Prologue

“If my allies were half as reliable as my enemies, I would have a different moniker.”
– King Henry Fairfax, the Landless, upon being told of the Praesi invasion of Principate-occupied Callow

It went against Iason’s instincts, but Amelia had been right. She had a knack for these things, it came with her Name. They must keep a low profile, at least for now. The sooner they moved out of Dormer and into the countryside – rumour at the market was that large swaths of the south were still patrolled only irregularly by the Legions – the better, but as long as they stayed in the city they had to be quiet. It’d been most a day now since the three of them had left the river barge they’d stowed away on, and they’d split for the afternoon. Lergo had gone to have a look at what the locals called Summer Hill, the mound of melted stone where they said the Black Queen had tricked the Queen of Summer into returning to Arcadia. The Ashuran had whined like a child about having to abandon his flamboyant crimson clothes for something less attention-grabbing, but he’d given in anyways. And made eyes at Amelia all the while, the pretentious twit. The Red Mage had proved he was a force to reckon with in a fight, but Iason had not grown to like him in the months since their band first assembled. The Gallant Bandit herself had gone to find them accommodations for the night, so he’d been charged with obtaining foodstuffs for the journey ahead.

The marketplace in Dormer was thriving, for a city that’d been emptied and set aflame not even a year ago. It was Callowans running the shops and stalls, but there was a gaggle of foreign merchants as well. Iason found it difficult to tell apart the Taghreb and the men of the Free Cities, for they looked much alike in skin and faces, but the black-skinned Soninke stood out starkly. The hero bargained half-heartedly with a peddler for lentils and dried meat, rather certain he got robbed on the exchange. He was paying with silver fidi from Mercantis, one of the few coins no merchant in Calernia refused, and he was not certain how it compared to Imperial coinage. The merchant’s smiling admission he had no scale to compare the weights did little to inspire trust, though the man was unmoved when Iason threatened to seek another peddler. Odd behaviour, from a merchant who could not even afford a stall.

“There,” the peddler said, taking pity on him and giving back a few coppers.

Not a mintage he recognized, Iason noted. It could be worthless for all he knew.

“Don’t look at me like that, son,” the merchant snorted. “That’s from the Royal Mint in Marchford, not Harrow trash like everyone else is trying to offload. Call it my kindness of the day.”

“Callow has a mint?” Iason said in Lower Miezan, surprised. “I thought it used the Tower’s coin.”

“The Bastard Lord had one built,” the peddler told him approvingly. “That’s Taghreb for you. Vicious fuckers one and all, but they’ve a nose for business. Mind you, everyone still takes Praesi mintage. Have to, with all the gold coming south these days.”

“There are a lot of foreigners,” the hero agreed, casting a wary look at a nearby Soninke.

The peddler looked amused.

“You don’t sound like no Callowan, boy,” he said. “Delos?”

“Atalante,” he replied. “My father was, anyway. I was raised west.”

He’d grown to manhood in the principality of Creusens, but admitting as much in this city would have been the act of a fool.

“We got a lot of Wastelanders around nowadays,” the peddler agreed. “Trying to get their hands on grain, you know. Mercantis caught on so the Consortium is gouging them on prices and buying up the reserves in the other cities to drive up the prices. They’re used to this country being the greener pasture.”

“Few of them are smiling,” Iason said, only now noticing.

“That’s ‘cause the Bastard Lord restricted commerce in foodstuffs,” the merchant grinned nastily. “They want more than scraps, they have to get a permit in Laure. The really desperate ones are ruining themselves emptying tavern larders one at a time, but already the court is clamping down on that.”

“That seems like a loss of profit for you all,” Iason said.

“Worth it, to have the crown’s men around when some Wastelanders try to get nasty,” the peddler said, spitting to the side. “Not that there’s been a lot of those. I’ll say this for the Black Queen – since she crucified all those pricks after Second Liesse, Praesi have been stepping real light around here.”

The hero was almost nauseated. They said the villain ruling Callow had nailed hundreds to crosses after slaying her rival, made them grisly ornaments along the road. The merchant should have been appalled, but if anything he sounded grudgingly approving. Iason had never been skilled at hiding his thoughts – it went against his Name to be less than Stalwart in anything he did – and the peddler picked up on it. The man spat to the side again, looking warier now.

“You with the House of Light, son?” he probed.

“A lay brother,” Iason said. “Never took the full vows. I don’t have the disposition for it.”

Full-fledged brothers had to vow pacifism, and it was in his nature to meet injustice sword in hand.

“Didn’t know that was a thing,” the peddler said, but he was mollified.

It wasn’t, not in Callow anyway. The House of Light in Procer tended to consider its equivalent in Callow to be a very… provincial cousin. Prone to eccentricities. That the Order of the White Hand, true anointed paladins, had been allowed to hold lands of its own in the old days was spoken of as impious back home. It was just history, now that the Order had been exterminated, but Iason had a personal interest in the matter. His Name had but few previous incarnations, and most of them had come to be in Callow. The hero did not linger after that, already uncomfortable with how much attention he’d drawn. He hoisted the sack over his shoulder and made his way to the quarter by the docks, where Amelia had said she’d find them an inn. He was wondering how to find her, when she found him instead. The Gallant Brigand was almost as tall as he was, lithe and graceful in a way he could not help but stare at. Dark hair kept in a ponytail was usually covered by a highwayman’s hat, though she’d stashed it away for the sake of discretion, and the notched scar on her cheek somehow only added to her beauty.

“There you are,” Amelia smiled. “Fruitful foray?”

Iason cleared his throat uncomfortably. The cloistered life in Aviliers had not taught him how to deal with beautiful women, and he was always on the backfoot around her. At least Lergo wasn’t there. The Red Mage always seemed to make it worse with his glib and cutting japes. As if the sorcerer himself didn’t hang on her every word.

“I have supplies,” Iason stiffly replied. “Have you secured accommodations?”

Amelia snorted and clapped his shoulder.

“Secured accommodations,” she repeated teasingly. “You need to loosen up, Iason. Though I suppose that would be against type.”

I can be fun, the Stalwart Paladin silently insisted. Just because I can’t set things on fire with a word doesn’t mean I’m a bore. Instead of saying that he ended up chewing on his tongue like a fool, to the woman’s visible amusement.

“Come on,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “I found us a place. Be warned, though. It was cheap for a reason.”

Iason frowned when he first saw the inn, as the warning seemed inaccurate. It was not luxurious palace, but it was spacious and swift perusal of the common room revealed it to be scrupulously clean. Perhaps she’d meant the food would be horrid? It hardly be worse than the cooking they’d inflicted on themselves journeying from the countryside to Atalante after forming their band in Nicae. The Gallant – Iason did not like to think of the other part of her Name, no matter how much he liked her – shot him a toothy grin after he set down the sack, and a moment later a loud screaming match began in the kitchen adjoining the common room. The hero grimaced. Lergo strolled in an hour later, still looking put-out at wearing wool instead of blindingly red silk, and claimed at seat at the table where Iason had been sharing a drink with Amelia and failing miserably at small talk. The Red Mage stole his tankard and drank from it, wrinkling his nose at the taste. The sorcerer had been born to one of the high tiers of citizenship in Ashur, he was likely used to much better fare. Everything about him smacked of arrogant privilege, which had not become any less grating with time.

“Had a look at that hill,” Lergo casually said in tradertalk. “That was a serious scrap. If our cousin up north can tangle that hard, we’re in for quite a vigorous dance.”

The cousin up north, they’d taken to calling her to be discreet. Catherine Foundling, Queen of Callow. The Squire, some said, though others implied she had another Name yet to be revealed. The breadth of the swirl of rumours around the villain that ruled Callow was staggering, for one so young. Undefeated in battle. She murdered a god to steal his mantle and tricked two others into doom without ever unsheathing her blade. She has more lives than a cat, holds sway over dead and fae alike. Her cohorts, the Woe, had been revealed to the wider world through the infamous massacre they called the Doom of Liesse back home. The Hierophant, a cold madman whose strange sorceries tamed demons and stilled miracles. The Thief, a fallen heroine said to have once stolen an entire fleet and even snatched the sun out of the sky. The Archer, the greatest pupil of the Lady of the Lake who had never lost in single combat. And the last, Hakram Deadhand. The Adjutant. They said he was unkillable, that he was large as an ogre and his hand of bones could wrest out your soul. The heirs to the Calamities had made a bloody debut, last year. Iason had paid close attention to the rumours, knowing even the slightest hint could make the difference between life and death.

