Chapter 32: Close

“Oh, on most days we lose. But once in a while, just once, it works. And those moments of perfect clarity where all the world is in the palm of your hand, a hundred thousand middling minds made into flawless assembly by your will? Those are worth all the rest.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II

Well, we weren’t all going to die. That was nice. If my mouthing off had been followed by Thief failing to steal the sun, I would have been real embarrassed before I got my fool ass killed. Wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about a heroine with shaky allegiances getting to shove the – possibly, I wasn’t sure exactly how this worked – literal sun in her knapsack, but it did beat dying horribly. So, you know, I was willing to chalk up that one as a win. The skin of Thief’s hand was cracking and black by the time the orb of fire disappeared, even though she’d never touched it at all, but away it went. The moment it was gone, Sulia screamed. I imagined it was a lot like losing an aspect, and when Masego had cut out mine the process had been excruciating. She collapsed to her knees and the lights went out. The not-world we were in began to collapse, wrinkling on itself, but I was having none of that. Now, if I’d pit my power against the Princess of High Noon she would have crushed me effortlessly and then maybe allowed me a moment to contemplate the sheer stupidity of my actions before ripping out my spine. This wasn’t a fight, though. Power was leaving her like a leaking sieve, and even though I suspected that even whatever was left at the end would be enough for her to beat us again I wasn’t going to give her the opportunity to get her shit together.

Fall,” I said.

It hadn’t been dark on the ashy plain, not exactly. It’d been not so much darkness as the absence of light. My power filled the endless expanse, propping it up and claiming the framework for itself. I saw my companions shiver in the sudden cold, now nothing more than shaded silhouettes in boundless dark. The night sky above us was without stars, but it didn’t feel like anything was missing. A sky from before there were stars, I thought. In here, whatever this place was, my will was the only one that mattered. Masego spoke a word, but there was only silence here. Silence, cold and weight. I turned my eyes to the Princess of High Noon, saw her frame light up with steam as my aspect slowly smothered the power of Summer inside her. She fought it harder than the Count of Olden Oak had, slowing down the process to a crawl. Letting out a long breath, I closed my eyes and sharpened my mind. Black had first taught me the exercise when I’d begun to learn the sword, but I’d only understood its true worth when I came fully into my Name. My mind became as a blade, the way I would when I formed a spear of shadows, but I let myself fall deeper into the process. Distractions and stray fought fell away. Doubts were scoured clean until nothing was left but pure, sharp intent.

With a clear and resounding snap, the Princess of High Noon froze.

I opened my eyes and released the night. After the utter silence that had preceded them, the noises of the battlefield were deafening. A wave of exhaustion nearly toppled me, though it did not scatter my wits enough for it to escape my notice that my blood flow had slowed. A few exertions away from it to start turning into red sludge, if I was lucky. I was out of the game for hours, maybe days. But I’m not done as long as I can speak.

“Masego,” I rasped. “Bind her.”

Sulia wasn’t dead, oh no. When I’d made the decision of fighting here in Arcadia, even with all the odds I’d stacked in my favour, I’d hesitated for one reason. The losses I would incur had to be made worth it by a greater gain. Bleeding Summer alone was not enough to drive me to make a gambit like that, not with what I was putting on the line. There were major liabilities to fighting the fae in Creation, of course, but that in and of itself wasn’t a reason to fight them in Arcadia instead. The risks taken by giving battle in Summer were too high to justify the decision with just that. But then I’d stopped thinking of this battle as a battle alone, and placed it in the context of a campaign. There would be a final clash between my forces and the Summer Court, that much was certain in my eyes. And given that any advantage of mobility I had through my portals the fae had as well but better, when I returned to Creation there was no real way for me to dictate where that last clash happened. Considering the Legions were at their best on prepared grounds and anything but our best might just come short, that was not a recipe for victory. I’d understood that I needed something to force their hand, and that was why my soldiers and my allies were now dying on this unearthly field.

The Princess of High Noon was my leverage, and I’d not understood exactly how strong that leverage would be until only two royal fae had come to stand for Summer. There should have been three, which likely meant the Diabolist had gotten rid of one for me. I’d give this to Akua Sahelian: she was a horrid, cold-blooded and treacherous monster but when she put it all on the line she could slug it with the best of them. I was still going to stab her repeatedly and burn the corpse twice, of course, but I could respect the strength if not how she got it and how she used it. Two royals meant there were two people left to lead the armies of Summer. If the Prince of Nightfall killed his opponent, and I believed he could, that left the Queen of Summer as the only heavy hitter in her court. She wouldn’t be able to let that stand, not with Nightfall and a princess left to back the King of Winter. If the other court turned its eyes on her, and it was in their nature to do so, then she’d lose that fight and badly. With Sulia back at her side, she could maybe scrap out a draw. She needed the Princess of High Noon back, and needed her badly.

So if I dragged Sulia back to Creation, bound and gagged? Then the Queen of Summer could only come to take her back or face destruction. My bet was she’d come with her entire army, where I wanted and when I wanted. I honestly couldn’t think of another way to bring the war to a close in the next three months and some that remained of the time the Winter King had given me, and so here we were.

