Villainous Interlude: Chiaroscuro

“It is a shallow soul who fights to the cry of ‘might makes right’. The truth is more concise: might makes.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver

When young mages were taught the limits of sorcery, one of the first principle they were introduced to was that of Keter’s Due.

The largest sorcerous event ever to take place on Calernia was the creation of the Kingdom of the Dead by the king known to history as Trismegistus: a single man had, within the span of ten hours, cursed to undeath the entire population of an area comparable in size to the Wasteland. Though of course details were sparse, given that this had transpired before most of the continent was literate, through the higher order of mathematics introduced by the Miezans it was possible to piece together the broad lines of what had unfolded. Though High Arcana essentially bypassed the need for direct conversion and sympathetic links that limited lower sorceries, even those mysteries could ultimately be understood through numbers. A recent understanding, that. Early magic had been limited by capacity to channel power of individuals, the mental and physical exhaustion they could take before the continued manipulation of the laws of Creation burned them out.

The Taghreb had attempted to go beyond those limits by breeding with supernatural creatures more apt at using sorcery, most notably the djin. Limited success was attained: to this day, mages born to the southerners were on average more powerful than those born in the rest of the Empire. The Soninke solution had been less… carnal, and ultimately more successful: behind the walls of Wolof, the first ritual magic of Praes had been born. Those early rituals were brusque and inexact, relying heavily on human sacrifice to make up for deficiencies in what was not yet know as spell formulas. It was still a massive improvement over individual forms of sorcery, though this superiority was ultimately the reason further progress stalled: already having an edge in spellcasting, the ancient Soninke kingdoms sought to lessen weaknesses instead of improving a strength. A mistake that cost them in the War of Chains.

As in most things magical, the Miezan occupation changed everything. The foreigners from across the Tyrian Sea brought across with them Miezan numerals and the Petronian theory of magic. Though in many ways inferior to the Trismegistan theory later adopted by the Empire under Dread Emperor Sorcerous, the Petronian theory turned the ramshackle artistic ritual efforts of the Soninke mages into a proper method. The energies released by human sacrifice or other means of fuel began to be quantified and measured, matched to the requirements in scale and effect of what the mages set out to achieve. Which ultimately led to the discovery one of the great limits of sorcery: in the span between the release of energy and its conversion into a spell effect, whether it be ritual or individual, some of that energy was lost. Worse, that quantity of energy was not fixed but proportional to the total sum of energy released.

What was actually wasted varied from a tenth to fourth when it came to individual casting, but could go up to seven parts out of ten when it came to rituals. Though advances in spellcrafting and the theft of the entirely different Baalite spell formulas inherited by Ashur managed to lower that proportion, no spellcaster had ever managed to get the waste under a tenth in any form of sorcery. That tenth was colloquially known Keter’s Due. To turn an entire kingdom into undead, the Dead King in his capital of Keter was forced to open a stable and permanent portal into one of the Hells. And while nine tenths of that energy was properly channelled in ritual, the remaining portion turned the city of Keter into a warped ruin of anomalous magical phenomenon. The problem of Keter’s Due was that it limited what could be accomplished by ritual magic if you were in any way invested in where it took place. The larger and more powerful the ritual, the more dangerous the waste of power released.

Akua’s intentions were of titanic scale, which meant this was a titanic problem.

Turning Liesse into a ritual array had been achievable, especially after the widespread sabotage of all major infrastructure that had followed her taking stewardship of the city. Who exactly was responsible for that, she was still unsure. It had been too subtly wrought to be Foundling’s doing, and too moderate a retaliation to be the Lord Black’s. That left the Empress, but there was no way the woman would have allowed her control of the city if she actually knew what Akua intended. Her best guess was that she had not been the target at all, which was somewhat amusing if an irritation. Even with that interlude, Akua had been satisfied with the gain she’d made in the rebellion. Liesse’s wall ran with old and powerful wards, and the city had been built by the corpse of an angel. Tying both those assets into her own project had been a highly stimulating magical puzzle, one she’d been working on since the age of thirteen. And she had done it.

Akua was genuinely regretful that there was no one should could trust enough to boast of the achievement. It might be the single greatest accomplishment of her life. It was, though, somewhat of a comfort that eventually every living soul in Calernia would tremble at the mention of it. Powering the array had been the first issue, and one she’d come very close to solving at the Battle of Liesse: imprisoning a Hashmallim would have given her everything she needed and more. Unfortunately, Foundling had turned the Lone Swordsman’s blunder to her own purposes. Akua was not a debutante trying to pull off her first poisoning, so of course she’d had alternatives prepared. Fuelling anything of this size with demons was asking for trouble, considering the Due, so she’d had to look into gods. Securing the entity that dwelled in the heart of the Greywood had proved unfeasible, but her second target had panned out. Mostly.

The seventeen conduits she’d had her agents acquire – to the cost of many, mnay lives – were kept under enchanted sleep in chambers below the Ducal Palace. The seeking rituals she’d done had revealed that the entity they were bound to was artificial, not a natural force, but that made no real difference. According to her calculations it was even more powerful than the Hashmallim had been, which was a boon as well as a curse. When a stable binding was established and she triggered the array, Keter’s Due would effectively wipe Liesse and its immediate surroundings off the map. That was not an acceptable result, since she would be on the premises and fully intended on staying human. That was arguably the brilliant part of what she’d achieved with her array. She had found a way to still use the waste energy, what could be construed as a pre-conversion escapement that effectively negated the downsides of such a large ritual. Given the scale of the entity she’d found, however, she’d had to revise her schematics and broaden the size of the array’s escapement.

