Excerpt from The Great Mage Wars by Daedalus Gorgias
It was an age of High Magic: of unbridled potential, unchained from any principle of reason or sanity.
The Lords of Chaos were locked in interminable struggle, none able to rest so long as the others drew breath. And as the hideous pageant played out, the whole world trembled with each blow they struck. The thirteenth and final Great Mage War raged towards its apex.
Continents rose and fell. The crystal walls of Rajaput crumbled before the hordes of the Naga. The diabolists raised terrible things from the birthing pits beneath their citadels. The Tetrach of Madrid bred dragons and wyverns to make war upon his rivals while zeppelins dropped inversion bombs on the baronies of High Germania. In ancient Kemet, the pharisees flung themselves screaming from the roof of the Great Pyramid, driven mad by revelations disclosed by an avatar of Set.
The whole world trembled on its axis, ready to plunge into final madness.
Finally Severin, an obscure Archmage from the mountains of Thibet, did what was necessary to arrest the chaos of the Great Mage Wars. To his hand fell the greatest and most terrible act of magic ever to be performed.
Withdrawing to an ancient keep high in the Himilayas, Severin laboured thirty days and nights to draw the Demon Prince Astroroth from the deepest of the infernal pits. Then he tricked the beast and bound it to his very soul. In doing so, he became a thing more than human: a demi-god, immune to magic's touch.
He had damned himself. And in doing so, he saved the world from destruction.
In the shadows of dragons, against war-engines that belched nuclear fire and lances that flashed in the sun, Severin marched alone. Beneath the walls of Beijing he met the war-horde of Kublah, the last Great Khan. The struggle was short and violent. It is said that Severin plucked a tragic melody while he decimated Kublah's horde with flames that raged ultraviolet. He met the Khan in single combat and took his heart still beating from his chest. Then, leaving only irradiated dust in his wake, the Dark Lord plucked the diadem from his enemy's brow and entered the silent city, its stones and echoing avenues now his by right of conquest.
The Supreme State Council
It was by an ancient and little known codicil that the Headmaster of the Akademia Arcanum was entitled to a seat on the Supreme State Council. And though he had shown no previous inclination to assert this right, Tristen Von Bek had been quick to assume the title of 'Lord Preceptor' upon the Emperor Philemon's accession and had rarely missed a meeting since then.
The day following Rudolf's trial, January 30th, marked the council's first meeting of the year and Von Bek decided to go early, so as to see several of his fellow councillors prior to the meeting. Having informed his deputy, Dean Anderson, of this decision, he activated the teleport pad housed within his office and sent a request through to the palace. This done, he stepped briskly to a bookshelf overlooking his desk from which a brass statue of an eagle glared. The statue leapt to attention at the headmaster’s touch, its ruby eyes glinting with an inner light.
“At your orders, Lord Preceptor!”
“Ariel, monitor the office during my absense and record details of any intruders. Make no move unless attempts at theft are made, in which case merely detain the culprits.”
“Yessir, Lord Preceptor, Sir!”
The statue gave a stiff-winged salute and returned to its usual appearance. The teleport console chimed.
Pausing to examine his appearance in a mirror, Von Bek stepped onto the teleport pad and pressed a button.
A blinding flash of white gave way to a kaleidoscope of colour; a roar of sound lengthened into an infinite wave. Time and space were sundered as every atom of his being was unmade and remade instantaneously. A slight smell of cinnamon resulted.
Blinking, Von Bek stepped down from the teleport pad, now finding himself in the recieving hall of the imperial palace. Descending from the pedestal, one of many that lined the hall, he passed through a security cordon and proceeded to the palace's state room. Here he was subjected to another, more stringent series of checks before passing through an anti-magic field. His brain now scoured of logograms, he entered the state room, a sharp pain throbbing behind his eyes.
The state room was a grand affair: a great oval space, its walls hung with tapestries bearing the imperial device of a chimera and tricerous rampant surrounded by the shields of the nine viceroyalties. The ceiling featured a holographic fresco showing the original council of nine paying fealty to the Emperor Severin on the field of battle.
