“Rulers must exercise restraint. Every action ripples across Creation, bringing three unintended consequences for every one anticipated.”
– Extract from the personal journals of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
“Well, I’m not getting close to that,” Archer announced.
Their arrival on the bastion had been somewhat haphazard, Hakram thought, yet the fight had managed to go sharply downhill within moments. Before they even got their bearings fully half a dozen wards had blown up and mages had begun screaming, their flesh boiling and twisting violently. The orc calmly considered the sight even as he rose to his feet, eyes moving from one roiling shape to another. This was not, he decided, sorcery. Or not just that. The effects were too varied. Some rebels were growing spores on their skin, others had bones protruding from their skin in a crown of spikes and yet more had… stranger outcomes. A woman’s silk robes turned into a carapace, her the ruby set in her thick golden necklace blinking like an eye. He had seen the likes of this before, in Marchford. When a warband of young Named had picked a fight beyond their understanding, and come so very close to annihilation for that arrogance. The rest of the dots connected themselves without effort. Diabolist had surrendered the demon she’d unleashed there as part of the terms of settlement in Liesse, and the custody of it had been granted to Masego.
Adjutant felt like shivering. It was one thing, he thought, for Catherine to fight fire with oil. Quite another for Hierophant to do the same. The consequences of Masego making a mistake would be graver in many ways. It occurred to him for the first time, then, that they had perhaps learned the recklessness of the woman they followed too well. We are no Calamities, the orc thought. The crucible of our forging was one of desperation, and we have learned both the best and the worst of that. Victory against all odds, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, could never be gained without a cost. Habit had taught them to disregard that, because behind them more steady hands always swept away the mess. But those steady hands were dying now. If they did not learn to check this recklessness, it would bury them. Or worse, the orc thought as he watched the corruption take hold of the mages. In the distance a sound like a thousand sharpers sounded and Hierophant returned to Creation in a storm of power. The orc’s eyes flicked, and his face grew grim.
The Deoraithe had advanced where the demons once stood before Masego spirited them away, and now that the blind sorcerer had returned he’d come back among them. Tendrils of power washed over the heart of the bowmen, corruption spreading with them. They had traded three great catastrophes for two lesser ones. Hakram seized serenity, let it sink through his mind and wash away doubts and fears. Clarity took the scales from his eyes, and he assessed the situation on the bastion. Corrupted mages, more than a hundred. It was no longer spreading actively, but the taint had taken them whole. Praesi household troops were hesitating, split between the duty to clear out the two Named who’d just dropped down among them and the dim realization that the mages they sought to protect might no longer be on their side. On anyone’s. Could he and Archer take care of both forces alone? No, he assessed. Their intention here had been to disrupt, and Hierophant had achieved that without them. They must now contain instead, and the two of them were not enough. Without hesitation, he made his decision.
“Who is in command among you?” he called out to the soldiers.
“Shut your fucking mouth, greens-“
Archer had put an arrow through the roof of the woman’s mouth before she was done speaking and was already nocking a second.
“Not the answer we were looking for, my darlings,” she smiled.
“Your sorcerers are corrupted,” Hakram said. “They must be cleared out before we all die.”
Power began to feel the air, so heavy he could taste it, but it was wrong. Like stagnant water.
“Listen to me,” Adjutant barked, and his Name flared.
Like quill being dipped in an inkwell, void filled for purpose. It was not Speaking, not quite. He was not Catherine, able to bridge the gap of a Name too young and thin by sheer stubborn will. But he was the Adjutant, and they were soldiers. That mattered, in the eyes of Creation. They turned to him, and there was a glint in their eyes that spoke of orders awaited. Just a glint, but it would be enough.
“About turn,” he ordered. “Rapid advance, watch your formation. Strike before they can start rituals.”
There was heartbeat of stillness, then the world pivoted. They moved.
“Archer,” he began, turning to the other Named.
“Disrupt anything big,” she sighed. “I know how this goes. Gods, you take all the fun out of this. It could have been a real messy scrap but you’ve gone and made it all orderly.”
Adjutant hefted up his axe and joined the ranks of the men he’d been about to kill mere moments ago. Sorcery lashed forward and he bared his fangs in answer.
