“I inherited not an empire but a house on fire: fall in line, lest we all burn.”
– First Princess Éloïse of Aequitan
There were few things as frustrating as looking at something you knew how to do, had done, and yet did not understand in the slightest. The half-page of equations and formulas that I’d gotten Akua to write down for me was exactly that, when it came down to it. A practical, measurable representation of what I did when I ‘threaded the needle’ through Creation when making a gate. It’d been gibberish, the first time I glanced at it, but at least I’d thought I knew why. To put it bluntly, I lacked the tools to make the tools that’d give me a chance of making the tools that would allow to comprehend what was going on. More than nine tenths of mages were incapable of using High Arcana or even comprehending the principles behind it, after all, so considering I did not have even the slightest trace of the Gift I’d never exactly been in the running. These were numbers, though, so there had to be at least part of them I could grasp. Something that’d allow me to run on more than instinct and power, because neither of those were truly mine when it came down to it and I’d not forgotten my old lessons. Borrowed power always turned on its user.
So I’d buckled down, put away the wine and tried to figure this out from the bottom. The very basics of Trismegistan sorcery, which Diabolist assured unlike most theories of magic out there at least had mostly observable underlying principles. I didn’t have a library to ransack, sure, but I had the most viciously distinguished Sahelian in a few centuries around to pick the brains of and two literal goddesses on my shoulders. Both of which had been practitioners of high skill, before they got desperate enough to call on Below. It… wasn’t going very well. Not because my tutors were incompetent, they weren’t. Much as it pained me to admit it, Akua was better at explaining the magical in mundane terms than Masego had ever been and likely ever would be. As for the Sisters, they could literally show me what they meant. I just didn’t have the knack for this. It didn’t come naturally to me the way the sword and stories had. Even languages, and Gods knew I’d learned quite a few of those by now, were easier to get a handle on. Not easy at all, sure, but if I put in the work even without the crutch of the first aspect I’d ever earned I could make visible progress.
This, though? I’d finally memorized the classical table of elements and most the relationships involved, but aside from a refresher in all things arithmetic I’d not gotten much out of these new studies. Being able to name the limits of sorcery and a handful of fundamental laws didn’t mean I understood them, not truly. I could name past examples of those limits being hit but it was damnably hard to extrapolate as to how other practitioners might hit them in the future. Like having a phrasebook for a foreign tongue, then being asked to write a philosophical essay in it. So much of sorcery was about context, years of learning and studies, and I simply didn’t have that. I wasn’t sure I ever would, to be blunt, or that trying to obtain it was the best use of my time. Practically speaking, I got more out of a spar with Archer than I did of an hour learning about ritual theory. I passed a hand through my hair – it was unbound, for once – and sighed. The unpleasant truth was that if I’d started these studies years ago, just after becoming the Squire, I might be getting somewhere useful by now. Instead I was stuck depending on the advice and understanding of others.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, I thought. Not all the time. But I’d walked into some nasty messes lately by sheer arrogant ignorance, and I couldn’t count on my friends to pull me out of them every time. Not with the kind of opposition there was out there. There were some heroes I’d survive blundering against, but that didn’t hold for all of them. And the heroes were almost a second thought, compared to the ancient thing that was marching south at the head of undead hordes. I gathered the handful of parchments splayed across my low table and slipped them back into my saddlebag, closing the clasp. I’d been circling the same few paragraphs for the better part of an hour now, there’d be no progress made today. Besides, I’d begun another project. The Everdark had been a wake-up call in a lot of ways: about how I’d been fighting, about who I should be fighting. And there, like in sorcery, ignorance and recklessness had begun to cost me quite a bit. If I was to get involved in the wars scouring the Principate – and I was, it was the only possible way I could see of getting the Liesse Accords signed – then I couldn’t just go in like a drunk brawler and swing at everything in sight.
The Dead King was on the march, and that changed everything.
