“There’s a very important difference between a nice man and a good one.”
– King Jehan the Wise
So apparently all that was needed to change a rather nice stockroom into something sinister was clearing out the supplies, setting up a stone slab in the centre of it and shackling a prisoner to it. You learn something every day. The combination of bare stone and simply-dressed young woman was lending this whole affair a particularly villainous vibe I wasn’t really on board with, but I supposed that after getting shot by the Deoraithe once already Warlock wasn’t in a gambling mood. Still, if I got pissy every time someone put an arrow in me I’d have a permanent scowl on my face. Bad form, that.
“I take it Masego won’t be joining us?” I asked.
The handsome older man shrugged. “He has no interest in matters like these. Neither do I, frankly, but rank tends to accrue tedious duties.”
In a way it was comforting that he was more bored with the coming interrogation that being all creepy-expectant, the way villains usually were in the stories. Warlock had admittedly been nothing but polite to me so far, so I supposed I should have expected a departure from the mould in this too. The dark-skinned mage lay back against the wall and snapped his fingers nonchalantly, the prisoner stirring awake immediately. The archer had woken up a little earlier today, the eve of the furthest I could push back my departure, and promptly been put back to sleep until she could be moved to a more appropriate facility. At least the burns all over the stranger’s body had been healed, though sloppily enough that if she tried to move too much it would hurt – not a coincidence, I assumed. Her eyes blinked open, then widened when she realized where she was. There was a single spark of terror before she smothered it, schooling her face into a blank mask. She’s been trained to deal with interrogation, I noted.
“I am an Imperial citizen being held unlawfully,” she spoke up with that odd Daoine burr flavouring her Lower Miezan. “If you do not release me immediately, there will be diplomatic consequences.”
“I am shaking in my boots,” Warlock replied drily.
I sighed. “You were caught participating in the activities of a group that’s been convicted of high treason and seen attempting the murder of a member of the Dark Council,” I told her. “Both of those fetch the death penalty, and not one of those nice quick ones. You’re not going anywhere.”
She glared at Warlock before turning her stare to me, eyes lingering on my own obviously Deoraithe features. She said something in the Old Tongue, the scathing tone obvious regardless of the language barrier.
“I don’t actually speak that, except for a few curses,” I informed her.
“Probably best you don’t,” Warlock mused. “And you should be ashamed of yourself, young lady – I’m sure her mother was a perfectly nice woman.”
Whether the prisoner had actually insulted whoever had given birth to me was up in the air, as far as I was concerned: I wouldn’t put it above the Soninke to yank my chain for the sake of his own amusement. Still, if she’d wanted to hit a nerve then parents weren’t really the way to go for me. I was perfectly fine with having no idea who my progenitors were – parents were more of an abstract concept for me than anything else. If anything the closest thing I’d ever had to a father figure was Black, and wasn’t that a terrifying thought?
“Arch-traitor,” the prisoner spat in my direction. “I know who you are, Catherine of Laure.”
I rolled my eyes. I’d already gotten this speech from William, and he’d delivered it better.
“I’m not in the mood for this particular debate,” I replied, “so let’s shelve the subject for now. Do you have a name?”
She glared at me. Eh, I’ve had better, I thought. That’s barely a coercing-Morok level of spite.
“Why would I give you anything, uraind?” she sneered.
“It’ll make this conversation a lot easier if I can refer to you as something else than “prisoner” or “you”,” I told her honestly.
“I could rip it out of your mind, of course, but that tends to make a mess,” Warlock spoke idly. “Delicate thing, the human mind. Not telling what might break when I go fishing for what I want.”
She held up admirably under the threat, her face betraying no sign of fear, but the way she’d gone still revealed exactly how terrified she was at the prospect. It sickened me a little to see it. Not at her for being afraid, but at myself for being part of the people inflicting that fear. I’d enjoyed putting the fear of me in my enemies before but that had been on the field, where we both had weapons. Not when they were chained in a dark room underground, trapped in a room with one of the greatest living monsters of the Empire and the apprentice of another one. But that’s a child’s way of seeing things, isn’t it? If you’re so insecure about your objectives that you feel the need to give the enemy a fair shot at you, then maybe you shouldn’t be fighting at all. It was not a game for the meek I was learning to play. I knew that, but it did not take away the sick feeling in my stomach.
