“The source of wonder and horror is the same, and the boundary between them thinner than you would think.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia I
“That is a Count, I believe,” Masego announced.
Father’s spectacles were of no use at this range, so he’d had to use his Name. An aspect, more specifically – Glimpse. Apprentice disliked relying on the power conferred onto him by the Gods Below, as he’d always considered it something of a crutch that would cripple his ability to improve his casting without such means, but he could not deny the abilities it lent him had their uses. Even from a mile away, behind a set of obscuring wards, he’d been able to gauge the forces animating the Summer fae. The intensity and breadth of those forces were inferior to those of the Dukes and Duchesses he’d observed in Skade but superior to those of a Baron. There were outliers, of course. The Lady of Cracking Ice had been by an order of magnitude stronger than the other nobles accompanying her in the initial meeting even though her title was the lowest. He suspected the rough equivalent of Roles that was carved into the consciousness of fae was the true factor behind the power those entities could muster, but without proper investigation it was impossible to turn this into a credible thesis.
Regardless, this particular fae seemed to have the power common for one titled Count. The power of his Name keeping his eyes from blinking, Masego studied the fluctuations in the forces. A shame the Count was not in range of his spectacles. One of the enchantments on them helped him quantify the energies at play in a way his aspect simply could not. Still, the actual forces did not seem greater by a significant margin than those of the same-titled Winter fae he had studied. The qualitative difference that allegedly allowed Summer to win every time open war was waged between those Courts must have come from a different source. Nature of the energy, perhaps? The symbolic properties of fire and ice as per the table of classic elements were cleansing and preservation – typically, aggressive properties won over defensive ones when diametrically opposed. Could it be that simple? The dark-skinned mage itched for ink and parchment, but it would have to wait.
“I told you,” Archer crowed. “We just need to keep shooting stronger ones in the head and eventually a big one will show up.”
“That is a vast oversimplification of still poorly understood social dynamics,” Masego replied peevishly.
“You know, really smart people don’t actually need to use long words,” the ochre-skinned woman grinned.
That was such a brutal insult that Apprentice remained too appalled to reply for a solid thirty heartbeats. By that time, Archer had strung that ridiculously large longbow of hers. Even with the power of his aspect having faded away, Masego could see the sorcery worked into it. The wood, already magical in nature and likely from the Waning Woods, had been further strengthened and so had the string. It was, in his estimation, physically impossible for anyone but a Named to successfully draw that bow. Even then, what the woman was preparing to do seemed rather dubious.
“He’s a mile away,” Apprentice said. “There is a breeze. Longbow range is, at best, four hundred yards. Useless against armoured targets past two hundred. The distance you are aiming at is over four times that.”
“That’s very impressive,” Archer grinned. “Learned all those pretty numbers from a book, did you?”
Masego had, in fact, learned those numbers from a book on military tactics he’d borrowed from Hakram. He coughed to hide the blush that touched his cheeks at being caught out.
“For a mortal, those numbers matter a lot,” the woman said, eyes hooded with pleasure. “For a Named, they matter a little. For me, though?”
Her grin turned sharp.
“If I can See it, I can kill it.”
Vision-driven aspect? Given her Name, it was only logical. Masego’s train of thought was interrupted by the sight of Archer on the move, and for an instant that was all the filled his mind. He’d fought at this woman’s side before, but he had never witnessed her in action with a bow – only seen the arrows she shot. Archer moved so swiftly he saw only a blur, string taut and then loose as the first arrow flew. Another two followed before a heartbeat had passed. Merciless Gods. His eyes followed the last arrow, studying the properties as it flew. They were silent, and so clearly enchanted. No, he realized, not enchanted. Made of material with natural sorcery. Inherent properties, he understood with a sharp intake of breath. Silence, and some kind of amplification. Sharpness or penetration, he could not tell. It did not matter. Most defensive wards relied on the assumption that any projectiles targeting them would be either entirely mundane or have an active sorcerous component to them, more commonly called an enchantment. The arrows Archer had used would sail right through those, qualifying as neither by the strictures of sorcery. Mage-killers. That was what those projectiles were.
As a child he’d often lingered around Father and Uncle Amadeus whenever they used Imperial business as an excuse to have drinks and bicker, and one of his favourite games had been ‘could you beat’. He’d demanded a plan for the two of them to vanquish everyone from the Dead King to a company of legendary heroes, and always been given an answer. Until he’d asked them for the plan to fight Ranger. The two of them had traded looks, and then his uncle had smiled over his cup. Don’t, he’d replied. Watching that woman’s foremost apprentice at work, he was beginning to grasp why. The Count didn’t realize he was being targeted until the first arrow took him in the chest. Fire flared as he fell, but the second arrow nailed his shoulder to the ground anyway. The third went through his left knee, immobilizing him for good.
