“It is a shallow soul who fights to the cry of ‘might makes right’. The truth is more concise: might makes.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver
When young mages were taught the limits of sorcery, one of the first principle they were introduced to was that of Keter’s Due.
The largest sorcerous event ever to take place on Calernia was the creation of the Kingdom of the Dead by the king known to history as Trismegistus: a single man had, within the span of ten hours, cursed to undeath the entire population of an area comparable in size to the Wasteland. Though of course details were sparse, given that this had transpired before most of the continent was literate, through the higher order of mathematics introduced by the Miezans it was possible to piece together the broad lines of what had unfolded. Though High Arcana essentially bypassed the need for direct conversion and sympathetic links that limited lower sorceries, even those mysteries could ultimately be understood through numbers. A recent understanding, that. Early magic had been limited by capacity to channel power of individuals, the mental and physical exhaustion they could take before the continued manipulation of the laws of Creation burned them out.
The Taghreb had attempted to go beyond those limits by breeding with supernatural creatures more apt at using sorcery, most notably the djin. Limited success was attained: to this day, mages born to the southerners were on average more powerful than those born in the rest of the Empire. The Soninke solution had been less… carnal, and ultimately more successful: behind the walls of Wolof, the first ritual magic of Praes had been born. Those early rituals were brusque and inexact, relying heavily on human sacrifice to make up for deficiencies in what was not yet know as spell formulas. It was still a massive improvement over individual forms of sorcery, though this superiority was ultimately the reason further progress stalled: already having an edge in spellcasting, the ancient Soninke kingdoms sought to lessen weaknesses instead of improving a strength. A mistake that cost them in the War of Chains.
As in most things magical, the Miezan occupation changed everything. The foreigners from across the Tyrian Sea brought across with them Miezan numerals and the Petronian theory of magic. Though in many ways inferior to the Trismegistan theory later adopted by the Empire under Dread Emperor Sorcerous, the Petronian theory turned the ramshackle artistic ritual efforts of the Soninke mages into a proper method. The energies released by human sacrifice or other means of fuel began to be quantified and measured, matched to the requirements in scale and effect of what the mages set out to achieve. Which ultimately led to the discovery one of the great limits of sorcery: in the span between the release of energy and its conversion into a spell effect, whether it be ritual or individual, some of that energy was lost. Worse, that quantity of energy was not fixed but proportional to the total sum of energy released.
What was actually wasted varied from a tenth to fourth when it came to individual casting, but could go up to seven parts out of ten when it came to rituals. Though advances in spellcrafting and the theft of the entirely different Baalite spell formulas inherited by Ashur managed to lower that proportion, no spellcaster had ever managed to get the waste under a tenth in any form of sorcery. That tenth was colloquially known Keter’s Due. To turn an entire kingdom into undead, the Dead King in his capital of Keter was forced to open a stable and permanent portal into one of the Hells. And while nine tenths of that energy was properly channelled in ritual, the remaining portion turned the city of Keter into a warped ruin of anomalous magical phenomenon. The problem of Keter’s Due was that it limited what could be accomplished by ritual magic if you were in any way invested in where it took place. The larger and more powerful the ritual, the more dangerous the waste of power released.
Akua’s intentions were of titanic scale, which meant this was a titanic problem.
Turning Liesse into a ritual array had been achievable, especially after the widespread sabotage of all major infrastructure that had followed her taking stewardship of the city. Who exactly was responsible for that, she was still unsure. It had been too subtly wrought to be Foundling’s doing, and too moderate a retaliation to be the Lord Black’s. That left the Empress, but there was no way the woman would have allowed her control of the city if she actually knew what Akua intended. Her best guess was that she had not been the target at all, which was somewhat amusing if an irritation. Even with that interlude, Akua had been satisfied with the gain she’d made in the rebellion. Liesse’s wall ran with old and powerful wards, and the city had been built by the corpse of an angel. Tying both those assets into her own project had been a highly stimulating magical puzzle, one she’d been working on since the age of thirteen. And she had done it.
