Excerpt from The Book Of Severin
Lord Severin, first of his name, took Beijing for his seat and declared himself master of the world.
The archmages of Indochina, Nippon, Formosa and the Visayans, receiving his summons and the grisly tokens that accompanied them, made quickly to bend the knee. The Lords of Eureysha, proud and haughty, felt themselves protected by distance. Rudely they pronounced that they would prefer death to kneeling before an upstart king.
Severin set out to bring it to them. Having bound a coterie of twelve daihaks to his will, he made his march upon the continent, saying: “wheresoever I go, death shall be my shadow.”
In the foothills of the Indus Kush, the Dark Lord vanquished the Naga's hordes, withering them with bolts of flame, before turning the Naga to a pillar of salt.
In the desert lands of Araby, blood flowed over the sands. The holy cities of Jeddah and Medina burned. Of Damascus Severin made a charnel house, watching as his daihaks consumed five thousand innocents in a day.
News of the devastation reached old Europa. The wars that had raged for a thousand years subsided and plans were made for Severin's arrival. An alliance was formed of Rus, Germania, Armorica and the Iberian Dragon Lords.
On the vast Magyar Plain, almost at the very heart of Europa, the Dark Lord met their army.
From the east marched the legions of the Grand Muscovy, the clanking of their armour echoing across the plain. From the west came the guards of the twelfth republic, their banners waving proudly in the breeze. From the north thundered the tanks of the German Baronies, each knight grinning cruelly behind his visor. Above, the war-dragons of Iberia circled, their great shadows almost blotting out the sun.
The Dark Lord, surrounded on all sides, stood quietly waiting. His daihaks, each thirty feet tall by now, formed up about him, snarling hungrily at the sea of troops before them.
The banners snapped in the breeze. All was quiet.
Then the Lords of Europa gave their signal and the army advanced as one.
It is said that the battle that followed, the final battle of the Great Mage Wars, raged for twelve days. Certainly, the scars wrought upon the Magyar Plain are still visible to this day.
When it was over, the remaining four daihaks each stood a hundred feet tall. Not a single enemy soldier had been permitted to quit the field. The tanks of High Germania sat in neat rows, each one a tomb for the knight within. The war dragons lay broken, their great wings stilled forever, ravens pecking at their eyes.
An expanse of fifty miles had been reduced to smoking ruin, quiet but for the calls of the carrion-eaters, the looming shadows of the daihaks dimly visible through the smog.
Trembling with awe, the Lords of Eureysha crawled forth on hands and knees. Approaching the Dark Lord one by one, they kissed the hem of his robe and proclaimed him their emperor.
So ended the Great Mage Wars.
A Conspiracy Outmanouevred
As the door closed behind Wu, Lord Chancellor Ishak rose and began preparing the council for the next topic of discussion. This was Grand Catai's current military situation, which the chancellor laid out for the council in brisk terms, showing the location of each fleet and legion that Catai currently possessed, their current mission, assets and strength in manpower.
This was the topic that Von Bek had wished to discuss before the colonisation of the Pleiades was settled. He and his allies wished to persuade Philemon that now was the time to reduce the military down to a small, professional force. They were opposed in this by the warlike contingent headed by Sassani, and thus had spent long hours coralling support and manouevring prior to today, when the issue would be decided. Unfortunately, Flint had succesfully thrown the timetable of the meeting into disarray: the result being that Philemon was now excited by a desire for expansion.
Von Bek looked to the emperor's face, noting with unease the greedy glint in its eyes as it watched Ishak's presentation unfold. He looked next to the Lord Marshal, who merely smiled and nodded calmly.
Maputo was ready, then.
Von Bek looked to the other side of the oval. There was Flint, shaking his head and making signs to Lord Atatürk, the Viceroy of Araby, who was grimacing and making signs of his own in response. This was good news at least- Flint's gaffe had so displeased the emperor that the Lord Admiral could not risk taking part in any further arguments without damaging his cause.
The field lay open to the Lord Marshal.
Seeing that Ishak was almost finished, Maputo cleared his throat and began to rise. But he was beaten to the punch by Lord Atatürk who leapt from his seat and called in a sonorous voice:
“Your Majesty, first please allow me to congratulate you on the acquisition of a most brilliant possession!”
Von Bek was forced to join in the general ovation with which this comment was met. On the other side of the oval, the Lord Marshal's expression was stony. The applause died away and Atatürk continued:
“The eight worlds of the Pleiades, conquered through the valient efforts of your father's fleets and legions, will soon be ready to receive the first wave of settlers sent forth from Grand Catai since the days of the Emperor Rinaldo. And though Vespa is indeed a fine little colony, that single planet now pales in comparison to the eight beautiful jewels your honoured father has bequeathed you. I am sure that in the course of your reign their soils will produce such colonies as were once only dreamed of...”