“Breagach,” the woman said. “That is all you will get.”
“Cute,” Warlock commented. “Lying, is it? I didn’t think the Watch was that self-indulgent.”
I made a mental note to pick up a language primer on the Old Tongue before leaving Summerholm. Or, more realistically, tell Hakram to pick up one for me. I disliked missing context, and I’d gotten better at using my learning aspect anyway. Within a month or two I should be able to speak the basics and understand the rest.
“I am not part of the Watch,” Breagach replied calmly. “A typical southerner assumption, to believe that any Deoraithe leaving the Duchy belongs to it.”
“Well, let’s find out if that’s your first lie of the day,” Warlock smiled.
A dozen bars of red light came into being above the Deoraithe, connected by threads of gold. Breagach drew a breath in panic and struggled against her bindings but she was nowhere strong enough to burst through good goblin steel.
“Do stop fighting it, it won’t be painful if you remain calm,” Warlock spoke absent-mindedly. “Interesting breed you are, members of the Watch. Took me a while to figure out what made you tick.”
“They’re still regular humans, aren’t they?” I frowned.
“When I first cut one open I found there was no physical difference to a regular Deoraithe,” Warlock agreed. “Which is fascinating, given what they can actually do. I theorized the modifications regressed upon death – which, while an advanced piece of sorcery, is not impossible. Besides, their little club has existed for over a millennium in one form or another.”
I got the feeling I wasn’t going to like what followed.
“Grem was kind enough to secure me a live specimen, but a living dissection yielded the same results,” the Calamity continued in that same casual tone.
I was glad he was facing away from me, unable to see the disgust on my face. My fingers clenched and unclenched, but I bit my tongue. I had no authority over the man, and making a fuss now wasn’t going to bring anyone back to life.
“It was Amadeus that put me on the right track, ultimately,” Warlock said. “When trying to understand someone look at their enemies, he told me. He’s a font of useless sayings like that, but now and then they do come in useful. Who do the Deoraithe hate more than anyone?”
Breagach let out a hoarse cry, then collapsed in exhaustion against the stone.
“The elves,” the dark-skinned man finished. “Oh, how you despise those isolationist little bastards. Can’t say I blame you – even the other Good types can’t stand them. Regardless, their entire species adds more weight to their presence in the Pattern the longer they live. From there, it was a natural leap to start examining your souls.”
The red bars dropped down into the stone, digging into it, and the cords of gold thickened until they formed a ridge not unlike a painting’s frame. No, I realized as the golden magic spread to fill in the circle. Not a painting, a lens. There were arcane runes forming and dissipating across the surface, though I did not know their meaning. Warlock clicked his tongue against the top his mouth.
“Bad habit, lying,” he commented. “Though it’s interesting you’ve only taken the first three Oaths: they don’t usually send out anyone without at least five under their belt.”
I frowned. “She’s tinkered with her soul?” I asked. “That seems incredibly dangerous.”
“It would be more accurate to say they bind their souls to a source of power – one I’ve yet to identify,” Warlock explained. “They use rituals called “Oaths” to tap into it according to set patterns. Night vision, accelerated reflexes, superior endurance and even an extended lifespan.”
My frown deepened. “Not the Gods, surely?”
The dark-skinned man snorted. “A little above their reach, that. It’s not one of the angelic Choirs either, or anything demonic. My best guess is a nature spirit of some sort.”
“There are things in this land older than you could hope to conceive,” Breagach gasped.
“They always say that,” Warlock mocked. “Oh, our spirit guardian is beyond your comprehension! Its power is unrivalled, tremble and flee!”
The second part was spoken in one of the worst imitations of the Callowan accent I’d ever heard.
“There’s a difference between Gods and gods, child,” the Calamity murmured, “and I’ve more than a few of the latter’s corpses in my laboratory.”
