“And so a great host came to stand before the Sererian Walls, led by four kings and three queens who meant to raise Aslam Isbili as king over Wolof. Their envoys were scorned by High Lady Akua of the Sahelians, and so in great anger did they storm her walls. Seven times and one was the army driven back, broken by sorcery until corpses stood tall as hills. Only then did High Lady Akua answer the envoys, speaking thus: ‘Have you come to win a crown, or lose seven?’”
– Extract from the Scroll of Ruin, twenty-fifth of the Secret Histories of Praes
There were eleven different secret passages into the city of Wolof and all of them were traps.
Akua had told me that one of her distant ancestors, after discovering several made by disloyal vassals aiming to overthrow the Sahelians, had decided instead of walling them up to make several more. High Lord Kofi had then seeded rumours about their existence, fake traitors and secret scrolls, and sat back waiting for all his enemies to come at him by where he’d see them coming. The number of passages had grown over the years as people outwitted Sahelians for a time, but in the wake of those victories the family always reclaimed the fresh weakness and added it to their centuries-old ploy. I’d been halfway to admiring High Lord Kofi, until Akua noted he was also famous for his habit of throwing one of his cousins in a maze every summer solstice. Along with starved lions. It kept everyone on their toes, he’d claimed.
If there were no secret passages to use and storming the walls was too costly for us, then that left us few options to enter the city. Sneaking in as part of a delegation had been considered, but we’d be watched like hawks and likely kept under wards the whole time. Assuming we weren’t just betrayed. Pickler had narrowed in on the aqueduct that fed the city as our way in, but her suggestion had been… overly bold. She’d wanted us to cut the water and send in goblins with munitions through the stone channel. They’d blow their way through the wards at the end and we’d funnel troops into that foothold by the dry aqueduct, taking enough of the city by surprise that Sargon was forced to either negotiate or suffer a sack. Problem was, I had my doubts that we could secure that foothold.
The aqueduct whose source was deep in the Jinon Hills was squatted over by the fortress of the same name, then whipped across the valley in straight line, but welcoming it into Wolof was yet another set of fortifications. The Sahelians weren’t fools, they’d known the running water was the weakness in their wards. The place was fortified thoroughly and garrisoned through day and night: even if we did take the soldiers there by surprise, I figured it was a toss up whether we’d win the fight. And if we lost it, well, that’d get bloody. So a somewhat quieter way in was needed, which had led me to our current scheme. Namely, my old Everdark crew resurrected for one more jaunt: a more subtle infiltration of the city through the same weakness Pickler had identified.
I’d needed the Concocter to make it feasible, since without the ability to breathe in water that was a very long swim, but those vials and ransacking through the remains of the old Sudden Abjuration project had gotten me the right tools. Cordelia had been the one to most benefit from the emptying of the Arsenal, since she’d been able to take all the half-finished projects and throw them at the Dead King on various fronts, but taking the Concocter east had paid dividends for me. I knew the First Prince appreciated me not drawing too heavy on the pool of heavy hitters among Named, too. She’d not be so grateful if she knew I’d not shortchanged myself in the slightest, simply picking mine for stories instead of raw war potential. The Barrow Sword so that I could tie him up with the Blood, all of Ranger’s surviving pupils for when it inevitably came to blows with her, two kids approaching the time of their transition into a more settled Named – hanging swords I could bring down, pulling at the right strings. It was a pretty little arsenal, though it would not be of use here in Wolof.
No, here it was an older company that’d be taking the field again.
“I’d always imagined that if I crossed the Sererian Walls again it would either be as Empress or as bones,” Akua said, eyeing the shape of the city in the distance.
“Well, you’re slightly bones,” Indrani mused. “You know, in a poetic sense.”
“Ah, bones,” the woman who had once been the heiress to Wolof drawled. “Those famously incorporeal body parts.”
She made her shape turn shadowy for a moment to hammer the point home before returning to her usual guise.
“Poetry’s all about metaphors, Heirloom Haunt,” Indrani sneered. “It’s a mark of your inferior education you don’t know that.”
Akua’s face creased with what appeared to be genuine outrage.
“You were raised in the woods,” she replied.
“I guess it must just be the gap between our natural talents, then,” Indrani airily replied.
“There was a time where I would have had had you drowned for that sentence,” Akua noted.
“Well,” Indrani said, eyeing the aqueduct. “Day’s young. Give it a shot.”