Atatürk continued in this vein for some time, glorying in the conquest of the Pleiades before bringing his topic around to the fleets and legions that had done the fighting. He alluded to the difficulty and bloodshed with which the eight planets had been purged of their native inhabitants, focusing particularly on Traast, where a bloody resistence had been mounted. Having paid his respects to the Lord Marshal, whose command had reinvigorated the stalled campaign, Atatürk subtly emphasised the extreme difficulty with which the legions had pacified a single planet of primitives. From here, he began to press for modernisation and expansion of the military as a matter of vital interest.
“After all, Grand Catai is no stranger to revolt and insurgency. Seven times have the ungrateful Vespeen mutinied against their imperial parent! Seven times has the shedding of Cataian blood proven necessary in a little less than two hundred years, and all over a single possession! Your Majesty's possessions now stand at nine- soon to be treble that number. We all believe strongly in the superior morals and values of our great empire. However, we know all too well how children are given to rebel against the guiding hand of the parent. Do any here doubt the possibility of future insurrections? Of course not. In fact, the possibility will only increase with each new colony planted. And should the guiding hand become slack in its ability to punish, then all that you strive to build might be lost in a moment. If you are to ensure that your hand remains strong and resolute, a large and powerful military will be necessary into perpetuity.”
Atatürk paused to examine his audience, most of whom were listening with serious attention. On its throne, Philemon listened with narrowed eyes. Clearing his throat, the viceroy continued:
“This is to say nothing of the external threats that an expanded empire will face. For it has ever been the paradox of empire that the larger and more powerful it grows, the more enemies it faces on all sides. Frankly, My Lord, we have no idea who or what lies waiting beyond the vast frontiers of your dominions. We know only of the Osirians and, for all Mage Wu's claims to the contrary, we can hardly be sure they are benign. Whatever their nature, it would be wise to increase rather than reduce our military strength within the Pleiades. If the Osirians are as weak as Wu suggests, then their conquest and subjugation would be advisory: for it is better for such a people to come under our protection than to suffer at the hands of a more vicious enemy. And if Wu is mistaken, and the Osirians are a warlike race, then we must be prepared for a bloody struggle against them. For no sensible people would tolerate the intrusion of foreigners into their territory. Against all possible threats then, both internal and external, a strong military provides the greatest security. I therefore urge you, My Lord: use this time of peace and prosperity to expand your military, for the tranquility of today may quickly pass away.”
With a flourish, the viceroy resumed his seat, a confident smile in place.
But this confidence quickly vanished as Atatürk saw the uncertain expressions of his fellow councillors. Von Bek heaved a sigh of relief. Though Atatürk had spoken well, it was clear that this speech should not have come from him, but from a military man instead. The result was that all were now guessing at the viceroy's motives in giving the speech, rather than considering the merit of his arguments. At the throne the emperor sat deep in thought, frowning and rubbing at its cheek in irritation.
With a smile, Von Bek watched the Lord Marshal rise from his seat.
“Your Majesty, if I might offer a more informed opinion, I believe I have a simpler and less expensive solution to the issues Lord Atatürk describes...”
Philemon waved its assent and the marshal began in earnest.
Playing to Philemon's boyish excitability, Maputo first told the tale of the Traastite counter-insurgency: his division of the planet's continents into zones of occupation, his rigid concentration of the population into the cities and scouring of the countryside for rogue elements. He spoke of the indoctrination and use of native auxillaries; of the final battle, in which the twelve great mugwumps had been butchered along with forty thousand of their best warriors, utterly breaking the Traastite will to resist. He explained how all of this had been achieved, not through overwhelming manpower, but through the careful application of strategy, political engagement at the tribal level, a crack airforce, the use of special forces and a large corps of magic users with loosened restrictions on their use of magic. Through all this he had turned around the stalled campaign of his predecessor and pacified Traast within nine months.
“In point of fact,” the marshal added with a scathing glance towards Atatürk and Flint, “I can confidently assert that any future rebellion within the Pleiades could be put down using a rapid reaction corps consisting of a mere ten legions supported by a single battle fleet. It is a question of applying the right tools to the problem, you see. I have already begun the work of reforming and modernising your forces; I would advise that we continue this policy, whilst reducing the legions and fleets down to a smaller, more professional force fit for the maintenance of your dominions.”
