Tolrahk Esal. Twenty second day of Arlon. Thirty first year of Drokga Rahd Tolrahk’s rule. Two years, twenty-one days since Sacral’s Return.
Carver stared into the vat of murky fluid. He could just barely make out the form of Alyre Manek lying insensate in its depths, thick white grubs slowly crawling over and around her, diving into her open wounds and swimming out again. He reached out with his magic and looked below the surface. The grubs were eating the necrotic flesh even as the magical weaves and nutritive fluids helped to grow fresh new tissue. He let out a slow breath. Progress was painfully slow. It had already been months and he was only barely staying ahead of the rot. And all this just to save her reproductive functions. The stupidity of it all. The truth was he had already extracted one of her ovaries, slightly damaged, and had placed it in his breeding chambers as part of his experiments into chosen heredity. Not that I’ll ever admit that to the Drokga, but it does make this whole process all the more pointless given the brood of children she has growing in the lower chambers.
The light in the room shifted as the sun sunk behind the wall outside. Carver sighed again, louder this time. His slaves and assistants slowly moved away from him. All too aware of what was coming - It was almost time for one of the Drokga’s messengers to come, demanding to know how much longer it would take to get the tyrant’s favored chosen back on her feet. And yet he doesn’t come himself. Doesn’t come and doesn’t question, or complain, or rage about the loss of the battle to the Bialtans. All he seems to care about is this single Warchosen. Carver repressed a sudden impulse to kick the tank of murky fluid. If only the fool would let me use Fleshcarving on her... You’d think he was intent on breeding the woman himself. The thought stuck. It was not, perhaps, such a stretch to believe the bastard might really hope to father chosen children to succeed him. Never mind that the traits aren’t directly inherited, or not in any obvious way.
A loud banging on the door pulled him out of his musings. Right on time. He motioned for one of his slaves to let the messenger in. But the door opened on its own, a half dozen gold skinned guards entered and took up positions to either side of the door. The Drokga followed a moment later, as stiff and superior as ever.
“Carver! Where is my warchosen?!”
Carver ground his teeth. “My lord Drokga. I was not expecting you today. I apologize for…”
“Where is she?!” he growled.
Carver gestured toward the tank. “Her condition is much unchanged, as I have informed your messengers.”
The Drokga looked back at him and sneered. “Why is it you insist on wasting my time, Carver? Surely repairing a small portion of one body is nothing for one of your power? I’ve even given you the assistance of my own healers! And still you fail?!”
Carver bowed low, barely managing to hold himself up with his cane. “For faster results we would need to carve her flesh or beg the assistance of an appropriate priest…”
“Those are not options, as you well know. Once a god gets its hands in you they never let go. And your own solution does nothing but trade any hope for the future for a few days of life - unacceptable.” The Drogka paced around the workroom grimacing in disgust at the cowering slaves, servants, and experiments alike. “Ever since you came to me, you’ve complained that I demand the impossible, only to provide the very thing I ask for a few weeks later. I have been as patient as I am willing to be with this, Carver.”
Carver gestured to the large vat that had housed Alyre Manek since the battle. “My lord, she improves slowly, but progress is being made. As I told your messengers, the wounds she sustained would normally have been instantly fatal. By the time she was brought to me, her very flesh was rotting within her carapace. That she even made it to me is a testament to the power of my work. I assure you - she lives, and her mind is sound. Some of the missing portions of her body have been regrown and the cleaning out of the necrotic flesh continues. One of her kidneys has recovered to the point where it has started functioning, after a fashion.” The Drokga’s expression was stone. “If you would only let me use the full range of my craft on her, she would be back on her feet by the end of the day.” Carver suggested again.
“She will never be able to bear children if you do that. A warchosen of her talent deserves a legacy and I will not deny her one!”
“My lord, if…”
The Drokga cut him off. “You will not suggest this again. Am I understood?”
“Indeed, my lord,” said Carver, bowing again. “I will continue my efforts. But at best it will be many months before I can attempt to bring her out of the vat.” The Drokga didn’t argue. He stood in silence for a moment and then made a sweeping gesture as if brushing the topic away. “As it happens, I am here for other reasons.” He turned back to look Carver in the eye. “I’ve been consulting with the warlocks and the survivors of the battle with the Bialtans…” Ah. Here it comes at last. The Drokga paused for a moment before resuming his pacing. “I was waiting to speak to you about the battle until I had a clear idea of the circumstances surrounding our defeat.” Finding reasons to lay the blame at my feet? Carver wondered. “The truth of the situation is clear - the Bialtan victory was orchestrated by two singular men. The first was Archmage Dantic, the Arcanum’s only eighth order mage. I’m told he has amazing potential. At only forty-five years of age, he was considered for a seat on the Arcanum’s Closed Council. He has also recently been named as the Arcanum’s Warmaster. Not a title that seams to mean anything just yet, but could become a concern in the future.”
