“If Creation is not mine, what need is there to be a Creation at all?”
– Dread Empress Triumphant, First and Only of Her Name
“They think they have us cornered,” Fasili said.
There was laughter in that tone, the intonation he used in Mtethwa implying mocking irony – he’d inflected the word for ‘think’ with the same sound as the one for ‘fool’. Winds were whipping at the city wildly as it rose into the sky, the power Akua had called ripping Liesse from solid ground and casting it up. The aftermath of the ritual she’d called on still burned in her bones, pulsing in time with her heartbeat. It was the largest working she’d ever undertaken, dwarfing even the two Lesser Breaches she’d made in her lifetime, and it had been exhilarating. The traces of that monstrous sorcery would permeate the region for decades to come, long after every trace of the fae currently trampling it were gone. Standing atop the highest bastion of the city gates, the Diabolist and her mortal second-in-command were watching the army of Summer splayed below. A host of legend, she conceded as she studied the glittering ranks. But she had one as well and it would not come out the lesser of this strife.
There were two princes and a princess among the ranks of the enemy, the strongest hand the Summer Court could play without sending its own Queen into battle. One of those stood head and shoulders above the others: the same princess who’d forced Diabolist to trigger her ritual early when she’d begun melting the ramparts with brute force. Given the cascading nature of the wards woven into the walls, if she’d been left at it much longer the entire outer rampart would have crumbled along with most of the dark-skinned aristocrat’s army. No matter. Akua had planned to use the ritual as soon as the enemy made their move anyway, though she’d expected an assault of thousands and not a single fae. The highest caste of the Fair Folk was nothing to sneer at, she acknowledged. Among all the entities she could call on nothing but a handful of obscenely ancient devils could match their power. She had three of these summoned, as it happened, a perfectly symmetrical match. The Gods Below sometimes saw fit to hand gifts to their most faithful, and who else but she could still claim that title?
“The harvest has been plentiful,” Diabolist said. “Let us reap the benefits in full.”
The ritual array for turning Liesse into a flying fortress-city was not the one she’d been building for all these months, of course. A ritual so straightforward would not have required Akua to sink all the resources at her disposal into the city. No, all she’d done was activate a secondary array, one she’d originally designed as a security measure in case the Legions of Terror came calling too early. It was the reason she’d allowed all those refugees from the south behind her walls, even if like rodents they ate up her granaries: hey could serve as acceptable fuel in a pinch. Ultimately, that had proved unnecessary. She’d managed to acquire a Duchess of Summer with her traps before needing to retreat and the fae noble had been more than enough for the purpose. Diabolist preferred this outcome, as it happened. Keeping the city full of refugees should stay Foundling’s hand when the hour of reckoning came. And if didn’t? Well, there were always uses for such large quantities of lifeblood.
The High Lords of Praes knew how to turn massacre into power better than anyone else, living or dead.
What had finally driven the fae to attack, she wondered? Was it taking a Duchess? The reaction seemed too delayed for that, weeks passing before the attack came. Until recently they’d been content to fight her in the plains of the south, rightfully wary of the wards protecting her stronghold. Akua’s instincts were that Foundling had a hand in this, but the latest news had her in Laure crucifying fools. The Diabolist had had to resist the urge to roll her eyes, when she’d heard resistance had been attempted after Squire had entered the city. As if the likes of Satang Motherless and Murad Kalbid had it in them to thwart the likes of Catherine Foundling. Akua’s enemy had flaws, but she was a power worthy of the Name she had claimed and growing more Praesi by the year. A pair of castoffs from the Wasteland were nothing more than dust in the face of that. More interesting was the way Squire had been able to travel so quickly. Given Foundling’s recent journey in the realm of the fae, Akua was inclined to believe she was carving paths through Arcadia to move faster than Creation permitted.
A fascinating notion that, one that while not unknown – the Calamities had done the same on occasion and there were records of heroes doing so as well – had never been used on this scale before. It was one thing for a handful of Named to hurry through the outskirts of Arcadia, quite another for an army to march through the territory of the Courts. Whatever had happened in Winter after Squire wandered inside its boundaries, she’d gained great power there. Measures would have to be taken so she couldn’t pull the same trick on the Diabolist, but that was a notion for later. Today, after all, Akua Sahelian was going to war. The phrase, even as an idle thought, set her blood aflame. It felt right. It felt like she was finally touching upon what she had always been meant to be, unsheathing a blade for the first time after years of forging it. Liesse reached the height it was meant to and then ceased ascending, stabilizing in its flight. Beneath her the wings of the fae coming for her head lit up the field and the winged cavalry began its charge upwards. Clarions sounded, piercing the afternoon afternoon air like blades. The call of Summer. From the walls of Liesse, a hundred hide drums began to beat. Doom, doom, doom they announced. Praes is at war. Tremble, any who stand in its way.
