Collated Mirarion fiction project

Preface

He asked me what I remembered and I said “Nothing.”

He was a man in middle age, seated opposite me on a chair made of intricately carved wood. I stared at him, trying to understand where I was, and why.  His eyes were brown. His skin was dark. He wore gloves. His robe was dark grey. I could not connect these disparate parts of him together into a deeper meaning that related to myself.

“Absolutely nothing? Do you know my name?” he asked. His teeth were perfectly white and even. This struck me as disturbingly unnatural in a man his age.

“You are Toxophilus Viridis of House Mycetias.” He straightened in his chair and looked pleased. He seemed very tall.

“And do you know where you are?” His hands moved unconsciously as we talked, making little placating gestures. I picked up this habit from him, which some argue is dangerous in apprentices.

“I am in your sanctum, in the laboratory.”

He smiled, “Which is where?” He leaned forward. I know now he was examining my eye movements.

“In Hungary, in Lycaneon.”

“Excellent.” His hands came together in an accidental clap. He looked down at them for a moment and asked “Can you move normally?”

“Have I been ill?” I asked.

“No, no.” he answered, smiling encouragingly, with his unnecessarily excellent teeth. He threw a small leather ball toward me, and I caught it automatically. I realized my left handedness. My hand was so small that it could barely cradle the ball. My fingers were callused, and stained with dark ink. I inferred that I was a child, and able to write. He was not as tall as I had imagined. I was far shorter than he was.

“Why aren’t I worried?” I asked.

“About your memory loss?” He quirked an eyebrow, but still kept staring intently into my face. Later I would learn that the servants dread that particular searching look. It was mere trickery, but still an illusion I could never master.

“Yes. I think I should be terrified, but I’m not.”

“Ah, yes. That’s magic, you see. I’m controlling your emotions.” He smiled again.

“Why?” I noted my continued absence of fear. I was unsure why my eyes were surreptitiously roaming his possessions until they lit on a pen knife. Something inside of me, noting that I should be feeling fear, had sought a weapon. I concluded that I was the sort of person who felt more comfortable when armed.

He noticed. “Well, for the reason you just mentioned. I’d prefer you weren’t terrified or enraged.” he replied. He rose from his chair and walked to his writing desk. He lifted the pen knife from it, and walked back to my chair, holding it by what I suppose we must call the blade. He paused on the way back to brush the ears of a tiny wolf cub, white as cloud, that was sleeping by the fire. He handed the letter opener to me, handle first. It was bone, and had a wolf’s head on what I suppose you’d call a the pommel, if such a word can be used for something so tiny.

I accepted it, without thought, into my left hand. I didn’t feel any particular desire to keep hold of it, so I set it down on the arm of my chair. My chair was oak. It was, I became certain, in some sense, mine. I had sat in it many times before, and my body remembered how to sit in it.“Enraged at you?” I asked.

“Ah…”

“So you did this to me?” I still didn’t feel anything beyond a gentle lassitude.

“Yes.” he answered. “To protect you.” forestalling my obvious question, but leaving me with more.

“From what? How can you protect me by hiding my memory?”

“Erasing, actually. It’ll never come back. It’s a present for you. One you even asked for, although that may surprise you.”

“I don’t understand. I feel like I should be afraid. I feel like I should want to run away.”

“That’s understandable, but unnecessary. You are safe here. Let me ask you a question: when you think of Lycaneon, do you think the people here are safe, or unsafe?”

“Safe, but I don’t know why I think that.”

“If the spell has worked properly, only your biographical memories have been destroyed. You will still recall places, facts, and the ways of doing things, just nothing about yourself.”

“I asked you to do this?”

“Yes, you even wrote a note to yourself to that effect, but since you cannot recognize your own handwriting at the moment, perhaps that should wait for later.”

“Who are you to me?”

“I am your teacher.”

“So, I am an apprentice?”

“Yes.”

“How long have I been your apprentice?”

“About ten minutes.”

“What is my name?”

“Celeres.”

“Was that always my name, or is that an apprentice name?”

“What made you ask?” he tilted his head to the side, examining me again. I now know he was judging if he’d destroyed sufficient of my memory. He had another spell ready, if he needed to prune my mind further.

“It’s Latin. So either I was raised in a covenant or it’s a name chosen by a companion.”

“Ah, good. Yes, it’s a replacement for the name taken from you by my spell.” He relaxed back into his chair.

“I’m newly your apprentice?”

“Yes.”

“So I’m seven?”

“How did you know you were seven?”

“Apprentices at Lycaneon are trained in grammar until they are seven, then taken as apprentices.”

“Oh. That’s rather more than I expected you to remember. It comes close to being biographical.”

“What does taking my memory protect me from?”

“Yourself. In the next few years the powers of the elements, and of the living and the dead, will be opened to you. It will be tempting to use your powers to make yourself feel better, to enjoy yourself. Many of our kind find it difficult, at this time, not to seek out their parents, and enact revenge.”

“Because mortals hate us?”

“Mortals don’t hate us. There is something in us which gives us the magic, but which scares dogs and curdles milk. Mortals can sense it. They know how dangerous we are, and it makes them distrust us.”

“And so my parents distrusted me?”

“From the day of your birth onward, and their distrust took distressing forms, which are better forgotten. Our cousins, the Tytalus, never forget, and their adolescent magi make sport at the expense of their mortal bloodkin. Such things attract faeries and demons and the attention of the Judges. It is better to forget. It is better to start again.”

He gestured and the lassitude fell away from me. I could feel an ache in the tops of my legs from sitting, for how long I did not know, on the edge of the hard chair. I could feel trepidation, but under that, a sense that something new and interesting was close at hand. He examined my face carefully, although for all I knew he could read my thoughts.

“I am Celeres, an apprentice of the House of Mycetias.”

“You are.” He nodded.

“I see. I am not certain what to do next.”

“You seem to be taking this far better than I expected.” he commented, again trying to reach into my mind through eyes.

“What were you expecting?”

“Well, sullenness, now that the spell controlling your emotions has been lifted.”

“Your other apprentices were sullen?”

“You remember my other apprentices?”

“Yes. You’ve had two.”

“Do you know what they look like?”

“Yes, the older is a man, and the younger is a woman.”

“Do you know what you look like?”

“No.” That was the first thing that truly frightened me during this conversation. I am sure he noticed my muscles tense.

“Interesting. I have a mirror if you wish to look.”

“I am at a loss to know what I want.” I answered, because I knew nothing of myself, but I knew the Mycetians did not value fear. I could find a puddle or a silver spoon later. It was better not to know, and seem brave, than crumble at what might be my first test.

“Then let us begin at the beginning. Are you hungry or thirsty?”

“No, but my legs ache.” I flexed them. My feet didn’t reach the floor. I was wearing boots. They looked almost new.

“Ah.” he said “Then you should rise. Walk with me.”

“Where are we going?”

“Immediately? To the courtyard. Eventually to the Tribunal. We must tell the other magi you are my apprentice. Leave the puppy.”

I had not even considered taking the puppy. I presumed by his instruction that I had enjoyed its company before the spell was cast. I rose. I saw my feet were in shoes. They were small. I followed him to the courtyard. I could think of no better thing to do.

Chapter One

My first memory of Achlys is of her handling me an apple. I knew who she was, although my memory had been erased a few weeks earlier. My master had let me make some notes, before the erasure, and although he had censored them, he only obscured five passages. I used to wonder, to an unhealthy degree, what they contained. Achlys was also Gifted. I couldn’t mystically sense the Gift, but I caught myself wondering if the apple was poisoned. I knew she must be the apprentice mentioned in my notes.

She was a wispy sort of thing, back then. Later, in the war, our hard living made her bulk up, but she’d had a hard childhood, like most of us, and so she was scrawny. She had dark, thin hair, and the sort of eyes that could fillet fish. She was smiling as she handed me the apple.

“So, they told me your name is Celerites, now?”

“Something like that.” I lied, because I knew names had magic but didn’t know how it worked. “You’re Achlys?”

“Yep. How much do you remember about me?”

“Quite a bit. I remember the people here, and the places, just not my interactions with them.”

“So, you don’t know we’re allies?”

“We have enemies?”

“Everyone has enemies. Everyone has trials. We help each other past the hurdles.” She waggled her wrist, to demand I take the apple.

“Well…” I said, taking the apple and thinking it unfortunate that I’d obeyed her so quickly. “That’s good to know. So, did I cheat?”

“Leave a secret message for yourself? No. They’d detect it and erase you again. Then they’d punish me for giving it to you. Probably by putting false memories of childhood abuse into my mind.”

“Decimata would do that?” Her mistress really was called that. Tytalus magi had a fashion for ridiculously belligerent names at the time. Achlys, remember, wasn’t yet the warrior you’ve heard about. Not then,. Not yet. She was a malnourished seven year old who had to carry around a name that meant “the mist that falls on the eyes of the dying”. It was meant, of course, to make her stronger.

“Sure. She’s tried to scare me with your example. “Be good or I’ll wipe you clean and we’ll start again.” Her impersonation was really poor, but I didn’t know, so I laughed. “I don’t believe it.” she continued.

“Why?”

“You know our birth parents hate us, right? The Gift makes…

…them suspicious. They think we are changelings. Yes. I remember the content of my studies, just not the actual studying.” I finished.

“I hate it when you talk over me.” she said in the precise way she used to denote controlled anger.

“Oh. Sorry. Didn’t know. Pray continue.”

“Accepted. So, my master left me with my biological parents for a few extra years.”

There was a pause while I waited to make sure that she had finished speaking. There often were. “To toughen you up. I know.” I nodded.

“Oh.”

“You must have told me that story before?”

“Yes.” She took a moment to collect her thoughts. “My point is, she doesn’t want an apprentice who is a blank slate. She’d have to put in all that abuse again. Too time consuming when she could just sell me off to someone else.”

“Good point.” I nodded.

“So, you know you love pears, right?” she added, changing the subject.

“No.”

“They aren’t in season, but you love pears.”

“That’s great to know.” It really was great to know. It was something that was mine, and something to look forward to. I still do, you know. I have a whole orchard here. I often just sit beneath one of the trees, with a simple shield against wind and rain, and enjoy the scent of the ripe fruit while I teach. Achlys and I chatted like this for about an hour each day. It was nice to have someone my own age to talk to. It was about six weeks later she and I had our first fight. We then fought regularly for decades.

Achlys had called me out of bed for a midnight escapade. We had been doing an escapade a week, she assured me, for pretty much ever. This time we were going to break into the library and steal some novel casting tablets. She said it would be low magnitude stuff that no-one would miss, but that would suit our level of skill. She hinted that her mistress had dropped the existence of these useful tablets into conversation, in that sort of deliberately accidental way she sometimes had.

I dressed warmly, grabbed some apples, and snuck out to one of the storerooms. It was the one room we could find where grogs didn’t sleep, so it was our base of operations. She was wearing clothes her mistress had forced her to steal them from the covenfolk.She outlined the plan.

Achlys would boost me through the shutters of the librarian’s house. I’d steal his sigil of office. That would let walk around the library safely. She’d swipe some books. We’d return the sigil. Job done, back to HQ for a celebratory apple.

“Why don’t I boost you through the window?” I asked.

“Why?”

“Well, you know what the sigil looks like, for one thing.”

“Are you chicken? You’re lighter than me.” This was true, if embarrassing.

“We could get a ladder or something for you to use, then.”

“Seriously? Come on. You aren’t scared are you? He sleeps like a log!” This was, I recalled without recalling, true.

“So, then why won’t you do it?” I tried Toxophilus’s Eyebrow of Soul Piercing. As ever, it did not work. I would nonetheless keep trying it for five years after this.

“This is meant to be a fun thing we do together. I could do it on my own, but I want your help. It’s more fun that way.”

“So, I’ll be the one standing outside and we can do that fun bit together, just with the jobs reversed.”

“Look, he’s not going to catch you!” she said, raising her voice a little.

“Look, I know, alright!” I answered, raising my voice a little more.

“What?” she looked confused.

“I know this is just another one of your schemes to make me look like a fool! I know we aren’t friends! I know you bullied and humiliated me before I lost my memory!”

“How?”

“I left myself a diary! I know exactly what you are like and I’ve just been playing along with this chummy thing you are doing, waiting for the other shoe to drop. So, no, I’m not doing it.” I turned to storm off.

“Please wait!” she said, and because she’d never said “please” to me before, I paused but decided that once you’d started storming off, you couldn’t just stop.

“Wait!” she ordered, and cast a little spell that made a rat the size of a dog appear in front of the door.

I looked at the rat. It reared at me. I went up to it and when it reared again, I planted my boot down through it. It was an illusion, of course. I knelt down to look at how it had been done. I could see Achlys’s sigl, which was a sort of grey mistiness, in it. It made the hairs on the rat’s back indistinct and unconvincing. It had been the lack of sound, though, that had tipped me off. Still, it was impressive. I liked it a lot. I poked at it with my fingers to see if it would react, and knelt down to see if she’d worked out the skeleton. “What?” I asked, trying to sound angry, but genuinely curious.

“We don’t need to do this. You’re right. I used to bully you. The thing is though, that was getting really repetitive. I thought that with your memory wiped, I could make my choice over, and have you as an ally this time. Easier to start as an ally, and if I found out having you as an enemy was more fun, I could just bully you again. Harder to start as enemies and work on allegiances. I’m rubbish at making allies.”

The thing is, that made perfect sense for a Tytalus. That’s really how broken they are. The Mycetian way is to not make enemies casually. Enemies are exhausting. You set an objective, make the enemies you need to make, then you placate or destroy them afterwards. Clean. Rational. Decisive. My goal was to graduate. Achlys could make that harder or easier.

“Alright.” I said.

She looked surprised. “Just like that?”

“I don’t remember any of the things you put me through.” I deliberately shrugged. It did not feel natural to me, and probably looked forced to her.

“You know you’re scared of rats?” she said.

“No. I’m not.”

“Seriously, you hate rats.” Her head did a little double nod, to encourage me to agree.

“No. I’m not. Check out the dentition on this!” I answered, poking at her rat’s fangs.

“You’re unsettling me a little here.” she said, which was a rare admission for her.

“Oh. Right. So, let’s go rob the library.”

“I thought that was off?”

“No, either you’re serious, or you’re setting me up. If you’re setting me up, I’m just going to sell you out and your master will punish you for getting caught.”

“You’ll never do that.”

“I’m a Mycetian apprentice. I don’t care about dignity. I care about victory!”

Then we raided the library and stole some really useful books. I still have some of them. Ever after, rats were our thing. A sort of in-joke that other people could observe, but never really understand. She’d been serious. We were never friends in the conventional sense, but we were as close as she could come to having friends. Thinking back I was perhaps the only child she could talk to that her mistress couldn’t threaten to torture. When we were older we were trained to fight as a team. She bought destructive power, and I used illusions to weaken the enemy and find the places where the damage would have the greatest effect. We worked together all the way through our graduations, until the middle of the War.

Chapter Two

I didn’t really choose my name. I know many young magi do, as their first act of independence. They stand with their new robe and hold up their shiny sigil before the Tribunal and say “I am called Maximus Magnus!” and we laugh, or politely sigh and then after a few years they discover a vocation and choose a better name. My name was given to me by my master, and my own foolishness.

There was a shriek, and cold that reached through my eyes, and Toxophilus struck me, hard, from the side, and sent me sprawling into his laboratory equipment. I was, if only for a moment, free of myself, looking down at the scene of wreckage. A small boy, with the beginning of the gangliness of adolescence, lying in a pool of silver liquid that smelled of blood and straw. I could see the glazed look on my face. I could see the thing in the corner, gloating and chattering in its circle.

I had been incautious: my foot had crossed the barrier of chalk and salt. Given the profound effect this tiny moment of carelessness was to have on my life, it used to annoy me that I could not explain it better. I was a child and did not take seriously my master’s injunctions to attentiveness? I had know her. I suppose that was it.

Gunhilda had been a maid in our service, killed in one of those accidents so common in castle kitchens. She had been kind to the scrawny boy with the terrifying master. A bread roll here and a slice of cheese there. She was not my friend, but she was nice to me, in the petty ways available to her.

Snobbery also, I assume. I knew that ghosts are kept in the world by unfinished business that burns within them, holding back Death itself. The stronger their passions, the brighter they burn. They are stronger, but wilder, and less a person that an instrument of final obsession. I was a little boy, proud to be newly invited into the magical aristocracy. I didn’t believe that a simple maid could have business so important as to generate a powerful spectre. I thought that kings and saints and wizards were what really mattered. I didn’t understand that, for her, whatever her business was, it was the most important thing in all the world. The thing to cling to life for. The thing that made trying to steal my body obvious, and possible.

My master did not allow it. Toxophilus made the briefest gesture and his power rose, as always, in dark tangles of force. She was thrown from the world, her business never to be completed. Her scream as she vanished made it clear that she understood this. As she dwindled away, I saw again through my own eyes, and felt the pain where the shards of a retort had cut through the sleeve of my white robe. I used to touch those tiny white scars, whenever I felt nervous. I recall doing it all the time, so much so that Achlys used to tap her arm to greet me from a distance.

My master was not, initially, alarmed. After he discovered that the incident had seriously fractured my Gift, his disappointment was quickly hidden. His other apprentices had continued the great necromatic tradition of the House. Now he, the wise Toxophilus, would produce an apprentice who was not a necromancer. His colleagues would be shocked and amazed, and not know that, shamefully, I was unable to command the dead.

In that moment of attempted possession, I had the most intimate instant of my life. There are other intimacies, certainly, in which magicians indulge, but for me, there was never another moment like that one, in which the edges of my mind, and those of another, we so closely combined. I found it then, and I find the mere idea of it now, profoundly unsettling. I had nothing but my pride at the time, and this threat to my selfhood felt very like oblivion, like being assassinated or eaten. I do not want someone to know me that completely ever again.

The Arts of the Mind have always disgusted me. I was incapable of commanding the dead after my accident, but even the living are, by my choice, beyond my power. I have never learned the spells to command them. The idea that I might stretch out my mind and brush it upon another’s, to make them do my will, is nauseating. Other Houses suggest ours is so committed to self-control because we are militant, but they do not understand the Art of the Mind. It is the ability to control the minds of others that forces discipline on us. It is a corrupting magic, a vice, that cannot be indulged whimsically.

When a person is utterly under your control, as is so often the simplest way in the Art, then what sort of monster might you become? Not merely the crass sexual conquests dreamt of by peasant boys with their fairground bottles of red clay and fennel. Not merely the ability to force victims to forget your crimes, of whatever type. A master of the Art of the Mind can read the innermost etchings on the heart. How worse a nakedness this is than that of the revived corpse, or the bewitched maiden. I have felt the joy of the thing which was pouring into my eyes. I have seen the joy on the faces of my brothers and their children. I cannot abide it, and so have never learned its words.

So that is perhaps is where I started. My sigil changed. My master changed my name, now that I could not follow the tradition of our foremothers and rule the shades. He called me Mirarius, which might mean “the impossible thing”, and was an excellent name for an illusionist. It might instead mean “the one who sees his reflection”, and I think that was his real intent. I liked my new name, and kept it after my graduation to magus. They didn’t start calling me “Magister” until decades later, until after the War.

Chapter Three

The faerie queen began to kneel before us. Our minstrel’s song was crushing her, binding her in, and her physical form sagged under its metaphysical weight. Through constricted lungs she choked out a final question: “Why are you doing this?”

Achlys answered her. “The strong do as they will. The weak do as they must.” she said. It fit what she was doing, and it broke what passed for will in the faerie queen. Our minstrel faltered for a second but she rallied, and tucked the queen away. She’d sleep until kissed by a nun released from her vows, born after the dawning of the next century. That last bit was just a cruel twist, to make sure that even if our pagan foes could find a released nun, she’d be useless before the War was over.

I was guarding the minstrel. That was my role. On this mission I was pretending to be the muscle. I’m an illusionist, so I pretended to be a lot of things during the War. Faeries like that sort of thing. We’d pretended our way into her court, and past her guards, and now we were sealing her in a story so tight that she’d never escape until we wanted her to.

