Villainous Interlude: Proscenium

“We should never forget that for a great evil to be defeated, a lesser evil must first become great.”
– Queen Eleanor Fairfax, founder of the Fairfax dynasty

Liesse was under siege, though forces had yet to deign test her walls. With the Summer Court having seized both Dormer and Holden, the two Callowan cities closest to the Waning Woods, the Empire had abandoned the south and begun mustering north of Vale instead. With fae hunting parties scouring the land coming from the west and the east, Akua had been forced to rely on her own wiles to keep her territory safe. Summer was holding court at Dormer and the true threats had yet to take the field, but even lesser nobles of Arcadia were dangerous enough. Unlike those of Winter, they would not control and subjugate the population: all those who did not immediately bow to the Queen of Summer were destroyed a riot of flame. Which was rather unfortunate, since Diabolist still needed southern labour to finish her work in Liesse. The fae were not being accommodating of her timetable.

Gathering a force of her own to field had proven tiresome, though she’d been granted an unexpected boon. Since she’d publically sacrificed the last mercenary force she’d hired in Mercantis – not that the merchants had particularly minded, after she’d paid up her very expensive penalty fees – hiring fresh blood had been difficult. The war in the Free Cities had ensured the most reputable companies were already all being employed by one side or the other, anyway, leaving behind only the dregs. Levantine raiders too savage for that already savage nation, a company of unreliable drow exiles and, amusingly enough, Helikean soldiers who’d been enemies of both the Exiled Prince and the ruling Tyrant. The last of those three were the steadiest, but they numbered only a thousand.

The boon, she had engineered herself with the gracious help of Mother and Dread Empress Malicia. Even as the south of Callow went up in flames, the Wasteland had gone to war with itself. After High Lady Tasia of Wolof had defaulted on several payments owed the Tower for granted privileges, Akua’s cousin Sargon had immediately attempted a coup. Normally he would not have dared: it was one thing for Cousin Sargon to set himself against Mother, another to attempt the theft of the due of a Named. But the Diabolist had sent him a discreet message, conceding to his claim in exchange for several concessions involving gold and sundry favours. Armed rebellion exploded in Wolof before the day was out. Sargon had won the initial skirmish after deploying a dozen powerful devils, at which point Mother had responded by unleashing a demon on his men. The mess that ensued escalated in brutality.

Dread Empress Malicia sent in all the Legions garrisoning Praesi territory to restore order even as what remained of the Truebloods watched the greatest among them being cornered like an animal. Akua had, naturally, reached out to the most prominent members left. Gold, men and mages had flowed to her territory as Holden fell to the Summer Court and she became flanked on both sides. Including her mercenaries, Akua now had slightly over ten thousand soldiers under her command. Of them almost a tenth were mages, though only a handful of those could touch High Arcana. Still, it had been an effort to keep the delight off her face: oh, the kind of things she could make with this many spellcasters at her disposal.

And she would have to make them, of this there was no doubt. No reinforcements were coming for the foreseeable future. The legions of the Wasteland were busy keeping Wolof contained, and would not be able to march anywhere for months. There’d been talk of some of the legions guarding the Red Flower Vales under Marshal Grem One-Eye coming south as the orc himself took operational command, but Proceran movement on the other side of the border had smothered that notion in the crib. Cordelia Hasenbach might rule over a mongrel nation, but Akua had to give her this: she was a fair hand at the Great Game. With One-Eye and his men remaining to prevent an invasion by the Principate, command had fallen to Marshal Ranker in Denier – who’d also had to decline, as the Duchy of Daoine had declared full mobilization of the Watch and refused to give any explanation.

That left General Istrid with seniority, and she’d stripped Summerholm of its garrison before marching south to muster all she could north of Vale. As a crowning irony the single largest army in Callow, the Fifteenth under General Juniper, was forced in a defensive position at Marchford and unable to participate. The gate into Arcadia could not be left undefended: the Winter Court might just decide to establish a beachhead of their own, and not even Praes could withstand the pressure of two Courts running rampant. Until Foundling reappeared, her people were paralyzed. It had been most amusing to see everything Squire had built over the last year collapse the moment she was gone, Diabolist had to admit. Upon hearing word of Squire’s disappearance into Arcadia the Praesi among the Ruling Council had swiftly struck a deal with the Guild of Assassins and seized power in Laure before declaring martial law across Callow – a move greeted with widespread rioting in the cities.

Best of all, when the usurpers had first accessed the treasury they’d found absolutely nothing: the Guild of Thieves had already emptied it in full, and to add insult to injury taken a tithe of a tenth from every Imperial Governor’s own funds. Callow had descended into utter anarchy and in the chaos Akua’s own hands were freer than ever before. She held the only remaining stronghold in the south, her workforce had swelled with refugees and until Summer was dealt with she was essentially untouchable no matter what she did. The Empire could not afford for her to rise in rebellion, not with this many wolves at the gate. The situation, Diabolist thought, had fallen into her lap like a gift from the Gods Below. The dark-skinned woman strode the smouldering battlefield where her forces had prevailed not an hour past, Fasili trailing her dutifully. He’d been in command for the engagement, the largest one her army had waged so far.

“Fewer than two hundred casualties, Lady Diabolist,” the other aristocrat said. “The revolving wards were a success: all their heavyweights focused on breaking them rather than firing mass magic at our troops.”

The conversation would be a very different one if the new wards had failed, Akua thought. There’d been a Count among the catches of the day, and if one of those had decided to decimate her ranks she’d have lost at least a fifth of her soldiers. What the fae of Summer lacked in subtlety, they more than made up in destructive power. The very reason that her mages had been instructed to capture instead of kill, at it happened.

