“I was once told that character is what you are in the dark. I found, my dear Chancellor, that I was the dark.”
– Dread Emperor Sorcerous
“There,” Hierophant said.
It had been a pleasant surprise to learn that Masego had not ignored the talks with Diabolist purely because the matters discussed bored him. He had, in fact, been tracking the other end of the scrying spell since its establishment. Though Akua had used relays to muddy the water, I doubted she’d seriously expected her work to fool the eyes of a Named mage. The implication there lay bare: it didn’t matter if we knew where she was, because she was ready to pull the trigger at any time. On Still Water, and whatever else she had up her sleeve. The neatly ordered lines of light in the air formed a broad map of Callow, though it ignored cities for geographical features. Studying it, I picked one of the stones Juniper used when planning operations and set it down on the earthly map I’d sent for.
“This looks accurate to you?” I said.
The Soninke did not turn, and I got the eerie impression he was looking with his glass eyes through the back of his head.
“Half an inch upwards,” he said.
I adjusted and grimaced as he dismissed the spell.
“No way to tell if she’s set down, is there?” I asked.
“She will have to, to use her array,” Hierophant said. “On a working of this scale, the slightest imprecision would have massive repercussion. I’ve never heard of a flying fortress capable of remaining entirely still in the sky.”
So this, I thought, was going to be our battlefield. Akua had brought Liesse in the heartlands of Callow, precisely at the intersection of three cities: Vale, Ankou and Southpool. All cities that had gone largely untouched by the Liesse Rebellion and what men were already beginning to call the Arcadian War. On one hand, that brought her within marching distance of the legions under the command of Marshal Grem One-Eye. On the other hand, those legions were posted there because they were in spitting distance of the border with the Principate. There was, I knew, no realistic way to keep anything that would go down there quiet abroad. Diaobolist, as was her habit, had begun to fuck us over form the very beginning. Black and Malicia had spies under every rock in this land, but not even that would be enough to keep the method of necromancy used here under wraps.
It’d taken another sit down with Masego to understand how much of problem it would be if Still Water got out. I knew there was something called Keter’s Due that was one of the limits of sorcery, the amount of power that got wasted with every spell and ritual, and apparently the Due one was one of the reasons why large rituals were only ever used if you didn’t mind wrecking wherever they took place – like, infamously, the Kingdom of the Dead. Warlock’s horror project was bad news in part because most the heavy lifting was done through alchemy, with only the trigger being sorcery. It could be used again and again without any great resource investment save the reagents. Calling it world-shaking innovation would be stretching a bit, in my opinion, since there were still obvious limits on how it could be employed. If people didn’t imbibe enough of the reagents, the ritual wouldn’t do much at all, and after the initial use other nations would certainly start keeping an eye out for it.
It was still a brutal weapon, one that had the potential to wreck large swaths of territory if employed properly – which it would be, if the Empress and Black were the ones plotting the use. Given that the First Prince was already itching for a Crusade, there would be consequences when it got out. The best I could hope for was to slow the spread of information and destroy the proof. I knew better than to hope that would lead to more than a delay. Diabolist had just effectively ensured we’d be at war with the Principate within a few years, at a guess the moment they finished getting on war footing. Given the titanic size of Procer and what it would actually mean to have its full strength thrown at the Empire, I doubted Black would give them the time to gear up in peace. He’d strike first and strike hard, aiming to cripple them before they mustered their armies properly. If they don’t start the war, we will. Dark as the thought was, I would prefer the latter. Better to fight on Proceran soil than Callowan.
I reached for the bottle and topped up my glass. I had no idea how long Diabolist would need to finish her array, assuming she hadn’t already, and that meant the time scale of this campaign was still in the dark. If I took a few months to gather reinforcement, was I going to have to deal with the sky raining fire? On the other hand, with the army that stood on the other side, could I afford not to? Unless she’d gotten reinforcements since her scrap with the Princess of High Noon, Diabolist had only six thousand proper soldiers but twice that in undead and devils. Then she’d get the entire population of Liesse, of course, and she still had one ‘greater devil’. For something to qualify as greater in the eyes of a Princess of Summer meant it wasn’t to be taken lightly, by my reckoning. It would mean nothing to hit fast if my armies failed to take the city. There are still so many unknowns, I thought, and glanced as Masego made to leave.
“Stay,” I said. “I need you for the coming conversation.”
“Though my judgement is laudable, I have not much exercised it in matters of war,” Hierophant said.
