sides by the Golden Bloom, the Chain of Hunger and the Kingdom of the Dead. The ratlings were arguably the weakest of those powers, but even Triumphant at her peak hadn’t managed to exterminate them wholesale. And if there’s one thing out there I’d bet on against Mighty, it would be Horned Lords, I thought. Had the Gloom and the Night been raised as a moat and garrison?

The issue with that was the dwarves. It didn’t take a genius to guess that effectively surrendering the entire underground to a rival and highly expansionist power before wrecking your own capacity to wage war except through Name-imitations would have long term consequences. Sve Noc, assuming she really was behind all of this, had to have known the moment she put out the Gloom and Night the hourglass was flipped. The Kingdom Under would keep growing, keep expanding, and eventually they’d find a way through. At that point, well, it was only a matter of time until the drow were done. Even if they were beaten back the first time, the dwarves would keep coming with better methods and larger armies every time. Even just putting all the nisi they encountered to the sword would allow the dwarves to send their enemies into a downwards spiral while they swallowed their own losses with a shrug. Evidently Sve Noc’s game had worked for a few centuries, but she’d had to know it was a delaying measure and not a solution.

But it’d make sense, wouldn’t it? If the Gloom had been exactly that, a delay, and the Night was the actual solution. Centuries of willing sacrifice, swelling the invisible altar as the Priestess of Night remained cloistered in her temple and shaped her own ascension. It was one thing to fight a Named, but a god? Neshamah had called himself that, and he had broken enough crusades the claim couldn’t be summarily dismissed. If I was right, if Archer was right, then there was only one question left to ask. Was she ready? Had the dwarves come too early, while she was still gathering her might? Or was this entire invasion a trap, the prelude to her ascension? There was no way to know, and I was not too proud to admit that scared me.

“We have no stories, down here,” I finally sighed. “I am not used to missing that.”

“I’m not so sure,” Indrani said. “We’ve had our share of coincidences, haven’t we?”

I cocked an eyebrow at her in silent invitation. Archer glanced at my now-empty cup and I willing offered it for filling. Drow liquor, this, called senna. Made from some sort of giant mushrooms and used to induce lucid dreaming when drunk in small quantities before sleep. It kicked like a mule and taste kind of like mud, but we were running out of surface booze so this was no time to get picky. The good stuff we’d want for celebration, assuming we live through this. I grimaced after knocking back half my cup. This was going to take some getting used to.

“Right, so coincidences,” she said. “We ran into Ivah pretty early. Good guide, former bigwig from an inner ring sigil, full of information. That’s one.”

I almost objected that we’d come fairly close to killing it during our introductory skirmish, but held my tongue. Almost was the domain of coincidence, I wouldn’t deny that.

“Then we snuck through between the dwarven vanguard and the main army,” Indrani continued. “If we’d been ahead of the vanguard, we would have run into entrenched drow before we had their measure. If we’d trailed behind the army, there would have been no one to take. That’s two.”

In the first instance we also wouldn’t have had the spectre of dwarven invasion to hold up as a banner when bringing in Mighty, which would have massively complicated the process. Much as I disliked what I was hearing, she had a point.

“And then when we run into the vanguard,” she said. “Which happens to be run by Named dwarf who can strike a deal with you in his people’s name. Three.”

“For all we know that’s common practice in dwarven armies,” I pointed out.

She clucked her tongue.

“Fine, I’ll withdraw that one,” she conceded. “And replace it by ‘we came into the Everdark specifically when the Kingdom Under was invading’.”

I winced. Yeah, that was a little harder to argue about.

“We can get lucky too,” I said.

“Sure we can,” Indrani said. “Once. Twice gets suspicious. Three times is a nudge.”

“We wouldn’t even be down here if we’d had alternatives,” I said. “Hasenbach wasn’t willing to deal, Keter got turned on us and the fae would have been… costly. More than we can afford.”

“Good timing, isn’t it?” Archer mildly said. “Stripped from all palatable options save for the Everdark, then thrown here when shit comes to a head.”

“No, I get what you’re implying,” I said. “We got nudged into this. I disagree because there were just too many moving parts, but even assuming you’re right I don’t see is what Below gains from this. If Sve Noc’s getting her god on, we’re the fly in the ointment. They lose a discount Dead King to what, improve my military situation? And you know where I want to settle the drow long-term, Indrani, it’d fuck up a good thing for them.”

“You’re still thinking with your crown, sweetcheeks,” Indrani said. “Lady Ranger used to limit how many her pupils could follow her on a hunt, did you know? Not because more of us would have been a problem, most of the time we were pretty decorative.”

“She made it a prize,” I frowned.

“And so we fought for it,” she agreed. “Kept us sharp, because there was a lot to gain from trailing her on those and nobody wanted to be left behind. Hells, Cat, you got your start in pit fights didn’t you? You should be able to feel when the audience is placing bets.”

I would deny her, but I still remembered the days before I’d become the Squire in full. When, even with Black’s accolade, I’d still been a claimant. We’d fought for a Name bound to Below, and Below had only wanted one person left standing when the dust settled. The similarities were there.

“They still lose out,” I said. “She could get her apotheosis and I could get desperate upstairs without allies. That’d be a win in their books.”

“Would it?” Indrani mused. “How long has she been at this play, Cat? Long enough even the dwarves ran out of other shit to conquer. That doesn’t sound like victory on the horizon to me, it sounds like somewhere somehow she fucked up. And you, well, when’s the last time you had a good kneel in front of the altar?”

“Black didn’t pray,” I said.

“Black toppled a hero-led kingdom and spent decades smothering heroic cribs,” Indrani said. “You, on the other hand? You meddle with the methods, but you’re also making deals with heroes and trying alliances with crusaders. You’re not exactly flag-bearer for the Hellgods.”

“And this gets me under the banner?” I replied, skeptical.

She shrugged.

“Look, I’m not going to weep for the Everdark,” she said. “It’s a fucking mess of murder and slavery and if you’d decided to drown the damned place instead I would have clapped your back and called it a good day’s work.”

Archer paused.

“But we’re crossing some lines, here,” she said. “This shit with the oaths? It’s the kind of thing the old madmen would have tried if they had the right tools. It’s a little to the north of slavery, I’ll give you that, but it’s in the same kingdom and we’re not exactly intending to make exceptions. They’re all going upstairs, aren’t they? Kids’n all. There’s going to be a lot of dead people for you to get an army, and a lot more when you actually use it.”

“The alternative is the dwarves slaughtering them wholesale,” I flatly replied.

“Sure,” Indrani said. “But that’s not why we’re doing it, is it? We came for an army and we’re doing what it takes to get one. I’ve got no issue with that, Cat, don’t get me wrong.”

She leaned forward, eyes alight with the reflection of fire.

“But let’s not pretend we’re not sending dues downstairs, by doing our do,” she softly said. “That’s the kind of lie that ends up costly down the line when someone calls you out on it.”

I winced and polished off the rest of my glass before extending my hand for a refill. She obliged without a word.

“I tried to make it fair,” I said. “But there had to be a punishment to breaking the terms, or they would never have followed them. I tried…”

The smile that split my lips was rather bitter.

“To make it a good thing,” I finished. “To set down rules that would make them better until they were on their own. But I’m using old arguments, aren’t I? The same every Proceran and Praesi who stole a chunk of Callow used. I’m civilizing the savages.”

Indrani gently nudged me with her elbow.

“They’re pretty fucking savage, no two ways around it,” she said. “But let’s keep this in mind, before we start using that trick elsewhere. I’d get over it, but I’m guessing you’re going to be chewing over this for a while.”

“What does it matter if I mourn it, when I do it anyway?” I muttered.

I might not be bosom friends with Cordelia Hasenbach, but she was right about that much. It meant nothing to weep at what I did if I kept on doing it. You can stop, or you can own it, I thought. Anything else is hypocrisy. But the thought of the drow loose on the surface, without rules to bind them? No, there was no brooking that. And so monster it is, I grimaced. I drank again, the foul brew spectacularly failing to grow on me. I extended my arm across Indrani’s lap for a top-off.

“So it’s a pit fight,” I sighed.

“Where there is coincidence, there is story,” Archer said. “Now, we know what happens if you come out on top.

Veins of Winter spreading into darkness, an entire kingdom oathbound.

“What happens if the ol’ girl does, though?” she mused. “That’s the part worth worrying about.”

“Dog eat dog,” I murmured. “That’s how Below works. If my belly’s full, I can shake the world. But if she’s the one who devours?”

I’d threaded Winter in Night and forced rules through it. It had come easy as breathing to me, even if the oaths themselves had required thought. Because I was the last of a court unmade, the Sovereign of Moonless Nights. I was that court, practically speaking. It’s wasn’t impossible to throw around the kind of workings I’d seen fae royalty employ, it just wasn’t possible without going fucking crazy. For now, anyway. How long before my Peerage grew enough the alienation no longer mattered? But there was a sea of power, somewhere in me, and if Sve Noc got her hands on that? No, apotheosis would not be an issue.

“She’ll make a play in Strycht,” I finally said. “If it’s my pivot, it’s also hers.”

Archer toasted to that, grinning.

“Lies and violence,” she offered.

“I’m not knocking to that,” I sneered.

“If you do, I have a gift,” Indrani tempted.

“Is it booze?” I asked. “Is booze the gift?”

“No,” she proudly announced.

“Then it’s you,” I said. “I’m not falling for that.”

“Please,” she snorted. “I’d ruin you for all others. Besides, I actually went and picked out something for you.”

“Stole,” I corrected. “You stole something you are now pawning off on me before you’re caught.”

“Well, Vivi’s not around,” Indrani mused. “So someone’s got to pick up the slack.”

I narrowed my eyes at her, reluctantly curious.

“To absent friends,” I said, meeting her toast.

She pouted but we drank on it. She went ruffling through her cloak afterwards, setting down her cup. It was a cozy little nook she’d found, barely large enough for two people, and so she’d set down a thick blanket in an incline and we’d both settled there close to the fire. It was comfortable, and the combined warmth of a friend and a camp fire was oddly soothing. I eyed her curiously as she kept going through her cloak, leathers pulling close on her frame. They were tight, though sadly not all that revealing. Good armour tended to be that way.

“There,” she exclaimed, and produced a bit of stone before pressing it into my palm.

No, not just stone I realized. It was a sculpture, though not a very elaborate one. I was admittedly not great connoisseur of the arts, but even to me the work seemed rather bare. Skilfully done, though, I conceded. The androgynous face of a long-haired drow occupied one side of it, the hair growing into the locks of the identical face on the other side. The eyes seemed little more than notches at first glance, but I could barely make out the contours of a character in Crepuscular in them. For one side it was ‘all’, for the other ‘night’. The bottom of the little sculpture had clearly been pried off by blade, I noted with mild amusement.

“… thank you?” I tried.

“Dunno if you noticed, but the deeper into the Everdark we go the more often it comes up,” Indrani said. “I asked Soln and apparently it represents Sve Noc.”

My brow rose. A two-faced goddess, huh? The term was considered an insult in both Praes and Callow. In my homeland for the implied accusation of hypocrisy, in the Wasteland for the implied single layer of deception. Probably not down here, though.

“What are you up to, I wonder?” I murmured, looking at the stone face.

“And I was going to say we’ve come so far,” Indrani said. “But there you are, talking at stone.”

“We were already hunting demigods when you joined up,” I replied.

“Sure, but back then we were dealing with everybody’s messes,” she said. “Now we’re everybody’s mess.”

“Truly, you are the great philosopher of our age,” I drily said.

She flipped me the finger.

“I do wonder what the rest are up to,” she admitted.

“We’re not doing that,” I said.

She eyed me with surprise.

“Night before the battle starts, going all reminiscing about the old days and what they might be doing?” I elaborated. “For shame, ‘Drani. You should know better.”

Archer went very quiet, all of a sudden, and her face was unreadable.

“I sometimes forget,” she said, “that you don’t realize it.”

By brow creased.

“Realize what?”

“That no one thinks like that, Catherine,” she said. “At least not all the time, like you do.”

“Black does,” I said.

“And he is an irredeemable madman,” Indrani murmured. “To think like you do, it takes… something. Stepping out of yourself, of who you are, and making a story of it. Like all the world is a stage. How strange it must be, to always act like there is an audience. I can hardly imagine the weight of it.”

My fingers clenched in my lap.

“You were something else long before the fae made a title of it, weren’t you?” she said. “Mad to the bone.”

“I don’t-” I tried, but what could I say to that?

What could anyone?

“It’s all right, Cat,” Indrani said, and patted my hand. “We’ve always known. Sometimes I just forget.”

Slowly, my fingers unclenched. She scuttled back and rested her head on my shoulder. It would have been easier for me, given I was the one a foot and a beard short of being a dwarf, but I didn’t protest. I leaned back against her, chin atop her head.

“It’s how we survive,” I finally said. “By watching out for it.”

“I know,” Indrani said. “But it’s all right, you know? To leave it at the door once in a while. Just for a few hours.”

“I’m not sure,” I quietly admitted, “that I remember how to do that anymore.”

There was a long pause and she raised her head, eyes meeting mine. It was slow. I could have leaned away and it would have been the end of it. We’d go back to drinking, and not speak of it again.

I did not lean away.

Her lips moved against mine and it was nothing like the kiss in Lotow. No awkward clicking of teeth, no surprise. Only the taste of liquor and smoke and hands so warm, claiming the nape of my neck as she slipped into my lap and dipped me back. My fingers slid under the edge of her leathers, cupping her arse, and if this was all an illusion it was one I was willing to believe. I came to myself flushed and hard of breathing, my hands pinned above my head as she pressed a kiss against the crook of my neck. Smirking, I could feel it against my skin. It was an effort of will to speak.