Akua was genuinely regretful that there was no one should could trust enough to boast of the achievement. It might be the single greatest accomplishment of her life. It was, though, somewhat of a comfort that eventually every living soul in Calernia would tremble at the mention of it. Powering the array had been the first issue, and one she’d come very close to solving at the Battle of Liesse: imprisoning a Hashmallim would have given her everything she needed and more. Unfortunately, Foundling had turned the Lone Swordsman’s blunder to her own purposes. Akua was not a debutante trying to pull off her first poisoning, so of course she’d had alternatives prepared. Fuelling anything of this size with demons was asking for trouble, considering the Due, so she’d had to look into gods. Securing the entity that dwelled in the heart of the Greywood had proved unfeasible, but her second target had panned out. Mostly.
The seventeen conduits she’d had her agents acquire – to the cost of many, mnay lives – were kept under enchanted sleep in chambers below the Ducal Palace. The seeking rituals she’d done had revealed that the entity they were bound to was artificial, not a natural force, but that made no real difference. According to her calculations it was even more powerful than the Hashmallim had been, which was a boon as well as a curse. When a stable binding was established and she triggered the array, Keter’s Due would effectively wipe Liesse and its immediate surroundings off the map. That was not an acceptable result, since she would be on the premises and fully intended on staying human. That was arguably the brilliant part of what she’d achieved with her array. She had found a way to still use the waste energy, what could be construed as a pre-conversion escapement that effectively negated the downsides of such a large ritual. Given the scale of the entity she’d found, however, she’d had to revise her schematics and broaden the size of the array’s escapement.
That meant more stone needed, more time and an ever-growing list of liabilities.
Secrecy was paramount: the moment the Named of the Empire became aware of what she was making they would immediately move to destroy her. Though she’d prepared Liesse for assault, Akua was not ready to face the full might of the Legions of Terror. Her infiltration and co-option of both the Scribe’s and the Empress’ spy networks in Liesse was a temporary state of affairs. The longer she had to falsify the information coming out of the city, the higher the chances her agents would be caught and purged. Already Malicia had flushed out the first level of her infiltration, and even if she was abroad Scribe would catch up eventually. The Webweaver was a tool, not a player, but she was a very effective tool. There were, of course, more pressing threats. The worst of which had been unleashed by Foundling, who seemed to have a bottomless bag of talented lunatics to throw at Akua’s plans.
The heiress to Wolof was about due another of her backers coming to a grisly end, so her mood was already cautious when she allowed Fasili into her solar. There was no point in shuffling the parchments on her desk – she knew better than to keep anything compromising where there weren’t two dozen highly lethal wards forbidding entry to anyone but her. There were only seven safekeeping this room, a mere warning by Praesi standards. The Soninke bowed after entering, lower than he should to anyone not the Empress. Fasili was a fair hand at flattery, a skill helped along by the stunning good looks bred into all highborn Praesi.
“Lady Akua,” he greeted her. “Gods turn a blind eye to your schemes.”
“Lord Fasili,” she replied, affecting warmth.
She didn’t particularly care for him, though he was useful. Having the heir to the High Lordship of Aksum on her side opened doors and brought resources, even if he was semi-openly feuding with the woman who actually ruled that region. If she’d not been Named he would have been sizing her up for a dagger in the back to afterwards usurp control of her own faction, but as it was she was untouchable. That didn’t make him trustworthy in the slightest, but it did mean he was not a rival. He was a danger mostly to her other supporters, squabbling for the position as her right hand. For now, there was no need to deny him the perception that he was.
“I bring unfortunate tidings,” the man spoke in Mtethwa. “Another patrol has been destroyed.”
Surprising, the Named thought. After Foundling’s goblin had begun killing off her patrols she’d ceased using Praesi and had instead conscripted Callowans, knowing Squire would be reluctant to kill her countrymen. Maybe enough to recall her tool to Marchford, if he killed a few.
“She has gained in ruthlessness,” Akua said.
