“This eye for an eye business is horridly proportional. I assure you, if I’m losing an eye then so is everyone else.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia II
“So you’re going to be fighting this Warlock, I take it?” Tikoloshe said.
The incubus was lounging in a camp chair, something Wekesa had believed to be physically impossible before being presented with the current evidence. The devil looked like a man in every way, the deception perfect unlike with some of his less cunning kindred: smooth dark skin and closely cropped hair, an intelligently angular face and smiling eyes. When he’d first summoned the devil Apprentice had admittedly been curious about what appearance he would take. Incubi formed their looks around the deepest desires of the individual who’d brought them into Creation, though they could discard that shape at will if they so wished. There’d been no oiled-up muscles or revealed hairless chests: Tikoloshe had come through dressed neatly and almost conservatively, his tastefully embroidered tunic topped by a collar that rose up almost up to his chin. It had surprised Wekesa, but somehow it felt accurate. There was a reason incubi and succubi were often summoned by practitioners seeking to perfect their craft: learning what they truly found attractive allowed them to discover something about themselves in a subject matter where humans were in the habit of lying to themselves. To know yourself was to know your power.
“That is the plan,” Wekesa agreed, pouring himself a drink from the carafe on the table.
His tent in the camp of Malicia’s rebel army – officially the actual rightful Legions of Terror, though that would have to wait on a final triumph to become reality – was a little to the side of the others, warded heavily and under instructions by Amadeus not to be disturbed. Apprentice had managed to accumulate a few creature comforts during the campaign, like a real table and a steady supply of wine, but bare necessities like a bed that wasn’t a glorified block of wood or a real bathtub still escaped him. At least a few stone candles topped by blue mage fire made lanterns and their greasy scent unnecessary. Not that mud and greenery mere a much better scent, admittedly.
“Plan is not the word that comes to mind,” Tikoloshe spoke idly. “You are still young, and this Warlock is in the fullness of his power. I detect the hand of your vicious little confederate at work in this.”
Amadeus had made no mystery of his opinion that the incubus should be forced to cough out all his tricks and secrets and then put down like an animal, a position that had not endeared him to Tikoloshe. Wekesa disagreed, as it happened, and his friend trusted his judgement enough to let the matter lie. The devil was too interesting to be wasted in such a manner.
“He actually tried to convince me to delay the fight until we could catch him without support,” Apprentice said. “Something about hounding him until he was too weak to put up a fight, then striking the finishing blow.”
“I suppose even that man can be right, once in a while,” Tikoloshe conceded easily. “Pour me one as well, would you?”
Wekesa raised an eyebrow in surprise but complied, handing the devil the goblet after it was full. Their fingers touched when Tikoloshe took the cup and just that was enough to raise the tension in the tent by a notch. It would have been easier to ignore the attraction, Apprentice knew, if he hadn’t been so certain the bindings on the incubus were perfect. That near-certainty that the sex would be fantastic made it even worse.
“I know for a fact devils do not need sustenance while in Creation,” Wekesa said, watching the other man sip at the wine.
“We don’t,” Tikoloshe acknowledged. “I do, however, quite enjoy the taste of wine. The Praesi stuff is vastly inferior to the vineyards from the west, but it makes for an acceptable table vintage.”
“So you can differentiate between specific kinds of tastes,” Apprentice said, eyes sharpening as he leaned forward.
The eighth of the twenty-three bindings the incubus was under prevented him from ever lying, one of the many reasons the devil was such a fascinating source of information.
“I can,” Tikoloshe said, hand rising to indicate an equivocation. “A consequence of both the length of my existence and what you might call my… nature.”
“Lust,” Wekesa said.
“Desire,” the incubus corrected. “Lust is such a limited concept, and I am a most complex creature.”
“You are an entity driven by an absolute,” Apprentice said. “Absolutes are, by their nature, simple. They would not function otherwise.”
Tikoloshe smiled. It was not patronizing or mocking: it was the smile of an educated man enjoying a lively conversation. Wekesa sipped at his wine to distract himself. He’d always had a weakness for clever men.
“Desire is to want,” the incubus said. “I want all things, Apprentice. The pleasures of the flesh issome of the most instinctual desires to your species, so they tend to be the strongest desire in my kind as well. But I’ve been around for a very long time, and I’ve learned to be… discerning in my own desires.”
“Like wine,” the dark-skinned mage said.
“Fine meals, enjoyable conversation and even such small things as a bath at the perfect temperature,” Tikoloshe said. “I find beautiful calligraphy as stirring as bedsport, in its own way.”
Wekesa eyed him thoughtfully.
“How old are you, Tikoloshe?”
The devil laughed. “I was first called into being when the witch-queen of what you would now call the northern Principate became dissatisfied with her husbands. I was no longer young when the Miezans first came upon the shores of this continent, blown by a storm.”
At least a millennium and a half, the dark-skinned mage thought. Humbling, to think that the incubus would likely exist long after all he knew had crumbled to dust.
“Seen it all before, have you?” he said.
“The Dread Empire always wounds itself, left to its own devices,” Tikoloshe said. “This scrap is but a pittance compared to the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One.”