“‘Drani,” I said, lips bruised. “Masego. I don’t-”

Want to ruin something good, I thought, just because I want this.

She leaned back, hazelnut eyes considering.

“That is that,” she said. “This is this.”

Deft fingers unmade my belt and I guilty leaned into her touch.

“Just for tonight,” she assured me.

“Just for tonight,” I murmured, and gave in.

Chapter 69: Peerage

“Traitorous’s Law: while redemption is the greatest victory one can achieve over a villain, to function it does require the villain to have at least a single redeemable quality.
Addendum: Yes, even if a Choir is involved.”
– Extract from ‘The Axiom Appendix’, multiple contributors

Some days I wondered what it said about me that I much preferred holding court down in the Everdark than back in Laure. Sure, odds were good that every single member of my Peerage – even Ivah – would turn on me in a heartbeat if their oaths allowed for it, but for all that there was a simplicity to the proceedings that I enjoyed. Callow’s royalty was known for a certain lack of pageantry compared to its much wealthier neighbours to the east and the west, but even that relative lack of ceremony could feel stifling at times. I’d spent most of my times prior to the crowning on one campaign or another, and while it was true that the Legions were strictly regulated I’d had the benefit of being a Named in a Praesi institution. Which had meant, more or less, that rules had only ever applied to me if someone higher in the Empire’s pecking order had decreed that they did. Considering Black had been the very definition of hands off and Malicia had largely considered me his problem early on, I’d been allowed to run free.

It might have been for the better if I hadn’t. I’d learned a lot from my teacher but in many ways my apprenticeship felt only half-finished. Though I had long disdained the kind of aristocratic someone like Akua brought to the table, I’d since felt the costs of lacking that kind of education. Dealing with Wastelanders and Procerans I’d often been on the backfoot while they turned etiquette and custom into armaments. Much as I hated to admit it, treating with Cordelia Hasenbach without Diabolist whispering in my ear all the while would have seen the First Prince playing me like a fiddle. She’d called me a warlord, in one of our little talks, and she had a point. On the surface that was a stone around my neck, but down here? It was the wind in my sail. I was dealing with other warlords, and even before I’d stolen Crepuscular from Akua’s mind I’d known how to speak the language of these people. Seated comfortably on a stone bench perched atop an inclined that less-than-subtly set my Peerage below me, I struck a match against my sleeve and lit my pipe.

My wakeleaf stash was running low, so I’d had to ration the vice, but there was no point in letting the herbs go to waste. I puffed at the sculpted dragonbone shaft, inhaling the smoke and letting it stream out of my nostrils with a pleased sigh. It was gladdening that Winter had not stripped me of all my petty pleasures.

“Evening,” I drawled. “I see none of you are missing, so I’ll take it that negotiations didn’t go too badly.”

My court of murderers offered up polite amusement at the admittedly weak jest. The Peerage now numbered eleven Mighty, every single one titled by Winter. Most of those had come from Great Lotow, reluctantly bending the knee after wandering around the outskirts of Arcadia for a while and finding no way out save the one I’d offered. Slaus and Sagas had been the first to fold, remaining where I’d left them and taking the oaths after a single day. The others trickled into my service over the following week as my sigil settled our other affairs in the city. Nodoi and Vasyl had held out for three and five days, respectively, finding no trouble living off the land but no way back to the Everdark either. By then I’d already bullied  Losle and Zarkan into oath-taking after a few demonstrations of how dangerous living in places with only one entrance and exit could be when that space could be closed off by gate. Kanya and Soln had refused the longest, the full seven days, and they’d only changed their minds after Mighty Orelik vanished without a trace. Sooner or later, those treading the domain of the fae were found by them.  Including Ivah, I’d left Great Lotow with nine titled lords. The last two we’d picked up on our way to Great Strycht, the sigil-holders of the Lovre and the Vadimyr.

Practically speaking, those sigils had been roving bandits and raiders living off whatever they could take from the weakest nearby territory. They’d had almost no supplies to throw into the pot, which had been something of an issue, but the sigils were also the most battle-hardened I had at my disposal. They’d had as many dzulu as nisi in their ranks, and according to Akua they were the tribes finding it easiest to live under my rules. It made sense to me: with low numbers, they simply hadn’t been able to afford the casual cruelties of larger and more established sigils. The other sigil-holders we’d come across on our way to Strycht had been less inclined to bend the knee when presented with overwhelming numbers, so they’d ended up feeding my nascent Peerage instead of joining it. Their lesser Mighty and dzulu had not been so obstinate, so they’d been folded into my own Losara Sigil where Ivah could keep an eye on them. It’d had the added benefit of swelling what could be considered my personal tribe larger than any of the others, always a good card to have in hand when dealing with other warlords.

“Reports, then,” I said. “Lord Soln?”

The Lord of Shallow Graves smiled, which was promising. I’d been careful not to play favourites with my Peerage, but I would privately admit that Soln was the Mighty who’d most grown on me. It had taken to its title better than any drow save Ivah, and its continued knack for producing results was a very large feather in its metaphorical cap.

“Talks with the Jindrich have been fruitful, Losara Queen,” it announced. “Mighty Jindrich is willing to take the oaths, in exchange for certain considerations.”

I puffed at my pipe, impressed but trying not to show it. The Jindrich weren’t top dog back in Strycht, but they were widely considered the runner-up to the sigil that was. In large part because Jindrich itself was apparently a fucking terrifying savage that went berserk when fighting other Mighty and sunk entire chunks of island in the throes of uncontrollable rage. I’d expected them to be holdouts, not in the first batch of collaborators. Letting out a stream of acrid smoke, I let out a pleased hum.

“Considerations?” I prompted.

“Jindrich territory holds the largest cisterns of Great Strycht,” Lord Soln elaborated. “This is well-known. They would outlast all others when thirst takes the city, and so cabal was forged among lesser sigils to take the water from them by force. Mighty Jindrich requests assistance in scattering the scavengers before oaths are taken.”

Ah, these charming drow. You could always count on them to turn on each other even when the enemy was at the gate.

“And Jindrich will fight at our side, when the time comes?” I asked.

“That is so, Losara Queen,” Lord Soln replied.

“Then the bargain is struck,” I said. “Centon?”

Akua’s secretary had been standing in my shadow all the while, stone tablet and chalk in hand, and approached when bid.

“My queen,” it murmured.

“Add five auction seats to the due of the Soln,” I ordered.

The auction system had not lasted long before needing revision, though we’d never expected it would. Considering we now had almost forty thousand drow on the march, allowing everyone to bid would have been difficult. The simple logistical difficulties of fitting that many people in a single cavern aside, I’d needed a carrot to keep my growing army happy. Oaths bound them regardless of preference, but willing soldiers tended to be a lot more useful than conscripts. The right to attend the auction of Night-filled corpses was now restricted to a smaller number of people, currently four hundred. My own Losara Sigil owned a quarter of that, most of it attributed by lottery so more than dzulu and Mighty might rise, but I’d given every sigil under my banner a certain number of seats and kept the last hundred as rewards to parcel out. Lord Soln would have the right to grant those seats to whoever it wished, both reinforcing its authority over its sigil and giving a reminder that the power’s ultimate source was the Queen of Lost and Found.

Diabolist might be a bloody viper but there was no denying how godsdamned useful she was.

“Honour was given,” Lord Soln said, inclining its head.

“The worthy rise,” I replied, the cadenced sentence in Crepuscular rolling off the tongue.

My gaze swept over the rest of the Peerage, and I could almost taste the anger and envy some displayed. But not directed at me, I thought. Not for now, anyway. It was an ugly little bit of irony that some of the Praesi practices I despised the most worked so well with the drow. Keeping the blades of my subordinates pointed at each other was an old Wasteland game I was beginning to be a fair hand at. But they will not fight each other, I reminded myself. The oaths have seen to that. The violence would be turned outwards, and put to my purposes.

“I await other fair news,” I said. “Lord Vadimyr?”

The most recent addition to the Peerage shook its head. Vadimyr had actually answered a few questions I had about drow and the nature of the titles I was handing out without meaning to. The Lord of Fading Echoes was, well, the owner of a womb. It had risen to prominence late, and birthed a child when it was nisi. I did not choose the titles I gave out when empowering my lords – Winter provided them – so it’d been interesting to learn that my mantle would likely never hand out a title of Lady to a drow. A matter of perception by the beholden, Akua had theorized, and in Masego’s absence I had no reason to gainsay her.

“Mighty Karmel founded a cabal with three others to share their water,” Lord Vadimyr said. “Together they may well last until the great cabals of the inner ring come to war against us, and so will not consider the taking of oaths.”

I nodded.

“Lord Slaus?” I tried.

“The fortune of Mighty Soln was my own curse,” the drow ruefully admitted. “For the Hushu are of the cabal besieging the Jindrich, and so have undertaken salvation by strife. They deny any other ending.”

Yeah, there were two sides to that coin. For every cornered sigil they’d be twice as many sigils cornering it, and those would be less than inclined to make a pact with an interloper like me. I suspected that if I allowed the internal skirmishes to play out I’d get a willing accomplice out of every major defeat, but I had constraints of my own to consider. My own camp might be fine when it came to water – I did have a lake to parcel out – but food was another story. I had over forty thousand drow to keep fed nowadays, and no supply train to speak of. Considering I’d refused foraging raids in favour of assimilating the same sigils we’d be pillaging, the state of our food reserves was essentially a downwards slope with the occasional uptick when we brought in a sigil. Of course that same sigil also brought additional bellies to fill, so the relief was short-lived and followed by even sharper descent. We had maybe another two weeks left in us before emergency rationing started, and after that maybe a third before the stores ran empty.

There’d been cattle in Great Lotow, great lizards and some sort of giant moles whose milk Indrani assured me was utterly disgusting, but Lotow was an outskirts city. The wealthy sigils with full stores were further in, and meanwhile we’d already butchered most of the lizards for meat. Several times, actually. The younger ones were smaller but they grew back body parts over several days as long as they didn’t lose too much flesh and die from the effort, which had strung out their use some. Strictly speaking I could afford a week of sitting on my thumbs before matters became urgent but it would be risky. We’d have to take Strycht and its entire stores immediately afterwards or risk circling the drain of our personal reserves while hammering down the last pockets of resistance. Archer had half-seriously noted that since corpses were currently our most common form of loot perhaps grey meat should be put on the table, but cannibalism was a little too far for me. Akua had noted that it was strictly taboo in drow culture regardless, as eating their own kind’s flesh was believed to cause rot in the soul and cause Night to seep out.

No, in my eyes were needed to take Great Strycht within the next few days. It’d give us enough of a margin that we’d keep our head above the water while resuming our march into the inner ring, racing ever more harshly against the bottom as we went. It wasn’t sustainable, but then it didn’t have to be: this was an exodus, not a conquest. Unfortunately that meant attacking soon, and that would be risky business without allies on the inside. Which proved to be in rather short supply, I discovered as the Peerage continued giving me their reports. There were a few offers to help against other sigils but not take oaths, in exchange for water, but the lords who’d held those talks admitted betrayal was more than likely the moment water was supplied. Lord Zarkan, who’d yet to bother hiding how much it despise my very existence, brought a second success with a minor sigil that’d apparently been evicted of its territory by a cabal and was now furious enough to turn its cloak. Five auction seats went to the Zarkan for the success, though that one did not thank me for them afterwards. Lord Nodoi had failed in talks with the Strycht sigil it’d approached but found another settled near the western sluice gate that was desperate enough to take the full oaths in exchange for survival. They were already on their way, and for that the Nodoi earned six seats.

It was Ivah’s own report that turned the mood grim, for it’d been sent not to bargain but to gain information.

“Over the last two days I took five Mighty from varying sigils,” the Lord of Silent Steps informed me. “As of an hour ago interrogation of four of them has been carried out. From this, two matters of import were discovered. The first is that we have drawn the attention of the Longstride Cabal.”

The drow were always eerily well-behaved, at least when I was present, so there was no ripple of murmurs as there would have been with humans. But several of the lords visibly stiffened, which for their kind was a glaring warning sign.

“This is certain?” Lord Vasyl pressed.

“Mighty Leslaw is of the Swooping Bat Cabal, of which a lesser member of the Longstride is also part,” Ivah said. “It is my understanding that is the path by which word of our arrival spread. When the cabals of Great Strycht put out the call to war, interest developed.”

“You’ll have to fill me in on the particulars of this Longstride Cabal,” I said.

Ivah grimaced.

“Hunters of hunters, my queen,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “A great and ancient cabal.”

Lord Soln nodded, catching my eye.

“They fight only for the glory of the Night,” it added. “Only the sharpest blades are invited into the fold. They hold no territory, protect no temple: their only purpose is the death of those they deem worthy.”

So not so much dwarven deed-seekers as a bunch of Night-powered Ranger equivalents. That was just lovely.

“How many?” I asked.

“Two hundred,” Ivah said. “Never more nor less. One invited must take another’s place.”

By which it meant murder their predecessor. So I wasn’t just dealing with thrill-killers, I was dealing with a full cohort of hardened Mighty who’d either been dangerous enough to kill one of the old monsters or remained sharp enough to kill the young ones.

“How long before they’re mobilized?” I asked. “If they’re this picky about members, they have to be widely spread out.”

“It is hard to say, Losara Queen,” Lord Lovre told me. “For while they range far and wide, there are those among them who know the Secret of shadow-striding. That is the source of their name.”

