Sunday, May 24, 2020

The War of the Bull and the Sable Maid

Maxim Kozlov


This post involves a whole lot of references to a whole lot of other stuff from my Mother Stole Fire setting, and I forgot to add links to it the first time around, so if you aren't familiar here's all the pertinent info.

The Red Machine

"The principle act of power is to devour that which cannot defend itself from power."
-  Potbelly Hill Sermon II

It is possible to optimize the universe for human suffering. A seed of the Red Law that, fed with gold and watered with blood, will grow in the hearts of men until the answer is made clear: the precise formula that will create a cruel machine that cannot end, that will grow without ceasing until it has devoured the cosmos and in eternity, that will extinguish all opposition and gather all things to itself until each atom is devoted to the principle act of power, and there it shall sustain itself eternally and the power of the machine shall be absolute.

This is how Hell is built.

The Coming of Dis

 "What's the phrase that everyone uses? Slouching towards us to be born?"
-Raggedy Osti, witch; Oral Histories of the Maid's War vol. I

The combination of chaos and wealth is fertile soil for the emergence of Hell. Coreolana had always been wealthy, but in the decades that lead up to the plague it had grown obscenely so - its location on the western coast gave it access to every port on the Mare Interregnum, and it came to outclass the older and greater cities.

The first changes were slow. Laws were adjusted, exceptions were made, and the wealth was concentrated among a few. Then came ideas on how to gain more wealth. To optimize for wealth. The dread equations were written out, and the pasty men of account books and sharpened pens saw in them the glimmer of the Red Law.

The poor of the city were funneled into the irons shells of the dark satanic mills, and in the shadowed center of the city there was built the Bull

And thus emerged the city of Dis.

This could not have happened at a worse time for the world: The Empire was well into the senile decline of all empires - a useless emperor and an endlessly feuding aristocratic oligarchy crown fat and complacent on their riches, the cruelty of empire only sharpened by their incompetence and utterly incapable of bringing even the Heartland to heel, let alone distant Coreolana.

Doddering Acephavara, slowly collapsing from generations of structural and societal neglect, was already more ruin than nation. A toothless object of pity.

Kvaare was in the grips of the Golden Revolution that would claim a tenth of the population before the plague even reached its shores. 

Pelai's mage-kings had dissolved their ancient compact and each was at the throats of the others, and their southern neighbors feared an arcane war spilling over down into Andaland.

With the powers of the day so consumed, Dis could see no resistance.


The Maid

She was fourteen when the visions began. This was in the early days of the plague; before the greater outbreak, before the death of the emperor or Dis' strike into the Low Country. She was tending her family's goats in the early morning when the image of Ama Adimatha and Baba Tubalkhan appeared to her, telling her that the plague would not be contained in Olabeth and that Hell would ride out of the west unchallenged should nothing be done, and together those forces would usher in an age of Moloch that would last long past the death of the last star in the sky.

The next morning she took her father's old sword and the family's old pony, and rode off to Orlei to speak with the king. 

The early days are often mythologized and embellished, but the actual events remain rather mundane: she was shuffled between and repeatedly dismissed by Orleian authorities for several weeks (which she spent living in the upper loft of the stable where she found work mucking out the horses) before she found a sympathetic ear in a minor government minister, which led to a meeting with a less-minor minister, and so on and so on until she reached the king. The conversations she had with him were secret, but a few days later it seemed that he had been convinced - she had been made a tactical advisor of the main Orlei militia force with the king's blessing.

She was often questioned about the validity of her visions early on, as many presumed she was mad or lying. While the visions could not be proven, her account was consistent in all of her tellings, as was her defense of her mental state: if she was mad, she would have spoken of glory or honor or service or sacrifice, and had she been lying she would have done the same. No one attempting to mislead others would be honest about the cost of warfare.

