Chapter 4: Warpath

“I’m not saying all your closest friends are shapeshifting devils I sent to spy on you after having the originals murdered, but I’m certainly implying it very heavily.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous, making small talk

“I think I might hate your people,” Juniper growled.

The Hellhound was sprawled in her seat instead of sitting ramrod straight, a visible mark of how exhausted her duties had left her. A cup of orcish brew in hand – which I’d been oath-bound to decline when offered – she looked like a particularly grumpy green cat. Normally I’d be alarmed by the highest military officer in the kingdom professing hatred of its inhabitants, but I’d learned to read Juniper in our years together. That was a ‘I can’t believe I have to deal with this shit’ growl, not a ‘I won’t need supper after I’m done with you’ growl.

“Not even a month ago you were praising the quality of the foot you’ve been drilling,” I pointed out.

“The soldiers are fine,” the Marshal of Callow said. “Better than fine, even. They’re taking to the formations better than I’d hoped, and they’ve got fire in the belly. But your fucking nobles, Catherine. Now was a bad time to pick to stop answering backtalk with gallows.”

“Talbot can’t be crawling up your ass,” I frowned. “We sent him on manoeuvre out of the city specifically so he wouldn’t be able to have his little meetings.”

“His Regals are still knocking at my door,” the orc said. “Foundling, if a single more hints at favours in exchange for an officer’s commission there’s going to be blood on the ground.”

Grandmaster Brandon Talbot was more than just the head of the Order of Broken Bells, these days: he was also one of the founders of the tight-knight group of former aristocrats that had formed into one of my court’s two major power blocs. They’d called themselves the Patriots, at first, but I’d made an idle comment to Talbot about how that reminded me of the Truebloods and that name had died an early death. Considering the most infamous member of the Truebloods now had her soul sown into my collar, I could see why he’d taken that as a pointed hint. The Queen’s Men were the counterweight, centred around Anne Kendall, but they had much fewer connections. A consequence of the fact that were made up mostly of guildsmen and aldermen.

The Regals weren’t nearly as much of a nuisance as the people the northern baronies had sent to Laure, but they were also much smarter about how they were going about gaining influence. Instead of naked power grabs through trade they were placing men in the bureaucracy that had grown out of the court centred in Laure. The problem was that, often, their candidate was the most competent to be had. None of the Regals still had noble titles or privileges, Black had seen to that after the Liesse Rebellion, but several were still wealthy landowners. And their kinsmen were educated, which I was coming to prize most of all. Keeping their influence in check while making sure the cogs of the bureaucracy didn’t get clogged with incompetence was like walking a tightrope. And it wasn’t like I could hand every appointment to Anne’s men instead, they were barely more trustworthy and they tended to heavily favour the interests of Laure and the guilds.

“They’re still under the impression they can just buy commands?” I asked, surprised.

Juniper bared her teeth savagely.

“Of course not,” she mocked. “They’re simply recommending candidates for fast-tracked officer training. Every one of them above the cut. Every one of them someone’s cousin or aunt.”

My frown deepened. That was still overstepping.

“You know you have my full backing in this,” I told her. “If there’s anyone being too insistent…”

“They don’t repeat, Catherine,” Juniper sighed. “They always send another envoy, another candidate. And they’re just important enough I can’t foist them off on Aisha.”

I grit my teeth. We were at war, now, the same war Juniper had been trying to prepare the kingdom for since she first got her baton. That she’d had to spend hours fending off ambitious Regals while trying to scrape together enough force to resist Procer was getting on my nerves more than a little bit. A measured expression of displeasure to these fine men and women was in order.

“I’ll take care of it,” I said. “But you know that’s not what I’m here for.”

She nodded soberly.

“We’ll be ready to march half a day before predicted,” the Hellhound said. “All we’re waiting on is the Broken Bells. Hakram’s provision office delivered the goods smooth as silk.”

“Twenty thousand in whole then,” I said, leaning back into my seat. “We’re still outnumbered raw, Juniper.”

