Villainous Interlude: Calamity III

“The truth of monsters is that, in the end, they die. If they didn’t we would have to call them gods.”
– Eudokia the Oft-Abducted, Basilea of Nicae

The Beast moved, but Sabah was within it. It was not control, for control was an illusion, but it was enough. She could yet think, even with blood and heat pumping in her veins. The Valiant Champion screamed a war cry and swung her axe, but what did the Beast care for this? The enemy steel dug into her flesh, blood and fur spraying, but with a roar she bit down on the hero. The shield gave under her fangs, even with the strength of a Name behind it, and she crunched into the plate before throwing the Champion to the side. The Beast had wanted to swallow the girl whole, but Sabah knew this would have been a mistake. Covered in blood and spit, the heroine rose to her feet. She began to speak but the Beast huffed out a laugh and struck again. The wound the axe had carved was already healed, the intertwined madness and power within her growing with every moment. The heroine raised the broken remnant of her shield but a shoulder bump was enough to send her crashing into the walls of the arena

Stone broke, bone broke and the scream whetted the Beast’s appetite.

The Champion was better at fighting beasts than men, but Sabah was not like anything the girl had ever thought before. Of all the Calamities, only she had embraced the old truth: if you were strong enough, even Fate broke under your teeth. Fountains of sand exploded behind her as she charged and the heroine hastily leapt onto the stands. The cheering sounded, oh, and the clapping as well. The Beast roared and it drowned out all the worlds. Claws scrabbling against the stone rails, Sabah gave when the enemy tried to use to high grounds to strike at her head. Tail twisting behind her, the Beast paced the sands of the arena and waited for the Champion to come down. The girl was catching her breath, though. Wasn’t moving. The Beast crouched, then leapt onto the stands. Benches and flickering silhouettes shattered as she rolled onto the stone, rising back to her feet. The sun came down harshly, blinding her, but Sabah sniffed the air and felt the wounded enemy coming closer. Petty arena tricks.

Clawed paw rising, the Beast struck down into the stands. The arena shook. Again and again she did, until the entire wing collapsed beneath her in a shower of stone and dust and sand. The glare of the sun was gone, now, and she saw the Champion hopping from ruin to ruin. Shaking herself clear of the dust, Sabah forced her will onto the Beast. Claws closed around stones as she rose onto her back legs, tossing chunks of rocks the size of houses at the heroine. She dodged the first, swatted aside the second but was buried under the third. The Beast licked its chops in satisfaction and leapt onto the stone, shattering it and the stands beneath it. There was a tunnel underneath and the Champion flopped down onto the ground.

Rally,” the heroine gasped.

She shone like the sun and all the flickering silhouettes flocked to her, filling her until her strength swelled. Her armour was smoking, her axe shaking with barely held power. Sabah recognized the aspect from earlier but the Beast cared little for the detail. Her paw whipped out from the outside, tearing through the outer wall of the tunnel and sending the Champion flying again. She landed on her feet at the very top of the stands, where the domain ended, and charged back down. The Beast sniffed the air. Blood, blood and ruin. The heroine’s strength waned and her little world with it. Sabah leapt down onto the sands and let her tail sweep a trail behind her, turning to watch the enemy. The Champion did not flinch, and followed her without hesitation. The Beast wanted to be a thing of teeth and claw, but Sabah thought otherwise. Her long legs swatted at the sands, sending up a cloud, and in that blinding curtain she struck. The heroine stood fast, both hands on the handle of her axe for her shield was long gone. The shining blade cut through the Beast’s leg, but Sabah did not pause. She rolled over the heroine, and the wild joy of hearing bones creak and plate give filled her senses.

It was a wonder, that even after calling on an aspect the Champion was strong enough to throw her off. The Beast hit the wall and howled as her leg grew back, bone and flesh sprouting from the cut. The heroine’s breastplate was dented, and her lips dripping with blood. It was enough to make the Beast hungry. Sabah stalked forward and waited for the heroine to charge. The sweep was not meant to hit her, just force her into the right place. Claws closed around the struggling heroine, and the Beast swung her down at the stands. Again and again and again, until there were a dozen gaping holes in the stone and only then did she toss the girl up in the air. The Champion rose higher and higher in the sky, until she touched a ceiling that wasn’t and crack snaked across the firmament like it was a pane of glass. The arena shattered, and the smells of smoke and death wafted to the Beast’s nose. They were in the city again, where they’d first crossed. The Beast roared, and went for the kill.

Sabah watched.

It had been a very long time since Wekesa had found an opponent this troublesome. He’d grown arrogant in his old age, it seemed. Come to believe that a mere few layers of deception would be enough to keep a hound of the Heavens off his back. This entire battle was something a tactical mistake, in his eyes. This was far from the first time the Calamities split to deal with a heroic band, but the circumstances were not in their favour. Amadeus was adamant the White Knight had to die, however, and in this Warlock was not inclined to disagree. Not as long as Masego was attached to that Callowan slip of a girl. Promising as the young villains assembled around Catherine Foundling were, they were not ready to deal with this calibre of heroic opposition. Better to crush the Wizard to dust here so she would never be a threat to his son. Crushing a rune-covered stone in his palm, Warlock murmured an incantation and watched a bubble form around the Hedge Wizard. A derivative of the effect demons of Time could have, this, at least in theory. Actual observation of such a specimen would have been too dangerous even for him, as the Fourth Hell was nothing to trifle with.

The heroine was stuck, at least for now. He immediately gave ground while weaving High Arcana, the seven spears of red flame that formed sinking into the bubble. It was a crawl, from his perspective, but it would not be from hers. The Wizard moved, inch by inch, and the bubble popped. She had, it seemed, seized the guiding flows and broken them. Unfortunately for her, that did nothing about the spears. She twisted around most, but one took hit her in the shoulder and and another in the leg. That should have crippled her, but the illusion she’d replaced herself with broke instead. The heroine stood a foot to the side, panting. Wekesa frowned and penned her into what he’d come to call a quicksand ward. It didn’t prevent anything, not exactly. It simply made any exertion of power or movement much harder than it should be. Against a practitioner of limited power like her, forcing a burnout was a perfectly viable strategy.

“You killed my sister, you monstrous old fuck,” the Wizard gasped. “You’re not walking away from this.”