The emperor nodded slowly at this suggestion, evidently struck by the image of an elite fighting force that the marshal had summoned forth. Sensing his advantage, Maputo began pushing for the reform of the military around three rapid reaction corps, each consisting of ten legions and a single fleet. According to this model, two of these corps would protect the colonies in the Pleiades, with the third being responsible for Vespa and Earth. Composed of the best units currently in service, each corps would be equipped with a teleport capacity, enabling them to respond instantly to any crisis. This would allow for the disbanding of more than half of the Cataian military, greatly reducing expenses and freeing up almost a million potential colonists for the new domions. After all, what better reward for the Pleiadean veterans than a land grant in the colonies they had fought to secure? And what other policy could ensure rapid development of the new dominion, reward the veterans for their service and ensure that the colonies be filled with staunch loyalists all at a stroke?
“I have given the matter long thought, and there is no doubt in my mind that this project is necessary to dissolve the great difficulty of the moment, Your Majesty. The peace and prosperity of Grand Catai rests upon the strength of her arms, and yet, in times of peace such as we presently enjoy, the excesses of militarism can only serve to impoversh the nation. I therefore beseech you, My Sovereign, to choose for Grand Catai the middle way: let our strength be tempered by wisdom, and our wisdom be backed by strength.”
His head bowed, cape drawn about him, the marshal lowered himself to one knee. Exchanging glances, Von Bek and the chancellor rose and together lent their support for the Lord Marshal's proposition before likewise bending the knee. Taking their cue, the four vice-regents whose support the chancellor had secured followed suit: one by one, Lord Haushofer of Germania, Lord Urbino of Armorica and Iberia, Lord Kharkov of New Rus, and Lady Ahlstrom of Scandinavia approved the scheme before sinking to a knee. The room was silent for a moment. Then came a cacophony of voices all at once:
“I stand with you, Lord Marshal!”
“A brilliant and sensible policy, Your Majesty!”
“The savings in revenue alone would-”
“- wonderfully elegant-”
Von Bek looked up. Across from him, he saw Zazu Berieus, who appeared to be hovering on the edge of his seat. Their eyes met, and after a momentary flicker, Berieus rose with a sardonic smile.
“The scheme has much to recommend it!” He announced. “I pledge my full support, for the little it is worth.”
One by one they rose and knelt, until fully half the council crouched before the amused gaze of the emperor.
We did it, Von Bek thought with a relieved grin. By the grace of the Hyperdivine, we actually did it.
Ghulam Sassani, quietly seated throughout the preceding exchange, now rose slowly to his feet. Towering over the bent figures of his fellow councillors, he was silent for a moment, surveying them with quiet amusement. Then, turning his gaze upon the emperor, the viceroy essayed a strange and elaborate bow: holding out his magnificent peacock feather cape, he bent his legs outwards in a bobbing curtsy, his cool and teasing eyes on the emperor the whole while.
Straightening up, he began to speak:
“My Lord Emperor, truly this policy represents a bright future for all your dominions. If there are any doubts remaining in your mind, then please allow me to address them by further stating the benefits...”
And so Sassani went on, keeping all of his fellows painfully down on their knees while he filled the air with pretty words. Appearing to give his full support to the Lord Marshal's plan, he subtly exaggerated its points until they seemed quite ridiculous. Philemon's smile faded as Sassani mentioned the increased autonomy that the colonies would enjoy with a reduced military presence. It became annoyed as he spoke of how the dismantling of Catai's defenses would help win the friendship of the Osirians. As he carefully dismissed the possibility of the soldier-colonists using their training to revolt against Grand Catai's authority, Philemon finally snapped.
“Enough!” It bellowed. “I've never heard such ridiculousness! Hold your tongue, Sassani! As for the rest of you, get up off your damned knees!”
Sassani bowed gracefully. Around him the other councillors rose, their faces ashen.
“My esteemed councillors- do you think to bemuse and befuddle me with this show of patriotism?” Philemon hissed, its voices quivering with fury. “Did you really think I wouldn't notice your ploy? You would have me hollow out Catai's defenses, leave my possessions vulnerable to revolt and attack, all so you can save a few rupees from your taxes! Well let me tell you all, right now: your days of leading me about like a child are over! I am your emperor! And by the Hyperdivine's balls, I shall have your respect if I have to flay it from your bones!”
The psychic growl that accompanied these words reverberated through the amygdalas of all present; several groaned in terror.
Philemon's furious gaze turned upon the Lord Marshal.