There was an undertone of approval to her voice. She’d learned the hard way not to underestimate the other woman, and seeing Squire adopt the more enlightened attitudes of the Praesi did not entirely displease her. It did not benefit her, of course, but Akua having strong enemies meant that Evil itself was strong. A skilled enemy was often more useful than an inept ally.
“Though you are no doubt correct,” Fasili said, “in this instance the deaths lack the marks of the other’s agents.”
Akua’s lips quirked the slightest bit at the word the man had used. Other. Nyengana, in Lower Miezan. The connotations did not carry across the languages. It meant not us, therefore inferior. Not other tongue on Calernia offered such a broad selection of terms to convey contempt as that of her people. The amusement was, however, fleeting.
“But it does bear marks,” she prompted.
“A survivor was left,” Fasili said. “He claims their patrol fell prey to a hunting party of fae from the Summer court.”
Akua’s face remained the picture of serenity.
“Not unexpected,” she smoothly lied. “Though ahead of my predictions.”
The fae? What in the name of the Dark Gods were they doing so far out of the Waning Woods? She’d been aware that Foundling was having trouble with the Winter court since the very first incident – the bastard Taghreb with the odious name Squire had running her spy network, though a talented amateur, was still an amateur – but she’d chalked that up to unforeseen side effects of using a demon of Corruption. Even Triumphant, may she never return, had only used those sparingly. Within a decade the thinning of borders would have fixed itself without any need for intervention, and if it kept Squire busy until then all the better. This, though? This was not a coincidence. If both courts were making a move on… Well, what they were attacking was the crux of the issue here, wasn’t it? It was unlikely to be the Empire, which left the unfortunate possibility it could be Callow itself. That could be problematic, given that almost the entire extent of her resources was tied up in the former kingdom.
The heiress to Wolof delicately grasped her decanter of Praesi wine and poured herself a cup, then one for Fasili as well. The other Soninke bowed his head in appreciation and took a seat when she wordlessly invited him to. He discreetly passed his palm over the cup before taking it in hand, skilled enough that the alchemical pellet of lesser antidotes made no sound when it sunk into the wine. For all that High Lady Abreha seemed to think little of her heir, Akua had found him to be everything a noble of Praes should be: ruthless, patient and subtle. He’d already arranged the disgrace of two possible rivals for his position since he’d returned to her court, in both cases through a dizzying series of catspaws and intermediaries. If she’d not had two devils discreetly tailing his every move, she might even have missed some of the intricacies of his plots. As it was, Fasili was in the palm of her hand. She knew who he was sleeping with, who his enemies were and where his coin was kept. It would be the work of a slow afternoon to destroy him, if the mood ever struck her.
She wouldn’t, of course. The other Soninke was a talented commander of men – though not as talented as Ghassan had been, before Foundling had ripped out his soul – and his schemes occupied enough of the players in her court that they had no occasion to dig too deep into her own activities. He’d made one attempt to investigate that himself, but the man he’d bribed to transcribe her architectural plans had been made to disappear the same day, along with the entire chain of intermediaries used. The message had been duly received and no further attempt ever made. Akua did like to deal with intelligent men: she never had to repeat herself. Sipping at her wine – her own pellet had already been at the bottom of the cup when she’d poured – the Soninke allowed herself to enjoy the taste of home. This particular one was from the outskirts of Nok, the grapes grown there tinkered with over centuries so they would pair well with the taste of antidote.
It was something of a faux pas among the nobility to serve wine where one could taste one’s precautions.
“We’ll narrow our patrol routes and double the numbers deployed with each,” Akua said.