Buying time to cast with distracting words. He’d pulled the same trick many, many times.

“I’m rather surprised it stuck,” Wekesa noted. “I suppose once in a while luck smiles on the opposition.”

Her spell flared into existence. The Liessen Chisel, by the looks of it. One of the better Callowan works, an old favourite of the Wizards of the West. It had been crafted specially to cut apart the stabilizing elements of wards, but to accomplish this it did require a certain of raw arcane power. She’d chosen poorly, given the ward around her. Her spell collapsed the ward and a heartbeat later her wrist bones both snapped. She screamed, but did not stop casting. Heroes had an irritating tolerance for pain. A mundane mage would have lost the thread of whatever they were casting when inflicted with such a distraction. High Arcana runes bloomed in front of the both of them.

“She was better than any of you,” Hedge hissed. “She was good.”

“She was Good,” Wekesa corrected. “And evidently not quite better enough to avoid the Tyrant’s ritual.”

Her eyes went wide. Ah, she hadn’t known that bit had she? There was more than one intent at work in this band of heroes. That light delay in working her will gave him the initiative. The red flares formed around the heroine’s head, the intensity of the glow they produced varying wildly. She finished her spell a moment later and the moment the power took shape all three flares exploded into a cage of red. The green smoke she’d crafted went through the bars, but she was forced to dismiss it and create a cone of force around herself to avoid being incinerated. Wekesa’s spell would have fed on both of her castings, which should earn him just long enough to craft something more powerful while she got rid of it. Duels between Gifted were very much a game of shatranj, in his experience. Reacting to the immediate movements of the pieces without glimpsing the long-term intent was a good way to end up dead.

“You’re not invincible,” the heroine barked. “I just need to find the right trick.”

The red cage transmuted into red smoke a moment later, but he placed the last rune and four bands of transparent force formed around the wrists and ankles. They tightened without any need for prompting, crushing bone. Amusingly enough, what part of her wrists that was not powdered was now almost reset form the initial snapping. Warlock could have gone for a more lethal working, but he was wary of committing to such before she’d used her last aspect. Each of them had called on two, and the odds were that the loser of his duel would be the first to give in and call on the third. His own loss, he knew, was unlikely at this stage but very much a possibility. He’d already begun to prepare an exit strategy in case it came to that. The Hedge Wizard wrapped strings of sorcery around her limbs to keep them working, so naturally Wekesa inserted a little gift into the spell and turned them into angry snakes. He felt sorcery take hold of his own limbs and almost smiled. Ah, a transfer. Classic Stygian work. He did not bother to craft an answer: the third layer of the wards on his person prevented the spell from ever going through.

“Have you ever considered,” Warlock said, “that there is no right trick? That for all the gifts the Heavens have dropped onto your lap you could die here tonight?”

The blue pane of light hit her head-on, sending her stumbling to the ground, but her limbs shapeshifted into some sort of lycanthropic derivative by the looks of the hair. Interesting, considering under most recorded instances lycanthropy was a curse and not a natural state of being.

“They don’t really encourage you to think about consequences, do they?” Wekesa continued blithely. “Your masters, that is. Perhaps you-“

He paused, then chuckled.

“Oh, you crafty child,” he said. “You almost had me there. Almost.”

Hellfire was a drain, usually, but with the Red Skies so close to the boundary it was barely an effort to form them. The smell of brimstone filled the air and the crimson flares devoured the spell she’d formed while he talked. Not one he’d ever seen before, this, though the shape had similarities to Keteran formulas. Cascading of some sort? That would have been very dangerous, if it had it the wards on his body. Instead the hellfire engulfed the girl and she dropped to the ground. Another three heartbeats before she died of it, and he prepared to counter whatever trick she’d use to get away from certain death. That was not, as it turned out, what he should have prepared for. A beam of light hit the downed heroine, and it took Wekesa a heartbeat to parse out the sequence. This particular spell was, in theory, an offensive one. But it had a central sequence in the formula modelled after a miracle, which meant… the hellfire gutted out and the Tyrant grinned, lounging on his floating throne above them.

“I have come to betray you,” the cripple cheerfully said.

“Alas, I am surprised,” Warlock replied sardonically, and snapped his wrist.

The throne exploded and the boy went flying. That, he reflected, had been worth the seven hours of preparation. The Hedge Wizard was back on her feet. If they thought two of them would give them an advantage, they were sorely mistaken. They’d only given him more to work with. There was a soft sound at his back and the villain turned. An empty bottle of wine had been dropped on the ground. The Wandering Bard, if he had to venture a guess. The heroine cursed and shot him a glare.

“I’ll be back,” she said, and wings sprouted from her back.

She shouldn’t have taken the time to talk, he mused. He finished the spell before she’d risen more than a foot into the air, and the sliver of darkness touched her back. Every wound he’d inflicted with his sorcery tonight reopened and she dropped screaming. The Tyrant was back on his feet and trying something. Dangerous for his age, this one. Another runic stone broke under his grip and the bubble formed before both it and the villain disappeared. He should be stuck in Arcadia for at least a few moments. Things had grown out of control, here. If both enemy factions were on the move and even the Bard had played a hand – and wasn’t it fascinating she would have had the chance to do that even with Assassin after her? – then the others were in danger. Time to wrap this up.

Reiterate,” the Hedge Wizard croaked out.

Ah, there was the third. Light collected around her body, a different take on the spell from earlier that had reformed her missing body parts. Warlock brought down his hand and the hellfire spear drove through her skull.

“Consequences,” he reminded the dead heroine, and made sure there would not be enough left for a resurrection.

Amadeus was faintly amused at the notion of anyone trying to kill him with a bow when he was a known acquaintance of Ranger. The volley of Light arrows trailed behind him as he ran across the rooftops, splitting tiles and thatching both. An archery-based Name, this one. Warlock had been the one to kill the last Archer, but the green-eyed had tactics to deal with the likes of this. The shadow tendril tossed a brightstick in the White Knight’s face, himself avoiding blinding by pushing a sliver of Name power into his eyes to blind them preventively. A heartbeat later he’d gained his sight back and three swords whistled towards the sides of the hero. Change. Still blind, Hanno batted away the blades with his bare hands and tugged at the length of one. Amadeus immediately cut it, forming a branch from another tendril to catch the falling blade before retracting all of them. Hand to hand fighter, if he was not mistaken. The Levantines were known for those. Black attacked again, eyes sharp. The enemy was shifting between skillsets more slowly, now that he’d gone beyond twenty. Thirty in a night might be his limit, though that was not an assumption to be relied on.