Idly, I wondered if it was too late to replace one of them by Hakram. Sure, given how much metal he wore these days he’d swim about as well as a rock but I was having to weigh the prospect of dragging him along the bottom the whole time against at least a day of this.
Convenience narrowly won out.
“All right, let’s get this going,” I said. “The timing will get tricky if we linger.”
I got a mocking salute from Archer and a graceful nod of acknowledgement from Akua, sparing one last look for the distant shape of Wolof before I left. The ramparts up here did have an amazing view during the day. We headed down into the belly of the beast, and I split from them to have a short conversation with the commander leading the garrison. He confirmed that Hierophant was already getting started on his ritual, which meant we needed to get going. I ordered him to get the gears moving and followed my companions below, to the source feeding the aqueduct.
It was bare-bones, for such a crucial location, a cube of stone split in the middle by a rectangular ‘river’ that fed into the channel that would lead all the way to Wolof. The water actually came from further out, an underground spring deep in the hills, and this room had been raised for maintenance purposes. The stone conduct on raised steles – Pickler had commented unkindly on the way the Sahelians had been forced to fortify the stone with enchantments to compensate for not using arches the way the Miezans had – was dotted with warded “hatches” on the ceiling through which mages-engineers could enter to have a look at any blockage or foulness, but it wouldn’t help the three of us: there wasn’t enough space between the top of the channel and the water for anyone to be able to breathe reliably.
I would have been able to get around that with Night, probably by making a bubble around myself that let in air but not water, but the garrison would have seen us coming if we did. It would have tripped half a dozen wards on the aqueduct and destroying those would have tripped further defences. No, to go in quietly the solution was the water breathing potion. The three of us did a last check on our equipment before going into the water, professionalism finally shining through. Archer had been forced to abandon her usual bow, as it would be too large as well as enchanted, so she had a simple waxed shortbow with the backup strings stashed in a watertight bag along with her arrows. I’d shed the Mantle of Woe for this, settling for a simple grey cloak over my usual sword and armour.
Akua’s clothes were sedate, and what she carried was not equipment meant for herself. The Concocter had finished the last of the ten bags of evanescent powder I’d requested half a bell ago, and they’d been brought straight here. The shade had them all, held in segmented bags held by complicated knots. One pull at the right place and they’d spread out while the bags opened, which was our way in. Sudden Abjuration had been the Arsenal project to create an alchemical substance capable of mimicking the effects of holy water. We’d never managed to make one that’d make it affordable to go through with the plan behind the project, turning all the lakes between us and the Dead King into holy water, but we’d had some successes nonetheless.
The evanescent powder, for one, would wash out active sorcery on contact. Like wards and enchantments trying to keep us out of Wolof.
“Everyone ready?” I asked.
“Bit of a swim without the potion, Cat,” Archer grinned.
I rolled my eye, then glanced at Akua.
“At your disposal, my heart,” she said.
“You should be more like her,” I told Indrani.
She let a deeply insulted gasp, as I’d known she would, and I shoved a small glass vial into her hand. I’d thought about throwing it, but I was not going to roll the dice on this entire operation just to be flippant. It’d taken the Concocter long enough to make four doses – two to enter, two to leave – that I was not going to risk it all just before we left. I took out my own vial, glancing at the pale blue liquid inside. It looked almost milk-like, which was not appetizing in the slightest given the hue. I uncorked it and raised the vial in a toast that Indrani met, and it was bottoms up for the both of us. The entire thing tasted foul, like chalk cut with refuse, but I forced myself to swallow. I breathed in a few times, trying to get myself used to it.
On the surface it didn’t feel like anything changed, but my lungs felt… heavier. Like something had grown.
“We only have an hour,” I said. “Let’s not waste it.”
I want first, even though I wasn’t the strongest swimmer – Indrani – as I saw best in the dark. And it was only moments before it was all pitch black, all the worst parts of swimming and crawling in a tunnel put together. A few strokes forward and already my lungs were burning, and I find myself fighting breathing in the water even though in principle I knew that I’d survive it. I ended up swallowing it all in a gulp, but the water didn’t go any further than my mouth: a thin membrane had sprouted and it served as a filter, letting through air and not water. It was uncomfortable, unnatural even, but it worked so I grit my teeth and kept swimming forward. I could feel Akua right behind me, patiently waiting.
Shades didn’t need to breathe, which at the moment I felt to be somewhat unfair.