“Shadow-striding,” I slowly repeated. “Is that what I think it is?”

The drow sharply grinned.

“Wherever there is shadow, their strides may take them,” Lord Lovre agreed. “It is a gift from the very hands of Sve Noc.”

“And this is instantaneous,” I said, disbelieving.

That sounded like teleportation through shadows, which was a bit much even if the Priestess of Night had her fingers in it. Even the Miezans had to sacrifice a city’s worth of captives to move their armies like that. Masego couldn’t fucking teleport, and I’d seen him order a Princess of Summer to go sit in the corner like a petulant child.

“Not so,” Lord Soln said. “It is a lengthening of stride. Not unlike the stories Mighty Archer speaks of your journeys in the Garden of the Splendid.”

So cutting corners, not snap-your-fingers-and-it’s-done. If the Gloom and the Night were really part of Sve Noc’s domain, as I’d come to suspect they were, shadow-striding might just be taking a shortcut through the original domain from which all the rest spawned. Or it might just be an improvement on the shadow-tendril trick almost every drow with Night could use, only with a difficult relationship with its father and something to prove. Regardless, that meant we were about to be up in our neck in veteran old guard killers.

“A week?” I tried.

“Less,” Ivah said. “My captive had no precise day, yet believed they would arrive before assault was made on Great Strycht.”

“They don’t know when we’re going to assault,” I pointed out.

“Speculation abounds,” my Lord of Silent Steps drily said. “Most common is the belief that within five days there will be battle.”

“So four days,” I frowned. “Give or take.”

This was starting to take shape, slowly but surely. This would be fought in waves. My army had to strike within a few days. The Longstride Cabal would arrive within four to hunt us for sport. The earliest reinforcements from the inner ring cabals would start arriving within a week. If I took Great Strycht before the Longstride arrived, I could lay an ambush for them. Which would pay off massively, if I could title even a few of those drow. The shadow-striding trick would allow us to spread exponentially fast, and we’d be able to eat up the reinforcements as they arrived. That would be a tipping point for this campaign, I thought. If I had a Peerage that large and powerful? We’d trample everything in our way towards Sve Noc, swelling with recruits as we did. On the other hand, if we botched the invasion of Strycht we were fucked for good. We’d lose strength in the attempt, and then we’d get hit by the Longstride and the reinforcements in quick succession. It had downwards spiral written all over it. Bold strokes would either win this or end this, depending on how it all fell out. Waiting was essentially giving up the game, and so not even worth considering.

“There is a second matter of import, Losara Queen,” Ivah reminded me.

I rolled my shoulder, reluctantly emerging from my line of thought.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“One of the prisoners I obtained was a jawor of the Rumena Sigil,” my Lord of Silent Steps said. “Privy to intent of Mighty Rumena itself.”

My brow rose. If the Jindrich were the runner-ups, then the Rumena were the local hegemons. Their sigil was twice the size of anybody else’s, their rylleh were said to be a pain to even sigil-holders and Mighty Rumena itself was rumoured to have died once, gotten rather angry about it and promptly gotten up with a severed spine to smash in the head of the offending Mighty. The only drow in Strycht it was even remotely wary of was Jindrich, and there was cabal essentially every other sigil-holder was part of whose entire purpose was making sure the Rumena didn’t eat everyone else. If it was making a move, it would have major consequences on how this battle unfolded.

“And?” I said.

“The many sigils of Great Strycht are turning on each other,” Ivah said. “Cabals have split, or been reforged to address more pressing concerns. There is opportunity in this.”

“It’s preparing to take a swing at claiming all of Strycht,” I said.

“Malcontent rylleh were approached, I am told,” Ivah smiled. “And the jawor I took was looking for weaknesses in the defences other sigils.”

I closed my eyes. This… It might work. If they struck hard and quick while other sigils were already fighting. If they kept the fighting out of sight until they’d harvested enough Night, they could just retreat for a day and let their Mighty digest what they took – after that they’d have enough power to bring to bear that even allied opposition wouldn’t matter. That was an additional beat to the dance ahead, and one I could use. If I had eyes in the right place. If I was careful and fast and lucky. I opened my eyes and brought the pipe back to my lips. The fire had gone out, since I’d put talking above smoking, but there was still some wakeleaf not entirely gone to ash. I took a match out of my cloak and struck it on my arm, puffing at the pipe until it lit up again. Waste not, want less. Meeting the eyes of my Peerage, I spat out a mouthful of smoke and let it curl around my face.

“Are any of you,” I smiled, “familiar with Irritant’s Law?”

Chapter 68: Poised

“Obviously you can’t kill me now: your enmity is with the Dread Emperor of Praes, and I’ve already abdicated. I am now but a humble shoemaker, and what kind of hero slays a shoemaker?”
– Dread Emperor Irritant, the Oddly Successful. Later noted to have made surprisingly nice shoes during his three abdications.

“So is there, like, a branch of sorcery all about lakes?” I mused. “Because if I’m going to keep using variations on the same trick it feels like there should be.”

Akua’s brow arched, expressing a monologue’s worth of disdain without her speaking a single word.

“Lakeomancy,” I suggested. “Catherine Foundling, foremost lakeomancer of her age. I could get a stele done like the old emperors – you know, basically a whole monument’s worth of bragging.”

“It would be lacusomancy,” Diabolist sighed. “And there is no such thing. Even hydromancy is not a true discipline, properly speaking. Like most physical effects it falls under the broader aegis of manifestation.”

“That just means we’re pioneers, Akua,” I grinned. “Look at us, bravely exploring the many ways you can steal, drop or otherwise move lakes.”

“Stolen is something of a misnomer,” the shade noted, looking down. “We’ve only borrowed it, practically speaking.”

Well, she wasn’t wrong. Great Strycht had proved as much of a wonder as Great Lotow, in its own way. It was, well, the easiest way to put it was that it’d been a port. Not unlike Mercantis the city had been raised on a large island, though instead of a river it’d been a lake that surrounded it. A lake that was about as large as half of Daoine, which was rather impressive. Useful, too. It hadn’t been this large originally: the basin had been artificially deepened and broadened before tributary rivers were dug into the stone to feed it. Tunnels and waterfalls, some coming from underground sources but others from the surface peaks of the Everdark. Lake Strycht was the freshwater source for an entire third of the inner ring, feeding a complex array of canals and sluice gates that were constantly fought over by sigils. The city itself was a bloody mess – scraps between sigils had sunk entire chunks of what’d once been a single island, leaving some sort of demented urban archipelago instead – but it was full of old sigils and would have been horridly difficult to assault. Drow ships were pretty much either rafts or small woven reed boats relying on oars. We’d seized a few, but it would have taken weeks of constant back and forth to get even a small army across.

Besides, the good people of Strycht had made it clear that we were not only unwelcome but currently at the top of their ‘murder and harvest’ list. I’d sent a few of my lords – the Peerage, Akua had taken to calling them, and the name had kept – to make polite inquiries about holding a council to discuss the dwarven threat and the cabal founded to answer it. They’d, uh, not taken well to that. Long story short, Soln and its fellows had harvested a few Mighty in a spurt of traditional drow diplomacy before making a tactical retreat back. They’d made enough of an impression that all seven cabals dedicated to maintaining control of the waterways had been called upon. Strycht was going to be swimming in old monsters before the month was out, and until then they’d taken to raiding my sigil’s camps on the shore. The damage had been limited and we’d mostly come out on top due to sheer numbers and Winter fuckery, but after the initial probes they’d identified the weaknesses in our defences and begun concentrating on those. My sigil had taken the Hylian ways out of Lotow after stripping it clean of everything remotely food-adjacent and absorbed another six sigils on its way to Strycht, but while it’d massively swelled it was still a far cry from a real army. It was a confederation of tribes, if anything, bound to me by oaths and fear. Not exactly the kind of troops used to maintaining proper watch rosters and fielding patrols. So with the situation steadily worsening and the opposition refusing to talk, I’d decided a rebuttal was in order.

So I’d confiscated Lake Strycht.

It’d taken about two days to empty most of the basin even with two gates as large as we could make them. Taking every last drop had proved impossible: the tributaries kept feeding it and the basin wasn’t even so there’d been pockets of water remaining. Still, in my estimating about nine tenths of the initial lake had been shunted off into Arcadia. What had once been water was now a stinking marsh of mud clogged with drying weeds and fish. It was a good thing we’d never attempted a crossing, because when the lake ebbed low some creatures were revealed that even Praesi would flinch at. Some kind of massive oily octopi with barbed tentacles, blind pale lizards the size of houses and long eels with an inexplicable amount of teeth. Most the monsters had gone through the gates, those that didn’t either settling in the larger puddles or going wild as they died stripped of water. It’d been a display of power meant for the recalcitrant inside the city, now perched atop hills or small plateaus surrounded by mud, but it’d also been a form of diplomatic pressure. I’d just killed half a dozen rivers crucial to keeping an entire chunk of the inner ring from going thirsty and done a great deal more damage to Strycht itself.

That lake had been their granary. They lived off the creatures swimming in it, of the weeds and plants now dying for lack of irrigation. The city’s drow had wells and cisterns, but the population here was easily triple of Great Lotow. They’d beginning running out soon, and after that they’d be forced to sally out for puddle water with my Peerage waiting in ambush. The Mighty would be able to stick it out until reinforcements arrived, sure, but what about the rest? Nine tenths of their people were going start withering on the vine. Even if the cabals proved victorious against me in a few weeks, sigil-holders would lose most their sigils to thirst. And they had to know that even if they got my head on a pike, there’d been no guarantee of getting the lake back. How many years would it be until the tributaries filled back even half of Lake Strycht? So I’d sent a handful of my Peerage forward again, to revisit the subject of a council. I’d instructed Ivah to make it clear that if they really pushed me they might just get the lake back directly on top their heads, which ought to make at least a few of them reconsider. Once we had a foothold in the city, well, if the rest dug their heels in I wasn’t above ordering an assault. I’d glimpsed what my Peerage was capable of, during our passage through the ways.

I was glad of the oaths, because I wasn’t sure I could win the fight if it ever came to that.

“I don’t know about borrowed,” I said. “I’m considering keeping the lake, or at least a portion of it.”

The slight shift in Akua’s stance indicated surprise, though I knew better than to think she hadn’t allowed it consciously.

“There is no lack of usable geographic features in Arcadia,” Diabolist said. “Archer has brought forward the interesting notion of-”

“Yes, Indrani wants me to start dropping mountains,” I sighed. “I’m well aware.”

“There are also volcanoes in what was once Summer,” the shade reminded me. “Actually triggering an eruption when we need it would be significantly more difficult, but not outright impossible.”

“There’s basically everything in Arcadia, if you look long enough,” I grunted. “That’s not why I’m thinking of redeploying the lake.”

“Decoration?” Akua drily suggested. “I suppose it’s never too late to acquire taste, though I must warn you ‘monster-infested underground lake’ is rather passé. Very sixth century.”

Ugh, and she probably thought she was actually funny.

“Well,” I brightly replied, “as the foremost lakeomancer of my generation-”

“There is no such thing,” Diabolist insisted.

“- it occurs to me I’ve been mostly, um, dropping large bodies of water on people,” I said. “For tactical purposes.”

“As one does,” Akua agreed.

“It seems like a very narrow use of the ability,” I said. “When I have an entire region of Callow that, between you and Summer, was effectively ravaged.”

Scarlet eyes narrowed.

“You want to move the lake to Callow,” she said.

“I’d have to consult governors and landowners,” I noted. “And someone familiar with farming practices. But it occurs to me that Summer-torched land might benefit from fresh irrigation. Hells, there might even be enough fish left for actual fishing.”

“And you want to use a lake born of Creation. because moving an Arcadian body of water might very well have… unforeseen consequences,” Akua murmured. “Wise.”

I passed a hand through my hair.

“Look, there’s so many problems I can’t solve with killing,” I said. “So it might be time to consider other solutions. One of the reasons Praes has been such a murderous shitshow play of correspondingly shitty and murderous thespians is that the Wasteland is exactly as termed. If I take a lake from somewhere else and sell it to whoever’s holding the Tower, it could tip the balance the other way. The Empire wouldn’t start starving its way into an invasion every other decade.”

Horrifyingly enough, Diabolist was beaming.

“You want to steal pieces of Creation and auction them off to nations,” she said. “Dearest, this might be the first of your designs I can say I wholeheartedly endorse.”

“It’s not stealing,” I protested. “You can’t own a lake. I mean, legally yes and nobody better take mine, but when you think about it in a religious sense-”

“You are preaching to the choir, my heart,” Akua intervened. “Admittedly the choir is made of damned souls, but let us not pretend talented singers are usually headed for the Heavens.”

“Why am I talking to you about this?” I muttered. “Of course you’d be on board, this is basically Dread Empress Sinistra’s plan only with riches instead of hero-delivered death at the end.”

“It could be useful to mark some mountain peaks rich in ore, when we return to the surface,” Diabolist suggested. “Mercantis would pay a fortune for access to mines where there can be no dwarven claim. And Callow itself is famously poor in precious metals: acquiring a source of mintage would be quite useful.”

The worse part was that it wasn’t actually a bad idea. Gods knew my kingdom could use the coin and the mines both. What I hated most about Akua was how useful she could be when she put her mind to it, which was always.

“Something to consider in the future,” I said.

She studied me carefully.

“There is more,” she noted.

“Someone broke one of my cities last year,” I frostily replied.

“And so you have hordes of refugees in need of shelter,” Diabolist said, delicately avoiding the subject. “As well a myriad of standing structures about to be permanently vacated.”