“Lord Fasili,” she said. “Take command of the army. I will be joining the fray.”
“May you blot out their horizon forever, my lady,” the Soninke replied, bowing.
There was fervour in his eyes. He too understood what this battle stood for: in this twilight of the Age of Wonders, the last true sons and daughters of Praes had taken up arms. Oh, you poor fools of Summer. Twilight is the coming of night, and night has ever been our time. We will own the dark and shape the day that comes after it. Adjusting her long crimson, Akua breathed in the wind and reached for her Name. It was pulsing inside her still, like the blood in her veins, as much a birth right as the rest. Call, she whispered inside her mind, and as her aspect rose to the surface her mind unfolded across miles. A small sliver of it inside every devil she had brought into Creation, an iron shard inside their very being that shackled them to her will. This was more than the mere bindings her ancestors had managed. It was ownership in truth, the kind of tyranny that had once been the sole province of those who climbed the Tower.
“Fly,” she ordered, and every one of them heard the words. “Scatter all that opposes me.”
A full thousand walin-falme spread their leather wings instantly. Her harvest had been bountiful indeed: once she’d thought she would have only four hundred to call on, but the revolving wards designed by her father had allowed her to capture so many fae she’d managed over twice that. The devils took flight eagerly, screaming promises of death in the Dark Tongue. Diabolist could have called on a flying chariot to carry her to war, but it would have only slowed her down: rising smoothly over the edge of the rampart, she strode onto the afternoon sky. Beneath her feet glass-like panels of force appeared and she strolled towards the wave of enemies filling the air. Only one other person did the same: the man who’d taught her this spell, her father. The first wave of fae rising through the air reached him before they did her, but she was not worried and for good reason. Without Papa so much as raising a hand, all the enemies that came close to him started… bubbling up under their skin, before simply exploding in bursts of flame. Smiling at the sight, Diabolist glanced at the insolent things headed for her. A swarm of ivory and steel, flying pennants of red and gold. Doom, doom, doom the drums sounded. A promise, an oath.
“Justice,” the fae clamoured.
“Death,” Diabolist replied, and granted it to them.
High Arcana runes light up around her, coming easier than they ever have before, and the air in front of the enemy formed into a ball that condensed for three heartbeats before detonating with a sound like thunder. A hundred fae were swatted down like flies, their bright wings winking out, and twice as many were tossed aside by the impact. Raw power pumped through her veins, her very Name feeding on the sight of her supremacy. The tide of fae swallowed her up as the enemy host headed for the walls, while in the distance the winged cavalry charged straight into her swarm of devils. The melee that ensued was brutal, cast iron in furious eldritch hands smashing into the silvery arms of the Summer Court’s peerless knights. Diabolist paid it no further mind, as waves of fae were falling upon her.
“Seven lanterns, lit and smothered,” she incanted. “I have spilled blood and broken bone, known the desert sun and offered pure incense.”
High Arcana wove itself into her words, every syllable shaping the runes according to her will as if she were painting with sorcery.
“Howl, hunger, hollow. Threefold is my will: obey, winds.”
When it came to wind sorcery, not even the finest of the Soninke could match the Taghreb. A current of bone-dry wind formed at her back, sweeping around her and gathering all the fae that had been approaching her with it. Laughing, she quickened the sweep and broadened it until the dozen soldiers she’d first caught became hundreds. The current of air, full of flesh and steel, formed into a ball above her head when her hands rose. Her fingers formed a fist and with a sick crunch metal and bodies alike shattered. Her veins burning at the power she still held onto, Diabolist flicked down her hand and flung the ball into the enemy ranks – it carved a line through them, though killed precious few.
“It seems mere soldiers are no match for the likes of you,” a voice spoke from ahead.
A pale woman with golden hair, her scale armour a different shade of green in every scale, stared at her calmly. Sword in hand, she saluted gallantly.
“I am the Countess of First Bloom,” she introduced herself.