“I want their corpses raised by nightfall,” she ordered. “Form a separate unit from the unded, under a cadre of necromancers. I expect their ranks will swell before this is over.”

“It will be as you say,” the other Soninke nodded.

“As for the wards, I’ve been told one of them was fractured,” the Diabolist said. “We’ll need to refine the concept.”

“Your First Mage is already designing improvements,” Fasili replied. “We won a great victory today, my lady. Fae with titles of this magnitude are hard to kill, much less subdue.”

The Diabolist’s lips quirked the slightest bit at the words. Fasili would take it as approval of his flattery, but the truth was different: it had been a very long time since any Praesi had a First Mage. The title had fallen out of favour when the Name of Warlock emerged: being the most powerful of a High Lord’s spellcasters had been judged to be meaningless when there was the greater accolade of a Name to be claimed. Her revival of the title had been for largely personal reasons, though she did approve of the tribute to ancient custom.

“The Count of Golden Harvest,” she said slowly, savouring the title.

“And two Baronesses,” Fasili added with a vicious smile.

Fewer than a hundred fae without court titles had also been caught, though they paled in importance compared to the other three. They would be useful fodder, true enough, but for some rituals quality was required over quantity. Leaving behind the sea of tents her soldiers were setting up for he night, the two of them made their way to the wide flat plain to the side of where the battle had taken place. There were four massive wards in place there, her mages milling around them like busy little bees. The largest held all the lower-ranked fae, shackled in iron and badly beaten. Though much weaker than the titled fae, their number alone was enough to make them dangerous: a hundred and fifty mages maintained the ward in rotating shifts to ensure no concerted attempt could be made to break the glowing sigils hanging in the air that kept them prisoner. The other three wards were not so heavily manned: they held one of the high-ranked nobles individually each of them under three times three bindings, all interlocked and reinforcing each other.

It was around the wards imprisoning the Count of Golden Harvest that a greying Soninke with a closely-cropped beard was kneeling, fingers dancing nimbly across a set of runes floating in the air. Akua studied them curiously: High Arcana, all of them, yet she did not recognize all of them. She was not surprised. Brilliant she might be, but she was still young and Dumisai of Aksum had spent a lifetime plumbing the depths of sorcery. A moment later the runes rearranged themselves before disappearing as a hum of power came form the ward surrounding the Count. The fae grunted in pain, drawing interest from the mage close to him.

“Is it physically painful to have more than nine tenths of your power restrained?” he asked in Mtethwa.

“I will see you made ash for this insolence, sorcerer,” the Count of Golden Harvest hissed.

“Your threats are of no academic value, creature,” the man noted. “This is most unproductive.”

“First Mage,” Fasili interrupted, his head dipping in respect.

The sorcerer jerked in surprise, only then realizing he had company behind him. He smiled at Akua’s right hand man hesitantly.

“Good evening,” he began, then trailed off. “… You.”

“Lord Fasili Mirembe,” Akua provided, too well-practiced to be openly amused..

“Yes,” he said. “That.”

“Papa,” the Diabolist greeted warmly as her father rose to his feet.

“Mpanzi,” the older man smiled. “Lord Warlock’s research appears to be accurate. From what I’ve seen fae are made of the same matter than Arcadia itself – there is no difference at a fundamental level between one of them and, say, a stone taken from there.”

“How dare you,” the Count said angrily.

Her father absent-mindedly waved a hand and a gag of blue runes appeared in the fae’s mouth, stuffing it shut.

“Your ritual is prepared, before I forget,” he said. “Very good materials you’ve secured. Conversion rates for fae will be much higher than with human sacrifices.”

“That will be all, Lord Fasili,” Akua said, half-turning towards him.

“By your leave, Lady Diabolist,” the other Soninke bowed.

He cast an irritated glance at Papa before leaving, but there was no true heat there. Her father’s absolute lack of ambition in matters of authority made him the opposite of a rival and her known fondness for him meant he was too costly to retaliate against for a slight as minor as the one he’d been handed. No doubt an officer would be on the receiving end of Fasili’s irritation before the night was over. One of the drow, most likely. They found it difficult to take orders from a man, even if that man had given his allegiance to a woman, and Praesi highborn did not have much tolerance for insoburdination.

“He seems a very reliable young man,” Papa said, watching him walk away.

He would have you dead within an hour if given leave, Akua thought. Her father had spent his entire adult life under the distant, if vicious, protection of Mother: he’d never had to develop the kind of nose for enmity that most powerful Praesi mages needed to survive. His judgement in these matters was… lacking. In most people Akua would have considered this a crippling flaw, but in truth she preferred him like this. Unaware of the dangers lurking around him, able to do what he loved without worry. She could keep him safe from the scavengers. Diabolist had made it very clear to her subjects that Dumisai of Aksum was not to be touched: feeding a scheming minor noble to a swarm of imps in full view of her court had made that point very thoroughly.

“He has his uses,” Akua conceded.

Papa nodded, already visibly bored with the avenue of conversation.

“With today’s lot you’ve almost two hundred of the lesser fae,” he said. “That should be enough for a Lesser Breach.”