The goatherd's daughter from a poor country township proved to be a skilled stateswoman and master tactician. She had the ear and favor of the king, true, but more importantly she was beloved by the people. Her vocal denouncement of imperial occupation, the imperial church, and the institution of slavery won her allies across the High Countries and the Dayr, but it was her charisma, kindness, and quiet piety that truly won them over. They made her their champion, the embodiment of all the dreams and desires that had languished under years of Imperial occupation. They called her the Sable Maid for her habit of dressing all in black, and the first women who would eventually become in the order devoted to her took up her banner in the slums and townships of Orlei.

With such infectious support, she was swiftly transitioned from militia advisor to the leader of her own autonomous army.

When the plague arrived later that year and Dis made its first attacks, Orlei and the High Countries were prepared.

The War of the Bull

"To the gates! To the gates! Tear them from their hinges!"
- Battle cry of the Army of the Avirienne
It would be over fifteen years of war before the Maid laid her eyes on the gates of Hell. It was a war of many wars, a time of plague and famine and violence all across the world, but the greatest part of it was fought in the Low Countries by the forces under the Maid's direct control.

Dis was, for all its power, vulnerable. While it possessed the strongest industry, the most powerful machines and beasts of war, demonic auxiliaries, and the support of the Lords of Hell and their servants, it lacked raw manpower and resources. Its original strategy - lightning capture and conversion of nearby city-states - was frustrated by the coordinated resistance spearheaded by the Maid, and so Hell's hold over the Low Countries remained unstable throughout the war

Some modern observers will gloss over the fact that it took 15 years for the combined military forces of nearly every civilization in the world just to stall out, not conquer, a single city-state. This is dangerous folly: Had Dis been able to convert a single other city there would have been no stopping it, even with the Sable Maid.

Dis' grander strategy involved a series of minor invasions and expeditionary forces around the Mare Interregnum - purposefully too small to permanently conquer any territory, these fleets were intended as suicide rushes to destabilize those civilizations and make a foothold for a later wave of troops. The resistances against these attacks, particularly in Reniriya and Andaland, are no less heroic than the Maid's own, and worthy of every praise given to them.

Mariana G

The Last March 

"Cloth banner of the Army of the Avirienne, handmade. Party per pale argent and sable. Words "Les portes de leurs charnières" embroidered in gold. Recovered from the battlefield at Old Seminary Bridge (Victory of 5th Infantry and 1st Artillery against unidentified detachment of Tax Lads). Carrier unidentified: remains found at site indicate child of 10-14 years. Remains cremated upon recovery with highest honors." 
- Informational Plaque, Royal War Museum, Orlei

A final approach across the devastated Low Countries was against the harshest resistance Dis had put up since the war began. With its overseas invasions thwarted, Dis put all of its remaining industry toward breaking the Maid's assault. It was this period that saw multiple Lords of Hell emerged from the city to lead its armies directly, several of whom proved major obstacles to the Maid's armies.

Despite the resistance, the armies of the Maid had the advantage of experience: Hell's forces were primarily pit-manufactured and mass-produced, and demons are unceasingly single-minded and incapable of change. The Maid's forces had fought the same enemy through fifteen years, passing accumulated mastery on to the successive waves of fresh recruits. This continuity, despite the incredible casualties, proved decisive in this stage most of all, and lead to the death of a full third of the known Lords that had taken to the field.

In the hindsight of history, this is the part that shines brightest: triumphant armies under a dozen banners liberating long-tortured territory. Former enemies made the closest of allies. The maid riding at the head of a column representing all the peoples and nations of the world, unified against the only true enemy.

The Siege of Hell

"They burnt everything behind them as they retreated. Stripped the fields bare, poisoned the wells, dumped corpses in the rivers. You could go days before without seeing a tree, and when you finally did it was a half-petrified, stunted little thing. The soil was just dead, grey gravel...and then we hit the trenches. Miles and miles of trenches and stakes. The closer we crawled to the city the worse it got. The sky grew darker, red-black - by the time we reached sight of the walls it was dark as night at noontime."
- Berenius Colm, 47th Infantry Division; Oral Histories of the Maid's War vol. XV

The assault on Dis came first from the sea, as the naval allies from Pelai, and Amda (and one lone Acephavaran vessel), fresh off their victories in the Belt, blockaded the began their bombardment of the city's southern and western walls. The land armies approaching from the north and east were forced to fight-trench-by trench on approach to the city. The Dispaterian forces had been routed, but they were cornered and desperate now. At times the fighting reached the foundations of the walls themselves.

