The Dark Lord Mogrash descended to his deepest basement, below the lower dungeons, below the magma reactors, below the well-warded and unquiet family crypts. He traveled down a spiraling path cut by a rockworm grown to enormous size by the Excessive Mining research and development division, and brooded as he went.
Visits with the sibyl of the depths never ended well. Such consultations had heralded the end of his father's life, and his grandfather's, and his great-grandfather's, and even the ancient half-giant forebear who'd founded their rapacious lineage. The old creature only brought ill tidings, but there were dire prophecies regarding the consequences of even easing her into retirement, let alone killing her and dumping her in a slither-pit somewhere.
Mogrash bashed open the door, scattering the heap of the knickknacks and souvenirs from conquered shores his ancestors had brought as gifts to the crone. As if keeping her happy with trifles might spare them her grim visions. He stepped over a pottery tortoise and a miniature hut woven of grasses and knelt in the alcove where the sibyl made her pronouncements.
Greasy torches flickered into life, casting the room in long shadows. The blood-smeared curtain before him twitched aside, revealing darkness and the twin blue sparks of the sibyl's eyes. "You were summoned, and you came," she rasped. Family lore said in her youth she'd had a euphonious voice, which had made the dread pronouncements even worse to hear. The rasp was more fitting.
"I am here," Mogrash said. "Give me the bad news."
"A child dwells in the village of Misery Chin, in the mountain provinces to the east. If allowed to grow to manhood, he will take over your empire, overthrow your ways and means, and send you from the halls of your palace forever."
Mogrash relaxed. This was, at least, not an immediate threat—not like the pronouncement of metastasized bone cancer she'd given his grandfather. He sighed. "So I'm expected to send my Fell Rangers to the mountains, raze the village, leave no stone upon a stone, enslave the women, and kill all the younglings to stop this dire prophecy from coming to pass."
"It's what your father would have done."
"Yes, but I'm more modern than he was. Besides, we've seen this happen a thousand times—the attempt to stop the prophecy will make it come to pass, won't it? We'll think all the children are dead, but one will have been spirited away, or maybe he'll just be off in the woods gathering mushrooms. He'll be so traumatized by the destruction of all he holds dear that he'll vow to avenge his family and dedicate himself to my downfall, learning the subtle arts of the marsh witches and the blatant arts of axecraft. And in ten or fifteen years he'll have my head on a pike, am I right?"
"Maybe," she said.
"Unacceptable." Mogrash shook his head, clacking together the tiny skulls of pixie-mages dangling from his braids. "No, I'll find another way. The key here is innovation."
The imperial surveyors arrived in Misery Chin, a village of subsistence farmers and foresters whose women had a brisk sideline in making protective fetishes of hit-or-miss efficacy for the miners who labored over the next ridge. The surveyors answered no questions, but proceeded to demolish the timbered central meeting hall. The villagers huddled in their hovels and waited for their inevitable deportation, drafting, or human sacrifice, all of which were known to occur regularly closer to the center of the empire. If the surveyors were here, that meant the Lord had some use for the village, and it probably wouldn't involve the inhabitants living there. Everyone had heard what happened over in Ragged Ledge not two decades past.
Instead, the surveyors and their fabrication wizards built a beautiful new airy domelike meeting hall of lightweight silver metal and sheets of something like glass that could be darkened or made transparent at a custodian's command. A man the surveyors claimed was Lord Mogrash himself—though that was patently absurd, he'd never travel all the way out here, he must be a lowly official in disguise—addressed the crowd at the dedication ceremony.
"This new community center is just the beginning of the changes I'm bringing to Misery Chin, beginning with the name itself: this place will hereafter be known as Progress Village. I have chosen your fair hamlet as the new experimental model for the perfect imperial society, and we will be building schools—of the practical, magical, and piratical arts—and providing job training for all." The ersatz Lord chuckled. "I see the worry on your faces, but fear not—none of the retraining is compulsory. Apart from having homes that are better insulated and meals with something other than weevils for protein, your lives won't change unless you want them to. The old are set in their ways, I understand. The new advances are really meant for the children."