The three of them had come, after all, to kill the Black Queen.

“That might have been the fae, not her,” Amelia whispered in the same language, one of the few they all shared. “Her talent is supposed to be ice, not fire.”

“And what a talent fire can be,” Lergo said, grinning suggestively at the Gallant. “The element of passion, you know.”

Iason’s teeth clenched.

“We’re still on the outskirts,” Amelia said. “We’ll hear more when we go deeper into the country. The south looks like very promising grounds to begin our work.”

They would, to her. The Gallant Brigand had been vague about her activities before joining their band, but Iason had pieced together that she’d made her mark in the wake of the Tyrant of Helike’s armies as they sowed chaos across the Free Cities. The southern parts of Callow were still feeling the aftermath of the last three wars, and so she would be moving on somewhat familiar territory. Robbing the powerful to help the powerless was a worthy cause, even if he disapproved of her methods. Banditry was a sin in the eyes of the Heavens, else why would so many bandit Names be sworn to the Hellgods? They had to delay the conversation after that, for the innkeepers came to offer their service. Callowans both, an old married couple. They offered stew on the house, though the ale was not, and to Iason’s mild irritation lingered afterwards to chat with what seemed to be their only current patrons. Some matters were their own explanation.

“Dormer born and raised, the both of us,” the old man – Albert, as he insisted on being called – told them proudly. “City’s had a rough few years but we’ll get back on our feet, you’ll see.”

“I heard Dormer was part of the Liesse Rebellion,” Amelia said smilingly, “but the damage was all from the fae, I am told?”

“Good Anne dragged us into the mess, it’s true,” the old woman grudgingly admitted. “She cut a deal with the Black Queen after, though, spared us the worse. And she’s moved up in the world since, eh? Governess-General. A balm on everyone’s soul that.”

“Her whelp of a nephew’s governor now,” Albert said. “He did fine getting people out before Summer came, but too many still died. His aunt he is not.”

“That’s not on the boy,” the old woman sharply said. “That’s because a villain is queen. Ma always said that makes you cursed. Just look at the Wasteland.”

“Your mother also said a bowl of cream and bread crumbs would keep the fairies happy, Mary,” the old man mocked. “How’d that go again?”

The three of them sat awkwardly as the old couple argued loudly, Iason deriving some satisfaction form the fact that Lergo looked as uncomfortable as he felt himself.

“I couldn’t help but notice the portraits by the kitchen door,” Amelia intervened. “You have children?”

Gods they had they been lucky to run into her, Iason thought. And not only because looking at her when they trekked through the countryside made the journey a great deal more pleasant. Neither he nor the Red Mage had a way with people.

“Only the one now,” Mary soberly said. “Our youngest died at First Liesse. Them devils summoned by the Diabolist did it.”

“Aye, and the Black Queen killed her dead,” Albert grunted. “She’s a hard one, make no mistake, but these are bad times. Hard is what we need. Even Jehan the Wise hung himself some princes. Seven and one, like in the song.”

“It’s ungodly is what it is,” the old woman barked. “A villain queen? No good will come of it.”

“She was crowned by a Sister all proper, Mary,” the old man insisted. “What more can you ask?”

“Everyone knows the House up north went tame,” she sniffed.

“We’ve heard a lot about the queen, down south,” Iason said. “Some of it was less than pleasant.”

“Never said she was a choir girl,” Albert defended. “But Hells, it’s still better than Procer ain’t it? Kingdom’s back and Praes is playing nice. If the rest of the world would just leave us alone we’d muddle on just fine.”

“He has to say that,” Mary told them. “Lily went and joined the army, the fool girl. Taking orders from an orc calling herself marshal of all things.”

“If the orc pays her taxes and fights at the border, I say she’s welcome here,” the old man said stubbornly. “A whole goblin tribe settled at Marchford and that turned out all right. You have to forgive Mary, she’s a country girl. I’m a learned man, me. Went to Laure once when I was a boy.”

“Not the Laure story again,” the old woman sighed.

Lergo spoke up, sparing them the Laure story, and Iason had never before been so close to feeling fondness for the man.

“We intend on travelling north,” the Red Mage said. “Are the roads safe?”

“Sure, if-” Albert began, but he paused.

In the distance, bells were ringing. Four times, Iason counted.

“Again?” the old man said.

“Last one went straight to the Blessed Isle, made it far inland after,” Mary said. “Guess that was the last of the clever bunch.”

“That’s thrice now,” Albert complained. “Last time it took all day to clean up the docks after. No wonder we never get clients, with all them foreigners mucking up the city.”

He paused, the glanced at the three heroes.

“No offence,” he assured them.

“None taken,” the Gallant Brigand lied. “We’re new to town, so I’m at a bit of a loss. What did the bells mean?”

“Oh, you dears don’t need to worry,” the old woman said. “Just stay indoors, it was the curfew bells. It’ll be foggy out soon anyway.”

“Curfew?” Iason said. “What for?”

“Heroes,” Albert said. “Some must have come. Streets have to be cleared until that’s done with.”

The Stalwart Paladin’s blood ran cold. Already? How could the Empire possibly have known? It hadn’t even been a whole day. The three heroes shared a look and excused themselves to their rooms, telling their hosts of travel weariness, and made council in Iason’s own.

“We can’t stay here,” Amelia began. “We can’t risk putting those two in the middle of a fight between Named.”

“They must have scried us, it’s the only explanation,” the Red Mage whispered. “That shouldn’t be possible, not with the Paladin bearing Heaven’s touch. Unless you screwed up, Iason.”

“I don’t use the touch, mage,” the Paladin coldly replied. “It is there. Always. There is no intent needed.”

“I used to hunt for Helike supply caches, back in the day,” the Gallant Brigand said quietly. “Easy work, good loot. The way I’d find them was by watching the roads the Tyrant’s men used most, then doubling back.”

“I don’t follow,” Iason admitted.

“That is because you’re a sword-waving simpleton,” the Red Mage drawled, and the Paladin resisted the urge to punch that twinkle out of his eye. “The touch, it blocks actual scrying but the spell would still register failure. They moment it did they must have known we were coming, and they tracked us with the same. That’s impressively clever, I’ll admit.”

“Then they might be able to track us to here,” Amelia urgently said. “We need to move now.”

Neither of them argued. Iason left silver by his bed to pay for both the night and the trouble, as his companions grabbed their personal affairs. The Mage took longer, and returned decked in red silks.

“We are trying to be discreet,” the Paladin hissed, his accent thickening.

“Discreet is over,” the man shrugged. “Now is the time for panache.”

“Well, I hope you can run in those,” the Gallant amusedly said, adjusting her hat. “Out the window, boys.”

Heroic work, Iason thought, involved a lot more jumping down windowsills than he’d anticipated. He’d not needed to change, as he’d never taken off the chain mail under his coat and rarely wore a helmet. The Heavens provided armour when he required it. He landed as silently as a man wearing over twenty pounds of steel could, which was not very. The Gallant landed smoothly as a cat, and the Red Mage nearly broke his ankle landing. The Paladin smothered a smile, as it was unkind to take enjoyment from the misfortune of others. However richly deserved.

“Well,” Amelia said, lowering the brim of her hat. “There’s that fog Mary was talking about.”

It’d been late afternoon and the winters in southern Callow were mild this late in the year – spring would not come for months yet but there was no snow in sight – which made the sudden appearance of thick fog rather jarring. There was nothing natural about this.

“Might I suggest we leave the city before a full legion comes after us?” Lergo suggested drily. “Blood doesn’t show on these robes but it does smell.”

“Keep an eye out,” Iason said, for the first since he’d come ashore back in his element. “As an opening move, this only makes sense if only our vision is restricted.”