The Queen’s guardsmen also fell asleep, in sympathy, but that was just stupid of them. Achlys and I systematically harvested each one. I had little throwing knives specifically for the purpose, which I was thankful for. Before the end both sides would be consuming the vis from their own dead and these faeries thought we’d let them be picturesque. We couldn’t have left them for the Diende to find. Sometimes I wondered if they gained some sort of benefit from being harvested. If their vis was used to heal your wounds, were they with you forever?

Afterward we retired to camp. I wanted to sleep for a week, but there was no time, so I hit the wolfberry juice hard, set up the wards, and Achlys sent messages to Heartfoam. We tore into our rations, because we couldn’t eat in that Faerie court, and our bard kicked off our first big argument of the War. It had new clothes, but it was one we’d had every few months for my entire remembered life.

“Why did you do it? Your answer didn’t make sense.” the minstrel asked. Her name was Claudette, by the way. She and I had one of those brief wartime romances. “Why did you ask me to do this?”
“There’s a war on. This is a chevauchee.” Achlys answered.

“A…”

“We are destroying all of the faerie courts near the enemy, so they can’t harvest them for materiel they can use in the war. We are like nobles burning crops and killing peasants, but we’re destroying the things magicians need.”

“And the song?” asked Claudette.
“Specifically crafted for the war. There are several teams, and we are creating a particularly inaccessible faerie messiah. One that the enemy can’t make. One we can put together when we win, so that the faerie courts pop back like…”
“Mushrooms after rain?”

“I know nothing about mushrooms.” said Achlys, who was lying of course. “If it makes it make sense to you, then, sure, go with mushrooms.”

Then Claudette asked the question which really dropped the flag on it. “What caused the war?”

Achyls nodded at me, and said “His people want to control what we do. Their people want his people to leave them alone. My people love challenges, so I’m here to perfect myself through strife.”

We’d had this argument before, but I was tired and starving and I’d been awake on wolfberries for days. Being a bit deranged like that isn’t a bad thing in some faerie courts. I couldn’t just let it go. I knew that arguing with me was her way of working out her battle stress. She could be pretty sure she’d win, and she assumed I’d not take low blows at so useful an asset. I was the professional soldier: she was the mercenary gadfly.

“That’s just your usual crap, Achlys” I said, and because I never swear, she should have picked up on the clue that now wasn’t the time. Instead, she saw weakness, and that’s like honey to her people.

“You do want to control them.” she baited.

“We want them to not offer up themselves to the Black Goat at midnight. The first thing he’ll ask them to do is turn the world into a pastiche of Hell.” I sighed. “You know this.” And then I really let it go: “Of all magi, your people know this best.”

I saw her stiffen and I knew I’d gone over the line, but the Tytalus have been carrying on with their teasing and prodding since the Founders themselves argued over who got the last piece of cake, so I thought “Why not? She wants to be purified by struggle? I’m doing her a favour by her lights. Let’s see how bad we get this time.”

She answered “You Mycentians always bring diabolism up, but it’s just your excuse for everything. You want to know all their secrets, so they need to show them to you, or you’ll call them Satanists.”

“They are Satanists! Stop apologising for diabolism!” I knew shouting at her was a bad idea. I knew she saw that, too, as weakness. She saw it as a little victory, and she couldn’t help but push.

“I fight them better than you do, but I don’t pretend they deserve it.”

“Of course they deserve it. They’re calling up demons to tear the rest of us apart.”

“You have no proof of that.” she smiled.

“How would we get proof? Even if we could, the time it would take would be decisive. Calling up a demon’s easy compared to training a magus. You know all of this…” and I slipped in the boot again “Tsagilla tried it all a while ago.” I knew she hated that. I knew and I said it anyway.

“Guilty then, until they prove themselves innocent! The same could be said for you. After all…”

“Every one of our rituals has been examined top to toe by the Quaesitores.” I cut in, forestalling her easy smack at my House’s history.

“Only because you lost. If you’d dominated the Order…”

“We lost! You can’t have it both ways! We are utterly transparent!”

“Yeah, sucks to lose like your Founder did. Bet you wish you’d kept some of that private like the Diedne.”

She was mocking me, but to me it felt like a win. She’d changed tack, and gone back to one of her standard gambits. She must have been as tired as I was. This felt too easy. I could have stopped there. I could have marked that up as a rare victory, in the ledger of my mind, but I wanted her to acknowledge I’d argued her to a standstill for once, and I was just exhausted and not thinking straight, so I put the boot in again. “Stop admiring the enemy. Just because the chaos they are causing using dermons is bigger than the chaos your people caused…”

She snapped. “Shut up about the Corruption! My family fought and died in the Purge!” I’d never seen her this angry before. It made me so happy to finally, for once, win one of these things that I couldn’t help myself.

“Yes. On both sides.”

She threw her water bottle at my head and stormed off into the woods. The bottle hit me fair in the face and bloodied my nose, but I burst out laughing. I sat down and gripped my nose and blacked out. For that moment I was the happiest I’d been since the War started.

When I woke up, she was back. We pretended to be professionals. We pretended it hadn’t happened. The minstrel told my master, but Toxophilus didn’t care. I only know she told him because I read some of his reports after the War, and he suggested I be pulled off the line for assessment. I think they just had an informal rummage in my mind and decided that I needed sleep.

Achlys changed after that. She wanted something from me that I could never really give her. It took me forever to realise she wanted me to be her Beloved Enemy. It’s this idea they have of a perfect rival who knocks that chips off you, and you knock the chips off them, and you make each other marvelous by your constant abrasion. I just thought she’d upped her bullying, because I’d finally beaten her in an argument.

I only realized it when she made sure I survived The Tempest. Achlys didn’t give her life for mine, not exactly, but she took on extra risks to get me clear. If she’d left me to die, she would have made it home.

Chapter Four

I want you to accept that what I’m about to say is sincere. I know you have heard other accounts of the Tempest, and I know what I’m about to say differs from those. In the past people who have heard this story have called me a liar, or have said that my injuries caused me to misrecall what I saw. I can’t prove that they are wrong. I know what I’m about to say lies counter to some cherished beliefs. I ask again that you accept that I truly believe this is what I saw.

Two days before the Tempest, the leaders of the various factions in allied armies met at Heartfoam to plan the assault. I wasn’t a leader, but I was present as an assistant to my pater and to the Primus. In other houses providing bodily services for older magi, like fetching food and drink, is considered demeaning, so everyone else was served by redcaps. I was the youngest magician there by a couple of decades.

Our Primus could have prevented the disaster, but he was not alone in thinking that a strike against the Diedne was the only sound course. The argument sounds a cogent one. The Diedne were able to call up demons. Therefore the more time they were given, the larger their army would grow. As a matter of urgency, all forces which could be quickly gathered should be thrown against the centre of the enemy force, to disperse it, and prevent the casting of the great rituals which could call up demonic princes. There was some question as to if their rituals required certain unholy days, and the necessity of bringing them to battle before certain pagan or infernal festivals.

Many of the archmagi present held primitive views concerning the practicalities of war, and had so much prestige that it blinded those nearby. Consider the Flambeau archmagi present. Some were great heroes of the Corruption, and many saw the Schism as just the Corruption repeated and enlarged. Consider though, the nature of that war. The Infernal Tytalus were, at their core, still Tytalus: indeed it was their pride that had caused their fall. The battles of the Corruption were individual affairs, where a great Flambeau champion could stand and smite the pomps of a dark wizard. It was a war of individual skill, until the end, when sieges began and the glamor wore off.

People don’t pay enough attention to the sieges. The bards of the Order do not sing of Mendelaus the Beseiger, who held the Tytalus pinned in their hovel for season after cold season, while our side found a way to crack their defenses. No, they sing of the Flambeau who turned up at the end, to do the actual killing, or at least to stand nearby looking impressive while Mycetians ground the demonic hordes down with less flashy, but far more effective, magic items. These were the people planning the Tempest: people who really thought that the Diedne were going to fight them in a courtly way.

I didn’t say anything during the meeting. Well, nothing of consequence. “Do you take your wolfberry tea with milk?” was about as high in the pecking order as my comments made it. I found their ideas convincing at the time. The attacking side, they believed, has all the advantages in war. You get to choose the timing of the battle, and you can strike at any point in the enemy’s territory. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking “That’s just stupid.” I agree now. I’d like to point out to you, though, that the finest Roman generals advised people to attack and attack and then attack, and it had worked well during the Corruption, so we found it terribly and fatally convincing when planning the assault on the Diedne.

The plan was set. We’d march to their fortress, and cast the biggest ritual we could, to just incinerate everything. Imagine the Battle of the False Sun. That was the plan. After all, it had worked on Davenllous. Why wouldn’t it work on a huge house of Hermetic Magi, with the Parma and an army of demonic shocktroops?

Before the meeting was over, there was a respite for a meal. Toxophilus took me aside.

“My son.”, he said “I want you to know that I stopped being ashamed of you a long time ago.”

“That’s good to know, pater.” I replied. I knew he was saying this because he was concerned one of us might die on the morrow.

“I always though I’d damaged your Gift. Impoverished you as a magus.”

“Yes. I know. It doesn’t matter.” I answered. I was surprised we were discussing it, but my siblings were a necromancer, a healer and a vexillator. They were kind to me, but I always had the sensation they were a little too kind. I was the broken sibling. The crippled one. It was good that I’d found a way to be useful, but I was always going to be the result of a mistake. I think that’s why Achlys and I got on so well. She treated me as something durable.

“It does matter. I want you to know I was mistaken. One day your brother will be a great commander of the legions of the fallen, and your sister a politician of rare skill, but for now, neither excels me in the Art. You, however, you are something I’d never have considered. You are a tool that the Primus has, unlooked for, to hand. A credit to me, that I did not truly earn. Your sister the healer is a result of this. Before teaching you, I would have taught someone of her talents corporeal necromancy. Now, she supports our mortal allies.”

“Well, I’m pleased to know that.”

“You do not take my meaning?”

“By your question, no.”

“You are more powerful than me in your field of choice.”

I nodded. “Yes, I’m aware.” It wasn’t a boast. He was a necromancer. I was not.

“Perhaps you might like to test that publicly, before the battle tomorrow? The Primus is here.”

“He’d never allow a duel now.” I was blocking this line of thought mostly to gain time to process my surprise.

“To the first fall? He would.” He nodded.

“Very well. Thank you for your…candour? pater.” I felt a rising sensation in my chest and arms which might have been excitement. It might also have been fear.

“Thank you, my boy. It would give me no little satisfaction to see one of my students acclaimed before what might occur tomorrow.” He left. I was meant ot follow him, as an attendant, but took a few moments to myself. I thought it over, and couldn’t see a down side.

After dinner was over, I walked to my master, where he dined with the senior Mycentians and I said “Begging the leave of all present, and to the first fall, I challenge Toxophilius, for the right of my sigil.”

The Primus began to interrupt, and Toxophilus put a hand on his shoulder and said “Pray no. Let us test our power. We will not be too weary for battle with a slight show of strength. Are you sure my son?” His expression was flat and formal.

“I am adamant, pater.” I tried to match his expression. I am told I looked like a young child aping his father.

“Then let us to terms. A single blow, and given the exigencies of War, no vis on either side?”

“I accept.” I paused. “Creo?” I asked. He did not veto.

“Mentem?” he responded, and I demurred. “Then Imagenem.” he finished. I had been expecting Corpus, as had everyone else in the room. Those skilled in duelling knew that that meant that Toxophilus was happy for me to win. He wouldn’t throw the match to me: he’d fight hard enough that my graduation would be considered sound, but he’d deliberately picked one of my tines. He could always claim that he wanted to crush me in my own bailiwick: some duellists did that to humiliate their challengers. I nodded.

My brother, who had been preparing to challenge me if I won, relaxed. He did not gain his sigil for another twelve years, but he was decades more powerful than me. Like most Rego Mentem specialists, dueling him was a horrifying experience. I was pleased not to have to face him. He and I did duel together, after the War, so I could train him.

Certamen is a battle not of illusions, but of the substance of the spirit, made external by the ritual of battle. It is, in the purest form, mind against mind, manipulating raw magical energies. It is as close as we come to measuring the effects of our Gifts. The one with the greatest Gift is the victor. Many see Certamen as war by less violent means, and for some it is, but this is not always the case. Have you seen Intellego duels fought by Criamon magi? I once fought a beautiful duel with a Jerbiton illusionist in a faerie rose garden. We let our minds roam into the ritual space, and we try to overcome each other.

I had never really dueled anyone before. For the love of the sport, of course, I’d had many duels. This, however, was the first time I was fighting in earnest. My mind flowed into the ritual space and I found the intimacy of it revolting. My master and I created titanic knights: his of dark cables, mine of flickering comets. His advanced slowly toward mine and as it neared, my disgust flowed out of me into my knight. His began to swing a vast flail. Mine simply strode toward his, a sword in its right hand and its left hand outstretched, fingers spread wide. The flail landed, but glanced off harmlessly, although the audience seemed to think it a solid strike. My knight slammed its hand clear through the torso of my master’s phantasm. It walked to him, and backlanded him in the face. The blow shook him, and there was a burbling of comment from around the room. The phantasms disappeared.

My master sprang to his feet. He was older, but fit for physical combat. “I commend you on your victory my son.” he said, and walked to me, holding a simple ring of opal and brass in his cupped hands. “This is your sigil. I surrender it to you.” There was some scattered applause, but most in the room thought he had thrown the combat, and so were merely polite. My own siblings were enthusiastic, because they knew I’d surprised our pater.

I took my ring, and began to serve my elders dinner, until one of them pointed out that he was not free of his master, the Primus. I was a conciliarus now, and he was not. He gave me his chair, and went to find me something to eat. I was always grateful to Fabius for that. I think he did it not just to show that he accepted the verdict of the Certamen, and so others should, but to make perfectly clear to our watching allies that from the House’s perspective, I was a person of elevated status and honour now. I might have been carrying around slabs of beef and cheese at lunchtime, but that was no longer relevant.

I think my happiness at claiming my sigil flowed over into my confidence in the plan. I went into the Tempest thinking it was going to be glorious. We do not seek glory, but it’s nice when it arrives while you are doing what’s necessary. It wasn’t glorious, though. It was the worst day in the history of my House. Yes, even worse than the Sundering.

People tell you the Tempest was our great victory over the Diende, and I know you want to believe them. They are wrong. I was there. I saw the allied forces collapse. I fled the triumphant Diedne army. They hunted me like a pig in the undergrowth. I escaped through luck and the sacrifice of friends. We won the war, so we write the history. Tell me, in your version, can you name a single battle we lost?

Then why did half of us die?

Chapter Five

The two armies felt each other’s positions under the cover of  darkness. Achlys and I were involved in that. We didn’t engage. We just needed to know how they’d prepared the field. Oh, yes, the story of the Tempest you often hear makes it sound like it was fought on a flat plain, by two armies who surprised each other. That’s ridiculous.  We attacked them.

Achlys had a spell which turned grass into blades of iron, and I could hide that with illusions, so we spent a lot of time putting these sorts of traps into the far end of the battlefield. I know people claim they were demons, but I think we penned up some blood-drenched satyrs. Our spells probably did them some damage. I certainly didn’t see any of them later, when everything fell apart. We had the time, so why not use it?

As dawn broke, parts of each side began to cast vast rituals. They’d held off so that their Parmae didn’t flicker out partway through. The remaining parts of each side squared off in the centre of the battlefield. The rituals mattered, but only because we let them matter.

The skirmish lines in the middle could have been decisive, if we’d wanted them to be. We thought the ritual would win the battle for us. They thought their ritual would win the battle for them. Our leaders had said we were to attack, and technically we were pressing forward. Combat occurred, because each side had certain assets they could either use or lose, but the plan was never, really, to pierce the enemy line and strike the other ritual directly. We just wanted to knock them so hard they’d rattle, then bunker down and let us complete our ritual.

Achlys and I did make random attacks on the druids, which could be why things went so badly for me later. In the quiet times, why not sling some spells at the enemy? Perhaps you’d distract someone. Achlys was killing people, I assume. I certainly saw her poison mists drifting over the field, sickly blue and grey, and vaguely malicious. I knew I wasn’t going to get through the Parma on anyone important, so I was just throwing the weirdest illusions I could think of. Pornography sometimes. Visual gags. Anything that might lead someone to miss a syllable.

I did have a magic item which could push coach nails through magic resistance. I launched some of them, perhaps two dozen. My combat doctrine was based on attacking and then moving, using illusions to prevent the enemy locating me. I did some damage to the monsters the other side had bought to the field. I think I wrecked whatever they were planning to do with their satyrs. My method of fighting slowed my rate of fire down, though, and it also slowed Achlys too, because she’d relocate each time I did.

Our side wanted to incinerate everything at the druidic end of the battlefield. The idea was to create a spell so tremendously powerful that the Parma would crack before it. This spell was, perhaps, sixteenth magnitude. It was going to take hours to cast. The rest of us were just meant to absorb any attacks until the sky itself caught flame and everything died. The druidic plan was simply better than ours.

Their plan was to cast a small, subtle effect, that was specifically designed to slice through magic resistance. Even with the time needed to enhance the spell’s penetration, their ritual was completed first. You know “Call to Slumber”? It’s the deadliest spell in Hermetic history.

I know the others will tell you that it was some sort of storm, or lightning, and that’s why it’s called The Battle of the Tempest, but no. The Tempest was what happens when dozens of magi all fall into Final Twilight at once. The Realm of Magic just rips open, and the mortal world just bleeds into its depths until everything magical nearby is scoured away and the mundane realm is all that’s left.

You can feel it, in your Gift.  You know how you can feel your Gift flicker in Church? Imagine that. You know how if you are dying of shock, toward the end you feel deliciously warm?  That. In your Gift. That’s what it feels like when the Mundane Realm vomits its pain into the Realm of Forms. It feels like everything that’s wrong with you, and everything that’s right with you, and everything that’s distinctively you, is about to get smoothed away, and you are kind of looking forward to it.

Achlys and I were on a little hillock, looking at some tortoise-hydras and hoping they’d stay exactly where they were. We both felt the Tempest begin. We looked at the Mercurians and they were being blown about like scarecrows in a storm. We heard the Diende’s monsters scream with hunger and bloodlust. They hadn’t spotted us yet, because we’d just shifted position. Their line began to charge across the field, and our position was going to fall in a couple of minutes. Time to decide.

Achlys slapped my arm, hard, and yelled over the storm “Now, we run like Hell!”

I nodded.

We ran like Hell.

Chapter Six

Running like Hell was inglorious, but we don’t care about glory in my House. There are times when the line needs to hold, and there are times when standing your ground is just a pointless sacrifice. Generally, it wasn’t my call as to what time it was. After the Tempest, though, it was pretty clear the hour had grown far too late for good work to be done. Time to head home, on your feet or in a box.

Achlys and I weren’t just tearing through the forest randomly. There’s method, even in failure.  We were hiking for Heartfoam. It was the rally point for this theater. It had a strong Aegis, supplies, and either re-enforcements or commands to rally elsewhere. It wasn’t an orderly withdrawal, but for the two of us, it wasn’t a rout either. We came close: we’d avoided the enemy for six hours when our luck ran out.

I think she saw it first: a huge serpent head, emerging from the trees ahead of us.  If it had waited another five minutes, we would have been dead. I remember thinking that there was no way it should have caught up to us. The Diedne forces had splintered in the chase. The fastest elements, mostly fliers, were the soonest to catch fleeing magi, and so they were the first to stop chasing.  The thing ahead of us wasn’t meant to be be quick.

“Do we go around?” I yelled.

“No. It must be faster than us. The only way out..” and she smiled in a tired sort of way.

“…is through.” I finished. I readied my first spell, and Achlys, who was faster on the uptake than me, flung poison mist at its face. The mist didn’t kill it, but it did defoliate the tree it was standing underneath. I’d already guessed, but she shouted “Testudohydra!” to make sure I’d noticed that it wasn’t just a serpent.

Despite the name, these do not have a shell like a turtle. Imagine, instead, thick scales which are patterned like a a turtle’s shell, wrapped over an enormous body. The creature had five heads, and its fangs were formidable, but it could also crush with its weight, on great tree-like legs.