He grinned, and the people in the front row said his teeth were carved into tiny skulls, so perhaps it was the Lord himself. "Attendance at school will, of course, be mandatory. It's important for children to learn." He waved a gauntleted fist toward the crowd of officials at his left. "Address any questions or concerns to the overseers. But rest assured, I will be visiting from time to time to check in on the progress of the darling little ones."
And thus began the Golden Age of Plenty in Progress Village.
There were only thirty children in the village, ranging in age from still-suckling to fifteen, which was the Lord's cutoff age. Anyone over fifteen wasn't a child anymore, but someone with the rights and responsibilities of an adult, as even the sibyl conceded. "And the girls can be dismissed, since you let slip the 'he' pronoun in your original prophecy," Mogrash mused. "One of those fourteen boys will be my downfall, then. I shall get to know them all wonderfully well."
"You could just kill them," the sibyl grumbled. "Nobody has any respect for tradition anymore."
"Yes, but we both know the executioner would go soft and bring me lamb hearts instead of the hearts of children to prove he'd done the deed. Even if I went in myself, wielding my mighty Trepanner"—his enchanted battle pickax—"there'd be some mistake, or the boy would turn out to be a changeling, with the real child living among the wood-whimsies, or something. No, better to keep them all under my eyes. The probability witches say this approach has the best chance of neutralizing negative results."
"Probability witches," the sibyl sneered. She'd emerged from her alcove to have tea, and she looked remarkably good for a creature countless centuries old—not a maiden, but not the crone he'd imagined, either. "As if you can tell the future with beads on strings and counting the chimes of bells and tossing dice endlessly in the air. You need blood and guts to get the attention of the gods."
"I prefer my gods inattentive," Mogrash said. "I'll bring you a jar of the local honey when I return from my next visit to the village. It's really quite good."
Things went well in Progress Village that first year. The people were prosperous, and having enough to eat and decent homes strangely made them work harder—violating the premise of motivation-through-privation on which most of the empire ran. Mogrash gradually rolled out similar model villages throughout the empire, focusing on the provinces where unrest was most common. He even made sure the slaves got enough to eat, and the need for extreme suppressions dropped by seventy percent. He had to put half the Slavering Corps on indefinite leave, and sent most of the rest to clear the ancient discredited swamp deities out of the jungles. So far, the dire prophecy wasn't proving all that dire, though Mogrash imagined that would change when one of the clever children tried to put a dirk into his eye and steal his crown away.
The oldest children graduated from an accelerated course in management and were sent off to cushy apprenticeships in the imperial city, once the probability witches determined none of them were the prophesied threats. The algorithms used by the witches were slow but implacable, and the Dark Lord had no doubt they'd eventually home in on the specific threat. As the years passed, Mogrash spent more and more time visiting the village, usually without his retinue of monsterish bodyguards—they made the locals nervous—and even had a residence built there, only slightly grander than the mayor's house. Occasionally he would go to the school as a guest lecturer and teach classes on geography (he'd been everywhere), history (he'd witnessed much of it), political science (he'd reinvented it), and mathematics (though his examples tended to involve numbers like troop strength and ration supplies).
Eventually the probability witches narrowed the suspects down to three children: Meph, a pale and moody boy of twelve who enjoyed shooting birds from trees with a slingshot and excelled at anatomy; Zander, a studious ten-year-old with some Wispfolk blood in his heritage, to judge from his faintly luminous eyes and his skills at gardening; and Khalil, a dark-complected child of eleven with a gaze that penetrated like acid-dipped arrows, who wanted to know everything. Mogrash spent weeks at a time in the village, running a special class consisting only of those three children, putting about the rumor that he was grooming them for positions high in the empire.