Below this, the floor was dominated by three concentric ovals of benches. These graduated inwards in terms of importance, so that the outer oval of plain oak benches bound a middle oval of gold-leaf seats, which in turn enclosed the innermost egg of ivory chairs, at the apex of which stood the imperial throne.
Pleased to find that he was the first to arrive, Von Bek took up position in the refreshment area to wait for the others.
Within a few minutes they began to arrive. First came those magistocrats firmly limited to the outer oval: the heads of minor ministries and a few lower court functionaries. A few minutes later came another group including the heads of several government agencies, the Secretary of State and the Head of the Vespeen Board of Trade. This continued for several minutes, with more important officials arriving at each minute.
An elaborate game now began to unfold. Each councillor stood first engaged in trivial chatter with his or her peers, their eyes all firmly on the door. As increasingly important officials entered, all competed to break away from their peers and detain their betters, who likewise fought to remain unengaged so that they might in turn intercept the higher officials before their rivals.
Von Bek was quite adept at this game by now. Chatting with the head of the Imperial Petitions Office about the spectacle of Valentine's trial, he skilfully drew her into conversation with the Minister of Finance, and thus was spared their competition when Zazu Berieus, the Head of the Colonial Office, strode through the door.
Stepping quickly forwards, he grasped his fellow middle-ovaller by the hand.
“Zazu. How are you? You got my notes on the Osirian question then?”
Berieus nodded absently.
“Tristen. Yes- I agree the hawks have it wrong: it would be unwise to let them push His Majesty into a military build-up so soon after the conquest of the Pleiades.”
“Ah, excellent! Then you'll join with us in pushing for a reduction of the military?”
“I cannot promise you that.” Berieus responded with a wry face. “Let's just say that I won't take the part of Flint and the others against you.”
With this, Berieus disengaged himself and moved quickly to avoid several outer-ovallers who were converging on him.
Von Bek tried the same conversation with two others with similarly disappointing results. Turning away in frustration from the Lord Treasurer, he bumped into a tall, thin archmage dressed in black. This was Conrad Tremere, Director of the Imperial Security Service. With his small, deep-set eyes, pallid complexion and upturned nose, the director was a man of ghoulish appearance. He gave a polite smile as they shook hands, his grip surprisingly firm.
Von Bek forced himself to return the smile, saying in an undertone: “Berieus and the others are shaky.”
“I couldn't get any firm answers either.” Tremere replied. “Not to worry, though. Ishak has secured four vice-regents for us. Sassani has two. The rest of the council will fall into line when they see which way the wind is blowing.”
Von Bek could not suppress a relieved grin at this news. He gave Tremere's hand a pump and the two parted as a fresh flow of notables came through the door, amongst them the first of the imperial governors.
The game now became frenetic. Satisfied that additional efforts were unnecessary, Von Bek kept off to one side, chatting with various outer-ovallers.
Surrounded by a small crowd, he succeeded in avoiding contact with Admiral Flint and the other allies of Sassani. And though he wished to avoid being seen in contact with his own allies prior to the meeting – and thus not excite his opponents too greatly – he could not supress a smile and a nod when his eye met that of Lord Marshal Maputo, nor did he fail to greet Lord Ishak when he finally entered the room.
The Lord Chancellor, a slight man, disfigured and twisted as a result of much magical combat, grinned at the sight of him and, side-stepping a gaggle of underlings, hobbled quickly across the room to grasp Von Bek's hand.
“Four vice-regents.” He growled, looking up into Von Bek's face with a lop-sided grin. “I almost had to bribe the bastards, but I got them. Let's see that blue ponce derail us now.” He stood for a moment vigourously pumping Von Bek's arm, his one blue eye twinkling merrily, the other, grey and filmy, staring blankly in another direction. Then he leaned forwards suddenly to whisper:
“We'll meet tomorrow at four-fifteen Beijing time. Usual spot. Tell the others.”
He straightening up with a wink, turned to greet a fat governor and was swiftly gone.
Following the arrival of the chancellor, the first of the vice-regents began to appear, elegantly dressed in robes of state.
Glancing at the door, Von Bek saw Ghulam Sassani enter arm-in-arm with Lady Giana Bonavia, Vicereine of New Rome and first cousin to the emperor. The vicereine was laughing at something Sassani had said. As Von Bek watched them, Sassani glanced in his direction and their eyes met for a moment. The viceroy gave a knowing wink.