The blow dented his shield, and did not even require the Light to do so. Dangerous. Amadeus tossed the now mostly-useless tool in his opponent’s face and placed his blows. Blade to the ankle, avoided. Blade to armpit, parried bare-handed. The crossbow bolt form the last tendril hit the back of the knee but failed the penetrate. The villain clicked his tongue disapprovingly. That had been almost point-blank, meaning Name power had been at work. He ducked under an open palm that would have collapsed his throat, pivoted around the hero and rammed his blade under his arm. The White Knight danced away but his bare hand was cut by one of the blades coming around. The second should have punched through the back of the knee, Name or not, but the hero deftly stepped atop the blade and flipped away before Black could cut the connection and make him fall. Breathing hard, the White Knight raised both hands above his head and a greatsword of Light coalesced. Change. Not a known quantity, this skillset. There were greatsword wielders among the Lycaonese to the north of Procer, but the Principate was ever thin on Named.

A probe, then. It was worth sacrificing his last corpse for what would be learned. The undead charged out of a ruined house from behind the White Knight and was cut down without a second thought. From too far, Amadeus noted. The greatsword had lengthened. Not something he would be unable to deal with. The Black Knight advanced cautiously, shadows stirring behind him, and the greatsword rose again. The Light flared, and for a heartbeat the shadows he manipulated were lit out of existence. Amadeus did not miss a beat, for he’d been waiting on such a trick since the beginning of this duel. The few heroes he fought more than once all tried it, thinking him crippled without his additional limbs. The moment where White was occupied amplifying the Light, he accelerated and closed the distance. The greatsword came down, longer than before, and when he sidestepped the cut it twisted and turned to a lateral blow. He leapt and his armoured boot landed on the White Knight’s faceplate. The roiling Light had the goblin steel smoking, but he used the man’s head as a stepping stone and leapt again.

By then the shadows had returned to him.

The blade drove itself into the White Knight’s back, piercing a lung before the Light burst out and scrapped it. Unfortunate, though inevitable. He only had so many blades hidden in his shadow, and two thirds were already gone. There was limited space inside, unfortunately, so decisions had to be made about what occupied it and there were tools more versatile than swords at his disposal. The White Knight’s stance adjusted as Amadeus landed fluidly on the ground. Change. Seven heartbeats for the full shift, this time. The hero was overusing his aspect. A single longsword of Light, this time, held in one hand. The villain raised an eyebrow, recognizing the stance from the very recent past. The Lone Swordsman had used it, in Wekesa’s illusory reproductions of the tussle in Summerholm. That had interesting implications. The White Knight was using the skills of Named, then, as he had suspected. William of Greenbury had been largely self-taught, meaning there was no teacher, mundane or otherwise, to draw these skills from. It was quite possible Hanno was limited to heroes as well, dead ones in particular. That this could be done at all set an interesting precedent, one he would have to ask Warlock to look into.

Black let out a long breath. He was beginning to tire as well, though he’d conserved his strength as much as was physically possible. He was no stranger to working through tiredness, and how he would not to compensate for it. The White Knight strode forward at a swift pace and swung. Amadeus stepped out of the blow, circling cautiously. The Lone Swordsman had been heavily dependant on his blade, as he recalled, which was a limitation the one made of Light would only work partially around. Was it worth trading a minor wound for a more severe one? No, that was hurried thinking. The moment he began to bleed the tide began to turn. He feinted to the side and was immediately parried, or would have been if he hadn’t dropped the sword. He twisted to catch it with his other hand and reversed the momentum, but he’d made a mistake. He’d taught Catherine too much, there were similarities in their ways of fighting. And the Lone Swordsman had duelled her several times before dying. The boot caught him on the shoulder and he only barely managed to land in a roll, backing away hurriedly as the other man advanced. He had wondered with the White Knight would rely on the skillset of a relatively green hero.

Hanno was not without cleverness, and unlike his first aspect this one he had fully mastered.

Still, this was an avenue to exploit as well as a weakness. Bringing back to mind the few sparring sessions he’d had with his apprentice before she left to quell the Liesse Rebellion, Amadeus adjusted his angle. Feint to the side, but he let the prompt parry pass him by. The second feint where he pretended to attempt a similar manoeuvre to before, the White Knight ignored and instead darted the sword of Light at his neck. Black caught the wrist and there was a heartbeat where the both of them were going through sets of instincts. The hero acted first, giving in to them and using a counter that would have worked perfectly if Amadeus had been inclined to continue fighting with the same fondness for close range as his student. The punch went wide, for he was already backing away and freeing the wrist. Instead he angled his blade to the side and carved into the White Knight’s throat, the full weight of his body pivoting behind him. Blood sprayed out as he gave ground, closed by a burst of Light. That would have been a kill, on a lesser hero.

The White Knight opened his palm, and there was a silver coin in it. Amadeus let all other distractions fall to the wayside. The coin spun in the air, one side with laurels and the other with crossed swords. It fell back on the palm, swords up.

“Amadeus of the Green Stretch, Black Knight of Praes,” the White Knight said.

The point of the sword went through the roof of his mouth. Amadeus withdrew his bloodied blade and put the full strength of his Name behind the swing, but when he touched the neck it bounced off. Something infinitely larger than him swatted him him down and he was thrown down onto the pavestones. They collapsed around him, the ground shaking. Seraphim. His plate was ripped open and he was bleeding from the eyes and mouth. The White Knight was collapsed as well, a mere five feet away, but it might as well have been a mile.

“Formulaic aspect,” the Wandering Bard said. “You’re a little young to know about those, I suppose. Should have let him finish, Big Guy. You don’t interrupt the words of the Choir of Judgement without a price.”

Black closed his eyes and sought out his surroundings for a corpse to raise. It was deserted of anything, dead or alive. He got on his knees, spewing blood and shaking. She could not intervene directly. If he managed to strike the final blow before the hero recovered, this could still be salvaged. Sinking into his Name he called on the shadows, but they did not heed his will. He’d exhausted all he had simply to survive the blow from the Seraphim, damn them and damn him and damn them all. Creation ripped open in the distance and howling winds spilled out. The Tyrant of Helike fell out, without visible wounds. Amadeus closed his eyes. Solutions. Or a way to turn this into a mutual defeat, should this prove impossible.