Not to mention a treasury that’d effectively be a glorified war chest and granary until the Tenth Crusade ended, which meant no funds for the kind of reconstruction that southern Callow badly needed. Hakram had produced miracles in keeping the tent cities clothed and fed, but come winter things were going to get ugly. The Waning Woods were too far, and absurdly dangerous to take lumber from if you went any deeper than the very outskirts. I’d seen it coming, of course, and we’d set aside wood and coal for fires, but it wouldn’t last all the way through the cold season. And Great Strycht was now a pack of very nice stone districts set atop hills and plateaus, many of which would fit inside a gate. It’d be tricky to get them through without wrecking them, of course, but not impossible. And even ruins would make great building materials, if worse came to worse. There’d be more cities ahead, too. I’d be leading the drow to the surface and until I could settle them where I wanted them to be there’d be a need for something to host them, but it didn’t all have to be used for that.

It was a little ironic that I’d waited until Thief was gone to start thinking about stealing cities.

“There is merit to the notion,” Akua said. “And though you now seem intent on civilian use, there is another side to the coin. If you can take a fortress…”

I could just leave it in Arcadia for later, then plop it out as field fortifications while on campaign. Near instantly. Juniper might just forget to hate Diabolist to the bone for a few heartbeats, if she heard about this.

“They’re not heavy on fortifications so far,” I said. “I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”

“We’ve not yet penetrated deep into the inner ring,” she replied. “There may yet be opportunity.”

I didn’t disagree. If I could get my hands on even just a fort, it’d be a nasty surprise to pull on my foes down the line. Field battles against the Dead King would be a chancy gamble even if the entire Grand Alliance was mobilized, this kind of sudden upset might be able to turn the tide. The first time it was used, at least. Neshamah wasn’t the kind of enemy that’d fall for the same trick twice. We stood there for some time in silence, the mood shifting as the conversation ebbed. The sight of the cavern before us wasn’t something a few days could get me used to, I silently admitted. The sheer size of it was staggering. It had the length and breadth of a province, the walls so distant even my eyes found them hard to discern, but the ceiling was what awe me every time. It was uneven, betraying that this was no singular cave but hundreds of them carved into a single place by what must have been decades of hard labour. I’d never seen anything taller save for the Tower itself, and the Tower was millennia of Praesi madness made into edifice. What kind of people had the ancient drow been, to make this?

What had broken them so deeply they’d become a pack of rats scavenging their own ruins?

“Not even Keter is match for it in scope,” Akua softly said, gaze following mine. “Fitting, I suppose. The Crown of the Dead is a mere gate to the Dead King’s true realm, impressive as it is. This must have been one of the beating hearts of their empire.”

“Don’t you have a bureaucracy to run?” I said.

“Subordinates must be assessed,” she replied. “At my behest you granted Centon much power. If it proves incapable of discharging its duties without my constant supervision, replacement must be found.”

And by that we both knew she meant Centon would be harvested and another drow raised in its place. Not killed, I’d set down rules about that, but Night could be taken without killing. The disgrace would probably cut deeper than death, though. Ivah certainly hated speaking of how it’d come to have that name in the first place. It was cold-blooded of Diabolist, but then I expected nothing less from her. Your average Wasteland aristocrat made lizards look warm in comparison, and Akua Sahelian had remained on top of that pack for years.

“Sometimes I wonder what it takes to make someone like you,” I said. “But then I remember all I heard about your mother, and I stop wondering.”

Her lips quirked.

“And what exactly did you hear, dearest?” she asked.

“Black called her brilliant,” I said. “Said that she’d managed to survive Malicia’s rise while supporting her enemies with little loss of influence. He was wary of her.”

“High praise, coming from the Carrion Lord,” Akua noted. “Mother was a creature of nuances.”

“You must have hated her,” I said. “That story you told me about your friend. No child should have to live through that. Not even you.”

“I suppose I did,” the shade murmured. “But not in the way you mean. You – your people – marry personal hatreds with your actions in a way we are taught not to.”

“Praesi keep grudges too, Akua,” I said. “Take revenge. There’s an entire hall of screaming heads in the Tower speaking to the truth of that.”

“I do no explain myself well, I think,” Diabolist said. “I was raised to treat Akua Sahelian and the heiress to Wolof as different persons. I could hate, and take revenge, as the first. The second must be a creature suborned only to ambition. Those among my people who do not learn to separate one face from the other die young.”

“That’s absurd to me,” I admitted. “I can understand necessity dictating your actions. I leapt down that slope years ago. But you can’t just pretend it’s two different people, Akua. It’s still you. Your actions. I didn’t somehow fight the Diabolist and spare you. It’s all on your head, like it’s all on mine.”

“Perhaps in Callow that is true,” she mused. “But in the Wasteland? We must clasp hands with those who’ve slain our kin, stabbed our predecessors in the back, stolen riches and appointments. It is a necessary distinction, Catherine. We can make sport of each other, so long as it is that. We would all lose for the stripping of that veil.”

“Then shouldn’t you?” I said. “Lose, I mean. Your entire philosophy is that conflict breeds strength, yet I can’t call what you describe anything but fragile.”

She quietly laughed.

“How harsh a judgement you cast on my people,” she said. “Will you hold all others to the same standard? The severe Ashurans, strangling their own kind with a rope of rules and tiers. The quarrelsome Procerans, who war with all under the sun out of hungry ambition. And even your own, Catherine. How many teeth-clenching grudges has Callow followed to dark endings?”

“None of the others wound Creation bartering for power,” I said. “Or bleed thousands upon thousands in rituals. I have axes to grind with my enemies, Akua, but I know what they are. Where their limits lie.”

“Then the issue is of means, not philosophy,” Diabolist said. “And so for the greatest monster of all, you need look no further than your teacher. What limits does the Carrion Lord have?”

“And he, too, will be held to account,” I quietly said. “For what he has done and may yet do.”

“Ah,” Akua smiled. “And are these the words of Catherine Foundling or the Black Queen?”

“That’s my entire point,” I said. “They’re the same person. That’s what responsibility means.”

“And mine is that your decisions will always be a choice,” Diabolist said. “Between what the woman wants and what the queen requires.”

I waved a hand dismissively, tired of the argument. Her logic only held up because it was a closed circle.

“But since you asked,” Akua said, looking at the distant city. “I despised my mother. For what she did. For what she wanted from me. But it was Tasia Sahelian that was my enemy, and her I admired until the day she lost.”

“Because she was brilliant,” I said.

“Because she was everything I was taught to want,” she mused. “Powerful and cunning and every bit the match of our Empress.”

“Until she lost,” I said.

“I severed our relations before I could be dragged down with her,” Akua said. “But I would not call that revenge. It was not a matter between us but between the Diabolist and the High Lady of Wolof.”

“And do you regret it?” I asked. “Leaving her behind.”

I wasn’t sure, I thought, what I was looking for. Humanity, maybe. Some speck of a person who had more to her than Wasteland iron and villainy. But what would I even do with it, if it was found? There was no saving someone like Akua, and I did not want to try. A hundred thousand souls demanded otherwise. The shade’s face was distant, lost in her thoughts.

“I do,” Diabolist finally said. “What a strange thing that is.”

“She was a lot of things,” I said. “But your mother was one of them.”

“She was,” Akua Sahelian agreed.

Her lips quirked.

“I should have killed her myself, mother to daughter.”

Interlude: Inheritance

“Dearest Edda, beloved daughter. I would offer you words of wisdom or comfort, but after a lifetime of ink I find my hands have finally taken leave of me. I have written of good and evil for many years, seeking truths, but in the end I have no answers to offer. All I have, my heart, is a prayer. That you be kind. That you leave the world a little better than you found it and teach your children to do the same. And maybe, just maybe, one day we will be what we pretend we are.”
– Last will and testament of King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

Wekesa had fought three wars in his lifetime, and had slowly come to realize that the Tenth Crusade was nothing like the others.

There’d been so many skirmishes over the years he could hardly recall all of them, so many faces and names and defiant – or accusatory, or castigating, or a hundred different tones only ever hiding the same fear – speeches. Enough dead heroes to make a mansion of the corpses. There was no glory in it, Warlock had known from the start. How many of those young men and women had soft faces, barely into adolescence? Those fights had not been part of a war, though Amadeus fancied otherwise when he murmured of his old argument with the Heavens. It’d been… ratcatching, Wekesa often thought. Trapping and killing vermin before they could grow to be a true problem. Even using the word execution would have implied a sentence, an act of judgement. There’d been none, though. Nothing behind the slaying save the decision never to allow those rats to grow and spread. It sometimes amused Warlock that for all his old friend’s talk of the fundamental disparity between the lot of heroes and villains, when given the opportunity to deal out the same treatment he’d not hesitated for a moment.

It was not a deep argument, he knew. The differences were many. Amadeus’ high-minded distaste was for a perceived imbalance between what heroes and villains as a whole were allowed to achieve by their stories, not particular cases, and the Black Knight would likely argue that even similar actions would have different meanings when carried out by mortals instead of Gods. Wekesa could and had appreciated, even when they’d first met, that Amadeus was driven by what could be called a philosophical principle rather than mere lust for power. It’d been a refreshing change, after the then-Apprentice’s years spent rubbing elbows with the nobility of the Empire. It was a deplorably limited understanding of the world, perhaps, but a notch above what any of their contemporaries had been able to contemplate. In the end, though, it was still missing the forest for the trees. Seeking redress for scales uneven was still putting stock in the scale itself, when it was that thing’s very existence that should be questioned. There was no fixing Creation, Wekesa suspected.

And if by some miracle it was, the Gods would promptly break it again.

And so Warlock had put his energies where they rightly belonged: his research, his family and his friends. Disappearing into some remote locale to study in peace would have been short-sighted, unfortunately. An old monster alone in the mountains, meddling in things man was not meant to know? He would have been the proving grounds of a dozen heroes. Besides, keeping strong ties to Alaya and Amadeus’ empire had secured to old libraries and a steady source of income and materials. If that meant occasionally making an appearance at court, disciplining a few ambitious sorts and smothering nascent heroism when it sprouted? Well, it was a decent bargain. He did not regret making it, not even now. There’d been some frictions before the understanding was properly reached, of course. Amadeus had wanted him to found some sort of mage academy that’d supplant the teaching cadres of the High Lords, and not quite understood why Wekesa had refused. He’d tried to lower the years Warlock would have spent as headmaster of the institution, before Wekesa flatly told him there was nothing to compromise over. Warlock had helped to create this ‘modern empire’ of theirs because it mattered to them, not because he himself particularly cared about the state of Praes. The country could be an empty desert and it wouldn’t matter to him.

He’d fought the wars that saw them rise on personal grounds, not principled ones.

It was the worst argument they’d ever had and for that Wekesa blamed Hye, who’d left before the Conquest even ended, and managed to both cut Amadeus to the bone and leave him twice in love as before with the same sentence when she walked away. The wound had never entirely healed, and Warlock had ended up paying the price in a deadbeat Ranger’s stead. Typical of her, really. She never stuck around for the parts that weren’t thrilling, the sometimes tedious spadework of building and maintaining relationships. Tikoloshe had noted it was almost mythically hypocritical of him to blame someone for having bonds only on their own terms, but his husband was wrong. He’d put in the work, afterwards, to clean up the mess between himself and his oldest friend in the world. Hye, on the other hand, simply made do with visitations every few years that Amadeus came back from split halfway between longing and chagrin. Wekesa’s long-standing reservations about that arrangement had been the tide that carried him closer to Alaya, as it happened.

When they’d first met her in the Green Stretch all those years ago he’d not been as close as Amadeus to the woman who became Malicia: he and Sabah had shared the seat of designated third wheel as those two strange youths gravitated around each other, everything else falling to the wayside of their long conversations. Still, he’d found he well-educated for a peasant – her mother had been a tutor to a minor noble line, once – and as charming as she was intelligent. He’d considered her a close acquaintance, and been quite infuriated to hear she’d been unceremoniously abducted by the Sentinels because the waste of skin holding the Tower was hungry for seraglio beauties. It would be years before they met again, after bloodily climbing the ladder of influence, and when Wekesa next saw Alaya there were only shards of the girl she’d once been remaining. He’d grieved for that, but the woman she’d become had been fascinating. Broken, perhaps, but all the more brilliant for it. But there’d been a war on, soon enough, and though they’d fought for her claim his reasons for supporting it had been largely selfish. If Amadeus had been the one aiming for the throne, there would have been decades of war instead of years.

Praesi would have been violently disgusted at the notion of a Duni claiming the Tower, much less one inclined to eradicate the aristocracy.

In the years that followed, however, his opinion had shifted. Alaya was undeniably more fit to rule. She was Praesi in a way none of them were, understood the people she reigned over where Amadeus would have messily carved away at them until they were more to his liking. And though Malicia used the Calamities, she did so sparingly: she preferred to rule on her own merits, without other Named propping up her crown. She asked little of them save friendship and the rare favour. It was an ideal arrangement, in his eyes, and he’d frankly told her as much. The confluence in their opinions had only grown as the years passed, and while Amadeus busied himself with his Callowan projects Wekesa had spent long stretches in Ater for his research. Seen the harsh demands authority made of Alaya, and admitted to himself that Black would not have weathered them so well. The Tower… it magnified what you were. Your virtues, but also your flaws. Malicia had mastered hers, but the same influence would have made something ugly of Amadeus. Perverted his best qualities. Scribe disagreed, of course, but Eudokia had stark blinders. She’d only ever seen herself as a tool, Amadeus as worthy to use her, and so to use everyone else. There was no place for nuance in that perspective. That Sabah had never weighed in on the matter had been telling, he’d thought.

