We had few allies for the final battles in Stonehenge. The Tytalus and Flambeau were shaping up for war over the spoils in France and Germany, so few of them crossed the sea. House Ex Miscellanea was actively mopping up sympathetic hedge magi, but their Primus had fallen, or been assassinated, and so their strongest fighters were meeting to choose a new leader. The decisive victories shook loose a few more neutrals. A group of Bjornaers and some Merinitans volunteered to fight, perhaps to ensure that we did not turn on them when the druids were finished. House Jerbiton sloughed back into sleep now that the cities were safe. The twins told me that the magi who had contributed vis to the war effort still met to discuss progress, and push little wooden pieces over maps. The final blows would be taken and dealt by us.
We gathered at Blackthorn in Norgales. Blackthorn had been our outpost in these Tribunals for decades. Some of our leaders had questioned the expense. A camp of size and cost could have given us control of the Russian steppes. Overstaffed, over-engineered, oversupplied, it was a little colony on the far side of the world. Blackthorn was a testament to the power of the sunk cost fallacy that finally came good.
When war was declared, Blackthorn was too far away to be supported. The Druids besieged it for years, and we held only with the aid of the Ex Miscellaneans. Eventually the force surrounding Blackthorn switched to containment. The M inside could not sortie, but the Diedne outside could not be spared for the continental war. At the fall of Branigurix the besiegers retreated to Bards Isle. They were the final intact Diedne force of any size.
Years of magical siegecraft had taken a toll on the defenders. Some of the magi who held it went mad. Others retained their sanity but were so scarred by the experience that they were unable to serve on the combat line. The House reopened The Hall of Forgetting for them all, here in what is now Alethia. The hope was that the rapid passage of relative time here might allow them to recover and rejoin the war effort. Most did not rejoin the line.
The Battle of Bard’s Island has been well described by others. I did not see most of it. My type of illusions matter less in siegecraft than in wars of manoeuvre. I was kept further back, at Blackthorn, running logistics. I was the youngest concilliarus, but the shattered staff of Blackthorn was happy to obey me. They’d heard so many stories from other veterans, who seemed to make a sport of untruths. I was a master of deception, and a poisoner. My leg had been eaten and grown back on its own. My lover was a Criamon who got drunk and killed people. They drew a strange confidence from the idea that although I was a monster, I was their monster.
Late one night, Apophany arrived in the Covenant. The Blackthorns ushered her through, because they knew she had come from the front. She took precisely an hour to have a bath, a meal, and change clothes. Then she rapped on my sanctum door. “Get your kit.” she said. “You’ve been reassigned.” She handed me a letter from the War Council, and I was to follow her instructions. This was unusual. The War Council, in this theatre, existed primarily to allow us to tell our allies what we wanted them to do. I’d been receiving orders directly from father for a month now. As was usual in war, I had my gear packed, so I just sent a servant to call up Andrmachus and tell him he was in charge.
‘Where are we going?”
“You’ll know slightly before we get there.”
“No. I can answer by not answering. We are getting the band back together.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“The twins who aren’t twins.”
“Oh. Anything I need to do?”
“Horses hate me.”
“No, horses just don’t like you. You should work on that. You only need to make friends with one.”
“Easier to ride a mind-controlled cow, and put an illusion over the top.”
“That’s beautifully clever and wonderfully stupid, all mixed together.”
“Thanks.” I said. We arrived at the stables and a servant fixed us a donkey and a horse. “We are going to the shore?”
“So the others are already here?”
“Yes, you are closest to the problem, so I collected them on the way.”
We arrived at a small cove on the Welsh coast. A tiny little fishing boat was there, crewed by two men. Malvolio and Benvolia were waiting on the shore, looking disgustedly at the course sand and amking vaguely offensive jokes about my groin and the smell of the rotting seaweed. When we were well underway, Apophany cast a spell to prevent scrying on the wind, and explained herself.
“The Spirit of the Lord moves in the waters.”
“Sweetie”, said Benvolia “if you’ve dragged us out here to introduce us to Jesus I’m going to hit you in the head with an oar.”
Apophany laughed “No. I mean the chances of a demon scrying on us by chance are markedly less at sea. We are going to disrupt an infernal sacrifice. It is best to plan while at sea.”
“Why us?” asked Malvolio, “I’m neither a combat magus, nor the sort of saint that can face them with confidence.” He smiled. We knew he was not the sort to regret that he’d have to answer for his actions if the Christians are right.
“I have had a vision.” Apophany said.
Benvolia sighed. “We thought you were different from the other Criamons.”
“I am. Listen. I’m going to fall into Final Twilight tonight, after I tell a powerful and necessary lie. Specific enough for you?”
“What’s going to cause the Twilight?” I asked.
“I am. The process of telling the lie completes my path. I will ascend to realm prepared for us by my master.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Why do you need us here?” asked Benvolia, who was visibly saddened.
“Do you know what an Adulteration is?”
“It’s…the bits of you that can’t go to your heaven?” she answered, which was better than the definition I’d have come up with.
“Close enough for what we are doing. How much of me gets into our Heaven?”
Benvolia answered “Well, none of you, I thought. Wasn’t that the point of your path? You lose your place in the Twilight?”
“Close. A small part of me, perhaps, remains incorrupt. The rest stays here, in the mortal world, as a spirit. I need you to track that spirit. The other Criamon magi need to know where it goes, so they can destroy it. Given the things I’ve done, it’ll be one of the most dangerous ever.”
“So, why are we going to disrupt an infernal ritual?”
“I need somewhere to Ascend that can’t be destroyed by my Adulteration. The Infernal ritual site is already ruined.”
“What’s the lie?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you. If I did I’d begin Ascending.”
“So, that’s the plan?” Malvolio said. “We get you to the island, we defeat the Infernalists, and you tell us the lie on the battlefield. You become a monster and we contain you until the Criamon arrive?”
“No. We go to the site and I tell the lie. My Adulteration gets ripped apart by demons. You use the distraction to rescue the sacrifices. The Diedne ritual fails. Bard’s Island doesn’t get infernal re-enforcements.”
“Intricate, but workable.” said Benvolia.”We need better information about what’s on site.”
“We will make our plans when we get there. I have a spell which gives us a fair following wind and a friendly current, so our journey will be quick.”
“Hot food and sleep then.” I said. We had porridge. There was no real reason for it: we’d had good supplies since the war turned. It was just kind of the thing we ate when we were in this sort of situation. Maybe we didn’t want to jinx ourselves by changing our little ritual of preparation. Apophany could sleep on her own. I knocked myself out with The Call to Slumber. I hated to use it the first few times after The Tempest, but being able to fall asleep instantly is just too useful for a soldier to ignore.
One of our attendants roused me. We were floating, invisible, near a small island. All the vegetation on it was dead. Fires burned toward its middle. A gigantic humanoid shadow stretched out across the waves.