Wekesa had always considered the works of goblins with fond but distinct contempt. Short-lived creatures that they were, their kind always strove to leave behind a legacy of steel and chords to pull curtain over the tragic frailty of their existence. There were occasional sparks of brilliance in the dross, but in the end even the very best of engines only ever managed to match a single trick of the many a properly trained mage had in their arsenal. It was one thing for Amadeus, who had the preoccupations of an entire empire on his shoulders, to find worth in this. Sorcerers truly worth the name were few, and even fewer were willing to have anything to do with the Legions. But for him? The toys of children were rarely worth a second glance, and those that were worth more than that tended to attract… untoward attention. Warlock was confident he could survive the carnage that would follow the reception of a third Red Letter, but the same could not be said for the Empire. Still, for all that the little engines under him were proving to have some use in clearing out the devils they should not warrant anything of the sort.
It was hard to grasp exactly what incurred the wrath of the gnomes, but they’d tolerated the existence of both scorpions and goblin munitions for centuries. Greater efficiency in the employment of both should pass without making any waves being made.
The Fifteenth did swift work of taking the creational side of the gate, and afterwards swept forward through the Breach in an orderly manner. The Warlock’s chariot tumbled through the air above the advancing ranks, passing a boundary that few alive would be able to sense. The Hell that awaited him on the side had amusingly mundane scenery, by the standards of such things. Endless yellow sands spread in every direction, shifting dunes and scorching winds. The sky was deep crimson and bereft of any celestial orbs – a hint in the location of this particular Hell among the lay of them. Though his people swore by Below, when they swore at all, this was broadly mistaken. The Hells were, as much as direction could apply to them, somewhat to the left of Creation. Attempting to map them was a fool’s errand, of course. Emperors and Empresses and ruined Praes dozens of times attempting to do as much, only for it to become undeniable the labyrinth of hellscapes was constantly shifting. It was a pit of writhing snakes, moving with every heartbeat. It was said that as soon as a mortal mind thought of a Hell that did not exist, it would come into being. Wekesa had never managed to conclusively prove or disprove that adage, but he had reliably established that the Hells were in constant expansion. That had forced him to reconsider some theories as to the nature of Creation.
Wekesa had long suspected that the reason for the existence of angels and devils was that the Gods could not intervene directly in Creation or any of its adjacent realms. Not, like the Book of All Things stated, because a wager forbade it – but because the Gods were Creation. That their power had been made into the world all mortals inhabited and could not be withdrawn without unravelling the entire edifice. Hence the establishment of catspaws defined as opposite, but ultimately serving the same purpose: advancing the experiment. It was beautiful work, he’d thought. Well-deserving of the word divine. Yet if the Gods were invested in the making of Creation, what power fed the expansion of the Hells? The Heavens and their Choirs, after all, did not grow. But neither did they lessen, which was perhaps a hint. Angels had been slain or made to fall in the past, but no Choir had ever been measurably weakened. His current theory was that there was fixed quantity of power behind Heavens and Hells, and that Above had chosen fixed figure where Below had preferred endless mutability – at the risk of thinning the brew. Few devils could withstand even the gaze of an angel, after all.
Ah, so much to study and yet he had to settle these irritating distractions before returning to what mattered. Wekesa traced a handful of runes and a line of darkness scythed through the first few ranks of the devils clustering before the Breach, allowing the struggling legionaries to establish a solid foothold. The chariot rose into the sky again and his gaze swept to the distance. The devils here seemed endless in number, though it was not so. Still, two dozen columns slithering along the dunes like giant snakes of soldiers were trudging forward towards the Breach. Tedious, this. Warlock could have begun the work of slaughtering them, but he could not spare such expense of power if he was to build upon the work of the Sahelian girl. Crafting a lasting effect from scratch was already stretching the limits of what he was capable of doing without burning himself out. Much as he disliked the thought, he would have to rely on the Squire’s men. His nose wrinkled in distaste even as he guided the chariot downwards. Wheels spun wildly against sand, splashing yellow hands around as he reined in the devil-horses, and Wekesa lightly leapt down to the ground.
Eyes sweeping from someone of high enough rank to be worth addressing, he found a woman with the markings of a Senior Tribune on her shoulders. It would do.