She was ever only so circumspect when coddling one of them.

And now Sabah was dead. Killed by some murderous vagrant from the Dominion at the behest of the Wandering Bard. Wekesa had wept for it, after. For the loss of such a beloved friend, for the hole she would leave in all of them with her absence. It’d not been the same since. Amadeus had become reckless while telling himself it was calculated risk, burning one bridge after another until it’d left him stranded in the middle of fucking Procer with heroic wolves baying at his heels. Alaya had been forced to become increasingly heavy-handed to keep it all from falling apart while simultaneously the particulars of the Woe prevented her from dealing with them as she legitimately should. Warlock had made it clear that Masego was off-limits, of course, but was increasingly coming to sympathize with her situation. Wekesa and Amadeus had dropped a mess into her lap and then heavily restricted her means to deal with threats not of her own making. It was unfair, and the private admission of that had done much to reconcile Warlock with the necessity of putting his son under house arrest for a few years.

As for the Black Queen, well, Warlock had washed his hands clean of that. He’d help Alaya deal with the aftermath by making it clear to Amadeus that Catherine Foundling had been dead for over a year now, but he wouldn’t have the imitation’s blood on his hands when his old friend returned. He could hardly serve as a mediator if he’d taken part in the matter in need of mediation.

It’d all grown so complicated, hadn’t it? This war was so different from all the others. The civil strife that had seen Alaya rise to the throne, the Conquest itself – they’d been of the same mould, in a way. They’d all been young or in their prime, and still making their mark on Creation. But now that mark was made, and they were being forced to defend it. They’d spread out too far, Wekesa often thought. Sabah had died thousands of mile away from the Wasteland, fighting over some League shithole they’d never seen before and likely never would again. Amadeus had been caught in Proceran heartlands while prosecuting a war that should have been the Black Queen’s by right. That there was a Black Queen at all was a reminder of how badly the Callowan situation had been blundered over, and for all that Wekesa sympathized with Alaya she’d hardly handled the Wasteland better. Akua Sahelian should have been abducted year ago, every bit of knowledge wrung out of her mind before she was butchered so thoroughly not even devils would be able to get their due from her. If Malicia had needed a doomsday weapon she should have asked him, not tried to get clever in house already visibly on fire.

And the damned fire had only spread since. Wekesa was not pleased he had to intervene, but who else was left? It’d have to be him. The Ashurans would be broken here, and afterwards he’d free Alaya’s hands to deal with the rest of the situation. Feelings would get hurts, cities would burn, but in the end the only people involved who mattered to him were pragmatists. There would be eternity to get over this little scuffle, as his friends had all the others before them.

It was a month full of long silences that passed before the Ashuran war fleet finally arrived. His son and husband remained at odds, though thankfully neither were the kind of men to trade barbs or seek out screaming matches. The work proceeded at a faster pace now that conversation had effectively died out. Wekesa occasionally felt a pang of regret at turning what was one of the greatest achievements of Praesi sorcery – in his own chosen field of study, to boot! – into what was effectively a pack of munitions, but he could think of no other way. Shatha’s Maze had been the main sea defence of the city for too long. There’d been centuries of opportunity for the Thalassocracy to study it, and though last time they’d struck at Thalassina it had been treachery that’d been their means of passing it that did not mean the Maze was unbreakable. That pack of greedy sailors wouldn’t be risking an assault at all, if that were the case, and Alaya was certain that they were coming. She still had agents in Ashuran ranks, though entire swaths of her network had been purged before the Thalassocracy declared war.

The ships came under cover of night.

That much had been expected. With scrying being blocked off, it was now watchtowers that served as the city’s first line of defence. Considering the nature of Ashuran sorcery, sailing at night even in treacherous waters was hardly difficult and afforded some element of surprise. What had not been expected was that the fleet moved under illusory cover as well. Some kind of sea mirage, Warlock found out, closer to natural phenomenon that Praesi illusions or fae glamour. Much harder to detect than either, though also likely much more difficult to maintain. That bought the invaders two days of unseen advance before they were caught out by a Thalassinan mage attempting to scry the weather ahead of their fleet and finding it impossible to do so. It alarmed High Lord Idriss enough that the man ordered a ritual strike at the area, calling down lightning from the sky, and though the sorcery impacted Ashuran defences harmlessly it did shatter the mirage. Ashur had stolen the initiative, and there was barely a day and a half to organize before they were on the city.

The work on the Maze was mostly finished, but not entirely. It would have to prove sufficient. Mass rituals by High Lord Idriss’ mages lent a finishing touch to the trap while allowing Warlock and his son to remain at full strength. Masego’s perch out in the corals was fully accommodated with defensive wards and the few creature comforts his son had requested, and he left for it half a day before the Ashurans arrived. The solemnity of the parting ease the tensions between them some, though not as much as Wekesa would have liked.

“I’d still be more comfortable with your father taking the position,” Tikoloshe admitted, smoothing away nonexistent wrinkles on their son’s robes.

“I see no need to revisit the matter,” Masego bluntly replied.

Wekesa discretely shook his head while meeting his husband’s eyes. Now was not the time.

“Be careful,” Warlock said. “They might be meddlers but there are a great many of them. If it gets out of hand, I’d rather you retreat and we fight over the city itself.”

“I’ve no intention of risking my life for Thalassina, I assure you,” Masego said.

He nodded in approval. In this, at least, he had his priorities straight. Wekesa hesitated, then pulled his son into a tight embrace. Masego stiffened but eventually returned it, their clutch on each other growing tight. There were no guarantees, in war. They both knew that all too well.

“Come back to us,” Warlock whispered.

“I will,” Masego whispered back, voice little more than croak. “You two stay safe as well. I know you’ll have walls in between, but rituals-”

“-are never a toy, always dangerous,” Wekesa finished softly.

One of the first lessons he’d taught his son. Magic was beautiful and wondrous, but it should never be taken lightly. Great mages had believed themselves to have mastered their powers fully, and always paid for that presumption. There were no exceptions. They released each other and Tikoloshe kissed both their son’s cheeks, fingers lingering on his shoulder. Masego was so thin, now.

“We’ll have a family supper tonight,” ‘Loshe said. “Just us. It’s been too long.”

Masego nodded before heading out for the docks, where a ship would await him. They both watched him leave, standing together.

“He will not be that tender with us again for a very long time,” Tikoloshe murmured.

Wekesa grimaced, but did not deny it. After today they’d have to bind his powers and take him into custody. He would not forgive them that for a very long time.

“Preparations are done,” Warlock said. “The rest we can worry about tomorrow.”

Work mercifully took away his mind from it all, for there was much still left to do. The set-up was not particular complex – Petronian sorcery was a straightforward as the Miezan’s who’d created it – but it was rather laborious. Two-way scrying panels were set up along the city’s outer battlements so that Wekesa would have good overview of the Maze and the Ashurans, then anchored in a crescent moon around him as the last touches were put to the circle of power where he’d direct the rituals from. That the defence was taking place on a High Lord’s dime meant the very finest materials had been acquired for this, obsidian from the Grey Eyries and Callowan limestone mixing with half a dozen other substances that put together could have easily bought a luxurious mansion in Ater. As Warlock sat at the heart of the array, four more circles were initiated. Every practitioner in the city had been pressed into service for the purpose, which was rather simple: they were to release sorcery into their attributed circle, where Wekesa would be able to take it and use it for his own purposes.

The recent labour of activating the wards of Shatha’s Maze had left too many mages exhausted and on the edge of burning out, sadly, which meant that to make up the losses two thousand criminals had to be slain and their life force provided instead. Wekesa disliked using such primitive means, but it could not be denied that the power resulting was pure and plentiful. If they’d had another week it could have been avoided, but as things stood he’d have to make his peace with it. It was late morning when the preparations were complete, and from that point forward Warlock sat with his eyes closed. Keeping mastery of four circles beyond his own while not actively using the power within required a great deal of concentration. Tikoloshe sat next to him, idly paging through a rather lurid Proceran romance, and though his husband remained silent his mere presence was soothing.

The Ashuran war fleet came into sight halfway past Noon Bell, and so finally the battle for Thalassina began.

It was said that the Thalassocracy had more war ships than the rest of Calernia put together, and it was easy to believe that while looking upon their fleet. More than three hundred ships, flying the colours of the Baalite Hegemony with the masked sun of Ashur set on them. It was not even the full muster of Ashuran might, Wekesa knew. There were still ships out raiding, and smaller defense fleet left to anchor in the Ashuran home isle.

“Around third of those are repurposed merchant ships,” Tikoloshe noted, his practiced eye picking up on the signs. “No ballistas on them, they’ll be serving as troop transports.”

“It won’t matter, if they never make shore,” Warlock replied.

Ashur took the offensive, as was only to be expected. By now they’d have realized that Shatha’s Maze had been activated, though they should still be unaware of the… modifications added to it. Wekesa kept the four pools of power close at hand. Two of those, he’d already decided, would be kept in reserve to detonate the Maze. Only one was necessary strictly, speaking, but best to be prudent. The other two were his to shape in answer to Ashuran assaults, however. After that he would have to draw on his own power, which would be difficult. His preferred field of study was useless on water, and his knowledge of Sabrathan sorcery was limited. There would be no turning the spells around here as he had done when duelling the Witch of the Woods. It would have been madness to attempt the same tactics against an army that he’d used against a single Named, regardless. One Gifted he could account for, no matter how talented, but hundreds on hundreds? There were too many variables, even if they resorted to rituals. The waters ahead of the war fleet rippled unnaturally, and Wekesa learned forward.

“So it begins,” the Sovereign of Red Skies murmured.

It was a ritual, that much was obvious. The limitations of their practitioners were fully displayed as massive amounts of sorcery sunk into the waves but moved only sluggishly: Ashuran mages were known used to working in concert.

“Strike?” Tikoloshe said.

Wekesa studied the sea’s surface. The ripples were gaining in strength, but not forward. Splitting to the sides? Ah. He smiled.

“They believe the defence is being directed from the underground facilities on the shore,” he said.

“We never took down the wards on them,” Tikoloshe noted. “There was no reason to.”

“Let them waste their first blow, then,” Warlock said.

It was an interesting working, he had to admit. Tendrils of water rose from the sea and began spinning like gargantuan drills, impacting the shore with thunderous crack and going straight through the rock. Quicker than simple water should, even rotating. A hardening effect, perhaps? He could see no trace of it, but there was only so much he could find out at this distance. If there’d been anyone underground, they would be dead by now. Eventually the Ashurans released their ritual, the water collapsing. It was either drunk by the earth or remained in large puddles, save for the parts that trickled back into the sea.

“And now they see there are no issues with the Maze,” Tikoloshe said. “Meaning it was either never overseen or they struck at nothing.”

“Even if they’d wiped out our mages most the wards would still be working,” Wekesa noted. “That cannot be their strategy whole.”

His statement proved to be correct when ritual began again. It had similar effect on the sea as the previous one, though Warlock noticed the sorcery was going broad instead of sinking deep. Interesting. Not tendrils this time, then.

“They’re going around it,” his husband suddenly said. “They don’t need tides if they can make their own wind, ‘Kesa. They’re going to spread sea over shore and bypass the Maze entirely.”

“They will try,” he shrugged, and reached for the first pool of power.

If the ritual was allowed to proceed and stretched out the waters on both sides it would be difficult to deal with – he’d either have to split the power and pit himself against the enemy on both sides simultaneously from a position of weakness or strike twice, which would waste his entire offensive power. Yet Wekesa still allowed them to pour sorcery into the sea. He had to make every strike count, to letting them get to the point of no return would be more efficient. Eventually he had to make a judgement call, being uncertain of the precise tipping point. Closing his eyes, Warlock shaped the power and released it. It came out as pure kinetic force, angled in a loose triangle and impacting the sea with all the strength he could put out. The dark-skinned man sighed as he opened his eyes and witnessed his work. It would have worked better as a Trismegistan formula, he had to admit. Still, even in this manner the strike was massive enough to begin a tidal wave and send it tumbling towards the Ashuran fleet. While the wave hid the enemy from his sight there must have been panic when the enemy mages realized they had to abandon their ritual after investing so heavily in it.

The backlash ought to kill more than a few.

“Something’s wrong,” Tikoloshe murmured.

Warlock’s brow rose. It was true the enemy were slow on the answer, but that could simply be the result of their mages fearing the backlash. And yet… He adjusted one of the scrying panels. Was part of the Ashuran fleet missing?

“They went into it,” he realized. “Underwater.”

Absurd, unless… The tidal wave slowed. Stopped to a standstill. And then it turned around.

“Merciless Gods,” Wekesa murmured. “Have they been using only half their mages this whole time?”

If that were true they wouldn’t be simple hundreds, they would be thousands. There shouldn’t be that many mages in the whole of Ashur.

“That’s a repurpose of structure, Wekesa,” his husband said. “Slow and horribly sloppy – they brute forced it, I’d wager – but it is. Which they shouldn’t be able to do.”

Sabrathan sorcery wouldn’t be able to handle a ritual that delicate and abstract, the mages would start losing control halfway through.

“Jaquinite,” he said. “That was Jaquinite sorcery. They have Procerans with them.”

Hells and Damnation. The Principate’s mages might be backwoods savages, but they were a lot more flexible than the Ashurans. The scope of rituals available to the opposition hadn’t just doubled, it was… Hard to calculate, and there were more pressing matters.

“They want to tear down the Maze,” Warlock hissed. “And get ships through to assault the remains from both sides.”