He grew fond of all three children, though Zander's pacifism was simultaneously irksome and reassuring (a boy who refused to learn the combative arts was unlikely to kill him, true, but Mogrash had trouble comprehending the mindset). Meph had a fondness for setting fires and vivisecting small animals and some of the local semi-sentients, so Mogrash tailored his curriculum to the destructive arts and the empirical sciences, while Khalil devoured history and statecraft books insatiably.
One day in a round-table seminar, as they were discussing the social experiment of Progress Village and its sister settlements, Khalil cleared his throat. "After careful consideration, my lord, I have a proposal: you should immediately abolish slavery."
"What?" Mogrash bellowed. "That's madness! Slavery is the backbone of our economy!"
"Ah, but my lord, if you'll look over these figures," he said, pulling out a slate and making rapid chalk marks, "you'll see that if you simply pay them low wages, institute a company store, and offer loans with, say, twenty percent interest compounded annually, you'll give your slaves freedom—something many of them clamor for—and save wear-and-tear from whipping, while still retaining them in the workforce and even making a profit from the usury."
Mogrash pondered. His family had gotten their start as slavers, but times changed, didn't they? He sent Khalil's proposal to the empirical accountants—the theoretical accountants would have rejected it out of hand—and was only slightly surprised when they found the projections sound. Mogrash abolished slavery, re-tasked the overseers as floor-, mine- and site-managers, and set up an account for Khalil to receive a fraction of a percentage of the interest from the company stores as a reward.
Before the boy was fifteen, he was richer than many of Mogrash's under-lords.
"You might've told me I couldn't have children." Mogrash was drunk, leaning against a wall in the sibyl's chamber, gulping from a jug of imported fermented woolbeast milk. "I married fifteen wives before my personal physician dared to suggest the trouble might be mine." He held his face in his hands and wept.
The sibyl sniffed from her shadows. "I foresaw that giving you more bad news would make you fill in the passage to my cavern with concrete."
"This will be the doom of the empire, not your prophecy. I have no successor!"
"Fool," the sibyl said, almost fondly. "As if you've never heard of adoption."
Meph, Khalil, and Zander were all from poor families, and their parents were happy to let the Dark Lord adopt their sons, not that they would have said anything if they'd disapproved.
Mogrash told the boys they were moving to the imperial city. Khalil barely looked up from his figures, just nodding briefly; Zander asked excitedly if the gardens were as grand as everyone said; and Meph asked how old you had to be to start pit-fighting. Mogrash, to his surprise, enjoyed answering their questions and extolling the many virtues of the city that bore his name, and even Khalil seemed interested by the time the troop convoy drake landed on leathery wings to bear them away.
The probability witches hit an impasse. Even after a year living in the palace, with the boys studying their passions with the greatest tutors and access to the greatest libraries in the world, they couldn't tell which one was the prophesied threat. Mogrash went to visit the sibyl, for the first time since embarrassing himself by crying in her presence. "Why can't they figure it out?" he demanded. "Which of my sons will betray me?"
"Hard to say," she said. "I see several paths—it's possible this is a dynamic destiny, that it could be any of them. Kill two of them and whichever one remains will be your undoing."
"Your continued comfort and your collection of trinkets depend on my largesse," he said, putting on his most threatening countenance, which had sent barbarian chieftains and effete overseas ambassadors alike into paroxysms of trouser-soaking terror. "You will give me guidance."
"Make sure none of them have any reason to do you ill," she said. "Just exactly what you've been doing. It won't neutralize the prophecy, but it may continue to push back the moment of betrayal until a point after you've died in some other less destiny-entangled way. It's the best I can do, my lord."
"Fine," he said, glowering. "I'll keep making their dreams come true."