Hierophant, for though the change was young already I could no longer think of him by his old Name, did not immediately reply. Over his palm hovered the shards that had once been his spectacles, and though the enchantments on them were gone there was something a great deal more dangerous to be glimpsed in them now. The last thing they’d witnessed was the Summer sun in the fullness of its glory, and that light was still alive in the glass. It might never leave. Masego left the shards hovering in the air, weaving arcane patterns, and lightly touched his eyes. He could no longer see through them, I realized. He’d glimpsed a miracle and the miracle had burned away his sight. The dark-skinned mage smiled strangely, and then his fingers dug into his face. With a scream he ripped out his eyes, blood trickling down his face as the glass shards broke again and again until they were nothing but small gains. Forming into two orbs, they set themselves into his eye cavities. There was a shimmer of heat and the blood turned to red vapour as dull glass eyes replaced the ones in his hand.

“The whole Hierophant thing was kind of attractive, until you did that,” Archer said. “Way to ruin it.”

“It was a fair trade,” Masego said, voice pensive.

The bloody eyes disappeared without need for even a gesture, whisked out into the pocket dimension where he kept his tools.

“Seven pillars hold up the sky,” he said peacefully.

There was a cadence to it, the hint of an incantation. Seven wooden pillars formed around the fallen Princess Sulia, looking distinctly physical. My knowledge of sorcery was limited, but even I knew the most traditional limits of what a mage could do. It was the kind of thing that was useful to know when killing caster, and since Diabolist was one I’d made sure to learn at least the broad strokes. It was possible to turn power into material substance, but the draw should have been massive. Comparable with teleportation, and the only people who’d ever managed that were the Miezans. Masego had done it casually, and did not look winded in the slightest. Like he’d just ignored a law. Gods, what had he turned into?

“Four cardinals, one meridian,” he said. “The wheel unbroken, spokes that are not. Thou shall not leave the circle.”

Four runes appeared around the fae, linked by a circle of pale light. The ice shattered but Sulia hung in the air, faintly conscious yet unable to move. I helped up Hakram from where he was still kneeling, eyes closed and breathing irregularly. He leaned heavily on me, which almost saw the both of us toppling to the ground until Archer caught his other side and steadied us.

“Careful there, big guy,” she said. “This isn’t the place to take a nap, though I salute your attitude.”

The orc cleared his throat, but did not say anything. He was in even worse state than I was. I looked for Thief, but she was gone again. Not much about the aftermath, that one. The disappearing act wasn’t so much mysterious as it was a constant irritant. I’d been known to be, uh, less than polite on occasion but at least I didn’t leave in the middle of things. I felt the gaze on me before the entity it belonged to deigned to land. The Prince of Nightfall ignored us entirely, touching the ground by the Princess of High Noon and studying her with a harsh smile.

“Oh, Sulia,” he murmured. “The sheer indignity. You’d have been furious it if it was one of us, but mortals? No amount of lives will allow you to wipe that shame away.”

“You killed your prince?” I asked.

He turned to me me, single eye shining with amusement.

“Very much so,” he said. “If the end ever comes, he will still be flinching when we next meet.”

“We need to break the army,” I said. “Quickly. My troops are going to begin evacuation as soon as I send the order.”

“There is nowhere she will not follow you, with Sulia in your hands,” he said. “You lack not for boldness. I wonder if I should be flattered, that your domain resembles mine so closely.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding as if I had any idea what he was talking about.

“Your third aspect,” Masego said, long accustomed to my wiles. “It is… more.”

The raven-haired man glanced at the braided mage, inclining his head by the barest fraction.

“You have good eyes, for one of your kind,” he said.

The Hierophant inclined his head in return, accepting the compliment wordlessly. The Prince of Nightfall breathed in deeply, as if he was savouring the heat, and looked up at the sky. It was still day, I saw. The light still shone. Yet there was no sun. That might be a problem. What exactly had Thief gotten her sticky fingers on?

“I will lend a vassal to escort you back to your lines, keeping to the spirit of our bargain,” the prince said. “Do not forget your end.”

How the Hells I was going to manage to pay the price he’d demanded for his assistance was a headache for another day, I decided. I looked at the battle lines and saw Summer was wavering. They’d felt the defeats that had happened on a deeper level, and it was costing them something.

“We’ve won,” I said.

“The Duke of Green Orchards will call retreat within the hour,” the fae agreed. “You killed his sister earlier, and they have no champion left to match me.”

I looked west, to the hill, and saw the silhouette had yet to move. The Prince of Nightfall followed my gaze, single eye narrowing.

“If she is not gone by dawn tomorrow, I will have my due,” he said.

I looked at him, then shrugged.

“Good luck. Gods know you’ll need it.”