Fasili inclined his head, allowing the faint trace of a smile to touch his full lips. He would be amused, Akua thought. Like most war-inclined aristocrats in the Wasteland, the man knew the deployment doctrines of the Legions of Terror inside out even if he’d never stepped foot inside the War College. This particular measure was straight out of the treatises penned by Marshal Grem One-Eye, as they both knew. Most Wastelanders never bothered to read those, preferring to settle for what had been written by the Black Knight who, even if Duni, was still Praesi. Neither Akua nor Fasili, however, had been inclined to pass on the insights of the greatest military mind of their age simply because it had been born inside a greenskin body. Though Malicia’s dismissal of everything the Empire stood for was a mistake, it would be just as much of a mistake not to learn from the successes she had gained from a degree of practicality. Talent must be used wherever it was found. That much the Dread Empress had divined correctly.
“I’ve been given to understand that the Moderates are gaining ground,” Fasili said, tone casual. “Rumours imply that High Lady Amina might formally withdraw from the Truebloods.”
Which would mean Foramen and the Imperial Forges were not longer aligned with Akua’s mother, cutting off another means of influence for the Truebloods. High Lady Amina was owed half a tenth of any profits made by the Imperial Forges, making her one of the single wealthiest individuals in Praes. Losing those coffers – as well as the knowledge of the quantity and location of any armament made in the forges filling them – would be a major blow. The Named sipped calmly at her wine, then arched an eyebrow.
“Inconsequential,” she finally said.
Fasili managed to hide his surprise well enough that the only detail to betray it was the slight widening of his eyes. Akua watched the gears grind behind that handsome face, almost amused. If she was not bothered by the Truebloods falling apart, it meant that she was no longer dependant on them for backing. The implication there being she’d either struck deals with individual members of the faction that made their affiliation irrelevant – which she had – or that she intended to strike out on her own. Which she did, in a manner of speaking. She would not turn away the allies Foundling’s reckless accumulation of troops was gaining her, but the days where her efforts had been an extension of her mother’s designs were coming to an end. It would be strange, to stand without the protection the woman had afforded her all these years even if she hated her. Strange and exhilarating. The cage was finally breaking.
“Do you ever get tired, Lord Fasili?” Akua asked suddenly.
The man blinked.
“This,” she said, tone whimsical. “Of what we are. Of what we do.”
There was wariness in those eyes now. He was wondering if she was trying to entrap him in some way, to make him misstep so that she could bind him closer to her will. Akua could have told herself she didn’t know why she was speaking with this man, someone she could use but not trust, but that would have been lying to herself. Because Barika is dead. The pang of loss there surprised her, as it always did. Praesi did not have friends and confidantes, she’d always been told. They were too obvious a target, too large a liability. And yet on most days she still turned to her left to share a thought, only after realizing that the girl she would speak to was long dead. Barika was not the costliest loss she’d incurred at Liesse, but it was the one she felt the most often.
“Never,” Fasili replied. “My line is that of kings and Empresses. It would be a disgrace to reach for lesser prizes.”
In most cultures, Akua mused, one of her closest allies admitting to wanting a throne he believed she herself coveted would have been cause for a rift. For Praesi, though, it was duly expected. Ambition was bred into them before they were even born. Each High Lord and Lady saw to it their inheritors were more beautiful, more intelligent, more powerful than their predecessors. Some families had eschewed the Gift in their ruling line, for necromancy and diabolism often complicated the succession, but those that hadn’t always brought in the most powerful mage they could secure. Praesi aristocrats were expected to always look forward. If they could not claim the Tower or a Name, they were to strengthen the family and prepare the grounds for their successors to surpass them. For any trueborn Praesi to not attempt to reach the heights their ancestors had touched, to never try to go even further, was… blasphemy. Turning your back on everything that had come before you, all that set you apart from those beneath you.
Fasili Mirembe has assessed he could not currently claim the Tower or become an independent force through a Name, so he had aligned himself with Akua. Through this he sought to better his position, gain material advantages and favours that would allow him to either further the interests of Aksum or his own. Most likely he intended on being her Chancellor, if she became Dread Empress, and bide his time until he could knife her and become the Emperor himself. None of this offended her. Ambitions like these were what kept her people sharp, what set apart Praesi from the rest of Calernia. Akua’s people never settled for what they had been born with, never allowed themselves to stagnate. The Dread Empire had gone through hundreds of different faces and iterations before it had conquered Callow, but in the end it had. Because the Kingdom of Callow had been the same since its foundation, while Praes shifted with every Tyrant. And now Dread Empress Malicia wanted to kill the very soul of their nation.