“You,” he drawled. “I’ll need a space cleared to work. A circle with a diameter of seventy feet, and add another dozen around that where your soldiery is not to step. Precision will be required.”
The woman paled.
“Sir, this may take time,” she said. “Resistance is proving stiff, even with your help, and the engines must-“
“I’ve not interest in the practicalities,” Wekesa said flatly. “See it done. Now. I’ll mark the boundaries visibly as a courtesy to your general, but do not expect any legionaries crossing it to survive the experience.”
He truly did miss working with the likes of Ranker and Istrid. Their officers knew better than to question his orders. Warlock had no taste for grovelling, but he did believe that the occasional bout of terror would do a great deal to temper these youngbloods. As promised, he began by setting a boundary: dots of red light formed around the area he claimed for his own, legionaries hastily getting out of the way before consequences could ensure. With that dealt with, the true casting could begin. First, an outer ward. Circular, diameter of seventy-three feet. Little more than a filter to prevent the elements touching his work. Wekesa snapped his wrist and three red flames formed, burning bright, and began moving. His brow created and guided them with his mind, burning the sand to glass in the form of a perfect circle. Even as they began elaborating on that initial pattern he stepped forward into the circle and knelt in the centre, every lesser rune added as he moved leading towards him. The Warlock closed his eyes and let time ebb away. The flames wove in intricate patterns across the sand, arrays and runes he bolstered by drawing foci from his treasury dimension.
Amethysts taken from lifeless grounds first, clarity touched by death to prevent the bleed from cascading. Chalcedony from a riverbed, to nurture the currents of sorcery without them struggling against each other. Branches of still-living alder for precision, lead ripped straight from the earth to draw the impurities. Lesser reagents, but he did not dare bring materials with inherent properties into this ritual. Aspect sorcery was difficult enough to shape without additional variables being brought into the formula. How long the work took him, he did not know. But eventually his eyes opened and around him an intricate series of interlocking runic arrays marked the grounds of Hell. Wekesa looked for imperfections carefully, ignoring the sound of fighting ahead and to the sides. None he could see, and he forced himself to go over the calculations one last time. He’d done workings of a similar nature in the past, but never one exactly the same. It would suffice, he decided. Leave him all but burned out, but not so much he was unable to defend himself if needed.
“I do apologize,” he murmured, words meant for the Sahelian girl who would never hear them. “It is beautiful work, truly, and to meddle with it is unseemly. But you have made yourself an obstacle.”
Imbricate, his mind spoke, and the aspect shivered across this realm. Closing the Greater Breach was, of course, impossible. The ritual lit up around him, lights to blind all the world, and the Sovereign of the Red Skies turned his will on the span of the gate. Usurpation had even been the essence of sorcery. What could not be closed could be redirected. Power drained out of him at an alarming rate, but Wekesa seized that thin boundary and attached the work of his aspect to it. What had once been a Breach leading to Creation now led to another Hell, and his veins burned with the effort of weaving that addition into the heart of the Hellgate’s nature. If he did any less, he was only delaying the inevitable. Panting softly, the greatest living sorcerer of the age rose to his feet. It was done. The sound of the panicking legionaries washed over him, the buzz of flies. Wekesa looked upon them, wondering at the numbers. A few hundred, a whole thousand? There were even a few Deoraithe he could see. Without the Breach at their back, the soldiers were already being surrounded. They were stranded, after all.
He was not.
Dusting off his robes, the Warlock stepped onto his chariot and set the horses to flight. He was not inclined to linger here, and it would be a long way back to Creation.
Ranker’s people had a saying, about miracles: sudden dawns blind. It lost nearly all its nuances when translated in Lower Miezan. The usual word for dawn in goblintongue meant first-light-after-dark, but in this case the implied context was Light instead of light and raider-night for dark. Light for the the searing hatred wielded by heroes, and the meaning of strife that had been associated with the many defeats of the Legions since the subjugation of the Tribes. It was a reminder that sudden upsets always fucked goblinkind, one way or another. Like most goblin sayings, it had a completely different meaning in matrontongue. The word for sudden was narrow-vision-of-swiftness and for blind to-miss-in-wilful-ignorance. Matrons were not warned of the harsh hand of the Heavens. They were warned of seeking momentary salvation at the price of a later great cost. The old Marshal watched the Second Battle of Liesse unfold around her, and found that both meanings had grounds.