I couldn’t keep dropping geographical features on armies when I’d be needing those same armies to take the field against Keter before long. Not only was I weakening the same Grand Alliance I needed to keep from collapsing, there was a very real risk that everyone I killed down here would get up and start fighting for the other side at some point. Burning the dead would greatly limit the spectrum of necromancy that could be used on them, Diabolist had assured me, but not prevent the magic entirely from being used. Even a mass grave filled with ashes could be a threat if the Hidden Horror got his hands on it. Diplomacy would be the preferable option here, but I’d tried that before and my knuckles were starting to bleed from the amount of times the door had been slammed on them. I’d been named Arch-heretic of the East, and while back in Callow that’d been met with indignant riots the title would weigh a lot more in the eyes of the western half of Calernia. That I’d effectively been made the head of the drow religion would only make it worse, and there would be no keeping that under wraps for long. The only way I’d get the other nations to sit at the table was if they no longer believed they could really win against me without losing everything else.
Which meant I was going to have to kill some very powerful people before the year was out.
The Grey Pilgrim couldn’t be one, because if I killed him then the Dominion wouldn’t stop before either was I buried in pieces or their country was a heap of cinders. I’d made my peace with that. While not someone I’d ever trust, he was someone I could work with. The Saint, though? I’d need her head on a pike before I got anywhere. Considering I had serious doubts even dropping an entire mountain on that old monster would kill her, I needed to prepare something that would. The voice in the back of my head that sounded like my father kept reminding me that relying on an artefact was the kind of foolishness that got villains killed, but that wasn’t what I was doing. Not exactly. I was crafting a tool, in the same way a goblin alchemist would craft munitions. My sword and scabbard had been propped up against my table when I took them off my belt, and I leaned over to grasp them now. No goblin steel blade, this, or shard of Winter given shape. I’d made a request of Sve Noc before we left the Everdark, when my strategy had begun to take shape, and it had been fulfilled.
The scabbard was carved obsidian, a tale writ in runes of some fool girl who’d made an accord with sister-goddesses. The characters were twined around something else, a declaration of intent: Losara Queen, First Under the Night. There was power in putting truth to stone, especially when you had been part of the story told. The blade within the sheath had not left it since the first rest, the only visible part being the long handle of onyx and amethyst. I’d learned the uses of those stones well, in the last few months. One to ingest power, the other to facilitate communion and connection to the divine. Closing my fingers around the handle I closed my eyes as well, breathing in deep. The Night slithered through my veins, answering the call, and I felt the weight of the crows on my shoulders. They approved, these quarrelsome goddesses of mine. That was not nearly as reassuring as they believed it to be. I focused, clearing my thoughts and-
-and the folds of my tent were unceremoniously pushed open.
“The Queen of Callow alone in her tent, ‘handling her sword’,” Archer mused. “There’s definitely a joke in there.”
I bit back an irritated reply, eyes fluttering open. The Night turned to smoke, leaving me, but there would be time enough later. Every hour I could spare, in fact.
“I assume you came in for a reason?” I said.
“There’s word from our scouts on Rochelant, so Rumena wants to see you,” she replied.
I grunted in answer, rolling my shoulder questioningly. The pop that eventually ensued served as a reminder that sitting on the ground for a few hours had actual physical consequences these days. I put my hand against the table to push myself up before pausing under Archer’s bemused gaze. I chewed on my lip, then called on the Night again. Darkness gathered around the sword and scabbard like flies to honey, for a moment emptying the inside of my tent from every speck of shadow. I heard Komena laughing in my ear, before she leant her hand to the shaping: making power stable and solid was always more difficult than just seizing it. I leaned on the long, crooked staff of ebony now in my hand to drag myself up to me feet. Indrani’s hazelnut eyes were studying me curiously.
“Gonna tell me what that was about?” she lightly asked.
“There’s no point in having advisors,” I said, “if I don’t occasionally take their advice.”
“Ooh, cryptic,” she praised.
“Well, I am a priestess,” I drawled back. “You may now guide me to my humble flock, wench.”
“You know, in Alamans romances that have very nice illustrations of what Wicked Priestesses of Evil should wear,” Archer informed me.