The bombardment, despite lasting until most units had run out of ammunition, failed to open a breach into the city. As the pressure lessened, counter-attacks out of the city became more frequent, now consisting almost entirely of demons (throughout the war, demonic forces had exclusively served as auxiliaries to the Dispaterian legions). These strikes culminated in a massive demonic assault that would have easily broken through the eastern line, were it not for the last-minute arrival of desperately-needed reinforcements in the form of Themiskyran heavy cavalry, the Magelander airship Ineffable Punch Line Wonderland, and the Sable Maid herself.

The victory was short lived. Control of the battlefield had just been taken back by the Maid's forces when the cannon-scarred gates of hell opened, and the world stood still.

Darvatius Takes the Field

"History is divided from archaeology by which side of Darvatius it happened to land."
- Dr. Understanding Pre-Imperial Civilizations

Out from the gates strides Darvatius the Eternal, unseen since the ancient days. Perfector of the art of empire, conqueror of the world, the hobnailed boot upon the neck. Primarch of the Lords of Hell, the red right hand of Moloch. He is flanked by an honor guard of demons that are like the riders of white horses, whose six red eyes are inscribed with victory and who are arrayed in purple and scarlet. Before him marches a legion of long-hollow husks in rusted segmentata. The emperor of old rises above all - a cinder-skinned giant in soot-tarnished musculata, arrayed in all his arms and armor and wreathed with the sickly orange fire of his master's furnace.

The Maid gives the command to fall back to the trenches. Soldiers scramble to reform the line behind her. A mage signals to the Ineffable to pull out and aid the fight at the north wall.

She will meet him there alone, smeared in the mud and blood and shit and sludge of the battlefield. Her body aches, half for the trials of her war and half from the knowledge that the end is here.

One way or another.

She raises her sword in challenge: Her father's old blade shattered years ago: Joyeux Deum is of amazonian make, the finest damascan steel. It shimmers in the dim light of the polluted air.

We do not know what she said in that moment; only that Darvatius did not deign to answer. But with a motion to his attendants, he sends them to form silent ranks behind him. Hell's half of the audience.

The maid of Orlei is separated from the former emperor of all the earth by a few paces of burnt and lifeless soil.

It is as if the entire cosmos balances on a fulcrum in the space between them.

And in an instant




Darvatius has the upper hand from the beginning: he is larger, stronger, and untiring, while she has been ground down by march and siege and half a life spent at war. But she burns with the fervored purpose reserved for those who have found the singular point in time and space where they belong.

She has prepared herself for this moment since that morning in the pasture.

But righteousness alone does not grant victory, certainly not when fighting a living god. Her shield crumples and is tossed to the dust.  The Emperor's strikes toss and batter her, a cat playing with food. She has pushed herself beyond what any could hope to bear, and it shows in the slowing of her movements, the sluggishness creeping into her strikes. She has kept his blade from her longer than any opponent has...

All the same, his spear finds her side.

With a terrible wet sound he draws it out, and shakes the blood of the maid of Orlei on the ground.

Crown of Fire 

"The principle act of love is to resist power, and in resisting it turn it aside where it may starve."
- Potbelly Hill Sermon II

There is a silence.

The Eternal Emperor stands over the crumpled body of a goatherd. The men and women in the trenches grip their swords and rifles tight as panic spreads among them, and fear roots them in place.

They will be next, and there are only moments to decide if it will be by the Emperor's hand or their own. 

And then...

The Maid...

She has gotten back up.

She is holding on to her guts with one hand. Her other grips the hilt of a chipped and filthy sword, whose point is buried in the Emperor's chest.

She is aflame.

There is fire in her eyes. There is fire spilling forth from her lips. It fills the air around her like liquid gold, licking at the fringes of her surcoat. She is radiant as the sun, as the Painted Ones of long ago who learned at Mother's knee.

