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Not Gods, But Demons

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It was a warm summer's day when she tied her horse to the tree at the edges of the woods, and looked up the grassy hill to the small, rocky cave entrance. The leaves were green, the birds were singing, and somewhere many miles away her men were falling to the swords and spears of her sister's armies, giving ground, falling back, making their heroic last stand.

She had known the place for a long time. Once she had realised her sister's ambitions, she had dug in every library and trove of ancient knowledge, and employed a small army of scholars to do the same. She had not known of the Word at first, of course: it was a better-kept secret than that. She had merely sought anything, any knowledge or power or wisdom, that might tip the balance in her favour - and she had no doubts that her sister was doing likewise. She was careful. Those who burnt the papers that she found were not the scholars who loved them so. There would be no such weakness in her sister's strategies, and so she endeavoured to exclude them from her own. In the end it had not been in the papers, despite the rewards she had offered and the wide search that her people had conducted, but the act of looking attracted those who knew.

They had come to her in the night, three shadows in her room, winged and clawed and fanged. Her first instinct was to take them for assassins, but she quelled such thoughts, because had her sister managed to infiltrate assassins to her bedchamber, she would not have allowed her to wake. Neither were the kind who would wish to gloat of their accomplishments to the other. Her sister did not seek her humiliation, her screams, her pleas for mercy - merely her calm and quiet elimination from the list of threats that she had to consider. There were plenty of dangers for the royalty of Charn, these days, without a potential competitor remaining alive. The people were challenge enough.

One to each side and one at the foot of her bed, the winged horrors each asked her a question.

"What do you seek?"

"Why do you seek it?"

"What is the price you are willing to pay?"

She had made to answer confidently, as befit her station, but found that a strange paralysis had crept over her, and she could do no such thing.

"Do not be hasty."

"Consider your actions."

"To seek is to find."

She had fallen then into sleep, but not the kind of sleep which is a blank relief from the day's concerns - no, this was a dreaming sleep, and the dreams were not the jumble of the mind turning over the worries and thoughts locked within itself, but the clear and vivid dreams of a prophet. From the west gate of a familiar city, she rode through a gentle forest, drank from a crystal brook, ate from a fruit-heavy tree - out of season, as the summer air and the vivid green leaves reminded her - and finally came to a grassy hill. She tied her horse to a tree and looked upon a cave entrance, and then she awoke.

It was the morning, and her recollection was perfect. Of her night-time visitation, there was no trace. She was glad, as she would have hated to have been forced to waste competent guards by slaughtering the witnesses. Her breakfast was poisoned, and there were no traces of the perpetrators of that crime, either. She began to worry. Had she awoken forces that she could not control?

Of course not. There was nothing she could not control. She was the heir to the Empire of Charn.

She had gone to the place, naturally, just to see if it was correct, but she brought provisions and did not drink or eat from the countryside on that visit, nor did she pause to tie up her horse. Not seeking, she thought to the cave, not yet. She cursed her own absurdity - nothing could hear one's innermost thoughts - but the directed thought made her feel comforted in a way that she had not done since she had stopped observing the rituals of prayer she had been taught as a child.

They are not gods, but demons, she reminded herself sternly on the way back, these things which tempt me to that cave. And I may find my death there as likely as I would find my sister's. But it is important to have such things in hand, against the times that might come.

Then she had begun her campaign in earnest, for she did not want to have to return to the cave and all it offered. While her parents were still alive, of course, she was circumspect, ensuring that those with influence and resources were in favour of her and against her sister in a myriad different ways. At first she spent as much effort striving to turn them against her sister, always through the most deniable of agents, as she did in turning them to her way of thinking, but as time wore on she noticed that there were other relatives who wished both parties ill, and that letting any of them clean up the leavings from her sister's failures would merely gain her another opponent whose motivations and goals she did not know as intimately.

Her preparations had not matched her sister's, though. As if innocent of guile, her sister had not appeared to block any of her machinations, but when it came to direct confrontation, Jadis found her support slipping away, or outnumbered and outmatched, at every turn. And always she would ride out with those priests, hypocrites with a pocket full of gold and a mouth full of litanies, and attribute her successes to some higher power.

Soon she would know the meaning of 'higher power'.

Jadis strode towards the hill with long, confident steps.

The woodcutter found her several days later, wanderingly aimlessly through the forest. Her clothes were torn and she was starving. At first she seemed to have no understanding, like a child too young to speak. He recognised her, of course - how could any citizen of Charn not do so? - and he was not sure whether his actions were motivated by simple human kindness, or the hope of future favours. He took her into his house, fed her carefully (for he knew that if you fed a starving animal too much, it could die of it), cleaned and bound her wounds, put her to bed in his own place while he slept on the floor. Over the course of days he nursed her back to health, and in that time she did not speak, just looked haunted and passively accepted his ministrations.

One morning the light of reason awoke once more in her eyes, and she ran the woodcutter through with a kitchen knife before setting out to find her horse. It would not do to leave one alive who had seen her thus. Her horse was dead of thirst, so she returned to the cottage, stole some provisions - it wasn't precisely stealing, for did not the whole of Charn belong to her, now more than ever? - and walked back to town.

She was met by terrible news of defeats and encroaching armies, so she dictated a letter in a code that only she and her sister knew, copied it several times and sent it by a variety of couriers. Then she commandeered another horse and rode out for the capital.

The rest, as they say, is history.