“Match the smile but watch the knife.”
– Soninke saying
The precarious balance the Woe had struck travelling through the echoes together was gone. Within an hour of Masego going into the imprint and harvesting what he could from the Bard and the Dead King that much had been made plain. Thief kept close to Akua’s shade, always in earshot, but had fallen into a sullen silence. Archer stabbed our most recent addition through the throat the very moment she attempted to strike conversation, laughing delightedly when the body reformed like mist after she withdrew the blade. I denied her suggestion that Diabolist be made to run ahead of the rest of us and used as target practice, though I was honestly tempted after what I’d overheard last night. There was no point in coddling a snake, true, but mistreating a dangerous and bound entity led to a particular kind of story and not one that ended well for any of us. Hierophant was still feeling the aftermath of stealing an entire language from Arcadia so he walked on his own regularly drinking from some herbal mixture he’d put together. Archer, thankfully, was leaving him alone. She had a talent for discerning between being a pest and being genuinely unpleasant.
That left only silence or Adjutant and I, for Diabolist to make conversation, and I got the impression that after so long in the box Akua was actually quite eager to talk with people. Which led to my finding out something quite interesting: Hakram made Diabolist uncomfortable. Not so much that it showed on her face, but I’d been looking at her closely and when conversing with my right hand she was just slightly off. There was no trace of the easy grace she’d used to run circles around Thief to be found, and while she didn’t blunder either I suspected it was because she was being exceedingly careful. I was slightly amused by that, but mostly curious. She could have been faking, of course. That was always a possibility with Akua Sahelian, the footnote added to her every single action and behaviour. But I was pretty sure she wasn’t, and that had me thinking about the reasons she’d feel that way. Was she racist? It’d been my impression that by Trueblood standards she was actually pretty tolerant. Which translated to looking down on everyone not a Trueblood more or less equally, with maybe a dash of additional contempt added because greenskins were just so uncivilized.
Assuming it wasn’t simply the spectacle of an orc being articulate and calm that had her on the back foot, there might be an angle there. Vivienne had her number in some ways and Archer was usually too willful to influence meaningfully, but Masego enjoyed talking magic with peers enough it could become an issue if left unchecked. It’d already led him to argue for the sparing of the woman who now ran the Observatory for him, and though I doubted he’d go on a similar limb for Diabolist of all people I couldn’t dismiss the possibility he’d grow somewhat fond of her over time. There were similarities to the way they’d been raised. His only objections about mass murder tended to be either on a professional basis – human sacrifice was an amateur’s crutch, he’d always argued – or because it would displease me. Considerate of him, but not exactly a solid foundation either way. It was a load off my shoulders that Adjutant looked like he’d be able to handle her. I’d long grown to rely on Hakram tidying it all up behind me, a pair of eyes that picked up on all the details I missed. It was fitting that it him who brought up the matter when we paused for a meal around noon.
“We’ll need to change her appearance,” Adjutant said, head inclining towards Diabolist. “A few people will see through it regardless, but it can’t be openly known she is now in our employ.”
“That would not be unwise,” Akua agreed. “Your subjects have reason to be less than fond of me, and my presence would not help your reputation abroad.”
Understatement of the decade, that. It would have been unproductive to maker her choke herself again, I reminded myself.
“I’m not sure how well glamour would work without something physical to be anchored on,” I frowned. “I can weave illusions without one, but I do need to concentrate. It’s not a long-term solution or even a reliable one.”
“I have become part of your mantle, dear heart,” Akua said with a pleasant smile. “Changing my looks through it should not be all that difficult.”
I mulled on that. It was true that she was no longer just bound to the Mantle of Woe. I’d known that the moment I summoned her before beginning our journey. My influence over her shade had grown stronger, broader in scope than simple hold and release. I breathed out and focused, Winter slithering through my veins like whispering smoke. I looked her into the eyes, those brown orbs so dark they were nearly black, and… withdrew what made them. Or at least the thinnest surface of it. Akua blinked, eyes now completely white and without either iris or pupil. I swallowed a flinch. That’d been a little more than I was aiming for. Thief made her way to us, cocking her head to the side.
“Fae,” she said. “Give her the appearance of a fae. You’re known to have dealings with them, it’s the most plausible story we have.”
“And not,” Akua mused, “entirely untrue. As all the finest lies are.”