The explosion on the bastion must have been the work of the Hierophant, because that first sorcerous detonation had been followed by a shitshow of demonic corruption. There was a vicious fight going up there even as she looked, between two of the Woe and the handiwork of another. If those two hadn’t been up there… She turned to Kolo, her balding and ever-nervous Senior Mage.
“You’re sure the control array still stands?” she asked, for the third time.
The Soninke licked his lips and nodded.
“It’s not in use, the mages are no longer guiding the wights – they must be going according to the last instructions – but it still exists,” he confirmed. “They could take back control if they tried.”
Burning, bloody Hells, they were lucky that demon-juice tended to turn the affected dumb if the demon wasn’t around to guide them. But there was still potential disaster looming. If the corrupted mages spread that corruption down the sorcery that allowed them to control the undead… That was the kind of catastrophe that broke cities. Kingdoms, even, if it wasn’t checked in time. And there was no telling if one of the rebels would wise up before they were cleared out and start pissing in the proverbial pond. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.
“Scry him again,” Ranker said. “Brute force it if you have to.”
“Ma’am, we could have half our mage lines behind that ritual it would change nothing,” Kolo said. “Trying to touch the Hierophant is… He must have something of Summer inside him, because even looking too close evaporates the entire scrying bowl.”
“Including the stone, ma’am,” he added. “The damned stone.”
Wekesa’s only son had emerged from whatever sorcerous madness he’d been up to right in the middle of the advancing Deoraithe bowmen. That had been bad enough – at least a hundred had died just for being in the wrong place when he returned – but the poison in the wine had been the fact he’d apparently come back in the middle of a godsdamned storm of corruption. It’d splashed all over half a dozen companies. The boy had immediately started scouring the area with flame, which was the right decision to make. But it also meant he was now torching his way through the middle of the first wave troops headed to prop up the centre, killing dozens with every heartbeat. The infantry coming behind the archers had no idea he was killing only corrupted – they thought this was treachery, and now the entire front had gone to shit. Kegan was barking up about betrayal over the scrying links, and even after being told what was truly happening she was threatening to pull back her troops entirely. Ranker had told her if she did there’d be a court-martial and execution before the day was over, but there would be no putting this fruit back on the branch. Daoine was going to holler for blood after this, take it all the way up to the court if they had to. And we lost too many men today to be able to afford a rebellion in the north. All that, and the most dangerous question had yet to be asked.
Had the Hierophant been corrupted?
Ranker had seen him emerge in a godsdamned whirlpool of demon essence. That wasn’t something she could just ignore. A Named that obviously powerful with a demon whispering in his ears was not something the Empire could afford. Or Calernia, for that fucking matter. There was a very real chance the boy would need to be put down, and now. But she didn’t have the means to carry out that decision if she made it, and what would come of it was… Warlock would kill them all, even if they were right. Not even Black would be able to stay his hand, not when it came to family. And Foundling had made Hierophant one of her little band of roving disasters. The goblin had it on good authority the girl had lost her shit over one of her legates getting torched by the Summer Court so badly it had broken half of Old Dormer. What kind of a tantrum would she throw over losing a Named?
The only saving grace in this entire blunder of a battle was that Wekesa had come through and the Hellgate was closed. Or something like that, anyway. Her mage lines couldn’t give her a straight answer, but they agreed that the way the gate had become see-through meant nothing would come out of it anymore. The troops that had gone through had yet to come back, though, and Ranker suspected they would never. She’d ordered for the Fifteenth to prop up the centre anyway and they were on the move – the sight of those legionaries marching towards her people had gone a long way in making Kegan shut up. With the wights rudderless, for now, the flanks were holding steady. This battle, the Marshal thought, could still be turned around. If they were careful and lucky and there were no great upsets. The old goblin’s eyes turned to the Hierophant standing alone in a storm of flame, surrounded by charred corpses, and she whet her lips. Her Senior Mage stayed at her side in silence, knowing better than to speak.
There was a decision to be made, and Marshal Ranker made it.