“Then let us be wicked,
Let us be reddest ruin
Rent, broken, crooked
Black hearted and cruel
Then let us be doom,
To both friend and foe
Fly banner of gloom
We lowest of the low
Rise, rise all ye villains
You rogues and madmen
Proudly claim the stage,
Of this wondrous age
We are not kind or just
Deserving of any victory
We are a thing of dust
Promised only misery
So smile, Tyrants,
And let us be wicked”
– Final monologue of “The Many Deaths of Traitorous”, a play on the reign of the Dread Emperor Traitorous
In the depths of the city of Liesse, beyond layers upon layers of wards and traps, there was a room. For more than a year it had been slowly crafted to perfection, and for years before that had Akua Sahelian spent days and nights refining its design. Removing impurities and inefficiencies, balancing ease of use and breadth of effect so that only a single soul in all of Creation could use it as it was meant to be used. Should she live for a hundred thousand years she would never make anything half so great, for it was the culmination of everything that she was. All that she loved and hated, all that had made and fought her. There had been a child, once, who looked upon pyramids of mud and blood and felt awe. At the skill, at the scope, at the power that still dwelled within – and though Tasia Sahelian had toiled greatly to make a hollow husk of that girl, a mere receptacle for her ambitions, that spark of wonder had never been snuffed out. It had grown into flame, and that sacred burn coursed through her veins today. And it whispered of triumph.
Diabolist felt the city pulse like a living creature, arrays of sorcery spread across it like arteries all leading back to the heart that was her. In this moment, she knew, she was half a god. How easy it would have been to grow drunk on that might, had she been of a lesser line. But she was a Sahelian, the blood of the original murder. The killers of the first empress, who’d writ the truth of Praes in blood and treachery. Her forbears had been kings and queens, and Tyrants more than once. Rule, the ownership of power however fleeting it may be, was nothing less than her birth right. Walls of carved stone around her were as a pond, and on those reflective facades she saw the Legions of Terror standing with a man before them. The Black Knight, she thought, spoke well. Yet it was wrong, for him to be the speaker. It should have been Catherine Foundling, her match and mirror. Her red right hand in the making. Once she had thought too little of the Squire, believed her to be nothing more than tool and obstacle, but how she had learned since. Fasili had once remarked it was a shame Foundling was not born Praesi, for she had the seeds of greatness in her, but Akua knew better.
It had to be this way. It was the fire, the righteous indignation that made Squire who she was – a burn no lesser than Diabolist’s own. If she’d never been crushed underfoot, she would never have risen from it fangs bared. The Soninke closed her eyes and smiled. She could glimpse the ending of their story already, grasp the edges of its shape with her fingers. Akua would break Catherine Foundling, shatter her beyond repair, and the creature of jagged edges and hatred that remained after would kneel at her feet. And what a fearsome monster she would be, upon emerging from that crucible. She would sweep through Diabolist’s foes with fire and sword, a woe on all she faced worthy of the name bestowed upon her. It made Akua shiver in pleasure just to think of it. The Diabolist opened her eyes and let the words of the Carrion Lord burrow into her ears. The only distraction was her father’s shuffling at her side, for there was only one seat in this room and it would not tolerate the sitting of any but her.
“He’s not wrong, Mpanzi,” Dumisai of Aksum said. “They say nowadays that the legions won that civil war, the orcs and the goblins, but I remember it still. The Calamities owned it body and soul: it defined them as much as their Names. Better not to fight them at all.”
Spoken, she thought, as a man who could have been the Warlock but chose obscurity over the uncertainty of struggle. The odds, she knew, would not have been in her father’s favour. The Sovereign of the Red Skies had begun to earn his title when he was still the Apprentice, and though claimants gained powers when embracing their claim Lord Wekesa would have had the full might of his old Name behind him. Yet it was never a certainty, that an Apprentice would become the Warlock. Praesi Names were never easily won. Akua loved her father, but she would not deny that in the face of offered greatness he had flinched.
“I do not hate them,” Diabolist said. “Nor the Empress. For all their flaws, they sought to make our people rise. I am not Mother, Papa – I do not despise what they are. It is a mistake made in good faith, and killing them was never the point of this. I am surpassing them. If that must involve taking their lives, then so be it.”
And how long had she dreamed of this, of escaping the shackles? The Carrion Lord had been right, in part. They could not win the war by repeating the same defeat with a hundred different fresh faces. But the pair that ruled Praes had abandoned everything that the peoples of the Wasteland were to avoid another disgrace, and that was a betrayal greater than mere failure. They could win and still be Praesi, Akua knew. Go to your grave gladly, Black Knight, having learned the truth of that – you were, for all your weaknesses, a patriot. She would not deny the fearsome depth of that loyalty, however twisted it was. The man’s words ended in the tired adage of the Legions, screamed back by the soldiers, and Diabolist rose to her feet.
