“There is greater power in severing than binding, in releasing than capturing. The most fundamental act of will is to cut.”
-Translation from the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
Thalassina was old.
Some scholars believed it to be the first Praesi city, though Wekesa’s own studies had hinted at Kahtan holding the title instead – the three oases of its site had been a natural draw on the nearby Taghreb tribes of the Devouring Sands. Still, it had undeniably existed longer than Ater or Wolof which in these modern days tended to be considered the two greatest cities of the Empire even though Thalassina’s population was near the double of Wolof’s: three hundred thousand inhabitants, give or take a few thousand. The city’s fortunes tended to rise and fall with the state of the sea trade that was its lifeblood. It was almost absurdly wealthy when there was peace with Ashur and the League, growing fat off tariffs on grain and luxuries imported from foreign shores. When the ships ceased coming, however, its revenues dwindled and the large population became a stone around its ruler’s neck. As it was the Empire’s primary sea port, Emperors and Empresses had meddled with its ruling line’s affairs more than they had any other’s. Most of that meddling had proved to be costly blunders. Thrice there’d been attempts to raise an Imperial Fleet, two swatted down by the Ashurans sailing in to torch everything and the last made a failure by one of the foremost captains rebelling and going pirate. On occasion, however, reasonable notions had emerged.
Shatha’s Maze was one of that rare breed.
Named after the ancient Warlock who’d built it, it’d been raised at the order of Dread Empress Maleficent the Second. She had prudently assessed that the victory she’d won against the Thalassocracy at sea had forged a very fragile peace, and that improving the defences of Thalassina before hostilities resumed was necessary. She’d set her Warlock to the task, opening up the treasury without qualms at one of the high historical points of Praesi wealth. The Maze was therefore unsurprisingly rather extravagant, but also one of the finest ward-based defensive arrays Wekesa ever had the privilege to witness. It had only failed twice over the last six hundred years, both times to treachery instead of superior sorcery. Naturally, knowing this, the first thing he’d requested of High Lord Idriss was a thorough purge of any uncertain elements in the city followed by heavy restriction of who would have access to the Maze from now on. The ruler of Thalassina had taken the opportunity to thin the ranks of his vassals with imperial permission eagerly, and though Wekesa suspected most of the dead had been rivals and not liabilities as long as the liabilities were dead he hardly cared. With that preventative measure taken care of, he’d sat down with his husband and his son to plan how they would turn a defensive ward array into a death trap.
It was a fascinating problem. Shatha’s Maze warded the waters to miles out of the city, except of course it didn’t: it was, after all, one of fundamentals limits of sorcery that wards could not be made over water. Shatha’s solution had been to anchor the workings in corals, artificially raised to crest over even the tallest waves. The Maze was not a single array, though it might seem like it at first glance. It was over three hundred small, self-contained wards extending only over their coral tower. The ancient Warlock had been brilliant, Wekesa would admit. Aware that she could not cover the waves with sorcery, she’d made it instead so that the effect would come from people looking upon her works. Some wards confused perception, leading ships to crash into spikes of rock beneath the surface. Others attacked minds directly by sowing madness and uncontrollable fury into all who saw them. Yet more contained direct sorcerous effects like flame and lightning, triggered by will or proximity. The full lay of the Maze was known only to a few, though he’d obtained a version when agreeing to Alaya’s favour. It had been illuminating, teaching him that sufficient time and manpower could create what was effectively an array with no single element linked to another. There was, naturally, a catch. Thalassina was a trade port: it needed foreign ships to be capable of passing through in peace time.
Shatha’s Maze needed to be activated, from twin underground facilities dug beneath the banks the adjoining coasts. The rituals involved were both long and expensive, as they essentially required three hundred separate ward empowerments done in quick succession. The Kebdana had been rulers of the Thalassina for the better part of five centuries and so ensured that they had a contingent of powerful and well-educated mages ready at all times to carry out that onerous duty, but those practitioners were unfortunately highly specialized because of it. Useless when it came to the kind of theoretical legwork needed to design a ritual meant repurpose the Maze, and Wekesa had neither the time nor the inclination to educate them. So be it. They’d chosen to waste their Gift on being beasts of burden, he would treat them as such. With Masego and Tikoloshe at his side, he hardly needed the help anyway. His son was arguably the finest magical theorist of his generation, now that Akua Sahelian was dead, and his husband had at least three millennia of first-hand observation of sorcery to call on. Even a devil as ancient as ‘Loshe had difficult proving truly creative, but his treasure trove of knowledge was priceless.
With such aides he should have no trouble, or so theory went. The practicalities proved to be slightly different.