“This one’s not about war, not exactly,” I said. “I sent for Duchess Kegan. I want to know exactly what Diabolist got her hands on that has her so worried and what the consequences of killing it would be.”
The blindfold creased with his brow.
“Deoraithe are notoriously secretive,” he said.
“And it’ll be the three of us in the tent alone,” I grunted. “I already am compromising. I’d rather have Hakram and Juniper in here as well.”
“And you believe she will see it this way?” the blind man asked, genuinely curious.
“Let’s hope she’s reasonable,” I said.
The mage looked amused at that, for some reason, but he grabbed the seat at the edge of the table. It was meant for over a dozen, the same I used for staff meetings, and looked rather strange so empty when I’d grown used to it being full. I drank from my cup as Hierophant summoned the bottle to him and poured himself one as well. I raised an eyebrow.
“Would it really have been that much of an effort to get up?” I said.
“You sound like Father,” he muttered.
Whatever I would have made of that – and already I had ideas – had to be set aside for he moment, as Kegan graced us with her presence. It would be revisited though, the grin I sent Masego’s way promised as much.
“Your Grace,” the Duchess greeted me, then grudgingly inclined her head at Masego. “Lord Hierophant.”
“Duchess Kegan,” I replied over the rim of my cup. “Please, sit.”
The courtesies on her part were stiff, and I knew exactly why. Twenty thousand Deoraithe had marched out of Daoine, a quarter of them Watch, and now only fourteen thousand remained. Her casualties had the Battle of Four Armies and One had been relatively light, but Dormer had been bloody business. Made worse, I knew, by the fact that Juniper had refused her use of the Watch when she struggled against the Summer regulars in the outer city. Instead they had been sent to fight the Immortals, and courted disaster there as well. I’d yet to get a spoke report, but the written one I’d gotten my hands on said the Watch had been getting brutalized before Thief came to their aid by snatching the standard on that flank. Half the Watch had been buried, either here or in Arcadia. It was the kind of losses that would take a generation to recover from, and we hadn’t even come in sight of Liesse yet. Kegan took a seat distant from both mine and Masego’s, to my dark amusement. It was almost childish, the three of us sharing a table meant for four times our number as if there was nothing odd in it.
“Your messenger did not specify the reason for your summons, only that the matter was urgent,” the Duchess said.
She eyed the bottle, but did not reach for it. I had no intention of wasting Vale summer wine on the likes of her, and so did not offer.
“We know where the Diabolist is,” I said, and gestured at the table.
She glanced at it, eyes lingering on the stone I’d placed.
“A blunder on her part,” the Deoraithe said. “You could easily muster forces from the adjoining cities without even use of portals. Orders through scrying would allow you to gather and arm men in great numbers.”
“I’m considering my options,” I said.
I balked at the idea of sending half-trained civilians into the den of madness Akua would have have prepared for them, but I was not unaware I might not have a choice. What we had left might not be enough to deal with more than a hundred thousand undead, much less the horde of devils she was sure to have contracts for.
“That is why I called for you, as it happens,” I continued. “The odds are already stark as is. We can’t afford to go in blind.”
The tan face of the aristocrat went blank.
“I have already shared with you what I can,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow. She’d told me that whatever Akua had bound ‘could be considered a deity of sort’, which was actually less than what Masego had been able to tell me – and all he knew was second-hand from his father.
“Behavioural changes were observed in the Watch,” Hierophant said. “Of this you have not spoken, or truly much at all.”
Kegan’s eyes went cold.
“Has your esteemed father not put enough of my people under the knife to discern some truths?” she said.
Ah, sarcasm. She should know better than to think that would work on Masego. He had a decent read on those he knew well, but strangers?
“No,” Hierophant replied frankly. “He is under orders never to grab a member of the Watch without legal cause, which has been very difficult since the Conquest.”
“How sad for him,” Kegan replied blandly.
“That’s very kind of you,” Masego said, sounding surprised. “It has been very irritating to have such a fascinating mystery within reach but forbidden from study.”
“Warlock’s not the one asking you the question, Duchess,” I said. “I am.”
The woman’s eyes returned to me.
“The terms of our treaty with the Tower place the affairs of internal rule within our sole purview,” she said.
“And if the thing was still within your borders, I’d cheerfully pretend it didn’t exist,” I said. “It isn’t. It’s being used as fuel for whatever Diabolist means to throw at us, and I’m not taking a swing at that without a broad idea of what’s waiting on the other side.”
“The breach of terms was Praesi,” Kegan stiffly said. “It is not for Daoine to pay the price for that treachery.”