The term was fairly technical, and few aside from Praesi mages would have known its meaning. Diabolism was, at its heart, a branch of magic concerned with the summoning, binding and contracting of devils. And demons, of course, though resorting lightly to such creatures was the path to fates worse than death. Her people had practiced this kind of sorcery since days predating the Miezan occupation and while it had originally been a means for a single practitioner to gain power or knowledge, under the Empire it had become developed as a tool of war. Dread Empress Triumphant – may she never return – was widely held as the greatest diabolist to ever live, above even the Dead King. She’d summoned and bound entire legions of devils, put demons at their head and her bindings had been so well-crafted they had held for centuries after her demise. To raise an entire hosts of devils, as she had, means other than summoning them one at a time had to be used: the amount of wasted time and power would otherwise be massive.

The method to get around this was called a Breach: a portal into one of the Hells would be opened, with a mass binding woven into it. Any devil crossing into Creation would be subject to said binding, allowing for a degree of control – though a much looser one than if the binding had been designed for a specific entity instead. Convention divided Breaches between the Lesser and the Greater. Akua herself had used a Lesser Breach at Liesse when deploying her army of devils until the mages of the Fifteenth shut it down, fuelling it with the lives of the Stygian slaves. A Lesser Breach was temporary and unstable by nature, impossible to maintain for long. A Greater Breach was a different matter entirely, and only one had occurred in all of Calernian history: the Dead King’s ritual in Keter, which had opened a permanent and stable portal into one of the Hells. Little progress had been made since then in understanding exactly how the Greater Breach had been made, though Diabolist had come to understand some part of it.

“More fuel would be preferable, but I don’t have the time to spare,” Akua said. “I’ll have to do with limited numbers and make second Breach when we’ve the fae for it.”

“You’d get more meat for the expense if you went lower than the Thirtieth Hell,” Papa pointed out. “As it is a seventh of that power goes into the Due.”

“Foundling made it very clear during the Rebellion that a well-trained army will tear through anything lower than the Thirtieth, given time to prepare,” Diabolist replied. “The Summer Court is in a league above what her forces were back then. If I want the devils to survive the first engagement, I can’t use chumaili or kichabwa.”

Her father hummed, mulling it over.

“Well, you won’t get many walin-falme but you can be sure they won’t die easy,” he said.

The term meant imperial guard, in an archaic dialect of Mtethwa. The devils were old favourites of Tyrants seeking to invade Callow, preferred to more bestial breeds for their above average intelligence and ability to use forged armaments. They were also noted for their resistance to fire, though it was difficult to model how effective it would be against fae flame. Their leathery skin and deformed bat wings had many mages speculating Dread Emperor Sorcerous had used them as breeding stock to create the much larger winged monsters that were used to access higher levels of the Tower, and would allow them to answer fae flight on the battlefield. It was a shame, truly, that she would not get more than four hundred of them from the Lesser Breach. Their inaptitude for tactical thinking was perhaps their greatest weakness, and the reason they usually served under the command of the Black Knight of the era. Akua lacked such a commander however, which was why it had been so important to capture the high-ranked fae. The Lesser Breach could wait until the prisoners had been brought back to Liesse, but Diabolist intended to summon her officers tonight.

“The Count first,” she said.

“For the best,” Papa agreed. “He’ll be the most exhausting.”

The two of them strode into the ward keeping the Count of Golden Harvest contained, the thick and heavy magic washing over their skin. Her father flicked his wrist and the gag in the fae aristocrat’s mouth dissolved.

“You court your doom, mortals,” he said harshly. “My Queen will have vengeance for what happened today.”

“There is a theory by a very clever man,” Papa said, entirely ignoring the threat,, “that fae can die in truth.”

“Your ignorance rivals only your arrogance, sorcerer,” the Count sneered.

“Slitting your throat returns you to Arcadia, to be born again,” her father continued. “But, ah, fae are made of power are they not?”

“We are Summer incarnate,” the creature smiled. “You will all burn under the sun.”

“Yes, power incarnate,” the greying man said admiringly. “What happens, then, if this power is used up?”

“No mere insect can undo the workings of the Gods,” the fae said.

“I do not believe,” Diabolist said, “that we have been introduced.”

The Count glanced at her with contempt.

“I know what you are, cursed one,” he spat. “Defeat is carved into the bones of your kind.”

“My name,” she said, “is Akua Sahelian. I am a villain.”

“The pale imitation of an ancient enemy,” the fae mocked.

“Oh yes,” Diabolist agreed softly. “That is exactly what I am. The Enemy, they call us in the West. I am the last of a line unbroken since time immemorial. My kind has usurped the mantle of gods, stolen secrets from beyond Creation and turned kingdoms into sea. I am Praesi of the old blood, fae. You should kneel in awe.”

“You are the dying ember of a fire long gone,” the Count sneered. “Soon to be put out by the might of Summer.”

“You think you know might?” Akua laughed. “I will turn your blood to smoke. I will feed the horrors that crush your bones with the sound of your screams. The hearts of your children will raise my fortresses to the sky and make my ships sail on solid ground. You may have been godlings in your wretched home, but you’ve stepped down from that pedestal – and down here, we bleed the likes of you over altars. Your poor, misbegotten creature. You actually believe you have a chance.”

Her Name pulsed beneath her skin even as her eyes turned cold.

“But you’re in Creation now, Count. Here be monsters.”

The Count smirked.

“Do you seek to frighten me, child? Summer does not know fear.”

Akua slowly unsheathed her knife, resting the wickedly sharp edge on the side of the fae’s throat. He looked into her eyes, undaunted. Diabolist smiled.

“No, not yet,” she murmured. “But I will teach you.”

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69 thoughts on “Villainous Interlude: Proscenium

    1. AVR

      Mmm. He seemed a relatively harmless duffer before, now he’s shown to be near as much a sociopath as the rest of the Evil nobility.