“Sueton was a hack,” Masego insisted. “Barely half his experiments are reproducible.”
“This particular phenomenon is one of them,” Wekesa replied flatly.
“Under controlled circumstances,” his son objected. “If his results are this shoddy, the theoretical framework behind them can only be called flawed. There’s no guarantee the explosions will cascade if we can’t accurately predict the nature of the release.”
“Petronian sorcery has a degree of unpredictability,” Tikoloshe noted. “Not a subtle folk, the Miezans. Never prone to using a dagger when a spot of genocide would work.”
“We cannot use Trismegistan formulae for this large a spell,” Warlock said. “The precision required is beyond our workforce, and to be blunt we lack the power.”
“Then make a master array and feed it with secondary rituals,” Masego said. “If we begin accumulating power now and centre it on our own manipulation, Trismegistan sorcery remains feasible.”
“That’d require at least six straight hours of direction on both our parts,” Wekesa said, frowning as he calculated. “With absolutely no margin of error either individually or in concert. That’s even riskier than going Petronian.”
“It puts the possibility of failure in our hands instead of leaving Creation to roll the dice,” his son grunted. “That can only be called an improvement on that abomination you call a plan.”
“Perhaps a more diplomatic word could have been chosen, Masego,” Tikoloshe chided.
His son’s beautiful glass eyes swivelled under the eye cloth, brow raising.
“A thing that causes distrust or hatred,” Masego quoted. “That is the definition. I assure you, it earned both from me.”
“Redundancies,” Wekesa said, ignoring the salvo. “If your issue is with the unpredictability, we set several triggers. It will make it difficult to predict the exact sequence, but-”
“- it won’t matter if their fleet is deep enough in the Maze,” his son finished thoughtfully. “Perfection is the enemy of functionality.”
Wekesa blinked in surprise. Where had he learned that?
“This all rests on the Ashurans being unable to interrupt your little game,” Tikoloshe reminded them. “They will have hundreds of mages trained from the cradle.”
“Trained in Sabrathan sorcery,” Wekesa said, the sneer implied.
Oh, there was no denying that the Thalassocracy’s practitioners were the foremost in their fields. It was simply that those fields were so very narrow. The Gift was only cultivated two ways in Ashur: healers and ship mages. Ashuran mage-doctors could take the slightest ember of life and turn it into haleness, making Praesi attempts at healing look like the fumbling of children. Their sailing-mages could quiet storms or craft them, steal sunken ships from the depths and ride the tides. Yet outside that particular set of specialties, they were rank amateurs. Unlike Praesi they’d never outgrown the sorceries taught them by their forebears across the Tyrian Sea. They refined but did not innovate, in large part because the Sabrathan theory of magic was so badly antiquated. Victory was the mother of stagnation, and after wiping out the Miezans in the Licerian Wars the Baalite Hegemony had gone from triumph to triumph. Embracing stagnation just as deeply as the empire they’d overthrown. They’d not been forced to revisit the foundations of their sorcery for centuries, after the rest of the world had moved on. No, Wekesa thought little of Sabrathan magic. Or of any other that emphasized something as mundane as natural talent over skill and intellect.
“Narrow in scope, yet no less effective for it,” Masego said. “A hundred oxen cannot raise a pen but they can trample it.”
“At best they’ll be able to save a third of the fleet by submerging it,” Warlock flatly said. “Most of their practitioners lack the ability to use the spells, and their methods are ill-suited to rituals.”
“They could interrupt the sequence by detonating parts of it in advance with their own sorcery,” Tikoloshe said. “It has been done before.”
“Then we harden the wards from the outside, thin them on the inside,” Wekesa said. “It will be tedious, but as an additional safeguard it will serve well enough.”
“Someone will need to be among the corals,” Masego disagreed. “To start the sequence again if it stalls. Your schematic works in principle, but only if the possibility of Ashuran intervention is removed.”
Warlock’s lips tightened. He was not wrong. Much as he held Ashuran sorcery in contempt, dismissing it outright would be a blunder. There were no heroes here to muddle the mixture, but mortal ingenuity could be just as dangerous. The trap could not be sprung twice, it would wreck the Maze. Which meant if too few Ashuran ships were sunk, Thalassina was stripped of its finest defence while the enemy remained on the prowl. Alaya had made it clear that if the city fell there would be major unrest in the Empire. Nok being put to the torch was one thing, its ruler was by far the least influential of the High Lords and a former Trueblood besides. If the Dread Empress of Praes failed to shield even her oldest allies, however, there would be waves. Much as Wekesa despised the notion of having to stay in this city to protect idiots, he despised even more the prospect of having to put down a rebellion against the Tower.