Illusions don’t really cut it in these situations, but I could tilt things in our favour. Achlys wouldn’t want to dip her Parma at a time like this, so I couldn’t make her invisible. If I made myself invisible the chances were good she’s and I would trip each other up. Time for a simple trick.

“Eyes down!” I called, and cast The Alpine Blindness. It floods an area with species, overwhelming the eyes of all nearby. I loved it in combat because species are natural: the magic resistance of monsters like the hydra doesn’t protect them from it at all. Some creatures don’t care much, but I was hoping that since it had ten eyes, this would really wreck its nerves.

The creature screamed and charged at us, but it clearly couldn’t see where it was going. It was shaking its heads, little sideways convulsions. As it came towards us, I broke left and Achlys broke right.  I expected her to lay down a pit trap, and so I drove a coach nail through one of its eyes. The thing about two heads growing back if you cut one off is perfectly true, and yes, fire is the Herculean way through the riddle. It turns out that piercing weapons work too, in a fashion.

Achlys did try a pit trap, but not on the creature. She’d spotted a human figure further back in the woodland, and had dropped the pit under him. That’s how the creature had caught us: it had a handler, and the druid was able to move it rapidly using magic. The druid had missed his chance at an ambush because he was snowblind, and would be for a few minutes. His Parma seemed to be holding, and he was trying to get some area spells to take out Achlys, but Sight ranged spells don’t work when you can’t see. She was probably the weaker magus, but she had momentum.

Their little duel basically left me alone with the hydra, so when I had the chance, I drove another nail into another head. At this point I should have cast an illusion and fallen back, to draw the hydra away. I didn’t want to lose contact with Achlys, though, and things seemed to be going well, so I held my ground and slammed home another coach nail. Three heads hung limply and I prepared to finish the beast off.

The remaining two heads whipped around and chewed through the necks of two I’d destroyed. As this was happening I drove another coach nail home, but it was too late. The creature sprinted toward me, presumably following my scent. It was only slightly slower than a running man. You can’t flee at that pace and keep casting spells, so I stood still and kept launching nails. As it came, blisters that had formed on the severed stumps of its necks bloated out into fully formed heads. Their eyes were fresh.

I tried to puncture its heart. I drove three nails into its chest, making it a pulpy mass, but it wasn’t enough. The creature caught me. I didn’t see the strike. I only knew it had happened when I lost my balance.

I looked down at the huge, fanged, scaly head, wrapped around my leg and thought “So, that’s what death looks like.” As I come from a family of necromancers. I’d tried not to think about my own death, but I’d failed. This was less painful than I’d expected. I felt the bone break and, as the creature worried it, my lower leg came away in its mouth. It had dragged me up a little, and so when my leg was torn away, I felt myself fall backward.

The spell I improvised doesn’t make much sense. I’ve talked to some Criamon magi since and they say I was casting through the Arcane connection that links severed parts of the body. Some Tytalus magi have told me that I tapped into a deep mystery of our ancestral necromantic cult, and called forth a death curse.  In my delirium, as shock claimed me, I forced all of my despair at my imminent demise into my very flesh, demanding it become sour and poisonous. In my final act, I called the powers of magic to make my corpse a weapon to choke my enemies.

The hydra spat out my leg and waddled up the slope toward Achlys. Presumably its master had called it. I crawled over its tracks, perhaps two dozen feet, and hugged my leg to my chest. It was covered in stomach acid, and it burned me, but I clung to it as the grey clouds on the edge of my field of vision filled my eyes.

I knew nothing until I woke in Heartfoam.

Chapter Seven

I did not know where I was, but a pale face loomed huge above me, its eyes pools of shadow. I screamed and smashed it with my fist. There was cursing and, as I attempted to rise, I was struck with the Call to Slumber. I tasted ashes and fell unconscious again. I drifted into an incoherent nightmare where I was somehow both an octopus and a gingerbread man and my legs were being eaten, but I was relieved. I knew the spell’s sigil was that of Decimatia of Tytalus, Achlys’s mater.

The next time I woke I was strapped down, and muzzled. I tapped the first few portions of “Sons of Mycetias, Rise as The Dawn” onto the bedhead. It may seem odd that we have an accepted knock code for “I’d prefer you didn’t treat me as is I was insane.” but Mentem duels often end with someone in need of a gentle rest under tight confinement. The person who came to untie me was Scipia, my sister.

Scipia was a corporeal necromantrix at that stage, although she’s more famous as a battlefield surgeon now. You may have heard she developed spells which allow you to graft a dead, but functional, limb onto a living person for the duration of a day? Disgusting, but effective. It doesn’t even have to be the person’s own limb. For a while there she was assembling grogs out of other grogs in a fashion I consider terrifying only now. Then it was awesome, and now it is awful.  She had been suborned to the hospital because the hospice was already sorted out, and her ability to keep the walking dead combat worthy was directly relevant to keeping living combatants walking.

“Salve!” she said “don’t try to rise. You’ve lost a leg in battle.”

“I remember. It was eaten.”

“Yes. I surmised as much. The marks on the bone are distinctive.” and then she peered at where my leg should be and I thought…well, it was just a burst of emotions, really, focused on the determination to never look at what she was examining. It must, of itself, be horrible, both in material and implication, but with Scipia’s sigili, my stump was possibly covered in putrefying insect scales.

“Could you come up to the head of the bed?” I asked “I’d prefer not to strain my neck looking down at you.” As she walked up I asked “And if you could tuck in what’s left of my legs? It’s a bit cold.”

“One of them’s fine, and the other will be fine until dawn. Then the wound will reopen and I’ll magic it closed again.”

“Why are you holding me between days like this?” Wounds kept closed magically don’t heal.

“The injury’s too severe to survive without magical aid, and we simply don’t have the Corpus or Creo vis to spare. What little we have has been channeled to the combat magi. Our line is falling back. Losses are heavy. We may have to make a stand here.” She did not say “You are only an illusionist.” but I would not have resented her if she had. I was only an illusionist.

“Will I be fit by then?”

“No. We haven’t the time to either fix you or evacuate you.”

I thought for a few minutes. I didn’t like my options. I could think of no good alternative. “So you prop me up somewhere with good line of sight and I cast as many spells as I can before the day ends, and my stump opens up and I die.” I stated it flatly. There was no point in pleading my usefulness. That would have just make this harder on her.

“Yes. I’m sorry…” she was exhausted and shrugged slightly, “but only victors make choices.”

“We have one.”

“What do you mean?”

“Euthanasia. If I’m going to die anyway, you could harvest me for vis.”

“How strong are you in Corpus?” She asked, evincing none of the disgust common among magi for the idea of using the vis of other mages to fuel spells. Is it necrophagy if the magus asks you to do it?

“I’m not, but I’m quite skilled in Creo.”

“No, that’s  only enough vis to heal…”and here she smiled “an injury like a missing limb. You’re more use alive, at least from a weight of fire perspective.”

“Anything I can do? Any preparation I can help with?”

“Sleep.” she said “The more fatigue you carry into the battle, the less use you are.”

I slept.

It was not until the third day that I thought to ask where Achlys was.

***

It was Decimatia who told me that Achlys was dead. She was rebinding my stump at dusk, and I asked her how Achlys had escaped the ambush. I had assumed Achlys had dragged me back to Heartfoam.

“She never made it back.”

“Then how..”

“You appeared at an assembly point with her Leap of Homecoming pin driven into the flesh of your back, between your shoulder blades.”

“Why?”

“To show you hadn’t stolen it.”

“No, why didn’t she…”

“We do not flee challenges. We are elevated by them.”

“I’m grateful she saved me. Don’t take this the wrong way, but…”

“You would have done the same for her.”

“Yes, but because she was a more significant military asset than me. That’s not the sort of thing you can just mirror. I don’t understand why she saved me.  Why not let me die and keep it with her, in case something worse came along? Something she couldn’t handle?”

“It’s not a real threat if you can just vanish like smoke. When you wade into the crucible of conflict, you must accept that you might fall, anything less is a game.”

“Then why take the pin into battle at all?”

“There’s no fault in flight if the scenario is hopeless. She must have assessed the challenge as worth her effort.”

“How are you so calm about this?”

She smiled in a disturbingly grandmotherly way. “I am pleasantly surprised at how well she turned out.”

“Her death doesn’t seem to have saddened you at all.” I felt anger, but tried to keep it out of my voice.

“Few masters get to review the entire life of a student, and weigh it. I am glad to have that opportunity: to measure my skill as a teacher. I am gratified that I did so well.”

“That’s sick.”

“Nonsense. You think Toxophilus doesn’t know that you discussed euthanasia with your sister?”

“I hope he’d feel some sort of regret afterwards.”

“Why wish pain on those you love, Mararius?”

Then she wandered off to her other duties. Her House always needs the last word.

***

The next day Scipia was binding my wound at evening and said “Do you want to talk to Achlys’s ghost?”

“No.”

“Really? Why not?” She was surprised.

“What would be the point?”

“To get some closure. To say goodbye?”

“To whom?”

“How do you mean?”

“You seem to be suggesting that talking to her ghost is in some way talking to Achlys.”

“I don’t know what to say to that, beyond that I don’t understand it at all.”

“Ghosts aren’t people, Scipia. They are just fragments of people. They aren’t even the good fragments, or the fragments which represent the truest version of the person. That’s the soul, and it vanishes at death. Ghosts are just obsessions given bodies. I’m guessing the ghost has some final business?”

“Well, they all do.”

“Exactly. It can’t learn, can it? You have the same conversations with it over and over again?”

“She. She’s fixated on delivering a message, yes.”

“It’s not her, then. It’s a caricature. A bit of mental detritus. No more her, really, than a faerie. There’s no point in me talking to it.”

“It will give her some sort of peace.”

“No, it won’t really. Ghosts are just the energy that used to allow the soul to animate the body. They don’t rest. They don’t pass on to Judgement.  They just dissipate back into the Magic Realm. They rise up and are gone. You may as well just cast Lay to Rest the Haunting Spirit on it. It’s not her.”

“It’s a fragment of her.”

“Is your fingernail you?”

“In a sense.”

“Not in any social sense. You say a fragment, and then you pretend its the whole. It isn’t though: it’s just a caricature close enough that people who need to can fool themselves. It’s an illusion.”

“She wants to talk to you.”

“No. She doesn’t really. Take a message of you like.”

“Are you sure? This isn’t a decision you can rethink later. Is this the cautious choice?”

“I’m sure. Ghosts aren’t people. Ghosts are just obsessions wearing the faces of people we knew. If I asked her why she saved me, could she answer?”

“Yes, she’s very coherent.”

“Is she coherent about anything but her final business?”

She paused, and thought “No.”

“Would it lie to finish its final business?”

“I don’t know.”

“So even if it was able to answer me, it might well lie.”

“Yes. I’m sorry I offered this to you. I thought it might help you face what’s coming with greater equanimity of spirit. It seems to have troubled you instead.”

“No. Thank you. My…forcefulness isn’t from sadness. I have made peace with her death. I don’t need to see her ghost.”

“Do you want to know what her business is?”

I thought about it. “No. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m going to die when the Diedne line reaches Heartfoam. That’s enough to have to worry about.”

She nodded, quickly finished what she was doing, and left.

Chapter Eight

I awoke. It was dark outside, but Decimata stood near my feet. A semblance of a candle flame hovered over her left shoulder. There was another spell also: I could see the curve of its circumference on the floor. I knew it: it is called The Aid to the Resurrectionist’s Shovel.  It is used to prevent light and conversation carrying when the caster and allies are engaged in questionable activities.

“Mirarius, are you aware you died in the night?” she asked.

“No!” I sat up swiftly.

“I am sorry to inform you that you have passed from life.” she looked solemn, but that was not unusual.

“I find that very difficult to believe.” I could feel my breath, but then again, some ghosts did think they were breathing. I could feel my pulse speeding up.

“Ghosts often cannot believe they are dead. It is not unusual to have difficulty crossing over. You are an exception, of course, but our families have helped people to cross for generations.”

“I can feel my pulse.”

“I’m sorry, you really are dead. Please look at your leg.”

I looked down, surprised she had said “Please.” and my leg was intact. It looked kind of dark and smoky, but it was certainly there. I flexed my knee.

“You know we don’t have any spare vis. Your spiritual form is intact, because you think of yourself as having two legs. I’m sorry, but you really are dead. This leads to a difficult question.”

“What?”

“Do you consent for your body’s vis to be harvested for the war effort?”

“I have already. I offered to commit suicide.”

“Were you in earnest? Not merely discussing an option?”

“I was in earnest.”

“Thank you for your service and sacrifice, cousin.” she intoned.

“Decimata?” I asked.

“Yes?”

“What’s brown and sticky?”

“Pardon?”

“A stick!” I laughed. I’d always loved that joke.

“I don’t understand.”

“Ghosts are obsessed with their final business. They can’t really think about anything else. They can’t enjoy jokes, because their minds can’t suddenly shift direction. If I was dead, puns wouldn’t be funny.  Right now, I think the expression on your face is hilarious.”

She smiled. “Well played. The leg won’t turn to ash at dawn.”

“Where did you get the vis?”

“You father has spirits haunting the battlefields, and bringing in the corpses of the fallen. We have harvested them. We are all ghouls now, feasting on our dead. The Diedne will not do it, you know. More fool them. They have a great sepulcher filled with vis that they must eventually use, and that will break their morale. It is always best to dispense with one’s morals at the beginning of a war.”

“We found so much vis we can cure illusionists?”

“I cured you on a personal whim. I shall have to discuss it with our commanders tomorrow.”

“Why?” I felt a sense of disgust welling up.

“Achlys’s spirit was quite clear concerning its disposition.”

“I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”

“No lecture on my wastefulness?”

“No.”

“Goodnight cousin. Long life and glorious foes for you.’

“And you.”

I didn’t sleep.

Chapter Nine

Scipia found me before dawn. She saw my new leg, but didn’t realize it was permanent. She was waiting for the day, for my wound to open. I told her that I’d been healed. She looked surprised, then dropped to one knee and at the point where my stump joined my smooth, mottled, new flesh. “Come quickly.” she said. “We must get you out of here before the other patients wake.”

She and I walked through to what I assumed was a storeroom. She asked me to cast a spell which would hide our voices, and we sat on some crates of supplies. “You can bivouac with me until we get things sorted out.” she said.

“What needs to be sorted out?”

“I can see her sigil in your skin, Mirarius. They are going to tear strips off her when they find out.”

“Yes, but I doubt she cares. Actually, the Tytalusians enjoy that sort of thing. Maybe she did it just because she hasn’t had a decent argument in a week.”

“She was specifically forbidden from healing you. She’d argued for it in the War Council. She claimed Achlys’s vis was hers by right. The others over-ruled her. She must have broken into the vis stores.”

“That’s serious, but again, I presume that’s what she wanted.”

“No, you still don’t understand. We don’t have enough vis to go around…”

“I do know that…”

“…so there’s a triage list. The vis she spent on your leg should have gone to one of the combat magi. Unless we find more vis, whoever that was is going to die because of Decimata’s decision.”

“Who is it?”

“They haven’t told us. They don’t want fighting over who ranks whom.”

“Who knows?”

“Well, all of the War Council, and whomever they have told.”

I shrugged. “I can see that’s a problem, but I can’t see what I can do about it.” Again, I shrugged. “I just need to wait for orders.”

“Yes, but while you wait, it’s best not to sleep in the terminal ward. A knife in the neck and suddenly there’s Corpus vis available, and the list gets ever shorter.”

***

I was fencing with one of the grogs when I saw Scipia again. She called me aside, and I dismissed him. That was when I met Ruggerio. He became a shield of mine, later in the war.

“Decimata has left.”

“Left where?” I asked, as I took off my training jerkin.

“She’s packed her gear. She’s left left Heartfoam.”

“Why?” I was casting a petty spell to clean me up. I didn’t think this a serious matter.

“The War Council started to upbraid her. She said she was sick of them, and that she was leaving the army…”

“…and they let her go?”

“The can’t stop her. Many of the Tytaluses are heading off on their own. They think they can do more harm to the Diedne with guerrilla tactics, or that they can seek a separate peace.”

She and I had walked to a quiet part of the stableyard. I dropped my voice. “How bad is it?  The desertion, I mean.”

“Hers?”

“No.”

“People rally to causes in the ascendant. A lot of the Tytalus magi are angry at the tactics used in the Tempest.”

“Is that what they are calling the battle?”

“Oh, yes. The Criamon says they have been calling it the Tempest for decades now. No point annoying them.”

“So how many have we lost?”

“It depends what you mean by ‘lost’.” She sighed and sat on a fence rail. “Flambeau heading south or Tytalus heading to the sea just claim they are just going to their Domus Magna. They say they are going to bolster the defences in case the Diedne decide to knock their House out of the war, to cover their rear before they march east.  Some of them are even telling the truth.”

“But what are the numbers?”

“No-one is sure. More leave every day. We are now grossly numerically inferior in this theatre. The Diedne may be fielding a force five times the size of ours, and theirs are less injured, and more experienced. We lost most of the Mercurians when their ritual was disrupted.”

“So, what are our orders?”

“Currently? Hold Heartfoam, to buy the leadership time to cajole the stragglers back into the army.”

“That’s not going to happen. What are the contingencies?”

“Unofficially? We wait until enough stragglers leave for House Mycetias to say “We are doing things our way from now on, and you can join in if you can obey orders.”

“It can’t be that bad. We only lost one battle.”

“If the Diedne make it as far as Bohemia, then they hit some of the defences we have had prepared since the post-Sundering security monomania. We might hold them there.  If we can’t, then Lycaneon is where we win or lose.”

“We are openly discussing drawing a line at Lycaneon?”

“Yes. Within the House, yes.”

“That…” I paused. “That could never work.”

“It could if they were stupid about it.”

“If we give them all of France and Germany, they just need to wait for a decade, harvest all of the vis…”

“Call up demons with it, and feed us to them. Yes. Demons lack patience.”

“That’s why they have human servants, so they can borrow patience.”

“This is why we wanted allies to begin with. To prevent the scenario which some of our commanders are now suggesting is the best possible outcome.”

I sat down and stared into space for a minute.  I couldn’t find any angle that made things look better.  “What can I do?”

“Well, the Primus may have orders for you tonight. He’s seeing you directly before the next meeting of the War Council.”

I felt my spine straighten “Me? Why?”

“You are a conciliarus. He’s calling together all of you. I’m guessing he’s about to make a major shift in strategy and wants to make sure none of you are going to demand he defend his right to lead with a duel.”

“You’d have to be an idiot to challenge him now.”

“Some people are suggesting father might challenge.”

“He’s not an idiot. Whoever is in charge…I mean, it’s…”

“At best, of a forced withdrawal where we kill our wounded, harvest our dead, and burn the earth as we flee?”

“Yes.” There was nothing else to say, really. I smiled, resigned half smile. “I’ll tell you what I can afterwards.”

“I know.  I’ll tell you what I learn too. Things are going to get worse, Mirarius. We haven’t finished paying for the Tempest yet.”

Scipia broke off as a redcap found us.  The redcap was called Aristella, and she started talking, apologetically and hurriedly. One of the patients wanted to see me. Her name was Incendia of Flambeau. She’d sent a redcap so that this was an official request for an audience. I sensed this was not going to go well, and had the redcap lead on.

I attended Incendia’s bedside. I’m not sure why she was in the hospital. They were keeping her between days, so from dawn until dusk her wounds were closed by magic. Come the evening her skin would peel off and her burns erupt through her flesh. She would scream until until another temporary spell could soothe them. During the day, though, there was no need for her to be on a pallet.

She introduced herself. Incendia of Flambeau. No honorific. No parent’s name. She looked old. Not just experienced: tired. I gave my name. She came right to her point.

“I know you offered to commit suicide, and I’d like to accept your offer.”

“I didn’t offer to commit it for you.”