“Well isn’t this is a mess, if you’ll forgive my language,” the Tyrant grinned. “Your ornery friend with the spells cost me a Wish, but it was worth it to see all this with my own eyes.”

He still had an aspect. His other two were done, but Destroy could still affect the situation even if he could not. Affecting a physical structure? There was a half-collapsed house close enough he might be able to make it collapse onto the White Knight. The backlash from using the aspect without a speck of power to his Name would likely kill him. Alternatives were needed. The Tyrant strolled to the unconscious hero and with a groan slung his arm over his shoulder.

“I’ll just be taking this,” the odd-eyed boy said. “Don’t mind me, carry on.”

“Enemy,” Amadeus croaked. “He is your enemy as well.”

The Tyrant shrugged.

“Why do you think I’m doing this?” he said. “Given long enough you might figure out a way to kill him, and it’s not like this one can do anything about it. Can’t have that, can we?”

He pointed his thumb at the Bard, who waved cheerfully.

“Until next time, Black,” the boy smiled, and dragged the hero away.

For a moment Amadeus considered collapsing the house, but this was mere petulance. With another Named shielding him, it was a guarantee the White Knight would survive. There was a loud crack from the rooftop. The Bard, he saw, had a bag on her knees. There were walnuts inside and she was breaking them open before popping them into her mouth.

“That’s going to cost me, you know,” the Named said casually. “It was supposed to be Hedge, but your Warlock is a fucking terror lemme tell you. Makes the old country proud.”

Nothing good could come of listening to bardic Named, but he did not have the power left to shut down his senses.

“Would you like me to tell you how your friend is going to die?” the Bard asked.

“Bluff,” he said. “Champion does not have the skill or story to handle Captain.”

“She’s not fighting Captain,” the Bard said. “She’s fighting a monster. ‘swhy I picked Champion. The domain, big guy. She was bound to let out the Beast in that.”

The White Knight was finally far enough that his amulet ceased taking effect.

“Warlock,” the green-eyed man said. “The Bard is here. I am incapacitated. Sabah under threat.”

“Amadeus,” his oldest friend’s voice replied. “She’s…”

Black closed his eyes, and that was the only moment of weakness he allowed himself. The grief, the fury, it all went into the box and he closed it shut. All that remained was the cold clarity that was his only remaining safeguard. Green eyes opened, turning to the Bard. She broke another walnut, chewing it loudly.

“You still don’t get the story that made it happen,” she said.

“The caravans,” he said, but did not elaborate.

There was something here he was missing. Pieces to the puzzle.

“You don’t speak Levantine,” the Bard said. “Or you’d know their word for maiden doesn’t have a gender. Meaning’s closer to ‘virgin’.”

Lack of sexual congress alone became the qualifier, if that was true. Every caravan had a single individual leading it, he remembered, men and women of different age and origins. Amadeus did not speak any of three major Levantine dialects, or even the Baalite tradertongue they’d been influenced by. There had been no need, and so many other things he had to learn.

“Monster took the maidens, and repeatedly, so that’s one,” the Wandering Bard said. “Now, I needed a monster-killer and she’s the closest thing we have left to one of those. That’s two.”

He might as well have wielded the blade himself, he thought. He’d killed her one order at a time.

“Third, I needed the monster to be the one attacking,” the Bard continued nonchalantly. “That was the easy one. Love, Amadeus. Love always fucks you over. All I had to do was suggest Champion join White after the wall fell, and your dear friend stepped in.”

It wouldn’t be enough, Amadeus thought. They’d only fought once before, and not on that story. There lacked weight. The old thing wearing a girl’s face smiled, nut cracking in her hand.

“You could say it was a team effort, pulling it off,” she said. “Our little secret, right?”

He did not reply. Engaging her any further could only be to his detriment. Warlock would be coming in all haste.

“I’d say sorry, but you brought this down on yourself,” the Bard said. “I could probably destroy you in full, big guy, but that would take time. And effort. So I’m going to give you advice, instead.”

The Wandering Bard leapt down from the rooftop, half-falling. She came close, kneeling at his side.

“Go home,” she said. “Murder your little friend in the Tower and reign until someone puts a knife in your back. You’re not as good at this game as you thought you were.”

Hatred, Amadeus thought, was pointless. A bias that brought no benefit. And yet.

“But you won’t, will you?” the other Named sighed. “You don’t negotiate.”

She rose back to her feet, brushing away walnut shards.

“I doubt we’ll meet again,” she said. “And fucking Kairos slipped one by me, so I’ll have my hands full.”

The Wandering Bard looked down at him, shoving her hands in her pockets.

“This one feels like a sin, doesn’t it?” she mused. “Remember that, when the gears start turning.”

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187 thoughts on “Villainous Interlude: Calamity III

  1. Arawn Emrys

    What I’m taking from this is that Bard is The Story itself rebelling against Black’s attempts to change it. He’s reached the point where he is a real threat to the way the world works. Not just his plot with Cat, either. That scene a few chapters ago with the Praesi noble thinking about how he’s changed the empire. He’s managed to destroy the Chancellor, and to fundamentally alter the roles of the Black Knight, Dread Empress, and Warlock. He was actually doing it, changing the story. I’d say that Traditional Evil is something created by the Heavens as much as the heroes. It gives the illusion of rebelling against them, and the appearence of freewill, but it’s just as locked into the Story as anything else.

    The Heavens themselves seem to be very much against Free Will in mortals. Look at the two Choirs we’ve seen so far. One rips out the free will of everything in the vicinity, and the other is represented by a hero who literally refuses to make a decision on his own.

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    1. Depends on what you mean by free will. Does a rando norm trying to survive Diabolist’s crazy or living under Black’s jackboot have any more freewill than the Names do? Villains and Evil are defined as wanting to gain power and lord it over those weaker than them, they’re just as likely to strip people of self-dterminism as the heavens. Except the heavens are in the wrong because they dare do it to the Ubermensch?