We pursued the enemy when they retreated, but not far and not for long. I wanted Summer thinned of all the meat I could manage before we fought them again, but I was well aware that the moment Princess Sulia had been defeated an hourglass had been flipped and we wouldn’t survive the last grains running out. Masego said that, in the worst case, she could turn a journey of several days into one that would take her until nightfall. We should be able to manage that. Juniper only sent two thousand regulars across before closing the gate, the flanking force they represented taking its toll before the fae host managed to extricate itself. Mostly green recruits, I noticed. It was so very typical of my general to use a battle in goddamned Arcadia to blood her fresh recruits that I couldn’t help but smile. Juniper was Juniper. I was pretty sure if we ever invaded one of the Hells she’d just treat is as tempering exercise. The knights and the Winter fae did most of the hard work in running down whatever soldiers of Summer were cut off from the retreating host, and though it was only a rough estimate Marshal Ranker sent me an officer with her best read on the casualties. On our side, nearly six thousand. Nauk’s two thousand men at the beginning of the campaign had been whittled down to a bare five hundred. Most of the rest were Deoraithe regulars and fewer legionaries, though the Watch had allegedly lost a tenth of their number.

Summer, by Ranker’s estimates, had lost around twenty thousand of the sixty they’d brought to the plains. Among those, over a third of the ten thousand the golden fae who’d very nearly wiped out Nauk’s jesha had died. They’d suffered more from the two blasts that had been extracted from the Duchess of Restless Zephyr than mortal blades, apparently. I wasn’t looking forward to another scrap with the golden ones, and fully intended on a sit-down with the Hellhound over the subject. This had been a victory, if a bloody one. We’d traded losses at over thrice dead for every one of ours. Winter, though, had not made out so well. Twenty thousand had been led here by the Prince of Nightfall, but only nine thousand would leave the field. Their cavalry was good as done, while the winged knights of Summer still had over half their numbers, and they’d lost one of the three royals directly under the King in the battle. I wasn’t all that broken up about it, to be honest. A Winter that was better off than Summer but still weakened was very much to my advantage.

Our wounded had been sent through first, the slow work accelerated when Masego crossed into Creation with the Princess of High Noon and then used our other aristocratic prisoner to forge a second gate that our men could use to evacuate. I gave Duchess Kegan leave to use that one to get her people out at her own leisure, getting the Legions through the one at behind the palisades. It was quicker this time around, for a variety of reasons. One more gate, lesser numbers and our officers had managed the logistics of this before. It was past noon when the last few hundred began to file through, and sitting on the bloody grass I let out a sigh of relief. Masego was lying down on my left, dull glass eyes thankfully hidden by his closed eyelids. It would be a while before I got used to those. He had to be on this side to close the gate he’d crafted, he’d told, me and I’d decided to remain with him so he wouldn’t get distracted.

“The Queen won’t be able to follow us for some time,” the mage said. “There are difficulties, to something that powerful crossing in Creation. They weren’t meant to.”

“How long is some time?” I said. “A week, a month, a year? I can’t have her stuck here for too long. Not if I’m to win this war decisively.”

“No more than a month,” Hierophant said. “She would not be able to stay for much longer than that, either. She’s too deeply intertwined with Aine.”

“I can work with a month,” I grunted. “I’ll need around that long to have everything in place for our second tilt.”

“It won’t be anything like today,” Masego warned.

“They always get better, the second time around,” I agreed softly.

The others had already gone across. I’d told Archer I didn’t mind if she wanted to go have a chat with her teacher, but the other woman had shuddered and muttered something about hunting eyes. She did enjoy her dramatics. Ranger, if that was really her, still hadn’t moved. Might have been she just came to have a look? Regardless, as long as it wasn’t made my problem I was glad to wash my hands clean of the whole thing. Nothing good came out of meddling in the affairs of Calamities, even former ones. I sighed, then hoisted myself back up onto my feet. Gods, I was going to be more bruise than woman tomorrow. I offered Masego a hand, but saw his fingers were tracing the grass. Casting? No, he was trying to move the green strands. And failing.

“Oh fuck,” I whispered.

I looked ahead, to the gates. Maybe a little more than a hundred people left between the two of them, but none of them were moving. Frozen like statues. I’d seen something likes this before, shortly before getting my heart ripped out.

“She’s here,” the Hierophant said, rising unsteadily.

The difference in light was so subtle I almost missed it: it was the shadows that gave it away. Even with the sun missing, the light had been cast as if coming from the something that no longer existed. Now, though, the angle was different. It all came from above. Hand shaking, I looked up. There was no sky. Only an ocean of golden flames, as far as the eye could see. Masego began murmuring softly and with a sound like a gong transparent wards formed around the soldiers still leaving. They resumed their movement for a heartbeat, until the wards shattered.

“You said we should have had until nightfall,” I said. “Aine is days away, and she wasn’t moving.”

“No, not moving. She was casting,” Masego said, regretful. “Time has been suspended across all of Summer.”

I cast a panicked look at my soldiers. Shit, at the gates. The Queen might be able to cross through those. If she did, we were done. All our armies wiped in moments.

“I have never done this before,” a soft voice said, awed.

In front of us stood a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen. Her skin was tanned, but not like a Taghreb or the people of the Free Cities. Like a farmer, and her hands held the calluses of one who tilled fields. Her hair was a mass of golden curls, let loose without styling. She wasn’t beautiful, the way some fae were. If would have taken her for some farmer’s daughter, with those broad shoulders and solid muscles. Her eyes were brown, unremarkable, and when she smiled at us her cheeks dimpled.