That meant more stone needed, more time and an ever-growing list of liabilities.

Secrecy was paramount: the moment the Named of the Empire became aware of what she was making they would immediately move to destroy her. Though she’d prepared Liesse for assault, Akua was not ready to face the full might of the Legions of Terror. Her infiltration and co-option of both the Scribe’s and the Empress’ spy networks in Liesse was a temporary state of affairs. The longer she had to falsify the information coming out of the city, the higher the chances her agents would be caught and purged. Already Malicia had flushed out the first level of her infiltration, and even if she was abroad Scribe would catch up eventually. The Webweaver was a tool, not a player, but she was a very effective tool.  There were, of course, more pressing threats. The worst of which had been unleashed by Foundling, who seemed to have a bottomless bag of talented lunatics to throw at Akua’s plans.

The heiress to Wolof was about due another of her backers coming to a grisly end, so her mood was already cautious when she allowed Fasili into her solar. There was no point in shuffling the parchments on her desk – she knew better than to keep anything compromising where there weren’t two dozen highly lethal wards forbidding entry to anyone but her. There were only seven safekeeping this room, a mere warning by Praesi standards. The Soninke bowed after entering, lower than he should to anyone not the Empress. Fasili was a fair hand at flattery, a skill helped along by the stunning good looks bred into all highborn Praesi.

“Lady Akua,” he greeted her. “Gods turn a blind eye to your schemes.”

“Lord Fasili,” she replied, affecting warmth.

She didn’t particularly care for him, though he was useful. Having the heir to the High Lordship of Aksum on her side opened doors and brought resources, even if he was semi-openly feuding with the woman who actually ruled that region. If she’d not been Named he would have been sizing her up for a dagger in the back to afterwards usurp control of her own faction, but as it was she was untouchable. That didn’t make him trustworthy in the slightest, but it did mean he was not a rival. He was a danger mostly to her other supporters, squabbling for the position as her right hand. For now, there was no need to deny him the perception that he was.

“I bring unfortunate tidings,” the man spoke in Mtethwa. “Another patrol has been destroyed.”

Surprising, the Named thought. After Foundling’s goblin had begun killing off her patrols she’d ceased using Praesi and had instead conscripted Callowans, knowing Squire would be reluctant to kill her countrymen. Maybe enough to recall her tool to Marchford, if he killed a few.

“She has gained in ruthlessness,” Akua said.

There was an undertone of approval to her voice. She’d learned the hard way not to underestimate the other woman, and seeing Squire adopt the more enlightened attitudes of the Praesi did not entirely displease her. It did not benefit her, of course, but Akua having strong enemies meant that Evil itself was strong. A skilled enemy was often more useful than an inept ally.

“Though you are no doubt correct,” Fasili said, “in this instance the deaths lack the marks of the other’s agents.”

Akua’s lips quirked the slightest bit at the word the man had used. Other. Nyengana, in Lower Miezan. The connotations did not carry across the languages. It meant not us, therefore inferior. Not other tongue on Calernia offered such a broad selection of terms to convey contempt as that of her people. The amusement was, however, fleeting.

“But it does bear marks,” she prompted.

“A survivor was left,” Fasili said. “He claims their patrol fell prey to a hunting party of fae from the Summer court.”

Akua’s face remained the picture of serenity.

“Not unexpected,” she smoothly lied. “Though ahead of my predictions.”

The fae? What in the name of the Dark Gods were they doing so far out of the Waning Woods? She’d been aware that Foundling was having trouble with the Winter court since the very first incident – the bastard Taghreb with the odious name Squire had running her spy network, though a talented amateur, was still an amateur – but she’d chalked that up to unforeseen side effects of using a demon of Corruption. Even Triumphant, may she never return, had only used those sparingly. Within a decade the thinning of borders would have fixed itself without any need for intervention, and if it kept Squire busy until then all the better. This, though? This was not a coincidence. If both courts were making a move on… Well, what they were attacking was the crux of the issue here, wasn’t it? It was unlikely to be the Empire, which left the unfortunate possibility it could be Callow itself. That could be problematic, given that almost the entire extent of her resources was tied up in the former kingdom.

The heiress to Wolof delicately grasped her decanter of Praesi wine and poured herself a cup, then one for Fasili as well. The other Soninke bowed his head in appreciation and took a seat when she wordlessly invited him to. He discreetly passed his palm over the cup before taking it in hand, skilled enough that the alchemical pellet of lesser antidotes made no sound when it sunk into the wine. For all that High Lady Abreha seemed to think little of her heir, Akua had found him to be everything a noble of Praes should be: ruthless, patient and subtle. He’d already arranged the disgrace of two possible rivals for his position since he’d returned to her court, in both cases through a dizzying series of catspaws and intermediaries. If she’d not had two devils discreetly tailing his every move, she might even have missed some of the intricacies of his plots. As it was, Fasili was in the palm of her hand. She knew who he was sleeping with, who his enemies were and where his coin was kept. It would be the work of a slow afternoon to destroy him, if the mood ever struck her.