      The most interesting line there IMO was – “The pale imitation of an ancient enemy,” the fae mocked. – it does suggest the fae are on the side of the gods, confirming a less definite line earlier.

      Also Cat’s second thoughts about gathering power to herself seem to have been proven correct.

      Anyway, typos.

      for he night,
      for the night,

      came form the
      came from the

      openly amused..
      openly amused.

      destroyed a riot of flame.
      destroyed in a riot of flame.

      insoburdination.
      insubordination.

      Like

      1. stevenneiman

        “destroyed {in} a riot of flame. ”
        “tents her soldiers were setting up for [he->the] night”
        “they held one of the high-ranked nobles individually {in} each of them under three times three bindings, all interlocked and reinforcing each other.” alternatively, just a comma would work
        “I’ll have to do with limited numbers and make {a} second Breach”

        On the subject of the story, Dumi is like Masego. He might be smart enough that he could learn to survive in court, he just isn’t interested in anything but the science of magic.

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      2. jamesc9

        Replying to Travis, someone told Cat that she was centralising power, and unless she made a plan to wield it, there would be anarchy. There was anarchy.

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    2. Jonnnnz

      I kinda would have agreed if he hadn’t so gleefully agreed to open a rift into hell. As it is, the question should be if he didn’t orchestrate this. His wife/jailer/patron is replaced with his daughter/protector/patron, and now he gets to experiment with things that will kill a bunch of civilians. And he won’t take any blame, because Akua is crazy. But would she be so crazy without his influence?

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  1. danh3107

    What a shitshow, Cat has her work cut out for her when she gets back. Man do I hate Akua, but she is really fun to read.

    See you next week erratic

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  2. Darkening

    Man, I don’t like giving credit to Akua, but her speech to the fae at the end was pretty great. “You’re in creation now Count. Here be monsters.” I’m a sucker for a good villainous gloat. I can’t wait for the collective “oh crap” when Cat gets back and starts beheading the folks that screwed things up for her back home.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. MagnaMalusLupus

        A few chapters before Catherine went into Acadia, she received a report that the Thieves Guild had a new king, as someone had stolen the crown; I would wager rubies to apples that the new king is the Thief. Because Cat can’t catch a break.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. BartHumphries

        And, side note to that, someday an enterprising group of heroes will chat with a new angel and learn exactly what happened. And then they will go on a mighty quest to recover and reforge that feather/sword which Cat Broke. And they’ll actually recover two shards, but then they’ll run into the quiet assassin that Cat paid to watch some other shards, and the assassin will go get Cat, and Warlord Cat, the Necromancer, Queen of Callow, Duchess of Moonlight Nights, Empress of Praes, will descend on that little band of heroes will all the might of everything that she has, then rescatter the pieces that were gathered.

        Either that or some Praesi villains will start regathering the pieces.

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  3. Looks like it is once again going to be a three-way fight when Cat comes back!

    There is a theory by a very clever man,” Papa said, entirely ignoring the threat, “that fae can die in truth.”
    — Pretty much sure it is the Warlock, and if Warlock knows it, there is a good chance Apprentice knows it. And if both Apprentice and First Mage knows it, I am predicting fae-killing maneuvers by power draining!

    That also raises the question for me, when Cat killed Duke, was it perma-kill or will Duke be reborn when the cycle resets. If it perma-kill, and Cat is now permanently part of Winter Court, then the story could not go as usual. [It was said that Winter/Summer story ending is decided the moment their Kings are chosen] Maybe someone can correct me if I am wrong?

    *******

    Some typos:

    Gold, men and mages -> Gold, men, and mages
    unded -> undead
    he night -> the night
    hum of power came form -> from
    amused.. -> Remove on period
    insoburdination -> insubordination
    To raise an entire hosts of devils -> an entire host of devils
    threat,, -> redundant comma

    I think it is intentional to convey absent-minded style:
    “Your ritual is prepared, before I forget,” he said. “Very good materials you’ve secured.
    If not consider:
    Before I forget, your ritual is prepared…

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    1. nipi

      The duke will probably be reborn. Probably not as a duke tough. Remember the “as if it always were so” part of their bet. Cats stuck in the Winter court for the forseeable future.

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  4. Hardcore Heathen

    Typos, in order of appearance:

    >though forces had yet to deign test her walls
    This is probably gramatically correct, but the sentence just feels awkward and stumbling, which is not how you want the first sentence of your chapter to roll out.

    >With fae hunting parties scouring the land coming from the west and the east
    Are fae hunting parties scouring the land that is approaching from the west and east, or are they scouring the land as they approach from the west and the east?

    >those who did not immediately bow to the Queen of Summer were destroyed a riot of flame
    Destroyed [in] a riot of flame

    >Since she’d publically sacrificed
    publicly

    >tents her soldiers were setting up for he night
    [t]he night

    >they held one of the high-ranked nobles individually each of them under three times three bindings,
    >they held one of the high-ranked nobles individually[,] each of them

    >too well-practiced to be openly amused..
    too well-practiced to be openly amused. [removed extra period]

    >She’d summoned and bound entire legions of devils, put demons at their head and her bindings had been so well-crafted they had held for centuries after her demise.
    >She’d summoned and bound entire legions of devils and put demons at their head. Her bindings had been so well-crafted they had held for centuries after her demise. [The “Her bindings…” section of this sentence is, as-written, an independent clause, and needs to be combined with a proper comma + conjuction or separated into another sentence, as I’ve suggested here.]

    >Which was rather unfortunate, since Diabolist still needed southern labour to finish her work in Liesse.