Her lips split into a fanged grimace.

“If you’d not spent coin on shit like the Observatory-“

“We’d have heroes in the heartlands,” I interrupted flatly. “Consider it an investment to ensure we didn’t have to fight this war on more than one front.”

She conceded the argument with an ill-humoured grunt.

“I can’t answer for the heroes with the host, we don’t have a clear enough assessment of what they can do,” Juniper began.

“Thief should be back soon with what the Jacks managed to put together,” I said. “But the army?”

“We can take them,” the Hellhound said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be bloody. But our army’s in a much better shape than theirs. As long as we can bring them to battle on an open field, I believe we can beat them. Which is why I wish you’d reconsider Harrow. I can’t promise anything for two to one and walls.”

“Orders already went out,” I reminded her. “Baroness Morley is emptying her stores and evacuating towards Hedges.”

“The Proceran supply chain will be a nightmare when they’ve crossed,” Juniper noted. “And without granaries and cattle to plunder they can’t live off the land. So, all things aside, I agree with you there’s a decent chance they’ll be forced to continue pushing south or start eating faster than they can bring food. But if they don’t everything goes out the window. I don’t like that our plan is centred around the enemy doing what we want them to.”

“There’s too much of a risk involved in fighting them near Harrow, Juniper,” I sighed. “Even if we could manage to get there in time, I won’t engage when there’s a Hell Egg unaccounted for in the region.”

The north was one of the few parts of Callow that hadn’t been devastated by the latest round of wars to hit the country. Not even a better strategic position was enough to have me take the risk of changing that.

“There’s too much politics in this war, Foundling,” my Marshal said. “Careful you miss the defeat in front of you for staring at the treaties on the horizon.”

“We can’t slaughter fifty thousand Procerans,” I flatly said. “Aside from the brutal bounding our manpower would take in achieving that, it’d be impossible to make peace with Hasenbach afterwards.”

“Hasenbach’s invading us,” the Hellhound retorted. “The high horse stops being that when you ride it to war. If she doesn’t want dead soldiers, she has no business sending them to the field.”

I knew that in speaking that she spoke as an orc. She had the bone-deep conviction that no one with a sword in hand had the right of complaining about death. And there was a lot about that way of looking at the world that appealed to me even now. But that was a seductive simplicity that’d become the kind of luxury I could no longer afford. If I offed half a hundred thousand Procerans, the Principate would be fighting this to the bitter end. The First Prince might very well get deposed if she suggested otherwise. I had to defeat the crusaders, force them out of Callow, but it couldn’t be a massacre. Assuming I could even deliver one of those, which was quite an assumption given the number of Named on the other side.

“I still think we should have gone ahead with Bonfire,” the orc spoke into the silence. “I understand why you refused, but-“

“Juniper,” I said quietly. “I love you like a sister. You’re one of the smartest women I’ve ever met. But trust me when I say that Bonfire would have been the end of us.”

It’d begun as an exercise for her general staff. How to win against the crusade without Callow ever seeing combat? The answer had been crude, vicious, and horrifyingly popular among my high-ranking officers. Even Callowans. Only greenskins had been more vocal in their approval than my people. It was simple enough: instead of waiting for Procer to muster, I was to take twenty thousand men and a full siege train through Arcadia and emerge on the upper northern edge of Procer’s coast. Then I’d burn my way south, city by city, until the Principate mustered an army to force me out. At which point I’d pass through Arcadia again, and emerge on the other side of the Principate. Rinse, repeat. Again and again until Procer collapsed from the inside. The death toll would have been… It didn’t bear thinking about. It’d been the support the plan had found that surprised me. Hells, Talbot had spoken in favour. He’d ‘mourned the loss of innocent lives, but if losses must be had better Proceran than Callowan.’ I’d stomped the notion out of high command and not been gentle about it. Aside from the sickening mass slaughters Bonfire entailed, it would have made Callow the foremost enemy of every Calernian nation. It had not escaped my notice that my ability to take hosts through Arcadia might be seen as as dangerous a weapon as the Diabolist’s gate-device, in its own way. I had to use it sparingly and responsibly or we’d all pay for it. The thought came, uneasily, that we might regardless of what I did.