“Is this what he saw in you?” the Queen of Summer wondered. “You change the patterns.”

My mouth was dry. I had the itch to cough, but my body was still and beyond my control.

“It is not enough,” she said after a moment, and the sorrow on her face was heartbreaking. “The story will correct itself. All you represent is delay. How tired he must be, to embrace this.”

She sighed, then peered at us.

“There are five of you,” she said.

I could not even nod.

“Born under cursed stars,” she told us gently. “You most of all, Catherine Foundling. The five of you would be woe unto all you behold.”

She had no weapon in her hand but I had not felt this terrified in a very, very long time.

“I will spare you this,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s all I can do for you. Summer is not kind.”

Hierophant’s hand moved, but the Queen glanced at him and it stopped.

“If you’d had a few years, Masego,” she said. “You have not seen enough.”

Her hand rose and the sky fell. Now. Come on, now is when you come. She has to be why you’re here. I’d never heard anything more beautiful than the sound of a sword clearing the scabbard. The sky split in half and Ranger stood between us as if she had always been there. My hands were shaking, and though I abhorred the weakness it stood for I was so relieved I could move again I almost didn’t care.

“It was the Chancellor, who named us the Calamities,” the hooded woman said, a single sword in hand. “The man always had a way with words. ‘You are a calamity to friend and foe alike’. Only ever screamed when he died, though. I guess it’s hard to be witty when getting drawn and quartered.”

She hummed.

“The Woe,” Ranger said, mulling over the word. “Too broad a mantle for you five now, but you’ll grow into it.”

“I have no quarrel with you, Lady of the Lake,” the Queen of Summer said, brow creased slightly.

Just the sight of it made me want to comfort her, even remembering she’d just tried to kill us.

“Run along, kids,” Ranger said, face hooded by shadow save for the sharp grin on her face. “Once is all you get from me.”

“We could help you,” I croaked.

The blade did not move, and neither did the hand that held it. And yet for a heartbeat I felt like my throat had been cut, like blood was gushing out. The intent had been so strong it had almost become a fact.

“I dislike ignoring my impulses,” Ranger said casually. “So do not suggest that again. He would be angry, if I killed you, but we’ve been angry before. It passes.”

“My soldiers,” I said, knowing I was testing death but unwilling to leave them behind.

The Calamity shrugged carelessly.

“What are they to me?”

She couldn’t have… no, not even Black would. But I looked behind me, and there was no denying the truth. The Deoraithe, the legionaries. Nothing left but ashes. She had not protected them. Only the two of us.

“You will not leave,” the Queen of Summer said.

She spoke the words easily, and still I felt my bones creak under the weight. Ranger unsheathed her second sword and the pressure vanished.

“I looked for you, in Aine,” the Calamity said.

“It would have been a meaningless fight,” the Queen said.

The Named had already ceased to pay attention to us, I saw. She’d given us our chance, and that was all she felt she owed.

“So you had me running through a maze instead,” Ranger snorted. “Cute. No maze here now, though. Too far from your throne.”

“This strife is unnecessary,” the Queen insisted, as if she couldn’t possibly understand why this matter was still spoken of at all.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced,” the Calamity laughed. “I am the Ranger. I hunt those worth hunting. Rejoice, for you qualify.”

We fled, through the ashes of men who’d fought for me not hours ago. The gates closed, and the last of Arcadia I saw was a lone silhouette standing in a storm of flame. We’d won today, I told myself. Even with how it had ended.

I should have gotten used to that bitter taste in my mouth by now.

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125 thoughts on “Chapter 32: Close

  1. Ben

    I read this too quickly the first time and thought that the Queen of Summer had wiped out ALL of the combined forces (including Ranker and Kegan) other than the Named. But if I’m reading it right it’s just the hundred or so that had not yet gone through the gates back into Creation. Or am I still missing something?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Byzantine

      I get the feeling the Dead King cannot die in truth, so she’s just having fun with him.

      And the way Black spoke of her and him. I guess he is the closest thing she has to an equal, at least in terms of sheer destructive power.

      Like

      1. stevenneiman

        He’s nowhere near her league in terms of damage potential. I’m not entirely sure what it was she liked about him, though it might have been his ambition. Black might actually be the least physically powerful of the Calamities, though he’s fearsome in terms of absolute power. After all, he’s the leader and strategist next to Ranger herself, the guy who can call down unholy fire against his enemies and the woman who once killed a god (even if it was small g) with her bare hands.

        Liked by 6 people

      2. samshadar

        Byzantine was refering to Black comparing the Dead King and Ranger… I think killing the entire populace of your Kingdom and turning them into your undead servants qualifies.

        Like

      3. RandomFan

        If Ranger were- is- a villain, she’d consider herself winning, because she’d win for all of her life until the day she lost. I kinda get the feeling that’s a deal she’d take, and be happy with. I don’t think she has any long-term goals, though. She might, but that’s not the feeling I get. She’s playing, whatever alignment her name has.

        Black is playing to win long-term, which is new and novel- especially since it might work. I think he’s interesting, not her equal. He’ll never be her equal, either, if you trust his own predictions- which is a tragedy, but perfectly legitimate.