“Maputo! You propose to hollow out my military and leave Grand Catai virtually defenseless, and you have the gall to dress it up as patriotism! Either you deliberately mislead me or else you have lapsed into total incompetence- DO NOT INTERRUPT ME!” It screamed suddenly.
The Lord Marshal took an step backwards, his words dying on his tongue. Raising a hand to wipe away the blood that dripped from his nose, he made a bow, his legs shaking beneath him. Around him the others quivered where they stood, their noses bleeding from the force of Philemon's scream. Only Sassani maintained his composure, smiling serenely as he dabbed at his nostrils with a lace handkerchief.
The room was silent.
At the throne Philemon lolled, gasping and shaking, evidently on the verge of a seizure as the beast bound to its soul raged and raved. At either side its Valkyries stood helplessly.
Seeing Philemon's pale, sweat-sheened features through the light of the holoprojecter, Von Bek was reminded suddenly of the night of Kastor's death, some four years ago. He and Lord Ishak had knelt at Philemon's bedside as the young prince had lain crying and shaking as though in a fever.
“No, I don't want this... mother protect me...” The prince had moaned as the shadows thickened within the room.
“Hush, Your Majesty, it'll be over soon-”
“NO! NO! I CAN FEEL IT! I CAN FEEL IT CRAWLING INSIDE!”
He remembered Philemon's terrible scream, the way he had thrashed and struggled; how those eyes, white with terror, had turned slowly black. Afterwards, the emperor had turned its face towards him, pale and sheened with sweat, its perfectly black eyes filled with the rage and hunger of aeons.
Von Bek shook himself. On the throne, Philemon was stirring. After a moment or two, it seemed to master itself.
“Enough of this.” It groaned. “My military forces in the Pleiades will be expanded. You will fund this additional security between you. And the next person who tries to mislead or manipulate me will find themselves enmeshed in a censure frame in the palace undervaults. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Your Majesty...” Von Bek and several others chimed feebly.
“I SAID: DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME!?”
“YES, YOUR MAJESTY!”
“Good.” It quavered after a moment. “Now get out. The meeting is at an end.”
Von Bek rose and departed the chamber, knees weak, his heart hammering in his chest.
Recovering himself out in the corridor, the headmaster chanced to see Zheng Wu, looking in horrified fascination at the bleeding features of the councillors as they staggered from the state room. Remembering their silent exchange of earlier, he grasped the young mage by the elbow and drew him aside with something approaching desperation.
“Wu wasn't it? I remember you well from the Akademia.” He glanced about to ensure they were not overheard. Ahead, he glimpsed the swish of Sassani's peacock cape disappear around a corner; Lord Berieus stood some way off, groaning softly as he leaned against a wall.
“Listen,” Von Bek whispered, “I was very impressed by your performance today: it's clear that you have big things ahead of you and that you take your responsibilities seriously... I'll cut to the chase. Several of my fellow councillors and I will be meeting tomorrow to discuss matters of imperial policy- I think your input would be highly valuable. Will you come?”
Wu considered the offer, evidently unruffled by this impromptu approach. After a few moments, he nodded soberly.
“Excellent.” Von Bek hurriedly scribbled a string of numbers onto a piece of paper and thrust it into Wu's hand.
“Four-fifteen Beijing time tomorrow, on this dream frequency. We expect absolute discretion of course...”
Seeing Lord Berius stir, Von Bek hastened away.
Returning to the Akademia, he found Dean Anderson nervously awaiting him at the entryway to his private tower. At the top of the stairs his office door hung ajar, half-blasted from its hinges. The room beyond had been turned upside down.
In the centre of the room Ariel was encased within a block of ice that was melting into the carpet. In the corner, the safe in which the headmaster had secured his most private documents hung open, its mechanism mangled.
“...heard the commotion, but arrived too late... burglars, their faces obscured by masks...” Anderson babbled, his piggy eyes darting as Von Bek inspected the safe. All of his correspondances with Ishak, Tremere and the Lord Marshal- gone. All the evidence they had gathered incriminating the viceroy in the murder of Kastor- lost in a moment.
“... I've recorded the thaumic signatures of course... hand them over to the authorities to be checked against the register. Frankly, however, I suspect the students. It'll take weeks to check the signatures against all of them. I'll start at once...”
Von Bek stared numbly at the safe, unable to understand the prattle that dripped from Anderson's lips. There it lay, contorted into a parody of matter, its door an eternal scream of torment. The evidence was gone and no culprit would be discovered. His hands shook.
For the second time today, Sassani had totally outmanouvred them.