“Your call to make, Warlord,” the orc acknowledged.

Silence lingered for a while afterwards, the two of us alone in her tent.

“Finally back at it,” the Hellhound finally mused, and there was something like savage glee shining in her eyes.

“We march West, once more,” I spoke in Mthethwa.

I was quoting an old verse Nauk loved. He’d spoken it years ago, before we left for the Liesse Rebellion.

“Waging the same old war,” Juniper finished, and she met my gaze.

Neither of us finished the verse, though we both knew the words.

Onwards to the fields of Callow,

Swift death and graves shallow.

It was past midnight when I finally allowed myself a break. There was only so much time I could spend learning Reitz without wanting to jump off the balcony I was currently leaning against. It was important I learn, though. I’d have interpreters with me on the field, but going to war with the Principate without even understanding their languages was a weakness tailored to cause blunders. Still, I’d never missed my old aspect of Learn more. Hells, it wasn’t like I’d been lazy when it came to learning languages. Aside from the Lower Miezan of my childhood I spoke four others well, though my Old Tongue was still admittedly sloppier than the rest. It was enough for tonight, I decided. Back to the histories after that. I’d gotten my hands on an Ashuran chronicle of the Humbling of Titans, the abortive and bloody war between Procer and the Titanomachy that had sown the seeds of hate between the nations that still held to this day. Writings from the Thalassocracy were slightly less inclined to paint Procer in a bad light than those of Praes or the Free Cities, though from what little I’d read there wasn’t much defensible about why and how the Principate had waged that war. I looked up at the stars and allowed the wind to stream across my face. It was a cool breeze, not that I’d notice unless I forced myself to.

Finally,” Thief crowed from behind me.

I almost lashed out by reflex, Winter coiling in my veins, but I let out a steamy breath instead.

“That game’s gotten a lot more dangerous than it used to be,” I told her, voice sounding with just the hint of an echo.

Vivienne leaned against the railing next to me, blowing away an errant strand with a mischievous smile.

“Just like you to say that when I start winning,” she said.

“Welcome back, Thief,” I sighed, and put an arm around her shoulder in the distant cousin of a hug.

She only squirmed a little. Vivienne had never been a touchy sort but compared to, say, Masego she was neediness incarnate. I released her after a heartbeat, and pretended not to notice the slightly pleased smile on her face.

“So I hear we have a Proceran problem on the march,” she said.

“They won’t start moving until tomorrow, according to Masego,” I replied. “But you might say that, yes. I don’t suppose you have anything to tell me that’d make this loom a little shorter?”

“You want a report?” she asked, eyebrow rising.

“Nothing too detailed,” I said. “We’ll have a proper briefing with everyone at a sane hour. But give me the broad strokes.”

She hummed.

“Well, before we touch Procer, I have something from down south,” she said.

My gaze sharpened.

“The League?”

She nodded and I grimaced. I’d wanted a garrison in Dormer to keep that front under control, but Juniper had dug in her heels. The city was indefensible, she’d argued, without a fleet. And Callow had neither the gold, the sailors or the know-how to make one. She had a point about Dormer, especially after the fight with Summer had wrecked major parts of its defences that we’d only partly repaired. Coin, coin, coin. More relentless a foe than even Akua. The men had been sent to Vale instead, with only a handful of mages in Dormer to sound the alarm if it came to war. Which it was hard to say if it might. My attempt at diplomatic correspondence with the newly-elected Hierarch had yielded only a neatly-penned letter chastising me for being a foreign despot, which while very politely phrased was less than promising. On the other hand, merchant shipping up the Hwaerte had actually increased over the last few months if Ratface was to be believed. Not the sign of hostilities about to erupt.