“Agreed,” he finally said.
“Good,” Masego said. “I’ll require some accommodations on my perch, which I assume will need the permission of High Lord Idriss before being made.”
“No,” Tikoloshe immediately said, before Wekesa could speak the word himself. “Absolutely not.”
His son cocked his head to the side.
“Father is the best fit to oversee the ritual from the city,” he pointed out. “It is primarily his design. What follows is obvious.”
“The risks are much higher out there,” Warlock said. “If the sequence fails-”
“- I will handle the matter,” Masego interrupted. “If you believe your plan to be sound, any risks posed to me are irrelevant. If you do not believe your plan to be sound, this conversation is an exercise in pointlessness.”
“You are perfectly capable of overseeing the ritual yourself,” Wekesa said. “There is no need to discuss this further.”
“I am capable,” his son agreed. “But I am not the most capable. Logically speaking-”
“Enough,” Warlock bellowed. “I will not allow you to stand in the middle of a fucking Ashuran fleet while we turn centuries-old wards into munitions. You are staying in the city, and that’s the last we’ll speak of this.”
Heat spread across the room, carrying the faint scent of brimstone. His temper had loosened his hold. Slowly, Masego straightened in his chair. He’s almost as tall as I am, Wekesa realized with muted surprise. Grown slender from his stay abroad, though his long braids and the trinkets woven into them made him seem larger. Robes stark black, eyes veiled, he looked like a stranger. A man grown instead of a boy.
“There has been quite enough of not speaking, I would think,” Hierophant coldly said. “And my patience has officially run out.”
They did not react to his words, not visibly at least.
But Masego felt the weight of what he’d spoken fall over the room and was glad of it. He’d hoped they would tell him themselves. That he wouldn’t need to drag it out of them, that maybe they had a good reason. He’d grown, since leaving to fight in the Liesse Rebellion. Learned so much about himself and Creation around him, so much the revelations had carried him beyond the Name of Apprentice. If they’d recognized that, acted on it… It wouldn’t have bound the wounds, no. Not entirely. But it would have mattered. Been measured on the scales of the betrayal. Instead here he was, expected to sit and pretend like they’d not lied to him his whole life. No, worse than a lie. They had hidden the truth after raising him to seek it above all else. What possible justification could there be for that?
“Masego,” Papa said cautiously, “I do not know what-”
“You know,” Masego said. “Or suspect, at least. I have been to Keter, fathers. And oh, the things I witnessed on that journey. The secrets I glimpsed.”
“The Dead King lies,” Father calmly said.
His eyes were dark mirrors, revealing nothing.
“So do you,” Hierophant hissed. “He, at least, does not pretend otherwise.”
“You don’t understand,” Papa sighed.
“A common consequence of being kept in the dark,” Masego harshly replied.
“The dark,” Father murmured. “The right term, used incorrectly. You were kept from the dark, my son.”
“There is nothing in this world to fear save ignorance,” the blind mage said. “You taught me this, once. The lesson should have been tailored to your deeds, if you did not want to be called to account for them.”
Father leaned back into his seat, then drummed his fingers against the tables.
“What do you think death is, Masego?” he asked.
“Religion, now,” the younger man snorted. “The resort of those without answers of their own.”
“Let us speak of two Dread Emperors,” the Warlock said. “One called Malignant, third of the name. The other called Revenant.”
“The same man,” Masego said. “Famously so.”
Malignant the Third had killed himself through ritual and risen from the grave a year later, dethroning his successor and reigning again under the name of Dread Emperor Revenant. There’d been some rebellion when it’d become clear he intended on reigning forever, the first of the Wars of the Dead. He vaguely remembered Revenant being used as the basis for the legal argument that later excluded undead from claiming the Tower, though there’d been some other barely more interesting wars in between.
“I knew both,” Papa said. “And believe this to be untrue.”
He watched the incubus, looking for a lie and finding none. But they were both much better liars than he’d thought, weren’t they?
“What came back shared much with Malignant,” Papa continued. “Memories, thoughts, opinions. It was also fundamentally other. It was… a tracing of the man. A prefect imitation, yet still only that. An imitation.”
“An interesting matter,” Masego said. “Yet utterly irrelevant to this conversation.”
“No. No it isn’t,” Father quietly said. “Because in one of the deepest vaults beneath the Tower, there is the most complete version of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness in existence. A third of the full text, and not contiguous. And it was there Malignant learned the foundations of the ritual that turned him into Revenant.”