Diabolist closed her eyes. She could feel the fae landing on the walls, fighting her soldiers and drying in droves as wards and goblin steel carved through them. Her mages snuffed out fae lives with streaks of lightning and darkness, sending rituals old as Wolof into the throngs of assailants. Streams of lesser devils poured out of summoning circles, a storm of shrieks and claws that died as quick as they came into existence but left behind bleeding limbs and tired hands. Deaths, so many deaths, of both mortals and fae. Every one of them permeating Creation with strands of power.
“In the name of my Queen, I consign you to death by the flames of Summer,” the Countess announced, irritated by the lack of response.
“I will teach you,” she said. “What fire truly is.”
Claim, she spoke silently. Her third aspect, and the one worthiest of a ruler. In a heartbeat, all those strands of power shivered and fell under her authority. The aristocrat gathered them to her, siphoning them into the spell she’d begun crafting even as she spoke.
“Burn, misbegotten creature,” the Countess of First Bloom cried out.
Heat turned to fire, a torrent of bright golden flames pouring out towards the Diabolist. She was a mighty thing, this Countess. But not mightier than a thousand deaths made sorcery. Akua’s silhouette was wreathed in power, for a heartbeat, and then for a hundred feet in every direction the sky turned into a nightmare of dark flame. Not quite hellfire, but centuries of mages in Wolof had managed to craft the closest thing to it a mortal could manage. A hundred grasping hands and hungry maws of flame devoured the noble fae and any foolish soldier who’d come too close to the struggle. The golden flames that had arrogantly attempted to take her life were buried and smothered, the hellish scene lasting for thirty heartbeats before disappearing in a curtain of wisps. There was nothing left of the Countess, not even blackened bones. The Diabolist stood alone in the sky, the fae soldiers parting around her like a receding tide. She had not taken a second step since first casting. Doom, doom, doom the drums sounded.
The walls were holding, by a thread. Her soldiers died like dogs under fae spears and swords, but wherever Summer gained a foothold sorcery scoured the walls clean. The casualties were brutal, but what did she care when her dead men rose within moments to hold their blades again? Her thousand devils had lost the clash against the winged knights, but taken a toll: half her walin-falme were gone, but so was a third of Summer’s most dangerous soldiers. Papa, bored with simply allowing fae to die on his defences, had gone to toy with them. Now they were fighting an enormous snake of green lightning, dispersing it with their lances only to find it forming again behind them and having left a few smoking corpses in its wake. It was only when a Duke went to duel him that her father retreated to the walls, activating a set of wards to force him back before joining the defence. The three greatest of her devils were there as well, Diabolist saw. They towered above the rest, but there was a reason they were not with the lesser devils she had meant them to command: the same princess who’d almost collapsed her walls had landed atop the rampart, and after burning clean any Praesi who came close to her had begun to fight all three at the same time.
She was, the Diabolist realized with dismay, winning. Of her three great devils the one she could see most clearly was a massive creature of rippling ebony muscle, two large sets of horns growing atop his hairless head. Jenge Kubawa, he was called. The Lord of Despair, a devil from the Twenty-Seventh Hell said to have once held back the invading army of Aksum for a day on his own, in the days before the Miezan. Akua watched the fae princess rip out one of his horns, shove it into his throat and follow through with a burst of flame that burst straight through his chest and out his back. She would have to go and handle that situation. Still, that left the two princes unaccounted for, which was even more worrying. Where were they – ah.
“A praiseworthy resistance, for mortals,” a man said contemptuously, tone belying his words.
Two fae stood in the sky across her, neither of them using their wings. Without even needing to exert their power the air around them warped form the heat, idle mirages flickering at the corner of her vision. The one who’d spoken was dark-skinned like a Soninke, though his pure white hair lent him an unsightly appearance. He was, otherwise, beautiful – and his armour of burnt stone was touched with red veins that made it look like burning coal. Against his shoulder a spear of pure crystal rested. The other one was pale and dark-haired, his perfectly-cropped beard looking sharp enough to cut flesh. He wore no armour, only long robes of woven sunlight and flame. His fingers delicately clasped around a sword of pure gold, runes inscribed on the flat of the blade ever-moving. She knew better than to look in any of their eyes. Doom, doom, doom the drums went.
“I am the Prince of Deep Drought,” the pale one said with a beautiful smile. “Would you be the Lady Diabolist?”
“A presumptuous question to ask, when half your party has not introduced themselves,” Akua replied.
The dark-skinned one sneered.
“I am the Prince of Burning Embers, mortal,” he said. “Kneel.”
