The Witch-King had thought that time was meaningless.
He was a lich, after all, a dead body held permanently in suspension by magic. He had waited for a thousand years for his plans to come to fruition and he could have happily waited another thousand, if necessary. What did the passage of time mean to him when there were minds to bend, living people to manipulate like pieces on a game board? Indeed, part of him would even miss the sensation of covertly steering events from his lofty vantage, ensuring that matters went the way that best pleased him.
But now … time was moving again.
Deferens – the Emperor, his tool – had taken power and was readying himself to deliver the magic that would end the Witch-King’s long rest and bring him back into the world of men. Other pieces, carefully groomed for their roles, were already playing their parts, spreading chaos across the world. There would be no organised resistance as the Empire slipped into civil war, nothing to stop the Witch-King returning to the Golden City to take power and finish the work he had begun, thousands of years ago. The hour of victory was at hand …
And yet, randomness was the enemy.
He’d always known that randomness might disrupt his plans. His ability to influence even the greatest magicians was limited, while his ability to steer the paths of mundanes was non-existent. Sheer random chance had impeded his plans before … but then, he’d always been able to pull back, secure in the knowledge that his existence, let alone his influence, remained unsuspected. Now, a handful of people did know of him; knew of him, feared him and intended to destroy him. Their prospects of success were laughable, at best, and yet the thought nagged at his mind. He’d seen too many carefully-constructed plans fall apart as randomness took hold to dismiss them entirely …
… And now, he couldn’t pull back and wait for centuries before trying again.
They could destroy me, he thought.
It wasn’t something he wanted to contemplate. He’d gone further than anyone else in his studies of magic, exploring vast vistas that most magicians refused to consider even existed – and he’d succeeded. The simple fact that he’d survived over a thousand years without going mad was proof of his success. But now there was another magician who understood the deeper layers of magic, bonded to a young man who had no idea of the true nature of his powers. The tools to destroy the Witch-King were at hand, if they knew how to use them, and they’d been spared the contamination that would have opened their minds to his influence.
He was vulnerable. He could be destroyed.
Part of him regretted what had to be done. He had never talked to a true equal since he’d hidden himself away, fearing what would happen if the newcomer learned his true nature. It would be nice, perhaps, to bandy words with them before killing them, to talk as equals across a table …
… But not at the cost of his own survival. And he’d lived too long to place his life at risk now.
He reached out with his mind, feeling the threads of magic that linked him to hundreds of magicians. Deferens, his mind permanently on the brink between sanity and madness, was his tool, even though he would never know it. The ambition that burned through him was easy to steer to a new target, feeding an obsession that had no logical cause. His forces would swoop forward and claim Ida, then hold it while the Witch-King rose from the shadows and took power. Nothing would be allowed to get in the way.
And yet, matters were so close …
Standing at the cusp of godhood – or nemesis – the Witch-King waited.
He could do nothing else.
The dragon didn’t like her.
Charity, former Head of House Conidian, quivered as the dragon’s massive eyes turned to follow her. It was an immense beast, easily the size of a small house, with giant bat-like wings and eyes that glowed like embers of coal. It’s teeth were sharp, covered in stains that had to be blood; it’s claws flexed, tearing great holes in the ground. It was hard, so hard, to stand close to the creature and not turn and flee. She was convinced that the only thing saving her from becoming a tasty snack was the iron will of her master, Emperor Vlad.
“Get up,” the Emperor ordered, curtly.
Charity swallowed as the oath she’d sworn to him forced her forward. It grew hotter as she approached the dragon, the warmth a reminder of the fire in its belly, but the scales on its back were surprisingly cool. Somehow, she managed to scramble up onto the dragon’s back and sit there, clinging to the scales for dear life. The Emperor snickered, then turned to his men and glowered at them.
“If a mere woman can do it,” he growled, “so can you.”
Bastard, Charity thought coldly, as snowflakes turned to steam when they touched the dragon. Cursing him in her mind was the only thing she could do to keep herself sane, after everything he’d done to her. Making her wear a harem outfit that was utterly unsuited to the cold weather was the least of it. You don’t have them under obedience charms and oaths.