Otherwise the enemy was simply helping them escape. As the moved quietly through the streets, the Paladin wondered how many of the Woe would have come. The full five? That might be more than they could handle. Two or three, he was confident they could deal with. Four they could flee. Five with a sorcerer as reportedly powerful as the Hierophant among them would be too many. Best that they never encounter the enemy at all, and disappear into the countryside where they would be harder to track. Amelia suddenly stopped.

“We’re being watched,” the Gallant Brigand said.

He did not question her: she has an aspect relating to this, though he knew not the word. Iason could see no one so he sharpened his hearing. Scuttling above, on the rooftops.

“Goblin,” he said, and unsheathed his longsword. “Roof to the left.”

The Gallant followed suit with her sabre and the Red Mage fell behind them. Eyes watching above, Iason saw a leering green face pop out from thatching. Yellow eyes shone bright in the fog, above a grin of needle-like fangs.

“Don’t you think it was a little racist to assume I was a goblin?” the creature mused. “Plenty of people use rooftops, you know. They’re like streets that make it easier to murder.”

The Stalwart Paladin blinked, then opened his mouth. Had he – but the goblin had just said… He closed his mouth.

“You’re quite brave, to seek out three heroes on your own,” the Red Mage said.

“Well, we don’t live old as a rule,” the greenskin said. “But hey, that’s why there’s a lot of us.”

Iason’s hearing was still sharpened and that was why he heard them move. Not one but dozens, and they’d all struck at once. He’d expected crossbows but instead what came tumbling down was balls of clay with lit fuses, and without missing a beat he called on the protection of the Heavens. A halo of light wreathed him and his allies as well, but he’d miscalculated. The munitions exploded into blinding brightness with a deafening clap – he had to blink it away and force the Light into his eyes. The Red Mage cursed, and when Iason’s vision returned there was no sign of any goblins. All they had left behind was a red trail of burning powder in the sky. They marked our position, he thought. He glanced at the others. Amelia had covered her eyes with the brim of her hat, but by the looks of it the noise had still affected her.

“Run,” he said, not sure how loud he was being.

The roar of the munitions was still sounding in his ears. The others understood him well enough to obey, and they headed for the closets gate without even the pretence of discretion. Dormer had turned into a ghost town, every door and window closed. In the fog, he could barely make out the shape of the houses unless he empowered his eyes with his Name. It began clearing out close to the gate. Whoever had done this, he thought, must have relied on the river to provide the water. Lucky them, they’d chosen the gate opposite. Providence. The gate was unguarded, and that was when he began doubting his last thought. No, he mused. Not unguarded. There were two people by the guardhouse. One seated on a bench, the other standing by it. Iason squinted. It was a woman, seated. Tan skin and high cheekbones, long hair in a practical leather binding behind her. Her legs were crossed and she was pulling at a pipe. The man at her side was almost inhumanly slender, a whip of a body in a long black tunic. At his hip was a sheathless sword, and one of his eyes was covered by a dark silken blindfold with silvery lettering. It was the hair that attracted his attention, though. It must have been a trick of the light, but for an instant it had seemed made of crow’s feathers.

“Iason,” the Gallant Brigand urgently said. “The woman’s cloak.”

He looked. It must have once been entirely black, he thought, but it was no longer. A patchwork of colourful strips had been woven over it, and even some matter he did not recognized. It looked like rippling wind. The collar, though, what laid woven into it felt like a sin. That made this the Mantle of Woe, and the woman wearing it…

“Catherine Foundling,” he said. “The Black Queen.”

The woman spewed out a stream of smoke, still sitting. Iason met her eyes. For one of her reputation, he was distinctly unimpressed. There was no pressure there, only a young woman looking vaguely exhausted.

“Afternoon,” the Black Queen said. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Callow, folks. Evidently you know who I am, so that saves us some tediousness.”

“Your trap will avail you nothing,” Iason said harshly.

“This isn’t a trap,” the villain mused. “Not unless you make it one. If I wanted you dead, Robber wouldn’t have tumbled you a warning shot. It would have been goblinfire instead of brightsticks, and already it’d all be over but the screaming.”

“How civilized of you,” the Gallant Brigand said, her tone slightly mocking. “Since we’re all being so friendly, might I venture as to ask what you want from us?”

The Black Queen spewed out a stream of smoke, studying them calmly.

“That’s my line,” she said. “Setting aside that you passed the border illegally, having three heavily-armed Named wandering the countryside without so much as a by-your-leave just isn’t in the cards. What are you here for?”

“Introductions first,” the Gallant demurred. “I am-“

“Amelia of Helike, daughter of Lasarn,” the one-eyed man at her side smiled, teeth like ivory. “You are known to us.”

Amelia blanched. The way he’d spokeen that last sentence… Iason was not one to frighten easily, yet it had sent a shiver down his spine.

“That’s Larat,” the Black Queen cheerfully said. “Or at least that’s what I call him. It pisses him off a lot, but why even have a treacherous lieutenant if you’re not going to taunt them at every opportunity?”

“We have come to study the aftermath of the fae incursion, Your Majesty,” Lergo said. “Purely academic curiosity in my part, I assure you.”

The lie sat ill with Iason, but he kept his mouth shut. Informing the woman that they had come to slay her and release Callow from her grasp would lead to a struggle he was not certain they could win. Not yet. The Black Queen pulled at her pipe, then sighed.

“Red Mage, was it?” she said. “A warning for you. Of all the shit decisions you’ve made today, trying to lie to me is close to the top of the list. Don’t do it again. I take it you’re here to kill me, then.”

It was a little insulting, Iason thought, that she sounded more irritated than threatened by that deduction. Arrogance was ever the downfall of Evil, he reminded himself. She spewed out another mouthful of smoke.

“Then what?” she asked.

“Pardon,” Lergo replied, sounding baffled.

“You kill me, glory to the Heavens and all that good stuff,” she waved. “Then what?”

“The people of Callow are freed,” Iason said. “They rise against the wicked Praesi and-“

“This,” the Black Queen sighed as she interrupted, “is why I have to keep killing you people. Look, I understand better than anyone how easy it is to start thinking you can just stab your way out of a mess, but you haven’t thought this through. Putting my head on a pike just makes a different sort of mess.”

“That’s what tyrants always say,” the Gallant quietly said. “That they may be a plague, but the world would be worse without them. You have to lance a wound for it to be able heal.”

“You’re not lancing anything, kid,” the villain said. “You’re just bleeding the body. And it’s been a long time since anyone thought that helped. Look, I’m not barring Callow to heroes. You want to wander the south healing and rebuilding? Fine by me. You get a Legion escort, but they’ll stay out of your way. You want to have a swing at Black? Not my problem, but you’ll have to get to the Vales through Procer. You want to actually have a look at the fae marks, or even Liesse? I’ll need oaths as assurance, but we can deal. This doesn’t have to be a fight.”

She paused.

“But,” she murmured. “Since I know what you’re thinking. Larat.”

The one-eyed man’s grin broadened, and power rippled across the street. The air cooled, and Iason almost summoned his Heavenly Armaments in answer. There was might in that creature’s frame, and nothing human about it.

“We’ve been tracking you since Mercantis,” the Queen said. “We’ve had long enough we could have hit you still in the river. Do you know why you were allowed to make shore?”

“I assume some form of sadism is involved,” the Red Made drawled.

“In a manner of speaking,” the villain smiled. “See, I learned from a man that would have had you corpses at the bottom of the Hwaerte before you even noticed. But I’m trying, I guess, not to be him. Or worse.”

Slowly she rose to her feet, and emptied the pipe before stewing it away in her cloak. The smile and the easy manners went away. Idly she rested her hand on the pommel of her sword, and Iason felt fear. There was iron in that woman’s gaze that had not been there before.

“You’ve seen I’m prepared,” Catherine Foundling said. “You’ve seen I have the muscle to put you down. But I didn’t put on the fancy hat to kill kids. So please, I beg you – don’t make me.”

It sounded genuine enough that the Paladin hesitated. The sentiment that they were kids to her was insulting, but what lay behind it… The wiles of devils are many and varied. Trust not the words of those sworn to Below, for deception is their truest tongue. He would not balk at his duty.