“I have reason to believe that the League has no interest in Callow,” Thief said.

“And how good is that reason?” I asked.

“The Tyrant of Helike had one of the Jacks taken off the streets and brought to him so he could swear eternal friendship with you,” Vivienne bluntly said.

I closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose, warding off the headache I knew wouldn’t come.

“The man,” I said slowly, “is notoriously mad. And treacherous. And, not to repeat myself but it bears mentioning, fucking insane.”

“Agreed,” Thief mildly replied. “He is also, as of last month, very discretely sending people into Waning Woods.”

My eyes flew open and I kept my mouth shut as I considered the implications of that. The Waning Woods could lead straight into southern Callow, true. But he didn’t need to go through there to make war on us. He had the fleets to just sail up the Hwaerte uncontested without any of the risks strolling through that hellscape of a forest entailed. Which meant he was considering that route to sidestep something else, and there was only one force I knew about that qualified. The Proceran army in the southern principality of Tenerife, sent there specifically to discourage League aggression.

“You’re sure?” I quietly pressed.

“There’s a decent chance that he allowed my people to see him sending his own in there,” Thief admitted. “It could be a plot to get us to lower our guards, but at this point does he really need us to lower our guard?”

No, I thought. Not with fifty thousand crusaders marching into Callow and an even larger host knocking at the front door in the Vales. There wasn’t a lot I could immediately do to drive him back if he just decided to invade without all the fanfare.

“That would change things,” I murmured. “If he pulls the trigger on that…”

“Looming shorter yet?” Vivienne teased.

“I’d kiss you, if you weren’t so painfully indifferent to women,” I replied with a smirk.

She coughed awkwardly. I had no intentions there whatsoever, but seeing her get jittery at the lightest of suggestions was always good for a laugh.

“Yes, well, Procer,” she muttered. “We’ve already had some talks about what’s waiting in Arans. As far as the Jacks can tell, there’s two real ringleaders in that crowd. The Procer part, anyway.”

“Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre,” I said. “Princess Rozala Malanza of Aequitan. Milenan’s supposed to be the one holding most everyone else’s leash.”

“Don’t discount Malanza,” she warned me. “Politically she’d dependent on Milenan – her younger brother’s trying to sweet-talk Hasenbach into backing him – but she’s the one that’ll be leading the armies. Her mother fucked up so catastrophically during the civil war that she’s low on allies at the moment, but she’s the best commander in that army and they all know it. She’ll get a lot more influential in that circle when the swords come out.”

“And what do we know about her?” I frowned.

“Not much,” Thief reluctantly admitted. “She’s stayed off of the stage since taking her coronation. But I have somewhat reliable word that she’s one of the hardline expansionists in the Highest Assembly even if she’s quiet about it.”

“If she’s out of favour with Hasenbach, that reinforces the case the First Prince isn’t actually out to annex us,” I said.

“Hasenbach broke her mother’s bid for the throne and made her drink poison afterwards,” Thief hedged. “It might just be personal. Regardless, if the First Prince is out for land we both know she can’t admit that right know. It’d eat away at the crusade from the inside. Levant’s not mustering armies for the Principate to grow larger, and if they get even a hint that’s the plan…”

“I think she might genuinely be after only the Empire, Vivienne,” I admitted. “And if that’s really the case, she has a fucking point. Malicia fanned the civil war in her country for two decades. And there’s that other thing too.”

Stating out loud that the Empress had essentially given Diabolist free reign to do whatever she wanted so long as by the time the dust settled she had a weapon to frighten off the rest of Calernia would have been… dangerous. I’d already told the rest of the Woe this much, but not anyone else. Whether Hasenbach knew this was the case or she was just using Second Liesse to justify the Tenth Crusade, I could not know for sure. It wasn’t like I could ask the woman when we spoke, either, not while I was uncertain of what she knew and did not.

