“An offer to ‘kneel or die’ would be insincere, Matrons. Deny me and your corpses will be made to kneel anyway, as I have a chorus of your children scream a cheerful tune.”
– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner, negotiating the end of the Fourth Goblin Rebellion
I had a mildly amusing comment about Warlock’s unexpected longevity and lack of tan on the tip of my tongue, but I smothered it without missing a beat. Masego, looking at what most likely his second father – the incubus known to me as Tikoloshe – had cast to his face I’d never seen before. He looked betrayed. I squeezed his shoulder comfortingly, even though I didn’t know the reason for his grief, and did not bother to ask whether or not he was certain of the incubus’ identity. Hierophant was not in the habit of make assertions unless he was certain of them.
“Why?” Masego murmured. “He knows I’ve been trying to piece it all together for years. Gods, what practitioner from the Wasteland hasn’t? He was there. He saw it with his own eyes.”
He hadn’t raised his voice, and in a way that worried me more. Anger I knew well, and how to soothe it. Whatever… this was, I was poorly equipped to handle it.
“He might have been trying to protect you,” I ventured.
His hand whipped out and a streak of flame tore through half a dozen soldiers, burning bright blue.
“I am not a child, Catherine,” he hissed, “I do not need to be coddled. Refusal I could forgive, but to force ignorance upon me? As if I was some meddling hedge mage about to blow his fingers off. As if I was incapable of grasping my own limits.”
I heard Hakram stepping lightly behind us, having finally caught up, but without turning I raised my hand and signalled for him to withdraw. More people would only be adding oil to an already volatile brew.
“We don’t know for sure he saw whatever ritual wrecked Keter,” I said. “He could have been dispersed before that.”
“Don’t try to appease me,” he said, turning to me with a burning glare whose radiance singed the eye cloth over it. “Papa has never been dispersed. His consciousness has been uninterrupted for millennia without a single return to the original shapelessness. His contract ended or he succeeded at slipping the leash.”
“Either of which could have happened before the ritual,” I pointed out.
“He wouldn’t have just left, even then,” Masego yelled, to my honest surprise. “He’s a deterministic being, Catherine. It would have gone against his nature to flee for a position of influence. Devils like being in Creation. It is the only place they can truly learn.”
My knowledge of theology had never been all that deep and what I did remember was a little rusty, but I was fairly sure determinism was more or less another word for predestination. Which wasn’t all that popular a teaching, in Callow, though it had some adherents in the southern parts of it. Mostly priests.
“You mean he wouldn’t have been able to choose otherwise,” I slowly said.
Normally even half an admission of ignorance would have been enough to bait him into a lecture. It was telling that he didn’t even attempt one, only frowning in irritation instead.
“You don’t understand,” he said.
I kept my face and voice calm.
“If he didn’t have a choice then,” I said carefully, “he might not have had a choice in not telling you either.”
“You don’t understand, you fool,” Masego sharply repeated. “I have desired to know the answers here for years. It is in Papa’s nature to satisfy desires, and his binding should allow him to do so for our entire family within limits. That contract is one of the single most complex pieces of sorcery in existence, Catherine, Father spent decades crafting the closest to the ability to make choices a devil can possibly have. Which means either Father forbade him to speak to me, or…”
“He doesn’t see you as family,” I quietly said.
“I’m not sure which would be worse,” the blind man weakly said. “That Father would bend his will against everything he taught me just to keep me in the dark, or that Papa never once though of me as-“
His voice broke. I winced, sliding an arm around his shoulders and tugging him close. It was awkward hugging him, since he was noticeable taller than me and just stood there like a dead fish.
“Come on,” I murmured. “There’s a lot we still don’t know, Masego. Don’t come to conclusions too early.”
Slowly, he came to rest his forehead on my shoulder. Gods, the angle must have been Hells on his neck.
“He might have been faking this entire time,” he muttered into my tunic. “Since the moment I was adopted. My first memories. Just playing the role, for Father’s pleasure.”