Turning away in irritation, Von Bek saw from the large wall clock that only a minute or two remained and he moved quietly from the group to take his seat. Others followed his example and within a minute all were seated, save for Lady Bonavia, who paused a moment to exchange a comment with Lord Berieus at his seat. Feeling all eyes on her, she smiled with pleasure before descending to take her seat in the inner oval, tucking her robes beneath her with an elegant motion.
An expectant hush fell over the chamber, each face turning towards the door. A herald in a purple surcoat appeared to blast a fanfare on his horn.
The council rose as one.
“Presenting His Majesty, Philemon The Great And Powerful, Grand High Mage, Emperor of Grand Catai, Tyrant of Vespa and Master of the Far Pleiades!”
There was a great rustling as thirty-eight councillors prostrated themselves, followed by a long silence. The door creaked open and a reedy voice was heard, accompanied by demonic undertones. Lifting his head slightly, Von Bek saw the small figure of Philemon framed in the doorway chatting unhurriedly with Madame Xidane, its current favourite. Long moments passed. Finally dismissing the duellist, Philemon strode to the throne and settled itself into the pillows as its Valkyrie bodyguards took up position on either side.
“You may rise, my mages.”
Thirty-eight councillors rose on shaking legs and the meeting got underway at last.
The first item on the agenda was a review of the production reports and revenues from the last year.
A blackboard was wheeled in by a page, and for half an hour the sharp strokes of the chalk accompanied the droning of the councillors as they gave their figures. Philemon slumped in its throne, looking about in boredom.
Finally the last governor resumed her seat and all were relieved to see that the board told a positive story: quotas had been met in all areas except the mining of certain precious metals, while large surpluses were recorded both in grain and coca production, thanks to the efforts of the Vespeen plantations. The economy was stable, trade with Vespa had grown several percent and tax revenues were healthy. Von Bek was even disappointed to see that state expenditure had outstripped income only by a few billion rupees: he had counted on a growing defecit in state finances to support the argument for a reduction of the military.
“Excellent!” Philemon declared. “We'll flood the work camps with amphetamines and watch productivity shoot to new highs. The lack of fighting metals is disappointing, however the military appears quite formidable to me in its current state; I daresay you can wait another year or two for a new fleet, eh Flint?”
Von Bek smiled, glancing to where the Lord Admiral was seated in the second row. Flint, however, appeared unruffled as he rose and bowed.
“You must decide that for yourself, my liege.” The Lord Admiral replied calmly. “Lord Berieus has prepared a presentation on the exploration of the Pleiades: you shall hear how the Osirians press closely upon your dominions there.”
“Indeed?” Philemon's eyebrows raised. “Is this true, Berieus?”
“I cannot say, Your Majesty.” Berieus replied, glaring at the Lord Admiral. “It would be best if the facts be presented by the director of the survey himself, the honourable Mage Zheng Wu, whom I have called here to give account.”
Philemon's expression became irritated.
“In other words, Berieus, you either don't know whether the Osirians threaten my possessions, or you do know and don't want to commit yourself. How very tiresome! Your man had better have a simple answer for me- bring him in and advise him to be brief!”
The smile disappeared from Von Bek's face at this.
Flint had made a clever move. Von Bek and the others had fought hard to have the results of Pleiadean survey scheduled for after discussion of Catai's military situation. Flint had succesfully overturned this and their plan was now in jeopardy; inflamed by a supposed threat to its new possessions, Philemon would likely be hostile to any suggestion of reducing Catai's military.
Turning his attention back to the meeting, Von Bek saw the doors open to admit Zheng Wu, a slight, bespectacled young man he remembered well from the Akademia. The name was well-known on the council. Wu's father, Admiral Adalon Wu, had distinguished himself as a fleet commander during the Pleiadean War.
Mounting the rostrum, Wu bowed to the emperor before inserting a disc into the holoprojecter that sat at the centre of the inner oval.