Which he could not allow, not when his son was in the middle. The wards around Masego should allow him to survive the tidal wave, but he’d be out there alone and surrounded. He reached for the second pool of power without hesitation. There was no time for subtlety: he made a wall of force and smashed it into the waters. The backlash had him flinching, and he felt his nose start bleeding. Fuck. The mages keeping the wave going weren’t powerful, but they were many. Slowly, his grip on the sorcery began to slip. It’d break, and then…

Link,” he croaked out, blood in his mouth.

The relief was almost immediate. Thalassina had old wards anchored around it, and linking them to his working had taken the pressure off his will. The city itself groaned, parts of its walls shattering, but his workaround succeeded. While he no longer had control of the power he’d released, he did control the connection his aspect had forged. It was only cut when the tidal wave broke and collapsed back into the sea, and Warlock let out a long breath.

“My turn,” the Sovereign of Red Skies hissed.

He took a third pool of power in hand and let another aspect loose. Ships had been shattered and the Ashuran fleet put in disarray, and that was close enough for his purposes. Imbricate shivered across the length of Creation as he matched the sea to the nine-hundredth and thirty-third hell: the sea of blood. The waters began to turn red, bubbling and rising to a boil. It would not be long before the acidity began eating at the hulls. Halos of light bloomed over the ships, one after another. Tikoloshe shivered.

“Speakers,” the incubus murmured.

They were not fighting him, Warlock noted. The imbrication was proceeding without being hindered, and the ships were not unharmed. No, it felt like something else. A prayer? A call, he thought. Slowly, something answered. He saw it in his mind’s eye. It was not a face, it was too featureless for that. Of what it was made he could not tell, but the glare was blinding. Flesh smoking, Wekesa bared his teeth. He would not bow to priestly meddling. If some entity had come to trouble him, it best be prepared for the consequences. The imbrication he took in hand, abandoning the fleet, and lashed around the not-face.

“Come on, you wretched thing,” Warlock grinned nastily. “Let’s see how you fare on my own grounds.”

It sunk into the depths, the radiance slowly drowned by the sea of blood, and he laughed. Laughed until it evaporated in a storm of blood mist, the thing full and untouched. Not a face, he thought again. It was a mask. Heartbreakingly, impossibly perfect. He looked upon the visage of a god, and that god spoke.

BEGONE.

His bones creaked, his eyes burned and his teeth shattered. His husband was speaking but his ears were ringing. Blinding light came again, not of the creature’s making. He’d lost control of the last pool of power and it had gone wild, raw sorcery devouring all near it and shattering the ground. The mask’s lips opened to speak once more, a great weight settling on his shoulders.

“Shut up,” Hierophant said.

The thing rocked back.

“Seven pillars hold up the sky,” Hierophant sang, thrumming with power. “Four cardinals, one meridian.”

The pressure vanished and Warlock came back to himself. Through the panel he saw a mask of Light in the sky above the Maze, a terrible radiance surrounding his son. Masego stood alone on his spit of rock, black robes fluttering as he raised his palms. The warded corals around him began melting like snow in summer sun.

“The wheel unbroken, spokes are that not,” Hierophant said, voice resounding across the waters. “Thou shall not leave the circle.”

Wekesa closed his eyes just in time. It’d been only the smallest possible sliver of attention from Above, he realized. It could not be bound, not truly. But the attempted binding had forced it to retreat, and it had made its displeasure known beforehand. It had swatted down his son, shattered the coral and the wards alike. He was in the sea now, floating. Still alive. Warlock tried to rise but could not.

He was dying, and the Ashuran fleet advanced.

“No,” he got out. “Not like this. Not my son.”

Tikoloshe held him up, but his husband could not heal.

“I’ve paid my dues,” Warlock hissed. “A lifetime carrying the banner. I am owed. I am owed, do you hear me?”

It came like a whisper, slithering across his body. Taking away the pain, leaving dull absence behind.

Below listened.

Below remembered, and paid the debt back in full.

Wekesa stood and knew what he must do. He’d been shown. A gurgled word had rows of runes appearing in the air, the most sophisticated binding on Creation, and with fingers like claws he ripped through them. Scattered the runes, broke the contract beyond repair.

“Wekesa?” his husband said.

“Go, Tikoloshe,” he said. “Run. Return home.”

His husband’s face, so handsome and untouched by time even after all these years, creased in a frown.

“No,” the incubus said.

“It will kill you,” Wekesa whispered. “It can’t. I can’t let it. There has never been a devil like you. There may never be again. You are unique.”

“So are you,” Tikoloshe said. “So is he.”

“Run,” Warlock snarled. “I order you.”

He laughed.

“And yet here I am,” the devil said. “I have been myself for a very long time, ‘Kesa.”

“Don’t waste it,” he implored. “After you’re dispersed…”

“What comes back will not be me,” Tikoloshe softly agreed. “A blank slate. Tabula rasa.”

The incubus looked up at the sky.

“I decide this,” he said, tone full of wonder. “Of my own free will.”

His smile was blinding as the sun.

“Isn’t that something?” Tikoloshe murmured.

Wekesa could feel it thinning in his fingers with every passing heartbeat. It would not be granted to him twice. And yet all he could look at was his husband’s eyes.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you too,” Tikoloshe replied, and threaded their fingers together.

Wekesa looked up at the sun and breathed out. He thought of the others, suddenly. Sorry, old friends. I’ll be going on ahead, so it’ll be up to you to snuff the candles on your way out. I’ll be waiting with Sabah. He reached out for it then, what they’d shown him. The barest glimpse of the godhead, but oh so gloriously full.

Reflect,” he whispered.

For a moment, for an eternity, Wekesa was unto a god.

He snapped his fingers and the world broke.

Hierophant woke up among a sea of corpses and driftwood.

He screamed, but did not flinch.

Ye Mighty

“Alas, though your jest was cutting this axe is even sharper.”
– Dread Emperor Vindictive

The Lord of Silent Steps was in a pensive mood.

That was only right, as Ivah’idimas’iyanya’ajolig had found much to ponder of late. Being cast out of the Zapohar and forced to seek salvation in the Burning Lands had been meant as humiliation piled onto death, not mercy, and yet… here it was. Still alive, though months had passed. It was a strange thing to outlive one’s despair, and stranger still to pass beyond it. Such a matter required contemplation, the guidance of the whispers in the Night, but now when Ivah sought those murmurs known to all of the Firstborn it found only laughter. Full-throated and loud in the complete silence that surrounded it, a clarion call of mockery. And so Ivah of the Losara Sigil knew itself then to be damned, bound forever to the endless white plain it saw when it closed its eyes. It was all it dreamed of, now. Treading a boundless field of snow under a night that knew no moon or stars, leaving neither footstep nor sound as it marched on nowhere. Never tiring, never ceasing. Chasing a cold void forever out of reach.

It was terrifying – and yet it also soothed, like nothing it had ever known.

Clarity was required, and so clarity was sought. Losara Queen was beyond granting such a boon unto the likes of Ivah, for the queen was more akin to a deluge than a person – sweeping all it came cross, drowning them in the depths of itself. One could not bargain with the tides, only obey or perish. Yet there were others, slayers of Mighty that followed in the wake of the flood, and first among them stood the Mighty Archer. It did not claim to be rylleh, yet acted every inch of it regardless. It was presumptuous for the likes of Ivah to approach a superior unbid, though it did regardless as there was great need. It was sprawled against broken pillars, feet propped up close to the flames of a fire as it roasted cuts of silin meat over the flames. The sight of it made Ivah uncomfortable, for it was very unnatural. Humans, it was well known, ate only herbs and stones – as a learned Mighty, Ivah knew the stones were eaten not for sustenance but to help digestion – and became struck with terror when away from the light of the sun. The Mighty Archer must have blood from another race, for there could be no other explanation.

The Firstborn knelt facing the Mighty, arms and hands angled so that it could be seen it held no weapons. The human’s strange coloured eyes flicked to it, curious.

“Great Mighty,” Ivah said. “I would have guidance in matters of damnation.”

“Oh boy,” Mighty Archer sighed. “I am nowhere drunk enough for this.”

Boy. This was cattle-term, yes? Was the Mighty implying such worries as he had expressed were only fit for cattle? Ah, it was reminding Ivah of the ancient text ‘Seven Husks of the Moon’, which stated that the pursuit of Night was holy act and therefore no ill could come of it. The Lord of Silent Steps slowly nodded. Mighty Archer was truly learned, to know of this.

“Yet in estrangement from the Night, do we not lose our purpose?” Ivah asked.

“Where’s fucking Hakram when you need him?” Mighty Archer said. “Look, Ivah, you’ve got the wrong woman for this kind of talk. Purpose isn’t really my thing.”

Ivah blinked.

“Should purpose not be sought?” it asked.

“Take it from me, sweetling, the big picture stuff is better left to the worriers of this outfit,” Mighty Archer said. “You and me, we’re sword arms. It doesn’t have to be complicated for us.”

The Lord cocked its head to the side.

“Then our purpose is the purpose of Losara Queen,” it said. “For it can see what we cannot.”

“Now you’re getting it,” Mighty Archer encouraged. “Sure we’ve got our rough edges, but this is a pretty good band as these things go. We’ve even done proper villain stuff, which should tickle your Evil pickle. Abducted a princess the once, and we even stole the sun a while back.”

The Firstborn choked.

“Mighty Archer, I would have understanding,” Ivah said. “By speaking the sun, do you mean light?”

“Nah, it was the actual sun,” the Mighty replied, scratching its chin. “Thief swiped it from that princess we kidnapped. Although we couldn’t find a way to pawn the damned thing and Summer ended up stealing it back, so I guess that one should be called a wash. We did ego-murder the two highest entities of fae royalty not long after, though, so all in all we came out ahead.”

The Lord of Silent Steps swallowed, mouth gone dry.

“Is it not the power of the Splendid that we wield?” it asked.

“That kind of shit doesn’t just lie around, Ivah,” Mighty Archer chided. “We had to murder, like, at least five royals to steal it. And the one duke, but I think that was just Cat making a point. Good times.”

“It is said the eldest of the Splendid are as gods made into flesh,” Ivah said.

The Mighty leaned forward and speared a cut of meat with its knife, bringing it to its lip and biting with relish. It chewed and swallowed, only then answering.

“So you wonder how we’re still alive,” Mighty Archer mused. “You’re not wrong to ask. The Queen of Summer could have splattered us all over the ground without even sweating. But only if we’d fought her dumb, Ivah. If we’d gone brawling. So we didn’t.”

The knife was pointed at the Firstborn, steel glinting under the fire’s light.

“It’s why your Sve Noc is screwed,” the Mighty continued. “Your entire people, really. If some of you were solemn Above-fellators you might have a shot, but this is a villain scrap. You won’t get a story for armour or a last moment save from some meddling Choir. This is about who’s willing to do the darkest shit to win.”

“I do not understand,” Ivah admitted.

“It means our enemies down here are trying to fight fire with oil,” the monster grinned, baring teeth. “Hells, I’m no gentle flower but the other two? We’ve got the Doom of Liesse and the woman that put her down on our roster. I pity the fuckers who try to escalate against that.”

Ivah saw it then: flickering red, embers and flame. On the steel, on the eyes, on the ivory teeth. Scarlet like blood and ruin, a glimmer of what was to come.

“So don’t you worry about damnation, Ivah,” the Mighty Archer said. “Because there’s a lot worse than that coming for the people in our way.”

She bit into the meat with sharp teeth, juice flowing down her chin, and Ivah prostrated itself before leaving as quickly as it possibly could. It had found answers, and become all the more troubled for them. The Lord of Silent Steps dreamt again, that night, but it was not of the endless white plain. It remembered terrible oaths spoken as it knelt in blood, drowning in an ocean of frost as its veins turned to ice and terrifying stillness claimed the world. And power, too, sister to that which it knew and yet so different. So hungry, a beast that could devour all of Creation and still covet more. Clarity still eluded it when it woke. And so Ivah sought the other creature that strode in the wake of the flood, the shade with scarlet eyes that burned so cold. It never slept, and in the early hours before most the sigil woke the Lord of Silent Steps found it waiting in the depths of the Crossroads. Beneath them Great Lotow was quiet, cowed.

Still quaking in the aftermath of the hour where the greatest sigil-holders of the city had been taken away without a trace.

The Mighty Shade was as a silhouette glimpsed in mist: transient, ephemeral and always treacherous. It sang of death to Ivah’s senses, something ripped from the embrace of the grave and made to serve beyond it. Looking upon it was… difficult, now. Before it had been a shade of the dead given power and purpose, but since Ivah had taken oaths it sometimes saw beyond the façade. There were moments where it did not see scarlet eyes and scarlet robes but a corpse with rotting dark skin, a bloody wound where its heart should be. The urge to kneel in its presence was overwhelming, battering away at the Firstborn’s mind. Ivah might be Mighty, but it was mightier still. The Lord of Silent Steps waited in silence, standing besides it.

“You may approach, Ivah,” the Mighty Shade said.

It did so, and knelt with the appropriate demonstration of weakness.

“Speak.”

“Great Mighty,” Ivah said. “I would have guidance in matters of damnation.”

It laughed, as if delighted, and the Lord of Silent Steps shivered. The sound was a caress on its soul, the fingers trailing having nails like knives.

“My very trade, once upon a time,” the Mighty Shade mused. “This ought to prove amusing. Do continue.”

“I stand estranged from the Night,” Ivah said. “Without purpose understood. This perplexes me.”

The shade smiled, for a flicker a corpse’s ugly rictus before it became smooth flesh again.