Like most adventures, it didn’t feel all that exciting as we did it. It was work, tiresome swimming through a tunnel-like channel of fresh water. I was wet and cold and my arms quickly grew tired. Now and then we encountered small lights as we passed under maintenance hatches in the stone, which were warded instead of sealed tight, but aside from that it was swimming forward in a gentle, almost unnoticeable slope. It was hard to tell how long it took us. We’d estimated half an hour at a brisk pace, maybe three quarters of an hour in practice, and my finely detailed sixth sense telling me how close I was to dawn and dusk helped measure how long we were taking.
We were slower than anticipated, so we had about a quarter hour left before the potion ran when we finally arrived at the gatehouse. I gestured for the other two to stop, studying the steel grid in front of us. The builders of this gatehouse had been faced with a problem when raising it, namely that you couldn’t actually raise wards over running water. There were wards on both sides of the channel I could see going into the gatehouse, a large stone room where I could glimpse torchlight through the water’s surface. In the water itself, though, the Sahelians had been forced to instead use three enchanted metal grids to prevent infiltrators going through.
That was our opening, actually. As with all fortresses, its true weakness was not in the walls or the gates but in the petty demands of maintenance. In this case, should debris large enough to go through the bars of one grid got stuck on the bars of another grid there needed to actually be a way for someone to get it out. Preferably without, you know, this turning into a major undertaking involving knocking down walls or parts of the aqueduct. So the builders had put ‘doors’ in the grids, large enough for a small person to swim through if they held themselves horizontally. Those doors were held fast with very physical steel padlocks and more eldritch keyed enchantments, and they were our way into the city of Wolof.
Archer swam forward, elbowing me in our narrow confines, and had a close look at the pair of padlocks on the door. She offered me a nod, which was a relief. She believed she’d bee physically strong to pry those open using her Name, then. Tempting as it would have been for her to try it, we couldn’t afford to right now: the damn things were enchanted to glow if anyone touched them. Sahelian paranoia was truly inspiring. The two of us awkwardly made room for Akua to swim past us, which she did with unearthly elegance in the middle of this cramped hellhole, and golden eyes met mine to ask for the permission to begin. I nodded and the shade turned her back to the grids before pulling at the right rope, releasing all the knots holding closed the bags of evanescent powder.
It wasn’t all that flashy a sight: the pale powders spread out in great clouds that faded quickly, and then the only sign they’d been used was that the water looked slightly thicker. The current guided it down, past all three grids and then beyond. Akua withdrew without a word, making room for Archer, and I clenched my fists as I watched her dart forward. After an agonizing moment she closed her fingers around the padlock and nothing happened at all. No glow, no alarm. I grinned. It’d worked. Indrani ripped open the padlocks methodically and swam through the door to get working on the second grid. Even after the unpleasantly long swim, I now felt full of energy: I took my sword off my belt, pulling it close so it wouldn’t get in my way when I swam through.
Ahead, Indrani broke the last padlocks and I was gesturing for Akua to go ahead when I caught sight of shapes moving above the water. Hissing in dismay I flattened myself against the side of the channel, Akua doing the same behind me, but it was Archer in danger of being discovered. If she’d been in the dark she would have been fine, but moments later a long wooden staff was plunged into the waters and I saw that at its head was a stone enchanted to glow with light. Indrani had moved before she could be seen, hiding on the side of the wall in the dead angle, but the grid… I started with surprise. Oh, that canny wench. While I’d been panicking, she’d put the padlocks she’d broken on the last door back. They were still busted, but she’d hung them at an angle where it was hard to see.
There was the indistinct sound of people talking, at least three voices, and one seemed to be mocking another. The staff was suddenly withdrawn and I sagged in relief. If it’d come to a fight here, it might have gotten ugly. We waited as long as I dared, far after the voices had gotten distant. Our last quarter hour was thinning out dangerously and there was still more swimming ahead of us, so reluctantly I gave the signal again. Archer opened us the path through and we got moving, myself last and hanging the padlocks behind me as I closed the doors so that it would be hard to tell we’d passed. We had an even better cover for our tracks coming, but best not to get sloppy.
Hugging the bottom of the channel we went past the open channel in the torchlit room, into a squeezing tight tunnel that dropped downwards precipitously. Barely swimming at that point, I let myself be dragged forward and then swam up when we ended up where we’d meant to: the first of the three great reservoirs where the water from the aqueduct would be kept before going out into the city itself. The reservoir, little more than a large cistern, wasn’t entirely full: I breached the surface to moist air, finding Akua and Archer already climbing up towards the hatch at the top.