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      1. Dana

        And let’s remember that the Ubermensch are only Ubermensch because they embody stories. If Black cared about rebelling against the narrative in principle rather than out of megalomania, he’d be like Cordelia and not be a Name – but he needs/wants it for some reason.

        As for the “Free Will” point, I think it’s pretty clear that neither “the Heavens” nor “the Hells” represent that. The gods that didn’t believe in interference are…well, presumably not interfering. (And to the extent they have a champion, one suspects it’s Cordelia.)

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      2. Dylan Tullos

        “With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”

        – President Abraham Lincoln, “The Wolf and the Sheep”

        This is exactly why I don’t buy into the idea of Villains bravely resisting the tyranny of the Gods Above. It’s not that I don’t think they have solid arguments against the Heavens; clearly Good is not particularly good when it comes to respecting free will. I simply don’t see the benefit in replacing manipulative divinities with arrogant Nietzsche-worshipping Villainous rulers.

        Very early in the story, Black claims that his side (Evil) believes that the strong have the right to change the world. The Gods Above also believe this. Of course, Black considers it unfair and “cheating” for the Gods Above to use their superior powers to deny him the right to do as he pleases, while he thinks that it’s natural and right for him to use his superior powers to deny everyone else the right to do as they please.

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      3. stevenneiman

        Evil believes in free will for those willing to use it. In practice what this generally means is that the most powerful and ruthless people are allowed to dominate those who can’t fight back, but in theory a place like Bellerophon or even a functional anarchist state fit the bill. Overall I would describe Evil as taking free will to the extreme where it becomes self-destructive because given utter freedom certain people will choose to restrict the freedom of others. In contrast to purist Evil, Black’s Evil actually forms a nice middle ground where people are allowed some freedom of expression but still given enough structure to their lives that the system is stable.
        Good is about everyone serving Good, which can mean that things sort of work out in a make-the-trains-run-on-time kind of way when everything goes according to plan, but when it’s challenged as Evil has always had the purpose of doing, it’s willing to turn to tactics potentially as bad as or worse than those of Evil, and it does so in an organized fashion.

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  2. Greg

    While I agree that Sabah’s death is somewhat anticlimactic and am a bit disappointed by how it turned out, I have another comment/question to raise:

    Does Hanno/White Knight’s healing actually have any consequences, as was previously stated? Because he’s taken so many wounds now that he’s had to heal like that, and the text before now has implied that the flesh there is “healed” but stiff and ruined and can’t be healed any further. At this point, with the amount of crippling/maiming/mortal wounds Black’s inflicted on him over multiple fights, if his healing technique actually does screw him over somehow he should be well into screwed over territory.

    Obviously it doesn’t NEED to have such consequences, as Heroes are OP and we have William’s RISE example. But Hanno seems to lack a healing aspect like that, and his technique was outright stated before to be dangerous and more of a stopgap measure. His body should be covered with these scars and barely able to move, by the previous description of its side effects.

    Also, I was confused about why a Seraphim can intervene directly when judgment is being passed, but I guess this is just a new rule that Black didn’t know about (hasn’t he fought Judgment-aligned heroes before? I could’ve sworn that was stated somewhere).

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    1. Dana

      It’s a consequence of White Knight’s “Formulaic aspect”, right? I don’t think that was Bard joking. Maybe it means that when White Knight is caring out some essential trope — e.g., “My Name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” — he’s uninterruptible.

      Which is the perfect aspect to fight Cat with, to be honest, since she literally can’t not make snide remarks disparaging that kind of thing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Dylan Tullos

      “The Beast had wanted to swallow the girl whole, but Sabah knew this would have been a mistake.”

      “The arena shattered, and the smells of smoke and death wafted to the Beast’s nose. They were in the city again, where they’d first crossed. The Beast roared, and went for the kill.

      Sabah watched.”

      My best guess is that Sabah could beat the Champion as long as she was controlling the Beast, but lost when she became a bystander, observing rather than directing the Beast’s instincts. Beast probably ate Champion whole, just as it wanted to in the first place, and some combination of the monster-killing story and her own powers enabled Champion to kill Beast from the inside.

      Like

      1. ereshkigala

        Yeah, the air-tossing was pretty stupid. I mean, she was already smashing Champion repeatedly to the ground. Why not continue until she died? In the arena, nobody else could interfere.

        Like

    2. stevenneiman

      She’s a monster dehumanized in the eyes of Fate and the audience, fighting against a noble but clearly outmatched hero with no hope of victory. Not only that, but Bard managed to finagle it into a story about that monster claiming maidens and then assaulting the city and facing a hero specialized in fighting monsters.
      Terribilis the Second made it a policy to refuse better odds than that, and he was right to do so.

      Like

      1. mupi

        On the gripping hand, it wasn’t the Beast/monster who killed the maidens. The story makes it clear that there’s a separation between Sabah/Captain and “the Beast” This separation, while not “physical” in the Guideverse, is still an important part of the narrative; it carries story-weight — and it’s something the Bard wouldn’t be aware of, wouldn’t be able to account for. I also seem to recall that the Beast killed a god in one of the Interludes; if you can kill a god, it’s going to take more than a good story to take you out (the weight of monster/maiden/Champion is just that, a story. Cat has shown us how easily a story can be captured and subverted. What story subverts monster/maiden/Champion? How about “hopelessly outmatched plucky band of (anti-)heros escapes an overly complicated trap set by a conniving monster who has been manipulating events for centuries”?) We’ve also already seen Warlock survive a story-weight blow. Finally, Sabah hasn’t tapped Obey yet, and Black consciously made the decision to continue, even knowing that there was a trap intended for Captain. Even if he didn’t know the exact nature of the trap, the fact that he consciously proceeded anyway has Weight to it, the kind of weight that can affect a Story, and he carefully arranges matters so that Captain can tap into Obey, without giving explicit orders that would give additional weight to the maiden/monster/Champion story. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Captain survives her encounter.

        Having said all that, Black knows he’s on his way out. If he is on his way out, then the Calamaties must be on their way out. Indeed, if ‘the Woes’ are to succeed, the Calamaties must be gone, or at least mostly gone (Ranger is disconnected enough from the Story to not matter, though as noted numerous times, if Cat kills Black, she would definitely be Interested again). Black knows this, it’s heavily foreshadowed in his thought about “how many of his friends would he have to kill…” What better way to steal the weight of a story than turning your enemy’s plot around so that they think they are winning, but in fact, each of their victories actually gains you something long term? (cf the battle between Cat and Juniper at the War College. Juniper gave Cat a series of wins, in order to gain the only victory that mattered in the end). So, I won’t be surprised if Captain actually does die here.