“Go home,” the Black Queen said tiredly. “Or Hells, join up if you want to. I’ll find something for you to do, this country’s still half a wreck and it’s not like I don’t take in heroes. But if you force this, it only ends one way. And once we start, I might not be able to stop.”

“You are a blight upon Creation,” the Stalwart Paladin said, almost regretfully. “An instrument of the Hellgods, carrying within the seed of damnation. May the Heavens grant you mercy in the afterlife, but for the sake of Creation you must be removed from this earthly shell.”

“What he said,” the Gallant Brigand agreed. “Only, you know, less priestly. Fuck you and your offer and your entire evil legions.”

“Yes yes, praise the Heavens and much defiance. That aside, out of curiosity,” the Red Mage smirked, “has that speech ever actually worked?”

The Black Queen breathed out, and in a moment she went from tired girl only a few years older than them to razor-sharp killer. It was in the eyes, in the way she held herself. She had the poise of someone used to taking lives.

“No,” she said. “But I’ll try with the next batch anyway. Sixth time’s the charm, right?”

The one-eyed creature laughed.

“They never listen,” he said, sounding pleased. “I do believe offering mercy might actually make it worse. Fascinating.”

Six. Iason felt a trickle of fear go down his spine. How many heroes had she killed? No, it didn’t matter. She only needed to fail once. The hero folded into himself, and let his aspect reverberate within his soul. Arm. Plate of pure Light formed around him, a full suit topped by a winged helmet. His sword shone radiantly and as Lergo began to incant he advanced. The villain did not move, eyes still on him, but the Paladin felt the shifting currents of power. To their side a gate opened out of thin air, and as he glanced there Iason saw two things. The first was two score goblins, bright-eyed and eager in their furs as they occupied a frozen wasteland. The second was six scorpion-like contraptions of wood and metal, and as that sunk in they began to fire. The bolt hit him in the chest, then two others, yet it might as well have been children throwing mud at a stone wall. The steel bent, the wood shattered and he barely even felt the impact. He had no moment to spare enjoying the small victory, however. The Red Mage was most endangered by this sort of assault. Though gifted with a particularly strong talent for destruction, Lergo had confessed he was incapable of even the most basic of shieldings. The sorcerer managed to save his own hide by turning to ash the handful of projectiles aimed at him, but he would not be able to keep this up forever.

The Stalwart Paladin moved between his companion and the volleys of steel-tipped bolts, letting them strike impotently at the armaments bestowed upon him by the Heavens. The Gallant had been the most unruffled among them, dancing out of the way and somehow even parrying a projectile with a casual flick of the wrist.

“I’ll break the machines,” Iason said, and his voice thundered. “Keep the villains busy.”

Though the Black Queen had caught them by surprise, she’d been arrogant. With only one creature and mundane soldiers at her disposal, it might be feasible to slay her here and now. To free Callow of tyranny within a day of coming to its shore would be a grand deed, worthy of hymns and remembrance. Yet if the tide turned against them, the Paladin would rather see them defeated before the fled. It would be the beginning of a Pattern of Three, he suspected, and that would greatly enhance the swiftness of their growth. Indeed, the might even encounter another hero after they fled. Providence had a way of rewarding the righteous. To Iason’s mild irritation, the goblins manning the siege engines proved passingly clever. Seeing that their bolts had no effect on his armour as he advanced, they turned their fire to his companions. Some sorcery must be behind the machines, he thought, for there could be no other explanation for how swiftly they kept firing. No matter. He was quick enough on his feet that only the odd bolt made it through. Clever as the goblins were, they’d not been quite clever enough to flee his approach.

Iason crossed the gate into the frozen landscape and raised his sword the moment he felt the bite of urgency near his shoulder. It was not quite enough, the angle too awkward. A blade shattered his pauldron of Light and ripped into the chain mail below, though not deep enough to wound, and the Paladin breathed in sharply. A tall orc decked in burnt plate discarded a broken axe and spun out another, face grim. The hand of bare bones gave away the name of the greenskin that had struck him. The orc spat to the side.

“Masego will be pissed,” he said. “Half a day’s work and it kept for a single blow. At least you’re not reforming.”

Iason grit his teeth. The Heavenly Armaments did have that weakness – they could only be used once day, and could not be forged anew while in use.

“You will not land another,” the Paladin promised.

The orc’s eyes were on his mail, not his blade, and they narrowed. The heraldry, Iason realized. It’d been made visible by the rip.

“Half-House, le Miroir Verdant,” the greenskin said in lightly accented Chantant. “Proceran, then. Good, I’ve been meaning to try one of you out before the big Names come.”

“I am the Stalwart Paladin,” Iason thundered. “And you will lose more than a hand today, orc.”

“I’m the Adjutant,” Hakram Deadhand replied, baring his teeth. “I had a light meal this morning.”

They both moved with the swiftness of Named, tangling halfway there. Iason managed to hammer down on the orc’s wrist, loosening the greenskin’s grip on the axe, but the dead hand closed around his throat. The bones blackened as the Light furiously bit into them, but they did not give and Iason struggled in vain before the Adjutant tossed him back out the portal. He landed in a crouch, shifting his weight as his fighting-master had taught him. The orc rolled his shoulders and strolled out of the gate unhurriedly.

Iason,” the Gallant screamed.

It felt like being kicked by a horse. The entire left side of his armaments shattered under the blow and as he flew he felt the Black Queen following with impossible swiftness. She arrived at the end of the arc before he did, snatching his foot and smashing him into the pavement. He saw her change her grip as she stood above him, ready to plunge down the point into his throat even as he tried to rise, but salvation came in time: a streak of red lightning had the villain ducking away in a hurry. The sorcerer had come through, thank the Gods. The Paladin got to his feet and took a swift look around as the Black Queen circled him slowly. Deadhand was now tangling with Amelia, and though he’d yet to land one of his brutal blows she was on the backfoot. Looking for an opening, he decided. It was not a bad match. The other conflict was. Lergo was weaving spells into one another admirably, flame and lightning and hexes flowing into the next seamlessly, but the one-eyed fae was toying with him. There were three cuts on the Red Mage’s cheek, perfectly parallel and scabbed black. Iason suspected they might have been killing blows, if the fae wished it so. He needed to lose Foundling soon and come to the sorcerer’s aid, or he was going to get run through when the creature bored of the game. This was no time to hold back.

Smite,” the Stalwart Paladin said.

The Black Queen attempted to avoid the aspect, but she was too slow. Light came down from above a perfect a perfect heptagon of seven feet on every stroke. For a moment the shape seemed almost solid, the wrath of the Heavens shattering the paving stones and even the ground beneath. A heartbeat later it was gone, leaving the half-kneeling form of a smoking villain. Her face was a tapestry of burned flesh, her hair gone up in smoke and her bare hands crushed. Her eyes were unseeing, struck blind by righteous retribution. The villain spat out a gob of black blood that steamed and ate away at the earth.

“You have William beat when it comes to impact,” the woman noted, her voice a croak yet somehow cold.

She rose, and as she did the air cooled and her flesh knitted back. She shed the burnt skin like a snake, and her pupils broke as fresh ones forced themselves forward.

“As a general rule, striking aspects tend to go one of two ways,” the Black Queen said, voice empty of emotion. “Broad but shallow, small but deep. I would not have walked off Swing so easily. A nice trick, but ultimately-“

Smite,” he interrupted.

She was standing again, which meant resuming the fight was not longer unchivalrous. There was a heartbeat between the Light striking and the word being spoken, and it was enough for her to evade.

“Ultimately still a trick,” she finished, as the smiting struck the empty pavement.

Only once more could he call on the aspect. He would have to get in close, prevent her form evading and… No, he thought. He was being baited. She was keeping him busy while her minions killed the others. Though it grated, Iason turned and without a word ran for the Red Mage.

“Hakram,” the Black Queen said, voice echoing strangely. “Switch.”