“I’ll applaud and toast her health, if she brings down the Tower,” Thief said. “But that is not a woman I want deciding what happens to my shit, Catherine. Even if we assume the best about her, she’s still got the Highest Assembly to answer to. And we’ve had long talks about the kind of people that have seats on that.”

“I’m not talking surrender,” I told Thief. “But you know how much there’s riding on Hasenbach being at least halfway reasonable.”

“That begs the question of how reasonable she’ll be allowed to be,” Vivienne replied flatly. “And that brings us back neatly to Amadis Milenan. I’ve confirmed he was in the know for the Liesse Rebellion.”

“We already knew Hasenbach would need a mandate to send that much silver across the border,” I said. “He’s the most influential man in Procer, it’s not really feasible for her to have kept him out of it.”

“What we didn’t know, at least until now, is that he argued strongly for a Proceran to be in command of the rebel forces,” Thief said. “The man likes his wine, and he’s not as careful about who might be listening as he should be. That said, there’s a two thousand denarii hole in the funds you allocated me.”

I stared at her incredulously.

“Two thousand?”

“Yeah, well, even servants in that fucker’s palace are rich,” Vivienne muttered. “You wouldn’t believe how hard they were to bribe.”

Aside from a mournful thought about where I’d have to take that coin from to compensate, I came to grasp what she was getting at pretty quick.

“You think he wanted to be personally in command,” I said.

“Look, I know the Eyes think his ambition makes him usable to shake up Procer from the inside,” the dark-haired woman said. “But that’s Wasteland talk, Catherine. He’s a fucking snake and now we have precedent.”

Precedent for Prince Amadis Milenan to consider war in Callow as way to enable his bid for the throne of the Principate. Shit. That was a problem. I’d been banking on the commanders of the crusader host in the north being rational enough that after a series of minor field defeats they’d cut their losses and retreat back into Procer, if I gave them the space. But Milenan was in command, and if he saw this as his only good chance to dislodge Hasenbach? He might decide to gamble it all anyway, and that would force me to actually break his army. Which would fuck up all my long-term plans, to say the least.

“We’ll untangle that particular mess in full at the briefing,” I sighed. “What’ve you got on the heroes? None of this matters if they just splatter us across the countryside at the first scrap.”

“Wasn’t able to get all the Names,” Thief said. “But I do have a number for you: there’s fourteen of them.”

I let out a long breath. That was… a lot more than I’d hoped for. Given the reputation the Calamities still commanded, I’d thought most Named would be headed there for the offensive. Still fewer than they sent against Triumphant, I mused. So there’s that. Black had always told me that too many heroes in the same place might end up turning against them. That Creation would push some stories above others, and that those who ended up behind were much easier to kill. It made villains seem a lot stronger than they were when they killed a few, and incited sloppiness and overconfidence if they survived. The thing was, though, that those villains usually still died. That tended to happen when someone sent a battalion of Heavens-empowered hardened killers after someone’s head. I’d refined the Woe, over the last year. Turned them into a group eerily skilled at killing the heroes that came into Callow and refused my terms. But in those fights, we’d had either superior numbers or parity. On picked grounds, with enough time for me to prepare. None of that would apply up north.

“Most of them are green, and from all over Calernia,” Thief spoke into the silence. “Levant, the Free Cities, Ashur. Local Named, I guess you could call them. Not the kind you see at the head of an invasion.”

“Any from Procer?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Which brings me to the two I think we most need to watch out for,” Vivienne said. “The first is the Proceran, an Alamans. Laurence de Montfort, the Saint of Swords.”

“I think I’ve heard of her before,” I frowned.

“She got started killing some alchemist villain in western Procer under a transitional Name,” Thief said. “Nasty business. He was turning people into monsters. Then she killed the Prince of Valencis when she was in her twenties and no one’s quite sure why. She disappeared into the woodworks after that. There’s rumours she went up north, but mostly people say she was ‘perfecting her craft’ in a retreat from the earthly world.”