“You did, though. I’m the person highest on the triage list. The vis used to replace your leg was meant to heal my burns. When the Diedne arrive here, I’ll certainly die at the turning of the day. You can prevent that. Give up your life, and let me take your vis. I will slay many of our enemies in your memory. They will light your way to the Afterlife.” Her eyes were full of the relish of battle, and I immediately hated her for it.

“Will they, though?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your plan seems to be to be to incinerate the druids.”

“Yes?” she looked bemused, as if I was speaking in riddles.

“So, make the biggest fire you can?”

“I will kill legions of them and write your name with their ashes, in commemoration.”

“No. You won’t. You can’t.”

“I will, and can.”

“If you’d offered virtually anything else, I might have killed myself for you. This? This is ridiculous.”

“You are mocking me?”

“Yes. You plan is to just fight the Tempest again. Why do you think we lost the last time?”

“The Mercurians botched the ritual…”

“No! That’s exactly my point. We lost last time because you, and I, and the Diedne all know exactly what you plan to do in every battle. You just try to burn people. Not just you: your entire lineage. You had one great victory at the Battle of the False Sun because the other side didn’t know fire magic was scalable. You’ve fought that one battle ever since. Usually you win. You burned out the Corruption. Well done you. Your doctrine though? It’s always the same.”

“And you? You illusionist?” She spat the word. “What do you plan to do with your little amusements?”

“Improvise.” I shrugged. “I don’t know what I’ll do, but neither do the enemy. I don’t have much hope of success, but you? You have none. I’m sorry you are going to die, but fire magi are a penny a gross. You’re all the same. All interchangeable. If you’d been almost anything else, even an Apromorian, I’d have seriously considered assenting to my death. This? To die just so you could try to prove your housemates weren’t acting like idiots last time? No. Never.”

“Then you leave me no choice. Creo!”

“No. I refuse to meet your challenge, on the basis that it breaches military discipline, breaks the Code and is just damned stupid.”

“Coward. A Mycetian who will not duel!”

“Dueling is for disputes that have merit on each side. This is just foolish. I won’t give my life for yours, because I don’t accept that you are of greater military value than me.”

“Then I declare War upon you.” she announced.

“Well, see you at the full moon then,” I snapped back. Mentally I did a quick calculation. I’d lost track a little, because of my time in hospital, but I presumed the moon would be full in slightly over two weeks. I turned to stride away.

“Will you flee? My brethren will hunt you if you flee.  Even if I die, you will not know peace. You will feel our fire, and we will see if you mock so easily then!”

I turned back at the door. “How could I kill you if I fled?” I asked. I had no idea how I was going to fight her, but I’m an illusionist. Sometimes you need to lie about things until you can make your words true.

I took a moment to calm myself, and then decided I need to talk to the most dangerous person I could find. Decimata was gone, so that left my father. I knew he’d be busy, but since I was now one of his main problems, I thought he’d find the time.

Chapter Ten

Let me tell you about an illusion called the thimblerig. It’s not a spell: it’s a piece of con artistry done on fairgrounds. A group of men pretend to have a gambling game going, and they entice others to part with money by moving around thimbles with a pea supposedly hidden under one. In truth, of course, there is no game. The pea is not under a thimble, it is in the sleeve of the man pushing about the thimbles. The men are important, because they convince you that a game is in progress. The patter is important because it distracts you while the trick is done. When you are finally presented with a choice of thimble, the trick is already over.

During Wizard’s War, magical illusionists do this too.  When an illusionist attacks you, then the trick’s already over. What you are seeing is just him asking you to convince yourself. That’s vital, because your Parma Magica may protect you from a created dragon, but it can’t protect you from your own pride, or anger. If he sends an illusionary dragon after you, don’t charge after him. When you do, the odds are you’ll fall into a disguised pit. You get to see him when he wants to be seen.

The day before the duel I went to the infirmary, and spoke with an old Verditius magus who was a patient there. His name was Callidus. I’d heard of him before. His reputation was that of a cranky, old misanthrope, who loathed few things more than other Verditus magi. He seemed frail when I saw him. He had a long neck and a forward thrust of his head that reminded me strongly of a bird. “Sit down please, Mirarius.” he said and then triggered a little Circle spell that hid our words from outsiders. He did this by tapping a small ring on a charm bracelet. Like most of his tribe, he was heavily adorned with bejeweled casting tools.

“I hear that the War Council has asked you to duel Incendia immediately.”

“Word travels quickly in the camp, I see. Yes, they have. House Flambeau insists.”

“Perhaps your criticism of their strategy was unwise?

“Unwise, yes.” I answered in a tone which made clear that I thought it accurate, regardless of advisability.

He laughed: a slight, panting thing. “May I offer you a bargain?”

“You may offer. I may refuse.” I answered, almost without thinking about the words.

“Certainly. I should like to offer you the rental of my talisman, for a single day, at the cost of one silver penny, paid in advance.”

That stopped me for a moment. “That’s generous. Why, please?” It is important to be polite to Verditius magi. Lack of civility draws out the anger in so many of them.

“If it is a rental there is some argument that it remains my property and so, if you fall, it cannot be looted from your corpse.”

“Why a penny?”

“Why not a penny?  You Mycetians generally carry money, don’t you?”

“A little, yes.”

“A strange trait which will now prove its usefulness. A silver penny if you will, and you may borrow, for a day, my staff.”

I thought about it.

“An excellent deal.”  I handed him a penny. “So, what can your staff do?”

“It allows flight. It has a version of the coach nail projection you are reputed to find so useful. It can carry objects at a distance. It can throw up protective sheets of metal. It has other features which I will not disclose.”

“Excellent! Thank you, honoured one, this will be most useful.  Why  do you dislike Incendia so much?”

“Oh, I don’t dislike her. She’s been far more polite to me than most people.”

“Then…oh.”

“You have discerned my reason?”

“Yes, old one. Is there peace between us?”

“Have you affronted me?”

“Well, I was given a place higher than you on the list.”

He cackled. “I would have died in the queue. At least this way, I am still interested. I am still affecting events.”

“That you are. Thank you again. May I have the triggering actions?”

“They are as you might imagine, since you have already wielded an item from one of my apprentices. You thrust toward an object to fling an item at it, wave the tip at an object and command it to move to manipulate at a distance, tap the base on the ground to fly, and drag it across the ground to create a wall of iron.”

“Drag the tip or the base?”

“Oh, either.”

“Sleep well, honored one.” I said.

He looked at me suspiciously. “I shall be angry if you attempt to deduce the other effects. “

“I shall give my oath on the Code that I will not attempt to find them, if you so wish.”

“How do you already know my triggers?” he demanded.

“I don’t. Let the battle demonstrate it to you.  You will be able to view the staff, I assume, through an arcane connection?”

“Yes.”

“Then, let my actions be my proof.  I am about to practice just outside the Aegis with your staff. Do you object?”

“Yes, I do. There are too many people. They will learn how the effects are triggered.”

“I hesitate to fly out too far. A rogue Flambeau might kill me with impunity.”

“Not impunity.  Not unless they destroy my staff, and they will find that difficult.”

“Very well. I will train on a distant hill.  Thank you again. I will literally be victorious or die trying.”

He smiled, a tight, pained smile. “Thank you, young man. Thank you for letting me be the one to meddle with destiny, perhaps for the last time.”

I left and trained on a distant hill.  When I got back, I had lunch with my father and siblings. Scipia gave me the news I needed.

“After you left, she went to the kitchen and sat by the fire for half an hour.”

I motioned “And?” with me head. My mouth was full of lettuce.

“She was talking to the fire.”

I smiled. She told me that smiling with my cheeks full made me look like a squirrel.

I swallowed.

“No. She wasn’t talking to the fire.  She was talking to the smoke.”

“My son.” said Toxophilus “you seem pleased by this news. What is its significance?”

“Well, I need to think through all of the angles, but I think it means I can win. Let me tell you about an illusion.  It’s called the thimblerig…”

Chapter Eleven

At nightfall we were called into the courtyard, and the chief Guernicus present had us sit before her. We were surrounded by a crowd of gawkers.

“Are each of you adamant that this continue? This War is irregular, and it is my House’s opinion that our standards should not fall short just because we face the Diedne threat. That being said, there are political realities, and your co-operation makes them less acute.” She was another Justina.

“Yes.” Incendia said. “No apology suffices for what he said about my House.”

I sighed “Oh, come on. They know you want my vis.  Prove me wrong. Swear now that you take yourself out of the triage line. Say that if you kill me, my vis goes to someone else.”

“I was the one who received your insult…” she replied, with as much dignity as she could muster.

I turned to the Quaesitor and deliberately spoke over Incendia. “I consider myself the challenged party. I must continue if she must.”

“As the challenged party, do you accept the terms that have been laid out for the combat?” Justina asked.

“Yes.” I answered.

“I need you to recite them before witnesses, so that afterward there can be no claim you were led unknowing to your death.”

“Does she need to recite them too? She’s the one who is going to die.” I needed to goad Incendia harder, so I scratched my back with the tip of the Verditus magus’s talisman. I hoped he wouldn’t get too annoyed by that. They can be so touchy about their artifacts.

Incendia rose to the bait. “Is he allowed that thing?”

Justina answered “Yes. This isn’t a duel. There is no question of fairness, only lawfulness.”

“How many advantages do you want?” I added. I adopted my most mocking tone. “I’ve given away the right to demand you wait for the full moon, so I don’t have time to prepare. I’ve given away the right to choose where you chase me to, so I’ve lost ground advantage. I’ve given away the right to use vis, so I can’t create persistent illusions or punch through your Parma with sheer force. I’ve given away the right to shelter within House Mycetias. My only defenses are illusions, this lovely talisman, and the innate deficiencies of fire magic.”

She scowled and snapped at me “It will be a pleasure to demonstrate the power of fire to you.” I was pleased by that. She was more powerful than me. If she had fought creatively, I’d have lost. I needed her to deliberately choose to fight with a hand tied behind her back, so I kept needling her about how worthless fire magic was. I knew that if she chose fire magic she couldn’t just use her most powerful spells indiscriminately. She needed my Corpus vis, so she needed an intact corpse, or at least a discrete pile of ash. If I could get her just to use fire, then I had some ideas that I could try.

“Your recitation does not suffice.” said the Guernicus. She liked formal phrasings. She felt they gave authority. To me it just gave the whole thing a sad but comic air. No-0ne present thought this was justice, but Wizard Wars aren’t about right and wrong.

I played along, but pitched my tone so that I suggested this was all mere formality, with which I was tired. “At dawn we will be waiting at opposite sites of the nearby woodland. We will each raise the Parma Magica and step within. The war ends at nightfall, when our Parmae need renewal. There will be no second trial of force. To leave the wood before the end of the day, for any reason, will be met with fatal force.  Do I have it all?”

“No aid is to be offered by any outside party to either side. Niether side may prepare the field. No vis may be used.” she added.

“I understand. So, just to be clear: if I kill her in the first hour, I need to hang around until sundown?” I said.

“Yes.” said the Guernicus, trying to keep some gravitas.

“So, can I take a book?”

“Yes.” she paused, obviously angry at my levity. “All manner of equipment is permitted.”

“Thank you. Would you please get Incendia to recite the terms now? I wouldn’t want people thinking I lured her to her death.”

I did, of course.  That was the whole point of this conversation: to trick her into doing what I needed her to do. She did try to do some clever things. but she went into the battle deliberately limiting herself, and her few creative choices were all within constraints that she could so easily have broken. She could have saved herself at any time. She did not want to. That was the trick.

Afterward I spoke to Scipia and to father. “What’s the word?” I asked.

Scipia said “If she’s borrowed magic items off anyone, no-one has heard about it, she is not wearing them, and they are not in her chamber in the hospital.” Father kept silent. He seemed sad. I was careful not to let him see I’d noticed. Eventually he spoke “She missed one of the rules we’d laid down. There are to be no reprisals until after the war.  If she kills you, she is safe from me, while the last Diedne lives.”

I laughed, falsely. “That’s good to know. If I win, it buys me time to head for Constantinople.”

My sister hugged me, which I expected.  My father then did this odd thing: he reached out and laid his hand on the top of my head. It felt like a blessing, and a farewell, and he left quickly.

“I won’t see you in the morning.” Scipia said. “I’ll need to seal the wounds in the hospital.”

“Then goodbye, and fret not, for all manner of things may yet be well.” I said.  She knew I was being brave, and she pretended to be convinced.

Chapter Twelve

It was not a glorious day.  My Housemates do not seek glory, but the people asking me to tell this story usually like it. I’ve formed the habit of telling people, in advance, that it was not a heroic test of strength. I killed Incendia, and in a way she would have considered unfair, and cheap. She left me no choice, but I still remember how, afterward, I went from feeling pleased at how clever I was to disgusted at how clever I was.

Her murder was the simplest thing in the world. We were each placed at one end of the woodland, and we waited for the dawn. I renewed my Parma Magica, then immediately cast a spell that made the tiny spirits of the air carry human voices to me. It is difficult to cast spells while listening to someone else also crafting magic, but her workings were so obvious that it made my task easier. Incendia’s first spell, which I barely caught the end of, was a ward against metal. The next was a ward against wood. The third was a spell to detect invisible objects.

I cast a spell to make me invisible, intactile and inaudible. I couldn’t move quickly without breaking it, but that was not the plan. I then cast an illusion of me upon myself: one that I could give simple commands to. As I was casting and listening, I walked a little way into the woodland and found a clearing.

Incendia cast Ball of Abysmal Flame with a duration of three minutes. It created a huge ring of fire, and a great plume of smoke. While she was casting it, I cast a spell on a circle of ground, so that its appearance would be fixed: no changes I made it would be obvious to outside observers.  Then came the spell I’d been waiting for. While she was casting the spell that let her interrogate smoke, I jogged off as far as I dared, perhaps twenty yards, then dropped my pack as the spell came into effect. I then walked casually back toward the circle of fixed appearance.

I kicked my pack over as I dropped it. It contained food, water, bandages, and a particularly good bottle of wine. I didn’t really need any of these things immediately, as I had duplicates on my combat harness. My family love combat harnesses: they keep everything tucked in close to the body, within the Parma Magica.

Incendia then made a wall of flame, and cast a spell which let her talk to it. She ordered it to keep expanding, and, like the smoke, report on my location. As I hit the circle of fixed appearance, I sent the illusion of me walking through the clearest part of the woodland. It wasn’t clever enough for me to tell it to dodge trees, but it only needed to fool her for a few more minutes.

I carefully peeled up one edge of the grass in the circle, and turned the soil underneath to sandstone. That compacted it down enough for me to step inside, and pull the grass back over the top of me. I used the talisman as a long stick, to hold up the little flap of grass. Smoke and flame are fine as scouts, but they simply aren’t subtle, or clever. Her fire could sweep over the top of me and simply not notice. My little spell of changelessness was being maintained with Concentration, so I let it lapse. The magic itself was the only clue I was hidden down there, in the dark earth.

I had a lot of time to think, waiting for her to make her way through the woodland. Incendia was sure I was invisible, and flying around her. I learned afterward that she became increasingly jumpy as the day wore on. She was sure I was crafting an increasingly complicated death trap, so if a fox made a noise in the underbrush, she incinerated the whole area, just on a precaution. At one point, she cast a few formulaics all together, not resting to recover herself between each. This made her panic, and she fled back deeper into the broad circle of ashes that her advancing wall had created. After ten minutes she’d recovered her breath, but her composure was breaking down.

She wanted to bring things to a head, so she sent wisps of fire through the forest to where my pack was. Incendia couldn’t just use her most powerful spells, you see. She needed my corpse, or at least my unscattered ashes, so that she could collect my Corpus vis. I’d made it a matter of principle for her to use fire magic, and she was stretching it as far as she could, with her Intelligo spells, but she didn’t really consider trying Perdo spells. She cleared her path with flame wasps, and walked to my pack.

I did not know she was standing six yards from me. I was sitting quietly in the dark, aware that any moment might be my last, heralded with a brilliant light and a moment of agony. I had a camel pack for water, but I used it sparingly. I sat in the middle of my little oubliette, so that if I misjudged the time, or fell asleep somehow, as the sandstone became soil again it would just pop my out of the ground, like some strange plant. I had an eternity to think, there in the dark. I thought a lot about Achlys, and about dying. I made some resolutions, some of which I kept. I took slices of pear from my harness, and they were the finest thing I’d ever tasted. I kept a seed from them, and I have a whole orchard descended from it here, but I’ve never had a pear so delicious.

After a thousand years, I felt my Parma Magica flicker, and die, as the sun set. I renewed it, eagerly, and then sprang from my burrow, as the soil poured up around me. I saw Incendia on the ground, and knowing that she had warded herself against metal and wood, I took a great stone, and crushed her head. That was mere, brutal precaution. She was already dead. She’s been dead for hours, the observers tell me.

My father confirmed it was as I’d planned. Days before, my sister had cracked the side of Incendia’s favourite waterskin, and patched it with beeswax. The heat from her fire had melted it, and she’d lost her water. Distracted, exhausted, and perhaps tricked by the obviousness of the wine bottle, she’d drunk the water in my pack. Lacking vis to save herself, the serpent venom in it had killed her. The poison was colourless, and tasteless, but not quick, and not painless.

A quaesitor came to get me, and we flew back to Heatfoam. It was not in chaos. It was filled with activity, but it had the terrible precision of a hive of ants that has fallen on the carcass of a bird. My father was the one who broke the news. “We are abandoning Heartfoam immediately. We can no longer hold it.”

“What happened?”

“House Flambeau has withdrawn from the alliance. They left soon after Incendia died. They are traveling to the coast, and then to their Domus.”

I expected a reprimand to follow, but when it did not, I broke the uncomfortable silence with the sovereign question: “What are my orders?”

“You are to accompany me, as we fall back.”

“To the Bohemian border?”

“No. House Diedne has been keeping close ties with some sympathisers in the Trianoman sept within House Bonisagus. One has turned her coat, so we know where they plan to strike next.”

“It can’t be Val Negra, although that would make the most sense.  We wouldn’t need to fall back.”

“No.  It’s Durenmar.”

“Why, father?”

“Bonisagus is the easiest House to knock out of the war. Durenmar has poorer defences than Val Negra or Fudarus. It is surrounded by the Black Forest, which is useful for Druid magic. The Diedne think the Bonisagus magi have a stockpile of vis and supplies which can bolster their thrust at one of the other Domus Magnae. It would also be a propaganda coup, to take control of the spiritual heart of the Order.”

“Are they right?”

“Yes and no. We may not stop them from taking Durenmar, but they are making the same mistake we did before the Tempest. A victory will cost them a great deal or materiel and momentum.”

“If they keep it, though…”

“I’ve heard this argument in the War Council: we lose everything, because they create a generation of superior magi. It is not quite that hopeless. You don’t have to be the stronger magus to win a battle. You yourself are proof of that. We have…I shouldn’t discuss it.  Let us say we have new tools?”

“Father, are these the cold daggers of the Sundering?”

“Yes.” he nodded, and pursed his lips, as if surprised that I knew what he was talking about.

“We didn’t stop doing that?”

“No-one ever asked us to. Let us not discuss it further. I am glad you did not die, my son. Now it would be best to see the Verditus archmagus. I am sure he wants his talisman back. I think you may even owe him an extra penny.”

“Father, may I have a penny?”

And so my great day of triumph ended, asking my father for money, so that I could give away a powerful magic item, and flee my enemies, my hands red with the blood of one of my allies. You can see, now, why I so dislike telling this story.

Chapter Thirteen

Durenmar remains. It did not fall, or move. The Diedne fundamentally misunderstood the distraction of the Order’s researchers for military ineptitude. House Bonisagus, early in the War, was politically divided, lacked trained soldiers, and had no logistical chain. That meant they could not project force. At that time, Hermetic generals thought of war as a series of attacks. A House that could not attack could not be strong. This was wrong, though.

People say Durenmar is a library, or a research institution. That is only tangentially true. Compare it to the great mystical foundries of Lycaneon or Verdi and you will see what I mean. Durenmar is really a comfortable madhouse, where we keep people obsessed with the fringes of magical discovery safely tucked away. It’s the Cave of Twisting Shadows for a cult we happen to be members of. House Bonisagus say they are researchers, and they are, but so many of the trivialities they had lying around were, when placed into the hands of my House, deadly tools of war.