I was unsettled by the idea of moulding another person – even if their soul was all that was left – like clay, but I pushed that down. Diabolist was already almost inhumanly beautiful, the result of centuries of Wasteland highborn breeding, so twisting her into something fae-like was not as much effort as I’d thought. Larger eyes, the way most fae had, and coloured a vivid scarlet like the dresses she used to wear. Long dark hair, the tresses going down her back, and her already high cheekbones were shaped into a face that was just a little too long and finely boned to be human. I would have made her shorter, if only for the novelty of having someone not towering over me around, but I’d never met a fae that was short. Instead I elongated her, for lack of a better term.
“Fewer curves,” Thief said, fixing me with a steady look.
I sneered back. I didn’t ogle all my enemies. And despicable person or not, it would have been a deplorable waste to make Diabolist stick-thin. I did adjust her to her taller height, but left it at that.
“Pointed ears,” Hakram suggested.
Difficult to mould, but not impossible. It still took longer than the rest of her face put together. I watched Diabolist as I did, for even a hint she was uncomfortable at what was taking place. People with good looks tended to be attached to them, in my experience, and more than that for Named most of all appearances mattered. There was a reason Black still looked in his early twenties and my hair had remained the same length since I became the Squire. Our perceptions of ourselves made us fixed points, to an extent, in one of the subtler rebellions against Above a villain was made of. But she remained indifferent. Like her face was no real importance. It might actually be, I finally decided. Akua was Praesi to the bone, and the highborn of the Wasteland saw everything as a tool – even their own appearances.
“I don’t feel like I’m working with a set amount of clay here,” I admitted uneasily after finishing. “I could make her tall as an ogre without trouble, and she certainly wasn’t that large to begin with. Isn’t there an original law about that? ‘Something cannot be made of nothing’.”
“It would not apply,” Diabolist lightly said. “You draw on Winter as the substance of my being. One does not dry an ocean by removing a droplet from it.”
That was less than reassuring, though her tone had seemingly been aiming for that. Thief assessed her with a frank gaze, the most practiced of us as disguising herself.
“It would pass muster, for most,” she said. “The voice has to go, though. It’s too recognizable.”
“I’m not sure how to do that,” I admitted. “She’s a shade, so is she really speaking with her throat and chords?”
“It is a mere property, now,” Akua said. “No different than colouring or height. Twisting it only requires the appropriate exertion of will.”
Well that was just helpful of her, I thought drily. Unfortunately none of this had come with a manual so I spent almost half an hour struggling in vain before calling for Masego. He was irked at being called away from his almost-nap with a cool cloth on his forehead, but what was being done interested him enough the mood passed quickly. He held my metaphorical hand through the process and we’d made Diabolist’s voice lower and throatier within moments. It would do, for now. I could have tinkered more, but the simple fact that I could tinker with someone’s appearance was raising the hair on the back of my neck. That level of control was… No one should have that. Certainly not me. We got moving again afterwards: the centre of the shattered kingdom was close now, we could all feel it.
I doubted I would enjoy what I’d find there.
Shard by shard, the fall of Sephirah was coming together. We spent most of a day journeying through plague-ridden cities and losing battles, watching desperation grown on the Sephiran side. I could understand why the nobles at the funeral had been dismissive of the chances of the People of the Wolf: though decked out in iron, their warriors were helpless before tall walls as most Sephiran cities boasted. They seemed more like a pack of raiding tribes than a true army, without siege weapons or any notion of supplies. If they could not ransack granaries, they went hungry. There’d been a mention of an organization of mages at the funeral, the Conclave, and Hierophant grew excited when he finally saw them in action. They were certainly a notch above the early practitioners we’d seen: the few Sephiran victories we saw had them playing a central role. Rituals seemed to be their specialty, nothing like the fireballs and lightning bolts that were the bread and butter of the Legions.
The boiled the ground under enemy soldiers, snatched the air out of their lungs and even drew storms towards the invading host. It was not, unfortunately, nearly enough. They were too few, less than two hundred, and not unmatched besides. The People of the Wolf were led by their Named queen, and she broke their rituals whenever she took the field. She had mages of her own, if few and seemingly all from the same tribe, and though they used little offensive sorcery they seemed to have a knack for calming and dispersing rituals. The sacking of a great city – for the times, anyway, it was barely the size of Dormer – was the turning point. There were piles of burning plague victims outside the walls, and when the invaders arrived they scaled the walls in the dark of night and slaughtered the beleaguered defenders. It got vicious after that, on both sides. The People of the Wolf began having a semblance of a baggage train from the sheer amount of plunder they were dragging along, which slowed them down, but their numbers kept swelling.