        Like

  3. stevenneiman

    Typo thread:
    “This entire battle was something {of} a tactical mistake”
    “but one took [hit] her in the shoulder”
    “[what->the] part of her wrists that was not powdered was now almost reset [form->from] the initial snapping”
    “if it had [it->hit] the wards on his body”
    “the hellfire [gutted->guttered] out”
    “but the green-eyed {man} had tactics”
    “and how he would not to compensate for it” I’m not sure what that was supposed to say
    “He had wondered [with->whether] the White Knight would rely on the skillset of a relatively green hero”
    “Blood sprayed out as he gave ground, {the White Knight’s throat} closed by a burst of Light”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sam

    Mind you, we don’t know Sabah is dead. We have Bard claim she set it up, half a sentence from Warlock, and no on screen confirmation. Not only Heroes have a tendency to survive supposed off-screen deaths.

    Like

  5. Gotta say, I hate W.B and Hanno so very much. The one claims to be a Hero, but persuades other Heroes to commit atrocities. While the other is Two-Face without the talking to himself and facial scarring.

    I really don’t get how anyone can think the Heroes are the good guys. Every bad thing Diabolist does Bard is a direct accomplice to by preventing Diabolist’s assassination. She talked William into summoning the Angel of Mind Rape by comparing it to Eleanor Fairfax doing it to stop hundreds of children per year being turned over to the Dead King as tribute.

    Really hoping Sabah isn’t dead. Her conduct during the fight with Champion was anything but monstrous….

    It’s a brilliantly well done plot arc. Creating characters readers love to hate takes a special talent 🙂

    Like

    1. Have we been given any reason to believe the Heroes shouldn’t do everything in their power to bring down the Villains? Even if their actions are unsavoury? God knows the Calamities would be willing to do things just as bad and worse, for far worse reasons. Even if Black is the biggest Cinnamon Roll character in history, which he isn’t, I can’t see how you can view what happened here as anything but karmic, regardless of whether or not you like it.

      We see the forces of good do nasty stuff and we’re all look ‘oooh, how mean of them’ but in reality we’re viewing the story from the perspective of the ideological forces in opposition to good, and have seen very little of how the larger cosmic game is being played out.

      Like

      1. Dylan Tullos

        reveen:

        Well, I personally believe that there’s an important difference between “unsavoury” and “mass mind control”. To me, that kind of mind “adjustment” is worse than murder; instead of killing someone, you’re taking away all of their choices, making them into a puppet of Contrition who has no ability to choose Good or Evil anymore.

        I’m not rooting for Team Calamity, and I do agree that the Villains are quite capable of doing horrifically evil things in the name of their generally selfish and unpleasant goals. I just draw the line at remaking people into things so that Good can have a successful Crusade.

        When Good dropped the hammer on Black in this chapter, I cheered. They were harsh and ruthless, but Black finally (hopefully!) suffered a karmic defeat. But karma is what happens to you as a result of your decisions, not what happens to a nine year-old who gets drafted into the Crusade when an Angel shows up to brainwash them into repenting of their “sins” and fighting legionaries with their bare hands. Even though I want Evil to lose and I don’t buy into Black’s complaints about “unfair”, turning cities of people into mind-controlled zealots is just unquestionably evil.

        Like

    2. Dylan Tullos

      Shawn Panzegraf:

      Two-Face’s coin is governed by random chance, while Hanno’s coin is directed by the Choir of Judgement. There’s an important difference between deciding who lives or dies based on an actual coin flip and respecting the decisions of an angelic jury that specializes in judgement. Your criticism is only valid if you think that the decisions of Angels are somehow more fallible than ordinary human jurors; if they are as or more capable than regular people, than Hanno is simply executing the decisions of a court of law.

      You make a strong case for Bard being evil; between deliberately sparing Diabolist and evil mind control, she’s clearly not good in any sense that regular humans would find reassuring. (I don’t think it was Eleanor Fairfax that summoned the Angel of Contrition for the Crusade against the Dead King. She was involved in the First Crusade, and the Dead King’s Crusade was much, much later).

      Sabah’s conduct wasn’t monstrous until the end, when she let Beast take over. One slip may have been enough to doom her. As for “loving to hate”, I’ve been waiting for a Calamity to die for a long time. I was hoping for Warlock, who cheerfully mutilates souls, but Sabah’s death brings us one step closer to his end; they worked as a team, and the loss of each member renders the whole group that much more vulnerable.

      Like

  6. alegio

    I dont think Sabah actually died, she never used all her aspects and being a diferent entity from the beast should help her a little against the story.

    And damn Wekessa IS brutal.

    Like

  7. Nash Equilibrium

    I find it interesting that there’s been so much speculation on Sabah’s death, considering all the other implications happening in this chapter. The most major being the pretty strong likelihood that the Bard just started a pattern of 3 with Black. Her line about “This one feels like a sin”, and the rest of the monologue strongly apes the pattern of 3 between Cat and the Lone Swordsman, with her first victory sounding somewhat similar.

    Additionally, it would explain why no pattern of 3 formed between the Black Knight and the White Knight. If the White Knight isn’t the leader of his band in terms of narrative weight, then a pattern wouldn’t form (just like why no pattern formed between Adjutant and Thief, there wasn’t really any narrative there) so White couldn’t form a pattern with either Black or Tyrant, explaining why the latter doesn’t see the White Knight as a threat. I’m not sure whether this plays into the Tyrant’s comment on the weight of the Ashen Priestess being stolen by the Bard, but it would be a convenient explanation.

    With regards to Sabah, we really don’t have enough information to know whether she’s dead or not, especially because there is a precedent for people being trapped in Domain Aspects for days at a time, so while we know she exited the aspect, we don’t know when. Also, considering how patterns of 3 have worked in the past, and how the Bard works, it would be quite fitting for her to create a pattern where Black’s loss is relatively light, so that when Black has his chance to win, her loss will be equally so. I’m making some assumptions based on the pattern between Akua and Cat here, where her “loss” in the first book was so meaningless as to not really even qualify as such within the narrative, so when she got her “victory” via Chider, it was equally meaningless. If that is how these work than that would be right up Bard’s alley to do, so that Black stays out of the picture for a while, allowing the Crusade enough time to build.