“Fuck me,” I muttered, “it actually-”
I bit my tongue at the last moment. I refused to tempt Fate like that.
“You’ll be all right climbing?” Archer asked in a murmur.
I glanced at the handholds they were using, little more than indents into the side of the wall – people had to be able to come down to check for leaks or trash – and grimaced before I nodded. The herbs I’d taken for the pain in my leg were beginning to fade, but I’d make it up. It just wouldn’t be pleasant, during or after. Indrani tried to push open the stone hatch but it didn’t move. I cursed under my breath. Breaking that open wouldn’t go unnoticed. Akua, however, had a solution. Her arm turning to mist, it slithered through a crack and I heard her work on the hatch from the outside. Moments later it was hoisted open, Archer catching it and popping her head out to look.
She gave us a nod and a grin: the way was clear.
Indrani went out first, leaping down soundlessly, and Akua followed as I climbed up. My bad leg was burning, but only dimly. I closed the hatch behind us, twisting it into some sort of rough lock, and just like that we were in the city. Well, a fortress within Wolof anyway, but as far as I was concerned it counted. We were dripping all over the floor, save for Akua, who covered out tracks: she passed a mist-like hand over us and we found ourselves mostly dry. She pulled the same trick with the trails of wetness we’d left, and though we were still damp at least we wouldn’t be leaving tracks.
“You remember the way out from here?” I softly asked.
“I’ve never been in this part of the fortress,” Akua admitted, “but I have memorized the plans, same as you. It will be enough.”
I nodded. It’d have to be. We were in a closed off section inside the fortress, but one that was relatively close to a way out. There ought to be a hall outside the reservoir room that’d go straight to a crossroads. Taking a left there would lead us straight to a bastion, and from there it was possible for us to leap down three levels into a large courtyard whose gate would lead us out in the city streets. The issue was that we hadn’t known the guard schedules, so there was no telling if there were people in that bastion or not. And we couldn’t afford to take our time here, because soon the Army of Callow was going to ‘attack’ the city.
“Take the lead, then,” I ordered.
She nodded, her form rippling into that of a young Soninke soldier in Sahelian livery. Archer and I wouldn’t be half as inconspicuous, unfortunately, so she’d be going ahead alone. The two of us hid behind the reservoirs, waiting for what seemed like an hour. She returned, footsteps silent and with a grave expression on her face.
“Only three in the bastion, but one is a mage,” Akua said. “I would like Archer to kill him, I am at… risk otherwise. If he’s a skilled enough caster, he could tap into the fortress wards.”
“Indrani, you’re up,” I said.
“Ah, that ought to be bracing,” she grinned. “See you in a bit, Your Graceful Regaliness.”
“I hope you get caught,” I sweetly replied, “so I can consciously choose to leave you behind.”
She flipped me off, a sure sign of surrender if I’d ever seen one. The two of them disappeared into the hallway, eerily silent, and I was left to bite my thumbs. It’d been a while since I’d had to rely on others to do the dirty work, hadn’t it? In Wolof, though, I would have to. In the city proper I’d be able to use Night again, in small doses, but in the heavily warded parts like the fortress it’d be like sending up a flare. I’d forgotten how boring actually doing things the right way tended to be, I thought with half a smile. I was considering how to dispose of the corpses – if we dragged them out of the wards, we could stash them in my shadow – when I heard the sound.
Someone was tuning a lute.
My hand dropped to the grip of my sword. The sounds of strings being plucked at methodically continued to echo in the room, and though I was tempted to remain hidden there was no point to it. The Intercessor already knew I was here, else why would she be? Pushing off the wall of the reservoir I’d been hiding behind, I loosened my cloak around my shoulders and took my hand off my sword. What would a blade do against the likes of the Wandering Bard? Putting a lazy smile on my face, forcing the tension out of my shoulders, I strolled out of hiding. She was not difficult to find. The Intercessor was seated on top of a reservoir, legs dangling as she finished tuning that shoddy lute. Fair-haired, this time, with deeply tanned skin and starry blue eyes. She was barely taller than I was, if at all, though she had curves I could only envy. And when I came out she raised a finger, putting that old silver flask to her lips and drinking deep. I waited, but the finger stayed up and she kept drinking. I cocked an eyebrow.