        Like

      1. nipi

        Well it was implied that the Dead King does change bodies.

        And somehow I have the impression that he isnt much of a fighter himself. Thats what the undead minions are for. So Ranger might not be interested in him per se.

        Like

      2. Byzantine

        Like I said, I’m pretty sure he can’t actually die in truth, so while Ranger may have destroyed his avatar the first time she went there, it didn’t accomplish anything but making him mildly annoyed.

        Like

    2. The Quietist

      Well then she was bored and killing time. Now she’s got a new prey and is clearly in some sort of zone hence Archer commenting on “hunter’s eyes” as to why she wasn’t going to go say hi.

      Like

    1. Byzantine

      She is the most powerful Named on the continent by a significant margin. Combine that with being half-elf and trained by their best. Ranger is utterly terrifying. If she is hunting you, Run. Not to get away – to limit how many people you like get killed in the process.

      Liked by 8 people

    2. Darkening

      Well, elves are already practically demigods, she’s a half-elf… and she’s a named on top of that. So that’s a good base. Then there’s her aspects, which lead her to perfect any skill she sets her mind to and then transcend it into something more than merely mortal skill. Sorta like how Tolkien’s elves would become so good at, carpentry or whatever that they could make magic stuff just by being really, really good. But she directs all of that into killing things. Have we gotten any indication on how long Ranger’s been doing this? I got the sense she was already a veteran when she ran into Black in that tavern the first time, and as a half-elf she’s probably got a long lifespan.

      Like

      1. esryok

        Based on her extra chapter (Regard) she’s at least 140 years old, and I get the impression it is a fair number of decades more than that.

        Like

      2. stevenneiman

        Named are all immortal until killed, so she could be theoretically any age. And yeah, between being half elf and having Aspects designed to make her grow more fearsome with each insane stunt she is probably one of the most dangerous beings in Creation. Of course, that still doesn’t explain how she was able to cut the burning sky, but it’s hardly out of line with her power shown elsewhere.

        Like

  2. Byzantine

    Sucks, but honestly she should have seen it coming, with Ranger waiting there.

    There are only two things in Arcadia that hold her interest now: The King of Winter and the Queen of Summer. And this was Summer territory.

    Interesting, though, she just Bound Thief to the party in Name and Story, and hence in truth. That’s going to have implications, I think. Ones Thief may not be happy with, but she will deal with as long as Catherine doesn’t go all murder-happy on innocents.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Kirroth

        On the one hand, an good group of five needs The Sneaky One. That could be Thief or it could be Robber. Thief would seem to be in the lead, but she’s a Hero that got strong armed into helping out and doesn’t really seem a proper part of Cat’s circle. Robber is far more closely tied to Cat’s narrative.

        On the other hand, Cat’s all about altering patterns, so I wouldn’t even narrow it down to just those two. I’m even weighing odds that Diabolist is the fifth. She’d make an excellent Starscream.

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      2. stevenneiman

        @Kirroth I very much doubt that she would be willing to work with Diabolist. She killed William, who was a way more sympathetic character and who at there’s at least a theoretical possibility that if he renounced the Gods Above he could be a decent person, but Diabolist doesn’t give that kind of vibe, in a way that makes killing her an much more attractive option. With, of course, very thorough precautions against her coming back in any form, at any time.

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      3. maresther23

        Gobblin names are sneaky, Black said so when talking about the Matrons. Robber has “heard the wind” and knows the music of “The Girl Who Climbed the Tower”. Finally, and not least, see the moments when he says he is Invincible and tell me it is not an Aspect.

        Like

      1. Byzantine

        It’s a bigger deal in that she gave implicit permission for Archer to stay. But it isn’t as major in terms of the Narrative at play.

        Like

  3. nehemiahnewell

    I’m surprised that the Summer Queen is surprised. The Ranger seems as much a slave to her habits as any fae, and she knew she was prey. She should grok that, it’s a mirror of her own kingdoms limited nature.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. James, Mostly Harmless

      I got the impression that the Summer Queen was not actually surprised by Ranger’s appearance. It seemed more like she was dawdling a little so that Ranger could appear just in time to save Cat and Masego …

      Like

      1. Byzantine

        If she was, I don’t think she had a choice. Fae are bound by the story, and the stronger the Fae the stronger it binds them.

        Like

  4. Shequi

    Downer, somewhat.

    I wonder what the Queen of Summer is nominally Princess of when not wearing the crown.

    Also, did anybody else notice that Thief now has the burnt hand motif of Ranker’s Legion?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Shequi

      Also also:

      “The Woe,” Ranger said, mulling over the word. “Too broad a mantle for you five now, but you’ll grow into it.”

      Confirmation of what I said in the previous chapter. This was a Pivot, the start of a story for the 5 Named under Catherine’s banner.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. nehemiahnewell

      Huh, that’s interesting. You’re right, she does. Even if it came from a different source, that might matter. It’s an element of a story, after all.

      Like

    3. stevenneiman

      Very observant. I hadn’t noticed the way that she shared Ranker’s burnt hand. Of course, being a hero, she might have access to some unfair means of healing that, but on the other hand that might not work with a wound that came from the Summer sun.