A shiver went up my spine at the words. Maybe if he’d sounded like he was boasting I’d have dismissed the claim, but he sounded so… matter-of-fact. Like there was nothing particularly unusual about taking apart literal forces of nature to see how they worked. Monster, I reminded myself. Polite and charming, but still a monster.
“Anyhow,” the mage shrugged, “We have what we need. The Watch answers directly to Duchess Kegan, meaning she knowingly broke the terms of her client state treaty with the Tower.”
There wouldn’t be war over this, I knew. The Empire wouldn’t open a second front in the war over such a small incident. But there would be consequences.
“The tribute this year is going to be particularly expensive, I think,” I murmured.
“Politics,” Warlock dismissed, tone uninterested. The magic over the prisoner winked out a moment later. “That’s what Black and Malicia are for.”
He turned his eyes to Breagach, who while visibly tired was still awake enough to look at us with undisguised loathing.
“And you, my dear, are going back to sleep,” he continued mildly, raising a hand.
“Stop,” I said.
The stare the Calamity graced me with was mild, but I still had to stop myself from reaching for my sword.
“Black mentioned a bloodline ritual,” I said.
“We already know she’s Watch,” Warlock replied impatiently. “I tire of wasting time on this affair.”
“You said it was odd she’s only taken three of the Oaths,” I pointed out, mind slowly catching up to what my instincts had latched on. “If she was deployed even though she’s not fully trained, there’s a reason for it.”
“And you think a bloodline ritual will explain that?” the mage replied sceptically, though at least I had his full attention now.
“If I were sending a representative into a war, it’d be someone I knew I could trust,” I grunted.
The Calamity’s eyes narrowed. Ah, he’d gotten it. For all his flaws, the man was clever.
“And who can you trust more than your own blood?” he finished in a murmur, turning calculating eyes towards Breagach.
She’d gone still again. Warlock tapped a finger against his belt and a previously invisible sigil lit up, dropping a slim knife into his palm.
“Blood magic,” I spoke flatly, not bothering to hide my disapproval.
“Get over yourself, girl,” he replied in the same tone. “The same discipline is the only reason that scar across your chest didn’t kill you. Besides, I just need a few drops.”
I scowled as he walked up to the prisoner and cut on her upper arm as she tried to wiggle away, collecting a few drops and keeping them on the edge of the knife. He crouched on the ground and bright red flames lit up the tip of his index as he traced a pentagram of soot on the stone. He added a few runes at the tips afterwards, then traced a circle in the middle and flicked the blood into it. I couldn’t quite make out the words he whispered afterwards, but I recognized the cadence: Mthethwa, an older dialect. He rose and took a step back.
“And now?” I asked.
“By contracts made, I summon you,” he replied, still looking at the pentagram.
There was no flash of light or sudden smell of brimstone. One moment there was nothing, then a little creature stood inside the pentagram, sniffing at the circle. Its skin was a reddish grey, with its disproportionately large head sporting a pair of ears vaguely reminiscent of curved horns. Bat-like wings were coming out of its back and flapped as it chittered in a guttural language I’d only heard spoken once before. The Dark Tongue, what Captain had used to order the abomination that had taken us up the Tower.
“It doesn’t look sentient,” I finally said.
“It isn’t,” Warlock agreed. “Blood imps are never particularly clever and this one’s not even a decade old.”
I shot him a quizzical look.
“Devils begin as the personification of a concept,” the Calamity explained with a sigh. “The older they get, the more they can think independently of that nature. There are differences according to breeds, of course, with more abstract concepts resulting in greater intelligence.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And what does that thing personify?”
“Hunger for fresh blood,” Warlock replied absently, eyes on the imp.
I followed his gaze saw the devil was now licking Breagach’s blood like a cat would a saucer of milk, making ugly little satisfied sounds as it did. The sight was nauseating.
“Good,” the mage smiled. “And now for the pleasant part.”
