The three almost-free-standing mountains that overlooked and shaped the north side of the valley cast dark, greenish shadows over a battle spreading from the northern pass to the northeastern. By midday it had seemed it would be only a skirmish, that both sides were almost spent and neither would have the remaining strength to claim the valley. Then, the arrival of cavalry on the behalf of Lord Jethec’s forces, coupled with the sudden burst of furious strength from the disgraced Queen Uaroud’s, suggested otherwise. There was to be fighting for days if not weeks. It may spill beyond the two passes, it may approach the keep.
The High Seer sat as though this were of no concern. His many attendants and priests bustled, relaying and awaiting messages from distant analog keeps, managing servants and quietly urging guards to brace for invasion, though their sovereign would not countenance the suggestion.
“How can he say we are safe?” his staff asked amongst themselves. “We are going to be claimed. It is going to be bloody.”
The throne overlooked the valley and the three peaks, and the milling flurry of death that circled the base of the rightmost one was clear to see. Especially to the High Seer, who could describe every scratch on the blade of every pike, for the powers with which he was endowed by his nameless god. So he could see, as well, that the river bisecting the valley was low and would be no obstacle for whichever force drove the other back. And that a trail of horses and engines still poured over either Jethec’s pass, and an eldritch aura lit Uaroud’s smaller but no weaker army.
“Neither is going to reach my gates,” the High Seer insisted. “There is no danger.”
His minder, book held tight to his chest, voiced everyone’s concern: “Fighting has never crossed the passes. For them to have come so far is a sign that they have might we did not predict.”
“They have might,” the High Seer turned to him, shaggy beard like a mass of sea foam shifting as he moved. “but it is not might that will take this fortress. Not the might of worldly men. You will see.”
And the minder wrote something in his book, and slunk away.
It was not satisfying to anyone, but the High Seer’s word was final. And when messages came in from High Seers around the keep grid, the analogous big-bearded mystics agreed with him. High Seer E4, whose keep overlooked Jethec’s, insisted that the lord’s enormous army was pitiful; R13 laughed at Uaroud’s magic. At no point on the grid would any analog explain the defenses he foresaw halting the invaders.
Piraloc the cook was commanded on the third day to prepare a feast, to remind the keep’s populace that there was to be no panic. He muttered to himself as he oversaw the stoking of fires and kneading of dough, that it was foolishness. This was keep prime. The wordly nobles should not have known that. That two would invade, try to seize the valley in which it was nestled, suggested that the forbidden knowledge had been discerned somewhere beyond keep walls. Now he would be serving a feast of kingly luxury to the prime holy men as their castle was seized. Or burned.
An intruder came to his kitchen. Piraloc the cook lifted his chin to look down his nose at the High Seer’s minder, who crept in just as the meat and vegetables for the pie began to boil. The unnervingly skinny man, a little older than the cook and too weak-looking to carry the massive book of Seerly wisdom, produced a note to show him.
“This is from Piraloc D7,” he said in a hushed tone. “It was sent to him from the minder of H19, to him from a long string of analogs before that.”
Piraloc split the seal with a thumbnail. The note indeed had his own signature, with the grid identifier of his analog at keep D7. It was a recipe. He knew the one.
“It has come to this, then,” he eyed the minder, who could say nothing. “Am I to trust myself with this?”
“You authorized it yourself,” the minder spread his hands helplessly.
The cook threw the note into the furnace that powered the ovens.
“Very well,” he said. He would prepare this himself.
He gathered the necessary spices, the onions and carrots, and a certain bitter dust provided by the sorcerer.
He bade a handful of the dust take the form of a dead partridge, which he cooked and stuffed, and to which he spoke the required words.
When the feast was laid out, the counterfeit partridge was set for the High Seer himself. Piraloc was a master of his craft: the holy lord of the keep detected nothing, not for all his godly powers. With an easy calm that no one else shared, and a swaggering confidence, the High Seer devoured it.
Later, when he took again to his throne, he complained to his staff of a headache. The physician could do nothing, nor the diviner. When asked if he wished to rest in his bed, the High Seer accused his staff of wishing to undermine his word, and declared that he would remain here on his parapet in the open air until the meaningless battle was over. He spent the night seated and clutching his head and glaring wordlessly at anyone who approached him until they left.
In the morning, he opened his eyes and looked to the warring armies. Jethec had advanced another half a mile, but Uaroud had summoned a contingent of spirits to her aid. As before, in neither army’s future did the High Seer detect conquest over the keep prime.
Of course not, for, as he looked over their ranks, the tangles of men trudging through blood-muddied earth to put their spears to the meat of their opponents, men died. When the High Seer looked upon a soldier, that soldier fell away from him, as though shoved.
Then, the men did not fall, but were thrown. They struck the ground hard. The High Seer clutched at his head and demanded of his god to know what was happening. Now the distant soldiers were crushed by his gaze, it struck them with the force of a tree ripped from the ground in a typhoon. They were broken and pulped.
Then his vision dug divots into the ground. A deeper and wider trail of packed and displaced soil and then cracked stone. The High Seer’s vision smashed battalions and flung war engines, in pieces, back at their commanders.
Before the minder reached the screaming holy man and threw a lightless bag woven of blinding hedgeloam over his head, the north mountain itself buckled and burst, hit at its base with explosive force.
Everywhere on the keep grid, similar disasters were happening. Analogs of the High Seer beheld and destroyed their courts, and towns, and forests and mountains beyond them. Many were killed before they could do more damage, some demanded, curled on the floor with eyelids burning, that their god strike them blind, and of those a few were answered.
The minder, relieved that he had not had to kill the gasping man, tied the bag closed, and a pair of trusted guards came to drag him to quarantine. He then rested against the wall and took his book back up, looking out over the devastation that had, permanently, halted the invasion.
He hoped that his analog was right, that the disasters wrought this day were justified. As the note had said, in his own hand but not written by him: it is always the might of worldly men that stands to destroy.