“It is natural to feel adrift after finding a new mistress,” the Mighty Shade said. “It is Ivah that fears what it does not understand. You are no longer that person. Accepting this will grant you clarity.”

The Firstborn was no fool, and so did not ask who it was now instead. Such questions had power, in both asking and answering, and it would not so easily grant it to the smiling death thing.

“Clever little drow,” the Mighty Shade murmured. “She does have an eye for talent, doesn’t she? You’ll do quite nicely.”

“Great Mighty,” Ivah said. “I have sworn oaths and given service, but these things are not purpose. Fetters without sentence are senseless.”

The shade’s gaze burned scarlet, until it became sunken gold on desiccated skin. Ivah hid its disgust.

“So they are,” the Mighty Shade said. “I will tell you, little drow, a story about two deaths.”

The Lord of Silent Steps almost flinched.

“There was once a land of many kings and queens,” the dead thing said. “They were proud and powerful, ruling over river, rock and sand. Many were their wonders, for they knew terrible secrets and flinched not at the cost of great works. For many years they warred, on each other and great realms abroad, and iron did sharpen iron.”

The shade smiled dreamily.

“Then a storm shook the sea, and blew a single broken ship to their shores,” the Mighty Shade said. “On it were strange and foolish men, lost and mad with thirst. These creatures were treated as curiosities, taught the tongues of the kingdoms and made to tell tales of their faraway home. They could have been snuffed out, my dear Ivah, as easy as snapping one’s fingers.”

The dead thing snapped its own, then laughed.

“They were spared, for they spoke of trade and wealth and fresh wonders brought to the kings and queens,” the shade revealed. “And so another ship was built in a city of corals, and sent back.”

The Mighty Shade fell silent.

“They returned, in time,” the Mighty eventually said. “With many ships. Many men. And though they did bring wonders, they were wonders of war and great slaughter did come of it.”

The dead thing leaned forward.

“And yet they could have been shattered like clay, Ivah,” the shade whispered. “Had the kings and queens put aside their hatreds and seen what was to come. Instead they warred on each other still, thinking to use the strangers to settle their grudges. Cities fell, one after another, and when finally the doom was understood it was too late. The strange men clapped irons onto those once-proud rulers, for theirs was a war of chains.”

The Mighty Shade shook itself, as if waking from a dream.

“This they called empire,” the dead thing said. “They made a wasteland and called it peace, knowing not what they wrought. It would be many years, before the irons were broken. And even now their weight is felt, for inheritance is a manner of remembrance.”

The Mighty looked upon Ivah, calm and depthless.

“Do you understand the meaning of this story, little drow?” it asked.

“The worthy take,” the Lord of Silent Steps softly said. “The worthy rise.”

“You reach the threshold of understanding,” the Mighty Shade said. “Kind soul that I am, I will guide you across. The first death is in the story told. The second is in the story grasped. Purpose will follow.”

“Many kingdoms died, in your words,” Ivah said.

“One death,” the shade said, “in many parts. There is reflection.”

When understanding finally came, it was not gentle.

“Our ship came,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “Bearing three strangers.”

“It’s too late now, you poor creature,” the dead thing murmured. “You invited us in. You would have purpose? It has already been granted to you.”

Its smile was cold.

“Ours is the business of empire,” the shade said. “And what a peace we will make, dearest Ivah. Oh, I think they will remember this one for a very long time.”

“I am not estranged from the Night,” the Firstborn croaked. “I make war against it.”

“Tremble, ye Mighty, for a new age is upon you,” the death thing laughed. “I was a slow learner in this, little drow, but I have learned. Iron is brittle. It breaks, no matter how sharp. So let us make something new instead, yes?”

Ivah’s shoulder shook.

“Rise, Lord of Silent Steps,” the shade ordered. “Our queen grows impatient. Today we take Lotow, and you have a role to play.”

Night was beyond Ivah’s reach, but the hunger was not.

The bridge was broken.

It was an old break, unlike that which he had earlier passed. The bridges linking the Crossroads to the Column had shattered when the eldritch gate had devoured part of it, yet the lay of them could be tread if one was careful. Ivah had been, leaping across chasms with a lightness beyond mortal ken and landing without a sound. An entire floor of Great Lotow’s heart had been whisked away, leaving the Column above it to fall. It had partly shattered under the impact, and remained angled. Apt to tumble down if force was exerted. No doubt the sigils at the bottom were living in terror of this happening, shivering in their holes as they hid from the precarious balance above. Ivah cared little, having passed like a ghost through the wreck before descending to heights untouched by the wreck. Down into the centre of the city, where the most powerful of the sigils dwelled. Three of them were without their sigil-holder, but one had refused to the call for council. Mighty Zarkan had demanded tithe and alliance against a rival for price of attendance, and been duly refused: the Queen of Lost and Found did not brook such bargains.

No doubt the Mighty had puffed with arrogance upon learning of the council’s outcome, praising itself for its foresight in avoiding doom. Had. For another gate had been wrought this morning, and it had been a sharp lesson. The Zarkan Sigil held three districts, Ivah had been told, that had once been the residences of the wealthy and powerful of Great Lotow. These districts would have been raised with wells and gardens, making them worthy prizes to take and hold. Ivah now stood before the largest of the three, and looked upon the wreckage with calm eye. The traces of Losara Queen’s working could still be seen in the deep gouges around the mouth of the district were the edges of the gate had cut. The territory of Mighty Zarkan had been sealed shut for exactly the quarter of an hour. From the outside, anyway. The gate had spewed out a flood of icy waters that tore through the district mercilessly, drowning or crushing the slow and smashing houses and temples alike as if they were kindling. Corpses could still be seen among the rubble on the other side of the broken bridge, left to waft Night without harvesting.

The Zarkan were too terrified of a repeat to risk coming out of the highest places of their territory.

Ivah waited, standing in the open. They would see it, and come to bargain. It was not long before Mighty Zarkan made its way to the other half of the bridge, and the Firstborn studied it curiously. It was tall and proud, strong in Night and little marked by the killings that would have seen it rise. In the air, Ivah tasted fear. It wondered if it should feel kinship for this one, some sense of belonging that would stand against the oaths and purpose it had taken. And yet all it found was contempt. What a petty creature Zarkan was, shrouded in terror even as it painted courage over its face. Blind, lost, humbled by forces beyond its understanding. Did it regret now the demands it had made? No, Ivah thought, it would not. That was not the way of the Mighty. The worthy took, the worthy rose. The only sin was death, for death was failure, and Zarkan still lived. What was there to regret? And when finally the doom was understood, it was too late. The Firstborn would squabble themselves into nothingness. The nerezim would slaughter them with wonders of war, or they would be broken into Losara Queen’s service. Grief was due, it thought, but it did not come. Ivah had slain many in its time, harvested their worth and made it its own. It had not grieved then, had it?

“And now we do the same,” the Lord of Silent Steps murmured, “to the Everdark itself.”

Mighty Zarkan struck the foot of its spear against stone, demanding attention as soon as it arrived.

“Mighty Ivah,” the sigil-holder said. “Rylleh to cattle. Speak your fill.”

Ivah hummed, cocked its head to the side.

“Lord,” it corrected, feeling out the foreign word. “Lord Ivah.”

The other Firstborn spat into the deeps.

“You wear meaningless words for your sigil,” Zarkan said. “Shame on you.”

“What would happen,” the Lord of Silent Steps said, “if the gate was kept for a full hours?”

Mighty Zarkan stilled.

“Would you drown, Zarkan?” Ivah smiled. “No matter. When the gate finally closes, you will stand utterly alone. A sigil of one. What a sight that would be.”

“Losara is weak,” the Mighty said. “It could barely slay Urulan.”

“Is the first among your rylleh in this district?” Ivah asked.

“Are you threatening me?” Zarkan hissed.

“No, then,” Ivah mused. “Good, it will simplify matters.”

Without another word, it turned and began to walk away.

“Wait,” Mighty Zarkan called out. “What do you want?”

Ivah turned. Fear was beginning to peek out from under the mask. How easily people came undone.

“Everything, Zarkan,” it said. “We want everything. And you will give it to us, because otherwise you will die.”

“I won’t take oaths,” the Mighty insisted.

Then you will die,” Ivah barked, fury taking hold of it. “Eldest Night, do you not see? We have nothing to bargain with. You can tell yourself this is only a single city, that the further cabals will break the thrust, but you are missing the point. This is not war, it never was. It is grave robbing and we lost before they ever set foot here. You think Sve Noc will raise a finger to end this? They are following our rules. Giving us what we want, every step of the way.”

He laughed and the sound of it was brittle.

“I care not if you take the oaths, Zarkan,” Ivah said. “It changes nothing. Someone filled with your Night will do so in your stead after you are slain. They cannot lose, because there are no stakes for them. They can only gain.”

The Firstborn shook its head.

“We can only gain,” Ivah corrected softly. “For if the only sin is death, mine is the business of empire.”

“You speak madness,” Mighty Zarkan said, face gone pale.

“Peace,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “I speak of peace, Zarkan.”

 

Interlude: Apogee

“It is a bitter truth that in trying to escape the flaws of our parents we inevitably inherit the worst of them.”
– King Pater of Callow, the Unheeding

 

After they entered the second month of hard labour and sleepless nights, Wekesa jested that if he were a god he’s snap his fingers and put them all out of their misery. Neither his husband nor his son graced him with even a perfunctory chuckle, which he found rather cold-blooded of them. Warlock had hoped that even disagreements, after being aired, would lance the wound festering in his family but it had been… overly optimistic of him. Tikoloshe was still furious that Masego had spurned his good intentions so fully, and their son had made it exceedingly clear that he’d be leaving Praes the moment the city was safeguarded and did not intend to return for many years. There’d been no talking him out of that, or even a way to broach the subject of the Black Queen again. His boy had learned to keep his own council, and while the way he’d grown stirred some embers of paternal pride in Wekesa it was also highly inconvenient.  Message came from Ater within the first month, word of the war in the west.

It was not good news.

“He’s not dead,” Warlock told Alaya’s envoy. “I am certain. Beyond that I cannot tell. Wherever he is cannot be scried even through his blood.”

Which meant he was either underground or, more likely, in the presence of priests or heroes. It had slowed the work in Thalassina by a whole week to craft a ritual that would scry even through such distance and natural barriers, setting up relays and contingencies, but there’d been no question of doing otherwise. The silver of Amadeus’ soul in his possession was still called to the remainder of it somewhere in Creation, but aside from determining death that measure was essentially worthless. His old friend’s soul might not even still be inside his body, he knew, though that breed of meddling was rare among heroes. The Saint of Swords might be capable, though. Hye had told him, years ago, that Laurence de Montfort had grown skilled enough to rip a soul from its body with a swing of her sword. Was that what they’d wrought on Amadeus? Was he now a shivering shade in a bottle sealed by some priest’s power? Tikoloshe chided him for the thought.

“You are casting fear as fact,” his husband said.

“We’re not dealing with shepherd boys and rebels anymore,” Wekesa murmured. “I’ve heard things about the Pilgrim, ‘Loshe. The Saint might be the executioner for Above, but he’s something rather more dangerous than that. He… smooths away wrinkles. His is a thinking man’s Role.”

“Scribe will find out the truth of it, and the Empress will put her weight behind the retrieval,” Tikoloshe said. “Worrying any further is without purpose.”

“I could leave,” Wekesa said. “Head out right now.”

“And do what?” his husband gently asked. “Traipse around the Proceran countryside with target painted on your back?”

Warlock sighed. Tikoloshe was right, of course. Moving prematurely was just asking to get into a fight with whatever heroes had not gone north to prepare against the Dead King.

“Gods, why would he wander around the Principate like that?” Wekesa bit out. “We’re not twenty anymore, the wind’s no longer at our back. And there’s at least half a dozen Choirs embroiled in this mess, he was bound to run into someone he couldn’t cope with.”

“Making virtues of one’s flaws does not mean those flaws are gone,” his husband delicately replied.

Warlock sighed and left it at that. The two of them had never gotten along. Amadeus remained, even after over forty years, of the opinion that Tikoloshe was an unnecessary risk that should have long been dispensed with permanently. He was polite enough not to mention it anymore, but the years had not changed his position by an inch. ‘Loshe had frankly admitted that the sheer bleak intensity of Amadeus’ desires, coupled with utter disregard for the incubus’ existence, made him uncomfortable just to be in the presence of. Like putting fingers over a candle: tolerable for a pass, but painful if continued. Masego spent several hours conferring with his comrades in Laure when he was told the news, weaving some particularly vicious protections on his scrying spell. Woe unto whoever tested those, Wekesa had mused. There’d be a few more dead Eyes in the city by the time that conversation was over. Not his issue, regardless. While he recognized that Alaya had right to try eavesdropping on the conversation, his son also had right to privacy. The victor of that skirmish would be theirs to determine, and he saw no need to intervene so long as no harsh feelings were incurred on either side.

They returned to the work with renewed vigor afterwards, but as the weeks passed tensions never fully put to rest reared their ugly heads again. It was not unexpected, truthfully. Long hours of mentally exhausting work with little rest or company save each other – Masego had bluntly refused to attend court again – made small irritations seem large, and when the bottle was uncorked there was no preventing the spill. It was darkly amusing, Wekesa thought, that it was an attempted olive branch from Tikoloshe that’d been the spark to light the fire. His husband made an offer to discuss his time in the Kingdom of Sephirah, should Masego promise not to delve in that branch of research afterwards. Warlock had given it even odds that it would lead to either the beginning of reconciliation or a blowout, but his predictions proved inaccurate. In both cases, he’d believed the impetus would come from their son.