She wouldn’t, of course. The other Soninke was a talented commander of men – though not as talented as Ghassan had been, before Foundling had ripped out his soul – and his schemes occupied enough of the players in her court that they had no occasion to dig too deep into her own activities. He’d made one attempt to investigate that himself, but the man he’d bribed to transcribe her architectural plans had been made to disappear the same day, along with the entire chain of intermediaries used. The message had been duly received and no further attempt ever made. Akua did like to deal with intelligent men: she never had to repeat herself. Sipping at her wine – her own pellet had already been at the bottom of the cup when she’d poured – the Soninke allowed herself to enjoy the taste of home. This particular one was from the outskirts of Nok, the grapes grown there tinkered with over centuries so they would pair well with the taste of antidote.

It was something of a faux pas among the nobility to serve wine where one could taste one’s precautions.

“We’ll narrow our patrol routes and double the numbers deployed with each,” Akua said.

Fasili inclined his head, allowing the faint trace of a smile to touch his full lips. He would be amused, Akua thought. Like most war-inclined aristocrats in the Wasteland, the man knew the deployment doctrines of the Legions of Terror inside out even if he’d never stepped foot inside the War College. This particular measure was straight out of the treatises penned by Marshal Grem One-Eye, as they both knew.  Most Wastelanders never bothered to read those, preferring to settle for what had been written by the Black Knight who, even if Duni, was still Praesi. Neither Akua nor Fasili, however, had been inclined to pass on the insights of the greatest military mind of their age simply because it had been born inside a greenskin body. Though Malicia’s dismissal of everything the Empire stood for was a mistake, it would be just as much of a mistake not to learn from the successes she had gained from a degree of practicality. Talent must be used wherever it was found. That much the Dread Empress had divined correctly.

“I’ve been given to understand that the Moderates are gaining ground,” Fasili said, tone casual. “Rumours imply that High Lady Amina might formally withdraw from the Truebloods.”

Which would mean Foramen and the Imperial Forges were not longer aligned with Akua’s mother, cutting off another means of influence for the Truebloods. High Lady Amina was owed half a tenth of any profits made by the Imperial Forges, making her one of the single wealthiest individuals in Praes. Losing those coffers – as well as the knowledge of the quantity and location of any armament made in the forges filling them – would be a major blow. The Named sipped calmly at her wine, then arched an eyebrow.

“Inconsequential,” she finally said.

Fasili managed to hide his surprise well enough that the only detail to betray it was the slight widening of his eyes. Akua watched the gears grind behind that handsome face, almost amused. If she was not bothered by the Truebloods falling apart, it meant that she was no longer dependant on them for backing. The implication there being she’d either struck deals with individual members of the faction that made their affiliation irrelevant – which she had – or that she intended to strike out on her own. Which she did, in a manner of speaking. She would not turn away the allies Foundling’s reckless accumulation of troops was gaining her, but the days where her efforts had been an extension of her mother’s designs were coming to an end. It would be strange, to stand without the protection the woman had afforded her all these years even if she hated her. Strange and exhilarating. The cage was finally breaking.

“Do you ever get tired, Lord Fasili?” Akua asked suddenly.

The man blinked.

“Of?”

“This,” she said, tone whimsical. “Of what we are. Of what we do.”

There was wariness in those eyes now. He was wondering if she was trying to entrap him in some way, to make him misstep so that she could bind him closer to her will. Akua could have told herself she didn’t know why she was speaking with this man, someone she could use but not trust, but that would have been lying to herself. Because Barika is dead. The pang of loss there surprised her, as it always did. Praesi did not have friends and confidantes, she’d always been told. They were too obvious a target, too large a liability. And yet on most days she still turned to her left to share a thought, only after realizing that the girl she would speak to was long dead. Barika was not the costliest loss she’d incurred at Liesse, but it was the one she felt the most often.

“Never,” Fasili replied. “My line is that of kings and Empresses. It would be a disgrace to reach for lesser prizes.”

In most cultures, Akua mused, one of her closest allies admitting to wanting a throne he believed she herself coveted would have been cause for a rift. For Praesi, though, it was duly expected. Ambition was bred into them before they were even born. Each High Lord and Lady saw to it their inheritors were more beautiful, more intelligent, more powerful than their predecessors. Some families had eschewed the Gift in their ruling line, for necromancy and diabolism often complicated the succession, but those that hadn’t always brought in the most powerful mage they could secure. Praesi aristocrats were expected to always look forward. If they could not claim the Tower or a Name, they were to strengthen the family and prepare the grounds for their successors to surpass them. For any trueborn Praesi to not attempt to reach the heights their ancestors had touched, to never try to go even further, was… blasphemy. Turning your back on everything that had come before you, all that set you apart from those beneath you.

Fasili Mirembe has assessed he could not currently claim the Tower or become an independent force through a Name, so he had aligned himself with Akua. Through this he sought to better his position, gain material advantages and favours that would allow him to either further the interests of Aksum or his own. Most likely he intended on being her Chancellor, if she became Dread Empress, and bide his time until he could knife her and become the Emperor himself. None of this offended her. Ambitions like these were what kept her people sharp, what set apart Praesi from the rest of Calernia. Akua’s people never settled for what they had been born with, never allowed themselves to stagnate. The Dread Empire had gone through hundreds of different faces and iterations before it had conquered Callow, but in the end it had. Because the Kingdom of Callow had been the same since its foundation, while Praes shifted with every Tyrant. And now Dread Empress Malicia wanted to kill the very soul of their nation.

