“Never hold anything in a cage you can’t put back in, should it get out.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis II
Akua had spent most of her thirteenth summer pouring over all the writings authored by Dread Empress Malicia and her Calamities.
Neither Assassin nor Captain had ever put their name to anything, which had narrowed the field somewhat. Scribe, who could be considered an honorary Calamity of sorts, had written a single piece on organizational principles which had never been published and only ever circulated privately among high-ranking Legion officers. Some of what the woman had jotted down on the subject of redundancy in essential systems was useful, but none of it was ground-breaking. It confirmed Heiress’ personal belief that the Scribe was a very talented administrator but not a threat independently of her master. Warlock had been the most prolific author, but all of it was related to either anomalous sorceries or broader magical theory. The sheer spectrum of experiments the man had been able to afford doing did indicate he had access to more wealth than was openly known, which was… interesting. It meant there was a material power base to attack, if she ever needed to distract him. Unfortunately, none of it gave any insight into the way the Sovereign of the Red Skies thought. Still, ultimately the stewards of the path Praes had taken over the last forty years were Dread Empress Malicia and her Black Knight.
Those had been the papers she’d sought the most ardently, though she’d not been the first Praesi aristocrat to seek insight into their ruler and her right hand. Lord Black had penned a handful of treatises on tactics, though they were not personal thoughts of his: merely reports of what techniques had and had not worked during the Conquest, as well as what made them fail when they did. There was a paper on the influence of the original Miezan legions on the Praesi ones, and why some of the leftover practices needed to be abandoned – it had, however, been written before the Conquest. All the suggested changes were long implemented. The only knowledge she’d gotten of that was that the man tended to focus on underlying structures when making changes: whatever he made, he built to last. He dislikes retreating, her mother had said. The last paper she’d gotten her hands on was the after-action report from his fortnight in Stygia. Not the censored one he’d given the Chancellor’s office at the time but the one he’d smuggled to Malicia – then still a mere concubine.
Managing to have a copy transcribed had cost her a small fortune and the lives of seven family agents in the Tower but she’d found the prize worth it. Contrary to popular belief in the Wasteland, Black had apparently not gone to the city with a plan in mind. He’d found the weak points in the Stygian power structure, used Assassin to trigger a collapse and then ruthlessly played factions against one another until they were weak enough for him to impose the outcome he’d desired: a ruling Magister from the faction friendliest to the Empire. The assertion that he’d done the entire thing drunk she could safely dismiss as a jest to amuse Malicia, for his predictions of enemy moves had been too consistently accurate. Back then Akua had simply noted that Lord Black was as dangerous when improvising as he was when operating according to a set plan, but now? Now she saw the pattern. Foundling works the same way. The two of them knew they were more skilled at exploiting chaos than their opponents, so they created chaos. Whether it harmed their own side did not matter, so long as it also hurt the enemy equally – the comparative advantage they gained from disorder still swung the balance in their favour.
Malicia’s works were the most interesting, all in all. In her concubine days she’d written a history of the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One displaying a great deal of political acumen – as well as access to the private Imperial library, which was much more unusual. Members of the seraglio did not get passes unless they were nobly born, and Malicia’s birth was as common as it came. The treatise on international politics she’d penned after her ascension to the throne was arguably the most important piece to be found and it was, in Akua’s opinion, an abomination. Titled “The Death of the Age of Wonders”, it laid out what Malicia believed the Dread Empire’s stance abroad should be for the next few decades. Some of it was common wisdom: the application of political pressure in the Free Cities was an old favourite of Tyrants. But the rest, like reaching out to the Thalassocracy? Whether or not there was a need for a “counterweight south of Procer” was irrelevant: Ashur stood on the side of Good. No amount of shared interests would ever fill that gap. The need to keep Principate divided as she’d outlined was self-evident, but it was Heiress’ belief that Malicia’s ironclad avoidance of direct conflict had led the Empire directly to its current weakened position.