The orc moved away from Amelia without missing a beat, barrelling towards the Paladin immediately. Form the corner of his eye he saw the human villain pass them both in a streak, blade sounding against the Gallant Brigand’s own. Lergo cried out in pain, his incantation interrupted, and Iason’s fingers clenched around his sword. It was not all lost, he thought. The Adjutant was much slower than his mistress. The axehead came whistling down but Iason’s blade shifted angle, the combination of years of training and what he’d learned since coming into his Name. The Heavens-touched steel cut straight through the haft of wood and into the steel pauldron behind it. The orc began to retreat, and then the Paladin spoke.

Smite.”

Light filled his vision, but it was no harm to him. He felt the orc’s body flinch but somehow it remained standing. Though the greenskin’s footing was shot, so was his, and aside from smoking skin and amour the orc seemed unharmed when the aspect ebbed. And aspect of his own had been used, the Paladin suspected. There was the taste of power in the air. It was not enough. Iason ripped his blade free and smashed the guard in the orc’s face, knocking him clear of his feet. His Light-girded boot came down and broke the villain’s knee. That should cripple him for the rest of the fight. The greenskin struck out with a knife but Iason fluidly stepped back. Leaf Stirred By Hand, his master had called it, and when the knife withdrew he stepped forward following it. The blade whistled down, the orc bared his fangs and another blade knocked the killing blow away.

“You will not have him,” the Black Queen said, something sharp and heavy in her tone.

She frowned, and shook her head. Something in her eyes thawed measurably as she grimaced.

“Ever grasping is the tyrant’s lot,” Iason replied in Chantant.

“What’s he saying?” the woman asked. “My Chantant’s shit, and his accent is horrible.”

“He called you a tyrant,” the orc said.

“Wouldn’t be the first,” the Black Queen grimly said, parrying his blow and landing a riposte that failed to break through the Armaments.

He was pushed back, to his fury. Years he had trained for this, gruelling hours spent in the cloister’s courtyard being worked to exhaustion by his fighting-master. He’d learned the Five Ways and the Verdant Stances, been taught how to dismantle the foremost styles of every nation under the Calernian sun. But the Queen wasn’t fighting like a swordswoman. Whatever she had learned, it was no proper swordsmanship. She ignored his feint and pivoted around his back, her elbow hitting his flank and breaking his footing. He pivoted to face her but she’d moved with him and he had to give ground to avoid an oblique blow that would have carved through his throat. Iason gave further ground. Staying close, he would only get caught in her pace. It was then he realized that he could no longer hear the Red Mage fighting. He looked back and saw no sign of Lergo, or of his opponent. The air where they’d been fighting reeked of power and darkness. Gods, this was turning out too much for them. They had not been heroes long enough, none of them even had their full aspects.

Cut,” the Gallant Brigand coldly announced.

She emerged out of thin air behind the Black Queen, aspect howling as her blade carved clean through the villain’s abdomen. She’d… done it? Then the woman’s silhouette dispersed, and Iason realized they’d been had. Glamour, he realized with a shiver of fear. That was glamour. He rushed forward but it was too late. Amelia almost managed to avoid the blow out of sheer instinct, but goblin steel ripped through her coat and muscles. Her left arm fell down limply, and even as she caught her sabre with the other one the Black Queen caught her by the back of the neck and squeezed. There was a sickening crack, and just like that Amelia was dead. There was not so much as a flicker of emotion on the villain’s face, he saw. Not a speck of humanity to be found. Just ice and hatred wearing a body. Her silhouette blurred for what must not even have been a heartbeat, and Iason pushed through the grief. Glamour again, and he could not see through it. He stepped back warily, and the impotence of it burned. Sharpening his ears found nothing, she was stepping lightly and her illusion advancing towards him. He needed to see, he needed to find her, he needed to…

Discern.

Power rippled through the Paladin’s frame washing him clear of tiredness and pain and the weakness of the flesh. This was more than mere sight, he knew instinctively. It would tell truth from lies, read the movements of the flesh before they came to fruition. He could see her now, wreathed in mirror-like mist. She was stalking his side, eyes patient.

“Enough,” he snarled. “You will not get away with this, butcher.”

He caught her by surprise, striking without warning. He glimpsed the parry before it ever rose, flicked his blade to the side and cut into her shoulder. She wove back, her footing swift, but his Light-gauntleted hand struck her across the mouth. He headbutted his winged helmet but came off the loser for it, forehead bleeding as he returned in kind and she rocked back in pain. His fist caught her in the stomach and she gasped. His blade shone radiantly as it scored a deep cut across her upper leg, but somehow the cutting of her muscles was not enough to make her fall. Fingers coated in frost and shadow slugged into his cheek, shattering the Light, and the two of them fell to the ground struggling. Using his weight to come atop her, he caught her wrist and dug his finger into her eye. She bit him, down to the bloody bone, and he snatched his hand back before he could lose the finger. She struggled under him but he was much heavier, and his fist broke her chin before she could wrestle away his arm. He’d felt teeth loosen. Forcing her arm aside his fingers closed around her throat, and suddenly she smiled.

The knife went ripped through the mail as Adjutant struck into his flank. Iason was thrown off the Black Queen by hundreds of pounds of angry orc, as as he hit the ground the world slowed. Light wreathed him, but still soft fingers touched his forehead. The Stalwart Paladin closed his eyes, an opened them in an endless spread of pale blankness.

You will bleed, a chorus of voices whispered into his ear. You will suffer. You will weep, yet find no relief. Though your soul is young and your weight feeble, you will take on the burden of many. Iason, son of Idrim, We offer you the misery of Endurance. We would embrace you one of our own, to blood and tears and bitter end. Iason Brightsword, Son of Tears, will you withstand horror so that others do not?

“Yes,” Iason whispered into the void.

The blankness rippled, and he was no longer alone. Two silhouettes with burning eyes and unspeakable shapes stood before him. And another, between him and them.

“There will be none of that,” Catherine Foundling sharply said.

You do not belong here.

The weight of their wrath was crushing, almost enough that Iason fell to his knees and it was not him they gaze upon in anger. Yet the Black Queen stood undaunted, cloaked in ice and shadows. And more. There was a silhouette riding her back, arms laced around her shoulders. A beautiful and dark-skinned woman.

“I already told the Hashmallim to walk it off,” she said. “Am I really going to have to revisit this with every fucking Choir?”

Arrogance. Your doom comes.

“Might be,” she said. “But not today, and not through this weak an instrument. Fuck off, you bottom feeders. This one’s been claimed fair and square.”

“You can’t fight angels,” Iason hissed.

“Who said anything about fighting them?” Catherine Foundling said, and then she rammed a knife in his belly.

The blankness fled, Iason’s eyes opened and the last thing he ever felt was a spike of frost going through his forehead.

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150 thoughts on “Prologue

    1. Mingdao

      Hey there!

      I love your stories and was wondering if I could help as your editor, helping you clean up any typos or errors after/before you had posted. I would love to be able to hear from you if you’re up for such a thing to further discuss the details.

      Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Typo thread it is then:

        they headed for the closets gate
        Change closets to closest

        Mingdao, I think erraticerrata doesn’t care so much about typos — generally post post them in the comments and sometimes they get fixed. *shrug*

        There’s usually not too many.

        Like

        1. Sitxar

          Typos:
          Yet if the tide turned against them, the Paladin would rather see them defeated before THE fled.
          Indeed, THE might even encounter another hero after they fled.
          they
          they could only be used once_day
          once per day
          HE headbutted his winged helmet
          she

          Like

    2. I can see why it would get frustrating dealing with this kind of bullshit every other week. On the other hand, I have a definite guess as to what Cat’s ultimate plan is. She’s made it so that she already has a strong precedent for dealing with Heroes and with making it feel like all that’s happening is the Heroes being annoying and irresponsible and inconveniencing everyone. At the same time, she’s also trying to make sure that if the Heavens ever throw anyone smart enough to pose a serious threat against her, there’s a good chance they’ll recognize that she’s being more reasonable than their own bosses. I’m curious to see whether it works.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. soonnanandnaanssoon

        I’m guessing it’s part of her Role as the Diabolist, to rule over things foreign and to manipulate/cross/break boundaries, allowed her to cross into the dimensional space the Angels were contacting the Hero in due to the fact their intervention brought them close enough to Catherine.