Borders set in stone, never to advance again. The wonders of sorcery that were the envy of the continent, suppressed or abandoned. The High Lords, the very whip that drove Praes to improve, neutered into irrelevance in a fate more insulting than mere extermination. Centuries of toil to make the orcs a warrior caste incapable of functioning without the Tower thrown to the wayside by granting them authority. The goblins, who would always answer to their Matrons above anyone else, allowed to sink their claws in the Legions of Terror. Oh, Akua knew what was being done. Malicia and her Knight were making Praes a nation where the power was in the hands of institutions, not Named. An Empire that was no longer malleable for every Tyrant to make into whatever tool they needed to overcome the forces of Good. A fixed monolith, bound together by a philosophy that was nore more than the absence of philosophy. A nation that did not stand for anything but standing.

“Do you know why the Truebloods are losing, Fasili?” she asked.

“My great-aunt has splintered the opposition,” he replied immediately. “Without a united front, Malicia cannot be overcome.”

Akua smiled, the open display of emotion making him uncomfortable.

“They were never going to win,” she said. “After the civil war, when she set aside Black’s cold hate and refrained from a war of extermination against the nobility, we came to believe the Empress was one of us. That she played the Great Game.”

“Iron sharpens iron,” the other Soninke murmured.

And the sharpest iron takes the throne, she finished silently. Praes would always be strong, for only the strongest could claim the Tower. Every child that mattered was taught this from the cradle.

“But she doesn’t, Fasili,” Akua said. “This whole time we’ve been trying to win the same way we did with the Maleficents of the Terribilises of olden days. Acknowledging she has touched greatness but knowing that to grow again the Empire needs a fresh Tyrant. One still hungry.”

“The Empress has achieved more than almost any before her,” Fasili conceded reluctantly. “It is then her due to keep power longer than almost any before her. This changes nothing. In time she will lose her way and be overthrown.”

“She won’t be,” Akua said. “Because while we schemed for advancement, to be her successors, she has waged a war of destruction on us. And a few months ago, she won.”

The dark-skinned woman brushed hear hair back, though it was perfectly styled.

“She barred the office of Chancellor, the most important ward against reigns that linger,” Akua began to enumerate. “She opened the highest ranks of the Legions and the bureaucracy to lowborn and greenskins, smothering our influence there. With Callowan grain she has made field rituals irrelevant, severing the bond that kept the lesser nobility dependant on us. Trade with Callow has established sources of wealth we do not control, ending our ability to win through coin. All we have left is the court, where we claw at each other for ever-lessening gains and she smiles down at the corpses.”

Fasili had gone very, very quiet. He eyed her with barely-veiled horror.

“She’s not trying to win the Game,” she said. “That wouldn’t matter. No one can win forever. She’d trying to end the Game.”

“Then we must rebel,” he said. “Now, while we still can. If you bring this to the attention of the High Lords, they will back you. To do otherwise would be folly.”

Akua drank daintily from her cup.

“They already know, Fasili,” she said. “The hard truth of it is that if we wage war, we will lose. We cannot beat the Legions, and the Legions are loyal. Lord Black will not turn on his mistress and the Warlock bound the soul of the last envoy to a chamber pot. The Truebloods attempted to win through guile, and they have failed. My mother clings to her crumbling plans and grows desperate, while the weak-willed among them seek to surrender.”

She met his eyes calmly.

“For that is what the Moderates are: a surrender. Do not think otherwise for a moment,” Akua said. “In exchange for survival and scraps of influence, they turn themselves into coffers and spell repositories for Malicia to plunder as she wills.”

“I will not allow my blood, a line that goes back to the War of Chains, to be used as a fucking court ornament,” Fasili barked, eyes burning. “Evil does not surrender. Evil does not bow to inevitability. We spit in the eye of the Heavens and steal our triumphs.”

Akua allowed the unsightly display of emotion to pass without comment. It was not unwarranted, when one learned one’s entire way of life was teetering on the edge of destruction.

“I never believed in the Trueblood cause,” Akua admitted idly. “At the heart of their movement there was a sliver of hypocrisy. They believed their ways are superior, and therefore they should lead Praes. But if their ways were truly superior, would they not already be ruling?”

Their ways,” Fasili repeated, eyes narrowed. “You speak as if they are not yours as well.”

“You’ve read the treatises of Grem One-Eye,” she replied. “So have I. Would your parents have? I know my mother did not, and many consider her mind as sharp as the Empress’.”

“There is a difference between reading the words of the foremost general in the Empire and discarding everything we are,” the other Soninke flatly retorted.

“The duty of our predecessors was to make us more than they were,” Akua said. “They have succeeded in this: that is why we see a brilliant tactician instead of mouthy greenskin brute. For ages we’ve sought to forge better bodies, better sorceries, better minds – and yet we fight the same ways we’ve done since Maleficent first took a dagger in the back. We improve capacity without ever addressing perspective.”