She looked down at the Emperor, feeling bitter hatred and helplessness curdling in her gut. He was a tall muscular man, wearing a red shirt and kilt; a wand, a sword and a handful of daggers glinted at his belt. His long black hair hung down around his shoulders, wild and unkempt; the neatly-trimmed beard provided an odd contrast, a message Charity didn’t really understand at all. But she knew him too well to feel any attraction; he’d killed the Grand Sorceress, claimed the throne and then offered her a flat choice between serving him or immediate death. In hindsight, death would have been preferable.
The Emperor smirked as his men – the red-robed magicians, the oath-bound Inquisitors and a number of his private guards – climbed onto their dragons, then scrambled up beside Charity and sat in front of her. Charity was almost relieved, even though she would sooner have cuddled up to a man-eating yeti than the Emperor. At least she wouldn’t be riding the dragon alone.
“Up,” the Emperor commanded.
Charity braced herself, just in time. The dragon unfurled its wings, flapped them once and hurled itself into the air. Charity looked down as they rose higher, feeling an unaccustomed sense of vertigo as the Golden City shrank beneath them. The skies echoed with howls from the dragons, a sound unheard for nearly a thousand years. It had been a long time since the very last dragon was exterminated. Now, even though the Emperor was bringing them back into the world, there was no one alive who knew how to stop a dragon. They’d torn through the wards of a dozen Great Houses as though they were made of paper.
The air grew colder, rapidly, as they rose above the Seven Peaks and stared down at the remains of the Watchtower. Once, the Inquisitors had watched over the Golden City, their firm but fair judgements respected by all. Now, the Watchtower was gone – and no one knew how it had been destroyed – while the Inquisitors, oath-bound to serve the Emperor, followed Vlad and did his bidding. They couldn’t break their sworn oaths and live.
Magic crackled around them – the Emperor let out a whoop of pure glee – as the dragons flew over the mountains, heading straight for the nearest city. Knawel Haldane stood only a bare couple of hours from the Golden City – less, if one rode the Iron Dragons – and it had always been loyal to the Empire. But now, with rumours flying everywhere and hundreds of Court Wizards either dead or trapped in the Golden City, the Empire was coming apart. Kings were declaring independence, rogue magicians were carving out states of their own …
… And everyone else was caught in the middle.
Charity shuddered at the thought, helplessly. She’d never really cared about the mundanes, about those unlucky enough to be born without magic. Indeed, she hadn’t cared that much about her Powerless brother … and hadn’t that turned into a joke, now Johan had turned into a dangerously powerful and unstable magician? Who cared about the opinions of people who were helpless against even the mildest compulsion hex? But now, her enslavement – and she was a slave, no matter her official title – showed her just how the mundanes must have felt, when they looked at her powerful family. Helpless, unable to do anything to protect themselves …
Jamal enjoyed wielding his power, she thought, bitterly. It was true; her eldest brother had been a bullying sadist, picking on everyone weaker than him. But was I really that much better?
It was an uncomfortable question. She’d expected to find herself married off to an older magician, not to find herself Head of House Conidian. Jamal would inherit the title, after all; everyone else would be expected to deport themselves to support him. And so she’d spent her days going to parties, shopping and generally having fun. There had been no thought of preparing herself for any other life. But now House Conidian was in ruins, her two younger siblings hostages and she was a slave.
“Knawel Haldane,” the Emperor said. “Burn!”
Charity felt her stomach rebel as the dragon swooped down, opening its mouth to spew out a raging torrent of flame. The guardhouse below exploded into fire, the handful of guards and makeshift defences incinerated before they had a chance to do anything … as if there was anything they could do. She shuddered as the dragon pulled up, then blasted a stream of fire into a line of houses, exploding them one by one. An arrow glanced off the dragon’s scales as someone tried to fight back, only to be vaporised by a blast of fire a second later.
“A real man,” the Emperor said. His deep voice was tinged with heavy satisfaction. “But also a fool.”
Magic flickered around them, again, as a handful of wizards tried to mount a defence, shooting off hexes and curses from their tower. The Emperor snickered as five of the dragons detached themselves from the rest and threw themselves on the tower, ripping it apart with casual ease. A lone figure, standing on top of the tower and waving her arms as she tried to cast a protective ward that might stand against the dragons, fell to her death in the flames. Charity felt a stab of pity, but she knew there was no point in saying anything. The Emperor regarded female magicians as an abomination, a waste of potential when a powerful woman should have been having powerful sons. It made her wonder if he intended her to have children sooner or later, choosing her husband to suit himself. It was a terrifying thought.