A galaxy exploded into existence above their heads: a thousand lights moving in procession about the seven bright blue points for which the constellation was named. A stately dance seemed to be unfolding as they watched. Zesty points of yellow and orange weaved and wobbled as they paid court to the blushing blue maidens, whilst white and red dwarfs moved slowly in their midst, their lights expressive of sadness, mirth and glowering jealousy. Beyond, almost lost to view, were the brown dwarfs: fat and doughty with millenia, they trembled helplessly as they sank towards the dark heart of the cluster.
Peering respectfully at his audience, Wu cleared his throat and began to speak in measured tones:
“Your Majesty, My Lords and Ladies of the Council, you see before you Grand Catai's possessions within the Pleiadean cluster: almost eleven hundred stars and nearly sixty thousand planets. Following a survey in which each star system was visited and inspected, my team and I have identified over 300 worlds of potential interest, which I have divided into three categories. Here you see highlighted in green the 187 planets of high mineral value, representing proven reserves of platinum, gold and silver in excess of 50 billion tons, as well as Ruthenium, Iridium, Osmium and Rhenium deposits all exceeding a trillion tons each...”
So the explanation went. Zheng Wu cleaved briskly through his material while his audience sat in rapt silence, starlight reflected on their faces.
Highlighted in purple, Wu next showed those planets best suited to colonisation, focusing on the eight whose conquest had been the purpose of the Pleiadean War, with a further nineteen cited as excellent candidates for terraformation. Finally he highlighted in orange the bodies which would serve as necessary outposts and way-stations between the planets of most interest: the connective tissue required to hold the network together.
The presentation finished and Wu stepped aside to allow his audience to admire the star-map, the network of planets brightly lit to show Grand Catai's brave new dominion in all its glory.
Looking between Wu's quietly smiling face and the eager expressions of Philemon and its councillors, Von Bek realised just how skilfully Wu had focused the council's aspirations through the image of the star-map. He was not surprised then, when Philemon cast an approving glance in response to Zheng Wu's bow.
“Yes-? Wu, was it?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I would like to add that my team and I could have your dominion prepared for settlement within six months. I have taken the liberty of preparing a development program and a list of spell-effects that will be necessary.”
Philemon nodded enthusiastically, its black eyes shining.
“Deliver to me what you have just described and I shall reward you handsomely. The project must begin at once- what do you need to make a start?”
If Wu felt surprise or awe at recieving such treatment from the emperor, it did not show; the young mage merely smiled politely.
“My team will require the use of certain prohibited spells as part of the terraforming process: potent transmutation effects needed for atmospheric conversion and other such things- however, we can make a start without them.”
“Very well then. With the survey over, I now commission you to act as chief officer of the development program. You will submit your plan and requests for spell-effects at the council's next meeting. In the meantime, Lord Bereius will oversee your efforts and ensure you get everything you need.” The emperor glanced sharply at Berieus, who bowed in response. “For now you may proceed as you see fit. Lord Flint! Instruct your officers out in the cluster to assist Wu in his efforts. I consider this colonisation effort to be a matter of supreme national interest- Wu, deliver what you have just shown us, and I shall see you elevated to a titled archmage; fail, and you shall face an equally extreme punishment. Now, be off with you and- Damn it, Flint! What is it?”
The Lord Admiral had risen and was now standing in stony-faced silence.
“Forgive me, My Liege. But I cannot stand aside while you are misled by these empty promises. Berieus and Wu have failed to mention the largest obstacle preventing development within the Pleiades: namely the large Osirian presence there.”
“How dare you accuse me of misleading His Majesty!” Bereius bellowed, rising from his seat. “Apologise at once or I'll smash your face in!”
“Keep your trap shut while your betters are speaking, Bereius!” Flint snapped back. “If I wanted to hear the yelps of a fat bureaucrat I'd come and kick them from you!”
Berieus surged forwards with a roar and chaos ensued. The two councillors bellowed and swore at each another while a smaller crowd bunched about them, some trying vainly to restrain the commotion while others sought to indulge old grudges. Down in the centre oval, the vice-regents watched with expressions of bemused detachment while Lord Ishak banged his wooden leg against a chair, laughing as he called for order. The emperor watched from its throne, caught between amusement and anger.
Looking down, Von Bek noticed that Wu alone paid no attention to the disturbance, but stood off to one side, evidently deep in thought. As Von Bek stared down at him, the young mage looked up and their eyes met.