    Interesting how her name in narrative went from Akua to Diabolist between paragraphs, there. This section is from her POV, so I wonder what prompted the switch in self-reference? I’ve noticed that Cat never thinks of herself as Squire, which is probably tied to her whole narrative arc about Named not actually mattering. But with Akua, it’s more mixed, and I’m not sure how much of that is simply out of a desire to mix up the verbiage for referring to her and how much is significant self-reference.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. jamesc9

        The Council is Cat’s (former and future) administrative body. It can’t have taken over Liesse, because that’s full of Akua. Laure is the former capital, so if I was going to take something and work outwards, it’s a potentially good pick.

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  5. BartHumphries

    So nobody has commented that Akua has apparently switched Names. Instead of Heiress, she’s now Diabolist. Did I miss something or is this new to this page?

    Like

    1. Nairne

      I believe it was a punchline at one of the interludes earlier in this book. It was about Aqua’s thoughts on receiving the post of governor of Liesse and how powerful the wards on the walls are and what not.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. BartHumphries

    Typos

    though forces had yet to deign test her walls.
    change “to deign” to “deigned to”

    were destroyed a riot of flame
    add “in” before “a”

    Gold, men and mages had flowed to her
    add a comma after men

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  7. Happy birthday to me. And as a gift… I get to see Heiress “winning”. Oh, excuse me, Diabolist.

    Man, when this first started, I was expecting the whole “war with the fae” to be something minor. They invade, get driven back, and events move on. Instead, they are proving that Callow’s destiny to be invaded over and over is embedded deeper than we might have thought. Arcadia embodies stories, and this seems to me like the world countering Cat’s attempts to change Callow’s story.

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  8. And, just like that, the Uncivil Wars are officially open! Given how even a last-moment demon summoning was enough to stall most of the legions for months, the lengths Malicia went through to delay this mess are understandable. Sahelians’ divorce has been as ugly as it gets without openly confronting each other.

    I honestly don’t know, where will the Squire go first: to Liesse, where most of the fighting happens, to Laure, where her support and financial foundation has been gutted recently, or to Dormer, where her heart lies.

    Also, how the hells is capturing a Summer fae easier than killing them?

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    1. Morgenstern

      Uhm.. you seem to have misunderstood a sentence in this chapter or two… It was explicitly said that capturing them was much HARDER than killing them… o_Ô

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, I thought that sentence implied that the wards would have failed if they went for the kill. I read it again and I don’t know where I took that from.

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    2. H.

      Yep, between the Callow civil war, the Free Cities war that Black’s dealing with, this Praesi civil war, and Callow broken *again* with the war against the fae, we now have enough wars for it to count. In fact, if this current one is Summer vs. Winter, then they have indeed all been civil wars.

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    3. Liesse or Dormer. She needs to both make peace with Summer, and kill or thwart Diabolist’s plans. And those feed into each other – by stopping Summer from invading, she removes the fuel for Diabolist’s summons. She does need to secure the rest of Callow and the Ruling Council, but the damage has already been done and there’s no clear target for her to smash, so I’m not sure what she’d accomplish there.

      Perhaps Dormer, then Liesse – cut off the Summer invasion, then race to Liesse to shut down Diabolist’s plans. Gotta save the final boss for last.

      Except Catherine has a six-month timer, and that implies that she won’t be able to stop the invasion for quite some time. Hmm…

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  9. Darkening

    Y’know, if a couple hundred low fae and 3 nobles are barely enough or an unstable temporary portal to hell, what the heck did the dead king sacrifice to make the greater breach in the days when sorcery was even less efficient than it is today?

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    1. Well, _his_ sorcery is as efficient as it gets, since its efficiency of 9/10 is an absolute ceiling for singular casters, as stated by Akua in Chiaroscuro, as opposed to rituals being less efficient in general and hers specifically getting only 6/7 out of these lower fae sacrifices. Singular casters being more efficient is probably the reason as to why she’s summoning “officers” herself.

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    2. Nairne

      I believe it was mentioned somewhere that the Dead King masterfully used the power that goes to the Due as it is called (the so-called waste during a ritual), so it’s probably that.

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      1. No, the Dead King couldn’t avoid the waste, which is why his kingdom is sort of Mordor-ish. https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/villainous-interlude-chiaroscuro/

        “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.”

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Morgenstern

    So. After this I am waiting to see what exactly the Dead King has done in all those years… to the Hells. The ones that Akua is now trying to access…. I’d be a bit disappointed, if that should not mean things going awfully wrong from a totally unexpected side, because she once again underestimated someone she should not and/or simply “forgot” / has a blind spot in certain places.

    Besides Cat coming back with Winter at her back, of course. Aren’t we all gonna enjoy seeing what’s in the bag for those scumbags doing exactly what everyone feared they would the second no one is there to directly control them?
    ( Although I surely AM a bit disappointed in that specific regard – if Akua’s point of view should be inherently true in the news she gets from all over Callow, that is – that Cat’s troupe members that did stay behind seemingly did absolutely nothing to stop that freak show of Praesi trying to take over… =/ )

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    1. Morgenstern

      Or, who knows, maybe the old Dread Empress everyone wishes to never return actually does rule over there and/or battle the Dead King for the crown over there ^^ … maybe, tiny tiny maybe we will see bits and pieces of her rule return, if Akua sets them free? Probably too much to… [insert-word-of-choice] for, though. ^^

      Like

      1. Morgenstern

        Although it would be hilarious. It seems much more of a figure of speech, though. A legend built afterwards, but never true. Although, if legends CAN make things true in this world? Uhoh… I see some endgame baddie alright. ^^

        Like

  11. The Archdevil

    I just remembered this. Back during the College war games, I believe during the 5-way melee, Cat heard either Robber or Pickler humming the Girl who climbed the Tower, and one of the verses keeps coming to mind. It was something about Shining on a Moonless Night. Which back then, none of us picked up on. But now, that line has a pretty clear meaning.

