“Taxes. Taxes and triplicate forms.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, upon being asked what powerful sorceries he would use to humble the High Lords
Warlock had eyes on it from the beginning.
Not scrying, for that could be traced, but delayed relays that caught images at regular intervals. Wekesa had formed enough alternating way stations that while it was possible to follow the trail back to the beginning, it would take months at a flat minimum. What Amadeus saw was puzzling, at the start. Procer sent decoys caravans, armed to the teeth, but those were seen through easily. He sent Sabah to hit the lone carts using lesser known paths, and these carried the ingots of silver and gold that were being fed to Nicae. The two first true caravans were ambushed and seized at the same location, which led him to a possible answer: consecrated grounds. By having blood spilled at the same hands at the same place, ritual weight could be crafted. That might signify his initial notion that this was a trap put in place by the Tyrant was correct, because the heroes under the White Knight would not lower themselves to use blood magic in this manner. Not with a man sworn to the Choir of Judgement at their head. Then the third caravan used a different path, and blood was spilled in a different location. He had, evidently, been incorrect. Reassessment was needed. Scribe had begun placing agents in the ranks of the Helikean army long before the war between League members began, and he turned to her for clarification.
“He caught my agents,” Eudokia said.
“All of them?” Black frowned.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “They still serve as soldiers, but any information they try to pass gets replaced by the words to a Helikean drinking song about a shepherdess and her three husbands.”
The Tyrant’s doing, then. The boy did like to pretend he has a sense of humour.
“Extraction?” he said.
“Even removing the soul from the bodies doesn’t sidestep the issue,” she said.
Name application, then, possibly an aspect. There were few sorceries in existence that could truly affect a soul in a manner more complex than cutting out parts and outside the Empire that branch of magic was not often studied. Infiltration of Helike was a resource sink, then, though one he might revisit should he need to busy the villain for a span of time. Scribe turned her focus to Nicae, at his instruction, and continued the other task he had assigned her. The fourth caravan took a different route again, and this contradicted his read of the matter. If the intent is opaque, change the perspective. Amadeus marked the locations on the map, and had Wekesa study them.
“If the next one dies here, there’s an arcane pattern being formed,” Warlock said, tapping a cattle path that would begin to sketch out a circle from a bird’s eye view.
It was not the location where the fifth caravan was destroyed. Repetition in the face of failure, Amadeus believed, indicated either incompetence or that what was perceived as ‘success’ by the beholder was not the objective. The sixth caravan passed through the initial route, and he ordered Captain to let it pass. It was possible that the later caravans had been a smokescreen to draw him away from his first thought, that of consecrated grounds.
“If that’s what they’re doing his mages are botching it,” Wekesa said. “He can still consecrate the grounds to Below like that, but if he doesn’t maintain a regular pattern then it’ll be so weak it’ll be useless. There’s a reason the old crowd uses prisoner sacrifices for the effect, it allows you to control the alignments.”
“The drivers have been women more than men,” Amadeus said.
“There’s rituals that take gender into consideration, but not this kind,” Warlock said. “And they’re exceedingly imprecise, so there’s no way they could take out Sabah. It’s too fluid a concept to be used as a solid anchor.”
That was usually the way, with cultural mores. If the intent is opaque, change the perspective. Neither consecration nor geographic location. Temporal placement? The hours where the caravans had been taken formed no useful arcane pattern, according to Warlock. Using the date by the Imperial calendar led to a dead end, but then outside Praes it was rarely used. The Free Cities counted the years from the founding of the League, but that was another dead end. The ancestral calendar of Helike was similarly useless.
“Keteran Calendar,” Warlock finally murmured, peering at a table full of opened books with a cup of wine in hand.
Amadeus adjusted his thinking, bringing the corresponding numbers to mind. Nothing that seemed relevant to him.
“Take out the second killing,” Wekesa said. “Then instead of using only the date as is, subtract using the year Sabah was born.”
The Black Knight closed his eyes, assembled the answers.
“Spell formula,” he said. “But this is ridiculously indirect.”
Warlock ignored him, scribbling ink on parchment and translating numbers to runes then speculated requirements from there.
“It’s not just that,” the Soninke grimaced.
“It would take thousands to create even a minor effect with so weak a sympathetic link,” Amadeus pointed out.
“The effect itself is how I know we’re on the wrong track,” Wekesa sighed. “Look, this is a projection of the illusion that would be formed if this formula was empowered.”
Warlock tapped the table once, and spell light glowed softly. In front of them, a hand was rotating in the air. Only the middle finger was raised.
“This is the Tyrant’s play, then,” the green-eyed man murmured. “That as good as confirms it.”