I rolled my eyes and pulled ahead of her. She was still trying to convince to wear clothes that in this weather would get me frostbite in very inconvenient parts when we got to the mouthy old drow’s tent, but that was where the easy mood died. Rumena Tomb-Maker had looked unflappable even when throwing gauntlets down simultaneously at the feet of both the Longstride Cabal’s most dangerous Mighty and myself at the peak of my mastery over Winter. That it now looked somewhat disturbed while looking at the map of Procer we’d taken from our Levantine prisoners was not a good sign. Akua was already lounging in the back of the tent, which was deserted save the two of them. Less than surprising, given that it was still daylight out and most drow hadn’t yet emerged from their dawn-induced slumber. The general barely glanced at the staff I was leaning on, but I felt Diabolist’s gaze linger. I did not meet her eyes, instead limping to sit across from the old drow who had greeted me with a mere nod. Archer unceremoniously dropped down at my side, though given the flask that’d mysteriously appeared in her hand I doubted she’d be paying much attention to the proceedings.
“Report,” I simply said.
“Lord Ivah has returned from Rochelant,” Rumena said. “The city is already under occupation.”
My brow rose, and my wariness as well. Humans stepping on other humans wouldn’t wrinkle the Tomb-Maker’s brow, which meant there was more to this.
“By who?” I asked.
Akua cleared her throat.
“While Lord Ivah was not familiar with the banners being flown, it offered detailed descriptions,” the shade said. “Two emblems are being flown: that of the Hierarch of the League of Free Cities and the personal heraldry of the Theodosians of Helike.”
I started in surprise.
“I thought the Hierarch had refused a banner?” I said.
“He did,” Akua amusedly replied. “It is blank cloth, and so even more easily recognizable than heraldry from a distance.”
I mulled over that. The Hierarch’s personal banner would be flown regardless of his actual presence, given that he was in theory the supreme commander of the military forces of the League, so that didn’t give us much. Neither did the Tyrant’s family colours being up there, unfortunately. The villain was essentially a sack full of wet and angry cats made into a person, so schemes were only to be expected. None of this, though, explained why Rumena was feeling unsettled.
“There’s more,” I stated, and it was not a question.
“As there were no armies encamped outside the walls and no visible watch in place, Lord Ivah infiltrated the city,” Rumena said. “The humans within appear to have gone mad.”
“Define mad,” I said.
Akua stepped in.
“There appears to be a revolt taking place,” she said. “Citizens are forming tribunals and killing officials and prominent individuals after public trials, under the supervision of Helikean soldiers.”
“Supervision,” I repeated slowly. “They’re not being forced?”
“Lord Ivah reported feeling the urge to join these ‘trials’,” General Rumena said. “And that the urge grew stronger the longer it remained within. This is… unusual. Though this took place under the glare of the sun, such influence over our kind has no precedent to my knowledge.”
I felt talons digging painfully into my shoulders and winced. The Sisters weren’t pleased that someone might be meddling with minds of one of their own, even one who’d chosen to swear itself to my service.
“Aspect, you think?” I asked Akua.
“Hard to tell without taking a closer look,” she admitted. “Large-scale manipulation of minds by ritual is not unprecedented – Dread Emperor Imperious once compelled an entire army to suicide – but the Carrion Lord’s scuffle with the forces of Helike should have killed a significant portion of their most skilled practitioners. I am not certain they could accomplish such a working anymore. Not directly.”
“There is, of course, another path possible,” Diabolist said. “Binding an entity capable of such influence would require fewer mages, though it would carry significant risks.”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten.
“Tell me someone didn’t summon a fucking demon in the middle of a continental brawl,” I asked.
“Someone didn’t summon a fucking demon in the middle of a continental brawl,” Indrani eagerly replied, the slightest of slurs to her voice.
I ignored that, for all our sakes.
“Akua?” I pressed.
“In other times I would wager only the full Stygian Magisterium capable of that tier of diabolism,” the shade finally said. “But the Tyrant of Helike has proved… surprisingly well-informed. I would not dismiss the possibility out of hand.”