        Like

        1. In an interlude(?) where Masego was the viewpoint, it showed when he was young and at a meeting. He met then immediately mis-remembered Akua’s name, much to the delight of the Calamities listening on.

          Like

        2. letouriste

          you have to read the extra chapters!:) they are so great:)
          ubua comes from the chapter Prodigy which is my personal farourite to date, this is a story about young masego

          Like

  1. antonin

    Six groups of heroes dead, that’s got to be some good XP for the Woe to level up. I like how Catherine’s name to be had her arms around her neck its really cute

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RandomFan

      Five, I believe. “Sixth time’s the charm, right?” – the sixth speech, cat’s hoping, will finally succeed. Unless there’s other heroes who haven’t gotten the speech?

      Like

  2. Zarquon

    ‘Yet the Black Queen stood undaunted, cloaked in ice and shadows. And more. There was a silhouette riding her back, arms laced around her shoulders. A beautiful and dark-skinned woman.’

    I am so confused. Who is that?

    Like

      1. Nairne .01

        So she will literally become a god and steal creation from under the eternal conflict between good and evil. And she will be worshipped by everyone who wants to make a difference and not just continue the pointless slaughter.

        Like

      2. 657

        I think the idea of her keeping the Names bound to the heroes that she brings back that way the God’s Above slowly run out of Names they can use.

        Like

        1. grzecho2222

          Given that Cordelia’s “Staircase” sound like something to bring army of heroes from heavens and Dead King’s crush is coming from hells where are tons of villains that would make great pawns for her, I think accumulating undead heroes and villains to repel them is not a bad plan

          Like

          1. letouriste

            a shit plan you mean. you forgot cat is a villain right? the same kind of villain which has done things like that in the past and each times that blow up in their face? imagine a crowd of ex-named freeing themself^^

            Liked by 1 person

            1. grzecho2222

              Dead King done this and this and somehow he is still kicking around, but also for unknown reason Cordelia is not a hero and Cat is Named and we seen how fights like that end

              Like

            2. grzecho2222

              Cat has way to drop people into places with gates and after she lets say drops the in Procer cities with order to kill all leaders what it matters if one of two break free. And versus Evil what they gonna do? Not smite it?

              Like

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      Oh let’s hope not. Seems like exactly the way she gets killed. Some corpse whispering hero “reminds” them what they are and they turn on her st the pivot. Black surely taught her better.

      Liked by 2 people

          1. It’s not quite an invisible werewolf army though.
            Besides that more if villains depend on their schemes too much. Cat is more likely to use them as a carefully deployed shock troop than a hail mary.

            Like

    2. BroadAxe

      that wouldn’t work, when ranger goes to visit the dead king he too has 2 former named under his command, but they are just that former named, that retained small bits of their power but they are not longer named or with the full power of that station, doubt cathrine would be able to do better than the dead king 😛

      Like

  3. Aeon

    The Black Queen returns! This was an awesome chapter to come back with. Can’t wait to see where the story goes from here. I might just reread the whole thing now. Nice work!

    Like

    1. Mr. Nobody

      Yep, I guess it’s only you. Really funny how you seem to be rooting for the main character to die and the story to end. Well, it’s not like there’s anyone forcing you to read it, right?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. letouriste

      the bard promote stillness in this big chessboard…and stillness is the most boring part of any games of chess, any player try to disturb that to their advantage.

      Like

  4. Draconius Sinister

    Exciting read! How do you manage to put in just enough fluff with new information that should mean absolutely nothing to us (Proceran sword-arts that are basically blade kung-fu? Sure!) and use it to make a throwaway character so meaningful?
    I hope to see some Heroes being at least vaguely reasonable and take Catherine up on her offer somewhere down the line, or at least in repairing Callow before killing and deposing her. Would be nice to see Stupid Good go the way of the dinosaurs sometime soon.

    Like

    1. Overthrowing and killing Catherine outright without attempt at negotiation and driving the occupying Praesi into the sea isn’t the stupid good part. It’s the not having a massive army at their back while they do it that’s the stupid good part.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rook

        I don’t think it has to do with the amount of power they’re wielding to be honest. It’s Stupid Good because they think about as far ahead as an ostrich burying its head in the dirt.

        What happens if they win anyway? You killed the monarch of a country that just went through several wars and a genocide, with no clear line of succession as well as being sandwiched between two superpowers on the eve of a crusade. On top of that the remaining leadership is a patchwork blanket only barely held together by ties to said villainous tyrant – the one you just beheaded – and would likely be at each other’s necks if left to their own devices. The standing army? You’d be lucky if they aligned with one of the factions sprouting up instead of just turning to banditry or abandoning the place to return to Praes.

        So they kill the big bad villain for their hymns and ballads and five minutes of fame, while the newly liberated people of Callow get to starve or be killed by a major power struggle in their newfound ‘freedom’.

        It’s stupid good because they’re basically glorified butchers that know how to swing swords and hurl fireballs at whatever target they get pointed at, but as far as actually helping people or changing the big picture for the better they’re useless. Sometimes worse than useless. Cordelia makes a better hero than they do and she doesn’t even have a Name.

        Liked by 10 people

      2. What happens if they win anyway? You killed the monarch of a country that just went through several wars and a genocide, with no clear line of succession as well as being sandwiched between two superpowers on the eve of a crusade. On top of that the remaining leadership is a patchwork blanket only barely held together by ties to said villainous tyrant – the one you just beheaded – and would likely be at each other’s necks if left to their own devices. The standing army?

        Is this supposed to be a problem?

        Countries being shitholes caught up in politics isn’t a problem that can be solved by people. Expecting the heroes to save Callow, change it’s diaper and tuck it into bed is setting them up to fail. Whereas Callow becoming a police state led by an inhuman maniac is definitely a problem that can be solved by them. The world is most likely better off with Callow either smashed to pieces or reduced to an impotent client state rather than it being allowed to become the weapon of a Catherine or a Black.

        The big picture isn’t actually Callow. Callow is already fucked and there’s not much that can be done about it, and the best that can be done is making sure that Callow doesn’t give rise to the next insane monster tyrant that Cat is blatantly becoming.

        It’s about bloody time for Practical Good to take the field.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I would say that the Bard is Practical Good. That’s how shes stayed alive so long by spending other heroes lives like pennies. I imagine if it’s even possible for other heroes to be practical she murders them to retain her edge.

          And why does everyone forget what a terrible terrible country Procer is? They have like the worst quality of life on the continent and live under squabbling nobles that consider them fodder for the fields and power struggles. For all her civic pride, even Cordelia herself has stated that she considers the average Proceran to be little more than an animal to be exploited to death.

          Like

        2. TeK

          >Countries being shitholes caught up in politics isn’t a problem that can be solved by people.
          Wait, what? So we’re screwed then? What’s your answer then? Give yourself to Jesus?

          Like

      3. Nostradamus

        “The world is most likely better off with Callow either smashed to pieces or reduced to an impotent client state rather than it being allowed to become the weapon of a Catherine or a Black.”

        Were I a Callowan, I’d be absolutely livid at this sort of mentality. You don’t seem overly concerned about the fate of Callow or her people. Willing to condemn them to a life of endless war and destitution to achieve some “greater good” that you openly admit won’t benefit them in the slightest.

        Were I a Callowan, I’d say fuck the world and your greater good. Who are you bloody foreigners to invade my country, assassinate my leader, and blight my land with ever more war? For the everyday Callowan, Callow very much is the big picture. And it’s because places like Procer share your opinion that they have grown to hate them as much as Praes. More so now that the Black Queen has curbed the bulk of Praesi bullshit.

        No one’s expecting the heroes to save Callow, change it’s diaper, and tuck them into bed. But if they’re gonna waltz into land that isn’t theirs to stir up shit without giving a damn about the locals whose lives they’ll be destroying then they can bugger off back to Procer or Ashur or wherever they bloody came from.

        Viva Callow. Viva la Reina Negra.