The boys grew up. Zander spent almost all his time among the floating gardens, and fell in love with a Wispwoman, which seemed somewhat inevitable in retrospect. Meph trained with the most dangerous members of the Slavering Corps, and by all accounts held his own admirably well; when he wasn't studying the martial arts he was in the basement with the anatomists, delving into the secrets of life and death; and when he wasn't doing that, he was breaking the hearts of beautiful young men in the duelists' quarter. Khalil sat in with different magisters, surveyors, and advisors, learning the ins and outs of empire management, always near Mogrash's right hand. Khalil made many good, practical contributions to running the empire—there were Progress Villages all over by now, running different social experiments in parallel, with positive techniques exported empire-wide—though the Dark Lord preferred the company of Meph, and they often went hunting and whoring (albeit in different wings of the brothels) together.
When the boys attained their manhood and majority, the time came to give them formal posts. Mogrash went to the sibyl again, pacing in her chamber and pondering possibilities. "Meph seems the most likely to attempt a coup. He hungers for conquest. I fear he may be the one who turns on me."
"You haven't conquered the entire world," the sibyl said. "Give him something to do."
Mogrash called Meph to his war chamber. "How would you like to sail across the sea and conquer the jewel-rich lands of Lloqupul? It's a long journey, and there may be no coming back soon, as the barrier leviathans only sink below the waves and open a passage every few years."
"They have strange martial arts there, don't they?" Meph said. "I've heard they can make a man's testicles recede permanently just by poking two fingers into a nerve cluster." He flexed his hands experimentally. "I wouldn't mind learning that."
"Conquer them and they'll teach you whatever you like. And I'll make you governor-general of any lands you take."
Meph embraced him. "I'll pack my bags."
"Take Trepanner," Mogrash said, tears threatening to rise for the second time in the decade. "I hear the skulls in Lloqupul are thick."
"And what of Zander? I can see him turning on me, too. He disapproves of the ravages of empire—he's already pushed me to stop strip mining, replant forests, release the Wispfolk from their ancient bindings. . . . He won't attack me directly, but he might poison me, or send deadly venomous insects against me, or have his girlfriend attempt to possess me."
"There hasn't been a life-tree in the empire since your great-great-grandfather's day," the sibyl remarked.
Mogrash called Zander to his rooftop garden, and among the fragrant carnivorous plants, embraced him. "My son. In the central plains, before my ancestors charred out the tree-dwelling natives, there was a sacred tree, and the whole of the plains were lush. Perhaps some seedling yet remains among the ashes. Would you be the equal of finding such a thing, and tending it to health?"
"I think it must be the work I was meant for, Father," Zander said, eyes shining more than usual. Mogrash had no family heirloom to give him, but he gave Zander's Wispform lover full citizenship status as a going-away present.
"And Khalil. Khalil, Khalil. He is so full of ideas."
"Alas," the sibyl said. "I have no ideas about what to offer him."
Mogrash called Khalil to his throne room. "My son. Would you like to be a diplomat? Head of the secret intelligence services? Tell me your desire."
"I wish only to implement the vision of a better empire you introduced with Progress Village, Father." Khalil's voice was full of reverent respect. "Your great experiments are glorious things."
I only instituted the programs to keep you and your brothers from killing me, Mogrash thought, but he nodded. "Prime minister, then? We've never had one, but I think you'd fit the job. Is there anything I can offer you, as a gift for making an old man proud?"
"Only sufficient funding, Father," he said, and Mogrash had to smile.
And so Mogrash ruled, though in practice Khalil did most of the ruling. After a few years of relative boredom, Mogrash gave Khalil his proxy and visited Meph in the ruins of the Lloqupulian capital, where they got drunk together and pissed on the floor of the Senate, singing bawdy songs. They harrowed the contested areas for a while, which Mogrash found more exhausting then he'd remembered, until the barrier leviathans opened another passage and Mogrash said his farewells and returned home. When he got back to the imperial city three years later, things were running more smoothly than ever. Khalil had granted all the Wispform people citizenship, banished the demonic engines below the Spiral Mountains and replaced them with coal-fired plants, and instituted other, even vaster reforms. "I apologize, Father," he said at their first meeting. "I knew my projections were sound, and that these changes would lead to greater prosperity, but I was afraid you wouldn't agree if I proposed them while you were here. . . Forgive me?"