“If that were true,” Fasili replied, “we would not be having this conversation.”

“We’re not having this conversation because of our families,” the dark-skinned woman said. “The Empress is the one who forced our eyes open.”

“The Empress would see us eradicated,” the heir to Aksum hissed. “And she is succeeding.”

“And for that,” Akua replied quietly, “We owe her much. Fasili, when was the last time that we were truly in danger? Not of losing the throne to another of the great families or of failing another invasion. When was the last time the High Lords and Ladies faced extinction?”

The man bit his tongue, then actually thought.

“The Second Crusade,” he said. “When the first revolt against the crusader kingdoms failed.”

“And from those ruins rose Dread Emperor Terribilis II,” Akua said. “One of our greatest, and a Soninke highborn. He did things differently from his predecessors and turned back two Crusades.”

“And so we should surrender to our superior on the throne?” Fasili said bitterly.

“You miss my point,” she said. “We flirted with destruction and we became better. Seven hundred years have passed since then, Fasili, without ever being in such a situation. We’ve become soft since then, narrow-minded. Arrogant.”

She smiled thinly.

“And so the Hellgods put us through the crucible again,” she said. “Adapt or perish. Are we relics to be discarded, or the beating heart of what it means to be Praesi?”

“We’re not done,” he said. “We’re never done.”

“My mother,” Akua said, “would have me be the swan song of Praesi villainy. The last stand, raging against the dying of the night. But our parents succeeded, Fasili. They made us better than them. We can learn.”

“Take what made them successful,” the man said slowly. “Make it ours.”

“Praes is a story,” she said. “A Tyrant to lead us. A Black Knight to break heroes. A Warlock to craft wonders. A Chancellor to rule behind them. And an Empire like clay, to shape into the tool they need: an entire nation built to empower the ambitions of a single villain.”

“Our Empress rules,” he murmured. “Our Black Knight leads. Our Warlock crafts nothing and our Chancellor is nothing. All the while the Empire calcifies into institutions, impossible to move.”

Yes. Finally, he was beginning to understand. None of them were acting as they should, not in the way that mattered. Malicia was more Chancellor than Empress, Lord Black had reigned as king in all but name for twenty years and the Warlock learned without ever building. They were trying to change the story but oh, they had not thought that entirely through had they? Because once the changes began, they were no longer in control. Anyone with the right power could shape the story too. Akua looked at them, and she did not see rulers. She saw stewards. They had made themselves to be administrators, and in Praes those ever only had one function: to enable the designs of the villain above them.

“Foundling came closest to understanding,” Akua said. “It’s how she beat me, at Liesse. It wasn’t her Name she used.”

Akua drained the last of her cup, gently put it down on the desk.

“It’s never been about the Names, you see,” the Diabolist smiled. “It’s always about the Roles.”

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73 thoughts on “Villainous Interlude: Chiaroscuro

  1. Ashan

    Well, that’s ominous. So the Calamaties have been trying to change the story by adjusting their roles in the story so that Evil can win, and Akua is trying to twist the story to reassert the administrators (the roles she believes them to have taken) as underlings to the Tyrant/ruler, which she’s trying to take for herself as Diabolist.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Cir_C

    Ooooo this means that my theory about Roles being what truly mattered in the Guide is essentially confirmed. I will have to wait a bit to really understand the implications of this…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jj_simpson

      Would you refer me to where Roles are mentioned previous to this, please? I honestly can’t recall hearing that term before this chapter.

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      1. Cir_C

        The one that really got the ball *ahem* rolling for me was the Heroic Interlude Arraignment, there were many vague statements made by the White Knight about his role as having an even greater importance than his name. We are not far enough in yet to draw any kind of serious conclusions about roles but we are getting there.

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      2. Shequi

        The quotes from the Book of All Things include the line that Roles came into being and were gifted with Names by the gods.

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      1. Morgenstern

        Heh. I wonder if the author just grabbed the name “Diabolist” from what commentators were suggesting as the one he most liked or if they were simply right. ^^

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  3. Letouriste

    “The Dread Empire had gone through hundreds of different faces and iterations before it had conquered Callow, but in the end it had. Because the Kingdom of Callow had been the same since its foundation, while Praes shifted with every Tyrant. And now Dread Empress Malicia wanted to kill the very soul of their nation.”

    Haha,like if the nobles have anything to do with the conquest;)
    All that is on commoners

    Liked by 2 people

    1. RandomFan

      It was on the nobles before. Perhaps it will not be now, perhaps that is the future Malicia is building- but there’s no way Heiress will see that, when she’s the embodiment of nobility. Without that, you see a power vacuum where you should see an attempt to increase the number of heirs to the throne.

      Whether the goal is to build a structure for their heirs to step in and take over when they fail, or to build a structure that will last even after the tyrants fail is irrelevant. Both look like mere stewardship to Heiress, because of the blinders that she must have to acquire this name.

      Black, at least, must understand that struggle is at the heart of villainy- even if he’d make all such struggles external if possible, he understands that strife is the crucible of potential.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My wild guess is that change of narrative may be even deeper than that. What if instead of a story about villain and heroes on personal scale, Malicia builds a story about Empire ? The legions are definitely a move in this direction, forging a single entity where normally a set of personal armies of nobles would be. And with the narrative changed from heroes and villains into conquerors and conquered, the inner struggle would be a minor detail and easily stomped.