I clenched my fingers into a fist until the knuckles paled. Of all the violently idiotic things to do. If a demon got loose with this many armies in the region, the damage could be… Staggering. We could lose the entire centre of Procer in a month, if it went wrong, and by the time the dust settled the final contest over who owned Calernia would between demon-corrupted puppets and the armies of the dead. Where were the fucking heroes when you actually needed them? A whole warband was willing to show up for the Battle of the Camps but this somehow did not require their attention? I forced myself to calm down. Angry thinking was sloppy thinking. We didn’t know for sure it was a demon. It could be an aspect or a ritual, or half a hundred tricks I’d never heard about. We’d plan for the worse, but I wouldn’t allow myself to get stuck in the perspective it was necessarily what was taking place.
“All right,” I said, letting out a long breath. “Our approach needs to be adjusted.”
“How so?” General Rumena asked.
“If this is the Tyrant screwing with Procer with sorcery or his Name, we let it go,” I reluctantly said. “I’m not starting a war with the League over this, ugly as that reality is.”
“If our assumption is correct and the ‘legionaries’ the League were seen skirmishing with are truly the Army of Callow, we might already be at war with them,” Akua pointed out.
“We don’t know for sure,” I said. “It fits, and my instinct is that Juniper’s out there, but I’m not going to act based on just that. It could be deserters from Marshal Grem’s army, or a raiding force he sent out. It could be a scheme, if someone knew we were coming, to bait us into starting that very war. And even if was Juniper, we don’t know the context of those skirmishes – and note they were that, skirmishes. Not a field battle.”
“You do not believe that, not truly,” the shade said.
“My beliefs are irrelevant,” I sharply replied. “There’s too much at stake here for hasty decisions, and too much we just don’t know. Someone out there set up this game, Diabolist, and until we know who that is I’m not picking any fights I don’t have to.”
Silence reigned after that, and Akua simply inclined her head in deference.
“And if it isn’t?” Archer nonchalantly asked. “Magic or an aspect, I mean.”
I put a hand on the low table, feeling the cool polished surface against the warmth of my flesh.
“Containment,” I softly said. “Observation. Then, if necessary, we purge everyone inside.”
I would not allow a demon to run rampant this close to so many armies and Named. I would not allow the Tyrant to wield that dangerous a tool when both those things were so close, as that might even more dangerous. If the city could not be saved, then I would see it burned to the ground. It was the closest thing to mercy I could still offer. The Liesse Accords would ban the summoning of demons any circumstances, I thought with irritation, not that it meant anything until they were signed. Allowable Use of Non-Creational Entities, And Circumstances Therein. There was an entire section of the treaty dedicated to this stuff. Considering what it had to say about angels it wouldn’t be all that popular with some people, but then others would be less than pleased about the parts pertaining to devils.
I did not mind beginning to enforce the sheerest common sense onto this continent at swordpoint before signatures had been put to the Accords, if it proved necessary.
“Then you would have us prepare for battle,” General Rumena said, tone neutral.
“You have your orders, Tomb-Maker,” I said.
There was a whisper of power in the tent, and the phantom weight of the crows on my shoulders. The old drow took in the sight of the Sisters manifest and immediately bowed its head.
“By your will, First Under the Night,” it replied. “I will begin preparations immediately.”
The weight was gone, quick as it had come, and I let the general leave the tent without further comment. My eyes moved to the map on the table, the small stones that had been placed on it. We were a day’s march from Rochelant and whatever awaited us there, now. There’d be answers soon enough.
“If it is not a demon,” Akua suddenly said, breaking through the silence. “If the Kingdom of Callow is not at war with the League… Then there might be an opportunity awaiting.”
I picked up the black stone representing our army and spun it idly between my fingers. My gaze remained on the inked borders and cities of the Principate of Procer. On the few coloured stones marking the forces we knew about. The two armies of the Dominion, the rumoured Proceran relief force coming from Salia. The most likely current operating theatre of the legions under Marshal Grem. Where we’d believed the armies of the League to be, though that would need reassessment. And far to the south, the duped border army of the First Prince desperately hurrying back towards tactical relevance. The thorough interrogation of the Levantine outriders had wielded more information than anticipated, even if a lot of it was rumours.
“You want to make a deal with the Tyrant of Helike,” Indrani guffawed. “Because that’s going to end well.”