Repeated and richly rewarded victory had drawn more tribes to the war. That was my guess, anyway, because the warriors no longer all spoke the language that Hakram had told me shared root with Reitz. The dead king’s eldest son wore the crown for some time, with one of his sisters as the lesser queen sharing his reign, but we watched the Witch Queen feed him to wolves after she broke his army beneath city walls and captured him. That was when Neshamah began appearing along with the Conclave. Not often, but whenever he did the Sephiran mages always won the day. And their rituals were always a little more vicious every time. One battle where the defenders were particularly outnumbered led to the first use of necromancy we’d seen, the dead rising to make up the odds. It was far from the last instance we came across.
“Their manner of rule is not without merits,” Akua said as we watched yet another coronation in the royal hall unfold beneath us from a balcony. “Though it would never function as intended in Praes.”
The entire story was unfolding over what had to be at least a decade, I’d come to realize. Possibly more. The royals I’d first seen at the entombment were all growing older my more than a few years.
“It’s not just primogeniture,” I said. “The lesser king beneath the ruling one isn’t always the next oldest in the family.”
“They are the favourite or closest ally of the ruler, I suspect,” Diabolist said. “The purpose behind the practice is quite clear regardless. The successor is allowed to entrench themselves in the court and kingdom so that any war of succession would result in their crushing victory. A cunning enough method to keep such matters stable in an era where they were anything but.”
“We haven’t seen them fighting each other yet,” I agreed. “But they’re going through kings like a basket of pastries. Not much entrenchment going on there.”
“The Dead King is positioning himself,” she smiled. “He is the youngest, yes? And was long gone from the kingdom. He must earn enough acclaim to be seen as the worthiest candidate for the lesser crown even though his ties to the others are weak. Once the succession reaches a sibling without sufficient support, they will inevitably appoint him beneath them to benefit from his repute.”
I didn’t reply immediately, eyeing my companion in silence instead. It was still jarring to hear the different voice and see the difference appearance, but that was a passing thing. No, what had be uncomfortable was how easy talking with Akua was. She was, well, surprisingly pleasant company. I could have done without the occasional endearments, but the more I spoke with her the more it became clear she wasn’t a raving lunatic. I’d known that, of course. That she was just twisted in a way that couldn’t be undone, not actively mad. But living with that truth in front of me was different than knowing it in this abstract. If she were not responsible for the single greatest loss of Callowan life since Dread Empress Triumphant, I might actually have caught myself liking her once in a while. It was made worse by her usefulness. Thief had been tutored as a noble’s child, even if her father had lost his title after the Conquest, but like me she’d always felt more comfortable in the streets than sitting down at a writing desk. Diabolist had been raised as heiress to Wolof, and though she was mother to half a dozen atrocities I could not deny she understood the halls of power in a way none of the Woe did.
Her words to Thief still echoed in my mind, sometimes. That she’d fought the better part of the armies of two nations to a standstill, led by eight Named. Her methods had been disgusting, and I would not forgive or forget them. But she had done it regardless, and cornered as I was by the Empress and the First Prince I could not deny there were things I could learn from the monster on my leash.
“He succeeded,” I finally said. “We know that. But I’m not certain how. He’s forging a reputation as the savior of the kingdom, but at some point he must have gotten the lesser crown or even the one above. If Sephirah kept losing even then, as it must have if they got desperate enough to resort to a Greater Breach, how did he remain king? A reputation like that has to be maintained or they’ll turn on your twice as hard.”
As it happened, I knew a thing or two about that. The Black Queen would only reign so long as she was not seen to bleed.
“You still think like a Callowan, dearest,” Akua said. “Even before the Conquest, the kingdom of your birth had been a single entity with largely static borders for centuries. The loss of even outer provinces would have been felt a slight by all the rest. These Sephirans, however, are less than a century from the days of their unification. The royal army fights for the realm entire, certainly, but we have seen that the armies of their twelve cities are not willing to bleed for their sisters.”
I frowned, following down the path she’d set out for me.
“It’s all expendable,” I finally said. “Except for Keter itself. That one city’s all he really needs. The rest is willingly on the chopping block, because it allows him to accumulate power for his ritual without damaging his powerbase enough it unseats him. Merciless Gods. That’s brutal even by Wasteland standards.”
“Many usurpations of the Tower has been executed through Callowan swords,” Akua said. “It is an old trick. Evidently older than I had believed. I will confess surprise, however, as to the Dead King’s chosen method of ascension.”
I flicked a glance at her.
“He’s building up to a massive ritual by bleeding everyone else,” I said. “That’s the classic Praesi play, Akua. You can’t crack open a history of the Empire without finding an instance.”
She dismissed that with a graceful movement of the wrist.
“It matters, my dear, that his path to that ritual is so indirect,” Diabolist said. “He did not usurp the crown, though opportunities must have abounded. The fullness of his influence seems to be his unspoken prominence among this Conclave and his popularity with the masses. He is not wielding his own might to seize authority, but instead relying on outside pressures to propel him to that desired summit.”