    Like

    1. It’s actually about the opposite phase:

      They say the third step is the cruelest
      Walk when the moon is at her clearest:
      Love ends with the kiss of the knife,
      Trust is the wager that takes your life

      Drama incoming. I’m afraid to see just what has Cat missed (or, more probably, what ties she’ll have to sever to keep climbing).

      Like

  12. Burnsy

    So in no particular order, things Cat will need to unfuck/fuck up in a spectacular fashion after she gets back:

    Rioting in Callow
    Chaos in her own army
    The goblin settlement
    Diabolist
    Diabolist’s mercenary/trueblood army
    Diabolist’s demon army
    The Summer Court
    The Queen of Summer
    Killian
    Thief
    The Thieves Guild
    The Assassins Guild

    And Black and the Calamities are off in the middle of a threeway with the Tyrant and the White Knight.

    And there’s whatever schemes Malicia/Cordelia are cooking up that she’ll inevitably get caught up in.

    Gods Above and Below can this woman ever catch a break?

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Dylan Tullos

    “Today we set aside Good and Evil. There is only one sin, defeat. There is only one grace, victory.” – The Black Knight, at the Field of Streges

    “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Galatians 6:7

    If Heiress loses, then she’s a traitor that deserves a slow and painful death. If she wins, then she needs no justification. This, in the end, is why the Praesi can never build anything that lasts. Whatever Black accomplished- whatever he told himself- the Praesi are trapped in the Story. Not just by the Gods, but by their own culture, their worship of strength above all else.

    Heiress is wrecking everything Black built, shattering Callow’s peace and endangering Malicia’s grip on the Wasteland, and yet all will be forgiven if she wins. The Praesi love their power games so much that they’ll accept an Empress who wrecked their Empire just as long as she succeeds in taking the Tower. Just as it is in Callow’s nature to be grasped, it is in Praes’s nature to grasp…and when Callow is in their hands, the only worthy target is their own rulers. They can’t stop fighting for power, even when they could lose everything they’ve built.

    For all of Black’s cunning, his endless plots and schemes, his attempts to pit his brilliance and leadership against the culture of his own people, he was building on sand. And when a man builds on sand, his house may stand strong for a few years, or a decade, or even his own life. But in the end “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:27)

    Like

    1. BartHumphries

      “The Praesi love their power games so much that they’ll accept an Empress who wrecked their Empire just as long as she succeeds in taking the Tower.”

      It’s more like, Trump just won the Presidency. I didn’t vote for him, and our country is now doing worse as a result… but maybe if I go cosy up to him then he’ll name me to some lucrative Cabinet position. The Praesi are pragmatic and entirely willing to make the best of a bad situation. And, maybe, after I’m named to a Cabinet position, I’ll get some good press for how I handle things and I can make a run for the Presidency in 3 years…

      Like

      1. Dylan Tullos

        Alex Straughan:

        “It had been most amusing to see everything Squire had built over the last year collapse the moment she was gone, Diabolist had to admit. Upon hearing word of Squire’s disappearance into Arcadia the Praesi among the Ruling Council had swiftly struck a deal with the Guild of Assassins and seized power in Laure before declaring martial law across Callow – a move greeted with widespread rioting in the cities.

        Best of all, when the usurpers had first accessed the treasury they’d found absolutely nothing: the Guild of Thieves had already emptied it in full, and to add insult to injury taken a tithe of a tenth from every Imperial Governor’s own funds. Callow had descended into utter anarchy and in the chaos Akua’s own hands were freer than ever before.”

        Next time Catherine promises them that things will be different, Callowans will know what her promises are worth. The Praesi robbed the treasury, seized power, and right now their legionaries are putting down riots by cracking heads. The idea of a united Dread Empire, where Praesi and Callowans would be equals, is officially dead. In some ways, it’s worse than it was before Catherine took over, because she promised Callowans that their new Ruling Council would protect them from Praesi exploitation. Now that the Ruling Council has completely failed in its duty, they won’t be eager to trust them the second time around.

        Black’s greatest success seems to be the conversion of the orcs to Team Practical Evil. The goblins have dubious and unclear loyalties, and I’m not sure about how Praesi commoners feel. We haven’t seen that much from their perspective. Also, I don’t think the Legions are representative; as members of Black’s personal fiefdom, they’re much more likely to be loyal to their patron than random peasant farmers whose main concern is probably “plant the seeds, pray to the Dark Gods for rain”. As several posters pointed out earlier, pre-literate societies tend to encourage a high level of disinterest in politics.

        Callow, though, has most definitely not “forever changed” the way they view the Empire. Right after Catherine promised that things would be different, the Praesi backstabbed them, confirming every historical Callowan belief about Praesi treachery. There are a whole lot of rioters in the streets right now, and they’re not celebrating how happy they are to be part of the Empire, or talking about how much has changed. They’re fighting against a Praesi occupation that proved for all time how dishonest and vicious the Dread Empire is. Good luck convincing them that they want to be good subjects of the Dread Empire now.

        BartHumphries:

        I agree about Praesi pragmatism, but it’s important to remember that the support of the Praesi nobility is vital to maintaining or overthrowing the existing Tyrant. Malicia hasn’t “won the Presidency”, but she has backers who want her to win. They want seats in her Cabinet, or restored power to the nobility, and they’re willing to undermine the stability and power of the Dread Empire for their personal benefit or the status of their class.