“Akua Sahelian has been attainted as rebel by the Empress,” I sighed. “You know who stands for Praes, right now? I do. You know, the person trying to fix this fucking mess.”
“A mess you have no small hand in making,” the duchess coldly said. “Did you not personally petition the Court to have the Diabolist named governess of Liesse?”
“I was bound by oath to do as much,” I reply, but it was a weak answer and I knew it.
It had occurred to me, of late, that it was hard to tell if I was the pillar propping up Callow or the stone around it’s people’s neck. I wasn’t done losing sleep over that, but neither was I going to let it bind my hands when dealing with a woman actively refusing to inform me of a danger we both faced.
“And I am bound by duty not to speak of this matter,” Kegan said.
I let out a long breath and calmly put my hand on the table. The other woman watched it, and her features loosened almost imperceptibly when she saw the wood had not fogged or frozen. She thought it meant I wasn’t furious. Wrong. It just means I’ve gotten back a sliver of control.
“I’ve made a lot of oaths and promises, in the last few months,” I calmly said. “Some pretty grandiose threats, too. I won’t bother with that here, Kegan. I’ll just put two truths in front of you. The first is this: to have a decent chance at victory, I need to know what I’m facing. The second is this: I do not need your consent to get an answer.”
I could Speak, I could have Hierophant rip it out of her mind or half a dozen other ways. With ever month my arsenal grew, and I grew less reluctant to use it. I could use any of those tools and even make sure she wouldn’t remember a bit of it when she left this tent. Masego had learned much from his work against fae in the south, when I sent him to use Summer against the Diabolist.
“You have made much of treating fairly,” Kegan said, but I could see fear there.
“And I will again,” I said. “I’ll offer mercy whenever I can. Justice too, as much as it can be had -but never when the cost is defeat. That is my line in the sand. Cross it at your peril.”
The duchess met my eyes, even afraid, and for that she won my respect. It would not stop me from asking Hierophant to carve open her mind, if I had to.
“A lesser evil is still an evil,” she bitterly said.
“I prefer necessary to lesser,” I said, “but will not quibble over the rest.”
Kegan breathed out, and reached for the wine. She poured herself a glass and whet her lips before speaking.
“It is not a god in the way Praesi would know of it,” she said. “It is a gestalt.”
“Souls,” he said.
“Every single one of the People that have died since the elves took the Golden Bloom from us,” she said. “Millions, by now.”
“And the Watch is bound to them,” I said.
“They borrow the strength of our ancestors, one day to take back our home,” the duchess said.
“You forged a god,” Hierophant said, and spoke with a touch of awe. “This might be the single greatest working of necromancy Creation has ever known. Unlike Keter it would keep growing. Every decade you can have more Watchmen, or stronger.”
I had other worries.
“If Diabolist controls your… gestalt,” I said. “Can she control the Watch through it?”
“The past rulers of Daoine had similar worries,” Kegan said. “A degree of separation was created to prevent a Warlock from effecting this should they find out. It is one of the reasons the Watch has not been able to grow more numerous but not more powerful over the centuries. The number of oaths that can be taken is limited. The usurpation was still felt, however. It is quite unpleasant.”
“You should have spoken of this to Father years ago,” Hierophant began excitedly, “there are numerous theories that-“
I cut him off with a raised hand.
“Can it be destroyed?” I asked.
“Yes,” she reluctantly said.
“And what would the consequences of that would be?” I pressed.
“I am unsure,” she admitted, and I turned to Masego.
“You’d be destroying the gestalt, not the souls,” Hierophant noted. “As individual entities they would go on existing, released from whatever binding kept them together.”
“That sounds bad,” I said. “It would damage the surroundings, right?”
“Containing them in a location would be feasible, with the right set of wards,” he said. “Otherwise, should they be unconstrained, I imagine over a third of Callow would be turned into a blasted, violently haunted wasteland. I’ll need a direct look or more precise numbers to project the exact fallout.”
“I have brought specialists to wrest back control from the Diabolist,” the duchess said. “Preventing her from interfering with the process is the most salient issue.”
Glass eyes turned to her.
“It find it unlikely,” Hierophant said, “that Deoraithe mages could undo the work of a Named practitioner of Akua Sahelian’s skill.”
I drummed my fingers against the wood.
“Duchess, get your people talking with Hierophant,” I ordered. “We’ll see how feasible your way is. I’d much prefer it was. But if it isn’t…”
“Well, Diabolist put a sharper in the middle of her army,” I said. “I’m not above lighting it to finish the war.”