He raised a hand and closed it into a fist. The imp rose into the air, letting out shrieks of dismay, then an invisible force brutally squashed it. Not a drop of the reddish mulch it turned into splattered, forming a perfect sphere still hovering above. Slowly it descended and filled the circle. There was a heartbeat after that, then lines of red emanated from the circle to touch all the tips of the pentagram. The whole thing smelled like rotten blood. Letters in the Old Tongue started appearing on the stone, forming a family tree circling around the remains of the imp. I looked askance at Warlock, who was reading them intently.
“Well now,” he murmured. “Someone’s more important than they look.”
He pointed out a pair of words close to the circle.
“That’s Duchess Kegan herself,” he informed me.
“And their relation is?” I prompted.
“Cousin’s daughter,” he replied. “Late twenties in the line of succession, but she’s still part of the ruling blood.”
“If you think you can hold me-” Breagach started heatedly, but the Calamity lazily waved a hand and she slumped down abruptly, unconscious.
I let out a long breath. “Well,” I announced, “that’s that. You’ll be keeping custody of her for now?”
“Until it’s been decided what will happen to her, yes,” he acknowledged. “You’ve secured the Hunter?”
“As secure as a hero can ever be, anyway,” I grunted. “He’s a liability. I don’t suppose you’ve got a way to bind his Name?”
The Calamity shrugged as we left the room, stopping only a heartbeat to incinerate the remnants of his ritual with a flick of the wrist.
“It’s possible to bind or usurp a Name, with the right tools,” he agreed. “But a proper ritual site is needed to manage it. The only usable one in Callow is in Liesse, which would make the matter rather tricky.”
Ugh. It figured. I’d just have to put in place as many precautions as I could. We strolled out of the room to a smaller chamber. Someone had helpfully placed a pitcher of wine on the reading table by the window and I wasted no time in grabbing a cup and pouring me something to drink. I could use a little steadying after that whole affair – the roof of my mouth still tasted like rotten blood. I poured Warlock one too after he gave me a pointed look, sipping at my own as an awkward silence took hold. He was the one to break it.
“Later tonight,” he spoke, “my son will ask to accompany you on your campaign. You will accept.”
“He’s been dropping hints in that direction for a few days,” I grunted.
There was no denying that Apprentice would be an asset and I’d already intended to say yes, but being more or less ordered to do so rankled. I wasn’t sure exactly where I stood to Warlock, when it came to the pecking order, but lower seemed like a safe assumption.
“Yes, he has,” the Soninke sighed. “That was meant to indicate he would accept an invitation if you extended it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why didn’t he just ask?”
“Black needs to go over Name etiquette with you again,” he replied, irritation colouring his tone. “You are the Squire. The command is yours, which would make it extremely rude for another Named to simply invite themselves along. Villains have been killed for being that presumptuous.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. Was it this complicated being a hero? Maybe it wasn’t too late to switch career paths.
“I’ll explain the misunderstanding,” I said, putting down my half-finished glass of wine. “I can’t say this was a particularly fun afternoon, but it was certainly educational. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a general staff meeting in half a bell and more paperwork on the backlog than I want to think about.”
“I do not excuse you,” Warlock said mildly. “There’s still one thing we need to discuss.”
“I’ll make sure nothing happens to him,” I said seriously, pretty sure I knew where this was headed. “I know he’s not used to military life.”
“Oh it’s not that,” the man chuckled. “You’re a clever girl, I’m sure you’re perfectly aware of what the consequences of allowing my son to die on your watch would be.”
I frowned. “Then what’s this about?”
“Before leaving Ater,” he spoke calmly, “you met with Malicia.”
My blood ran cold, but I kept my face expressionless.
No point in lying about it. There was nothing uncertain about the way he’d phrased that. The Calamity smiled.
“Allow me to share something about the rulers of Praes, Catherine. You see, both Amadeus and Alaya – Malicia, as you’d know her – see the Empire through the lens of how they operate.”
The dark-skinned man sipped at his glass, eyes shadowed.
“Amadeus thinks of it as a great machine, and so sees himself as a cog. An important one, but ultimately replaceable. A simple matter of fit and function.”
I could buy that easily enough. Black was capable of great cruelty but he was not, I believed, a cruel man by nature. Violence was a tool to him, a way to reach an outcome. That did not make him any less dangerous, or make his actions excusable. But it did matter, even if only a little.