I considered that. On one hand, he was using others as tools to place himself in power. On the other, those people weren’t true accomplices. There was no plotting cabal backing him that we’d seen, and even his influence with the Conclave was odd. He was teaching them sorcery, that much was clear, and leading them to slowly dip their toe in darker waters. But he wasn’t turning them into his own personal circle of sorcerers. Hierophant had been the one to first say the way necromancy was being introduced was odd, but Diabolist had agreed. Neshamah knew a lot more than he was teaching them, and what he did teach them didn’t seem like he was offering a true education. Even within the purview of necromancy there is a great deal of latitude in structure and variance, Masego had said. Some of those rituals are near completely unrelated. I’d had a growing suspicion for a while that winning victories wasn’t the point of the corpse-raising at all. And if the ends were unimportant, it was the means that mattered. And it could not be forgotten that beyond necromancy, there was another set of means at play – the scheme he was using to rise. Most notable in that it put a crown on his brow without conflict. Without breaking the mores of the Sephirans.
“He’s not after the quickest or most effective way to rise,” I said.
Akua’s scarlet eyes turned to me.
“Then what is he after?” she asked.
“The one that leaves no openings,” I grimly replied.
I ended our conversation there, without gracing her with an explanation. Akua Sahelian was not someone I ever intended on telling of what Masego and I had witnessed.
The centre of the maze was the birth of apocalypse. I’d known it was coming, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of Keter’s final hours. It was, I had to admit, a great city. Almost as large as Laure, which was astounding for a people that could not even forge iron. Tall walls of blocks of stone without mortar hid away most of the insides, though Indrani told us they were a pittance compared to the walls now encircling Keter. The capital of the Kingdom of Sephirah stood on a low plateau that formed a dais of sorts over the surrounding plains. There were abandoned mining pits scattered across it, and cobbled stone roads leading to four great gates of bronze facing the four directions. Copper shone in the dying afternoon last, covering the roofs of the great houses surrounding the central great tower looking down on the city, but none of us spared much thought for the beauty of it. The horror of the unfolding battle saw to that.
How many invaders were there? Easily over ten thousand, and not all of them from the People of the Wolf. Banners decorated with animal skulls and skins formed a sea beneath the walls, the host of what must have been half of what would become Procer assembled to take the last of the twelve cities of Sephirah. The invaders were dying in droves, but the city was slowly edging towards a loss. Sorcery crackled, weaving storms and raising the dead, but the tribal mages tore through the spells and bestowed enchantments upon the assaulting warriors that allowed them to climb the walls without thought to their weight. We were witnessing the death of a nation, and in the sky above twilight was growing crimson.
We headed deeper in. That was where the gate out would be, I knew instinctively. Indrani threw a grappling hook over the walls and eagerly began to climb, but I drew on Winter instead and formed a narrow set of stairs that the others took even as she catcalled. Ghostly warriors of both sides dying around us, we ascended into the city. Fear hung in the streets, thick and lingering. Doors were barred, prayers and weeping sounding everywhere we tread.
“The Hall of the Dead,” Archer said, pointing to the tall tower ahead after catching up. “What it’s called now, anyway.”
The city around the tower was deserted. All those beautiful mansions, and not a soul in sight. It was inside we found our ending. The chanting could be heard as we walked through the labyrinthine corridors, only growing louder as we got closer to the royal hall where we’d seen so many get crowned. Files of kneeling mages spread out from that centre like tentacles, each singing the same incantation in unison. There would be consequences to missing a step, we learned. One young girl mispronounced a syllable and let out a blood-curdling scream as her body withered, leaving a husk of a corpse behind.
“Fucking Hells,” Indrani murmured.
“Workings this powerful leave little room for mistakes,” Hierophant noted, eyeing the corpse with interest.
We reached the hall as the ritual neared its end, the chanting growing quicker. We’d seen this place before, many a time. A throne room richly decorated with banners of the twelve cities and statues of copper. There was no throne here today, nothing save for a tall sculpted arc of obsidian and the man standing before it. Neshamah was no longer young. He was closely-shaven and his hair was messy, and even now there was no trace of great Evil in him. No sunken eyes and horrid sneer: only calm, patient expectation. We advanced in silence until we could hear our own footsteps echo. Not a whisper to be heard. Then the Dead King spoke, and the shard ended. In the blank emptiness that enveloped us, we heard a woman’s soft laughter.
My hand rose, the gate opened where the arc of obsidian had once stood and into Keter we went.