      Like

  5. Nastybarsteward

    It’s interesting that the queen of summer sounds rather un-fae like in appearance, even if she most definitely is in power.
    As Cat has become a noble in the court of winter, is it possible the queen of summer wasn’t fae to start with…?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Terion

      I think the Queen is Old fae. The lower fae seem to be shaped by the stories of mortals into unnaturally beautiful beings. Maybe the queen is too fundamental to be affected.

      Like

      1. Nastybarsteward

        The king of winter was still very much fae in appearance, wasn’t he?
        Whereas the queen of summer was a muscular 14yr old human girl
        in appearance.
        And one who was in awe of her own power at that.

        Like

  6. stevenneiman

    typo thread:

    “Distractions and stray [fought->thoughts] fell away”
    “It was the kind of thing that was useful to know when killing [caster->casters/a caster]”
    “You’d have been furious [it] if it was one of us”
    “if we ever invaded one of the Hells she’d just treat is as {a} tempering exercise”

    Also, I’m kinda feeling like Ranger seems a bit more overpowered than she did last time we saw her. When she invaded Keter she always seemed like she was skating along the thin edge of possible, but here she just seems like she can do whatever she wants.

    Like

    1. RoflCat

      When you keep Transcending the next bigger thing, eventually you get that OP.

      I mean, back then she was simply hunting Dead King’s ghost heroes.
      Then during the Conquest she probably took part in hunting some of the big Named on Good (like Wizard of the West)
      Heck she already has Prince of Nightfall so beat that she ALWAYS come for his eye.

      And now, my guess is that whatever ‘souvenir’ she’ll take from the Queen will help Cat defeat her later on.

      Like

  7. Unmaker

    It is too much to hope that Thief will drop a sun-ball of flame on Diabolist. Diabolist and her father would just figure out how to use the power somehow. It is a really good question as to what in the nine hells Thief is going to do with the stolen Sun.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. RandomFan

        And if Cat really manages to never have a time where summoning a sun is a “good idea” or one where summoning a sun is a “best we’ve got” prior to that point, there is a value in plopping down a sun in the middle of winter. I doubt it’d take out a king, but off-guard, it might let her finish off a prince or princess.

        Like

    1. Combined attacks, or even stealing his own Reality Marble to come as a princess or a queen when the next Winter comes? At least we now know that the titles don’t refer to any actual aspects on Creation.

      Like

  8. mechanicalrain

    Victory though superior strategy, one of the best ones to enjoy. Hopefully all the men that died did so for something, and she manages to leverage the victory into actual gains, rather than the temporary reprieve from Summer of 1~ish months.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It said the Deoraithe and the Legionaries, but were the knights also ashed? that spells Bad News, since unlike the Legionaries she can’t just recruit another 2000. Be good if the watch were cut down a bit, though.

    Like

  10. Snoogle

    So the Prince of Night”fall” says that the “Fall” aspect is close to his domain.

    For a Duchess of the Moonless “Night”, that sounds way awesome. I can’t wait to see what that could mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Damn, replied to the wrong comment.

      Combined attacks, or even stealing his own Reality Marble to come as a princess or a queen when the next Winter comes? At least we now know that the titles don’t refer to any actual aspects on Creation.

      Like

  11. “I am the Ranger. I hunt those worth hunting. Rejoice, for you qualify.”
    “I dislike ignoring my impulses,” Ranger said casually. “So do not suggest that again. He would be angry, if I killed you,

    So Cat is worth hunting, that is interesting

    Like

    1. Terion

      I don’t think she considers Catherine worth hunting. I think she just means that by default she instinctively silences anything that opposes her, in word or deed. Permanently.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. RandomFan

        Don’t chide him for dismissing his peers, and then promptly do the exact same thing. His sounds more plausible to me, but both are possible. (In fact, I think both are the case in truth.)

        Like

    2. Idan Dor

      Hmmm, maybe it’s the zeal of a new highly powerful opponent that makes it harder to suppress her instincts? She wouldn’t have lasted long with the Calamities (or to be more precise, *they* wouldn’t) if she had no way to suppress those instincts.

      I am wondering about Ranger’s kill count right now, she would have had no problem hunting Warlocks on the height of their power in their own fortresses. I wonder how many top heroes and villians she had hunted during her time.

      I find it interesting how the King of Winter is attempting large scale changes to the story and shifting of the patterns. The Courts are somewhat supposed to mirror stories and narratives, I wonder if this is him mirroring Black’s story? And if so, to what end?

      Thank for the chapter, EE, it is certainly, as others mentioned, a pivot for the Woe.

      Like

      1. Danica Bihlmaier

        “very tired” was what the Queen of Summer said. The Winter King seems to want an end to the endless repetition of endless cycles and not much more beyond that.

        Like

      2. That’s a really interesting way to see it. I didn’t think he needed to have a reason for wanting to break the cycle, but it absolutely makes sense that this might be a reflection of the general “narrative shift” that Praes is trying to take

        Like

    3. The Quietist

      Can’t reply directly to you Warren for some reason so I’ll post here. Just to say “nah” was in no way intended as insulting it was just a randomly used word… Chill my friend.