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      2. RandomFan

        That seems more of a hero’s speed, honestly- the hero’s story is often that the hero is merely the medium for the kingdom’s or god’s ambitions, with the possible exceptions of the ruling class heroes.

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  4. Letouriste

    I think akua will win this,taking the Throne and kill malicia.
    Malicia is too focused on her rival for seen clear the extend of akua.
    My guess is she’s know what akua do but underestimate her,letting her grow too much and now this is too late.she will lose when she is winning for real,typical villain.yeah typical villain,malicia is transforming in something different,she create an opening for her back.

    Before this chapter I expected malicia to be be the next boss and the story finishing by a fight against the good coalition with cat empress…but now I see more a show-down with akua until the end:
    -akua on the throne
    -akua destitute but surviving=>cat don’t gain the empress title
    -cat fighting the good coalition with black
    -black dead or crippled,out of the main plot
    -cat win but let an opening for akua
    -cat and akua showdown
    -cat win,new empress of a big ass empire and performing differently

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    1. jonnnney

      Akua is not interested in the throne. She sees Malicia becoming an administrator who is managing a country that has no designs to grow, no longer the empire of Praes. Rather than fight her directly she seeks to utilize the power structures created by the Calamities and rule over them at a higher level. She likely seeks to rule all of Calernia with Praes and Callow as mere provinces in her new empire.

      What would really surprise me would be if Akua is correct is assuming that Malcia and Black don’t want to ever expand the borders of Praes. I had always assumed that once Callow had truly become a part of the Dread Empire the combined forces would start swallowing up free cities or individual principalities. Black seeks to win in such a way that 500 years later heroes will know that one time having your victory being ordained by heaven simply wasn’t enough. He doesn’t really achieve that merely by controlling Callow. The Dead King has ruled his kingdom unopposed for something like 2500 years, but his borders don’t grow. An empire that constantly conquers, corrupts, and then converts to evil is something that would strike fear in even the most devout Heroes.

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    2. I’m betting on Akua taking the throne as a final boss, with Cat bringing her down. And possibly putting Black or Malicia back on the throne, because this story has been all about twisting protagonist tropes to support Evil, and “restoring the rightful King” is totally a heroic narrative.

      I’m also going to place a bet that she collapses the Tower in the process, because villains always have a collapsing lair, and because this whole story has been about smashing the system of “Good vs Evil,” and that would be the perfect way to say “No, we aren’t that sort of nation any more.”

      Like

    1. Letouriste

      more like neutral.
      The way I see that,her role is unification in every sense of the term.
      Meaning she will integre both evil and good in a single entity,way more powerful than before.
      Her role is changement in the very balance mechanism ,a big fuck you for the majority of the gods(apart one maybe).
      The combined empire will start one the evil side because that always how that work(evil=revolution,conquests etc…,we have our very nations build on this)
      (Good=stabilisation and strengthering of the people,evolution).

      Like

      1. Rq

        My take on it is that Cat has filled the role of the true Black Knight. (Just like Akua seems to be sidling into the role usually occupied by warlock, with the creation of this array). She’s been breaking an awful lot of heroes in a short span of time. Almost every major battle she’s in seems to see a hero bite it or at least get horribly mangled.

        Post drawing the sword out… I’m not sure. She doesn’t seem to be lined up to fight heroes the way things are going. She might have actually changed the role, or be in the process of changing it. Need more data to be sure.

        Like

  5. Gunslinger

    Poor Akua really misses having someone to monologue to. Any guesses what the entity is? I thought of the Deoraithe nature spirit but that isn’t an artificial one. Or was it created in the aftermath of the elvish purge?

    The interesting revelation here is that the fae invasion is not Akua’s plot. Directly at least.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. jonnnney

        My guess is the Summer invasion is the Forever King up in the Golden Bloom doing whatever he can to stop Diabolist from achieving her ultimate goal. He was able to move his entire kingdom to Arcadia merely to avoid the possibility of a fight with Triumphant. He and his followers are likely the individuals with the greatest ability to control the actions of the Fae. Ranger and her followers mostly just hunt them.

        It wouldn’t surprise me if the Deoraithe God is the spirit of the forest in the Golden Bloom displaced from that land along with its original inhabitants. It is the forest itself that isn’t allowing the elves to have children, that sounds more like the actions of an entity that controls the forest rather than the trees themselves.

        Liked by 4 people

    1. Wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the “god” is actually a Summer Fae who filed their own serial numbers off a bit as a lark/disguise/entertainment/way to stay in that part of reality — and, it backfired. Or, at least, somebody related to the Summers.

      After all, if Winter captures them before Summer rescues them… things get interesting! And, somebody mortal deserves spanking for using them as a battery! Eh, we don’t know exactly whi… all of the region, then? Sure, that’ll do! 😛

      Like

  6. AVR

    Typos

    limited by capacity
    limited by the capacity

    many, mnay
    many, many

    was nore more
    was no more

    brushed hear hair
    brushed her hair

    instead of mouthy
    instead of a mouthy

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    1. somnolentSlumber

      deficiencies in what was not yet know as spell formulas.

      “know” should be “known”

      it meant that she was no longer dependant on them for backing.