“We’ll be different,” Wekesa said. “When we win.”
The incubus laughed softly.
“Will you? Why? I’ve seen your leaders, Apprentice. Seen what they desire. You’re lucky the pale boy isn’t the one aiming for the throne – he’d murder every child in this nation with his bare hands, if it got him what he wants. Not that your ‘Malicia’ is much better. The woman craves control the way a starving man craves a meal.”
Apprentice leaned back in his seat. “And me? Have you see what I desire?”
Tikoloshe raised an eyebrow. Such a human gesture on such an inhuman creature. His kind really were the most skillfully deceptive devils could get. The impersonation was flawless.
“You know my bindings prevent me from doing so.”
“I’ll just tell you, then,” Wekesa chuckled. “I want to do magic.”
The devil cocked his head to the side.
“Simple, isn’t it?” the dark-skinned mage said.
“I wouldn’t say that at all,” the incubus replied softly.
“All of this…” Wekesa gestured broadly. “The backstabbing, the politics, the war. It bores me. I want to dissect the world, Tikoloshe. To open up Creation and see where the Gods traced their boundaries in blood and power.”
“How blasphemous,” the devil said delightedly.
“We will be different,” Apprentice said. “For the same reason we keep beating opponents out of our league. They think they’re strong because they’ve accumulated power and we haven’t, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding. We’ve never used our own strength: we let Creation win for us.”
“You seem remarkably lucid, for a madman,” Tikoloshe noted.
“I might still die tomorrow,” the mage said. “Which is why I need to ask you two questions. I compel you to answer. Were you trying to seduce me throughout this conversation?”
“No,” the incubus replied.
“I compel you to answer,” he spoke again. “Are you attracted to me?”
“I am attracted to everyone,” Tikoloshe said.
The dark-skinned mage drained the rest of his wine, then rose to his feet. Wekesa unbuttoned the top button of his tunic. He raised an eyebrow at the incubus.
“Well?” he said. “What are we waiting for, then?”
When the High Lord Duma had ordered a fresh set of forts built in the northern reaches of his demesne, it had been met with a degree of surprise by most. The High Lordship of Aksum covered a third of the Wasteland but it had not been under threat by anyone in a long time: though Dread Emperor Nefarious had become a reclusive hedonist, the Empire was still largely at peace. Amadeus had recently told Wekesa it hadn’t actually been the High Lord’s notion at all. The refusal of the Clans to pay their owed tributes to the Tower had pushed the Chancellor – who’d effectively ruled Praes, in those days – to consider war with the greenskins. Though Wolof stood between Aksum and the steppes, the latter was still the last line of defence between the orcs and the Green Stretch. The Empire’s bread basket had to be protected at all costs, if it came to war. Widespread food shortages caused by rampaging greenskins would lead to the kind of unrest that had toppled Tyrants so many times before.
Now those same fortifications served to hinder the advance of a rebel army , though admittedly its ranks were filled with greenskins as had been feared. Amadeus had a way with them, especially the orcs, and the Chancellor had forced the entire species to take sides through the famous debacle that was the Night of Red Winds. A costly mistake, thinking that wiping out an entire clan would cow the rest. Now that act of treachery was the battle cry of ten thousands of angry orcs, all of them fighting for the rights of Dread Empress Malicia as the rightful ruler of Praes. Under Amadeus and Grem One-Eye the rebels were flying from victory to victory, and Alaya was using that as leverage to bring the fence-sitters among the High Lords to their side. Already Nok had declared for them, and word was Kahtan might do the same soon. All very promising, if hopelessly uninteresting to Apprentice. He had more practical matters to concern himself with, anyway. Such as the fortifications ahead.
The hillfort in front of him was the northernmost in the defensive lines of Aksum, and every attempt by their little rebellion to even assess what forces were inside had been met with abject failure. Scouts who got within half a mile were made into desiccated husks by spells coming from inside, a ritual Wekesa was rather familiar with. He’d learned the underlying concepts of it, when he’d been one of the many apprentices assigned to the Warlock. Before the man had tried to kill him and then sent monsters to hunt him when Wekesa managed to escape. Before he’d fallen in with a strange Duni boy who wanted to change the Empire one corpse at a time, before he’d met a sly-humoured waitress who would be forced into the seraglio by the whims of a broken madman. He’d occurred a debt, when he’d left the Warlock’s tutelage, one that predated the family he’d found since. This was his account to settle and he’d looked forward to it for a very long time.
Apprentice had garbed himself in a well-fitted set of clothes for the occasion. A traditional Soninke agbada, though cut a little more closely than was currently the fashion. The garb came in three parts: a pair of loose dark grey trousers that narrowed around the ankles, a long-sleeved shirt of the same colour and the garnet, open-stitched sleeveless gown worn over them both. Effectiveness and appearance should be married when feasible, such was the Soninke way. There was a hint of golden embroidery on the gown, the patterns arcane and hard to make out. The patterns strengthened the shield amulet he wore under his clothes, which was quite necessary: he’d sunk a lot of power into the defence, but his opponent was in another league entirely. Wekesa had always known he was strong in sorcery, abnormally so for one not born to a cultivated bloodline, but inborn talent was no match for decades upon decades of accumulated power and infernal pacts.