I’d always thought that Warlock and Tikoloshe had done a decent job of raising Masego, for Praesi anyway. He’d had a golden childhood that taught him to love learning, no real difficulties to face and if he hadn’t come out of it with the sharpest moral compass in the world, well – there was only so much you could expect from Wastelanders. It was hard for me to understand something like having your entire childhood put to the question. The orphanage had not encouraged sentimentality. But I could understand, just a little bit, having your trust put on the chopping block. He wasn’t the only one with a complicated relationship with a Calamity. Masego withdrew eventually, tiring of my hands rubbing his back soothingly. His face was dry, of course. The day that saw him gain Summer eyes had cauterized his tear ducts as well.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said through gritted teeth, smoothing his robes. “They can hide secrets from me, but they cannot prevent me from learning on my own.”
“You want to continue looking at his,” I guessed, eyes turning to the battle still unfolding around us.
Now that the ruby-crowned king was dead, it had turned into a rout for the obsidian soldiers I assumed were ancient Keterans.
“Yes,” Masego said with forced calm. “Tell Indrani the duel here is between two Named. That should hold her interest enough she does not chomp at the bit.”
I grimaced. Fair enough. I didn’t really want to spend any longer here than we had to, but if it got his head in order I’d compromise. There was a part of me, that whispering voice that never really went away, that noted this was perhaps the best occasion I would ever get to turn Hierophant against Warlock. To get him firmly on my side before the day of reckoning I knew deep in my bones was over the horizon came upon us. All I had to do was ruthlessly exploit the grief of one of my closest friends in the world. It would be for his own good, too. When the dust settled at the end of the Tenth Crusade, there was a real chance that close ties to Praes and the Calamities might get Masego killed. After Akua’s Folly there would be wariness about powerful sorcerer Named, but if he had a war record of fighting against the Empire… I clenched my fingers and snapped that voice’s neck before burying it in a shallow grave. I was not above manipulating Masego. I would own up to that. But if I did, it would only ever be to help him. Not to rip away all his ties but those that kept him at my side.
“I’ll speak to the others,” I said quietly. “Don’t do anything dangerous. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
He did not answer, light already blooming around his fingers as his face hardened and he began tracing runes. I took that for the dismissal it was.
“He’s been at it for at least twelve hours straight,” Hakram said.
The worry in his tone was subtle enough a stranger wouldn’t have caught it. It was plain as day to me. The two of us stood at the edge of our makeshift camp – raised far enough from the main engagement that at the peak of the battle the war cries wouldn’t wake us – and watched Masego’s lone silhouette. He’d not eaten since he began. Indrani had tried to bring him bread and water, but she’d run into a transparent pane of power she’d not been able to break through. Her screaming had gone unnoticed as well. He’d killed the sound from outside the boundary, was my guess.
“He hasn’t even sat down once,” I grimaced. “And he’s been using sorcery the entire time. Named or not, he should be about to collapse.”
“We’ll pick him up when he does,” the orc sighed. “Put him in Zombie and get away from here while he’s unconscious. This is unhealthy.”
“He’s always been prone to obsession,” I admitted. “We all are, but he’s further down that slope than any of us.”
“This is different, Cat,” Hakram said. “If he begins a trance when studying spellcraft, we can ease him out of it after a few hours. Even Thief knows how, and she’s known him the shortest. But putting up wards to keep us out? He’s never gone that deep before.”
“Family fucks you up,” I said. “So I’ve heard, anyway.”
“We’re what he has,” the orc told me. “His fathers let him loose after he joined us, and you’ve heard the same stories I have. They were always highly permissive, even when he was a child. If we don’t keep him at an even keel, there’s no one else.”
I passed a hand through my hair tiredly.
“You know comfort’s not my strong point,” I admitted.
“He doesn’t need a friend,” Hakram replied. “He needs someone to tell him it’s enough. A figure of authority.”
I glanced at the tall orc uncomfortably.
“That’s not really how I’ve run the Woe,” I said.
“And you were right to do so,” Adjutant said. “A heavier hand would have alienated Archer and Thief before they joined us. But Hierophant is Praesi. He was raised by the Calamities, Catherine. He understands, instinctively, that in a band of Named there is someone who gives orders. That is you.”
“It’s one thing to give orders on a battlefield, Hakram,” I said sharply. “It’s another to pull strings off of it, in private matters. I won’t pretend we’re equals in all things, but I try not to tell any of you how to live your lives unless I can’t avoid it.”
The orc’s dark eyes flicked at Masego’s lonely silhouette.
“And does he look to you,” he said calmly, “like he benefits from this restraint?”