        Liked by 9 people

      4. Mr. Nobody

        @hoyboy

        I find it quite difficult for there to be a “Practical Good” when the Heavens give their names only to idiots. Not impossible, but it’s kinda unlikely. Cordelia has much more chance than them and she is apparently having some talks with Catherine through Thief. And I don’t think Cat will really play fair with the older heroes like she played with new ones who tried to assassinate her.

        Like

        1. Author Unknown

          I think the practical part comes from experience. Good seems to have a handicap there, without their colleges trying to kill them. Left with nothing but dogma as guidance they throw themselves at the nearest big bad, and we can all see how that ends.

          Like

        2. werafdsaew

          I think it has to do with the asymmetry between Good and Evil. Good cares about order and tradition, while Evil cares about freedom. So a Hero, especially one sworn to an angelic choir, have much less freedom to deviate than a Villain. You can see this in this chapter, when the Stalwart Paladin is seriously considering Catherine’s words, his Name/choir intervened to set him towards conflict.

          Like

  5. SMHF

    There was a silhouette riding her back, arms laced around her shoulders. A beautiful and dark-skinned woman.

    that u Triumphant?

    Great to have this story back btw! 🙂

    Like

  6. Argentorum

    “Seven and one, just like the stories.”
    Well. I think we know why Nightfall picked that number. Now I just wonder what he plans to do with the significance of those crowns. This entire story is just circles within circles.

    Also AkuaxCat 4 lyfe.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. She doesn’t have to short change him, the answer was probably given in the opening to Interlude: Commanders

        When historians try to pin down Foundling’s methods they point to the Battle of the Camps or the Princes’ Graveyard, but those came later.

        https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com/2017/08/30/interlude-commanders/

        Notice the name of the battle is the plural possessive of Prince, that means more than one Prince dies on that battlefield. The Principate is formed of multiple countries each ruled by a prince and each one is it’s own crown. If Cat crushes the Principate and that is where the name of the battle comes from, then Cat can pay off real easy since their are enough Princes and their crowns in Procer for it.

        Like

        1. Problem is that an ordinary fullfilment of the bargain would lead to the outcome that had Sulia so terrified. I meant the kind of options that would leave him with no subjects, nor any lands in Creation belonging to him.

          Like

        2. Nairne .01

          What if she first kills the Prince of Nightfall and then places his “crown” at his feet? Or better yet his whole head. Viola! We have Fae Dullahan.

          Like

          1. The problem with that plan is that he comes back. He has been dying and being reborn longer than Creation has been a thing.
            Even if you SPENT him, like was alluded could actually kill Faerie, I would guess Winter/Arcadia would just create a new Prince of NIghtfall. Way too many unknowns for that to be an actual plan.

            Like

    1. Soronel Haetir

      I thought Nightfall’s plan went down the drain with the unification of Summer and Winter. Isn’t that why all the Fae swore themselves to Cat’s banner at the end of the last book?

      Like

  7. d_o_l

    Do we know what Choir that was? We’ve already done Contrition, and I’m guessing it wasn’t Judgement since Hanno is their champion.

    Like

    1. Bard said that Judgement is the only Choir that follows a “one hero per Choir” rule. That was Endurance (which is supposed to be different from Fortitude? I know those are different virtues, but the attributes look too similar, if Bard mistaking William for a Fortitude hero is any indication).

      Liked by 2 people

  8. And the first typo thread is a go!

    > Everything about him smacked of arrogant privilege
    Not sure if the word “smack” can be used like that.

    > They would, to her.
    Maybe better “it would”, since the subject in the previous sentence is “the south”.

    > As the moved quietly through the streets
    As they moved quietly through the streets

    > Lucky them, they’d chosen the gate opposite.
    Maybe the better order would be “Lucky them, they’d chosen the opposite gate.”

    > For one of her reputation, he was distinctly unimpressed.
    The structure of this sentence only barely allows to notice that it’s Iason being unimpressed and not Catherine.

    > Purely academic curiosity in my part
    Isn’t it “on my part”?

    > emptied the pipe before stewing it away in her cloak
    emptied the pipe before stowing it away in her cloak

    > Yes yes, praise the Heavens and much defiance.
    Yes, yes, praise the Heavens and much defiance.

    >The first was two score goblins
    Probably “The first was two score of goblins”

    > The Red Mage was most endangered by this sort of assault.
    A clearer wording would be “The Red Mage was the one most endangered by this sort of assault”

    > Yet if the tide turned against them, the Paladin would rather see them defeated before the fled.
    Yet if the tide turned against them, the Paladin would rather see them defeated before they fled.

    > Indeed, the might even encounter another hero after they fled.
    Indeed, they might even encounter another hero after they fled.

    > Some sorcery must be behind the machines
    Maybe better to use another tense: “Some sorcery must have been behind the machines”

    > or he was going to get run through when the creature bored of the game
    Perhaps “or he was going to get run through when the creature got bored of the game”?

    > Light came down from above a perfect a perfect heptagon of seven feet on every stroke
    Light came down from above, a perfect a perfect heptagon of seven feet on every stroke

    > she was stepping lightly and her illusion advancing towards him
    she was stepping lightly and her illusion was advancing towards him

    > He headbutted his winged helmet but came off the loser for it
    She headbutted his winged helmet but came off the loser for it

    > He glimpsed the parry before it ever rose
    Did you mean “He glimpsed the parry before it even rose”? English isn’t my first language, I’m not sure whether that’s a valid use of the word.

    > as as he hit the ground the world slowed
    and as he hit the ground the world slowed

    > an opened them in an endless spread of pale blankness
    and opened them in an endless spread of pale blankness

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    1. Rook

      Misread or not I think it’s kind of accurate. Really the mantle of queen isn’t one Cat has the skill set to handle anyway. Hierarch wasn’t wrong when he described her as ill suited for a throne.

      Cat means well and has the right idea – cutting out the rot – but she’s always been more of a breaker than a builder. She might become the sharpest scalpel in creation and do her job well, but it isn’t enough alone. You need to stitch that wound up and let it heal after the disease is removed, and a scalpel is hardly a needle.

      I honestly want to see Cordielia be to Cat what Malicia is to Black. She absolutely needs a counterpart that can navigate peacetime and a political battlefield in the long term, one that has the average people in mind rather than seeing them a sacrificial chaff to be ground up in a millstone between Good and Evil. As practical as the methods might be, none of the old guard are suitable. The Bard, Black, Malicia, all of them have that same flaw. The people are just a footnote for whatever bigger issue they think is the most important.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Technically, in interlude Riposte where she said that, she was referring to how the warring princes saw their subjects. It’s unclear whether she includes herself into that, or sees hersef above such neglect.

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        1. Rook

          Totally just my opinion on this one but I’m not sure Kendall will be enough considering the power imbalance. Malicia and Black are more or less partners on even footing, whereas Cat chose Kendall because she could be bent to her will if needed.

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  9. The Lily daughter of the innkeepers must be the same that in the chapter 28 of the Book 2. She was seven years old there, if she recently engaged in the army of Callow, ten to twelve years must have passed. And Cat herself is thirty years old.

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    1. Mr. Nobody

      “The marketplace in Dormer was thriving, for a city that’d been emptied and set aflame not even a year ago.”

      I’m pretty sure that the line above implies the time skip is not that long. I don’t remember the 7 years old girl you mentioned having a brother.
      Cordelia was in a hurry to assemble the rulers to make the Crusade against Praes, so it’s hard to believe they waited ten years or more for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Gunslinger

    Seven hells, is this a welcome return. Quite an explosive start there. I kinda hoped the heroes would accept her deal but as the other commenters speculated they might be more amenable dead.

    Highlight of the chapter was Cat giving no respect to the Choir.
    > I already told the Hashmallim to walk it off,” she said. “Am I really going to have to revisit this with every fucking Choir?”

