“We should never forget that for a great evil to be defeated, a lesser evil must first become great.”
– Queen Eleanor Fairfax, founder of the Fairfax dynasty
Liesse was under siege, though forces had yet to deign test her walls. With the Summer Court having seized both Dormer and Holden, the two Callowan cities closest to the Waning Woods, the Empire had abandoned the south and begun mustering north of Vale instead. With fae hunting parties scouring the land coming from the west and the east, Akua had been forced to rely on her own wiles to keep her territory safe. Summer was holding court at Dormer and the true threats had yet to take the field, but even lesser nobles of Arcadia were dangerous enough. Unlike those of Winter, they would not control and subjugate the population: all those who did not immediately bow to the Queen of Summer were destroyed a riot of flame. Which was rather unfortunate, since Diabolist still needed southern labour to finish her work in Liesse. The fae were not being accommodating of her timetable.
Gathering a force of her own to field had proven tiresome, though she’d been granted an unexpected boon. Since she’d publically sacrificed the last mercenary force she’d hired in Mercantis – not that the merchants had particularly minded, after she’d paid up her very expensive penalty fees – hiring fresh blood had been difficult. The war in the Free Cities had ensured the most reputable companies were already all being employed by one side or the other, anyway, leaving behind only the dregs. Levantine raiders too savage for that already savage nation, a company of unreliable drow exiles and, amusingly enough, Helikean soldiers who’d been enemies of both the Exiled Prince and the ruling Tyrant. The last of those three were the steadiest, but they numbered only a thousand.
The boon, she had engineered herself with the gracious help of Mother and Dread Empress Malicia. Even as the south of Callow went up in flames, the Wasteland had gone to war with itself. After High Lady Tasia of Wolof had defaulted on several payments owed the Tower for granted privileges, Akua’s cousin Sargon had immediately attempted a coup. Normally he would not have dared: it was one thing for Cousin Sargon to set himself against Mother, another to attempt the theft of the due of a Named. But the Diabolist had sent him a discreet message, conceding to his claim in exchange for several concessions involving gold and sundry favours. Armed rebellion exploded in Wolof before the day was out. Sargon had won the initial skirmish after deploying a dozen powerful devils, at which point Mother had responded by unleashing a demon on his men. The mess that ensued escalated in brutality.
Dread Empress Malicia sent in all the Legions garrisoning Praesi territory to restore order even as what remained of the Truebloods watched the greatest among them being cornered like an animal. Akua had, naturally, reached out to the most prominent members left. Gold, men and mages had flowed to her territory as Holden fell to the Summer Court and she became flanked on both sides. Including her mercenaries, Akua now had slightly over ten thousand soldiers under her command. Of them almost a tenth were mages, though only a handful of those could touch High Arcana. Still, it had been an effort to keep the delight off her face: oh, the kind of things she could make with this many spellcasters at her disposal.
And she would have to make them, of this there was no doubt. No reinforcements were coming for the foreseeable future. The legions of the Wasteland were busy keeping Wolof contained, and would not be able to march anywhere for months. There’d been talk of some of the legions guarding the Red Flower Vales under Marshal Grem One-Eye coming south as the orc himself took operational command, but Proceran movement on the other side of the border had smothered that notion in the crib. Cordelia Hasenbach might rule over a mongrel nation, but Akua had to give her this: she was a fair hand at the Great Game. With One-Eye and his men remaining to prevent an invasion by the Principate, command had fallen to Marshal Ranker in Denier – who’d also had to decline, as the Duchy of Daoine had declared full mobilization of the Watch and refused to give any explanation.
That left General Istrid with seniority, and she’d stripped Summerholm of its garrison before marching south to muster all she could north of Vale. As a crowning irony the single largest army in Callow, the Fifteenth under General Juniper, was forced in a defensive position at Marchford and unable to participate. The gate into Arcadia could not be left undefended: the Winter Court might just decide to establish a beachhead of their own, and not even Praes could withstand the pressure of two Courts running rampant. Until Foundling reappeared, her people were paralyzed. It had been most amusing to see everything Squire had built over the last year collapse the moment she was gone, Diabolist had to admit. Upon hearing word of Squire’s disappearance into Arcadia the Praesi among the Ruling Council had swiftly struck a deal with the Guild of Assassins and seized power in Laure before declaring martial law across Callow – a move greeted with widespread rioting in the cities.