His fingers clenched. All these years, the knowledge had been there. In his father’s memories, yes, but also written on parchment. And they’d kept it from him. The oldest, most important instance of apotheosis in the history of the continent and they’d hidden it away. His teeth clicked together so strongly his mouth almost bled.
“If you were under the impression this helped your case,” Masego replied in a furious whisper, “allow me to disabuse you of that notion.”
“You would have embraced the teachings,” Papa said. “No matter what we said.”
His Name flared, like a morning sun, sheer power wafting from his frame like smoke.
“And so Father bound you not to speak of it,” he hissed. “So much for free will.”
“I did not,” Warlock said.
“Liar,” Masego spat out. “You should not have taught me diabolism if you wanted to maintain that pretence. Papa is driven by desire. He had answers I wanted, what could possibly silence him except a binding?”
Gods, how many other hidden bindings were there? Had Father forced love as well? How could he tell if a single thing he’d seen or heard or felt was genuine? Had Papa baked because he enjoyed it, or because there was a rule that made him? The most sophisticated set of oaths in existence bound the incubus, decades in the making. Free will made by mortal cleverness, they’d called it. Could you really call it that, if there were exceptions?
“A greater desire,” Tikoloshe said. “Of my own.”
Hierophant bitterly laughed.
“Did you want me ignorant so badly?”
“I wanted to keep my son alive,” Papa softly said. “Even if it hurt him. Even he hated me for it.”
“You can’t just-”
“You should have noticed by now,” Father said, tone calm and even. “I’m told you’ve studied her physiology in depth, both physical and metaphysical. The signs must be there.”
“No,” Masego said.
“Catherine Foundling died at Second Liesse,” the Warlock gently said. “What walked out of that fortress is an impression of the young woman made on the fabric of Winter, no more and no less. I’m sorry, Masego. I really am. I know you liked her. But even if the Black Queen believes she’s the same person, she is not. Amadeus didn’t realize it either, he doesn’t have the learning. But he described what happened in the city to me. There can be no doubt.”
“We hurt you,” Papa said. “And for that, I will apologize. But not regret. Not if you are still alive to be hurt.”
He didn’t want to think about it, but he couldn’t not. He’d been told a theory and so it must be considered. He had observed a certain stiffness in thought in Catherine, an inability to deviate from goals even if it meant employing means she would have once dismissed out of hand. Believed it, back then, to be a consequence of the mantle becoming one with her soul – it would retain certain properties, which would be made inherent to her. It had been a reasonable theory. Or it could be that the imprint on Winter was limited in nature, and that the creature playing at being Catherine was incapable of deviating from it. He’d already known that her body was a construct, proved it.
Was her mind as well?
“Oh, child,” Father sadly said. “It will pass. The first one is always the worst. But you do yourself no service by denying the truth.”
Masego could no longer close his eyes. The closest he could come was to cease paying attention to what he saw. It was not a release. An effort of will was still required, and he abandoned the attempt after a moment.
“No,” he said.
“Masego, I understand you don’t want to-”
“This is not sentiment,” Hierophant said. “I disagree with you on rational grounds. Even if what you say is true, it is irrelevant. She remains the same individual.”
“You know that to be untrue,” Father said.
“I am not the same person I was this morning,” Hierophant said. “I have learned and changed. I am still Masego.”
“The degree of change is different,” the Warlock flatly said.
“And how does one decide on the appropriate degree?” he replied. “If I removed all my memories from age five to fifteen, I would behave differently. A part of what makes me would be absent, and yet I would still consider myself to be the same person. Assuming your theory is correct, the changes she went through are lesser than this. It is, therefore, irrelevant.”
“You’re being willfully-”
“Furthermore,” Hierophant said, raising his voice. “If your theory is incorrect, you both kept me ignorant out of petty fear.”
“Petty?” Papa repeated softly, and there was a rare thread of anger in his voice.
“I am no great scholar of niceties,” he replied. “But even I know an apology that is not apologetic rings empty.”
“Consider it withdrawn, then,” Papa tonelessly said.
His heart clenched, but he would not bend in this.
“You could have told me,” Masego said. “What you believe, why I shouldn’t do it. But you didn’t. You made the choice for me.”
“That’s what parents do, Masego,” Father said.
“I love you,” he said. “Both of you. But I disagree. You didn’t learn anything, you just… flinched. And apotheosis is not for the faint of heart.”
“There are journeys,” Father said, “that you can never finish. Because the person that left is not the same that arrives.”
“There is nothing in this world to fear save ignorance,” Masego replied, eyes burning bright. “And whatever may come, I will not flinch.”