After an insulting amount of time, she pulled away the flask and smacked her lips before letting out a pleased sigh.
“Alavan pear brandy, Catherine,” the Intercessor revealed. “Gotta drink while it’s still the good stuff, you get me?”
“Never took to brandy,” I idly replied. “Though I once knew a man more than passingly fond of that particular drink.”
It’d been a barb, a test, and for it I got a pained grimace.
“I actually thought of him as a friend, you know,” the Intercessor said. “Tariq was one in a thousand, even for Named. Even when every part of him was worn down to the bone, he never lost that thing. The spark. The part that makes a man take the lash so someone else doesn’t have to. I don’t think any of you ever appreciated how staggeringly rare that is.”
“He probably would have kept kicking around a few years more, if you hadn’t given our plans in Hainaut to the Dead King,” I harshly said. “How many graveyards’ worth of friends have you buried, Intercessor?”
She pulled at a string, smiling at the broken side.
“More than you’ve had meals, Catherine Foundling,” the Intercessor said, not denying or admitting a thing.
And the horror of it was that I believed her, believed her with bone-deep certainty. How many people you loved could you bury, before the only human thing about you was the guise you were? A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand? In that smiling woman’s shadow was an empire’s worth of graves.
“I’m a little disappointed the Arsenal only bought me a year without you,” I said.
More or less, leaning on less.
“Praes is where the fun’s at, these days,” the Intercessor shrugged. “All those fires full of irons, all those old wounds never closed. It’s in the air here, you know? The… sincerity. The Tower’s the closest thing Below has to a smile. If you wanted me out of your hair, you should have kept away.”
“Had a thing or two to get done hereabouts,” I replied. “What – actually, have you got a name for me to use nowadays?”
She plucked at a string.
“Yara,” the Intercessor smiled.
“Of?” I pressed.
“Oh,” she shrugged, “nowhere in particular.”
Well, wasn’t that just fucking ominous.
“So what are you dropping in for, Yara?” I asked. “You got a horse in this race?”
For a moment her face was split between wonder and surprise. I hid my confusion, and like a firefly’s flicker in the night her expression was wiped clean. Almost quick enough to make me wonder if I’d really seen anything at all.
“Eh, you could say that,” the Intercessor said.
“Malicia or Sepulchral?” I asked, tone forcefully nonchalant.
It wouldn’t be my father, if he became Dread Emperor he’d put an entire division of mages on figuring out how to permanently kill her. Captain’s death was not something he would ever forgive.
“Oh,” the Bard smiled. “That’s cute. You think I give a shit about who’s screaming their lungs out from the top of the Tower. I really, really don’t.”
“Come for the weather?” I drawled. “I suppose they do have a bit of everything, if you stand in the Wasteland long enough.”
“You know, this is usually where I get cryptic,” the Intercessor mused. “Give out a few hints – most of them lies, just enough truth I don’t get bitten for it – and send you chasing ghosts while I line up the knife.”
“But not this time?” I pressed.
“There’s really no point,” the Wandering Bard smiled, strumming the lute. “See, when you drop two starving hounds in a pit the time for subtlety is past. Now is the hour of tooth and claw.”
“I killed you last year,” I said. “Crows be my witness, next time I’ll make it stick.”
“That’s the stuff,” Yara of Nowhere laughed. “Come at me, Foundling. You want to know why I dragged my carcass to Praes?”
My answer was the whisper of my sword leaving its scabbard. Lute tuned at last, the Wandering Bard played the first few notes of an air I recognized, the beginning of ‘Stars From the Sky’.
“The only reason I’m here is to kill you, Catherine Foundling,” the Intercessor grinned. “We’re done fucking around, now. There’s no more room in this game for the likes of you.”
And though I had never seen her wield a blade, never seen her do a single thing other than speak words and drink, in that moment I felt a shiver go up my spine. She had always been my foe, but this was… different. This was war, without pretence otherwise. Yet I would not be cowed, not today and not by the likes of her. I met her eyes, brown to blue.
“Take a swing,” I smiled back, all teeth and malice. “See where it gets you.”
She laughed, loudly, and then swept into a drunken bow. She fell forward, off the reservoir, and as she did she screamed out at the top of her lungs. I struck out at her, blade aimed for the neck, but before she could touch the ground she was gone.
A heartbeat later, the alarm wards triggered with a loud screech.