Best of all, when the usurpers had first accessed the treasury they’d found absolutely nothing: the Guild of Thieves had already emptied it in full, and to add insult to injury taken a tithe of a tenth from every Imperial Governor’s own funds. Callow had descended into utter anarchy and in the chaos Akua’s own hands were freer than ever before. She held the only remaining stronghold in the south, her workforce had swelled with refugees and until Summer was dealt with she was essentially untouchable no matter what she did. The Empire could not afford for her to rise in rebellion, not with this many wolves at the gate. The situation, Diabolist thought, had fallen into her lap like a gift from the Gods Below. The dark-skinned woman strode the smouldering battlefield where her forces had prevailed not an hour past, Fasili trailing her dutifully. He’d been in command for the engagement, the largest one her army had waged so far.
“Fewer than two hundred casualties, Lady Diabolist,” the other aristocrat said. “The revolving wards were a success: all their heavyweights focused on breaking them rather than firing mass magic at our troops.”
The conversation would be a very different one if the new wards had failed, Akua thought. There’d been a Count among the catches of the day, and if one of those had decided to decimate her ranks she’d have lost at least a fifth of her soldiers. What the fae of Summer lacked in subtlety, they more than made up in destructive power. The very reason that her mages had been instructed to capture instead of kill, at it happened.
“I want their corpses raised by nightfall,” she ordered. “Form a separate unit from the unded, under a cadre of necromancers. I expect their ranks will swell before this is over.”
“It will be as you say,” the other Soninke nodded.
“As for the wards, I’ve been told one of them was fractured,” the Diabolist said. “We’ll need to refine the concept.”
“Your First Mage is already designing improvements,” Fasili replied. “We won a great victory today, my lady. Fae with titles of this magnitude are hard to kill, much less subdue.”
The Diabolist’s lips quirked the slightest bit at the words. Fasili would take it as approval of his flattery, but the truth was different: it had been a very long time since any Praesi had a First Mage. The title had fallen out of favour when the Name of Warlock emerged: being the most powerful of a High Lord’s spellcasters had been judged to be meaningless when there was the greater accolade of a Name to be claimed. Her revival of the title had been for largely personal reasons, though she did approve of the tribute to ancient custom.
“The Count of Golden Harvest,” she said slowly, savouring the title.
“And two Baronesses,” Fasili added with a vicious smile.
Fewer than a hundred fae without court titles had also been caught, though they paled in importance compared to the other three. They would be useful fodder, true enough, but for some rituals quality was required over quantity. Leaving behind the sea of tents her soldiers were setting up for he night, the two of them made their way to the wide flat plain to the side of where the battle had taken place. There were four massive wards in place there, her mages milling around them like busy little bees. The largest held all the lower-ranked fae, shackled in iron and badly beaten. Though much weaker than the titled fae, their number alone was enough to make them dangerous: a hundred and fifty mages maintained the ward in rotating shifts to ensure no concerted attempt could be made to break the glowing sigils hanging in the air that kept them prisoner. The other three wards were not so heavily manned: they held one of the high-ranked nobles individually each of them under three times three bindings, all interlocked and reinforcing each other.
It was around the wards imprisoning the Count of Golden Harvest that a greying Soninke with a closely-cropped beard was kneeling, fingers dancing nimbly across a set of runes floating in the air. Akua studied them curiously: High Arcana, all of them, yet she did not recognize all of them. She was not surprised. Brilliant she might be, but she was still young and Dumisai of Aksum had spent a lifetime plumbing the depths of sorcery. A moment later the runes rearranged themselves before disappearing as a hum of power came form the ward surrounding the Count. The fae grunted in pain, drawing interest from the mage close to him.
“Is it physically painful to have more than nine tenths of your power restrained?” he asked in Mtethwa.
“I will see you made ash for this insolence, sorcerer,” the Count of Golden Harvest hissed.