      “dependant” should be “dependent”

      Fasili Mirembe has assessed

      “has” should be “had”

      by a philosophy that was nore more than the absence of philosophy.

      “nore” should be “no”

      She’d trying to end the Game.”

      “She’d” should be “She’s”

      “And for that,” Akua replied quietly, “We owe her much.

      “We” shouldn’t be capitalized

      Like

    2. nick012000

      >the remaining portion turned the city of Keter into a warped ruin of anomalous magical phenomenon.

      Phenomena. Phenomenon is singular, phenonema is plural.

      Like

    1. RoflCat

      From my understanding, essentially:

      Names – Your job titles, giving bonus towards doing your job (and possibly causing you to have certain quirks like Masego’s OCD to be precise)

      Roles – The positions in the plot, which relate to the state of Creation and less on individuals.

      Using Akua’s example for Black, his Name is Black Knight, but his current Role is more or less Dread Emperor.

      Which is what Akua learned from seeing what Cat did back in Liese.

      She’s Squire (Name), but by using the situation to her advantage, she put herself in the Role of the one who pulls the sword from the stone, instead of the usual Role of “The Black Knight’s Squire/successor” (which is something Heiress would’ve/could’ve become)

      Like

    2. stevenneiman

      A Name is a bundle of power and importance. A Role is the purpose that the Name is expected to serve. For example, the Black Knight’s Role is to lead the Legions of Terror against Praes’ enemies, the Squire’s Role is to attend and serve a Knight while learning how to do their job, and the Role of the Wandering Bard is to observe, bear witness, and push the narrative along without acting overtly.
      A Named can sometimes make some choices about their Role, like how Cat chose to make hers involve using brute force to do what needed doing, but she couldn’t choose to, say, make her Role independent of the Knights or magic-based.
      What Akua was referring to may have been that Cat is trying to make part of her Name be about serving as a popular figure who protects the people of Callow from both the callousness of Praesi Villains and the fanaticism and carelessness of Heroes. In the battle of Liesse, she was doing both since she faced on one side a Hero willing to mindrape the entire population of a metropolis in order to win a victory for Good, and on the other side a Villain whose exact goals were unknown but certainly wouldn’t have been beneficial to the people of Callow.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s the thing about a Squire. They need to be able to serve the whatever the Knight they are in service is dedicated to and learn whatever they can from them: no more, no less. And, Amadeus has quite purposely given Cat a lot of leeway to learn her trade while she adapts Callow to the Empire. And, visa versa. Something Cat has been predisposed to do from day one. 🙂

        Her Role is basically to serve him until she can either surplant him… or she finds another Role of her own. 🙂 Any bit parts she plays doing this? File it under “training”. XD

        Like

  7. Lucas

    She is kind of going over her head huh? And she doesn’t seem to see the stories as we, she doesn’t see that evil is always losing but that evil is always changing?
    Well nice chapter.

    Like

  8. stevenneiman

    “[to->at] the cost of many, mnay lives”
    “[Not->No] other tongue on Calernia offered such a broad selection of terms to convey contempt as that of her people” alternatively, “not another”
    “A fixed monolith, bound together by a philosophy that was [nore->no] more than the absence of philosophy.”

    The bit about wine flavoring gave me quite a laugh. So very Praesi.

    I’m not too worried about this though. Akua might recognize that the Calamities have beaten the nobility by changing the game, but here she is relying on vast sorceries powered by the sacrifice of a god. She might as well be claiming to be clever and original because she’s the first one who thought to put an invisible army of sapient tigers IN a flying citadel. For all her talk, she’s more Sinestra than Truimphant (may she never return).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. agumentic

      It makes sense though. She can’t bring the game on the old track like Trueblooded tried, doesn’t have resources to match Malicia in a thousand little contests for power like Cordelia does, and won’t be underestimated if tried to rebel the same way Calamities did. But one well thought-out grand plan that can be put through the final stages in a small no-spies time window when it’s still seen as something far-fetched and ridiculous, instead of a real something that can happen? Can happen, and really the only way for her to get power and survive.

      Like

    2. I think she *wants* to be a Sinestra. The Praesi nobility thrived in a setting where the Dread Emperor raised flying fortresses full of invisible tigers to conquer the world. It wasn’t a long-term winning strategy, but it kept the “Great Game” going.

      I think the way she’s “changing the game” is by recognizing that there’s no reason the *Warlock* has to be the one who raises vast sorceries, or that the Empress needs to be the one in charge of conquering the world. There’s a vacancy in the story which she can fill as the Diabolist. It’s like a “reboot” of the setting – same old song and dance between Callow and Praes, but now with a Diabolist.

      (Also, on a meta level, the protagonists in this story are trying to bring an end to the Great Game, the constant conflict between Good and Evil, while the antagonists are trying to continue it by various means. So in some senses, she’s *already* taken the role of the Big Bad.)

      Like

  9. nick012000

    Also, random thought: Cat’s going to stumble across Heiress’s spell totally on accident when she shows up to protect Liesse from being attacked by the fey, isn’t she?