The fort was basic, he saw, likely because High Lord Duma had skimmed off the top of the funds provided to him by the Tower for their construction. A single ring wall stood close to the summit of the hill, with a squat tower inside. Wekesa was close enough to make out the silhouettes on that wall now, the two dozens of mages flanking the middle-aged Taghreb with a prominent hook nose he’d once looked up to as a teacher. Twice on his way down the dirt path the amulet under his clothes had warmed against his skin, a sign the Warlock had tried and failed to evaporate all the water inside his body. Apprentice strolled up to the fort, only stopping thirty feet or so away from the gates. The Warlock looked like he was about to talk, so he fished out the stone in his pocket and threw it in the man’s direction. It bounced off an invisible wall, getting lost somewhere on the battlements.
“A tracking charm,” the Warlock sneered. “That’s what you’re bringing to the table?”
Wekesa took out his dragonbone pipe, casually stuffing it with bangue. He struck a match and lit it, inhaling the herbs with a small sigh of pleasure.
“I’m out of juice,” Apprentice replied honestly. “Couldn’t even light this pipe with a bit of flame if I wanted to.”
“Disappointing,” Warlock said. “Though you were ever a disappointment.”
“Why?” Wekesa asked. “Because I wouldn’t let you feed me to a devil so you’d get a cut of my magic?”
“A bargain was struck,” the older Named said. “And I will yet get my due. Did you think just a shield would be enough to stop me? It may have been crafted skilfully, boy, but my power has grown since we last met.”
“I can feel your minions probing it,” Apprentice noted. “I imagine as soon as they find the fault lines you’ll start hammering at them.”
“That was always your weakness, Wekesa,” the Warlock said. “You’re too feeble on the offensive. So much raw power at your disposal and you chose to specialize in an inferior branch of sorcery.”
“Wards are the purest form of sorcery there is,” the dark-skinned mage disagreed, inhaling the smoke and blowing it out. “Wards are boundaries, and when you look at it with clear eyes Creation is nothing but a set of interlocked boundaries set by the Gods.”
One of the minions leaned close to the Named, whispering. Warlock pushed the woman away.
“You really are powerless,” his old teacher said. “You come to fight me incapable of casting?”
“Well, I’ve already cast three spells today,” Wekesa mused. “I can only wring out so much power out of this body without getting wrinkles and who wants that?”
“Lord Warlock,” another minion called out. “Look up.”
Apprentice did not have to look to know what they’d noticed. Red skies as far as the eye could see. The third spell he’d cast that morning was beginning to take effect, right on time. Already drops of liquid fire were starting to rain, pattering against his shield. One of the minions was set aflame and began screaming as the hellflame spread all over his body and consumed him in a matter of moments. The others hastily put up shields of their own.
“Is this all you could manage?” Warlock mocked. “A meagre rain of flame? I taught you better than that. Shaping a spell like this will drain your power for an effect any half-baked practitioner can protect themselves from. Only worth using against the giftless.”
“I didn’t,” Wekesa said. “Create a hellstorm, that is.”
The older Named looked taken aback.
“You lie,” he said, beginning to smell the rat.
Apprentice blew out a stream of smoke, smiling serenely.
“You said it yourself, Warlock,” he replied. “I’m just a ward specialist. Fighting you in a casting war was always doomed to failure – you have reserves of nastiness you haven’t even begun to tap into, I’m sure.”
“You broke a boundary,” the Taghreb cursed.
“Weakened,” Apprentice corrected. “Temporarily, and only for entities meeting certain parameters. Still took everything I had left.”
In the distance a chunk of flaming rock the size of a small house hit the ground with a sound like thunder, spreading waves of hellflame on impact.
“And you were wrong, by the way,” Wekesa continued. “Earlier. It wasn’t a tracking charm. It was a homing one.”
The stone that was passing into Creation from one of the lesser Hells was the size of a fortress this time. Apprentice had aligned the boundaries so it would be just above the hillfort, and ensured it would hit with the homing charm. The Warlock crushed the pebble he’d thrown into dust with a single word, but it was too late for that to change anything. Now the laws of Creation were ensuring the trajectory. Maybe if they’d seen the stone coming sooner they might have managed to stop it, but the only mage with the talent to do that was the Warlock – and Wekesa had kept him talking, knowing the older man would not be able to resist gloating.
So now, watching the other Named invoke half a dozen devil pacts to try to break the trajectory and fail against the weight of thousands and thousands of pounds of rock, Apprentice continued smiling and enjoyed his pipe. His own shield, designed over months of careful work until he’d finally granted it power into it that morning, had been crafted to keep him safe specifically through this event. Howling winds and eldritch fire blew around his protective bubble but he was safe underneath, watching his enemies be crushed by what was effectively a small mountain of rock and unholy fire. Eventually he was able to see again, and he felt his Name fill like a glass of wine. As far as he could see, in all directions, this corner of Creation had been turned into a hellish wasteland of stone and flame.
Casually emptying his pipe on the ground, Warlock began the trek back to camp.