The dragon rose, rising up into the air. Charity looked down; half the dragons had taken up positions outside the gates, their human riders raising wards intended to trap the population inside the city, while the remainder flocked over the city, breathing down fire on anyone foolish enough to challenge them. Several large fires were raging through the houses, although many of the wealthier parts of the city looked untouched. Their homes would be warded against flames, Charity knew. They’d be untouched unless the dragons targeted them specifically.
But the poor will be forced out of their homes, she thought. And then they will die.
“We land,” the Emperor said.
The dragon dropped down and landed before the remains of the first gatehouse. Charity gagged as she smelled the burning human flesh, then followed the Emperor as he jumped off the dragon and landed neatly on the remains of the road. His followers bowed to him; he nodded back, then turned his attention to the city. Behind them, Charity could hear the sound of his marching army advancing from the Golden City. It wouldn’t be long before Knawel Haldane was completely surrounded. Resistance would be utterly futile.
She looked up as she saw a handful of people picking their way through the gatehouse and walking towards them. The leader was a middle-aged man wearing a merchant’s outfit; here, away from the Golden City, a man didn’t have to be a magician to rule. Indeed, unless she missed her guess, the man behind the leader was a magician. He was definitely carrying a wand on his belt, although he was careful to show that he wasn’t holding it at the ready. The last three men looked like bureaucrats, probably tax collectors. They never visited House Conidian, of course, but anyone without the power to stand up to them, would find himself plucked like a chicken.
“Well,” the Emperor said. He took a step forward, his red cloak spilling out behind him as he struck a dramatic pose. “Kneel.”
The representatives hesitated, then dropped to their knees. Charity felt another pang of pity, mixed with helpless outrage; they weren’t under any spells and yet they were kneeling in front of the Emperor! But the dragons were a convincing argument in the Emperor’s favour and the representatives had already watched them tear through the city’s puny defences as though they were made of paper. They had to know there was no point in further resistance, not when the city was surrounded. The Empire could burn their city to ash whenever he chose.
“So,” the Emperor said, coldly. “Who comes to speak with me?”
“I am Goodman Chaney,” the leader said. Merchant or not, he couldn’t keep the unease out of his voice. “I speak for the City Fathers.”
“Good,” the Emperor said. “I want your complete and total surrender.”
Chaney blinked. “But sire …”
“You are at my mercy,” the Emperor said. She couldn’t see his face, but Charity was sure he was leering. The Emperor enjoyed watching people squirm. “I have orders for you. If they are not carried out, your city will be burned to the ground and any survivors sold into the most unpleasant slavery.”
He allowed a moment for his words to sink in, then leaned forward. “Every young man between fifteen and twenty is to report to my camp, where they will be conscripted into my army,” he said. “Every magician in the city, from the lowliest hedge witch to the highest sorcerer, is to report to my magicians for induction. Any magical artefacts within the city are to be handed over, regardless of who owns them. Knawel Haldane itself is to provide everything my army might require, including food, military supplies and billets. Your families, in particular, will be handed over to us so we have hostages for your good behaviour.”
Charity winced, inwardly. The Emperor wasn’t doing anything to soften the demands, not even offering Chaney a chance to rise in the new order in exchange for doing what he was told. But then, the Emperor probably held a mere merchant in contempt. He was no magician, no warrior … nothing the Emperor might find admirable, even if he could be useful. And Chaney had no cards to play unless he was willing to countenance the destruction of the entire city.
“It will be done, Your Supremacy,” Chaney said, bowing his head.
“Good,” the Emperor said. “Send a messenger to your families. I expect your wives and children – and those of the other City Fathers – to be here within half an hour. Should they not be here …”
He patted the dragon, affectionately. The dragon’s mouth lolled open, revealing his teeth and inhumanly long tongue. Chaney paled still further, then turned and hurried off, followed by the rest of the representatives.
“You could have given them more time,” Charity said, before she could stop herself.
“They would have had time to plan an escape,” the Emperor said. He looked past her to General Vetch. “General. Organise the troops to occupy the city, once the hostages arrive; billet them on prosperous houses. The dragons will provide support, if necessary.”
Charity followed the Emperor like a stray dog as he moved from group to group, issuing orders, patting the dragons and generally keeping himself on top of what was going on. No one looked at her, not overtly, but she could feel their gazes following her, their eyes mocking her silently. They knew who she’d been, before she’d bent the knee to the Emperor; now, she was little more than a whore and they rejoiced in her fall. No doubt they came up with all sorts of stories about what the Emperor made her do, although he’d never touched her. But how could she blame them? She’d been so far above them that they could only watch her with envy, before the fall.