The Legions should have marched across the Vales decades ago instead of resting on their laurels, to burn Salia to the ground and permanently sunder the principalities.
The entire treatise had left Akua uneasy, and it was only years later she’d understood why. Malicia looked only forward, to a future she could shape with her own hands. The past glories of the Empire she dismissed as irrelevant at best and a hindrance at worst. She thinks near all Tyrants before her were fools, as if she were the only clever woman to ever hold the Tower. Akua Sahelian had been born to the ruling line of great and ancient Wolof, the only Imperial city never to be occupied by foreigners after the Declaration. As a child she’d played in the temple-mazes where her ancestors had sacrificed greenskins to the Gods, she’d grown a woman in the shade of the baked mud pyramids where rituals as old as Calernia still took place. Her very blood was running with the history of Praes, its madness and greatness both. To even entertain the pretence of wiping the slate clean with a new reign was to spit on all the Tower stood for. We are the last of our breed, Malicia. The last great villains of Calernia, perhaps in all of Creation.
The drow of the Everdark had collapsed into bickering tribes unworthy of the ruins they haunted. The Chain of Hunger was nothing more than a horde of starving rats, as incapable of villainy as any other animal. The Dead King, that famed monster who’d turned his entire kingdom into undead and invaded the very devils who’d thought to trick him, had not stirred from beyond his borders in centuries. That the Lycaonese had been able to participate at all in the Proceran civil war was a sign of how far the lich had fallen – in olden days they would not have dared to strip even a single man from their walls. Stygia and Bellerophon had been muzzled by the other cities in the League, reduced to petty border disputes, and the same city of Helike that had broken the Principate’s back under the Unconquered now flinched in the face of Procer’s displeasure. All that was left was the Dread Empire, the Tower flying the black banner promising death and ruin to all who thought themselves beyond humbling. And now Dread Empress Malicia would have them turn their backs on that inheritance. It was enough to make a woman’s blood boil.
But Akua remembered, and from this she drew strength. Dread Empress Triumphant – may she never return – had been born in Wolof, and had kept Wolofites close during her reign. She had not trusted them, but perhaps distrusted them less than others. Even as Praes collapsed in the face of the retribution wrought by an entire continent and two foreign empires besides, her ancestors had retreated beyond the high walls of their city and hoarded secrets now forgotten by everyone else. And so now Akua stood in the hills south of Marchford, the very city her rival was marching on after her victory against the Silver Spears.
Heiress had not bothered to bedeck herself in plate, though she owned several sets. That kind of cumbersome protection was hardly needed: the Soninke was a skilled swordswoman but it was a skill she’d acquired more to prevent a weakness than acquire an asset. She preferred for others to shed the blood for her, and had picked her entourage with that preference in mind. Her lacquered armour of overlapping steel scales was styled in the ancient style of Taghreb warriors, the skirt of scales making up the lower part splitting over her knee to reveal hardened leather boots. The rounded helmet protecting her head was wrapped by a scale aventail she’d covered with a red silk shawl, leaving an opening that revealed only her face. The entire set had been tailored and adjusted for her, of course – her curves were not easy to fit under such apparel, even after binding. Reining up her horse, the dark-skinned aristocrat stopped to survey the temple she had come to find.
It was a small and wretched thing, even if it had been built in stone. The single company of Proceran mercenaries she’d brought with her had taken it without any trouble, falling on the unwary sentinels by surprise. The building did not appear on any maps, for it was not a place of worship – it was a prison, one designed by the provincials to keep one of the Hell Eggs forever unhatched. Barika rode up to her side, her ornate robes a ridiculous affectation in this barbarous country. The spells woven into the cloth made it hard as steel should anything strike the other woman, as the spells in Akua’s own armour made it resistant to both extreme temperatures and foreign magic, but while such elegance would have been duly appreciated in Praes it was wasted effort out here. Callowans were a people of mud and shit, fit only for toiling fields save for a few superior breeds like the Deoraithe. Of all the members of Heiress’ inner circle, Barika was the least valuable in and of herself: she was not as powerful a mage as Fadila, not a skilled warrior and leader of men like Ghassan and not an inherently valuable piece like Chider. She wasn’t even particularly clever, though she was by no means stupid. She is my most loyal, though, I will give her that. The two women watched in silence as Commander Chider dragged the priest of the temple and slit open his throat with obvious relish, red gushing all over scarred hands as the undead goblin smiled.