        The main concern of the members of the Praesi ruling class is their own wealth, prestige, and power. Many of them are willing to see the Empire grow weaker, as long as they can grow stronger. Malicia has been a very “good” Dread Empress. Her partnership with Black led to the conquest of Callow, and her reign has seen the reform and improvement of the Legions of Terror. Praes is stronger under her rule than it has been for centuries, so it’s not like a coup is necessary to restore the glory of the “old days”. They’ve only conquered Callow twice, and one of those times was

        If the nobility was willing to support her whole-heartedly, Heiress/Diabolist would not be in a position to threaten Malicia’s rule. In this context, “winning the Presidency” has very little to do with popular support, and a great deal to do with having backers among the High Lords and Ladies. Heiress’s supporters aren’t removing a weak Empress from power; they’re disrupting a strong Empress at a time when Praes faces a very real threat from a resurgent Procer. They’re ultimately less concerned about the Dread Empire’s success than they are with their own possibility of gaining a “Cabinet seat”, or even a chance at the Tower itself.

        These people aren’t just accepting a bad situation and doing the best they can personally. They’re creating a bad situation for Praes in the hopes that they can advance personally, even if it means endangering their grip on Callow or even opening the Dread Empire to outside invasion. Like the Proceran princes who happily plunged the Princedom into civil war, the ruling class of Praes ultimately views their game of thrones as more important than their nation’s success.

        Like

      2. Dylan Tullos

        Edit to my earlier comment:

        The Praesi didn’t rob the treasury, the Guild of Thieves did. However, they did still take over the Ruling Council, declare martial law, and show all of Callow that the whole “voice in your own affairs” thing was just another Praesi lie.

        Like

      3. M

        Eh, I do not think it is so dire. Sure you can spin it as Callow being betrayed by Praes once again, but you can also spin it as those particular Praesi betraying Catherine directly, giving Cat an option to get her rulership back with full support from Callow and not separating from Praes.

        Like

      4. BartHumphries

        The important people will realize that, but the common people might not. And there’s a lot of them. And quantity alone contributes at least something to quality.

        Like

  14. Alexander LeakingPen Hollins

    Heiress got a upgrade!

    And… god damn…. that last paragraph… I never expected her to be capable of turning me on, but whooof.

    Like

  15. dalek955

    Hmm, clue as the what Heiress’s Name feels like to her. It pulses, whereas Cat’s howls or laughs and Black’s turns implacably.

    Like

  16. nipi

    Hmm… Cat got a “winter” aspect and Heiress/Diabolist plans to open a portal to Hell. Anyone else think we might see Hell freeze over? At least partially.

    Like

  17. Dylan Tullos

    M, BartHumphries:

    The “Reply” button isn’t working right. It won’t let me put my post directly under yours.

    M:

    Callow is under martial law, the people are rioting in the streets, the Praesi on the Council have usurped power from the Callowan members, and the treasury is empty. Oh, and the Summer Fae are invading. Sounds pretty dire to me.

    The whole justification for the Ruling Council was that Callow would finally have a voice in its own government, and that Callowans and Praesi could live side by side as peaceful subjects of the Dread Empire. As soon as Catherine disappeared, the Praesi members seized control of the Council and declared martial law.

    Callowans aren’t interested in making nice distinctions between “good Praesi” and “bad Praesi”. What they see is that the Praesi are treacherous snakes who can never be trusted not to seize power at the first opportunity. The only thing worse than refusing to make any concessions is making concessions and then betraying them, and that’s exactly what the Praesi did.

    Catherine made promises that she couldn’t keep. She created a ruling Council, and it fell apart. She promised an end to martial law and direct Praesi rule, and now the country is back in the hands of the same Praesi nobles she promised to liberate it from. Clearly, she’s powerless to effect real change, and even the Callowans who support Catherine can feel justified in rising up against the Praesi liars who betrayed Callow’s brief hope of change.

    BartHumphries:

    The common people are fundamentally right. Praes did betray Callow, and Catherine and her allies within the Dread Empire weren’t able to stop them. Whether their failure was caused by malice or simple weakness is irrelevant; they didn’t uphold their part of the contract, and now the Praesi nobles are in charge again.

    The thing about social contracts is that they’re both very powerful and very hard to repair. The previous social contract was “Do as you’re told or we’ll crucify you”. Obviously, this wasn’t a popular contract, but it was simple and honest enough; the Praesi were evil monsters, and they acted like it. When Catherine came around, though, they started saying that they cared about Callow, that they wanted to give Callowans a chance to rise within the Dread Empire and have a real say in how their country was governed.

    Malicia and Black revised the old contract, where the people of Callow were a conquered province under military occupation, and they tried to replace it with a new contract, where the people of Callow were a loyal province of the Empire with local autonomy and government in the hands of their own people. That new contract failed when the Praesi members of the Council seized control and declared martial law.

    In this case, failing is much worse than not trying at all. As long as the Praesi were just foreign tyrants, it was possible for them to turn over a new leaf and try to persuade Callow that change was possible. Once they announced a change, then went back on it, it became much harder to sell the same story to Callow a second time. It’s like a criminal promising to change his ways; the first time, people might believe him, but they’re a lot less likely to buy his repentance if he goes back to crime as soon as he’s out of jail.

    Like

    1. In regards to perception of Praesi as liars the solution is quite obvious: kill the current Praesi stirring trouble and work with new, properly intimidated ones. Between Truebloods falling apart, Akua pulling together the rest of the forces they loaned her (for what, by the way? Political favors?) and the loyalists being the ones who enforced the martial law, a clearing of the house might be arranged.