The weight of the order struck her like a blow, but Diabolist was indifferent. The soul he was trying to command was far, far away. She would not need it for some time yet.
“I am Akua Sahelian,” she replied. “You may yet survive, if you swear yourself to me.”
The Prince of Deep Drought looked sympathetic.
“My lady, though my brother spoke uncouthly the sentiment was correct,” he said. “This battle is lost. Sulia will destroy your devils, your army will fail and you cannot hope to triumph against two princes of Summer. Surrender to us, and make obeisance to our Queen. You can find fulfilment in her service.”
“I cannot win, can I?” the Diabolist asked.
“That is the truth,” the Prince of Deep Drought agreed.
“I have two truths for you in return,” she said. “I am a villain, and this is the first part of my plan.”
Out of instinct, the two of them began moving. Too late.
“Bind,” Akua said, calling on her final aspect.
It was meant to force devils to her will, this power of hers, but fae were not of Creation either. This and the sheer power of the entities before her limited what she could accomplish, but in the end this lay at the heart of her Name: to be the Diabolist was to hold power over creatures foreign to the world. The Prince of Burning Embers jerked, then the spear he held spun smoothly and went for his brother’s throat. The other prince’s eyes widened and he called on fire, his assailant evaded the flames without missing a beat as Akua willed him to do. The fight that followed was swift and merciless. She’d picked the least powerful of the two to bind, but he was clearly more used to combat: the other was a superb swordsman, but relied more on sorcery and Diabolist’s puppet simply did not allow him to use it. Twice she let the Prince of Burning Embers take hits on purpose, in places that would endanger his life but not his ability to continue using his spear. It would make him easier to finish off afterwards. In the end, she did not manage to kill the Prince of Deep Drought – though the spear tore through his stomach. Feeling her control slip, Diabolist raised an eyebrow.
“Kill yourself,” she ordered.
Eyes raging, the Prince of Burning Embers ran his own spear through his heart even as his brother tried to stop him. Runes lit up around Akua as she began using the massive power coming from the death of a Prince of Summer to empower another spell, casually eyeing her remaining opponent.
“Shall we revisit the issue of victory, prince?” she asked.
“Let’s,” a woman’s voice said, and the panels of force that served as Diabolist’s shield shattered like glass.
Pain tore through Akua’s side as fire claimed her flank, hastily put out by a barked incantation that froze the entire section solid. Gods, how could she not have felt the princess coming towards her? The woman’s hair was fire-red, her skin pale and her eyes a terrible thing to behold. Like the heat of the sun made flesh, just being looked upon by them was exhausting.
“I told you two not to get arrogant,” Princess Sulia of High Noon said. “Mortals are trickier than Winter, this campaign has proved as much.”
Diabolist steadied her breathing and healed the burned flesh on her side. The flames had gone straight through the armour she wore beneath her cloak, ignoring seven layers of enchantments – five of which were meant specifically to ward off fae.
“She seized him, Sulia, how could even a Named -” the other fae began, but the princess cut him off.
“We have no stories here,” she said. “Except the ones they make. It is madness, rampant madness. Order must be restored. To ashes, if needs must.”
“Oh, I quite agree,” Diabolist said. “You have no place here. And you’ve delayed my plans long enough.”
The Princess of High Noon eyed her, perfect face disdainful.
“I’ve no time to waste bantering with cattle, you’ll simply have to-“
The fae royalty went still. Akua glanced at the other one – the prince was akin to a statue as well.
“Retreat,” Sulia called suddenly, and the word echoed across the entire battlefield. “To Arcadia.”
The dark-skinned aristocrat raised an eyebrow.
“But we were only beginning to get acquainted,” she said.
The Princess of High Noon bared her teeth.
“We will return, Diabolist,” she said. “We will finish this fight, once Summer is no longer being invaded. You and your compatriot laid a cunning trap, I will grant you this much.”
Not even a flicker of surprise touched Akua’s face. A portal opened and the two fae vanished in the blink of an eye, taking the corpse of the prince before she could do anything. All across the battle gates into Arcadia opened, the host of Summer disappearing through them without warning or explanation. Within twenty heartbeats, there was no one left in sight but her own army. There was a long moment of silence, then a cheer that shook the heavens. The Diabolist remained where she stood, before finally surrendering to a discreet bit of genuine laughter.
“Oh, Squire,” she said almost fondly. “You truly are the gift that keeps on giving.”
Doom, doom, doom went the drums.