The combination of childish insult and advanced understanding of spellcrafting mechanics was telling. That a secondary pattern inserted into the primary one purely for the sake of the taunt was there at all was somewhat worrying. Amadeus had not been under the impression the Tyrant had mages this talented as his disposal, or such understanding himself. Another change of perspective was needed, but before that more information must be obtained. In a calculated risk, he sent Sabah to sack the seventh caravan. A different route, once more. Amadeus drank, watched the flames and thought. Eudokia came with her reports when the moon was high.
“The magisters were open to negotiations to have their army returned to them,” Scribe said.
“But?” the Duni prompted.
“Distraction,” she said. “They’ve already secured other means to accomplish this.”
The Tyrant. That he’d bothered to involve Stygia at all spoke volumes: they had a role to play in his ultimate intent.
“He rules Helike,” the Black Knight said. “Occupies Atalante. Has a representative from Bellerophon, struck a pact with Stygia and prepares to siege Nicae.”
Eudokia nodded without a word. She’d understood the order perfectly.
“The Bard?” he said.
“Still gathering,” she replied, and disappeared into the night.
Amadeus closed his eyes and thought. Eliminating theories one after another would take too long, and the caravans could not simply be allowed to pass. The longer Nicae could afford to import supplies from Ashur, the longer the siege stretched out and the longer he would have to remain. He could not afford to stay away from the Empire for that long, not with the… colourful rumours about what was currently unfolding there. To find the pattern, then, he would need to begin with the individual or individuals thathad crafted it. Necessary common factor? Understanding of High Arcana. Nothing less could be used for a ritual of this class. Still and silent, Amadeus counted. He had known seventeen individuals capable of using High Arcana, in his life. He brought up every single conversation he’d had with one of them, and sought commonalities in perspective. In the back of his mind, the gears ground. Too shallow a pool of information. He repeated the exercise, adding everything he’d ever read from an individual who cleared the condition to the process. Two days he stayed there, his companions knowing better than to disturb him. It was night again when he opened his eyes.
“Planar perception,” he told no one at all.
The understanding of sorcery of that level led to a different understanding of Creation as well, one divorced from the material concerns that shaped his views. To Wekesa, for example, the lay of the land they both looked at was fundamentally different. Looking at the situation through the version of this filter he could construct, he found his answer. Height. No topographical map of the region accurate enough for his purposes could be obtained, which meant direct observation. Warlock handled it, putting together the images obtained through relays.
“You’re right,” Wekesa admitted. “If you look at the pattern using the height they were killed at instead of the location, I can recognize the shape.”
“How many do they need?” he asked.
“Assuming I’m correct and the first killing was a decoy, four more,” his old friend said.
“Nine in total,” Amadeus said. “Thrice three. A killing stroke?”
“Offensive in nature, at the very least,” Warlock said. “We stop shy of what they need?”
The Black Knight smiled, very mildly.
“No,” he said. “I think not. They will get exactly what they need.”
Eudokia found him as he ate for the first time in days, methodically replenishing his strength.
“An offer was made to the Secretariat,” she said. “Penthes as well.”
The pale-skinned man chewed thoughtfully.
“He aims to be Hierarch, then,” he said.
How the Tyrant had managed to exert pressure on Bellerophon enough they would agree to this would have to be found investigated. Such a lever was too useful to be left solely in the boy’s hands.
“Assuming he secures all the votes,” Amadeus said. “Intent?”
“Broader games,” Scribe suggested. “His methodology requires constant opposition.”
That was a possibility, the green-eyed man thought. A straightforward one, however. That did not immediately disqualify it as a possible objective, but it was not a mark in its favour.
“Worst case scenario,” Eudokia asked, changing the approach.
“Tenth crusade, involving the entirety of Hasenbach’s coalition,” Amadeus replied without missing a beat. “Dead King uninvolved. Chain of Hunger unable to exert strength. Drow situation unchanged.”
“Kingdom Under?” Scribe said.
“In another expansion phase,” the Black Knight reminded her. “They will profiteer through weapon trade, at most.”
They’d left behind the question of what the Tyrant was after, and were instead studying what effect he could have on the Empire under the worst circumstances possible should he ascend to the position.
“He would be a destabilizing factor,” Scribe said, and there was no greater insult in her eyes than what she had just uttered.
“One without the ability to grab land or hamper commerce outside affordable losses,” Amadeus said. “By nature, even should he manage to align with Procer he will be damaging to them.”
Not worth directly opposing in this, the verdict was. Not unless other information surfaced that changed the forces in play.
“I’ve assembled an initial dossier,” Eudokia said.
Amadeus raised an eyebrow.
“Different face, but she has been active in Procer,” Scribe said.
“She’s behind Hasenbach?” he asked.