There is a crown of fire upon her brow. 

She has struck a blow on Darvatius the Eternal, whom no sword can touch nor spear injure!

She tears out Joyeux Deum in a spray of black, and taking it in two hands, hacks at the reeling Emperor. Joyeux Deum is but a sharp chunk of metal, and she the hand that crudely strikes it against rotten meat. She is screaming, and if there are words at all within her cry they are the words of a million ghosts reaching up from their graves, taking hold of the justice denied them.

The trench lines are in chaos: soldiers are shouting, singing, weeping. The cry goes up: "Death to the emperor! End the Eternal! From their hinges, from their hinges, the gates from their hinges!"

Darvatius' giant form drops to his knees, then to the ground, hardly recognizable for the mutilation delivered upon it. But he is not yet dead, and the sword has become too heavy for the Maid to lift.

She staggers back a step, another. Her sword drops to the dust from fingers that will not work and an arm that will not obey. The fire pouring out of her flickers, dims, gutters, fades. For a moment there is only a woman who long ago had a vision in the pasture, and a moment later there is not even that as the last light goes out of her eyes.

She had sworn long ago that, so long as she still drew breath, she would not stop until she had thrown open the gates of Hell and torn Moloch from his furnace-faced throne by her bare and bloodied hands.

She died not a hundred feet from the gate.

The Aftermath

What else can be said? This was the killing blow. The retreat was sounded, barely ahead of the new wave of demons that swarmed forth to secure the gate as Darvatius was returned to the city by his attendants.

Two soldiers rushed out from the trench to recover the Maid's body before the demons could lay claim upon her. They were recorded only as Annette and Dismas, and they were lost among the chaos of the retreat.

The surviving army regrouped at Camp Koronike. Leadership of the army was passed to Ankaia of Themiskyra and Enrys Otillaine, long-time companions of the Maid and early members of the Order. A council was called of the surviving leaders, but they found themselves unable to find options: the army was exhausted, their spirit was broken, their resources were spent, and they were unlikely to survive a third crossing of the dead regions around Dis.

All of this mattered little in the end: A minor Lord of Dis rode to Koronike under a banner of parley, bearing the seal of the Bull and the title of Mouth of Hell. He made an offer: Dis would forgo further military expansion, so long as the Maid's armies were disbanded and no further war effort would be assembled against it.

Offers of peace from the mouths of demons are trusted only by fools, but there were no other options - the armies could not hold together much longer on their own. Why Hell was moved to such an offer is still questioned - common thinking is that Dis was weaker than it let on in the aftermath of the siege, with Darvatius incapacitated or potentially permanently removed  from their forces, and the surviving Lords feared what would come of a martyred Maid. But this is hindsight speaking - at the time, all that was known was that the Maid was dead, the siege had failed, and the offer could be neither trusted nor rejected.

The terms were accepted with short deliberation and no fanfare. It was not victory, at least not as the maid had planned it. But it was survival. As weeks turned into months the exhausted armies returned home and the long rebuilding began. Look closely, with guidebook in hand, and you can make out the overgrown earthworks and long-rusted war machines of the Low Countries' battlefields. You might still find a dirty sword or a scrap of armor in your tour, and there are no shortage of historical markers in navy blue.

Hell has not gone away. Its factories still belch smoke into the sky above the ruins of Coreolana and it toils forever away in the principle act, in the hopes that one day it might find a perfect optimization of the Red Law and emerge anew and unstoppable

But the scars on its iron gates and red walls remain to this day permanent reminder of what came to pass in those years of plague and war:

The Maid's body was cremated in Orlei cathedral, and according to her wishes her ashes were buried without marker or monument alongside her fellow soldiers beneath the Tower Without Name, where devotees from across the world still make pilgrimage.