“Do your stuff,” Archer said, waving her hand like she’d not shot a godling thrice in broad daylight.
Masego gathered enough concentration to activate the dispersed components he’d left around the area where’d they killed the last two patrols. The Count rose into the air, shackles of chirping light forming around his limbs. That should keep him prisoner for the duration they needed, and so the first step of their plan was complete. Apprentice dispersed the obscuration ward around them, since neither of them were using their Names anymore, and began the walk to their prisoner. It’d been over a month since Catherine had sent them south to ‘bait the Summer Court into attacking the Diabolist’. Masego had been assured that the notion made strategic sense, not that he particularly cared. Only now did he realized that Catherine had used his eagerness to secure some high-quality fae specimens to rope him into doing actual work. Truly, she was becoming more ruthless every month. That was how he’d been talked into going south, anyhow, but he’d wondered why Archer had acquiesced and asked her as much. She’d been sent as a fae expert on loan from Refuge, not a soldier to be used in the Squire’s wars.
“Eh, just staying with the army would have been boring,” she’d replied. “Hakram’s not even around to spar with anymore.”
Adjutant had informed him over one of their nightly games of shatranj that those ‘spars’ mostly consisted of Archer beating him black and blue until she felt like having a drink, which thankfully was frequent. He believed the orc. The foreign-looking woman had brought more drink than rations in her haversack on their trek south, and insisted they stop at villages to replenish her stock.
“That seems like a thin motivation,” he’d said.
“The idea of screwing over Sahelian does give me the good kind of shivers,” the woman had admitted. “And, well…”
Ah, he’d thought. He could understand the unspoken reason as well. As a boy he’d sometimes wondered why his father did not lead the Calamities. He was the most powerful among them, after all, capable of wiping a city off the face of Creation in a single night. He’d always liked Uncle Amadeus, but like did not usually enter the equation when it came to villains. The strongest held command, that was the natural order. Now, though? He’d learned better. Masego could probably kill Catherine, if he truly put his mind to it. Two days of preparation required at least, but it was doable even with the power she’d gained in Arcadia. He didn’t want to, though, and not just because taking up her burdens would be atrociously inconvenient to his research.
She had a way about her, that… It was hard to explain. Sometimes he thought of it as akin to the way smaller celestial orbs circled around larger ones, but that ignored some fundamental aspects of it. It was warm and nice and almost addictive, being part of the family around Catherine Foundling. That heady sense of belonging, the way that when she talked you believed there was nothing you couldn’t do. Apprentice did not enjoy ‘adventures’, as a rule, but he believed his life would be lesser if he’d not followed Squire on them. And so he did not ask any further questions of Archer, because neither of them would be comfortable with where that conversation would take them. Some things were best left unsaid, and in the end he was not inclined to bare much of himself to this stranger. For all that it was nigh impossible to get the woman to shut up, Masego still knew next to nothing about her or what she was capable of. This was not, he thought, a coincidence.
They hurried on the way to the Count. His scrying ritual, adapted to notice the outskirts of the presence of fae instead of looking at them directly and facing the full backlash, had told him there were no patrols closer than half a day’s march. Still, their actions today were as good as lighting a beacon for anyone looking for them. They needed to be gone before anyone came looking, if this was to work. Which he wasn’t sure it would. Neither of them, as it turned out, were particularly good at planning. Apprentice usually let Catherine and Hakram handle this sort of menial work, and Archer had admitted that her plans usually didn’t go much further than ‘fight the enemy until it died’. He’d agreed to sharing a drink with the woman only once on their way south, when they’d come up with their plan to push Summer to attack the Diabolist. They’d tried to guess why Liesse had not been attacked yet, when the two cities to its flanks had already been taken by Summer. Masego had eventually mentioned the ancient but powerful wards protecting the city, and the other Named had agreed that those would give fae pause. They were, after all, exceptionally sensitive to boundaries.