When we arrived, there was already a political storm brewing. A contingent of psiloses had arrived from Transylvania. When they other Houses learned that we had been training assassins how to hunt and kill magi, they were livid. When we ignored their feelings, and gave our assassins some of the most powerful magic items ever made, the Guernicus magi were almost radiant with anger. They didn’t have a choice though. They needed an army. We had one. It was another issue tabled until after the last druid was dead.

The Quaesitores can hardly blame us for the psiloses. You are not of my House, so let me try to explain it to you. Mycetias tried to take control of the order, and he failed. I believe that was a fortunate thing, as do many other Mycetians. He failed because the minds of his lieutenants were broken. House Guernicus negotiated a treaty of peace. The minds of my ancestors were restored, provided they agreed to stand down, and to never seek to know who had driven them mad. For the rest of the Order, this is a story of justice and heroism. It gives them comfort to know that we can never threaten the Order. Try, though, to imagine it from the perspective of my ancestors.

Somewhere in the world, right now, are a conspiracy who can control my thoughts. The finest defences of the most militant House cannot stop them. We do not know who these people are. We do not know why they want “peace”. We know absolutely nothing of their larger objectives. We do not know why they were inactive during the Corruption. We do not know why they were of no assistance during the Schism. Some Mycetians believe that these later questions prove that it was an inside job, by the Founder’s successor. Others say we can’t take that chance. We call this theoretical conspiracy the Umbraculo, because it is the thing that casts a shadow over all of our accomplishments.

Our punishment for the actions of our ancestor is that we, today, are never sure of our safety. Tomorrow the Umbraculo, like two whole Houses before them, may fall to darkness. Who protects my apprentices then, when they rant and writhe and mew like animals, as my ancestors did? What hand stays the knives of our watchers? The psiloses are our haphazard attempt to protect ourselves from the victors of the Sundering. They are the monster born of the short-sighted cleverness of our enemies.

The other Houses had held my House in check, with fear, for centuries, and it had made them feel safe. For the first time, they realized that, even as a child scared of shadows may cling to a simulacrum of a terrible bear, we too had sought a greater but tamer monster to soothe our fears. Dozens of mortals – anonymous, unGifted and barely differentiatable from the mass of mundanes – came to Duremar to be armed. Each was met by our sodales as a new horror. Our assasins were terrible because they did not seem like the rough men who work in the dark. They were utterly unremarkable people from many professions.

The symbol of the psiloses is a mule. This is not levity. The machinery that creates psiloses requires no magus for its operation.. You could kill every Mycetian and psilos, and raze our covenants to the ground, and our system would still create a cult of magical assassins, The hope, of course, is that they would save some of us. At the least, though, they could scour the world of our enemies, and leave a green field for a new Order to grow from. We took these people, mundanes unafraid of magi, and trained to kill, and gave them the most terrible and unpredictable weapons we could make from the laboratories of Durenmar. Many of those weapons have been since been duplicated by my House.

The other Houses saw the great bear that had been standing silently behind them, for generations, and they were angry. Our elders spat back our explanations: that these were the nightmare they had made for themselves. They knew we were right. They knew what they had done to us was terrible. Worse, they knew that now, they could not stop doing it to us. They had held a weapon to our neck for so long that we had managed to slip our own dagger to theirs. Could they now lower their hand, and risk us cutting their throat? We could not give up the psiloses, because the Umbraculo exists. They could not tell us who the Umbraculo were, for fear of the psiloses would kill them all.

The psiloses were the first wave of defenders for Durenmar. The Diedne thought that the covenant would fall quickly, and so they lost cohesion. Their faster units rushed to raid the covenant’s vis sources. A surprising number fell to enchanted arrows while they unpicked Watching Wards. Many died from poisoned wells. There is a ligature in the collection at Fudarus, which was ceremonially interred after the War. It had been the death of two druids.

After the druids began to arrive in force, the psiloses changed tactics. They ceased picking off isolated mages or their creatures, and instead targeted the Diedne logistical train. Key servants of the druids began to silently vanish away. Carts broke down.  Freak accidents occurred. Bridges washed out. Bandits raided granaries. Everything became a little harder to finish.  It sounds impressive to say that you have a vast force of magical animals under your control. It is, however, dozens of times more difficult to procure and transport the food of a menagerie than of an infantry army. Few magical creatures will passively starve to death if their meals become unavailable.

The druids only came close to catching one psilos, and they let her escape. Eight of their servants had disappeared near a little village, and a druid was sent to work out what was going on. He died, eating a poisoned apple pie sold to him by the blousy, middle aged woman who claimed to be the miller’s wife. Afterward, House Diedne later laid to rest the spirits of the miller and his family. The Psilos, whose warname was Decapatarix, had needed a cover, so she just killed them and took their place. Even then, the Diedne decided she was a Jerbiton magus.

So, the first wave of assaults came at us as if through swampland. This bought us time, which House Bonisagus used well. Very few people know as well as they what makes a laboratory explode. The Trianomans began a whirlwind of diplomacy. The decisive battle of the war was won in the Black Forest, but like all of the best legerdermain, by the time the Diedne thought they had begun the siege, the trick was already complete.

Chapter Fourteen

I knew the war was turning our way when my father handed me a necklace, from which depended ten tiny pearls. Its presence seemed so incongruous I asked him “What is this?”

“It is Imaginem vis.” he answered. “The War Council thought you could make the best use of it.” Then he dropped it into my hand and I stared at it, as if wondering how an impossible object could have weight.

There was very little vis left in circulation in Europe. The War Council had so many demands on its resources that some of the covenants in Thebes and Italy were being asked to cast a weak Aegis. A lucky magus who crushed a sprite might trade its single pawn of Corpus vis for any number of pawns of Aquam. Even Imaginem vis was scarce. Many members of House Jerbiton were waiting out the war in the Dominion, and each seemed to want to cast The Shrouded Glen. Magic is more difficult in cities regardless, and so much as the Flambeau liked to carry Ignem vis, many Jerbitons were trading for it, at quite favourable rates.

There was still some around, of course. It had just never trickled down to me, before, other than the stealthy healing of my wounds by a disaffected Tytalus. Perhaps I’d impressed someone. Perhaps, having defeated my father, I was now a senior magus. Perhaps because so many people were dead or deserters that mine were the only hands left? All this aside, it felt excellent to know I was carrying vis. I could exceed myself, if I needed to.

“Whose was it?” I asked, assuming it had come from the preponderant source in recent times.

“It is wild harvested, I believe.” he answered with a smile. “It comes to you with the complements of the Alexandrian League.”

“I am sorry father, but I do not know who they are. I do however, thank them.” I put it on and tucked it under the neck hem of my robe. We don’t wear jewellery into battle in my House. We like uniformity. It feels comfortable, and filial.

“The Trianomans have managed to shift some of the Jerbiton magi from their neutrality. They do not want to fight personally, but they do not want us to lose. Well, let me be more precise: the do not want a tribe of druids to claim the Order’s great library. A Jerbiton — I want to say Archmagus, but I really mean someone who hosts lovely parties that they all like attending — has created a group who have decided to send us aid in kind, if not in blood.”

“How much did they send?”

“One hundred pawns of various types.” He paused for effect, obviously happy to bear good news for once.

I wanted to say “Good grief.” but that would have annoyed him: pointless enthusiasms always did. “That seems generous?” I ventured.

“It has been an excellent market in which to profiteer.”

“Will none of them fight?”

“Some three or four. There is talk of getting some of you together, and seeing what you can come up with.”

“Sorry, father: who is “you”?”

“You, a couple of idealistic Jerbitons who have volunteered to fight, and Apophany of Criamon.”

“Criamon are pacifists. They literally can’t attack people. or their magic stops working.” I knew he knew this. One of the excellent things about my House is that when you are wrong, you are encouraged to just be wrong, so that you can be corrected. Private error is a vice. Error before a master allows growth and is not frowned upon. This sounds surprisingly like democracy to outsiders, but that’s not how it works, and they rarely see this process. Before outsiders, we have one voice.

“Apparently not all of them.” he continued. “One of them had a revelation. Her explanation is made up of words I understand individually, but make no sense when run together. The consequence of it is that she can use a staff to prod the metaphysical place where your mind interfaces with your muscles. It’s agonizing, or alternatively, quite uplifting, depending on how hard she’s doing it.”

I found the whole idea of someone massaging my ghost with a stick disturbing, so I hurried on “So, why gather us?”

“”You are all illusionists. It would be good to slow the enemy’s development of position. Every few days, we seem to earn a little more support from the neutral Houses. Some magi still can’t bring themselves to believe that this is about to happen, but when each does, their guilty desire to make good is valuable to us.”

“I’d be happy to meet them.”

***

When we did meet, there was an extra maga, named Callida of Verditus. I’d met her before, when she led me to see her pater at Heartfoam. We’d exchanged barely a few sentences then. “Sorry, are you an illusionist?” I asked.

“No, I’m a redsmith.” she arched her eyebrow and I thought “How does House Verditius keep itself fed and clothed if they get so offended all the time? They have the social skills of rocks.” Then she smiled and said “…but my master thought you might need some spikes at the bottom of the pit.” I nodded.

“Are you spiky then?” asked a Jerbiton I knew was named Malvolio.

“Perhaps she’s just prickly?” added Benvolia, who was possibly his sister or cousin. I could see they were about to do one of their interminable bantering conversations, and so decided to just shut them up immediately. I mean, there was a war on, and we all loved to laugh, but they just did this boring single-entendre stuff. I’d only known them a couple of hours and I was sick of it. Even now I feel kind of guilty about how much I loathed their routine. They were good kids. They deserved better. Then again, so did so many others.

“And for a final introduction, Callida, this is Apophany of Criamon.”

Callida stared at the little woman, sitting at a trestle table, in plain clothes, eating lunch.

“What’s on that bread roll?”

“Pleased to meet you, too.” she said, putting it down while she spoke.

“No, seriously. Aren’t you useless now?”

“You think I lose my powers if I eat bacon?”

“I had been lead so to believe.”

Apophany turned her glass of water into wine, then drank it. Callida looked increasingly disturbed. “You’re a Tytalus pretending to be a Criamon.”

“No, I’m a follower of Criamon.”

“Where are your tattoos?”

“They fell off.”

“That’s not possible.”

“I have them in my bag, if you’d like to see them.”

“You have your skin in a bag?”

“No, just my tattoos. On their own. I use them as spellcasting tools sometimes.”

“That’s just weird.”

“Not really.  You have casting trinkets. That’s weird. Your lot should get that fixed.”

“Are you picking a fight?  You can’t…”

“Actually I can. I’m perfectly capable of belligerence. I call it “The Path of Strife”. It’s new.”

“Can the rest of you do this?”

“Oh, Heaven’s no. Only me. The rest of them think I’m courting the permanent loss of my powers.”

“Are you saying you are too mad for House Criamon?”

“No. They haven’t thrown me out. I’m still a Criamon. I’m just not bound by the rules of the House. I may do what needs to be done, so that others need not sully their souls. I will eat the sins of the world, and leave the House pure.  Am I sounding addled enough for you yet?  I can start spinning in circles if you like. Convulsions are also possible, but only after lunch.” She bit the sandwich again and made sounds of approval that were exaggerated and reminded me of my father’s wolf, who does similar things.

Callida stopped for a moment, then said “I didn’t see this conversation going this way at all.” Apophany smiled, swallowed and said “One little piece of enlightenment. That’ll be fivepence.”

“What?”

“Joke.”

“What happens if I give you the five pence?”

“Either I laugh at you or I get dragged into Twilight. Depends who you ask.”

“Now you sound like one of them.”

“I am one of them, but you really need to meet more of us. None of us actually sound like this. Not even me. No, that’s not a puzzle. Not really. Think about it for a sec.”

“Can we start again?”

“Sadly, that’s inevitable.”

“I am Callida. Hello.”

“I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Apophany. Would you like some lunch?”

I knew if we sat down to eat the comedy twins would start up again, but I also knew that Apophany might be doing some weird Criamon metaphor involving bread and bacon and the geomancy of condiment bottles. “While we eat, can we think of terrible things to do to the enemy, please?  Practical, terrible things. No jokes. No moral lessons, No ridiculously complicated gadgets. Illusions followed by confusion or death, please.”

“Confusion to our enemies!” toasted Apophany.

Wine seemed like a good idea.  My temples were starting to ache, and I had the distinct sensation the only way out was through.

Chapter Fifteen

My little team had no name initially, although our commanders began to call us the Foolish Fires. We went out into the area through which our enemies would approach and filled it with inexplicable phenomena. The sillier the better, in some ways. We did rains of fish, talking scarecrows, ghosts, dreams leading to treasure, black dogs on the moor, faerie knights on bridges, all the classics. By the time the main mass of Diedne forces reached the Black Forest, every human, tree or squirrel would have, we hoped, seen something inexplicable.

The goal was simple: fill the area with information, so that the Diedne could not look into everything. Every hour spent checking on a rain of fish was an hour in which we were building defences. Every time a druid left the host to check out a faerie knight on a bridge, he was wasting his time. Sometimes psiloses lurked near our illusions, to catch the druids unawares while they were distracted. Sometimes combat forces waited for a druid to check out an illusion, and ambushed him. The counterattacks were not the point of the wave of illusions, though. The point was to make them stop looking at details. The druids were forced to ignore the least likely rumours, because they didn’t have the time or forces to follow them up.

The problem for them, of course, is that we’d tailored the information. The likely rumours were, preponderantly, ours. We’d scripted our stories quite carefully, using what the Trianomans knew about the Diedne war plan. We had a lot of luck getting them to chase around stories of humaniform faeries, because they were desperate for Corpus vis, much as we were. Some of our army’s biggest errors were just ignored by the Diedne, because they assessed them as less likely than our illusionary scenarios.

Let me give you an example. A Flambeau magus came to discuss co-operation with the War Council. He rode in a coach with burning wheels. He had a train of liveried retainers, one of whom was playing a trumpet. The Diedne didn’t even stop him. Their spies had told us that the Flambeau had quit the army in a rage, and his method of travel seemed so garish that they assessed him as another illusion. Some of our illusions were the baits for ambushes, so they just decided to clear a path. It sounds stupid, but what else could they do? They only had so many eyes, and we were overwhelming them with flashy, meaningless things.

Toward the end, we did put in some strikes. I remember Callida did this thing where she turned spiky balls of bronze into sheep carcasses. The monsters in the Diedne army were needing to be fed, so some of them swallowed the meat. When the shapes shifted back at sunset, some of the creatures died. Apophany had spells that affected the Gift. I’m not sure how the worked, because I made sure I was out of sight and hearing, but at least twice a Diedne was eaten by a hungry monster because they lost control of it after becoming, however temporarily, mundane.

We could tell they were getting desperate. Some of the Diedne were letting their monsters eat people. I wondered if I was to blame for that. People are hard to fake. It’s easy to make a rock look, feel, and even taste like a dead cow. It’s very hard to make a rock into a convincing human. It can be done, but the rituals required are very expensive, and none of us had the vis to waste. I told myself that the Diedne were choosing what their monsters ate, but really, they were reacting to a situation we’d created.

They probably thought it was just a temporary exigency. Once they lost some monsters taking Durenmar, they reasoned, they could stop doing it. Once they had Durenmar’s supplies they’d stop doing it. Actually, though, they didn’t. They never found themselves at the point where they could truthfully say “If we had fewer hydras, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. Let’s set them loose, and stop feeding the rest on people.” I cannot be sure, of course.

As we were finishing up one of these missions, we stopped by a little village tavern. Well, not a tavern as such: just a place where a peasant had tapped a spare barrel for their village and put out some benches. Callida and I didn’t do any of the talking, because the other three all had the Gentle Gift. At one point I went off into the bushes a slight distance to relieve myself. Standing under a tree was a young nobleman I’d seen at the inn.

He was incongruously handsome. It wasn’t just that he was wealthy, although his raiment proclaimed that even in the middle of a war, determined people could still get crushed velvet cloaks made. His skin was flawless. His teeth were perfect. He’d been sitting in the place of honour by the fire, and there was no scent of smoke upon him.

“Hello.” he said “Might I speak with you privately for just a moment?”

“I’d prefer not to be disagreeable to you, but my kind have quite fixed rules against dealing with yours.”

“You can hold some cold iron while I talk if you’d like.”

“Oh, I know that’s neither necessary nor efficacious. I can’t stop you speaking, can I?”

“No, but we prefer consent.”

“I can just head back to the group. You seem to prefer this be for my ears alone. That will stymie your goal.”

“We have started badly. If I give you my name, I think it will give you pause sufficient to listen.”

“Do you really think I can’t tell that’s just bait?”

He smiled “I am the Errant.”

“Any of you might claim to be the Errant.”

“So you know me by reputation, Mirarius?”

I wasn’t rattled that he knew my name. Of course he did. I was only seeing him now because the trick was already done.

“Any of you might claim to be the Errant.” I said, because I knew it was polite, non-committal and annoying.

“True.”

“Even if you are the Errant, there’s no reason to suppose you will aid me as you aided the hoplites in the Corruption.”

“Ah, but there is reason. I am immutable in my nature. You may depend on my vices.”

“Pride, in your case?”

“Yes. So, I say to you, that the Diedne will call upon the Infernal powers from Ynys Glannauc, as the war ends.”

“I will pass that on to my superiors. Thank you for your assistance, which is of course freely given, and for which no agreement at all is recognised.”

He laughed at me then. “Of course. Thank you. It is a weight off my mind to confide in one of you.”

“How can you do this? Your kind have no patience. They cannot plan.”

“When a dissipated nobleman sends his boy to the shop for wine, he is no less dissipated in the half hour the boy takes to return. One does not see him, sitting in his house, and listening for the footstep of his returning servant, and think his character reformed.”

“I am not your servant.”

“I know how semantics distress your kind. Let me keep my peace. You will disrupt the work of my rival. I will feel incredibly pleased with myself. We will both be happy.”

“You do sound like him.”

“Even if I’m not him, why not just check the quality of my tale? See if the priests of that little Welsh island are happy. Stand on some distant mountain and test the air.”

“I’ve thanked you. Is there anything else you wish to say? Any other customary form you need me to follow to keep the peace between us?”

“No, I imagine you’d like to demand I leave, now?”

“Out dark spirit?”

He laughed, and walked away.

When I returned to the table Apophany asked me what I’d been told.

“Where’s the lie in it?” she asked.

“Is it that he’s pretending it’s a prophecy?”

“It could be. Even if it is some sort of trap, our superiors will want to know that it is out there. The Druids do have a large covenant on Anglesey.”

“How do you know where the island is? I’ve never heard of it.”

“The great lie that makes good all the others will be told there.”

“What does that mean in plain language?”

“My mission in life is to prevent the war that will follow this one. I will do it on Anglesey. I don’t know much more than that.”

“The lie?”

“I’m going to tell a convincing lie. It will prevent an epochal War. I know very little else. I have been practicing lying since I was a little girl, so that when the moment comes, I will be a proficient liar.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t tell people? It makes it easier to sell. You have this whole “comprehensible Criamon” thing working for you.”

“Good advice.” she smiled.

We finished our meals, and decided not to head home immediately. We had not planned to, and I didn’t want to deviate from my schedule because of a conversation with one of them.

Chapter Sixteen

Callida and I stood in the fog on the bridge, as the frogs rained down upon us.

“I hate this job.” she said.

“What are you complaining about?” I asked, smiling. “Your armour is protecting you isn’t it?”

“The smell.” she answered. “By Vulcan’s…”

“They don’t have any smell.” I said. “They are freshly created. No decay at all.”

“I can distinctly smell the swamp and rot in them.” she answered, casting a minor spell that filled the air with the scent of furnaces and hot metal. “Next time, any thing else.”

“You choose.” I shrugged.

“Streams of blood?  Rain of blood? Rain of beer! Yes. Rain of beer!”

“Rain of beer it is. Three miles and it’s all the beer you can scoop in a bucket.”