The roster of the Last March and the resultant siege was as follows.
  1. The Army of the North - Primarily infantry and light cavalry from city-states across the High Countries, Confederacy, and western Dayr, including auxiliaries from Wend, Whaling Country, and the Black Amazons. More witches-per-unit than any other army.
  2. The Army of the Avirienne - Infantry, light and heavy cavalry, artillery, and arcanist units from Orlei and the cities on and around the Avirienne. The Maid's primary force and the largest of the armies.
  3. The remnants of Imperial Legions III, IX, X, XIII, and XXI - Of these, one was a penal legion, two were deserters, one wasan official loan from Draga, and one was patched together from three other legions and had lost all contact with home. All of them were  reduced below functionality and were broken up into other armies.
  4. The Great Warband  - Only the third such union ever formed by the Buruq, 18 smaller bands were brought together by the Greyhair'd council of the Hollowhorn.
  5. The Orchestra -Multinational artillery division, infamous for is use of the
    ULTIMA RATIO CONTRA REGES, which remains the largest-caliber cannon ever forged.
  6. Magelanders, 40 of whom were Grand Masters. Additionally, the airship Ineffable Punch line Wonderland.
  7. Pelaian queens-of-war with marines, accompanied by the ironclad
  8. Assorted Amdani vessels from the cities along the Coast of Birds.
  9. Volunteers pulled from Kvaarish refugees.
  10. Bzenzileshi war triremes representing eight lilifio maritime nations.
  11. A lone Acephavaran warship, the Vashturur Ghanu
  12. Idaltu swordsages from the Tower Unto Heaven, Hidden City, and
  13. Unidentified group of Lilu militant anarchists.
  14. Assorted Dayrdan auxillaries, including mammoth riders from Akká
  15. Ghanishmen auxiliaries, who surprised everyone when they showed up.
  16. Assorted Folk - Primary Old Ones, Dwarves, Hobgoblins, Woodwose, and occasional allied Spookums
  17. Elephants from Kara Koren, primarily in support roles.
  18. Dolphins from the belt and inner sea. primarily in naval scoutuing and communication functions
  19. The Murder of All Crows, in a communication support role.
  20. Three angels formed during the campaign after the victory over the Priest-Eater.

Bonus: Fan Art!


Hell yeah.



    1) this is the biggest thing I have written in ages and it managed to take two days after Michael Kennedy kicked me in the pants

    2) I hope you enjoyed my Joan-of-Arc-except-she's-also-Fingolfin fanficion hour

    3) I worry sometimes that my in-depth prose posts are just boring people with my paracosm.

    4) it is remarkably difficult to find appropriate art for this, so just kinda mash the two images I used for the Maid together until I can actually solve that problem.

    5) Soundtrack is Hellfire (FFXV) -> Burnt Ivory King (DS2) -> Sealed Vessel (Hollow Knight)

  2. For what it's worth, I really enjoy your prose posts!

  3. I am a big fan of the prose posts

  4. I do have more of the Mother myth cycle lined up next.

  5. Ah, this is great. I am verklempt. Is this the story of the greatest hero, or did the Sable Maid fail in some way? You could make a religion out of this.

    1. She did fail at her stated goal of destroying Moloch, but considering that she was swinging at what is essentially a cosmological constant and almost succeeded, that's still greatest hero territory.

      In some ways it almost already is, or it's made out of the same stuff.

    2. Haha, my thought was that something that involved so many peoples to *almost* succeed at defeating Literally Hell seems like it would become a cultural touchstone, and maybe not in a good way - lots of recriminations over who failed where, ranging from purely tactical analyses to sweeping spiritual conclusions.

      Maybe it wasn't what you had in mind, but the ending where they finally retreat struck me as very ambiguous, the sort of thing where cultural faultlines form based on different interpretations of the same basic facts.

  6. Not boring. The beginning part was a bit too real though lol. This is very good.

    1. Oh yeah, Moloch is fucking dark and 100% the only reason I can stand to include it is because I've better equipped the opposition.

  7. I adore this, i want to live in a world where you can march to the gates of the system and put a spear through its heart. Hell-as-hypercapitalism is a really disturbing idea but I love it, I just finished meditations on moloch and its giving me a lot of Thoughts. 10/10 post

  8. Great story, I would like to make a picture inspired by it!