“The essence of sorcery is blasphemy. Through will and power, every mage usurps dominion over the laws of Creation from the gods Above and Below.”
– Extract from “The Most Noble Art of Magic”, by Dread Emperor Sorcerous
Hakram’s sword swung clear of its scabbard, joined by mine a heartbeat later.
What had the godsdamned Warlock let loose? Hopefully it was just a devil, because if the mages had managed to bring a demon through this was going to get unpleasant. Barrelling through the window a burly shape landed a few feet in front of me, shaking off shards of glass. Dark eyes glared at me balefully and the pig let out a plaintive oink, flapping its dainty little wings.
“What,” I asked, ever the soul of wit.
“Masego,” a man’s voice thundered. “Get that thing back in its cage and fireproof the locks this time.”
“What,” I repeated, watching in horror as the pig opened a maw filled with teeth and turned towards me.
I barely had time to curse and huddle behind my heater shield before the thing belched out a stream of flame. I heard Hakram duck away from the danger, flipping over a table as he did, but my instincts had not been so evasive. Heat and the reek of brimstone licked the edges of my shield – I wasn’t singed, but it was enough to make me think I should perhaps reconsider my habit of not wearing a helmet outside of the battlefield. The flames guttered out after a moment and I moved forward. Of all the perils I’d anticipated when making my way to the bastion, I had to admit that a fire-breathing winged pig hadn’t been one of them. What was the point of the bloody wings, anyway? They were way too small to allow the creature to actually fly.
Oh Gods, am I really at a place in my life where I’m going to actually duel a jail-breaking pig? Before I could test exactly how hard the thing’s hide was, the door to the workshop burst open and a man hissed out an incantation, throwing his hand towards the pig: a muzzle of ice formed itself around the creature’s mouth and it let out a muted squeal of panic. It tried to make a run for it but the ice spread in slender but solid lines across its body, restraining its feet in solid manacles that stopped it within moments. The little abomination wiggled impotently in front of me, its wings still beating in panic but seemingly incapable of raising its own weight. The man sighed.
“Of course the little bastard gets out just before we get company,” he complained. “You’d be Lady Squire, I take it?”
I nodded slowly, sheathing my sword after a moment. The stranger was tall, even for a Soninke, but where I’d become used to rubbing shoulders with soldiers thick with corded muscle this one was built like a scholar. His hair was long and split in a dozen braids threaded with trinkets of silver and precious stones, many reflecting light in unnatural ways. The grey robes he was decked in went all the way to his ankles, covered with a leather apron whose pockets were filled with tools I didn’t recognize. The man – boy, I corrected mentally, as for all his height he couldn’t have been more than a year older than me – was rather plain, for a Named. Thick eyebrows and dark brown eyes were half-hidden by a pair of spectacles, his lips were fleshy and from the looks of it he bit them often. Though I suppose after Malicia most everyone looks plain. I managed to get my thoughts in order before the silence became awkward.
“That’s me,” I agreed. “And you’d be…”
I let the sentence dangle, unsure as to what the protocol was here. I’d heard his father call out what I assumed what his name, but I’d been taught that it could be rude to refer to an individual with a Role by anything but their Name without being invited to do so.
“Apprentice,” the boy introduced himself with a half-smile. “But you can call me Masego.”
“Catherine,” I replied easily. “And supervising that poor table behind me is Adjutant Hakram of the Fifteenth.”
Apprentice nodded in my officer’s direction, then frowned. He pushed up his spectacles and stared at the orc for a long moment.
“Huh,” he spoke thoughtfully.
I raised an eyebrow. “Is there a problem?”
“Adjutant,” the Soninke muttered. “That’s a new one.”
I blinked. “The rank’s been around for a while, actually,” I replied slowly.
“Probably,” Apprentice shrugged. “I have, however, never heard of it turning into a Name before.”
What? I turned to glance at Hakram, who seemed just as surprised as I was.
“I’m an orc, sir,” my officer spoke carefully. “We don’t really do the Name thing.”
Masego clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth in disapproval.
“Inaccurate,” he chided Hakram. “Names were fairly common in the Steppes before the Miezan occupation.”
“That’s the better part of two thousand years ago,” I replied flatly.
The Apprentice seemed utterly indifferent to that fact, much to my irritation.
“It’s still nascent in form,” the Soninke noted. “If it makes you feel any better, you might get yourself killed before it turns into anything concrete.”