    Like

    1. Morgenstern

      Yup. Although the “totally on accident” is not really an accident, if it’s the side effects of Heiress’ array setup that draws the Fay and thus Cat, because of unleashing the ONE thing that was sure to snoop around that weakened border due to Heiress’ releasing the demon… biting its tail again, that snake, and once again not truly realizing it, because of having their mind on greater things… 😉

      Although I’m missing the whole “I’m gonna break Creation” avenue here that Heiress was on before. Now she just seems to be gambling again at the Role of Leader that Malicia does not SEEM to fill, from Akua’s/the Diabolist’s oldschool point of view as she is STILL thinking in the old terms… classical. If any muddling is taking place at all as far as that is concerned, then the Calamities are actually *sharing* in their actions, but Black IS following Malicia’s lead, after all, as we saw/heard once more, rather clearly and directly, in their last chapter just between the two… so Malicia IS doing the leading, at least mostly, although she relies on multiple advisors, too, picking and choosing from their advice, just like an Empress would be thought to do, after all. She’s also wrong about Warlock, imho. Wekesa HAS created things… he just hasn’t presented all that much BIIIIIIG and hilarious stuff to the public, like invisible tigers. He’s more into pocket dimensions (linking multiple of them for his “one” tower), mutations, genetic engineering etc. – flying, firebreathing, biting pigs only being an unwanted side effect… 😉 If that isn’t creation, I don’t know what is…. And Black not doing hero destruction as he should? Bwahahahaaaha… 23 by his own hand and thrice that number in other ways, was it….

      Akua seems to have picked up on “finding talent in whichever form it presents itself”, which is an interesting tidbit, because the combatting of racism by Black’s and Malicia’s big plan(s) and actions seems to be working not just on their own affiliated, but also on the Truebloods’ children. But, so far, she doesn’t seem to take that tidbit and turn it into much of anything useful (besides taking Callowans in the very lowest places, as patrols to be killed off…).

      Chiaroscuro and its definition fit perfectly into the theme of how viewpoint, once again, is shown to influence a lot what anyone sees. Although, there’s probable still more to it, it’s also about the “light” and “shadow/night” (Good and Evil) mixing that the Black/Malicia’s troupe is all about. One that Akua seems to be disinclined to continue, which is just another kind of racism, in a way. She sees that she should adapt – but she is taking away the wrong lessons (mostly), reverting back into the old power grab and being all about POWER, even in her theory/dream of making the institutions her own, leaving them intact (which, btw, is in HER view presented here equal to negating the advancement she wants, curiously enough, because she equals it to stand-still; let’s just say her own view is very muddled and occasionally paradoxical – but hey, then again, that’s just NORMAL for a helluva lot of real-life worldviews, so…. fitting).

      Like

      1. Morgenstern

        tidbit-addition: Basically, Malicia has simply *incorporated* the Chancellor role into her own. She rules AND leads. Which is, by the way, a VERY artificial distinction. The two words basically imply much the same… a good ruler better also be a good leader and not only rule by handing out orders and suppressing others, but inspiring them and being an example. Hey.. now that I wrote that… do you note how Malicia has inspired even Akua, at least to a certain percentage…? 😉 *g

        Like

  10. Zaits

    Back to the early mention of a spy in the ranks of the Fifteenth, I’ll have to note that no senior officer mentioned had died as of yet. Nilin doesn’t count precisely because he was placed to support Nauk and avoid scrutiny of Black’s background checking agents.
    I mention that because it’s stated in this chapter that creature blood (specifically, djinn) allows for better capacity in sorcery. That brings the question: what if Aisha gets more than just passive bonuses from it? We already know that she’ll survive the Uncivil Wars, so if my theory is correct, she’ll either turn her coat in the end or gets away with it, unnoticed.

    Like

  11. Despite all that is happening , I actually finds it interestingly unexpected that everyone thought the Heiress knew what is going on with the Fae while she is actually having no idea about the Fae at all.

    Like

    1. Byzantine

      I suspect whatever she is trying to use as a power source involves the Fae in some way. And they aren’t happy about it.

      It would be very interesting if someone managed to get the Summer and Winter courts to attack the same enemy at the same time. Given they can attack the same country it seems like it could be done.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ploogle

        Hmm, possible. They can’t attack the same enemy, there must be some way of differentiating the two. In this case, Heiress now Diabolist and Cat are of the same empire, but of opposing factions. Therefore they aren’t on the same side.

        Like

      2. Morgenstern

        Well, if that “enemy” is meant rather individually… one could direct the PERSON behind xy, while the other attacks the organization of said person, as they are not the same (person(s))…

        Like

  12. Tolk

    Your Interlude is as eye-opening as ever. So, Diabolist huh? She’s gotten the jump on Squire in name advancement at least. Cat’s going to need Archer to stick with her to have a chance I reckon.
    Thanks for the chapters.

    Like

    1. I dunno. She seems to have firmly latched on to the “summon and torture things bigger than your head” part of Diabolist. I don’t see the longer term advantages in that Name, whatever Role she uses it for, for some reason. <_< Warlock as a Name at least gives some scope to take or leave the things what can out-think you (or, in some cases, give them the chance to indulge their parental instincts for mutual happiness: whichever). 😛

      Like

  13. arancaytar

    I like how the Praesi have taken Chronic Backstabbing Disorder to the point where wine isn’t poisoned because you want to harm someone; it’s just poisoned as a matter of general etiquette.

    Like

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