The Guns of Empire (The Shadow Campaigns #4) - Django Wexler

PROLOGUE

PONTIFEX OF THE BLACK

The last of the spring storms was always the most violent, and this one was a monster, lashing the desolate mountainside with wind and rain. Lightning crackled among the towering clouds and speared down in blinding white bolts to strike the spires of Elysium. The fortress-city clung to the mountain like a barnacle on a rock, hunkered down against the fury of the heavens. It had stood for nearly a thousand years, and no storm had washed it away yet.

But the downpour would end soon, and with it the rainy season, giving way to the hot, dry summer of northern Murnsk. The roads would dry and the fields would turn green with crops, and another sort of storm would come, a storm of men and cannon that was powerful enough to sweep even Elysium from its perch. The high, straight stone walls that had made the city impregnable in an earlier era were useless in this age of field-guns and mortars.

The Pontifex of the Black stood in a triangular room and waited for his colleagues, listening to the gurgle of water through a thousand hidden channels and the occasional distant grumble of thunder. He imagined the thunder magnified a hundredfold, cannonballs smashing the holy city to pieces above his head. Tearing down the great walls, ripping through the libraries and dormitories and the innumerable chapels with their patron saints. Destroying his life’s work, and the work of his predecessors, stretching back in an unbroken chain to Elleusis Ligamenti and then to Karis the Savior himself.

For one thousand, two hundred, and nine years, the Priests of the Black had performed their sacred duty and the ignorant world had been kept safe from the Beast of Judgment. They had cut a broad swath through the armies of hell, imprisoning every fiend within their reach, until demons and sorcerers had faded in the mind of the common man to nothing more than stories and legends. And all this work—all the good the Church had ever done, all that they’d bought with Karis’ sacrifice—could be erased, the prisons opened and the demons scattered to the winds, the Beast itself unleashed once more.

No, the pontifex thought. Not while I have the watch. No matter what those other fools may say.

The door opened with a squeal of rusty hinges, raising a cloud of dust. This meeting room had gone officially unused since the supposed dissolution of the Priests of the Black, the two remaining Church leaders preferring to meet in more elevated surroundings. In normal times, the Pontifex of the Black might see them once every few years, the shadow order going about its business in the depths of the city, invisible to the red- and white-robed priests who walked in the light of day. But these, of course, were not normal times.

The Pontifex of the White entered, his spotless robe instantly acquiring a fine patina of gray as the dust settled. He was an old man whose tall gold-edged hat concealed his balding pate. He glanced up at the Black and grunted a greeting, picking his way carefully across the moldy carpet to the ornate table. Pulling back one of the tall chairs produced another wave of dust.

“Still raining,” the White said, fruitlessly brushing at the velvet seat with one hand. “It brings me aches, you know. I’ve asked the Lord why it should be that rain outside makes my bones ache in here, but He hasn’t deigned to answer.”

He sat down, easing into the chair with an exaggerated sigh. The Pontifex of the Black remained standing.

“When you get to my age,” the White said, “you start to question the wisdom of building your holy city on the side of a mountain a thousand miles from anywhere.”

“I believe,” the Black said, unable to stop himself from rising to the bait, “it was intended to focus the mind on the contemplation of the divine.”

“You may need help concentrating on the contemplation of the divine, but I don’t,” the White said. “It’s been sixty years and I’m quite good at it. I could contemplate the divine quite handily in a warm garden somewhere, I assure you. Out here we freeze, drown, or fry by turns.”

“Take it up with Saint Ligamenti.”

“Believe me, on the day the Lord sees fit to scoop me up, I certainly intend to.”

And we all devoutly wish that day comes soon, the Black thought. Not that any potential replacement was likely to be better. The Priests of the White were more than