It was becoming apparent that social skills were not one of Masego’s no doubt plentiful talents. Still, this had implications. I’d never heard of an Adjutant before and that was a little worrying, but there was also the fact that for the first time in a millennia and a half a greenskin was coming into a Role. That was… shit, the political ramifications of this alone went way above my head. Black always said that Names were a reflection of the people they sprang from: was something changing with the orcs, or was this about my own burgeoning influence? This is about the Reforms, has to be. But why was the Role appearing here and now instead of forty years ago, when they’d first been implemented? Gods, this was going to be such a headache. I cast another look at Hakram and he seemed more troubled than elated at the news. Evidently I wasn’t the only realizing how much of a mess this could turn into.
“I’ll look into it,” I reassured him. “We’ll figure this out.”
The tall orc nodded, carefully. I was about to ask Masego how he even knew this when the voice from the workshop broke in again.
“Masego,” the Warlock called out. “Is the specimen secure?”
The Apprentice eyed the pig and sighed. “It’s not going anywhere, Father.”
“Then get it back in its cage,” the Warlock ordered peevishly. “And bring our guests in, we’re not savages.”
Masego muttered a few syllables under his breath, gestured peremptorily with his hand and the pig rose in the air. It managed to drift a few feet towards the corridor by beating its wings but before it could escape it was yanked towards the workshop by an unseen force, squealing in dismay all the while.
“I have to ask,” I spoke as we made our way to the back. “What the Hells is going on with that pig?”
Apprentice’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “We’re attempting to determine whether Demiurgian phenomena are caused by an original or a creational law. So far it seems to be original, but we’ll need to repeat the experiment with greater drift separation.”
“I see,” I lied. “So the wings and the fire?”
I left the sentence unfinished, hoping he’d take the bait and provide an explanation in less technical terms.
“The pattern woven under the skin was a levitation one,” Masego explained. “The wings were… unexpected. When we pumped more power into the specimen to see if it was just a temporary manifestation it developed the fire-breathing.”
“And that’s… normal, by your standards?” I asked, keeping my face carefully blank.
The mage looked mildly amused. “Hardly the strangest thing I’ve seen. And if this pattern is repeatable, it has interesting connotations concerning the nature of dragons. After all they’re-“
“She’s not a practitioner, Masego. Your babble is wasted on her,” the Warlock’s voice interrupted fondly as we stepped into the workshop.
I had to confess I’d been rather curious as to what the personal workshop of a man who was among the five greatest mages in Calernia would look like. If the preaching in the House of Light was any indication it’d be filled to the brim with demons and other various blasphemies, but I’d learned to take what the Brothers and Sisters of my childhood taught with a grain of salt. The sprawling piles of old manuscripts that covered half the room weren’t unexpected, but truth compelled me to admit that the tall windows were – a quick look told me that the view through them was in flat defiance of common sense: through one of them I could see Ater sprawled out in the distance, through another what seemed to be the skyline of an entirely different Praesi city. There were seven tall glass panels and every one of them overlooked a different sight, many of them separated by over a month’s worth of travelling.
Stone shelves full of glassware flanked the windows, some empty and others filled with colourful liquids or dark shapes. The entire left half of the workshop was covered in cages of various sizes, most of them empty. The wrought iron bars were covered in runes and I glimpsed the silhouette of a hound made of smoke napping quietly inside one. The cage where the errant pig had been kept was easy to find, the iron lock keeping the door closed half-melted on the ground before it. I might have spent longer taking in the sights if someone hadn’t cleared their throat – I pushed down an embarrassed blush and my eyes turned to the source of the noise.
“And so we finally meet, Catherine Foundling,” the Sovereign of the Red Skies smiled.
I had to push down another blush, much to my dismay. Where Masego was plain, the Warlock was anything but. His skin was a little darker than his son’s and they were of height, but that was where the resemblance ended. I could have compared the man to the fishermen boys I’d known in Laure and the way living in the water had granted them a swimmer’s physique, but there was nothing boyish about the Warlock. His hair was cut short and showed some streaks of silver, though not as many as his close-cropped salt and pepper beard – the combination made him look rather distinguished, in an older man sort of way. His robes were a tasteful shade of burgundy trimmed with gold, tightened at the waist by a belt of soft leather in a way that showed off the broadness of his chest and shoulders. Don’t gawk, Catherine. He’s a least thrice your age and plays for the other side anyway. That said, I could definitely see how the Calamity had managed to talk an incubus into marriage.