Mogrash considered splitting Khalil's skull for the presumption, but he couldn't ignore the results; the empire was richer than ever. "I gave you my proxy," Mogrash said. "You are my son." Khalil's way was not the family way, but perhaps, unbelievably, it was better.
He visited the sibyl, who had not aged a day while he was gone. "It's the succession I fear," he said, having brooded over the subject during the long sea voyage. "Brother against brother, the empire thrown into chaos, all my work undone. Meph's warlike tendencies, Zander's gradually expanding zone of peace and green in the center of the empire, Khalil's philosophical underpinnings . . . they're bound to collide."
"So talk to them," the sibyl said. "Unlike every man of line Mogrash before them, your sons are good at talking." She paused. "Except Meph, but he'll manage."
With the help of his witches, he called up images of Meph and Zander from their distant locales, and sat with Khalil in the throne room. "I will not rule forever, and I do not wish to see my sons kill one another—"
"Oh, we've worked all that out," Zander said. "I don't want to run the empire. I'm happy with my trees. We've got two new seedlings this week."
"There's precious little killing to do back home," Meph said, raising his voice to be heard over the sounds of battle behind him. "I'm content here, where there are still frontiers. Let Khalil run things there."
"This is so . . . civilized," Mogrash said, unsure whether to be proud or disturbed.
"I will rule only with your blessing, Father," Khalil said.
"You have it, of course."
Khalil cleared his throat. "When do you think you might want to, ah, retire, Father?"
"Retire? No Lord Mogrash has ever retired! We've always ended in blood and glory! Or at least blood."
"Well," Khalil said. "I respect the precedent, but . . . do you want to end that way, Father? None of us wish you pain."
"I don't know what I want anymore," Mogrash said, and went away to think on it for a while.
"I was sure I'd die in battle," the former Dark Lord said, sitting on the stone floor in the cold bleakness of the sibyl's chamber. "Or at least be assassinated, or possessed by a bodiless horror from the hell-world next door. Something more traditional. Instead, this—peaceful regime change? And no more slavery, no more strip mines, no more necromantic factories fueled by human suffering? I thought I was modern, but Khalil. . . . Great-grandfather must be twirling in his crypt."
"I have heard rather more noise than usual from up there," the sibyl said. "What will you do now, Sirid?"
He hadn't heard his given name in decades, and rather liked the sound of it. "Khalil says I'm welcome to stay here—he loves me, the beast—but I'd feel useless. All these years, I thought I'd outsmarted you, found a way around your prophecies, but you were right. That child did take my empire away from me, he did overthrow my ways and means, and he will indeed see me leave these halls behind forever."
"Where will you go?"
"I don't know. I thought of going to the provinces, raising an army of snake men and omniphages and trying to overthrow Khalil, just to keep myself occupied . . . but the empire is better under his leadership, and I think I'm too old to lead monster-men. And the worst of it is, I don't even mind being sidelined."
"I understand. I'm leaving, too," the sibyl said.
Mogrash blinked. "You've been down here since this place was just a crack in the earth!"
"Yes, but I can see the future, in glimpses, and in those glimpses, I am no longer consulted. Khalil doesn't need me. He has probability witches and the surveying corps and ten-year plans. My time is done. And you know, I have all these souvenirs from the world beyond, but I haven't been anywhere. I was thinking of going to one of the little islands in the Lambent Sea, where you can hear the chanting of the dead sailors under the waves and watch the witchlights in the water each evening. I think I might have come from there, originally."
"You don't remember?"
"I see the future, betimes, but the past is mostly lost to me."
Mogrash felt his hand creep across the floor, almost of its own volition, and touch the sibyl's long delicate fingers. "I've always liked the islands. A simple house, among the palms. It sounds . . . pleasant."
"It will be," the sibyl said, entwining her fingers with his.