She smiled, then sighed again as a particularly large frog hit her helmet. We were sowing disinformation. The Diedne were advancing, and it was out duty to fill the space between their line and Durenmar with inexplicable things.

She was a different partner to Achlys. Achlys was trained to kill people. Callida was trained to throw bronze spikes at targets. One sought competition, the other was fundamentally certain she was superior to everyone else. Achlys had been like a sister.  Callida only knew me as the reckless, lucky soldier . The differences were not, in practice, subtle. For example, Callida would accept orders like “Pack up the gear. Time to march out.”

We arrived at the next town as night fell. Beerfall would still work at night. The smell would draw people outside, so there would be witnesses enough. There was even a light shower of rain, to make the spell easier. Callida did the casting while I scouted around to make sure the Diedne were not nearby.

As I passed invisibly though the town. A small girl looked out through the shutter of a hovel and quietly brayed at me, like a mule. I froze. She cricked her neck at me, stared straight into my invisible face, and did it again. I waved a little. She made a pointing gesture which I interpreted as “Stay where you are!” and she opened the shutters. She took a deep breath, let some of the beer rain on her hand, and frowned.

She started counting on her fingers, silently. I took this as a signal to wait. Someone in a nearby house roared out about the miracle of the beer rain, and as the peasantry flooded the streets with pots, basins and buckets, she lightly sprang through the window and said “We need to talk.” in perfect Classical Latin.

I had spontaneously cast a spell which poked a hole in my inaudibility. “My partner’s at the edge of the woods.” She made a “lead on” gesture, grabbed a bucket, and skipped childishly through the beer rain, wearing it as a hat.  Callida didn’t look pleased that I had a straggler, but she gave me time to explain.

“She’s a House asset.” I said.

The tiny girl asked “Is she under the flag?” obviously thinking that I’d been talking to her.

“For this, yes. What’s going on?” I said, rolling with

“Code?” she asked, and at that moment I knew she was perfectly confident that she could kill both of us, and had followed me back to Callida to make the environment more target-rich.

“Pieman.” I said, because that was the prearranged signal for if I met any of them.

She nodded. “I’m here as part of the quagmire plan. I’ve been embedded with these people.”

“Your house has children as spies?” asked Callida.

“I’m not a child. Do you know the spell that makes the strong arm of a warrior into that of a baby?”

“You’re a magus?”

“No.”

“She’s a psilos.” I said. The girl looked stricken. “The other Houses know about the Hunters. They are not pleased. So your mission?” Callida looked like I’d just told her the girl was a vampire. The existence of a professional caste of mage-assassins was hitting the rest of the Order hard.

“Opportunistic sabotage and assassination, sir.” she said in her piping little voice. “Your mission may make mine harder. If they come through this village, they will be on their guard.”

“It would have been worse if we’d played our game in every other village and left this one alone.”

She nodded “What more do you need to do, sir?”

“This is enough. Is there anything we can do for you?”

“Leave a trail on your way out.  Oh, wreck the bridge. If they have to pause to fix it, it may give me a better shot at them. Any chance of a Waiting Ward?”

“None, I’m afraid. Dispatches for command?”

“All nominal, sir. My nom de guerre is Smotherer.” Callida looked even more distressed.

“You smother people?”

Smotherer looked at me “What’s wrong with her?”

“Nothing. She doesn’t know your people.”

“Obviously, sir.”

“Resume station, Smotherer.” I gave her a salute.

She saluted back, and skipped into the village, a bucket of beer comedically swaying on her tiny hip.

While we wrecked the bridge, Callida grilled me “What the actual Hell, Mirarius?”

“It’s quite straightforward. She’s an assassin pretending to be a child, who has reworked the memories of the people she is living with to give her cover.”

“Pieman?”

“He’s an older psilos. I worked with the Pieman and the Temptress on another mission, a long time ago. Odd to use his code name as a check word. He must have retired.”

“She’s going to suffocate the Diedne on their way through here?”

“Oh, no. Their codenames never have anything to do with their preferred method of execution. The Temptresss is an archer, and a man in his fifties.” I laughed. “It’s a deliberate obfuscation.” I laughed again.

“Why so garrulous?”

“I’m guessing she wasn’t sent out alone. I assume her partner is watching us and making sure I really am of the House.” I would not have seen it unless I was expecting something like it, but a patch of reeds in the river silently parted, and tiny ripples showed a human moving up the river, and crossing back to the village.

I told Callida about the reeds. She didn’t sleep soundly for the next three nights. She blamed me.

Chapter Seventeen

The Battle of Durenmar never officially happened. Be aware of that before you discuss what I say with anyone else. This is what didn’t happen.

The Diedne leadership were never apprehended, as you know, so we can only conjecture as to their tactics from what we observed. They found it difficult to amass force in their staging area. This was due to a mixture of factors, none of which they understood. In hindsight we know that the psiloses were corroding their logistical base, that the Foolish Fires were wrecking their ability to gather information, and ambushes by Mycetian magi based in Durenmar were destroying the ends of their pickets. This forced the Diedne into a single mass, moving slowly through the Black Forest, sterilising it as they came. It stopped just below the horizon from Durenmar, and made final preparations for an assault. They did not choose siege warfare.

I can’t say for certain why this was the case, but perhaps they felt that the tide of the war was too closely balanced for delay. They had spies in our camp, and knew that we had lost House Flambeau. They knew that if Durenmar fell, House Mycetias planned to fall back to Bohemia, essentially ceding the Western continental Tribunals. Against that, they knew that the Trianomas were turning more of the neutrals to our side, in terms of material, if not soldiers. There was also the chance that House Flambeau would change its mind, break off its overtures for peace, and come off the defensive. One perfect blow, now, made everything so much more certain for them. THey threw everything they had into the battle, save only small garrisons at key points.

The leaders may also not have dared to negotiate. House Diedne had spent dozens of magicians to gain the territory they now controlled, and to build up the momentum they had. It would have been a brave Primus who marked those down as a cost of war, and refused to strike. Once you have an army at the walls of the enemy’s castle, it must be very difficult to face your subordinates and tell them that you won’t risk a battle.

So, the day dawned. We knew which day it would be. The preparations in the enemy camp were obvious. My people had been out doing our usual, trenches filled with spikes and illusions over the top. We followed that with by trenches filled with spikes, over which we had stiff mats and real turf. Nothing decisive, but still, you had to show you were putting in the effort. We only did a few of the illusory trenches, because we needed them to last more than a day. Vis was less scarce and for such a simple little trick it seemed excessive.

Everyone felt the flicker of the day, and hundreds of us chanted the Parma Magica. I felt, at that moment, a sense of communion with the rest of the Order that I’d never experienced before. Here we were, all cultists together, about to determine what it meant to be a magus. I still treasure that memory. Did you know that some of the veterans used to hold breakfasts at Tribunals, where we’d all renew the Parma together? Do they still do that outside? I’ve lost track a little.

The Diedne began a ritual. The finest magical theorists in the Order were watching them, and within a minute sent around a prearranged signal. It was Call to Slumber. I wasn’t in Durenmar at this point: I was a spotter over the enemy camp, but Apophany tells me her job was to create the largest version of Snap of Awakening ever cast, and time it for slightly after the enemy ritual, on the off chance they managed to get it finished. They didn’t of course: even the most basic ritual takes twenty minutes. The Primus of Bonisagus waited six, so that the Diedne had invested the vis in their ritual, and were all linked in communion. Then he had his apprentice blow the Horn.

The Horn was crafted as a talisman by a Bonisagus archamgus. Like most talismans, it ignored the material limitations of magical devices. Its intended use was peaceful. It supressed magical energy. If a laboratory exploded in Durenmar, and threated to compromise those around it, the covenant could be saved by temporarily making everything less magical. It would destroy all of the experiments and ruin all of the research in its area of effect, but that was a small price to preserve the generations of work embodied by the library and specialised laboratories. The horn’s Wind of Mundane Silence was as powerful as it could be, given the limitations of magical items, but it had the penetrative force of battering ram.

I heard the horn, multicast some flares over the main Diedne positions, and fell back. Those were my orders. The flares were mostly for morale. I could see that one part of the Diedne formation had crumbled more than the others. I presume someone had lost control of the monsters there, and they’d begun fighting each other. The flare for that section was a different colour. I was almost certain that my spells would have no effect on the outcome of the battle. but you can never tell how the tenuous web of happenstance works itself out in mass combat. It may have been important. I hope it was. I cannot every really know.

My orders were to head for three of the obvious escape routes, and make sure they didn’t look like roads by the time anyone tried to use them. The Jerbiton twins had a similar task. You may have heard that armies suffer the most casualties after they break and run? My job was to make sure that when they ran, it was in circles. THe plan was to lay down some basic illusions and chop up the ground with some magic items that could shift earth.

The Diedne forces lost cohesion right after the horn was sounded. My guess is that one of their officers thought he needed to use his monsters or loose them, and so he sent them toward the wall. The Diedne performing the ritual didn’t stop, so perhaps they’d targeted a particular part of Durenmar, and would not have struck their own forces. Apophany tells me that their ritual did get past the first Aegis. The second Aegis, hidden from scrying inside the first, was the most powerful she’d ever seen. She saw their ritual just curl up and slough off, like parchment in a fire. That’s another reason I wasn’t in Durenmar: they wouldn’t give Mycetians casting tokens for the inner Aegis. Possibly the Diedne plan was always to assault physically and magically simultaneously, and the monsters had just started a few minutes late.

At this point, for me, the trick was revealed. As I flew toward one of the obvious roads for retreat, intent on blocking and hiding it, I passed over a line of Flambeau magi. They were cautiously working toward the Diedne positions. I presumed they were following my flares, but that seems unlikely now. One of them, also a flier, gave me a mixture of wave and salute. How he saw through my invisibility I still don’t know.

House Flambeau had stripped its defences and thrown all it could spare into this battle. Their philosophy, that attacking was the only way to win wars, served them well this time. They were a few minutes late, and some of them had certainly been struck by the Horn, but that didn’t really signify. I followed my orders, so I missed the main part of the battle. All who I’ve spoken to say that the area before the gates of Durenmar was a bloodbath. Each House claims their people broke the Diedne. Each House has myths about a particular archmagus doing something wonderful or terrible and the Diedne fleeing. None of that really matters. They did flee, and they fled into a wall of fire magic. Some few broke through, but the wayward paths of the forest bought them, again, and again, back into the conflict.

My orders were to make sure that no-one escaped on the three paths I’d been charged with. No one did. I didn’t kill any of the myself, but I didn’t need to. They started swatting down invisible fliers, so I stuck to the ground. Some few druids had devices with the Leap of Homecoming or the Seven League Stride invested into them. Some few could turn into creatures that burrowed through the Earth. They escaped to Branugurix, and most died there.

Chapter Eighteen

While we were fighting the Diedne, House Tytalus had seized its moment. Branugurix fell the day after the Battle at Durenmar. The Tytalus opened the Mercere Portal, and my family were invited through. Our mixture of necromancers and tricksters used the vis that had been won in the battle to make the covenant look as if it had not yet been attacked. We repaired the walls. We replanted the fields. We unpoisoned the river. We mind-wiped the mortals. We called up the ghosts of the covenfolk who had died in the battle, We stole their appearances and mannerisms for our assassins. We peeled their minds like fruit, to stage every detail, every point of routine, perfectly.

The Diedne remnants, limped home through the psilos-infested lands. They collapsed into their safe haven. Their casting tokens no longer worked. The friendly faces around them were masks. The sacred grove had been felled. and its wood hewn into a throne. Upon it sat Decimate of Tytalus, and above her towered one of the Cthonic horrors which had assisted in the siege, and eaten the gods of the Diedne. Before her was a great table, where she rendered the bodies of the druids for vis. She caught one of the leadership group, and deliberately spent his Corpus vis on an enormous block of human meat. It sat in the grove, defiling it, as it fed the rats and crows, and the dark giant that held her throne in five of its many, many hands. There are lurid stories of the Cthonic horrors that waged war here, but I saw none of them except this.

Decimate met me at the victory feast, and asked me to see her afterward. She was sitting on her throne.

“Have you puzzled it out?” she asked. She was almost incandescent with happiness. Her monstrous chair bearer rocked her slightly, as if she was a baby in a crib.

“No. Well, parts of it. I’d prefer not to claim to understand everything and then have you laugh at my presumption.”

“What parts do you need explained?”

“Did the War Council sanction the attack on Branugurix?”

“No. My House no longer answers to the War Council. We are, however, on cordial terms with them.”

“Are you the Prima of Tytalus now?”

“Perhaps. I’m not certain I want it for more than a few minutes.”

“I take it from your cryptic tone that you want me to ask, and so I will. What have you done that’s so clever?”

“That’s a very direct and slightly stupid question.” she frowned. Her thing swayed forward, so that she seemed to loom. It was a cheap trick, but slightly disconcerting nevertheless. My professional admiration centred my emotions.

“Pretend I’m Mycetias and you are Tytalus.” I offered.

She smiled. “Very well. This victory gives my House much of France and Germany. Mycetias and Flambeau have been weakened by the War far more than we. Our earlier disadvantage of numbers, due to the culling in the Corruption, is redressed.”

“And that was always the plan? Wait for us to exhaust ourselves and destroy the losing side?”

“Yes.”

“So, you’d have been just as happy taking Val Negra?”

“It would have been harder, because of its mystical geography, but yes. We may yet have to, if the Flambeau force us.”

“Why would my House permit that?”

“You don’t have the strength to prevent it. You’ll acquiesce. You still need our assistance against the last of the druids, after all.”

“We could get that aid from the Flambeau.”

“And perhaps you will.” she shrugged. “I’m not saying a war with the Flambeau is inevitable. Their leadership is disgraced and their Mercurian magi are lost. It may be that an accommodation can be reached.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I like you.”

“Why, thank you, but that doesn’t explain anything.”

“You were a friend to my daughter.”

“That matters?”

She laughed. “You forget that in this conversation, I’m Tytalus. I do not care which side was right or wrong, in a moral sense. I care that my design is complete. My war is mine. It is, as always, about me.”

“So, you need someone to tell the other Houses that they’ve been outplayed?”

“Yes. You.”

“Why me?”

“It will remove the opprobrium that the Flambeau feel toward you over the death of Incendia. It will shift their hatred to me. I am too formidable an opponent for many of them to face, and the few that would prove difficult are my enemies anyway, in this territorial dispute. It cost me nothing.”

“And gives you the joy of explaining to them that they were your puppets.”

“That wasn’t even a question.”

“No. It was not. Is there any other message you need me to take?”

“Oh, minor administrative matters. I’ll give you a packet of documents for the War Council. I know you don’t mind playing the redcap.”

“I give you joy of your victory, Decimata”.

“Joy of the victory, Mirarius.”

***

The next day, when I travelled to Durenmar to give the packet to the War Council, I asked for an audience with Callidus of Verditus.

“Young man!” he said “Joy of our victories!”

“And joy to you, great craftsman. May I ask an impertinent question?”

“No.” he said, looking shocked.

“Please? It does not reflect negatively on your honour. The reverse in fact. It concerns redressing a slight upon your name.”

Now he looked angry. “Well then clearly you must ask! Pray sit! Take wine!”

“Great Callidus, may I ask: why did the War Council value you less than Incendia?”

“Oh, politics, you know…”

“Truly? She was a powerful maga, of course, but surely she was not of greater value than you?”

“Well.” he said, and stopped. I could see the strain in him. The flaw of pride that burns in all who learn his style of magic was working in his soul. I could see it cutting him for his silence. I pressed on.

“Which Councillors think you worth less than a minor Flambeau maga?”

“I cannot speak of it!”

“Who told her she was next on the triage list?”

He broke. “I did. It was all my idea.” I later learned that the first part of this was true, and the second vanity. No matter.

“Thank you. Did she actually die, or was she swapped out?”

“No, she died. The Flambeau had to have an absolutely convincing reason to leave.”

“That wasn’t the plan though, was it?”

“It was my version of the plan.”

“Had I died, House Mycetias would have marched off, supposedly to Bohemia.”

“Yes, but I always hoped you’d win. You were right, you see? They were to blame for the lost battle.”

“I see. Did the War Council agree to this?”

“Yes. well, not the part with my talisman, that was all my own design. You did offer to commit suicide.”

“Had she?”

“Offered to commit suicide? Not in so many words/ She was a warrior.”

“How was she chosen? Why her?”

“She’d insulted the wrong people.”

“As simple as that?”

“As simple as that. House Flambeau was given their choice.”

“Who chose me?”

“You chose you. You offered to commit suicide.”

“Was I chosen before or after Decimata healed me?”

“I don’t know. After, I think.”

“Did Decimata know?”

“No.”

“So you gave her this idea? To heal me?”

“I might have done. I can’t speak of it.” Again, a lie, I later discovered.

“Thank you great crafter, for making me your tool in this. An excellent device, which served its purpose well. Joy of your victory!” Really, Verditus magi are so easy to get along with provided you don’t have any of the sort of arrogance so common among magi. They know you are buttering them up, and they love you for it.

“Joy of my victory indeed. Thank you, Mirarius.”

***

My family was having a small dinner, and it was relatively private, so I asked my father “Who is holding the strings, father? I don’t mind being a puppet as necessary, but my professional interest is piqued. I never saw the trick until it had been played.”

“Which trick, my son?” he asked.

“Who convinced Decimata to heal me, so that I’d fight a surplus Flambeau maga?”

“I’m certain I don’t understand what you mean.” he answered.

“Mirarius.” said my sister, “You’re looking for someone who isn’t there.”

“How do you mean?”

“There isn’t a great trickster. You want there to be a single person pulling the strings because you find intricacy sublime. You are seeing connections that aren’t there, because a single vast deception would be beautiful.”

I laughed “That’s true.”

My father frowned “Hundreds of magi are dead. Anyone who had a hand in this, regardless of their intent, will scarce survive the end of the war.”

I nodded to him, to acknowledge his point, but queried my sister. “How do you know there’s no grand trickster?’

“I was the one who convinced Decimata to heal you. It didn’t take a lot of effort. She had a soft spot for you, and, as we now know, it suited her other plans.”

“So, you had her heal me. Then Callidus had the idea of having either Incendia or I die, and the losing House heading off…”

My father interrupted. “Callidus? No. I presume he took responsibility himself?”

“Who?”

“The Primus.”

“Our Primus?”

“Yes. Do you accept this?”

“Obedience is the highest virtue. So, after that it all follows quite simply.”

“Yes.” my sister answered “Decimata, Callidus and the two Primi may all claim that they planned this from the beginning, but I know they didn’t. There was no plan. There’s no trick. There’s no reveal. There really is just one thing happening after another.”

I slouched a little and she laughed at me “By the wolf, you’re disappointed!”

I smiled “A little. I’d have liked to shake the hand that pulled the strings.”

She offered hers “I am the closest you’ll find, my brother.”

“Joy of your victory, Scipa.”

“Joy of the victory, Mirarius.”

The next day, I took ship for Stonehenge. Small Diedne covenants were being destroyed throughout Europe. There was a single place of power left to them, on Anglesey.

Chapter Nineteen

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.”

“Ah.”

“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?”

“Get horses?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Yes.”

“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.

Chapter Twenty

Things had advanced further than I’d hoped. The island was a small pocket of Hell already. Illusionists are more sensitive to some thing than other people, and the sickliness in the air radiated out almost to the ship. The seawater was, as Apophany had hinted, clear of the taint. Everything else was more yellow than it should be, smelled more like bile than it should, felt oilier than it should. The air felt warm and my face was flushed. I looked at the others.

“So. What are we feeling?” I asked.  I’d not fought in an Infernal regio before, but apparently this was how the professionals  prepared themselves.

“Pride in my coming ascension.” answered Apohany, going first. I’d expected that. She spent so much time contemplating her own mind that changes should be obvious. She looked to her left and said “And you?”

“I want a drink, and lots of sex.” answered Malvolio. He was being flippant, but it was his serious flippancy.

“Gluttony?” asked Apophany

“Yes.” he said. “Very much so.”  He looked to Benvolia and asked “You?”

“God yes. Booze and sex.  Cheese. A decent bath. Sleep. For it to be over. Sloth.”