Borders set in stone, never to advance again. The wonders of sorcery that were the envy of the continent, suppressed or abandoned. The High Lords, the very whip that drove Praes to improve, neutered into irrelevance in a fate more insulting than mere extermination. Centuries of toil to make the orcs a warrior caste incapable of functioning without the Tower thrown to the wayside by granting them authority. The goblins, who would always answer to their Matrons above anyone else, allowed to sink their claws in the Legions of Terror. Oh, Akua knew what was being done. Malicia and her Knight were making Praes a nation where the power was in the hands of institutions, not Named. An Empire that was no longer malleable for every Tyrant to make into whatever tool they needed to overcome the forces of Good. A fixed monolith, bound together by a philosophy that was nore more than the absence of philosophy. A nation that did not stand for anything but standing.
“Do you know why the Truebloods are losing, Fasili?” she asked.
“My great-aunt has splintered the opposition,” he replied immediately. “Without a united front, Malicia cannot be overcome.”
Akua smiled, the open display of emotion making him uncomfortable.
“They were never going to win,” she said. “After the civil war, when she set aside Black’s cold hate and refrained from a war of extermination against the nobility, we came to believe the Empress was one of us. That she played the Great Game.”
“Iron sharpens iron,” the other Soninke murmured.
And the sharpest iron takes the throne, she finished silently. Praes would always be strong, for only the strongest could claim the Tower. Every child that mattered was taught this from the cradle.
“But she doesn’t, Fasili,” Akua said. “This whole time we’ve been trying to win the same way we did with the Maleficents of the Terribilises of olden days. Acknowledging she has touched greatness but knowing that to grow again the Empire needs a fresh Tyrant. One still hungry.”
“The Empress has achieved more than almost any before her,” Fasili conceded reluctantly. “It is then her due to keep power longer than almost any before her. This changes nothing. In time she will lose her way and be overthrown.”
“She won’t be,” Akua said. “Because while we schemed for advancement, to be her successors, she has waged a war of destruction on us. And a few months ago, she won.”
The dark-skinned woman brushed hear hair back, though it was perfectly styled.
“She barred the office of Chancellor, the most important ward against reigns that linger,” Akua began to enumerate. “She opened the highest ranks of the Legions and the bureaucracy to lowborn and greenskins, smothering our influence there. With Callowan grain she has made field rituals irrelevant, severing the bond that kept the lesser nobility dependant on us. Trade with Callow has established sources of wealth we do not control, ending our ability to win through coin. All we have left is the court, where we claw at each other for ever-lessening gains and she smiles down at the corpses.”
Fasili had gone very, very quiet. He eyed her with barely-veiled horror.
“She’s not trying to win the Game,” she said. “That wouldn’t matter. No one can win forever. She’d trying to end the Game.”
“Then we must rebel,” he said. “Now, while we still can. If you bring this to the attention of the High Lords, they will back you. To do otherwise would be folly.”
Akua drank daintily from her cup.
“They already know, Fasili,” she said. “The hard truth of it is that if we wage war, we will lose. We cannot beat the Legions, and the Legions are loyal. Lord Black will not turn on his mistress and the Warlock bound the soul of the last envoy to a chamber pot. The Truebloods attempted to win through guile, and they have failed. My mother clings to her crumbling plans and grows desperate, while the weak-willed among them seek to surrender.”
She met his eyes calmly.
“For that is what the Moderates are: a surrender. Do not think otherwise for a moment,” Akua said. “In exchange for survival and scraps of influence, they turn themselves into coffers and spell repositories for Malicia to plunder as she wills.”
“I will not allow my blood, a line that goes back to the War of Chains, to be used as a fucking court ornament,” Fasili barked, eyes burning. “Evil does not surrender. Evil does not bow to inevitability. We spit in the eye of the Heavens and steal our triumphs.”