“Whatever the necromancer did to bring her back,” her childhood friend finally said, “it left… marks.”
“Savagery can be useful, if properly leashed,” Akua replied.
And there was no denying she held Chider’s leash. The necromancy that bound the goblin’s soul to her corpse and the enchantments that allowed the charred husk to actually move existed only as long as she allowed them to. Undeath, while technically granting magical properties to a corpse, did not allow individuals who’d lacked the talent before their demise to use sorcery. Chider had been born without he gift and so had no way to influence the magic that kept her in Creation. In the distance, Heiress glimpsed the man in command of her Proceran footsoldiers stalk towards her. Large and fierce, Arzachel of Valencis had proved himself when her host had taken Dormer by sneaking in under cover of night and opening the gates. The man moved with the fluidity of a large cat, and his hand was never far from the hooked falchion at at his belt. From the moment she’d first met him there had been desire in his eyes when he looked at her, though Heiress was not inclined to indulge him. There were more suitable men if she felt like sharing her bed with anyone.
“The temple is secured, my lady,” he announced, his Lower Miezan softly accented. “There were few with the priest, only old men and green ones.”
“Good,” Akua replied. “Have your soldiers clear the grounds. If anyone tries to enter…”
“I know the drill, Lady Heiress,” he grinned. “Corpses all around.”
The Procerans had been a good investment, she decided. Former soldiers from the warring principalities, they’d been exiled from the Principate for banditry and hostage-taking – something she’d found an asset more than a black mark. They had a talent for finding gold that had come in useful in southern Callow: she’d already made twice as much as she’d spent hiring them by pillaging rebel holdings. The Stygian slaves had proved to be less resourceful, but then she’d not expected initiative of them when buying their leash. Dismounting gracefully, Akua left behind the mercenaries and passed the two columns that marked the entrance to the inner temple. Barika followed cautiously, her unease at the thought of what lay inside all too visible. The structure was short compared to the high-ceilinged Houses of Light the provincials were so fond of building, hidden away between hills so it could not be seen from a distance. She found the inside to be miserably bare, all naked stone with only dirty beddings to decorate. The living conditions of dead men did not interest her, though.
What she’d come for was in the centre of the room, surrounded by markings of powdered chalk: a large standard plunged into the ground, pitch black with golden snake swallowing its own tail embroidered into the cloth. It moved to a breeze that did not exist, even contained like this. Before Triumphant – may she never return – the Empire’s armies had merely been known as the Legions. The terror in the name had been earned by artefacts like this one, the vanguard of armies that had subjugated all of Calernia for the first and only time in its history.
“A Hell Egg,” Barika said, catching up to her. “Gods, I never thought I’d see one.”
“There are none in the Wasteland. She let all the demons she’d bound in Praes loose when the army of heroes assaulted the Tower,” Heiress replied. “There is one another left in Callow, according to my records, and a handful in Procer.”
What the greatest of the Tyrants had wrought was not easily undone. If it were the Sky Breaker and his wife would not still be bound at the summit of Cloudreach Peak, one cursed with endless hunger and the other with endless healing. It was said that the howls of anguish coming from them both still troubled the sleep of all who dwelled in the Titanomanchy, a reminder to the giants that defying Praes was never without cost.
“You’d think that a hero would have broken the bindings and killed the thing, after all these years,” Barika said. “They’re not limited the way villains are.”