      In Praes, the Empress is preparing to finally crush High Lady Tasia, who is already in the desperately-summoning-demons stage. In Callow, meanwhile, Cat is in her right to remove the Loyalists in the ruling Council, and if asked, tell the Empress “I tried to include your supporters, they attempted a coup the second I turned away”. The only Praesi with political influence in Callow will be the Diabolist, and the first stage of the plan always works, so let’s hope that whatever ziggurat she’s building will misfire noticeably, but not too devastatingly, so she can be made a scapegoat.

      Like

      1. Dylan Tullos

        _ _:

        One of the underlying problems with the Praesi mindset is the belief that structural problems can be solved by killing people. It’s like curing a plague by treating each individual victim, while ignoring the underlying causes and the method by which the plague spreads.

        Praesi culture is the plague. Malicia and Catherine can kill one or ten or a hundred nobles, but their successors will have the same culture and belief system. It’s not like no Tyrant has ever purged the nobility before, yet every time the people who take over adopt the mindset of their predecessors. No matter how many times they’re intimidated into behaving themselves, they’ll always be on the lookout for a time when they can backstab their way to power.

        As you point out, the Praesi nobles on the Ruling Council were “Loyalists”, which means that they were willing to do as they were told as long as Malicia and Catherine seemed strong. The moment they showed weakness, the nobles pounced. Their behavior shows us that there are no true noble “Loyalists”, just opportunists waiting for the right moment.

        This is the start of the “Uncivil Wars” period. Based on that title, we have good reason to suspect that Malicia isn’t just going to put down High Lady Tasia, that Catherine isn’t going to smash Diabolist, and that things are going to get a whole lot worse. But even if they didn’t get worse now, even if Malicia and Catherine were able to restore order, it wouldn’t matter. Praesi backstabbing and nastiness are based upon centuries of ingrained tradition, while their current practicality and reasonable behavior are based on Malicia and Black making them behave.

        Malicia will die. Black will die. Catherine will die. No one can rule the Dread Empire forever. A long time ago, Bard told the Lone Swordsman that Praes’s current practicality was a short-lived thing, a brief instant in a long history of impractical cruelty, greed, and arrogance. While Malicia and Black focused on institutions, the underlying culture remained the same, unaffected by their reforms.

        Maybe Black is right to think that he can fight the Story, that he can defeat the Narrative, but he can’t fight against the hearts and minds of his own people. In a society where common soldiers sing “The Girl Who Climbed the Tower”, where every man and woman can dream of ascending though murder and treachery, there can be no lasting peace. There is no Imperial dynasty, no rule of law, only an long line of Tyrants who murdered their way to the throne before being murdered themselves. Even if they had no other reason to rebel, Callow would be better off leaving just so they wouldn’t get caught in the middle of Praes’s endless civil wars.

        Callow knows this. Malicia may be willing to make promises, but her successor won’t keep them. Her governmental reforms will die with her, and Callow will be back under the boot of a Tyrant who will view them as a conquered province to be looted, a subjugated people to be terrorized into compliance. If they revolt soon, when Praes is in the middle of the Uncivil Wars, they’ll have a chance to win and keep their independence. If they wait too long, they could spend generations living under Malicia’s successors, who are very unlikely to be as practical as their current Dread Empress.

        Like

  18. draxsiss

    its interesting, I could see the Dead King declaring war on Akum, Just becuase he is activly engaging in a war with demons he might see her as a “problem to nip” (although my personal side theory is he had a similar offer to Cat to be the unknown savoir as a bonus name or something when he decided to just solely go after demons) Things are shaping up great I look forward to the next chapter.

    Like

  19. I think I’ve missed something.

    Cat’s aspects were: Learn (she mentioned she didn’t learn languages as quickly anymore), Struggle, and something that she never knew that got cut away but the _spot_ for that Aspect returned when she did the Angel quest.

    Was that a complete refresh? Originally I thought Take was this new third aspect, but it appears that it is instead replacing Learn. What happened to Struggle?

    Cat’s aspects NOW are: Take (currently using Rise), Break (? it’s formatted like an aspect, and there were ‘consequences’ to breaking the Penitent’s Sword, and the Duke’s globe), and Winter’s-Duchess-of-Moonless-Night.

    BUT she tells the prince of nightfall: “I’m just a wet-behind the ears Named with a single aspect.” Cat lies, but Cat doesn’t usually lie without the narrative around the speech indicating a lie… so what am I missing?

    Like

    1. No, her Name was completely reset upon being returned from Chider. She lost Learn and Struggle (Seek was cut away back when the demon got to it), but since she was just as immerced into her Role as before, she restored two aspects in a matter of days.
      Take is a replacement for Struggle, only instead of coming from an established tendency to get into uphill fights it stems from an established tendency to _win_ uphill fights, and instead of activating once per day it can be used three times.
      She lies about Break because it’s her secret weapon, and pulling a trump card so early in a story would mean it will not have as big an impact later.

      Like

  20. Author Unknown

    Great chapter.
    How much time has passed in Creation while Cat has been away? It’s going to be really interesting to see people scramble to prove their loyalty when Cat comes back and they find out she is even more bad ass than before.

    Like

    1. Dylan Tullos

      By definition, “loyalty” is something you have when there isn’t a sword to your throat. The main lesson Catherine is probably going to take away from this is that you can trust a Praesi noble just as long as the sword is at their throat, and not a moment longer.

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