“Go,” she told her father. “And stay safe. You are worth more to me than petty victories.”
His arms wrapped around her and for a heartbeat she was a child again, his chin nestled atop her head.
“Live,” he whispered. “Whatever the cost, whatever the consequences. Live. Nothing else matters.”
“Believe in me,” she asked.
“’til my last breath and beyond,” he promised.
No empty words, coming from a sorcerer who knew the mysteries he did. He left after that, the passing warmth of him lingering behind. Diabolist stood before the rune-inscribed walls and laid a single finger on them. They lit up like a starry sky, reaching for a hundred different arrays spread across houses and bastions and pits. The Carrion Lord had spoken for the ruling order, for the woman who held the Tower. She would speak, then, for the Wasteland. For the Empire that was and would be, for the greatness that was not yet forgot. Akua Sahelia stood proud, for there was more to her than mere ambition.
“We are,” she said quietly, “the last of the Praesi.”
They would hear her, her words carried by sorcery worn and ancient. They would hear her and know they might be wicked but they were not wrong.
“The Tower,” Akua said, “is in the hands of a woman who would rule us forever. Before us stand her legions of dupes, led by her most loyal hound. Your heard them speak of dues, and so know they deny the oldest truth of our empire: there are no equals.”
It was like drinking spring water, to speak words she truly meant instead of whatever must be said to gain. Relief, that after years of scuttling in the dark she could raise her true banner.
“There are the rulers and the ruled,” she said. “The greater and the lesser. To deny this is to deny the Gods themselves, for that is how they made us. And now our Empress bows and scrapes to a conquered people, ignoring the reality that saw them conquered.”
She let silence ring loudly.
“Power,” she hissed.
There were others in foreign lands that would call this ugly truth, but she spoke to Praesi: the people of altars and pacts, of naked ruthless ambition. What she offered them now was the song of their ancestors, sung anew with fresh promise.
“Twenty years ago, we were more powerful than the people of Callow,” she continued. “Twenty years ago we were better than them, for beyond all the lies and stories that is the bare truth of Creation: the powerful own the world.”
A laugh escaped her lips, sharply mocking.
“They call themselves a different breed, these hypocrites, but what is arrayed before you? Mere force of arms.”
And her people knew steel, that old friend of ambition. How many of their ancestors had claimed the Tower wielding it?
“In the end, all they are is another movement in the Great Game. The enemy might be powerful, but that should bring you no fear.”
She leaned forward, hard-eyed.
“Iron sharpens iron, and when we emerge victorious we will be so sharp a blade as to make the world tremble.”
Akua smiled, a display that should have been beneath her but at this last pivot of her life was not.
“Glory in this day, sons and daughters of Praes,” she said. “The Age of Wonders is upon you, and though it is great and terrible to behold, let Creation remember this – so are we.”
And in the wake of her words, as the Legions advanced and flanking forces sallied, sorcery bloomed. No wild cheers, from the people of the Wasteland. Acclaim came in the form of death unleashed. A thousand mages stirred to action, and when they struck it was with the wrath of a people cheated their destiny. How long had it been, since Calernia last saw the finest of Praes moved to war? Too long. With every streak of lighting and storm of flame that balance was redressed, and in the face of steel a rolling wave of power was sent forth. It would have swept the legionaries aside like kindling, had it touched them.
It did not, because the Sovereign of the Red Skies had taken the field.
High above a star was born, and it came into the world with a keening cry. It pulled the sorcery like a withdrawing tide, swept it upwards until it was filled and a ring of raging sorcery detonated across the sky with a sound like thunder. The mage lines of the Legions, these half-mages minted and spent like cheap copper, gave answer. A dozen rituals burned and massive lances of flame were sent at Akua’s bastions, but what did she care? These were but pale imitations, and the original stood arrayed against them. Half the lances dispersed within a heartbeat of being thrown, the formulas torn apart like the half-baked jokes they were, and the rest were turned against their own side. The fires changed from lances to beasts, lions and snakes and tigers, and with dull roars they attacked the advancing legionaries. Dozens died incinerated within moments, before the Carrion Lord lent the weight of his aspects to the men and led them through the inferno. Lead, Akua thought. Conquer. Not tools for the killing of heroes but for the leading of armies, and as the Black Knight’s mantled came upon them the legionaries became more. Swifter, stronger, indifferent to the raging flames.