Demons were born of Evil, and so Evil could not destroy them – or so went the theory. Only the lapdogs of the Heavens had been gifted the ability to truly destroy a demon instead of merely jailing them or sending them back to the Upper Hells.
“I chose this one for a reason, Barika,” Heiress smiled. “A demon alone would be a great and mighty threat, yet Squire might be able to contain it until reinforcements came. But a demon from the Thirteenth Hell and a battalion of devils? That is another thing entirely.”
Devils grew stronger as they grew older, more cunning and more vicious. And these have been bound on Creation for over eight hundred years.
“Thirteenth Hell,” a third voice mused. “Corruption, isn’t it? Well, that’s going to be a fucking mess.”
Akua’s sword cleared the scabbard before the first word was finished. Barika’s hands wreathed themselves in roiling shadow, barely contained. A woman was leaning against the wall in the back, a silvery flask in hand and a lute hanging off a leather strap going across chest. Taghreb? No, Ashuran. Heiress had met some of their kind in Mercantis. Not one of Squire’s known associates. Lord Black’s? Wrong direction, this is Callowan holy ground. There was one known heroine part of the Lone Swordsman’s crew who was from the Thalassocracy – the Wandering Bard. That could be a problem, she thought coldly. All the Bard variations were more dangerous than their commonly ascribed ineptitude would have one believe. They were harder to kill than cockroaches, for one, and their entire Role family instinctively understood things about the way Creation worked that even archmages could only grasp at. One of the running theories as to why even villains who should know better let them talk was that they practiced a softer form of Speaking, one that influenced instead of commanded.
“Impressive stuff, ladies,” the hawk-nosed woman praised them, “but it won’t do you any good.”
“And why,” Akua asked softly, “would that be?”
The dark-haired stranger wiggled her eyebrows.
“Because I’m invincible, of course,” she informed them cheerfully.
The Soninke aristocrat kept her face blank, resisting the urge to cast a worried glance at the standard. That kind of talk was like sending a written invitation to the Gods to make the opposite point. And yet, nothing happened. If a villain had dared to say that, the roof would have collapsed on their heads.
“You’re the Bard,” Barika said suddenly, finally catching up. “The one that was in Summerholm with the Lone Swordsman.”
“That’s me,” the heroine agreed. “Almorava of Symra, at your service. Well, not really since you’re dastardly villains, but you get my meaning.”
“I commend you on passing Arzachel’s picket,” Heiress said, ignoring the digression, “but you seem to have squandered the element of surprise.”
The woman chuckled and wiped her mouth on her sleeve after taking a long pull from her flask. Akua sneered at the lack of manners.
“Didn’t walk here, sweetling. I try not to think about how that works too much. But you know us Bards,” Almorava smiled. “We Wander into all sorts of places.”
“And you mean to stop us?” Barika snorted. “You overestimate the strength of your Name, singer.”
“Wow,” the heroine huffed. “Rude. What is it with villains and getting personal? I’m not even here to get in your way. You finally decided to get plot relevant so I’m having a look, is all.”
“You would stand aside and let us free a demon on Callowan soil?” Akua asked sceptically.
“Pretty much,” Almorava shrugged. “I mean, it’s a shit plan so why would I stop you? I’m a little surprised, though, I’ll admit. Foundling thinks with her fists and Willy thinks three days after the battle’s over, so by default you’re supposed to be the mastermind of this story. But clearly there’s no way letting loose a personification of the concept of corruption could ever backfire, right?”
“What you westerners know of demons could not even fill a thimble,” Akua replied flatly, then immediately clamped down on her temper.
An insult this puerile should not have been able to get under her skin, but the casual disrespect she was being offered had her taken aback. Even Foundling, irreverent guttersnipe that she was, had learned to watch her mouth around her. The Bard raised a hand in appeasement as she polished off another part of her flask. Heiress frowned – how much alcohol could there possibly be in a receptacle that large? Had the flask been made bottomless? That would be absurd. A working that rare and powerful would cost a fortune, even in Praes.