Carver bobbed his head. “Was he responsible for the insanity that gripped our warriors late in the battle? The fool I placed as regent of Bialta is, predictably, getting big ideas and isn’t willing to answer my questions.”
The Drokga smiled, enjoying Carver’s ignorance. He shook his head slowly. “It was not. It was a tribal from the far north of the great desert. One Kishan Nikhil, he calls himself the Kladic of the Oviyan tribe. A tribe that is all but extinct from what I’m told.”
Carver’s eyes widened. “And this desert mage was able to undo our entire force on the very edge of total victory? How?”
“Weaves of great delicacy and vast scale, is all I have been able to learn. He can alter perceptions far more effectively than any illusionist. His arts were only unleashed at the end of the battle once the warlocks had been defeated. Several among them were able to see glimpses of the patterns, but none were able to take action while they fled for their lives.” The Drokga stayed silent for a time then, his eyes focused somewhere in the distance and his hands opening and clenching as if choking the life out of someone in his mind. “Prepare Nasaka Jadoo. Brief him and send him to Darien. I want that tribal dealt with, immediately.”
“And the warmaster, my lord?”
The Drokga made a dismissive gesture. “Secondary in importance, at best. Even with his support, the Arcanum only barely defeated the Warlocks we sent for the battle and our warlocks were outnumbered at least three to one. Were he truly a master of war magics he would have been far more formidable. No. I want Nasaka to remove this tribal and ensure that the execution cannot be tracked back to us. No witnesses – am I understood? I have no interest in renewing the conflict with the Bialtans, but I can’t allow the Arcanum to learn these things. Any knowledge of this desert mage’s arts must die with him. War on this continent is already influenced far too much by damned magics. With power like that, there would scarcely be a need for warriors.”
Carver nodded. I’m sure Nasaka will relish the challenge. He is currently feeding, but I should be able to awaken him and send him out within the hour.” I’m sure it grates to have to ask me to send out your own assassin, doesn’t it Drokga? Carver repressed a smile of his own. “Should I prepare for another large-scale engagement in any case?”
“There is no need. The pretense that our army was stationed north of the Keral border by mistake may be a week excuse, but now that the regent has publicly accepted it, the Bialtans won’t bother us unless we give them another reason. Our surviving troops crossed into Keral where they provided early relief to the mercenaries already stationed there. The rest of the continent is more than happy to just accept the story and pretend nothing untoward happened. Keep production as it is. Our forces will have completely recovered from our losses in another year or so.”
“And you are not displeased with the outcome?” Carver asked, tired of waiting for the blame to fall.
The Drokga looked at him with a condescending air. “There was always far more to be gained in this war than what we could have carried off from their capital. No. I am not unhappy. We were defeated, but it was not the disaster it may appear to be. Our losses were heavy but not catastrophic. Fully half our warriors made it across the Keral border and will live to fight another day. Word spread of how we led the Bialtans in circles within their own borders until we finally allowed them to meet us in battle. A battle where we were defeating them quite decisively until the end. Defeating them with a force far smaller supported by a bare handful of warlocks in the face of nearly all of Bialta’s military might with the full weight of the Arcanum behind them.” He shook his head slowly. “No. It was a defeat, but one that gains us much. Requests for Tolrahkali bodyguards and mercenaries have devolved into bidding wars. Each of our warriors is commanding ten times the price of a year ago and that doesn’t include the premiums offered for warriors bearing a carapace. The other free cities have also started sending regular gifts and messages of hope for our continued prosperity.”
“They send tribute?” Carver was astonished. The Free Cities were famously independent and fiercely proud. All of them were constantly skirmishing with each other.
“They refuse to call it such. But in all but name, the Free Cities are now our subjects. We have won everything that a victory would have brought us and more. Our warriors fell in glory and victory for all that the battle was called a defeat. And that defeat ensured that Bialta wasn’t forced to prolong the war and Keral wasn’t made too nervous.”
The Drokga continued his boasting as if he had been personally responsible for the strategy, and everything that had been gained. Carver stopped paying attention and mechanically responded with the required acknowledgements. Had the bastard been angry with the results of my work, he would have been in to see me the same day. But my work outshines his every fantasy and he waits months to tell me? And takes credit for it all to my face? His approval means shit to me, and recognition for the victory even less, but the arrogance of it! Were the messengers and the demands just to toy with me? Carver’s jaw clenched, and his hands trembled on his walking stick. One day Drokga, one day I won’t need you anymore and then you will suffer for every one of these little slights you enjoy so much.