Wu smiled sadly. What should I say? He seemed to ask as he gazed into the headmaster's face.
Tell them what we both know to be true, Von Bek thought, nodding in encouragement. Tell them the Osirians pose no threat to Grand Catai.
A demonic growl rent the air. The councillors subsided, their teeth on edge.
Philemon glared around at them. “Bereius! Flint! Stop this foolishness at once or I shall have you both thrown in the corrections camp!”
The offenders traipsed back to their places and the emperor's attentions shifted to Wu.
“Now, Wu- are these Osirians present in my new dominion?”
Wu glanced at the headmaster, who gave a very slight nod. Setting his face, Wu bowed once more to the emperor.
“They are, Your Majesty.”
“And why did you fail to mention this?” Philemon asked, its tone dangerous
“I did not mention the fact because I do not believe the Osirians represent any threat to your interests, My Lord.”
“In frankness, I have met with the Osirians several times and I find them to be quite open regarding their aims and activities.”
There was an uneasy murmur at this. Wu – a mere mage – had clearly overstepped the boundaries of his survey in meeting with representatives of an alien people. Philemon glowered down at him, its mouth tightly set.
“The Osirians are active in the cluster in small numbers- they maintain outposts on several worlds, apparently for religious and research purposes.” Wu continued. “It is my judgement that they are a people in whom intellectual development takes precedence over everything: a peaceful race, with little instinct for conflict and no concept of materialism. They possess few warships, claim no resources, plant no permanent colonies. I have seen them engage in a degree of sharing unknown to us- it appears the very concept of ownership or property is indecipherable to them. They will fight to protect their persons, but not their possessions. Should we claim rights to a planet they are using, I believe they would simply move elsewhere. In other words, the Osirians are a race of pacifists and they will not interfere in your affairs in the slightest.”
The Lord Admiral rose once again to interject.
“My Lord, although Wu is clearly knowledgeable, his job was simply to make a scientific survey- he is in no way qualified to make political or military assessments.” He examined Wu with a sour smile before continuing. “He is also not the only one who has seen the Osirians up close. My fleet officers – Wu's own father included – have made extensive obserations which differ greatly from what we've just heard. However mild the Osirian character may appear to be, the fact remains that they are active in large numbers within the cluster and this must concern us. Wu suggests the Osirians do not respect property rights while predicting that they will steer clear of the planets we claim. Clearly, he cannot be correct on both counts. It is likely that they will become a persistent annoyance. Their extermination may prove necessary in the course of the colonisation effort, and this is a point that must be considered before any further steps are taken. No indeed, Your Majesty,” Flint added with a wry shake of his head. “It is not for a callow boy such as this to dismiss the threat out of hand.”
This last comment had been a mistake, as the Lord Admiral himself realised a moment later; Philemon was particularly touchy with regard to its youth, and the disparaging of this same trait in another had not gone unnoticed.
The emperor's mouth twitched as it glared at Lord Flint.
“This 'callow boy', Flint, has acquired a deep understanding of Osirian culture. Perhaps if you and your officers had been so dilligent during the Pleiadean War, the bloody mess of Traast could have been avoided. Don't be so quick to dismiss Wu, my Lord Admiral. You could stand to learn a thing or two from his methods.”
“My Lord, I meant no direspect-”
“Silence!” It replied curtly. “The discussion is at an end. Wu- you will begin the development of the Pleiades immediately. Bereius and Flint- strain yourselves to help the project along. Fail and you will all feel my wrath!”
All three bowed in response. Wu was almost at the door when Philemon called out again:
“One more thing, Wu. Your description of the Osirians interests me greatly. I want to know more about them- their home planet, the systems they control. As much as possible. I therefore order you to communicate with their leadership and arrange a visit to Osiris- a diplomatic mission, we might call it.” It paused for a beat, its face lit by a greedy and calculating smile. “The opportunity to study such an advanced people close at hand would be most... instructive.”
Wu bowed once more, his expression giving no hint of his emotions.
“As you wish, My Lord.”
It was not until he was alone that Wu allowed his anxiety full reign.
The door closed behind him and he leant against for long moments, his heart hammering against his ribs. With a few careless words, it seemed, he had threatened an entire people with extermination.