    Beautiful

    Liked by 5 people

    1. That is because the fantasy trope has always been to end the Hero’s story right after he kills the Villain, unless it’s a serial then a new Villain arises to fight, so you basically never see what happens afterwards. Keep in mind the Hero’s are nothing but tools to the Gods above to fill a spot in a story and it is never that person’s story, it is the NAME’s story. It was part of the rant Black had long ago about how some idiot farmer picks up a magic sword and the story lets him defeat a villain that trained for 25 years at swordsmanship (Though in this case Cat turned around on the Paladin, who had all those years of formal instruction where Cat didn’t).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. letouriste

        of course she is better, the guy looked sheltered while her has been on several warground and is full of experience against other heroes.
        in the first place, the pretty dance people call swoordmanship is useless in a real fight.every fighter learn the basics of their style and then use their surounding and their fists/knees/head/whatever.

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    2. Or, you know, just people who don’t take a tyrant at face value when they say that they’re a necessary evil.

      *Every tyrant a hero has ever toppled* has said that they’re working for the greater good, and that they had perfectly good reasons for burning down cities, crucifying the resistance, and binding their enemies’ souls into objects. Cat just happens to be correct when she says that.

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      1. Well, the heroes are certainly brain-dead for not getting their full Aspects before they came to pick a fight with the Woe, but I don’t think they’re wrong simply for disagreeing with Cat when she says she’s a necessary evil.

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        1. I’ll have to remind you that figuring out all his aspects and then going to fight Cat was how William limited his story to the rivalry with Cat, which automatically made it a tragedy. What the heroes did wrong was stuff like saying “alright, there’s too many of them, we have to lose and flee to start the Pattern of Three”, and then immediately charging in.

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  11. nimelennar

    Come on, Cat, you need to offer a carrot with the stick.

    Something like, “And then, when this country is strong enough to attend on its own again against Procer and Praes, THEN you can come into my house and we can discuss my leadership choices. Violently, if you prefer. Until then, start fixing things and stop trying to break the people who are already doing so.”

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Shoddi

        My question is: How will she name them?

        “First Volunteer”, “Should Have Ducked”, “A Dress Is Not Armour” and “Surprisingly A Bleeder” are descriptive, but kind of a mouthful when you need to quickly order them to do something.

        Will she number them, or use a short one-word descriptor? For the Stalwart Paladin, I’d go with “Spike”. Since that’s the last thing running through his head.

        Liked by 3 people

  12. Captain Amazing

    After Catherine tries to convince the heroes I think their Names stopped them from listening with the abrupt dogmatic change in thoughts seen from the Paladen.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nairne .01

      I have been wondering about that as well. The hell gods seem like the sort to give free reins to people. The gods above though feel like they would love to enforce their vision through whatever means necessary, as shown with the way the choir of contrition tried to enslave people to a crusade.

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      1. The issue with the Gods Below, on the other hand, is the kind of people they give Names to. The core requirement to be a villain instead of a hero is to be willing to force one’s will upon the others instead of supporting them, and that is reinforced later in all aspects of a villain’s path, from the claimants’ murderfests to the eventual violent demise. Where the Heavens seem to like a more hands-on approach (those thoughts in cursive seemed almost like somebody picking memories from Iason’s mind to sway his decision), villains create their doom all by themselves.

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      2. Also seen in Good nations love of rigid hierarchies.
        Evil nations are all “The crown belongs to he who takes it.”
        Good nations are all “The Crown belongs to he who is divinely mandated, by arbitrary and complex system enforced by laws and blood.”

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            1. The reductions of corruption and abuse of power in wester civilization are not the result of instability. Checks and balances on power, social safety nets, and massively more complicated legal systems represent the further cleansing of instability in our systems. If you want to see the results of what you think is healthy instability, look no further than the erosion of political systems by business interests, destruction of the environment and climate through corporate negligence, and ideologies that allow us to ignore massive inequalities in the name of “free markets”.

              There’s no period in human history where people have benefitted from an unstable social order, all the modern things that you call freedom and assume are the result of instability are actually the result of a massive web of laws, systems, and institutions that protect you from being exploited or violated by people like Catherine or Black.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. By instability I meant different political parties working against each other (and theoretically new ones being created.) not lawlessness, which is obviously bad.

                Vs China’s one party system. Their government is entirely stable and becoming more so as they move closer to a direct dictatorship. Despite their stability they still have massive corruption and environmental problems.

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  13. “why even have a treacherous lieutenant if you’re not going to taunt them at every opportunity?”

    I can’t belive, this bit wasn’t said by a Dread Emperor/Empress. So villainous, it’d easily pass as a chapter opening quote.

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      1. Darkening

        There’s a bit about not offering to make the hero your new lieutenant while your lieutenant is in the room? Not sure about other mentions.

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  14. Sieral

    Surprising how even newbie heroes can take swings at the big players and hold their own for a time. I was astonished this wasn’t a complete curbstomp.

    Like

    1. Parker

      That’s because creation is ALWAYS stacked on the side of good. Nothing major, just that anything that is left to chance tends to swing in favor of “good”. That’s why Black is so good at killing heroes, he leaves nothing to chance and places them in certain death traps.

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  15. Raved Thrad

    I’m starting to think Catherine’s new Name should be “Trap,” as in “It’s a trap!” It’s like everyone who encounters her somehow underestimates her in one way or another. I still remember the Duchess of Daoine thinking of her as a monstrous child — monster, sure, but child still, nonetheless, despite all her accomplishments. Even here, faced with goblins and a fae, the Paladin couldn’t stop to think of her as “girl” or “woman just slightly older than me.”

    I’m really hoping Robber manages to get (or steal or usurp?) a Name for himself. He’s one of my favorite characters, and I’d hate for the maniacal little shit to die just because he bit off more than he could chew alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Cap'n Smurfy

    I love how arrogant Paladin is in his thoughts without ever realising it. He accuses Catherine of concept and thinks about how villains are always arrogant, but simultaneously thinks they could take 3 or 4 of the World. None of them even have full aspects and they know at least 4 hero parties have already lost.

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  17. Been thinking about something,
    I don’t necessarily think that Catherine is “better” in her mechanical modus operandi than Black, simply less experienced. Black’s the pragmatic sort. I can absolutely see him doing the “I’d really rather not slaughter your merry band. Why don’t you all go do something heroic for the common folks and just let us be?” speech Cat just gave when he’d only been the Black Knight for a eighteen months.

    As Nightfall observed “I think offering mercy actually makes things worse. Fascinating.” Around about the tenth band of small fry, it’s going to occur to Cat (As it likely did to Black long ago) that NO Hero is EVER going to be talked down. It’s like trying to talk down a true believer of a suicide bomber. It doesn’t work, so your plan needs to be about containing the blast.

    I also think that Black having seen what a “Big Name” Hero or band of Heroes can do when they build momentum is a tremendous part of his “Give them absolutely no chance for conflict. Just end their lives with extreme prejudice in whatever manner possible” methodology.

    Cat’s going to get there. Then turn around and realize just how much her life forces her to continue being like Black in a LOT of ways. They may have some interesting differences, but the mechanics of their reality will only allow so much deviation.

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    1. I mean, Thief was a Hero, and it worked. I hope that Cat never reaches the level where she gives up on it. She can always work with the heroes that show up, or attempt to, and it really doesn’t cost her much (as of yet) so I would like to see Cat keep up with the talking.

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  18. Snowfire1224

    You know what would be interesting, a chapter, possibly an extra chapter or interlude, from the perspective of Larat. I think seeing something though the eyes of the Fae might be interesting, although I can see where it would be a challenge to pull off too.

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  19. Three heroes are dying from the start…that promises a lot of pain and suffering for the forces of Good in this book 4. Nicely done!
    If Catherine has not lied (and I see no reason for her to) this was the fifth group of heroes she killed. If on average there has been three heroes per group, it’s fifteen heroic figures which have bitten the dust.
    It’s far less than the record of the Calamities, but it’s beginning to leave a bloody mark in the history of Creation…

    Otherwise, this prologue was very interesting in that it allowed us to see the big changes the enw Queen is implementing thorough Callow. A new money, goblins invited at Marchford, a large military mobilisation and the recovery of Dormer and the rest of the South…looks like the Woe and the Fifteenth Legion are very busy.

    And of course, there’s always Robber to accuse the heroes of racism…very well done.
    I’m in love with this story and I see no reason it is going to change in the months to come…

    Like

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