      Like

      1. Morgenstern

        “Slang” is all of how it came over to me o_Ô That’s the problem with written words and not being able to see facial expressions, gestures, and hear a tone, I guess 😉

        Like

    4. George

      It seemed clear to me that Ranger was talking to the Summer Queen with the first bit, then Catherine with the second bit. Personally I read it as Ranger being offended at the implication that she needed help.

      Like

  12. Sinjako

    I am desperately hoping that Diabolist is the fifth Woe. Imagine Catherines face when she finds out reality just played its biggest joke on her. It would fit with her character development very well too. So far, she’s had to a lot of nasty things, but nothing as deeply personal as this. This would be the first time she’s HAD to do something that offends her to the core of her soul.

    Like

    1. lennymaster

      No, I think it would be way more awesome if everyone thought Thief was the fifth member of the Woe, right next to Squire, Hierophant, Adjudant and Archer. But when she tries to betray Cat Robber suddenly stabs her and reveals himself to be one of the Woe (I think Saboteur would be a fitting Name).
      Originally I had pined for Kilian to be one of Cats band of killers and the love interest, but that seems more and more unlikely.

      Like

  13. MagnaMalusLupus

    I love this story more and more, but I’m not loving that party name; being a Calamity makes sense, as a calamity is an event, a noun, a distinct entity. Woe is an emotion, and isn’t really something quantifiable; you can have 5 calamitous events, you can have 5 tragedies befall you, you can have 5 curses bestowed upon you, hells you can even encounter 5 banes of your existence, but it doesn’t make much sense to say you have had 5 woes. That being said, tragedy seems a bit too heroic, curses doesn’t work what with there being a Name of the Cursed, and Banes doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Just a thought though, considering how much Cat has fought with literal gods and angels and such, and given the Hierophant has a direct connection to dissecting the divine, perhaps Blasphemies would be apropos. Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Woe isn’t always an emotion, it can also be used to mean something that causes you trouble. The typical phrase is “suffering from woes,” e.g., “The company is suffering from financial woes after poor sales of its product.”

      Although you’re right that it’s usually an indefinite number – you can suffer from woes, but you never suffer from one woe, or five woes.

      Like

    2. Cloudy_Mind

      “Woe is an emotion, and isn’t really something quantifiable”.
      Not entirely true. Woe and Calamity are very closely associated.

      Woe – great sorrow or distress.
      – things that cause sorrow or distress; troubles.
      Calamity – an event causing great and often sudden damage or distress; a disaster.

      Like

      1. Snoogle

        “Calamity: an event causing great distress.”

        “Woe: great sorrow or distress.”

        Black the Calamity caused Catherine the Woe.

        I like this parallel.

        Like

  14. Dylan Tullos

    Am I the only one who really doesn’t like Ranger? She’s essentially a narcissist in love with her own cunning and ability, endlessly seeking out bigger and better challenges without any regard for the consequences to the people around her. For all of her age and experience, Ranger is a child endlessly demanding new thrills, maiming and murdering purely to avoid boredom.

    I’m personally hoping that the Queen wipes her out. Ranger treats those around her like toys that exist only for her own amusement, and it’s about time for her to run into someone powerful enough to stop her little game.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. lennymaster

      I agree with you on that one, but it would be way too boring if either of those two died.
      Cat’s big thing however was to build a better Callow and to kill everything, be it mortal Named or even a God to achieve that. How many Gods does she need to kill, starting with the Queen of Summer and continuing with the King of Winter, to whom she promised revenge for her dead people in Marchford, to become interesting to Ranger, especially after Black’s most likely coming death?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Blinks

      You’re not alone in that but then i’m somewhat contrary by nature.
      I want Black to get outsmarted, Ranger to lose, Warlock to be over powered, scribe to be surprised and the Empress outmanoeuvred.

      Ranger, i think, has her time coming though. You don’t get to be invincible like she, apparently, is. That’s the kind of thing begging for a story where she loses.

      Like

      1. Soronel Haetir

        Except Ranger doesn’t have any over-arching ambition. She just goes from one situation to the next looking for a good time. I see her invulnerability somewhat like how the first step of a villain’s master plan cannot fail, Ranger goes beyond that by not having a master plan to begin with (of course she isn’t really a villain – or a hero for that matter – just a bored near-immortal out for #1).

        From the intro comment to the Ranger extra chapter about how the Kingdom Under considers Refuge a protectorate of sorts I get the feeling that even the most powerful nation on the continent isn’t confident about their ability to defeat her, at least not without suffering costs all out of proportion to the gain.

        Like

      2. Dylan Tullos

        Soronal Haetir:

        I attribute Ranger’s survival to both her impressive skills and her ability to never be the center of a really big Story. As you point out, she doesn’t have an agenda beyond her own entertainment, so she is never a suitable champion for either the Gods Above or Those Below. At some point, Good Heroes will sacrifice themselves, while Evil Villains will be destroyed by some combination of Heroic sacrifice and the collapse of their overelaborate plans. Since Ranger isn’t actually Good or Evil, she isn’t bound by either set of conventions.