“An alignment between Callow and the League alone would force the Grand Alliance to the peace table,” the shade pointed out. “The addition of the Empire Ever Dark further tips the balance. We would be as much of an existential threat as the Dead King, in some aspects. The alignment need not last forever for concessions to be extracted.”
There was a pattern somewhere in there, I thought. Oh, it looked like sheer bloody chaos at first glance but I’d fought wars before and something about this was raising my hackles. Someone had helped this storm to brew, and that meant someone would benefit from it. Malicia had once told me that when beginning a scheme, one must first consider the desired outcome. She was a lot better at this game than I’d ever be, but I could derive some use from that lesson: what did the players in Iserre want? The Grand Alliance wanted to crush the invasion as swiftly as possible before sending all its forces north. The Legions of Terror, if their march upwards was any indication, wanted to use the northern passage to retreat towards Callow. The League was the entity hardest to predict. It had two heads, the Hierarch and the Tyrant, and it was unclear who was really holding the reins of the horse. If anyone is at all. If they’d wanted territorial gains, I thought, they would not have come this far north so early. It would have been sounder sense to smash the Proceran border army in Tenerife then quickly move to occupy a few southern principalities while the Principate was forced to deal with other threats in the heartlands. Instead they’d joined the complicated dance taking place in Iserre.
“See, the problem with that is that at some point we’re at a table with the Tyrant,” Indrani said. “That’s basically throwing jugs of oil at a bonfire, Akua. He’s gonna fuck someone before that conference is done, and it might just be us.”
Remove the League forces from Iserre, and what did you get? Eighteen thousand veterans under Grem, my own southern expedition of fifty thousand and possibly a portion of the Army of Callow. All of which would join up into a single force when faced with external foes. Against that, a relief army from Salia that should be at least thirty thousand to be worth throwing into the mess. Eighty thousand split in two from the Dominion. And maybe, though to be honest the chances weren’t great, that army of twenty thousand from Tenerife would make it in time to participate. I doubted anyone from the League would have been able to predict the kind of army I’d come back with, but then they might have just been betting blind on my coming back with some kind of force. East against West, to paint in broad strokes, the Grand Alliance had us beat in numbers. We’d have better soldiery, though, and unless the heroes stepped in we’d have the only Named on the field. If truce couldn’t be reached there would be a clash on a massive scale, and one of those coalitions would come out of it shattered. Put back the League onto the field, though, and suddenly the difference was obvious. Like Indrani had mused days ago, neither coalition could commit to that kind of a clash because both ran a risk the Tyrant would come swinging at their back when they were occupied.
This, I decided, couldn’t be the Hierarch’s game. Unless the man was hiding deep cunning and political acumen behind the rambling letters and had been playing some of the finest minds on the continent – and also me – like fiddles then this wasn’t his doing. It would be the Tyrant of Helike, moving through him. No one can make a deal with the League, because the madman ruling it will refuse to make one out of principle, I thought. And the Tyrant, if the Eyes of the Empire were to be believed, had been the one to arrange for the Hierarch to be elected in the first place. That did not feel like a coincidence. I closed my palm over the stone I’d been twirling, then absent-mindedly knocked it against the surface of the table.
“But if you’re trying to prevent one side from being crippled,” I murmured. “Then why are you stirring the pot?”
If the objective was to keep the East and the West from bloodying each other to the extent that no one would be able to stand against the Dead King, it would run against the grain to keep shoving chaos into Iserre. Which he was absolutely doing, if the situation in Rochelant was what it sounded like. Unless you really don’t give a shit about the war, I thought. Because the war is just a way for you to get at something so it doesn’t matter who wins it, so long as they don’t win it too early. But if that was really the case…
“Catherine?” Akua said.
My head rose. I hadn’t realized until now, but silence had fallen over the tent.
“Call Rumena back,” I ordered. “There won’t be a demon in Rochelant. I’ll be heading to the city with a small escort, while the army under it needs to be moving elsewhere. And fast.”
“And what will be doing there?” Indrani asked.
It had never even occurred to her, I thought affectionately, that she would not be coming.
“Paying a visit to my eternal friend,” I said. “To find out what it is exactly he needs so badly from Cordelia Hasenbach.”