“Really?” he asked. “I wouldn’t have picked that as sloth.”

“I want to not have to be responsible for this. Spiritual sloth.” She nodded. “So, you Mirarius?”

“Wrath.” I answered.

“You need to say more.” she said. “You know we need to know more.”

“I’m sick of it too, but I want to take it out on people. I want to do such terrible things to them no-one will ever dare cross us again.”

“That’s not anger. That’s pride.” she said.

“No it isn’t.” I answered. I was calm with her. She was one of my people.

“If I crush them, is that enough?”

“Ah. No. You’re right. Pride.”

Malvolio quipped in “You are allowed to have several at once. I’ve got some gluttony going on to be sure, but there’s more than a little lust in here.” He made an obscene gesture toward his groin.

“Right. Thanks. Good. So, now we know.  We watch out for each other. We tell each other if we are acting oddly. Like, well, that, Malvolio. Visual comedy’s not you.” He looked down at his hand, looked shocked, and then sort of shrugged and straightened up. He doesn’t hold himself to high moral standards, just high aesthetic standards.

Apophany nodded “We share each other’s virtues.”

“So, we need to know what’s going on.” I said.

“The island is so tiny we can probably just use Eyes of the Eagle.” said Benvolia.

“Good idea.” Malvolio said. “As I understand it, demons can spot illusions. We should do as much passive work as we can before we do anything that’ll call to them.”

“One spell or four?” I asked.

“Four, but we take them easy. No need for anyone to botch. We all look. We all say what we see, regardless of how obvious it is. We discuss anything that’s out of place, regardless of how small.” The rest of us nodded. I noticed that I’d just lost command of the mission, then reasoned that actually I’d never had it on this run. That felt fine, but I second-guessed that the reason I was fine with it was that it meant that I wasn’t in the co-ordinating role, so that would let me cut loose when thing got hot. “Apophany, do you mind if I give the orders? I need the..mental distance?”

She looked at me and asked “Have I ever given you orders before?”

I answered “No. Not like this. Only in emergencies, or specialised settings.”

The four of us looked at each other. Malvolio spoke for all of us when he said “Well, this is just a ridiculous situation. I want this over swiftly.” He lost me when he continued with “It’s preventing me from enjoying my petty, purely mental, vices.” but I understood what he meant. The problem fighting in Infernal areas is that you really can’t second-guess yourself continually. It takes too much energy, unless you are a Criamon and like that sort of thing.

Benvolia said “So, for the sake of throwing off sloth, let me be the first to cast.” She did. Her sigil was that her spellcasting  made people around her feel happy, which I’m sure the crew enjoyed. We each followed suit. We each started saying what we could see. I noticed the Apophany’s list started with the aura itself, and then prioritised items by their arcane significance. I looked at things from a military perspective: threats first. Malvolio described the humans in terrific detail. Benvolia was looking at the mortal objects, trying to find ways to use the environment to our advantage.

My recollection is, of course, tainted by my perspective. There were three magi that we could see. Malvolio noted the humans had fine clothes, portable magic items, and thumbstick talismans. That meant they were Diedne magi. They were old. That meant they were probably powerful. That they were absent from Bard’s Isle at a time like this made whatever they were doing extremely significant.

They did not have any large demons with them, although there were three small creatures in attendance on them which might have been familiars. Apophany noted that demons, being prideful, tend to give away how powerful they are via their physical features. Very few powerful demons are little.  They had little wings and were humanjiform. They were sprites, perhaps…but given the Aura, best to imagine they were imps.

Benvolia was most interested by the huge wooden structure in the centre of the ritual space. It was a human figure, eighteen feet tall, made of wood made magically fluid and woven into a human shape. Its legs and arms were stuffed with human figures in cassocks. She said they were already dead. That would explain the Infernal regio. There was another human in the head. He was older and was in a cassock, but he wasn’t a monk. Benvolio caught her breath, and then drew our attention to him. “People, cross check me on this: who is in the head of the wicker man?” We all looked. She was right.

Apophany said “They must be desperate.”

“It could be a coup.” answered Malvolio.

Apophany shook her head in the diagonal which on her meant “Maybe yes, probably no.”

Benvolia said “So, the plan where we rescue the sacrifices is wrecked.”

I answered that one. “Not really. We don’t want him sacrificed to whatever they are trying to call up.”

True, she said” but this makes it more difficult. If he cuts his own throat in the ritual space, is he still a sacrifice?”

“Yes.” said Apophany, “Yes, he is.”

“We could drown him in the sea.” I mentioned.

Benvolia answered me “I want to say that’s you going for pride and anger, but it might work.”

“Then you do it.” I suggested in a way that was more an order, “You’re sloth: you do the active killing bit.”

“Before we go,” said Malvolio “we need a plan.”

Apophany asked “Who likes my original plan? I speak my lie. My physical form becomes a monster. You use the confusion to grab the Primus.”

I answered “I don’t like it on the basis that it’s precisely what your pride would want.”

“I had the plan before the Aura. I’m just staying the course.” I looked at that from several angles and said to the others “I find I’m in favour of that. Is that just me wanting mayhem?”

Malvolio said “I’m fine with it, and it doesn’t;t lead to either sex or wine.”

“I find that perversely reassuring” said Benvolia. “So, two teams?”

“Yes.” I said. “We kick off the distraction. You do what you need to do. We meet back at the boat. The boat thing falls through…we get back to Blackthorn however we can.”

“Is that it?” Benvolia asked?

“Yes.”

“Then it’s time for goodbyes?”

I’d been ignoring this part deliberately. I closed my eyes for second. “Apophany…it was an honour to serve with you.”

“Thank you Mirarius. We were friends. You meant a lot to me.”

Benvolia looked deeply stricken. Malvolio looked like he wanted to make a sexual quip and was restraining himself through force of will. They also said completely inadequate things. Apophany hugged each of them. She didn’t;t hug me: she knew me too well. They hurried away. We waited fifteen minutes, for them to get into place. During our wait, the druids started chanting.

Apophany leaned in close to me. We were hiding behind a bush, covered with the best illusions we could manage. She whispered. “I’m ready now.”

I answered “Do I need to be further away?”

She laughed “Probably. You do need to hear the lie, though.”

“Alright. Goodbye Apophany. Travel well.” What an inadequate thing to say.

“Goodbye Mirarius.” she said, and smiled. “Quickly, before my pride gets the better of me, let me tell you my lie.”

“Whenever you are ready.” I whispered back.

“You will take the hand of one of the Diedne, the Primus by preference. After the Battle of Bard’s Isle, the Foolish Fires will be asked to survey the site. You will find an inconspicuous place. You will use the hand as a stylus to write the following into a wall. ‘We shall last as long as the wind blows hot on the backs of your necks, as long as the storms pound your tower walls, as long as the waves smash the sides of your ships, as long as the merciless sun looks down upon your abominations, sees your sins, and calls out for vengeance. We will return to haunt you.’. and then her body collapsed, and a pale coloured shadow of Apophany stood over her writhing, darkening, swelling corpse.

Her ghost continued “It will prevent the war…” she said, and then noticed her body had fallen away. “Oh, Mirarius!” she said, in the distant, breathy way of ghosts. “Run!”

Chapter Twenty-One

I didn’t have time to run. I tried, but the thing that had been Apophany swelled enormously in an instant. It reached out a great, clawed hand for me, and grabbed my leg. The hand was covered in dark scales that reminded me of the carapaces of the pseudoscorpions that defend the Library of Durenmar. It hand six fingers, slender, multi-jointed and ending in sliverlike nails of the deepest blue. I felt the nail go bone deep, but they were so sharp they didn’t hurt much. The hand continued to swell as it lifted me up, and palmed me. It drew me in to its enormous face. It was eyeless, and had dark blue teeth. The head was shaped like a long tube, above a body basically still human. I cast a useless spell on the hand, trying to break the nail.

It sniffed me, with a long inhalation, then it roared. I use the word roar because I have no better. I have heard nothing else like it. Imagine a human scream, but magnified enormously, but more like pies of metal being tossed in a storm. Even that is completely inadequate. I decided to cut my leg off with my next spell, then roll free.

I didn’t really feel like my leg was truly mine. It had someone else’s sigil on it. After the war, I gathered enough vis to cut it off and grow a new one. A lot of veterans did that, I believe, when the faeries came back and we could hunt them again. Eventually I decided against replacing my leg. I have an illusion to cover Decimata’s ashmarks. The way I see it, my leg’s a gift from Achlys. Her death means more if it has some tangible result. I can’t just cut that off and burn it. Anyway…

It screamed again and threw me across the island. I curled into a ball to protect my head and fastcast The Dangling Puppet, concentrating on not hitting the ground.  Apophany’s adulteration was ridiculously strong, and my spell prevented me from falling to the ground, so I smashed hard into the torso of the wicker man, and blacked out. I came to with Apophany shaking me. “Mirarius?” she said.

“Yes?” I said groggily. I was, at this point, relieved that it had all been a dream. Then the pain kicked in and I snapped awake.

“You need to wake up. There’s a battle.”

I was at an angle to the horizon, so I willed myself right way up. There was almost a mile of ocean between me and the island. Apophany was hovering slightly above the water. “Are you a hallucination?” I asked.

“You know that’s a foolish question.” she smiled.

“I’m happy you are here, but, you know, goodbyes and demons.”

“At the verge of enlightenment, my people can pause, to give counsel to others.”

“Oh, like Criamon?”

“Yes. I’m not suited for it. I’ll ascend. Tell my apprentices to find a better way to deal with the adulterations. Actually, tell them to sacrifice their Gifts. That’s my choice, actually. I can ascend or manifest a phantasticum and live as a human. A phantasticum is…”

“I know what that it. It’s a body made of magical mind meat.”

“How do you know that?”

“Oh, House Mycetias has some people who can make them.”

“You do? Why?”

“To kill magi with.”

She seemed surprised. “I should have guessed. I am me. My only business is to wake you up and warn you. You have been unconscious for two minutes. My creature threw you through the ritual space, but the druids don’t want to break off their sacrifice, so they have sent their familiars after you. They’ll arrive very soon.”

“Then why are we talking like this?” I said, scanning the air between myself and the island.

“You aren’t actually awake yet. We can converse quickly here. Do you know Demon’s Eternal Oblivion?”

“No.”

“Do you mind if I possess you for two minutes?”

“Go right ahead.”

This time I really did wake up. She used Snap of Awakening to force it. Apophany then cast Demon’s Eternal Oblivion. I imagine that’s when the Criamon tattoo appeared under my left eye. I hide it with an illusion as well.

“Now, head back.” she said “This really is goodbye, Mirarius. Well…until next time.” and she was gone again.

The creature was eating the druids. I tried not to look. Benvolia and Malvolio were on the boat with what was left of Llewellyn of Diedne. Benvolio was holding a bloodied oar. I swam through the air in that silly way apprentices do, when they are using The Dangling Puppet to fly. I climbed down the mast.

“Is it done?” I asked.

Benvolia nodded. “I thought I’d use a plan I’d developed before we came into the Infernal aura.”

I started for a moment “You were serious?”

“No. Well, not really. I have these thoughts sometimes. I don’t intend to actually follow through.”

“I need his arm.”

“Which arm?” asked Malvolio, pulling out a knife.

“Is he right or left handed?”

Benvolia said “His bicep on the right is bigger.” Malvolio put Llewellyn’s hands together, lacing fingertip to fingertip. “His right hand is bigger too.” I nodded. He cut. I told the sailors to pull us to further from the island, to get our minds out of the Infernal Aura. It also meant that we were further away if Abomination decided to wade out after us. At the moment it was hurling everything off the island into the sea.

“Did you kill the druids?”

“No. The thing ate them.” said Benvolia. “They lost focus, their ritual failed, then it swallowed them whole. It didn’t even chew.”

“Oh, that was Apophany. Her spirit desstroyed their familiars.” The Adulteration had stripped the island down to bare rock and sand. Then it curled up and seemed to rest.

“So, one final con, and we are finished, I think.” I said. I told them the lie. They took it well.

It was so easy to do.  People really wanted to believe the Diedne were not defeated. We were all tired of the war, and it gave everyone an excuse not to fight over the spoils. We set up commissions to find the last Druids. House Mercere goaded us into a new age of exploration. We were reassigned.

I was sent here, to Alethia. The House assessed me, and in their view, I had combat fatigue. I thought they were wrong, just that I was exhausted. I didn’t fight reassignment politically, though. Obedience is the highest virtue. I was good with logistics, so I was doing useful work, rebuilding the hospital as a school. I’ve been here now for thirty five subjective years. I know that outside it has only been slightly more than ten. I exchange letters with outsiders, particularly my students.

I’ve trained eight apprentices while I’ve been here, and am working with my third cluster of four. The oldest cluster graduated eighteen of my years ago, but for them, now in the mortal world, it has been six. My arts have stagnated, of course. My students are not necromancers, although most of them are not pure signallers. They aren’t powerful magicians, not by the standards of the great warriors of the war, but they are loyal, and cunning, and I hope that’s enough for whatever may come next.

The House has asked me to come to Council meetings again. I hold nine sigils, after all, and I’m bizarrely lucky at  Certamen, as are my children. With my siblings, we make a formidable bloc, now. The House may have other challenges for me, and I will obey with a light heart, but I must say that I feel happy here. My school is my home. I wish all of the other veterans had found the peace I have here.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Alethia began as an idea, which led almost immediately to a debate in the House. I think the correct side won, if only by accident. If some druids surrendered, and we decided not to kill them, what could be done with them? Severing the Gift was an obvious measure, but true diabolists could bargain with their masters for the False Gift. The decision was that they should be imprisoned until death. So far, consensus.

A regio was the obvious place to hold magi, and we had several under our control in Hungary. The question was: should they be kept in a regio with time slower then mortal time, or faster? If they were in a slower regio, even if they could rebuild their power secretly, we would rebuild so much faster that we could crush them. If we put them in faster time, then they would age and die faster. If they had the chance to rebuild their power and take a fresh shot, then it would be on ground designed and prepared by us. Best to let them exhaust their quiver, then let them linger forever and pass the problem to our children.

The Alethia regio has time that speeds at seven times mortal. It was cleared out early in the war, because we wanted the vis of the creature living within it. The destruction of the Ice Wyrm may, we are told by our magical theorists, lead to the time in Alethia eventually resynchronising with the mortal world. If so, no matter, its purpose has been served for now, and we can repeat the procedure elsewhere. It served as a prison only briefly.

Two years after the war, we refitted it as a hospital for magi with combat fatigue. I was sent there to oversee the retrofit, officially. In truth, I had sufficient combat fatigue to be useless in the struggle for Diedne resources. I was the most effective of the useless, so they were my responsibility. I needed reinforcements, so I sent messages to the Foolish Fires. They did not seem temperamentally suited to rural idyll, but the House was exhausted, and I needed help. It was friends or mercenaries.

Malvolio came much as I remembered him. His clothes clinked and shone. He filled too much space, and he talked too loudly about things he didn’t really understand. He knew you knew that half of what he was saying was a performance, but you could never be sure which half. He had more baggage than a small army, and it was filled with impractical delicacies. He was all the things that used to infuriate me, when we were comrades in arms. In bleak Alethia, as it then was, I loved him for it. He had retainers, many of which which he sent away so that they would not age faster than their families. The remainder still live here, save a scant handful who left with him, after his stay.

Callida sent a contract, which the House signed, and then she came. She’d not been with us at the end of the war, but I still considered her one of my people. We had not told her Apophany’s Lie. I felt guilty about that, then. Eventually I did tell her, after she showed me a magical mousetrap she had made for my apprentice Euxia. She bought less material, but has stayed longer. Some magi have asked if she and I, living as we do, with our hordes of children, out of time, are a couple. We are not. We are not good at compromise.

Together, they built modern Alethia. I made suggestions about the function of the place, which they sometimes incorporated, and so the House tends to see the facility as mine. That’s a bureaucratic undersimplification. I may have made it a school, but they made it beautiful. Callida stays, I think, because she knows that the school is her masterpiece. Her kind have criticized her because it is not enchanted, but she has calls it an engine that makes magicians.

Hermetic architecture generally follows an Imperial Roman model. Conjuring the Mystic Tower originally created a Roman wall fort. The Pseudo-Bonisagus redesigned it slightly to create odd, circular towers. These cylinders of stone have been the keystone of covenant building ever since. They are ridiculous.

Cylindrical towers are designed for watchers standing on the roof, and archers defending approaches. They are liveable, but inconvenient. So much floor space is wasted with stairs. So much time is wasted walking between levels. They are dingy and cold. Some people have improved them slightly by building a stair tower next to their laboratory tower. Malvolio showed me that none of this was necessary.

Alethia was designed as a vast and beautiful metal frame, which remains visible in the building today. Over this, Callida poured a skin of bronze, which created the roof and walls. It has aged to a deep verdigris. Malvolio set vast panels of glass, made magically for clarity and strength, into the roof. It never rains on the roof, as it is sheltered with wards, like a Jerbiton garden laboratory .Internal partitions were then made, by skilled mortal crafters, and placed to Malvolio’s specifications. The school may be Mycetians, but it was crafted by a Jerbiton skilled in light, and trickery and void. It is like a temple to an intensely practical god.

It took a year of Althean time to complete the work. That’s less than a season in the mortal world and I expected Malvolio to hurry off to some new revel. He seemed reluctant to leave, so I asked him if he wanted to stay. He remained at Alethia for three real years during which he studied Arabic and ways to avoid his housemates.

It took time for us to pry the story from him: for him to relax and discuss his hurts.  I had come home a shattered man, but to a House which accepted my wounds as a cost paid for victory, and honoured them. He and Benvolia had returned to the cities, which had been untouched by the war. They were met by Housemates who scorned his role in the utter extermination of a style of magic that, even a few years after the war, was being romanticised as being about harmony with Nature.

Benvolia, he said, had gone to Egypt, and we did not understand what he meant. She had taken her ability to blend in with people, and used it to disappear. She was seeking her happiness far from the ingrates she had kept free and safe, but also far from the city of her birth, which she loved. Malvolio refused to give Europe to his spiteful kin. He stayed with us, and having trained in illusions at sevenfold time, now lives in secret among them.

If you are ever in Naples, and need the aid of the redcaps, you may be directed to the home of a Coptic merchant, who lives a genteel but secluded life. If you ever have trouble with the underclass of the city, you might meet a strange monk who metes out justice from the shadows. If you ever threaten the city, the caverns of its necropolis may spit forth an undead necromancer commanding hordes of ghosts. His life is full and pleasant. Some of my past apprentices live with him, in what would be a covenant, if they ever admitted they were magi.

Chapter Twenty-Three

I’d been working in Alethia for almost two years when I received the order from my father. I came to the gateway to the real world, worked through the perfunctory locks, and emerged to greet a young maga sent to act as my aide. She stared at me in shock, which she could not disguise.

“It’s all right, Augusta.” I said. “I am Mirarius. Surely they warned you about this?”

“No.” she flustered. Then she caught herself. “You look fine, Mirarius.” she lied. I did however, feel fine, and had been expecting this reaction, if not from her than from someone else. For her my sudden aging was a shock. Not so for me. I had lived the fourteen years that had passed in the regio. For her, I had been gone a time, but not a long one.

“My father sent me a letter. I am to await a Criamon magus in the pavilion commemorating the Battle of the Silver Peacocks. I have not missed her, I take it?”

“She has not arrived. Mirarius.”

“I do not know where this pavilion is. Please direct me.”

“Do you know it lies at another covenant?” she asked, noting my lack of luggage.

“No. I have been away.” I shrugged. I was wearing combat webbing that had some food in it. I could make shelter and keep my clothes clean magically. I didn’t need gear.

Her directions made little sense, until I actually saw the pavilion. It was an opulent tent, outside the Aegis of Lycaneon. It wasn’t for us. It was a place for visitors to arrive, and if they were not particularly clever, be dazzled by our wealth and taste. I thought the Criamon would probably find it so irrelevant as to verge on inexplicable, so I sat outside it. I fried some farina. I drew random shapes on it. I put them in in an artless design on a plate.