“Your threats are of no academic value, creature,” the man noted. “This is most unproductive.”
“First Mage,” Fasili interrupted, his head dipping in respect.
The sorcerer jerked in surprise, only then realizing he had company behind him. He smiled at Akua’s right hand man hesitantly.
“Good evening,” he began, then trailed off. “… You.”
“Lord Fasili Mirembe,” Akua provided, too well-practiced to be openly amused..
“Yes,” he said. “That.”
“Papa,” the Diabolist greeted warmly as her father rose to his feet.
“Mpanzi,” the older man smiled. “Lord Warlock’s research appears to be accurate. From what I’ve seen fae are made of the same matter than Arcadia itself – there is no difference at a fundamental level between one of them and, say, a stone taken from there.”
“How dare you,” the Count said angrily.
Her father absent-mindedly waved a hand and a gag of blue runes appeared in the fae’s mouth, stuffing it shut.
“Your ritual is prepared, before I forget,” he said. “Very good materials you’ve secured. Conversion rates for fae will be much higher than with human sacrifices.”
“That will be all, Lord Fasili,” Akua said, half-turning towards him.
“By your leave, Lady Diabolist,” the other Soninke bowed.
He cast an irritated glance at Papa before leaving, but there was no true heat there. Her father’s absolute lack of ambition in matters of authority made him the opposite of a rival and her known fondness for him meant he was too costly to retaliate against for a slight as minor as the one he’d been handed. No doubt an officer would be on the receiving end of Fasili’s irritation before the night was over. One of the drow, most likely. They found it difficult to take orders from a man, even if that man had given his allegiance to a woman, and Praesi highborn did not have much tolerance for insoburdination.
“He seems a very reliable young man,” Papa said, watching him walk away.
He would have you dead within an hour if given leave, Akua thought. Her father had spent his entire adult life under the distant, if vicious, protection of Mother: he’d never had to develop the kind of nose for enmity that most powerful Praesi mages needed to survive. His judgement in these matters was… lacking. In most people Akua would have considered this a crippling flaw, but in truth she preferred him like this. Unaware of the dangers lurking around him, able to do what he loved without worry. She could keep him safe from the scavengers. Diabolist had made it very clear to her subjects that Dumisai of Aksum was not to be touched: feeding a scheming minor noble to a swarm of imps in full view of her court had made that point very thoroughly.
“He has his uses,” Akua conceded.
Papa nodded, already visibly bored with the avenue of conversation.
“With today’s lot you’ve almost two hundred of the lesser fae,” he said. “That should be enough for a Lesser Breach.”
The term was fairly technical, and few aside from Praesi mages would have known its meaning. Diabolism was, at its heart, a branch of magic concerned with the summoning, binding and contracting of devils. And demons, of course, though resorting lightly to such creatures was the path to fates worse than death. Her people had practiced this kind of sorcery since days predating the Miezan occupation and while it had originally been a means for a single practitioner to gain power or knowledge, under the Empire it had become developed as a tool of war. Dread Empress Triumphant – may she never return – was widely held as the greatest diabolist to ever live, above even the Dead King. She’d summoned and bound entire legions of devils, put demons at their head and her bindings had been so well-crafted they had held for centuries after her demise. To raise an entire hosts of devils, as she had, means other than summoning them one at a time had to be used: the amount of wasted time and power would otherwise be massive.
The method to get around this was called a Breach: a portal into one of the Hells would be opened, with a mass binding woven into it. Any devil crossing into Creation would be subject to said binding, allowing for a degree of control – though a much looser one than if the binding had been designed for a specific entity instead. Convention divided Breaches between the Lesser and the Greater. Akua herself had used a Lesser Breach at Liesse when deploying her army of devils until the mages of the Fifteenth shut it down, fuelling it with the lives of the Stygian slaves. A Lesser Breach was temporary and unstable by nature, impossible to maintain for long. A Greater Breach was a different matter entirely, and only one had occurred in all of Calernian history: the Dead King’s ritual in Keter, which had opened a permanent and stable portal into one of the Hells. Little progress had been made since then in understanding exactly how the Greater Breach had been made, though Diabolist had come to understand some part of it.