    Either way, I’m looking forward to the next chapter, though I’d love to have it go back to Cat now.

    Like

    1. Was about to mention noticing the potential pattern of 3 with Bard and Black myself. Given Bard’s general story awareness, it seems like that’s a known risk on her part, and her comment about “I doubt we’ll meet again” seems like she’ll be actively avoiding any more encounters with Black Knight to avoid having that potentially reach its conclusion.

      Like

  8. Why do I support the Calamities and demonize the Heroes we’ve seen?
    Let’s see: Black pretty much emancipated the entire Orc race. His/Alaya’s/The Calamities reforms of Praes have, at every turn, been designed to stamp out the repellent “Classic Evil” elements. Malicia’s most recent coup demonstrates this effectively. Akua’s mother/Family have been sitting on the largest convergence of Devil and Demon-summoning capacity on the continent. By goading a coup into existence there, much of that diabolic potential for destruction was exhausted, with little cost to regular people.

    Yes, Black orchestrated the Conquest. One can easily argue however that bringing the repeating waves of attack by Praes and defense by Callow to a close, he actually saved vastly more lives in the long run than the Conquest took. We KNOW his methods stopped the practice of sacrificing thousands of lives to power flying death-fortresses and the like.

    Meanwhile, all we’ve seen from the Heroes is some domestic terrorism and LITERALLY will-less adherence to the Kill List of the Heavens.

    In point of fact, the only Hero we’ve EVER seen do anything that actually helps regular people is Thief, with her Robin Hood-esque behavior Assassin scared her out of continuing. (And Thief is currently wondering not only if she’s a Heroine, but if she EVER WAS)

    Yes, Black and the Calamities do bad things…but the result of those bad acts are generally a net increase in quality of life for more people than are harmed by their actions. Heroic bad acts, on the other hand, have no such evidence of benefit.

    Look at the Crusade launched when Eleanor Fairfax, the Queen of Blades had HER turn and SUCCESSFULLY summoned the Angel of Mind RAPE. MILLIONS of people, most with nothing but the divine zeal which had burned free will from their souls, throwing their lives away hurling themselves at the Dead Kingdom. Which did nothing but give the Dead King a mountain more bodies to corrupt (and is probably where he got his last crop of undead ex-Heroes Ranger took out during her last visit.)

    Black & Co are at least trying to do something different. That’s commendable enough in a world where, prior to the Calamities, NEITHER side seemed to care in the slightest about regular people.

    Killing Heroes before they can get rolling simply prevents exactly the kind of carnage William’s utterly pointless rebellion causes. (Even William as much as admitted his figurehead King, and dependence on Proceran silver gave him doubts. He brushed them aside with moral platitudes and an “It will all work out somehow, if we can just kick Praes out of Callow” delusion.)

    I support self-determination. Black seems to support choice, provided it falls within the bounds of not destabilizing the Empire. (Every government in history that lasted long enough to merit a page in a history book took a dim view of sedition and armed civil rebellion, including enlightened Western civilization governments.)

    Like

    1. Dylan Tullos

      Shawn Panzegraf:

      If the Dread Empire didn’t want huge numbers of Praesi and Callowans to die in an endless cycle of invasions, they could stop invading Callow. Generally, the people who are at fault for thousands of years of war and bloodshed are the ones who keep attacking their neighbors, not the people who are trying to defend themselves.

      The same logic applies to rebellion. If the Praesi wanted Callow to stop rising up against their occupation, they could try not occupying them. What are the Callowans supposed to do, meekly accept the occupation and collaborate with their new foreign overlords? When you conquer a people by force of arms, you can expect violent resistance. There’s something wrong about a way of thinking that insists that violence used for the purpose of conquest is perfectly legitimate, but violence used for the purpose of resistance is somehow bad or wrong.

      Black is quite fond of using terror as a weapon himself; he hanged rebels before the Lone Swordsman hanged legionaries. If his opponents choose to adopt his methods, how does he have any right to object?

      I’m pretty sure that Malicia’s actions didn’t result in increased quality of life for Procer. She poured fuel on a major civil war, leading to tens of thousands of additional deaths at a conservative estimate. There are as many people in Procer as there are in Praes and Callow put together, and neither Malicia nor Black considered their well-being when they were doing their best to destroy the Principate. Obviously, “caring about regular people” is not their priority, or they wouldn’t be taking part in actions that harm so many innocent peasants.

      Eleanor Fairfax wasn’t responsible for the Crusade that reached the walls of Keter. That said, I find the Heavens’ use of mind control just as morally depraved as you do. I just don’t confuse believing that the Heavens are small-e evil with believing that Team Practical Evil is somehow good.

      There’s something fundamentally flawed about a way of thinking that blames the oppressed and not the oppressor for every act of violence. Praes invaded Callow, murdered entire families for the crime of plotting rebellion, and sent in noble governors to loot and terrorize the country. They provoked rebellion, then systematically murdered anyone who had the audacity to demand their country back.

      You say that Black supports choice “within the bounds of not destabilizing the Empire”. Translated, that statement means that Black supports choice as long as no one does anything that gets in his way. The moment they do, he reserves the right to murder them and their entire family with no hesitation or remorse. “Stability” is the traditional battle cry of every tyrant throughout history, and Black is no exception.

      You say that every government disapproves of sedition and armed civil rebellion, and that’s true. Every government does disapprove. It’s just that some governments do nothing to provoke such a rebellion, and others invade their neighbors, put them under foreign occupation, and then get mad when the people they murdered and looted have the nerve to fight back.

      Like

  9. Deviant Loader

    It was mentioned in the story that heaven cheated by using Bard, I dunno why but I guessed that heaven recruited some bad character in hell to do their bidding, and this therefore explained why the Bard was acting like a villain and using their tactics to fight them back instead. It also explain why the Bard was allowed to drink and engage in debauchery.

    I understand that in the story, Black disliked to be used as a prop to further the story of other characters like other villains, but by reading the comments, I felt ironic that people predicting that Black is either going to die how it was going to be as a story like a mentor, or to be used in some way to further Cat’s character or used as background character in some way.