        I don’t know who could bring Ranger down at this point. She’s more formidable than any Named we’ve met so far, and if she can survive the Queen of Summer, I don’t think any amount of raw power would be sufficient to destroy her. We just don’t have enough information to speculate about any weaknesses other than arrogance and addiction to danger.

        Like

      3. Honestly, Ranger has made several moves that could take her off the board. She’s made herself a big enough player and wildcard that removing her could be the first step in several plans. She’s given motivation here – she had no reason to get involved beyond amusement, and in getting involved she thwarted a god. That not the kind of wildcard any mastermind likes leaving around.

        Likewise, she’s helped the forces of evil a great deal. She certainly should have people wanting to bring her to justice, or revenge their murdered parents just like the other Calamities.

        And her placelessness means there’s no story that will be left hollow by her absence. She isn’t being pulled into her doom, but neither is she protected so that she can fulfill her role in a story.

        I can see her falling very quickly and unexpectedly.

        Like

    3. I’m with you. I have a string dislike for god-like NPCs. Cat struggles, Black schemes beautifully, even the Bard has limitations in what she’s doing.

      Ranger just seems all-powerful for no other reason than she is.

      Like

    4. Dylan Tullos

      Nehemiah Newell:

      The problem with targeting Ranger is that she’s too powerful to fight unless you absolutely have to, and you can never be sure that she’s going to end up as your enemy. Ranger is unpredictable enough to take any side, and by going after her, you draw her attention. In purely practical terms, it makes more sense to treat her like a natural disaster and hope that she doesn’t wander in your direction.

      In a world with a single superpower, the superpower would need to wipe her out simply to destroy a “wild card” that could threaten the proper order of things. In a conflict between two Great Powers, neither side can afford to risk driving her into an alliance with the other team. If Ranger was consistently pro-Good or pro-Evil, there would be no incentive to leave her alone, but we can see that she spends most of her time amusing herself in ways that don’t help either side exclusively.

      Anyone with a motive to kill Ranger for what she did as part of Black’s team during the Conquest also has a motive to target Black and the other Calamities. Since they’re still active, while she’s mostly retired, it would also make sense for Heroes to go after them first.

      It’s not that there aren’t lots of people who would really, really like Ranger dead. It’s just that she’s never first on anyone’s “Must Die” list (except the Prince of Nightfall. Only Ranger could make me feel sorry for a fae). As a second-tier threat who requires a first-tier effort to kill, Ranger is effectively shielded from retribution. Those with the power to possibly bring her down have bigger concerns, and they can’t ignore their chief rivals to bring down Calernia’s most dangerous wild card, especially when the blowback from a failed attempt could endanger their larger plans.

      That said…I really hope that you’re right and I’m wrong. Out of all the characters in this novel, I want Ranger dead the most, purely because of her unique combination of insufferable arrogance and vicious, childlike motives.

      Like

  15. The Queen of Summer would sooner cut out her own tongue and cauterize the stump than speak the words she did about Cat’s little group and then see them survive. She only said what she did about them being The Woe because she was utterly, completely, absolutely certain that Catherine and Masego were about to die, breaking their Calamities-in-the-making-like group.

    The Chancellor named the Calamities, and look how their story has gone. The QUEEN OF FRIGGING SUMMER named Catherine’s squad. It’s a stronger story-base than that the Calamities received, by FAR. Knowing Stories as she does, the Summer Queen is NOT happy right now.

    Much love for the Ranger.

    Like

      1. RandomFan

        Not quite. “The five of you would be woe unto all you behold.” is the Queen’s words, just like “You are a calamity to friend and foe alike” is from the Chancelor. Ranger just formalized it.

        Like

  16. Addicted

    Everyone shut up just shut up! The great Author doesn’t have time to read your boring words. Just shut up and give the author money so he writes dammit. Here take it take it all.
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    What are you waiting for take it and write. I need my fix man.
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    What’s taking so long !!!!!

    Like

  17. Eirishluck

    Typo and/or Grammar issues:

    “If my mouthing off had been followed by Thief failing to steal the sun, ”

    shouldn’t that be “had not” or “hadn’t” instead of “had”

    “It was the kind of thing that was useful to know when killing caster,”

    shouldn’t that be “casters” (plural), doesn’t read right in singular form

    Like

    1. RandomFan

      I will gladly debate that worm was a tragedy day and night. (It was a terrible place, but Taylor won, and the world was better for her existence.) That said, I’m sure it’s inevitable that we’re going to see Cat lose some. Even if she achieves her goals, there will be prices.

      Like

  18. Komploding

    “Ranger stood between us as if she had -always- been there.”
    This sentence caught my eye, did Ranger just do that elven thing where she chooses which laws apply to her but in Arcadia?

    Like

  19. Barrendur

    @Dylan Tullos:

    I also detest Ranger. Her arrogance is unappealling to read about, as is her apparent belief that everyone in the ENTIRE world is irrelevant (or a terrain hazard), save for her and her current target (and maybe some of the Calamities).

    I’ve always found ‘invincible’ characters frustrating and tedious… especially when they murder without any *hope* of their ever being held accountable. Ranger leads a self-obsessed, pointless existence, as a (from what I’ve read so far) pointless character.

    Like

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