“Alaya is a little trickier to grasp,” Warlock murmured. “She sees it as a weave, and herself as the weaver. She cannot choose the materials she was given to work with, be she can choose what she makes with them. And if a particular thread runs out?”
The dark-eyed man shrugged.
“She merely has to secure a substitute, trusting that the work she’d already woven will be tight enough to hold.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked quietly.
“Because they’re both wrong,” the Calamity replied. “Praes isn’t a machine or a tapestry – it’s a living, breathing organism.”
I frowned. “And what’s that supposed to mean, exactly?”
A hard smile split the mage’s face. “You can’t rip out a creature’s heart and just shove another in its place.”
I kept my face blank. Warlock was Black’s first companion, the dreams had shown me that much, and that he’d be my teacher’s staunchest loyalist wasn’t a surprise. But how much did he know? I hadn’t agreed to Malicia’s offer, not in so many words, and it concerned the far future anyway. Imehad told me to watch out for Scribe above the rest of Black’s companions, but Warlock was the one sitting in front of me right now. I’d seen him in action when he’d been crippled by magical backlash and within moments of stepping onto the scene he’d incapacitated two heroes and casually slain another one. If it came to a fight against him, my chances of survival were… slim.
“You can stop panicking, girl,” the dark-skinned man spoke coldly. “It is not my intent to kill you, though you’d be a fool to think I could not.”
“I see no reason we should fight,” I replied, as calm as I could manage. “We’re on the same side.”
The mage laughed, the sound darkly mocking. “You think the Empire is a single side? How delightfully naïve of you. We are not Callowans, child.”
He leaned forward and there was nothing handsome about that face now, warped as it was by barely-contained power just itching to lash out.
“We were tribes and tribal kingdoms, before the Miezans, and if you scratch under the surface we are still. I know who my tribe is, Catherine Foundling. I have fought with them, bled and wept with them.”
“Yet another Praesi telling me I can’t be part of their little private club,” I replied, anger freeing my tongue. “There’s a shocker.”
Because if the man thought I would just sit there and be castigated for something I hadn’t done, wasn’t even sure I should do, then he could go burn in the bloody Hells. Wasn’t like he was unacquainted with the damned place.
“Your birth has nothing to do with this,” he said harshly. “Neither Scribe nor Ranger are from Praes. Black barely is, by most of my people’s standards. We are having this conversation because Malicia summoned you to the Tower and made you an offer.”
“I didn’t accept it,” I spoke through gritted teeth.
“You didn’t refuse it,” he replied. “That is all someone like Alaya needs. She laid the seed, and in the coming years you will have to make a choice. As you are now, I know exactly which one you will make.”
“You are,” I spoke icily, “assuming a great deal.”
“Maybe you will prove me wrong,” Warlock shrugged. “I have been surprised in the past. But I speak to tell you this – if you don’t, there will be a price.”
“Whatever happened to not making obvious threats?” I spat.
“I don’t think you quite understand. I love Amadeus, you see,” Warlock admitted casually. “He is my oldest and dearest friend, a brother in all but blood. I don’t care one whit for the Empire or Evil or all those carefully laid plans everybody seems to be following. So you can believe me when I say that if your knife finds his back, I will not kill you.”
He leaned forward.
“What I will do is rip your soul out of that mangled husk you call a body, then cast it into the Void so you can continue screaming in unspeakable agony until Creation itself falls apart,” he hissed.
Stepping back, he smoothed his robes and smiled pleasantly.
“I’m glad we had this talk. It’s better to air these things out,” he said as my fingers tightened against the grip of my sword. “You are excused, Catherine. Have a pleasant afternoon.”
Putting down his cup he offered me a friendly wave and strolled away, whistling the air to the Legionary song. I stood there for a long moment, allowing my breath to steady and the fear to recede. I closed my eyes and forced my fingers to leave my sword, exhaling slowly. Hakram would need to find me another book, it seemed. There’s bound to be something out there about the best way to kill a mage.