“No need to get all offended,” the heroine said. “I’m just wondering what your deal is. Like, what is it you do? Being rich and pretty isn’t actually a magical power, sweetheart.”
“It seems your own deal is being a drunken twit,” Heiress smiled pleasantly.
“Oooh,” Almorava purred. “You’re one of those. Old school Praesi villain, with a closetful of self-importance and megalomania. At least that finally explains why your schemes are so terrible.”
These were more familiar grounds. This was close enough to court intrigue Akua could glimpse her opponent’s intent, and the attempt being made was feeble.
“This would be the part where I lose my temper and reveal all my plans to you, I imagine,” Heiress noted calmly.
The Bard grinned. “Can’t blame a girl for trying. But I was actually referring to your little operation in the south.”
“You mean our victories in the south,” Barika corrected sneeringly.
“You know what’s not going to be a great victory?” Almorava said. “Allowing two thousand slaves to come into contact with a hero. In private Willy’s got all the charm of kettle of fish, I’ll grant you, but out in the field? You don’t need to be a Bard to predict how that’s gonna go.”
“Slavery is illegal under Tower law,” Akua replied. “They are all free men.”
The heroine rolled her eyes. “I’m sure they volunteered to fight a war on foreign soil because you asked nicely. Well, you girls have fun with your hilariously ill-advised plan. The battle’s about to start, so I’m needed elsewhere.”
The shadows still wreathing Barika’s hands formed into long whips and she stepped forward.
“I think not,” the mage said. “You’ll be our guest for a while, Bard.”
“Nice delivery,” Almorava praised. “Way to work that sinister intonation. But I see you your creepy shadow tentacles and raise you… the Sands of Deception!”
Shoving her free hand in a pocket, the heroine took out a handful of sand and threw it in Barika’s face. The mage coughed and lashed out blindly with the shadows while Heiress carefully stepped out of the way, unsure what the effect of the artefact would be. When she went to flank the Bard, though, she found the irritating wretch was gone. Outside my line of sight for the blink of an eye, and she disappears. That is a very, very dangerous ability. There had to be limitations: Names were never this generous without taking a toll of some sort, or adding restrictive clauses to how the power could be used. Barika allowed the shadows to lapse when she realized they were now alone in the temple, picking the grains out of her robes.
“This is just regular sand,” the mage noted, confounded. “… Wait, is that the deception?”
Akua had never more keenly understood the age-old Praesi tradition of summarily executing one’s subordinates. She let out a slow breath and mastered herself. This entire interlude had been somewhat frustrating, but ultimately it changed nothing.
“She’s right, though, isn’t she?” Barika spoke hesitantly after a moment. “Why did you leave the Stygians with Ghassan if you knew they’d have to fight the Lone Swordsman?”
Heiress walked up to the standard, idly smudging the protective powdered chalk patterns the priests had been making for centuries with her foot. That should weaken the pattern enough that the demon would break out within the next two days – already she could feel a presence inside the artefact stirring awake, tasting the damaged holding spells. It would not do to linger here.
“For the same reason we play shatranj, you and I,” Akua finally replied.
Heiress had never enjoyed the game. It was horridly simple, two sides with equal capabilities taking each other’s pieces in a slaughter without elegance. And yet she was known for playing it, because she had willed it so. As a youth her mother had introduced to baduk, a game from the kingdom beyond the lands of the Yan Tei, and this one she’d actually come to enjoy a great deal. Baduk was not about a limited handful of sequences, it was about positioning. The word meant “encircling game”, and Akua had not played it once since she’d come into her Name. For the same reason you don’t know I’m a better mage than you are, Barika. So long as everyone else thought they knew what game she was playing, they predicted her moves accordingly and thought they understood her designs. Her enemies had yet to grasp the most salient of all truths: in games as in all things, the only move that mattered was the last.
She’d been setting up hers from the moment she’d first laid eyes on the Squire.