I grit my teeth.
“You’re not tools, Hakram,” I said. “I won’t shape all of you into something more useful to me. That’s not a road I’ll wander down, ever.”
“There is a difference between intervening for our sakes and self-serving manipulation,” he gravelled. “You pretend not to know this, because asserting the authority you were given of us makes you uncomfortable. That is one of the most selfish, disparaging things I’ve ever seen you do. Do you think we swore oaths and made pacts because we were swindled? That you tricked us into putting faith in you? Are you the only one of us that can extend trust?”
“That’s not what I said,” I replied.
“Words are nothing,” the orc said. “Actions speak louder, and the decision not to act is an act of itself.”
My fingers clenched and I glared at Adjutant.
“And my judgement’s always worked out so well, has it?” I hissed. “I carry an entire funeral procession of blunders behind me, Hakram. One of the most recent got a hundred thousand people kill, and we’re heading towards a place where I might just top that.”
“We all sat there, in the room,” the orc said. “We heard the same arguments. We know the same truths, and the plan they spawned. Yet here we all are, travelling with you. Did you somehow enslave us without my noticing? All of us chose to be one of the Woe, Catherine, knowing full well what that meant. Our hands have not been forced.”
I always hated arguing with Hakram. He was so infuriatingly calm and reasonable.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll tell him to cut it out.”
Adjutant raised his hand to stop me.
“Do not bury this,” he said. “Pretend it was the argument of a single instance and move forward as before. I care nothing for your crown, Warlord. Or whose apprentice you were. I put my trust in you, as did the others. You do all disservice by acting as if it was a mistake to do so.”
My lips thinned and I met his eyes. He’d only ever called me by the old orc title when it was a matter of utter seriousness we spoke of. Which meant he’d been sitting on this for a while, waiting for the right moment to bring it up. Reluctantly, I nodded. His hand went down, and I strode for Masego’s one-mage lightshow. I felt the wards even though I couldn’t see them. My fingers trailed across their surface, transparent sorcery forming wherever my hand touched. I rapped my knuckles once, but it was like hitting a solid wall. I heard Indrani turn towards me in the distance, but did not look. Breaking the wards might hurt Masego, so I’d have to show a little moderation. I seized Winter, wove its power into a maul of ice tall as I was and grasped the handle. I squared my footing more out of habit than true need: the construct was light as a feather to me. I smashed it into the ward once, twice, thrice before Hierophant finally stopped tracing runes long enough to look at me. Dropping the maul, I gestured for him to end the ward. He shook his head.
“Now,” I said flatly.
He flinched. He tapped a sequence among the runes hovering around him and a door opened before me, made visible by the transparent power that formed the cadre of it. I walked in, dismissing the maul with a flick of the wrist.
“Catherine,” he said. “I’m not hungry. There’s no need to-“
“You’ve been at this for twelve hours, Masego,” I said. “It’s done. You rest, you eat, and then we discuss our next move.”
“Not now,” Hierophant said, “Not when I’m so close.”
“To what?” I replied, eyebrow rising.
“Walking the true span of the echo,” he told me. “Not true interaction, no, but the full witnessing of it. As if I were truly there.”
I glanced sceptically at the ghostly battle.
“And?” I said. “What does this gain you?”
“This isn’t an illusion, Catherine,” he said. “It’s a reflection of the state of Creation at specific points in time. The echo of an individual includes all that individual knew then. If I can carve out that knowledge and translate it into a form I can understand-”
“You’ll learn a lot,” I interrupted. “That’s fine. You want to work on that project? I’ve got no objection. But you do it right. You sleep, you eat, you talk with the people who love you. And you do it at a rate that doesn’t make a wreck out of you. There’ll be more interesting shards deeper in anyway.”
“It would only be a few more hours,” he said.
“Then it won’t matter where those are spent, will it?” I patiently said. “Or is there something specific to this shard that makes it easier to work with?”
He looked away. So there wasn’t. I took him by the arm and dragged him until he began walking on his own.
“Come on,” I said. “And while you’re at it, you’re apologizing to Indrani.”
He frowned at me.
“What for?” he asked.
“That, for one,” I grimly said.
Godsdamnit Hakram. It’d be easier to be angry at him if he wasn’t right so often.