    Like

    1. Dylan Tullos

      Deviant Loader:

      As we see with the Lone Swordsman, some Heroes are allowed to behave in anti-Heroic ways. They don’t have to be paragons of Goodness to serve the Heavens.

      Also, “Hero” does not mean “monk”. Heroes are required to fight Evil, not swear oaths of sobriety and abstinence.

      Black dislikes being used as a prop by the Heavens; as we see, he’s quite willing to use himself as a prop to further his own schemes. Catherine represents the next step in his grand plan, and Black’s comfort and important are entirely irrelevant compared to Black’s victory. Villains who need to control everything and be the center of everything can never accomplish anything; once he chooses Catherine, Black is happy to give her center stage while he works in the background to ensure her success.

      Like

  10. Jonnnnz

    Ok, I have an issue. The Bard is a hero because gods picked her to carry on with their plan. She can’t be a hero because she cares about people; the Tyrant made that clear. But the gloating monologue after executing someone’s friend makes her no more a hero than Akua (a person the Bard never tried to stop). She’s in clear villain territory on every level other than who she chose to fight (and choosing Black over Tyrant and Diabolist means that she isn’t fighting to protect, as is the narrative necessity for a Hero). I’m lost here, really.

    Like

    1. Dylan Tullos

      Jonnnnz:

      The Bard is an agent of the Heavens, but I don’t think she’s a Hero. Heroes are the actors, playing their assigned roles according to the will of the Heavens. Bard is the director, ensuring that the Story has a proper ending and that the status quo is preserved.

      As long as you think of Bard as a Hero, her behavior is going to be confusing. Once you think of her as a different kind of agent, with a different set of rules and restrictions, her behavior makes sense.

      Like

      1. OldSchoolVillain

        That actually makes a lot of sense – Bards in some contexts are used by both sides, so it being a neutral name means a lot of her actions fit, and would allow her to make the moves that a hero can’t.

        Like

  11. Dylan Tullos:
    First: In the ONE concrete instance we’ve seen of organized decision-making by Angels, they flatly attempted to violate the rules because they didn’t like that Cat refused to become their new Contrition-Muppet. If the Angels are willing to violate rules, and (as was said when some of the Choirs were described earlier, “Those touched by Judgment…Did not survive the experience if they were found wanting.” (Direct quote)

    So, Angels only support the rules so long as the results dovetail with their agendas (That’s our sample size.) According to the Author, the Choir of Judgment is also willing to kill people simply for not meeting or exceeding their moral standard.

    From these things I conclude that the Angels controlling Hanno’s coin have no more right or moral justification to call on Hanno to kill if they’re supposed to be on the side of good. They’re doing basically what Black does when he dispatches Assassin after a target. If the one is Evil, so is the other.

    My objection to Hanno rather than the Choir of Judgment is based on Hanno actively believing the use of free will in matters of life and death to be nothing more than “Surrendering his sword to chaos.” Hanno’s loss of his mother left him with a need for meaning and direction, and just like the parasites of Contrition, the Judgment Choir leaped in and used this damaged man as a headsman.

    Even worse, I think Ashen Priestess and Hedge Wizard might’ve actually been the only “Heroes” we’ve seen in the story interested in, you know, actively propagating good for non-Named. Champion was just a Klingon with rabies, looking for the bigger better fight. They drank Hanno’s Kool-Aid and died for it.

    Bard wants everything in black and white. So does Diabolist, and her mother before her. The problem is its down to shades of gray, but Bard will dip the agents of the Heavens in Evil-Sauce if it gets her the tidy black and white narrative she wants.

    What I wonder lately is if BARD has free will. If so, by what premise does she actually justify all this death and horror? Even if the Heavens record-breaking cheating stops the story-altering of Black and his people…someone is going to emulate them eventually because they’ve been more successful than anyone but Triumphant (or more successful if you subscribe to Malicia’s “I’d rather rule Praes forever, than the continent for a year.)

    Like

    1. Dylan Tullos

      Shawn Panzegraf:

      The Angels are at war with Black, and by extension Catherine. Right and wrong still exist in war, but there are no “rules”. Catherine is an enemy combatant, and they have the right and duty to kill her if they can manage it. I object to the Angels using evil mind control, not to the Angels doing their best to stop Catherine from gaining a huge victory for Team Practical Evil.

      If you’re arguing that the Angels are morally equivalent to Black, I would agree. That’s why I think this is a story about Evil vs Evil, with both sides being morally depraved and generally terrible people. It’s just that Protagonist-Centered Morality has us cheering for the viewpoint characters.

      Good point about Hanno. I don’t object to him judging the Tyrant, because Kairos is pretty obviously guilty, but the fact that he thinks of using his own judgement as chaos is damning. Now that you mention it, I can see a pattern of Angels using people who have lost faith in themselves, taking advantage of their desperation to create perfectly obedient servants.

      I agree with you about Ashen Priestess and Hedge. They were trying to fight Tyrant, which is commendable. As for Champion…well, she’s honest about what she is. Levantine Heroes belong to an older school of heroism, where the Named are driven less by a sense of justice and more by a burning desire to punch the biggest monster and then drink all the beer. Worth mentioning that we don’t know if she’s dead yet.

      Breaking Calernia out of black-and-white thinking is vital if any progress is going to be made. The underlying problem is that Black is, well, Evil. He’s not Stupid Evil, but no Callowan or Proceran is going to look at the Calamities and say “Hey, maybe mutilating souls isn’t that bad!”. It’s a little bit difficult to change people’s thinking when you self-describe as a “monster”. No matter how successful Praes has been at convincing people that they’re not Stupid, it’s plain that everyone still believes that they’re Evil. How would Cordelia have managed to ally Procer with the Levantines and Ashur, if they didn’t believe that Black’s Practical Evil was a threat to the entire world?

      There is no such thing as “cheating” in war. There are good actions and evil actions, right and wrong, but “cheating” simply does not exist. Black uses every tool at his disposal to secure victory, and so do the Gods Above. They simply have more tools at their disposal. Black is not obligated to be fair, and neither are the Heavens. No matter how much he whines about it, they’re doing the same thing he is; trying to reshape the world to fit their desires. The only crime of the Gods Above is being more successful than he is.

      Like

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