“That won’t be necessary,” Masego simply said.

The three of them had gone to the Maze with dawn, and it was now midmorning. Both mages hung from their spits of coral by leather harnesses, their engraving tools made to hover by their side by a quaint little Taghrebi spell. Tikoloshe was perched atop Wekesa’s own coral, comfortably seated and keeping an eye on their work for mistakes. All of them were under illusion, naturally. High Lord Idriss might have purged the city, but Warlock would not rely on the man’s work when his family’s safety was at stake. Their modifications to Shatha’s Maze would remain hidden until the very last moment.

“It is not the Book of Darkness,” Tikoloshe conceded. “Yet my remembrance is likely more than you’ll ever learn otherwise.”

“I would not be moved even if you offered the Tower’s own text,” Masego replied, placing back his carving knife into the floating set and picking up a chisel.

“Surely you don’t mean to bargain with the Dead King,” Tikoloshe frowned.

“Unnecessary,” their son said. “I’ve already harvested sufficient knowledge from his echoes.”

“Pardon me,” Wekesa said. “Did you say his echoes?”

“His apotheosis left a reflection in Arcadia, yes,” Masego replied absent-mindedly. “I took from him twice, at a pivot and later from his final moments as mortal. Vivienne was displeased about the delay on our trip back, admittedly, but the Hunt would not move without all of us.”

There was a soft sound as he angled the chisel against an accumulation rune, bringing down his hammer to connect it with the fresh additions. The only sound for a long moment was the waves around them.

“You stole memories from the Dead King’s reflection,” Tikoloshe quietly summarized. “Child, have you gone mad?”

“Debatable,” Masego mused. “I am not certain if operating on a different set of logic should truly be called that.”

“Don’t you give me lip like this is some trifle,” ‘Loshe snarled. “Get rid of them this instant. It’s an infection.”

It went downhill from there. Wekesa could not stay out of it, for he shared some of his husband’s worries in this, but he could not serve as a mediator if he was also arguing. That proved to be a mistake. Tikoloshe had become emotional. That never worked well with their son. It was bad enough they ceased working for the day, walking back to the shore in fuming silence. Warlock ran into a wall when he tried to tease out details during the afternoon, Masego stubbornly refusing to speak more of the matter. Against his better judgement, he offered his son a concession: he’d get to participate in the ritual from inside the Maze instead of the city, if the subject was opened again. It worked, or close enough. Masego remained vague on details, but it was clear his son could probably transcribe half the Kabbalis Book of Darkness from memory if he were so inclined – and that was the least of it. It was not the diluted knowledge put to ink he’d gotten his hands on but the thoughts of the Dead King himself. Secrets known only to one, until now.

“Take it out,” his husband said later that night, when they were alone in their room. “By force if need be.”

“I’m not going to fight him, ‘Loshe,” Wekesa replied with genuine surprise. “Obviously we need to reconsider our approach, but-”

“You don’t get it,” Tikoloshe said quietly. “It’s a trap. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve seen the lay of it over the years and…”

“You’ve never spoken of this before,” Warlock softly said.

“I don’t know for sure,” his husband repeated. “And it was never an issue, with the mere fragments of his work Praesi possess. But I think he’s been killed before, ‘Kesa. The Dead King. With that many heroes having fought him over the years? At least once, one will have slain him.”

Wekesa was not without cleverness, and he’d been married to the man for a very long time. The implication was not difficult to divine.

“You think the Book is a lure,” he said. “And anyone that follows its teachings deep enough…”

“He can inhabit different bodies, he could even as a mortal,” Tikoloshe said. “But how useful would it really be to wear some farmer’s skin? No, he’d need mages. Talented, ambitious, well-trained in the use of their powers. And to ensure they made their way to him, seeds were sown.”

“Never the complete book, because then they might realize the purpose of it,” Warlock murmured. “There’d be risks, ‘Loshe. If Amadeus is right about the Wandering Bard-”

“Black isn’t even a hundred years old,” his husband hissed. “And he thinks he can grasp the nature something like the Bard? Last time he followed that conceit Sabah was killed. Do we need to lose our son to his pride as well?”

“Peace,” Wekesa said. “You’ve said it yourself, this is only a theory.”

“I will not gamble with his safety, Wekesa, hear me well,” Tikoloshe said. “Not when the stakes are this high.”

“If I raise my hand against him, we lose him for good,” he replied. “Think about this clearly.”

“We lose him deeper still, if we do nothing,” his husband said.

Gods, what a mess this had become. Maybe if memories were modified… No, he’d find out eventually. Masego had been taught to assess the state of his own mind before he’d even reached puberty, he’d notice sooner or later. It was only pushing the issue back by a few months or years. Part of him insisted this was only a theory, but he could not refrain from considering it. ‘Loshe would not be this incensed if he did not genuinely believe in what he’d said, and he knew better than to dismiss the thoughts of his husband out of hand. It would be easier if he was wrong, but he could not put weight on something simply because it would be more convenient were it false.

“Tell me everything you know about this,” Wekesa said. “Every single detail, no matter how insignificant.”

Tikoloshe’s eyes met his.

“And if you agree I’m right?”

Warlock grimaced, but went on.

“Alaya has made inquiries about putting him under house arrest until this Callowan mess is over with,” Wekesa admitted. “I might have to take her up on them, until we’ve found a permanent solution.”

“After the Ashurans are dispersed, then,” Tikoloshe said.

Warlock reluctantly nodded. He’d need at least that long to prepare, if it was to be painless.

It’d been easier when Catherine had been there to provide ice. Winter-forged substance had a keen affinity to scrying spells, especially those involving the Observatory. Less than surprising, given that she’d provided quite a bit of the power involved in the raising of it. Without her around, Masego had been forced to rely on the more traditional methods of a water-filled bowl. The link was rather solid, given the distances and likely interferences involved, which warmed his heart. His work in Laure had proved fruitful. The waters shivered and a pair of silhouettes greeted him, both familiar. They must have been standing in front of one of the pools, he thought. Hakram looked exhausted, his face tight and the ridges around his eyes standing out – the orc equivalent of dark circles in a human. Vivienne, on the other hand, was flushed with good health. She’d grown out her hair, Masego noted. It suited her, made her seem almost regal.

“Hierophant,” Hakram said, showing just enough teeth to be respectful.

There was a pause as Masego’s eyes took in all of him.

“You seem to be missing a hand,” the mage observed.

Vivienne snorted.

“Literally the first thing,” she said. “I told you he’d skip right over greetings.”

“Already was when we last spoke, the bowl simply did not show it. And I still have the one,” Hakram told him, ignoring the Callowan. “It serves well enough.”

“Two would objectively serve better,” he pointed out.

“If we’re to have this conversation, it will be in person,” the orc said. “And over drinks.”

Ah, one of those complicated matters then. It should prove a learning experience.

“Youève made contact days before I next expected you,” Masego said. “I take it something happened?”

“You could say that,” Vivienne grimaced. “The Empress’ envoy sung us a pretty song, and we need to pick your brains over it.”

“I do not know much of singing,” he admitted.

“I mean-” she sighed. “Never mind. Look, we were made privy to the full content of Malicia’s pact with the Dead King.”

“Does it matter?” Masego asked, mildly surprised. “I was under the impression we would oppose both regardless of the technicalities involved.”

“I believed that as well,” Hakram gravelled. “Before he finished speaking. She effectively sold out most of Calernia.”

“Which seems ill-mannered, considering she does not own it,” Masego offered.

“The definition of ‘most’ is what matters, as it happens,” Vivienne said. “There’s a clause that exempts Praes and Callow from his attentions.”

“Which is good,” he tried.

“Somewhat,” she said. “Unfortunately, it only applies so long as she’s alive.”

Huh. Which was not good, because Catherine had admitted some months ago she would most likely have to kill the Empress before the war was over.

“We’ve asked some of our mages, but it’s not their specialty,” Hakram said. “We need to confirm – is it theoretically possible for a magical contract to have a clause like that?”

“It is exceedingly dangerous, but yes,” Masego replied.

Shit,” Vivienne said, with feeling.

“I do not see the issue,” he admitted. “Considering we were planning war against the Dead King regardless we have lost nothing.”

“She’s kept it secret for now, but it’s likely she’ll make the terms openly known when she judges the situation ripe for it,” Hakram said. “That’s going to make a mess.”

Masego’s brows rose. Would it? He failed to see how.

“Public opinion, Zeze,” Vivienne said. “It’d be bad enough if we came out on Procer’s side after they took a swing at us, but if on top of that we have a guarantee Callow will stay safe? War will be highly unpopular. Even war against Praes, if the Empress stays quiet from now on, and she’s too clever not to.”

Ah, politics. Hardly his specialty.

“If you could provide me the exact terms, I’ll study them for weaknesses,” he offered.

“We will,” Hakram said. “But there might not be a point. There’s no guarantee she gave us the real phrasing. And if she has, she’ll have had every good diabolist in her employ look it over first.”

“I have time during the evenings,” Masego shrugged. “And without my library and my laboratory, only so much to spend it on.”

“There’s nothing to lose in trying, at least,” Hakram said.

He nodded.

“If I may ask, do you have news of Uncle Amadeus?”

Vivienne wiggled her hand in a manner that presumably had meaning, though he was not certain what it was.

“Getting word from the Jacks quickly has been harder since the Vales were shut,” she said. “The best I can give you is that Hasenbach’s agents from her internal spy network are out in force in Salia. Turning over every vaguely suspicious stone. I’ve had to recall quite a few of my people.”

She frowned.

“Still, if she’s cleaning up the capital that thoroughly it adds weight to the Empress’ take in my eyes,” she continued. “They might be bringing in the Carrion Lord for a good spot of jeering and rock-throwing. Gods know he’s been hated like poison there ever since he started setting fire to everything.”

It was a relief to hear it, and Masego felt a knot in his shoulders loosen. He’d lost enough family to wars already. If Uncle Amadeus had followed Aunt Sabah into the grave so quickly… No, it couldn’t be allowed to happen.

“Which is worrying,” Hakram said. “They have to know if he’s kept prisoner there will be rescue attempts. If he’s not dead it is for a reason.”

“It does not matter what they want,” Hierophant calmly said. “They will not keep him. Catherine will agree with me on this. So will Father and the Empress. We will lack no resources for the rescue.”

“My precise worry,” Hakram replied. “Procer cannot afford war on two fronts if one of those fronts is Keter. To execute Lord Black and break his legions makes sense, but to capture him? I can think of only one reason for that.”

It took a moment, but he came to the conclusion.

“Bait,” Masego slowly said.

“It neatly takes care of what they fear most about Cat, namely her ability to gate anywhere with an army,” Vivienne said.

“More than that,” Hakram said. “They’ll be dragging the Woe and the remaining Calamities onto their chosen grounds. The full villainy of the east where they want it, when they want it. They’re clearing house before turning their full efforts to the north.”

“It has the Peregrine’s fingers all over it,” Vivienne darkly said. “The man’s dangerous enough on the field, but if he has a few months to prepare? It’s going to get ugly, Masego.”

“She’ll have a plan,” he said. “She always does.”

“Well, we haven’t run out of lakes yet,” Vivienne half-smiled. “So there’s always that.”

Masego’s lips quirked in answer.

“Still no word from her?” he asked.

“None,” Hakram said. “But she’d have returned by now if she wasn’t making gains, it’s been near five months.”

Or she could be dead, Masego thought but did not say. Precious little was known of what would await their friend in the Everdark.

“And on your front?” Vivienne asked. “No sign of the Ashuran fleet?”

“They’ve either found countermeasures to scrying or they keep priests on their ships,” he said. “It makes finding their whereabouts difficult. The raids have not ceased, but Father says they’d have to be fools to give that obvious a sign they were about to strike. There’s no telling when they’ll attack until they’re visible from the coast.”

“I’ll spare no tears for that lot if you manage to bruise them,” she said. “But be careful, Zeze. Don’t risk yourself for a Praesi city.”

He decided, diplomatically, not to mention his agreed-on position when the Ashurans would come.

“And it’s going well with your fathers?” Hakram asked. “I know what you found in Arcadia shook you.”

“It has been… difficult,” Masego admitted. “There have been arguments.”

Vivienne’s eyes went sharp.

“Do you need a way out?”

He shook his head.

“I suppose you could call it a religious disagreement,” he said.

“Coming from the average Praesi, that would worry me,” Hakram mildly said. “Coming from you, I will confess to something sharper.”

“It will pass,” Masego said. “They simply need to accept I will not forever live on their terms.”

His friend shared a look, but did not comment. He licked his lips.

“Hakram,” he said. “Before Catherine left…”

He trailed off.

“Yes?” the orc encouraged.

The mage folded his arms together.

“No,” he finally said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Adjutant’s keen eyes appraised him.

“Are you certain?”

“Faith,” Masego mused. “It is had or it is not. There is no middle ground.”

“So I’ve heard,” Vivienne murmured, eyeing the orc at her side.

“Then let’s cut this short before the Empress succeeds at listening in,” Hakram said. “I’ll scry you again in an hour with the text we’ve received, Masego.”

“I will be here,” he honestly replied.

A round of farewells, and then he was looking down at simple water. A strange sadness lingered in the room, and he turned towards Indrani to comment on it before realizing she was not here. Masego frowned, brushing back a braid. It was not the first time he’d made the mistake, and he was growing increasingly uncomfortable over it. The sooner he was rid of this city and its trouble, the better.

In the end, however, it would be another month before the Ashurans attacked.