We moved forward, to everyone but Masego’s relief. The five of us had taken to talking as we passed through the landscapes, trying to piece together the story unfolding. It was made more difficult by our inability to tell the sequence the shards took place in, which even Hierophant admitted he was unable to discern. That spawned the game of ‘tell me how Keter fell’, which allowed us to whittle away the hours as we walked. We tried, one at a time, to piece together what we’d seen into a coherent sequence.
“All right, bear with me on this one,” Indrani announced.
I sighed at the sight of the silver flask in her hand. It was barely noon – probably – but I was less appalled by the drinking than by the fact that she seemed to have an endless supply of booze. Where the Hells was she keeping it all? If Thief had been holding the liquor, she wouldn’t offer it up nearly that often.
“Do we have a choice?” Vivienne drily asked.
“Don’t you drag theology into this, Dartwick,” Archer drawled. “Anyway, this is how Keter fell. So there was a witch queen with a nice big mace, but she was a woman with needs. So she hit up the King of Keter and she made the bedroom eyes, but he was weird about it. You know, have her the brush off. So then-“
“No,” I said.
“No,” Hakram agreed.
“Gods no,” Vivienne muttered.
“Seems unlikely,” Masego conceded.
“You’re all joyless,” Indrani complained. “Mine had everything. A lovers’ spat, sex and violence and revenge. It was going to be worthy of song.”
“For mouthing off after your turn was ended, you get skipped next go around,” Vivienne noted.
Archer muttered something sounding pretty insulting under her breath, though I didn’t recognize the language.
“Hakram?” I said.
“This is how Keter fell,” Adjutant gravelled. “There was a plague in the borderlands of the kingdom that took a great toll. The queen of the iron men saw weakness and struck with raids, only to find the soldiers of Keter weak. She assembled more men and invaded the kingdom, forcing battle and slaying the king on the field.”
We’d seen more and more plague shards over the last two days, so he might actually be right. Only towns and villages so far, though, we’d found no city being afflicted. The battles were becoming more frequent as well, though few were as large as the one where Masego had found his father. After a few days passed Hierophant was forced to admit that a mere few hours before his breakthrough had been an optimistic assessment. He still spent most of his downtime working on his ‘witnessing’, but we’d all gotten used to hearing he was going to finish it any moment now. We saw our first Keteran victories, most of them won through sorcery. The sorcerers gathered in small cabals and struck with rituals, the brutality of them increasing the farther we went in. Lightning and fire were traded for spells that boiled blood or broke minds, and once or twice we even saw the Keterans fielding devils of their own.
Small numbers, and not particularly impressive specimens. Closer to imps than the Wasteland’s favoured meat shields the akalibsa and walin-falme. Hierophant dismissed those we saw as being from some of the easiest Hells to reach, and noted that diabolism as a branch of sorcery was one of the magical disciplines that benefitted the most from the passing of years. It had taken centuries for the Praesi to accumulate names to call on and to learn the secrets of the most useful Hells, the line of every High Lord building on the knowledge earned by the previous generation. His assessment was that diabolism had not been a favoured sorcery of the Keterans, but that in their desperation they were turning to cheap solutions to turn the tide – like barely sentient devils that could be bound through simple shedding of blood.
“His successor, Trismegistus, found his kingdom on the verge of breaking as the iron men pushed further in,” Hakram continued. “Rather than face defeat, he unleashed devils and turned the remainder of his people into undead to bring revenge unto the invaders.”
He got a vote of agreement from everyone save a pouting Indrani, which was just enough to bar him from getting a swig of the bottle of aragh Thief had pulled out. Archer was a sore loser. Adjutant’s story was the most believable so far, though the rest of us moved around the mosaic tiles again and again in order to see if something else fit better. We realized the underlying mistake the day after, when we encountered the most striking shard yet. We’d assumed we had all the necessary tiles to tell the story, you see. We were disabused of that notion when we found the first landscape out of Keter itself. It was the funeral of the king we’d watch die, his body tastefully covered by a shroud so the pulped head could not be seen by those attending. Among those present in the great crypt where the entombment took place was the young man I was fairly sure became the Dead King. Not because of anything he did, but because of who was talking to him. The face I didn’t recognize, I’d admit. But the shoddy lute and the flask? Those I’d recognize anywhere.
They belonged to the Wandering Bard.