They needed, therefore, to make it easier for Summer to attack the city. Sadly, neither of them knew anything about military tactics. Apprentice had, however, made a comprehensive map of the wards in the walls of Liesse before the battle of the same name. Leaking that information should help, they’d agreed. So he’d written it down on a parchment, they’d located a small fae patrol and handed it to them. Or tried to, at least. The fae captain had ordered them to immediately kneel and swear allegiance to the Queen of Summer or be destroyed, Archer had offered them a drink instead and they’d rather taken offence to that. A quarter hour later, they had five fae corpses she’d had to kill with a broken bottle and they weren’t anywhere closer to their objective. They’d tried again, attracting another small patrol and just leaving the scroll with the information on the ground while hiding. The fae had torched it and ordered a search of the region. Five other corpses later, they’d agreed that diplomacy did not seem to be working. Alternatives were needed.
Wondering what Father and Papa would do in a similar situation Masego had arrived to the conclusion that capturing a fae and rewriting their mind so the information was inside it before releasing them to the Court was the most expedient solution. Archer’s suggestion that they just carve all the details on the corpses of the fae was clearly flawed, since there was no guaranteed they wouldn’t just torch the corpses on sight like that had the scroll. They’d ambushed a third patrol, keeping the captain alive and Apprentice had taken out his tools to tinker with the forces that passed for the creature’s soul. Frustratingly, there hadn’t been enough room. As entities who did not learn, per se, there was no space inside the mind of the fae for much aside what was already there. Carving out some unnecessary things like the ability to see or the knowledge of how to use sorcery had resulted in unmoving bodies with blank eyes. Worse, apparently removing the ability to move stopped them breathing as well – that was just poor design, he’d complained. Archer had suggested they abduct several captains and spread the information across them, but that would both take long and risk more inaccuracies the more operations he had to do.
“We need a bigger fish, then,” Archer had suggested.
“We’re in a landlocked region of Callow,” Apprentice had reasonably pointed out.
She’d called him a condescending pedant, he’d called her rampantly ignorant and they’d eventually agreed that a more powerful fae was needed. Simply flaring their Names wouldn’t work, since for all they knew it might draw an entire army. Archer had then introduced the notion of ambushing a patrol and then remaining close by, then killing the fae who came to investigate until one holding a sufficient high title showed up. He hadn’t liked the plan, but been unable to come up with a better one. A sennight later, here they were looming over an imprisoned Count. The fae glared at them, only barely conscious.
“How dare you-“ he started, but then his mouth closed.
Masego tied off the spell structure and left it active to keep the creature silent. He was in no mood for a rant, not when he had to do such a delicate operation. Reaching into the pocket dimension he’d created after the rebellion, Apprentice took out the leather pack holding his tools in place and casually created a pane of force to hold it. Humming lightly, he took out what looked like a knife so thin it could not possibly cut anything. He looked at the fae and patted the man’s shoulder reassuringly.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll cut out the part that dictates pain very early. It shouldn’t hurt at all after that.”
“It’s much less creepy when they don’t scream,” Archer noted approvingly.
Masego got work.
Well, it had worked. More or less. The two of them were hiding in a bush under an obscuration ward, watching the host of Summer spread to surround Liesse. The Diabolist had seen them coming, which had interesting implications. Either Sahelian was using the same indirect scrying he was but more accurately, or she’d found another way entirely. Most likely the second. Wolof had many secrets in its vaults. Regardless, they knew the Diabolist had been aware of the fae headed her way because the army she’d had on the field had retreated behind the walls and was now manning them. As well as a truly impressive amount of devils, Apprentice noted. She must have used a Lesser Breach to gather so much on a short notice. Her skill with sorcery continued to impressed. The two Named watched the host of Summer spread across the plain, for it was a sight to see.
Ten thousand fae, he’d estimated. Entire regiments of ivory-armoured fairies stood ramrod straight, spears held high and a river of banners and pennons fluttering in the wind amongst them. Archers armed with longbows of pure white wood stood behind them, feathers not of any creature known to Creation fletching their arrows. Not a single one of them could be called anything but young and beautiful, the ardour of war wafting off them like a fume. Fae bearing trumpets of gold and rubies stood in every regiment, ready to let out the clarion call of conquest that lay in the heart of every Summer fae. A thousand knights in silvery plate sat astride winged horses, long lances and shields of exquisite make in their hands. They were forming in a loose triangle behind the infantry, their mounts stirring eagerly. The nobles stood out starkly from the rest, colourful figures made of fire, steel and silk that warped the air with heat wherever they stood. No two sets of plate they wore were the same, every one a masterpiece that would have made a mortal craftsman weep to look at.