Akua allowed the unsightly display of emotion to pass without comment. It was not unwarranted, when one learned one’s entire way of life was teetering on the edge of destruction.
“I never believed in the Trueblood cause,” Akua admitted idly. “At the heart of their movement there was a sliver of hypocrisy. They believed their ways are superior, and therefore they should lead Praes. But if their ways were truly superior, would they not already be ruling?”
“Their ways,” Fasili repeated, eyes narrowed. “You speak as if they are not yours as well.”
“You’ve read the treatises of Grem One-Eye,” she replied. “So have I. Would your parents have? I know my mother did not, and many consider her mind as sharp as the Empress’.”
“There is a difference between reading the words of the foremost general in the Empire and discarding everything we are,” the other Soninke flatly retorted.
“The duty of our predecessors was to make us more than they were,” Akua said. “They have succeeded in this: that is why we see a brilliant tactician instead of mouthy greenskin brute. For ages we’ve sought to forge better bodies, better sorceries, better minds – and yet we fight the same ways we’ve done since Maleficent first took a dagger in the back. We improve capacity without ever addressing perspective.”
“If that were true,” Fasili replied, “we would not be having this conversation.”
“We’re not having this conversation because of our families,” the dark-skinned woman said. “The Empress is the one who forced our eyes open.”
“The Empress would see us eradicated,” the heir to Aksum hissed. “And she is succeeding.”
“And for that,” Akua replied quietly, “We owe her much. Fasili, when was the last time that we were truly in danger? Not of losing the throne to another of the great families or of failing another invasion. When was the last time the High Lords and Ladies faced extinction?”
The man bit his tongue, then actually thought.
“The Second Crusade,” he said. “When the first revolt against the crusader kingdoms failed.”
“And from those ruins rose Dread Emperor Terribilis II,” Akua said. “One of our greatest, and a Soninke highborn. He did things differently from his predecessors and turned back two Crusades.”
“And so we should surrender to our superior on the throne?” Fasili said bitterly.
“You miss my point,” she said. “We flirted with destruction and we became better. Seven hundred years have passed since then, Fasili, without ever being in such a situation. We’ve become soft since then, narrow-minded. Arrogant.”
She smiled thinly.
“And so the Hellgods put us through the crucible again,” she said. “Adapt or perish. Are we relics to be discarded, or the beating heart of what it means to be Praesi?”
“We’re not done,” he said. “We’re never done.”
“My mother,” Akua said, “would have me be the swan song of Praesi villainy. The last stand, raging against the dying of the night. But our parents succeeded, Fasili. They made us better than them. We can learn.”
“Take what made them successful,” the man said slowly. “Make it ours.”
“Praes is a story,” she said. “A Tyrant to lead us. A Black Knight to break heroes. A Warlock to craft wonders. A Chancellor to rule behind them. And an Empire like clay, to shape into the tool they need: an entire nation built to empower the ambitions of a single villain.”
“Our Empress rules,” he murmured. “Our Black Knight leads. Our Warlock crafts nothing and our Chancellor is nothing. All the while the Empire calcifies into institutions, impossible to move.”
Yes. Finally, he was beginning to understand. None of them were acting as they should, not in the way that mattered. Malicia was more Chancellor than Empress, Lord Black had reigned as king in all but name for twenty years and the Warlock learned without ever building. They were trying to change the story but oh, they had not thought that entirely through had they? Because once the changes began, they were no longer in control. Anyone with the right power could shape the story too. Akua looked at them, and she did not see rulers. She saw stewards. They had made themselves to be administrators, and in Praes those ever only had one function: to enable the designs of the villain above them.
“Foundling came closest to understanding,” Akua said. “It’s how she beat me, at Liesse. It wasn’t her Name she used.”
Akua drained the last of her cup, gently put it down on the desk.
“It’s never been about the Names, you see,” the Diabolist smiled. “It’s always about the Roles.”