“More fuel would be preferable, but I don’t have the time to spare,” Akua said. “I’ll have to do with limited numbers and make second Breach when we’ve the fae for it.”
“You’d get more meat for the expense if you went lower than the Thirtieth Hell,” Papa pointed out. “As it is a seventh of that power goes into the Due.”
“Foundling made it very clear during the Rebellion that a well-trained army will tear through anything lower than the Thirtieth, given time to prepare,” Diabolist replied. “The Summer Court is in a league above what her forces were back then. If I want the devils to survive the first engagement, I can’t use chumaili or kichabwa.”
Her father hummed, mulling it over.
“Well, you won’t get many walin-falme but you can be sure they won’t die easy,” he said.
The term meant imperial guard, in an archaic dialect of Mtethwa. The devils were old favourites of Tyrants seeking to invade Callow, preferred to more bestial breeds for their above average intelligence and ability to use forged armaments. They were also noted for their resistance to fire, though it was difficult to model how effective it would be against fae flame. Their leathery skin and deformed bat wings had many mages speculating Dread Emperor Sorcerous had used them as breeding stock to create the much larger winged monsters that were used to access higher levels of the Tower, and would allow them to answer fae flight on the battlefield. It was a shame, truly, that she would not get more than four hundred of them from the Lesser Breach. Their inaptitude for tactical thinking was perhaps their greatest weakness, and the reason they usually served under the command of the Black Knight of the era. Akua lacked such a commander however, which was why it had been so important to capture the high-ranked fae. The Lesser Breach could wait until the prisoners had been brought back to Liesse, but Diabolist intended to summon her officers tonight.
“The Count first,” she said.
“For the best,” Papa agreed. “He’ll be the most exhausting.”
The two of them strode into the ward keeping the Count of Golden Harvest contained, the thick and heavy magic washing over their skin. Her father flicked his wrist and the gag in the fae aristocrat’s mouth dissolved.
“You court your doom, mortals,” he said harshly. “My Queen will have vengeance for what happened today.”
“There is a theory by a very clever man,” Papa said, entirely ignoring the threat,, “that fae can die in truth.”
“Your ignorance rivals only your arrogance, sorcerer,” the Count sneered.
“Slitting your throat returns you to Arcadia, to be born again,” her father continued. “But, ah, fae are made of power are they not?”
“We are Summer incarnate,” the creature smiled. “You will all burn under the sun.”
“Yes, power incarnate,” the greying man said admiringly. “What happens, then, if this power is used up?”
“No mere insect can undo the workings of the Gods,” the fae said.
“I do not believe,” Diabolist said, “that we have been introduced.”
The Count glanced at her with contempt.
“I know what you are, cursed one,” he spat. “Defeat is carved into the bones of your kind.”
“My name,” she said, “is Akua Sahelian. I am a villain.”
“The pale imitation of an ancient enemy,” the fae mocked.
“Oh yes,” Diabolist agreed softly. “That is exactly what I am. The Enemy, they call us in the West. I am the last of a line unbroken since time immemorial. My kind has usurped the mantle of gods, stolen secrets from beyond Creation and turned kingdoms into sea. I am Praesi of the old blood, fae. You should kneel in awe.”
“You are the dying ember of a fire long gone,” the Count sneered. “Soon to be put out by the might of Summer.”
“You think you know might?” Akua laughed. “I will turn your blood to smoke. I will feed the horrors that crush your bones with the sound of your screams. The hearts of your children will raise my fortresses to the sky and make my ships sail on solid ground. You may have been godlings in your wretched home, but you’ve stepped down from that pedestal – and down here, we bleed the likes of you over altars. Your poor, misbegotten creature. You actually believe you have a chance.”
Her Name pulsed beneath her skin even as her eyes turned cold.
“But you’re in Creation now, Count. Here be monsters.”
The Count smirked.
“Do you seek to frighten me, child? Summer does not know fear.”
Akua slowly unsheathed her knife, resting the wickedly sharp edge on the side of the fae’s throat. He looked into her eyes, undaunted. Diabolist smiled.
“No, not yet,” she murmured. “But I will teach you.”