“Lord Warlock,” I coughed out. “Well met.”
The man in question smirked but passed no comment, Masego sighing as he passed him by and pushed the floating pig back in its cage. The distraction allowed me to get my thoughts in order and I gestured towards Hakram.
“Adjutant Hakram of the Fifteenth,” I introduced him.
The Calamity cocked his head to the side, examining the orc.
“Howling Wolves?” he asked in Kharsum.
“On my mother’s side,” Hakram acknowledged in the same. “Weeping Stone on my father’s.”
Warlock grinned, displaying a set of remarkably white teeth.
“They won’t be able to sweep you under the rug if you have kinship in Grem’s clan. Someone in Ater is going to have a fit when word spreads.”
He sounded pretty gleeful at the prospect. I kept my face pleasant but made a mental note of it. Of all the Calamities I’d met not a single one had ever spoken fondly of the Praesi nobility. Was that because they’d had so much pushback from them on their way up, or was there more to it?
“We were hoping to keep the word un-spread, for a little while,” I spoke up, meeting the man’s eyes squarely.
“Ah, youth,” the Warlock mused. “It’ll get out, Squire. It always does, and the tighter you grasp it between your fingers the more violently it will burst out.”
I squared my jaw and prepared myself for an argument with a man best known for incinerating the better part of a thousand men on the Fields of Streges. Still, there was nothing for it. I wasn’t going to allow Hakram to be a target, not before we had a better idea of what his situation involved and who would be coming after him.
“I’ll remain discreet, no need for that look on your face,” the Calamity chuckled. “That statement was meant in a broader sense.”
I frowned. “Could have made that a little clearer,” I pointed out.
Masego snorted from the other side of the room, where he was fitting in a new lock.
“This coming from a pupil of Uncle Amadeus?” he said. “The man can’t pass a dish without turning it into something ominously cryptic.”
Well, he wasn’t wrong. “I’ve been wondering whether it’s a Name thing or he just can’t help himself,” I admitted.
Warlock smirked. “He was already like that at sixteen,” the Calamity replied. “Ranger used to throw cutlery at him every time he got too dramatic.”
The image got a smile out of me. With a pair of incantations, Masego clicked the lock shut and released the spell on the pig before claiming a stool by one of the handful of work tables spread across the room. His father nodded in approval before turning his attention to us.
“To business, then,” the man spoke, and it was enough to sober the amusement right out of my system.
“I’m guessing this is about the situation in the city,” I grunted. “As it happens, I had a few questions myself about your involvement.”
Or lack thereof, I added silently. The Warlock hummed in agreement and passed a hand over a few runes carved into the table where Masego had claimed a seat. The eldritch letters shimmered and small globes of light rose out of them, spreading and taking shape until a facsimile of Summerholm seen from above had formed over the table’s length. The construct was white but some parts of it were shaded darker, mostly parts of the city that even my still-fresh military judgement understood to be key military positions. The defensive wards General Afolabi’s envoy had mentioned, if I had to guess.
“There are a least four heroes in Summerholm as we speak,” Warlock announced.
I raised an eyebrow. “The messenger from the Twelfth mentioned less.”
“The General hasn’t been informed,” Masego murmured.
My eyes flicked to the Calamity. “I’m sure there’s a good reason for that.”
Warlock smiled unpleasantly. “General Afolabi’s staff meetings are a leaking sieve.”
I’d been about to point out it was pretty unlikely any Praesi soldiers would willingly betray the Legions to locals when I realized that was rather missing the point. That was the Imperial way of thinking, and while it had its uses I’d not forgotten where I came from. Servants, merchants, anyone with business in the Comital Palace. Nobles from the Wasteland had this nasty tendency to see their attendants as moving furniture – it might not even have occurred to Afolabi that they could be eavesdropping when he met with his officers.
“You’ve been unable to locate them?” I asked instead.
“They have a Named capable of sorcery with them,” Warlock spoke, distaste thick in his tone. “Their work is singularly incompetent, but they struck gold seemingly by accident – they botched their working and instead of blocking my scrying they’ve managed to set up a pattern that redirects the divination elsewhere.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure it was an accident? It seems like a fairly clever counter.”