When the Criamon appeared, she spent a good minute staring at the food, before rearranging the pieces, and eating them in descending order of size. She smiled and said “Thank you.”

“Salve.” I offered. She knew who I was. I didn’t know her, but knew that Criamon magi generally have no interest in, and little capacity for, small talk. My opening “Salve” was mere form, but at least it was brief.

“I come to ask a favour.” she said.

“I come to grant your favour.” I answered, nodding.

“I have yet to ask it.” she crooked her head sideways.

“You have yet to ask it of me. ” I answered. “I grant it, nonetheless.”

“Your father knows none of the specifics of the request.” she countered.

“He grants it anyway, and I am his agent in this.”

“There is to be no negotiation?” She looked concerned, and crestfallen.

“You were sent with threats or inducements?”

“Yes”

“You wish to threaten or induce?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I was asked to.” Her body language and tone were completely neutral. I’d seen this in some Criamon before, when they were talking about their own motivations.

“You seem a poor negotiator. Why were you, particularly, sent to seek my assistance?”

“I am able to walk through the spirit realm, and carry others with me, swimming through the great fields of magic which bathe the world.” There was no pride in her voice.

“You have been asked to carry me somewhere?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“It is the swiftest method of travel we have.”

“So, urgency is a significant motivator for you?”

“Yes.”

“Then we have no time to haggle inducements. I am sorry. Where are you to take me?”

“The Island of the Adulteration of Apophany.”

“Why?”

“I do not know. I have not been instructed on the nature of your task.”

“My last question was essentially conversational in nature. I have said I will come. I am ready to depart.” I waved to Augusta and from her perspective I vanished.

We flowed through the world, skimming through the clockwork which lies behind the façade. I had seen the world this way before, in a Twilight episode, as a young child. That incident had warped my Gift and perhaps my personality. This was different and beautiful, but on some level,  it felt like I was fighting a certamen duel with an enemy so far away our phantasms could not engage. We landed on a small boat which sat in a small circle of calm,  ignoring the waves that tried to lap upon it.

“Did the adulteration have this appearance on your last visit?” she asked.

“Do you have a name?” I failed to reply. “It seems odd you’ve not told me a name to call you. Is this one of your riddles?”

“I don’t find a name useful.” A shrug.

“That seems a peculiarly selfish attitude.”

“I don’t agree with your opinion. Did the adulteration have this appearance on your last visit?”

“Not at all. No.” I answered, staring at the strange object. It was spiky, ellipsoid and twelve feet long. It appeared to be made of metal, but its lack of rivets, dark blue colour and oddly curved superficial markings  convinced me that it was biological. It seemed like the seed from a great thorny briar, lying it wait for the passing herd of a giant.

“It has been like this for weeks. Our Intellego spells indicate that the Adulteration has liquefied within this carapace.”

“Why am I here?” I asked. “I have no skills suitable for field investigation of unique phenomena.”

“You are here because our Prima says you must be. You are to watch it, until it hatches.”

“Hatches? It’s an egg?”

“No, it’s a cocoon.”

“And I am its warder?”

“Yes.”

“Why me?”

“You shared some bond with Apophany. It avoided killing you before, perhaps deliberately. Your presence may prove useful.”

The cocoon began to flex, its spikes undulating in slow patterns.

“Ah.” the Criamon maga said “This has not previously been observed.”

“What is it doing?”

“Reacting to our presence.”

“Our Parmae prevent it detecting us, surely?”

“No. They merely prevent it harming us. The Parma is a wonderful little bubble in the tide of magic, but a bubble defines the water about it. Your Parma has your sigil in it, if you know how to look. Within the carapace the disgusting ichor is coming together into shapes. Disparate organs form and merge, and flex into new configurations. This is remarkable. It is so like the writings of Empedocles that it is either proof or flattery.”

It cracked open, and a pale jelly oozed from the hole. The hole became wider, as further pieces cracked away. Then I saw a tiny first, smashing into the shell, breaking it apart from the inside. It resisted, then gave in a great tearing, like a fruit torn in half, revealing the stone. She stood in the ichor and looked at us, a little girl of perhaps five years of age. The Criamon was immediately sick over the side of the boat.

I could feel it too, when our eyes met. There was a wave of disgust and horror that swept through the front of my mind. I am, however, an illusionist, so I demanded, and retrieved, control of my thoughts. “What’s causing this sensation?” I asked the Criamon.

“The mystical stench? It’s like the Gift, or the magical air some animals have, but stronger. Worse. I am perhaps more prone because of my training. It’s all I can do not to be blown back into the Magical Realm.”

“You are here in purely spiritual form?”

“Yes.”

“Then be blown away, but first, explain what I’m seeing. This is an Adulteration?

“Perhaps. It might be something descended from the adulteration, a sort of spirit. It might be a parasite that has eaten the adulteration. It might, technically, be a faerie drawn by these odd circumstances, or a demon.”

“That was absolutely no help at all, in an executive sense.” I remarked. She looked annoyed at me, and then faded from view, like a ghost at cock crow.”

“Sir?” it said to me in passable Italian, with an accent I’d call Sicilian.

“Yes?” I answered, knowing that if this was a faerie that was precisely the wrong thing to do, and deciding to do it anyway.

“I am hungry and lost. Have you any bread?”

I decided to feed it, again, knowing that if it was a faerie, this was completely the wrong thing to do.

I went ashore, and took some bread from my combat webbing. I decided I’d tempted fate so far that I might as well demand it bite me.  “I am Mirarius” I said, thereby opening an arcane connection if this was a faerie. Then I gave it bread, which linked us by the ancient rites of hospitality. “What is your name?”

“I have no name.”

“You speak well. How did you learn to speak?”

“I do not know.”

“What is the first thing you remember?”

“Breaking out of the darkness behind me.”

“Are you a human or a spirit?”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Would you like an apple?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I’m still hungry.”

“That’s strange. Spirits aren’t generally able to feel hunger.”

“May I have an apple anyway?” I passed it that apple and watched it demolish it with glee. I made a tentative decision.

“Provisionally, let’s accept you are human and Gifted.”

She nodded then said “I don’t know what that means.”

“I am a teacher. I am taking you to my school. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“You must have a name.”

“Apple?”

“That’s a silly name, but once you graduate you may select it if you wish. I choose to name you Exuvia.”

“I am Exuvia?”

“Yes. Of Mycetias.”

It was at that point four Criamon arrived, and the arguments started, but I’d claimed her fairly. I took her home to Alethia, and trained her for what, to us, was seven years. She was one of my second batch of students. After that, we were forced to bring her to the Grand Tribunal, because House Criamon had engineered a confrontation.

Chapter Twenty-Four

We stood in the small chamber outside the tribunal meeting and Articulo said. “I have sought you out to ask you to not force this debate. If War is necessary I will prosecute it. I know my mother valued you. I do not wish to make you mundane.”

I waved a hand in a gesture Apophany always used to mean “have patience” and noticed it worked perfectly on her son.  “Before you continue and accidentally damage your Gift,” I replied “you should know you can’t do that to me here.”

“Explain, please?”

“I know.” I paused “There’s no student here.”

“You’d learn a great deal of humility were I to break your Gift.” he replied, and I tried to see anger in the corners of his eyes or mouth. It wasn’t there. I was a puzzle to him. There was no more point in being angry at me than at a chicken which, against all probability, has distracted millions by crossing the road. Apophany knew about the chicken, and she knew the important question was “Why do you care enough to want to know the answer?”The trick is done before the magic starts.  Articulo wanted to know.

That meant we were not going to come to blows now. I relaxed a little. So did he.I noticed, and so did he, and then I was aware we’d been reading each other for a longer than normal pause in the conversation. Criamon magi do that sometimes, and consider it perfectly normal: in some senses preferable to people lying with their mounts at each other. I decided to start us up again, because I like not having to be honest with people. I’m not saying I want to lie to them: I’m just happier if the option is there. “I am an initiate in the Enigmatic Wisdom of your sect. I am the Vessel of the Great Lie. I cannot be your witness.”

“Thank you for warning me, Brother.” he nodded. I presumed he did it to draw attention to the tattoo by his right temple, but I didn’t know what it represented, beyond an attempt to communicate fellowship that had failed.

“Ah.” Pause “When I say I know, I don’t know any of the aspects of the cult. I know your first mystery, though: you can only transgress when someone is watching, and the watcher needs to be outside the cult. They need to be a witness, and to learn something important from the transgression. You can’t just do whatever you like.”

“What is the Great Lie?”

“If you don’t know I can’t explain it to you.” I smiled “Is it wrong to admit that it feels wonderful to say that to a Criamon magus?”

“Petty, but not wrong. How did you discover it?”

“The Lie? I cannot say.”

“No, our Mystery.”

“Callida told me.” I shrugged for effect.

He looked deflated “That is disappointing. How did she discover it?”

“She asked your mother why she kept dragging about a useless illusionist like me, when she was a mistress of illusions herself. Why not have a different partner, with complementary skills?”

“And my mother said that Callida was too focused on material advantage to be a witness?”

“No. You don’t need to be a spiritual person to be a witness. Rather the opposite. She wanted me around because she was worried what might happen if she slipped into Twilight.  Fire magi don’t burn. She was an Illusionist so she needed other illusionist around to corral her Adulteration if she Ascended.

“That is not the same thing. Discovering that she needed you in case she ascended is not the same as knowing that a student makes transgression safer for us.”

“Callida worked that out. She’s a Verditius. People think that because, yes, they are mercenary, and yes, they are petty that they aren’t spiritual. That is wrong. When she pours out bronze, she’s not handling metal: she’s handling the thing that lies behind the metal, in the realm of form made manifest. She is watching the idea become ensnared in matter and become greater by its ensnarement in the material. They use casting tools not as a crutch, but as a bridge to their spirituality. Callida knew I was a casting tool.”

“You have given me much to ponder, brother, and yet the adulteration you have taken as an apprentice is still a thing of terror and wonder. It must be assessed.”

“She. She is a person. A human person. A souled individual.”

“That’s not possible.”

“Well, prepare to be enlightened then. She can cast Hermetic spells.”

“I was told she was the equivalent of a five year old? She ages?”

“Yes. She also eats, drinks, is vulnerable to Mentem magic, all of the usual tests.

“Then she’s seven now. Even if she already knew Latin, as reported, you cannot have Opened her Arts conventionally yet.”

“The Cave of Twisting Shadows is a regio, yes? I also live in a regio.”

“What is the dilation?”

“Sevenfold. She’s eighteen, now. Her apprenticeship ends in two seasons, mortal time. You walked right by her earlier today, and didn’t realise who she was.”

He looked stunned. I didn’t have any real resources, but when you see the opening, you need to pretend, until you can make good. “Even if you take her, you won’t hold her.”

“I recall your mind was made tabula rasa when you were taken as apprentice? It is not a usual Criamon practice. We value our scars. Nonetheless, in extremis…and we are the cult for such situations. We need to understand it.”

“Her. Go ahead and try, Articulo. There’s literally no winning scenario for you here.”

That was a lie of course. The Tribunal declared her a sprit, not a person, and they took her for two years. As I said goodbye to her, in her spidersilk cloak, I handed her an apple. She tossed it back to me and said “I choose the name Pupilla, and ask you to keep this for me, father.” It wasn’t something I’d planned, but I was so pleased by it that I laughed and sent a letter to the Primus.

As she was my my first apprentice to graduate, he was worried the other three might be similarly troublesome. Hortensia, Lacrimosa and Aegidius were, however, more conventional and useful. Hortensia became a  teacher, like myself, using the same method of training four apprentices at a time. Her Arts are negligible, sufficient only to open the Arts of others and provide the most basic of training.. Lacrimosa is an urban illusionist who now lives in Naples. Aegidius is a hoplite in Britain.

Pupilla came back to us because the Genius Locus of the Cave of Twisting Shadows would not permit her to enter its regio. She was the living embodiment of everything that Apophany did or believed that was at odds with the tenets of their Mystery.  Had they not been pacifists, had their violent clutch not been Apophany’s children, they would have killed her. Instead, she was sent to the Clutch of Ebony Eggs, taught them nothing, and then tried to come home. A Bonisagus wanted to claim her, and so she lobbied for her reclassification as a person. She was old enough to graduate swiftly and then come home.

Chapter Twenty-Five

The next tribunal meeting I attended after the War is sometimes called the Unveiling by my students. I know the shock of it is still being felt in the Order, but you must recall, for us, it was decades ago. I remember leaving the regio with my children. I remember the pained looks on the faces of those who had known me during the War. I entered the chamber, having not seen it for thirty of our years.

I’d not taken my longevity potion immediately, but I appeared only about ten years older, physically. There’s a difference though, in the way older magi stand. In the way they hold your eye. Of course, I had a small phalanx of young adults in apprentice robes, and a basket of sigils to hand to them. Literally a basket. It’s become a little tradition of ours here. Callida has even enchanted it.

The Tribunal was about to begin. We did not arrive late, but we made sure that we would not be early. There were only fifty-four Mycetians at the end of the war, and one third of them were in other Tribunals, or otherwise engaged. My master, sister and my nominally older brother were in attendance. We filled in and took a place against a wall, at the back. We still took up a fifth of the space. The Praeco broke with tradition a little, and asked why there were a gaggle of children in the room.

I stepped forward and said “Before a Quaesitor and witnesses, I inform the Tribunal, and through the redcaps the rest of the Order, that these eight are my apprentices, now given their sigils as magi of the Order.” Each of my children took a steel ball from the basket, and then put it back saying “Guard this for me, please, father.” This was a formality. My eldest four had been magicians for twenty of our years, although only Hortensia and Exuvia had lived most of that time in Alethia. Hortensia then said “I am Hortensia of Mycetias, and these four children are my apprentices. Children, get your sigils from your grandfather.” I think this was the bit that caused pandemonium to break out. Exuvia handed a ball to her apprentice, and called out the required words, but even I didn’t hear them.

Callida smashed a gauntleted fist into the wall for silence. Even with repetition, she met with only with only limited success, until the wall threatened to give way and the Quaesitores called all to order. “If you are all finished,” she shouted, “I have the right to speak! This is my apprentice. Her name is Volcana. Her sigil is this ring.” That had not been the name she had intended. I think her temper had the better of her.

Fourteen new magi, unexpected and all at once. The political shock was cushioned a little, because we chose the Transylvanian Tribunal to unveil our numbers. A furious Verditius venting at the attendees did not make them more sanguine. Many Mycetians had been aware, however distantly, that I was running a school. Many of them had dropped off a child to be rapidly tutored in Latin and Magic Theory. Some had taken on apprentices that the redcaps had bought for me, but that had talents I could not incorporate into my training. That being said, at the end of the war, there were only 54 Mycetians left alive. My father’s faction was a minor one before the war, and suddenly it included over a quarter of the House.

The Primus, who was Bartholomaeus at that time, did the numbers and decided that he needed to exert his authority. “Toxophilus. Close you school.”.

My father answered “It is not my school, but I challenge you for it. Rego.” That was, of course, what the Primus had wanted. The Code Duello for our house is that if one loses, one may not challenge the same person again, unless first challenged by that person. Father, as the aggressor, would lose his chance to challenge for leadership, at least against this incumbent.

The duel that followed was disgusting. Each man created a phantasticum that was a giant, flayed human form. The visions ripped pieces from each other, illusory blood spattering everything within the duelling circle. Some magi flinched as gobbets of apparent flesh flew in arcs that seemed likely to strike them, although of course they faded as they left the circle. Finally, the Primus’s creature towered over my father, and beat him down with a huge piece of one of its broken ribs. As neither my brother or sister had their sigils, when Father became unconscious, leadership of our faction fell to me.

I knew I was no threat to the Primus. My Arts had not improved since I founded the school, and I had not been particularly skilled then. My strange knack for dueling might allow me to fight defensively and wear down the, already fatigued, Primus. If I fell, then all of my children had the right to challenge. It would be hard for him to refuse to fight a magus but minutes old, even if he had already fought many others.

Callida and her child conceivably had the right to challenge. They are of a different House, so an alternate might step in, to defend the Primus’s honour against an outsider. I made a hand signal to her that meant “Patience”, which is one of the things we’d learned to signal each other while raising the brood. We also had signs for other useful ideas like “Paralyse that apprentice.” and “Run like the building is about to burn down.” She nodded her assent, but looked unhappy.

“I challenge for the rule of the House.” I said. It seemed that I might as well go for all the marbles, and I wanted to put the idea of a leadership change on the table.  There was a non-zero chance that, at the end of a grueling series of battles,  Hortensia’s youngest child might come out of this as the Primus. That would not be desirable, and everyone in the room knew it.

I won’t dwell on my defeat. It was a Creo Vim battle. Many of the observers became nauseous. I did not win, but before I yielded I’d struck him several times. The blows were light, but that was hard to know from the phantastica. He was victorious, but did not look well. My brother then challenged. While he was losing, I found my breath and asked my sister to let the children fight him first. Hortensia began to take off her loose accessories, obviously preparing to duel.

Marius Caeruleus was a lieutenant of the Primus’s, but he broke as I’d hoped he would. He walked over to Hortensia, and said “I wish to challenge the Primus. Must I duel you for the right?”

She pretended to consider for a moment, then said “No.”

The Primus did not notice the conversation: certamen is too intense for people to win if they are distractable. You could see the hurt in the Primus’s face when he turned. He expected to face the next child, thinking that this was to be a series of increasingly easy victories that he just needed to struggle through. Instead, his trusted ally stood ready to face him, fresh for battle. Rego? Yes. Mentem? Yes. It was quick.

I walked to the dueling circle and raised my right hand. “What are you orders, commander?” My children quickly followed the gesture. Marius nodded, and then ignored me long enough to suspend the Tribunal meeting until the next day. He commanded all Mycetians to attend him that evening. When my father awoke, I took him to meet our new ruler. He did most of the talking. I just sat near him, my role was to embody the mystery of precisely what I’d been doing for what, our rivals knew, was decades. Toxophilus had an army, and who knew what else, in the school. Crossing him was unwise.

A message arrived from a redcap that a Bonisagus archmaga from the Rhine had granted me the title. Her challenge had to do with developing new teaching methods, but I’d not actually challenged her. I assumed, and confirmed later, that a redcap had contacted her as soon as the school was threatened. She reached out to the Trianomans, and they were readying various sorts of pressure, but that was the one thing she could do in a moment. It was enough.

It would be wrong of me to criticize our leader, but he is a monomanic. His policy, his sole policy, is to rebuild our defences. I understand where it springs from. He was a veteran of the Corruption and the Schism. The war of duelists which House Tytalus and Flambeau are fighting in Provencal and Normandy may turn toxic and expand to a true conflict. His decision not to contest the conquered Diedne territories is not from cowardice, but from a calculated conviction that we could not win a three-cornered war over that distance. He decided to sell our interests in the West, save our outpost in Britain, and pull back into a defensive shell. Our treasure is poured out to make that shell thicker and harder. We did not know this when he became Primus.

My school is the best source of troops he has, but he worries that we are an internal enemy. In all honesty, we are, although not in this generation. Our faction won’t hold together. I may retain the sigils of the children who, like me, have chosen to teach, but the others will earn their sigils easily. That doesn’t matter to me, although it may reassure him.

There are too many of us, and we are too different to the necromancers, for the House to remain the same. We are weaker, yes, but we aren’t secretive, and our magic doesn’t kill us as often. The other Houses favor us, because we don’t claim the dead as our source of power. Eventually, the House will look like us, and the necromancers will be a remnant, or just a handful of interesting techniques practiced by those of us interested in history.

Alethia endures. The redcaps bring children here, and we train them in Latin. The Bonisagus magi swoop in and steal many of them. The have to: Gifted children contain vis and there’s an ominous lack of them in Western Europe. These children grow up and remember us. In time my children, and these children, will found covenants together, in the empty spaces left by the war, or at the edges of the order.

I sit beneath the pear trees with my grandchildren. I have taken a little time from teaching to bind a familiar: a little ice wyrm descended from the creature which used to den in this regio. She puts her head in my lap, and keeps time moving swiftly. I tell the story of the war, and what came after, and what will come after.

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