The defenders were no less dreamlike to witness. Praesi soldiers wearing the distinctive colours of the family they were sworn to on their tabards manned the few bastions on the wall, their chainmail blackened dark as a crow’s feathers as was the custom in the Wasteland. Their armaments were sharp goblin steel, the finest blades of Calernia put in the hands of men and woman trained from birth to use them in the service of their lord. Between them stood rows upon rows of walin-falme devils. Tall and with the dark leathery skin of bats, they wore plate marked with the brand of Wolof: red and black, a curving golden lion inside the splash of colour. These bore spears and axes of cast iron, the metal known to be the ugly death of fae. Spread amongst all of these were small clusters of Taghreb and Soninke in tailored robes, panes of lights inscribed with runes flickering around them. War-mages, the finest the Wasteland had to offer. This was not an army that would go gently, not even against the strength of Summer.
It was a host ripped straight from the old days of blood and darkness, when all of Calernia had feared the sound of Praes at war. It was an ancient dream, this one, but Masego’s fathers had taught him better than to love it.
“I forgot to ask before we left, but do we actually want Summer to win?” Archer asked, chewing on dried meat.
Masego blinked, shaken out of his thoughts. While he’d been spellbound, his companion seemed less than impressed.
“You weren’t paying attention during the briefing?” he said.
“Nah,” she admitted easily. “I figured you would.”
“I thought you would,” he admitted.
“It’s their fault for making it boring, really,” Archer said.
“They kept talking about logistics and supply trains,” Masego agreed bitterly. “I don’t want to know anything about those, Hakram.”
“I mean, just guessing here,” the dark-eyed woman said. “Foundling wouldn’t want all the people inside butchered right?”
“I think not,” Apprentice said. “She gets irritated about people killing Callowans unless it’s her doing it.”
“So we don’t want Summer to win,” Archer pointed out triumphantly. “They do tend to burn stuff a lot. And people. I don’t think they understand the difference very well.”
“Everybody burns people, it’s a common execution method across Calernia,” Masego replied absent-mindedly, trying to remember anything about the briefing aside from Adjutant’s voice droning and Catherine drinking too much. “I think we may want them both to lose.”
“Is that something that happens?” she asked, sounding puzzled.
He glanced at her.
“Have you won every fight you were in?” he asked sceptically.
“Well, no,” Archer said. “I spar against the Lady Ranger. Never landed a blow on her unless she allowed me.”
Apprentice drew on his extensive military experience, which consisted of three battles where he’d largely spent his time setting people on fire or exploding them when Catherine asked.
“I think it’s like shatranj,” he mused. “You know, towards the end of the game when most pieces have been taken. We want them both to lose pieces.”
Archer glanced at the city and grimaced.
“I think we may have given Summer a bit too much of an advantage,” she said.
Masego followed her eyes and paled. One of the fae, on a winged horse, had ridden up to the city walls. The volley of arrows shot at her burst into flame and scattered into ashes long before they got close, and it only got worse from there: a torrent of heat formed in front of her and impacted the walls, beginning to melt the stone. Well, that was one way to beat the wards. They could not be held back by the boundary if there was no boundary.
“This is bad,” Archer decided.
The Diabolist, though, did not flinch. A heartbeat later Apprentice’s ward shivered as a large-scale ritual triggered. The waves of sorcery coming from Liesse were almost enough to scatter it, though when he had a Glimpse at the city he saw this was but a sliver of what had been at play. Slowly, Liesse and the ground under it began to rip their ways out of the soil. And only this much wasted power? he thought. At least a mile around the city should have been turned into a wasteland, for something this large. The Diabolist seemed to have managed to keep it all within a hair’s breadth of Keter’s Due, which meant this workingl might have had the single most efficient ritual array in Praesi history. He was itching to have a look at it even as Liesse rose into the air and kept rising, tons of soil falling out from under it. He could almost see the array itself, what had gone into activating it. This was no mere blood sacrifice, she’d used fae to fuel it and, just for a moment, the Apprentice touched something greater than himself. A larger truth still beyond his understanding, a mystery in the almost religious sense of the term, and though he could not grasp it just witnessing part was almost enough to… And then the moment was gone. He was shivering and more excited than he had been in years. He’d nearly transitioned into another Name, just by looking at this. He was close. In the distance, the host of Summer lit up a thousand bright colours as their wings formed. The soldiers and devils on the walls prepared to meet the assault.
“We have, technically, accomplished the task we were sent south for,” Masego said.
Archer looked at the army of Summer taking flight.
“Retreat?” she finally asked.
Streaks of sorcery filled the sky with sounds like thunder. As devils spread their wings and the battle began in earnest.
“For now,” Apprentice said. “We’ll be back.”