“The hostages have arrived, Your Supremacy,” General Vetch reported.
“Excellent,” the Emperor said. He strode over to where the hostages were waiting, eying the dragons nervously. Charity followed him, feeling her heart sink. She had a nasty feeling the Emperor had something horrible in mind for the hostages. The little cluster of wives and children standing next to their husbands and fathers almost broke her heart. “Order them to be outfitted with slave collars. We might as well make some use of them.”
Chaney stared in horror. “Your Supremacy …”
The Emperor smiled at him. “Are you defying me?”
He waved a hand dismissively. One of the dragons moved forward with astonishing speed and opened its mouth. Chaney had no time to scream before the dragon swallowed him in a single gulp. A woman fainted – his wife, Charity assumed – while her children started to scream in horror. The Emperor showed nothing, but cold amusement as he surveyed the remaining City Fathers. They looked as if they were torn between mounting a suicidal resistance and complete submission.
“Have them fitted with collars,” the Emperor ordered. He nodded at the woman lying on the ground. “And have her thrown to the men. She’s useless.”
The City Fathers offered no further resistance, even when the slave collars were fitted and the hostages were marched off to an unknown fate. Charity hoped they’d be treated reasonably well – there was something to be gained from treating them as guests – but she knew the experience would be horrific. A compulsion charm could be fought, even broken, by a person of strong will and determination; a slave collar was almost impossible to resist. And if their husbands and fathers chose to resist later, they could simply be ordered to cut their own throats.
“Have the magical artefacts brought to my tent,” the Emperor ordered, curtly. “My aide” – he nodded at Charity – “will inspect them.”
Charity was almost relieved. Poking magical artefacts ran the risk of being hexed or killed, if the owner had placed security charms on it, but at least she’d be away from the Emperor for a few hours. She didn’t trust his temper – or his sense of humour – and she knew, all too well, just how cruel he could be. He was worse than Jamal … who, at least, had never had her helplessly at his beck and call …
But he had the maids at his command, she thought, as she made her way towards the royal tent. The soldiers were putting together a large camp outside the city, although a number of the men would be billeted inside the town. She hoped the civilians would keep their heads down and stay out of trouble. What did he do to them?
She sat down, inside the tent, and waited for the first box of artefacts to arrive. They all looked common, something that didn’t really surprise her. Anything really old or powerful would be hidden, rather than tamely surrendered. She picked her way through a case of old wands, then checked a handful of basic spellbooks. None of them were more complex than anything she’d seen during her first year of schooling, although one of them had a number of scrawled annotations that made her smile. Clearly, whoever had owned the book had been something of a genius. But, if he or she had joined in the battle, probably also dead.
And they might be the lucky ones, she thought. She knew what the Emperor had in mind for the magicians of Knawel Haldane, those who weren’t strong enough to be helpful. They’d be sacrificed, their power fed into storage crystals and used to summon more monsters from the other realms. They won’t have to see what the Emperor does to the rest of the world.
She pushed the thought aside bitterly – she was helpless and enslaved – and turned her attention to the next box. An old Hand of Glory, burned and useless; a Ring of Power, the gem cracked and broken; a Soul Drainer … she shuddered, remembering how her father had insisted on using one on Johan, hoping to spark his magic; a knife that felt oddly familiar …
It was familiar! The Conidian Crest was emblazed on the hilt, while magic – family magic – crackled around the blade. She remembered watching, years ago, as her father had presented it to Jamal, on the day he’d turned sixteen. The blade was charmed; it would be lethal, instantly lethal, to anyone it cut, unless they were a close relation. Charity could hold it safely, she knew, and even cut herself … but anyone else?
And if it’s here, she asked herself slowly, how in all the hells did it get here?
Jamal had carried the blade everywhere, she knew. She was sure it would still work for him, even after he’d lost his magic. The blade was linked to the family’s bloodline, not his magical signature. And that meant … her older brother was somewhere in the city, alive and well. She hesitated, unsure if she wanted to ask the Emperor for permission to look for him, then rose to her feet. Perhaps he’d give her permission to find him …
… And if he did, at least she wouldn’t be alone any longer.