The Diabolist did not strike as the Sixth Legion followed the Carrion Lord in his sweeping advance, turning her eyes to the sky instead. There a single silhouette rode a winged steed stolen from Arcadia, cloak of many colours streaming behind her. An artefact in the making, gathering weight with every fallen army stitched onto the rest. Already Akua suspected sorcery would slide over like like water off a duck’s back, and it was still nascent to its true form. Squire would strike at the heart of the enemy, for that was her nature. Not through aspects, it was too early for that, but Catherine Foundling had another signature. The winged steed passed over the ranks of dead manning the entrenched palisades, deftly avoiding spellfire from the bastions as a simple knife cut down what appeared to be sacks tied to the sides of the mount. When the first arrow took flight from impossibly far, flames coating it, Diabolist almost laughed. There it was. One, two, three – eight in whole. Every single sack of goblinfire was ignited while still dropping, and fell like green rain over the wights. Some reached the bastions filled with mages and engines, but there were panes of force awaiting. The goblinfire burned into them, but they were thrown aside and her sorcerers left untouched. Her general’s careful experimentation with the most dangerous tools of the Legions had paid fruit.
Diabolist returned to her seat, settling against the wooden frame as her eyes remained fixed on the unfolding battle. Soon. She would have preferred to let the Legions overcommit, but the Warlock would soon go on the offensive and he was not to be taken lightly. The Fifteenth, she saw, was not part of the assault. A reserve, likely kept for when the walls were breached. It would serve other purpose, but Akua was not displeased. They would be tied up regardless, removed from the equation. That was how her enemies would lose, in the end. Dispersed to deal with half a dozen threats, they would fall one by one. The Sixth Legion reached the outer field of traps, and Akua’s mages triggered their arrays. Within three heartbeats what had been an empty field was filled with howling lesser devils.
And then they died.
Diabolist froze, blood going cold. Every single devil summoned by the arrays had turned into red dust before so much as striking a blow. The Warlock’s doing, it could only be him, but how had he known? He’d have needed to begin casting before the triggers, which meant… Someone has studied the lay of our defences, she realized. And done so with a great deal of precision. Akua’s fingers tightened around the arms of her chair. It might be assumed that the devils in the secondary arrays would meet the same fate, and without them serving as a slowing mechanism for the advance of the Legions then soon her palisades would be under assault. And with the goblinfire already thinning the ranks of the dead, they would break. Now. It had to be now.
The Diabolist breathed out and her mind stilled. It’d been seven years now, since she had separated her soul from her earthly flesh. It had spared her ugly end in this very city, once, and from that it was likely her foes had come to assume it was a measure meant for her preservation. To ensure that even if her body was destroyed, she could invest another and continue her plans. As it happened, that had merely been a fortunate consequence. Akua had removed her soul in preparation for something… greater. In the depths of the Ducal Palace, where the anchor of her great working awaited, a small cylinder of pure obsidian covered in runes lit up. Inside it was bound her soul, but it was no mere phylactery. It was a key. Her soul touched the untold millions of dead Deoraithe she had caged, connecting to the greater weave. All over Liesse runes burned bright, the glare alone melting stone and shattering wood around them as the greatest ritual Praes had seen since the days of Triumphant began.
Runic letters formed in front of her, a contract written, and then she gave the sorcery shape.
On the plains to the flank of the encroaching legions, a dot of yellow flame formed. In it the contract she had written shone, and the flame grew. An empty circle was forged, the diameter half a mile wide, and the yellow flame solidified. Creation screamed, screamed in protest as it was ripped apart forcefully and the Hellgate opened. Not a Lesser Breach, but a Greater. The first since the fall of Keter, and unlike the Dead King she would not be forbidden a second. The souls of the Deoraithe were not spent, merely thinned, and would coalesce again in a matter of days. It would take her even longer to stabilize her own, but the true terror of her work was the scale. Distance meant nothing, to sufficient power. She could open a gate in the heartlands of the Principate without moving ,if she so wished. Akua Sahelian’s army was the entirety of all the Hells, and as the first devil crossed her gate, the binding she had written in the flame leashing it to her will, she laughed. The host at her disposal was without end, and she had crafted this ritual so it could only ever answer to her. The array was part of her, as much as any limb or drop of blood.
Waves of wasted power coursed into the escapements she had designed so very carefully, empowering wards that would have taken hundreds of mages to use and just like that Liesse… disappeared. Forced half a step out of Creation. There had been a reason that she had chosen the southern city out of all the governorships she could have secured. The corpse of the angel, though left behind, had ensured that Liesse was always slightly askew from Creation. Easier to move, and given clear boundary by the ancient wards surrounding it. And so now the city was out of reach, save for one entrance she had crafted herself. It lay at the heart of her fortifications on the plains, and the enemy would bleed themselves dry trying to take it. All that planning from the clever generals on the other side yet here they stood now, the forces meant to assault the walls on the sides utterly useless and the exposed flank of the army facing endless onslaught.
Hell began pouring out of the Breach, and the Diabolist smiled the smile of a woman who was going to conquer the world.