Masego snorted and Warlock scoffed. “It only worked because I’d tailored my spell to sketch out the edges of the zone where scrying was blocked,” the Calamity explained impatiently. “Against a more common variant of the working it would have failed miserably. That kind of triumph through incompetence is the signature of Bumbling Conjurers.”
Urgh, those. At least Bards were funny. The Bumbling types attracted failure like honey did flies, only ever managing to survive by the skin of their teeth with a heavy dose of luck. Though can it really be called luck if having it is part of your Role?
“So we have a band of heroes prowling about Summerholm with impunity,” I grunted. “It seems to me that if you’d left the bastion you might have managed to thin them out a bit.”
That was as close to outright asking the Warlock why he’d been holed up in his tower all this time while the city went to the dogs as I was willing to go, for now. Insolence could get results and I’d learned to harness my natural proclivity for it to my advantage, but when it came to Calamities it was better to start out treading lightly. The man brushed aside the implied question.
“Why do you think the heroes are in Summerholm?” he asked.
I raised an eyebrow. “If the Empire loses the city its supply lines are cut. The Legions will either have to live off the land, which brings recruits to the rebels, or set up a vulnerable backup with boats through the Hwaerte that can be targeted.”
Warlock rolled his eyes, the gesture surprisingly youthful. “You’re thinking like a general. The Lone Swordsman is a killer, not a strategist. Think like what you actually are: the Squire.”
I passed a hand through my hair, frowning. The Swordsman wasn’t really the one calling the shots in the Liesse Rebellion – Imperial intelligence had the Countess Marchford as the real power in the movement – but Warlock was correct in thinking that didn’t mean the heroes had come here on her orders. So what does Summerholm have that other Callowan cities don’t? The unrest here wasn’t anything that couldn’t be stirred up in Laure, and there were more citizens there to use as soldiers. If the target wasn’t the city itself, then what was it? After a long moment, my eyes turned to the Calamity.
“You think they’re after you,” I spoke quietly.
Warlock smiled thinly. “I’m quite sure of it. And that is why neither I nor Masego are gallivanting through the streets in a hero hunt. That would be playing right into their hands.”
I closed my eyes. “And that’s why they’re being borderline villainous in assassinating officers,” I understood. “They’re trying to draw you out by making the situation untenable.”
There was a moment of silence and I noticed Masego was staring at me in surprise.
“What?” I asked, suddenly self-conscious.
“I did not expect you to take such a dim view of the Lone Swordsman’s actions,” the Apprentice admitted.
“I’m wearing legionary armour,” I replied tiredly. “How much more obvious can I make my allegiances?”
The younger Soninke waved away the comment. “I don’t mean in that sense,” Masego replied. “The Lone Swordsman’s actions, while brutal, are not something I’d consider entirely unjustified.”
I bit my tongue on the reply that the Heavens would fall before I took a morality lesson from a Praesi, of all people.
“He’s assassinating and torturing people, Apprentice,” I retorted. “That’s not exactly classic heroics.”
“He’s targeting military personnel only,” Masego noted. “And while I suppose torture is somewhat reprehensible-” I raised an eyebrow at the ‘somewhat’ “- given that the Empire employs it as an information extraction method itself, it’s hard to throw stones on the subject. Using all means available to resist a foreign occupation isn’t something I’d call villainous.”
“A hero’s supposed to be more than a villain fighting for the opposite cause,” I replied. “If he has no moral high ground to stand on, then what the Hells are all his followers fighting for?”
The Warlock cleared his throat. “While I’m sure hearing two teenagers debating the ins and outs of morality would be a fascinating experience, there are other priorities at play.”
He seemed more amused than anything else, so I took the dismissal in stride. Masego looked like he wanted to continue the conversation, and to be honest I was rather inclined to indulge him. It would be pleasant, to have someone my age to talk about these things with. Hakram was the closest thing I had to a confidant in the Legion, but the orc take on ethics was… well, the less said about it the better. Using martial strength as your primary virtue had a way of affecting your other values. Speaking of the devil, I thought as my adjutant cleared his throat.
“Our entry into the city was the opposite of quiet,” Hakram gravelled. “They’re bound to react to another villain entering the city.”
The Calamity smiled. “Precisely,” he agreed. “And I think I know when and where they’ll strike.”
The man’s finger tapped the facsimile silhouette of the Comital Palace.
“I believe you received an invitation to dine with General Afolabi tonight,” he said.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. What did it say about me that every time I went to a dinner party it was with the intent of getting someone stabbed?