If the Wandering Bard had enabled the First Prince to rise, the failure in intelligence that had resulted in him being unware of this was… massive. It put everything he knew of the Proceran situation in question.
“No recorded contact,” Eudokia said. “But she was in Rhenia.”
The Black Knight was too old and far too removed from the boy he’d once been to let the dismay touch his face.
“The Augur,” he said. “There could be indirect influence. Anything further back?”
“No link to the Troubadour or the Magnificent Minstrel,” Scribe said. “But getting anything prior to the Conquest has been… difficult.”
The records had been tinkered with, she meant.
“There’s no precedent for an uninterrupted stream of consciousness,” Amadeus said.
“Heavier inheritance,” Scribe suggested.
Name dreams writ large. It was possible. Few things were not, when it came to Named.
“A line of Wandering Bards going back for centuries, advancing some collective purpose,” he said. “That is… an issue. There must be limits.”
“She has never intervened directly,” Eudokia said, and he waved his hand in irritation.
They’d both known what. It was a staple of bardic Names, being able to influence the story but rarely change it with their own hands. Power only through fronts, never wielded personally.
“Has she ever been linked to anyone not Named?” Amadeus said.
Reluctantly, Scribe shook her head. Given the incomplete records at their disposal, she was unwilling to commit fully to that theory.
“When attached to the Lone Swordsman, she operated within his moral boundaries,” Eudokia said.
Limits to her actions dictated to the story she was bound to and the nature of its heroes. Another theory to test.
“It’s her blind spots we need to to find,” he said. “The majority of the threat she represents comes from her awareness of our movements.”
Eudokia nodded. Amadeus frowned.
“Pick a target,” he said. “Assassin is at your disposal. I cannot know.”
“Risk margin?” she asked.
“I trust your judgement,” he replied.
No more need be said. Sabah killed, four more times. But as skilled as the mages of the Tyrant were, they were not Warlock. A single strand of hair was placed in the centre of the runic circle, and the curse meant to kill Captain found another target. Usurpation was, after all, the essence of sorcery. After it was done, Wekesa complimented the ritual. It was, apparently, not derivative of Praesi work in the slightest though it had been designed under the shared Trismegistan theory of magic. Behind the tall walls of Nicae, the Ashen Priestess died screaming. There was no warning, and no saving her. The ritual had been performed to kill a Named much more physically able. Amadeus approved, when he learned of it. Always kill the healer first. Targeting the White Knight might not have succeeded, and of the others the Priestess was the most apt to tip the balance in a clash. Before dawn, every practitioner involved on the attempt on Sabah’s life was dead. They left behind a note indicating they had taken their own lives out of guilt. Assassin’s sense of humour had grown whimsical of late.
“Your reasoning?” Scribe asked, after.
“No hero was involved in the story until the very end,” he said. “It was a struggle purely between villains.”
“Ah,” Eudokia said. “She can only see us when we stand opposed to her narrative?”
“Possibly,” Amadeus frowned. “Otherwise she sacrificed a heroine for no visible gain.”
“If she is bound by the White Knight’s morality, she could not do so,” Scribe said.
“Possibly,” the green-eyed man repeated. “I am… unsettled, Eudokia.”
Her eyes were still as ponds.
“The word for ‘bard’ we use comes from Old Miezan,” he said. “Language has evolved, even in our lifetime.”
“If the line were that ancient, there would be records,” Scribe said. “Unless.”
“Unless,” Amadeus agreed softly.
Unless something was cleaning up behind them, be it their Role or the Gods Above. Such a direct intervention would allow similar direct meddling from the Gods Below, of course. Balance in spirit, if not in practice. Yet he could think of only one event in Calernian history that would qualify. The creation of the Kingdom of the Dead. Which preceded written history in Praes by centuries, by conservative estimate. If the line of ‘Bards’ was that old, the Heavens had been playing a longer game than any of them. The ramifications of that were beyond the scope of his understanding, a feeling he was unused to and did not particularly care for.
“It could be Triumphant,” Eudokia said.
Triumphant cost us so much more than we gained. If she’d been the intervention of the Gods Below, they had let themselves be robbed by the opposition. Black closed his eyes.
“If she cannot be killed, she must be trapped,” he said.
He felt Scribe nod. She sat at his side, close enough to touch but never quite getting there.
“You are tired,” Eudokia said.
Innocuous words, but the deeper meaning was there.
“I am dying, I think,” he murmured.
There was a long silence.
“If Catherine wields the knife, I will destroy her,” she said, as if she was speaking of the weather. “And if I fail Hye will not.”
Amadeus did not reply. If he’d been the kind of man to pray, he would have prayed then. But he was not, so instead the gears began to turn and he wondered how many of the people he loved he would have to kill, before it was all over.