“She hasn’t done anything since?” I frowned.

“Dubious source, but I was told she stared down an army into marching around her hometown during the civil war,” Vivienne said. “Whatever the truth, she’s in her late sixties and she’s Hells on legs. Supposedly unbeatable with a sword, and she’s been known to cut through spells, wards and even once an actual miracle.”

“Well, that promises to be a fun evening,” I muttered.

That sounded a lot like Ranger, only with a Choir having her back, and wasn’t that stuff nightmares were made of?

“The other big club is Levantine,” Thief said. “The Grey Pilgrim, couldn’t dig up a name. This one… Well, the more I learn the more he scares me shitless.”

Thief wasn’t the bravest of my companions, but she wasn’t exactly faint of heart either. That she’d go this far was worth alarm.

“Priest Name?” I asked.

“Some kind of wandering monk, as far as I can tell,” Vivienne said. “He’s not, well, not like you. He’s not the one everyone attaches to. He’s the stranger in the night, and he’s been around for a while.”

“Heroes age,” I reminded her.

“And I’ve word of him going back at least sixty years under his current Name,” Thief bluntly replied. “Catherine, the man’s been everywhere. Every Levantine hero in the last forty years ran into him at some point, and in the Dominion if he said he felt like being king half the country would rise to put him on the throne. As long as he backs the crusade, there’s not a single hero from the Dominion that’ll flinch.”

“Influential and experienced, then,” I said, but honestly as far as direct threats went the Saint sounded a lot worse.

It also meant he couldn’t be killed if Levant was ever to be brought at the negotiating table. You couldn’t kill a people’s darling and then expect a nice peace treaty after, but I wasn’t sure I’d be given a choice there. Thief passed a hand through her hair, frustrated.

“I’m not explaining myself right,” she said. “Just – all right, think about it like this. Hero out on their first lark, meets a mysterious helpful stranger that gives advice and maybe teaches a trick. When’s the next time you see them?”

My fingers clenched.

“When that hero’s in over their head,” I said softly. “When the stranger appears out of nowhere and wipes the floor with the villain, enough that the hero can flee and prepare for the rematch.”

“Yeah,” Vivienne agreed grimly. “That’s the thing, Cat. He doesn’t always win, but I couldn’t find a single instance of when the Grey Pilgrim got into a fight and lost.”

Well. It was a good thing I didn’t need to sleep anymore, because that was the kind of thing that would keep a girl up at night.

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143 thoughts on “Chapter 4: Warpath

  1. narcoduck

    “My attempt at diplomatic correspondence with the newly-elected Hierarch had yielded only a neatly-penned letter chastising me for being a foreign despot, which while very politely phrased was less than promising.”

    Hierarch is great.

    Liked by 17 people

              1. Shent

                He’s Lawfull Neutral, and the pinacle of them to bood. He’s Lawfull Neutralism distilled and refined into a perfectly imperfect shape. He’s a riot and kinda boring, and I love him all the more for it

                Like

  2. Gunslinger

    Ohh joy, looks like the mooks have some pretty strong bosses. Story savvy ones too.

    Numbers wise, Callow’s outnumbered in both soldiers and Named (not counting the theorized but as yet unseen/unmentioned wight heroes) and given that neither side will retreat it looks to be a long and bloody campaign. I wonder if hit and run tactics are in order.

    Ohh and vote for the guide on topwebfiction if you can http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=a-practical-guide-to-evil , Cat can’t cross in-story wards anymore but she can top the Wildbow one

    Before we go
    > She only squirmed a little. Vivienne had never been a touchy sort but compared to, say, Masego she was neediness incarnate. I released her after a heartbeat, and pretended not to notice the slightly pleased smile on her face.

    There’s so much shipping fuel here it’s unbearable 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. BroadAxe

      Weight heroes is really unlikely tho, that one chapter with the dead king where he had dead heroes that only had fractions of their power left because they’d lost theyre name in death sorta says that can’t be the case, doesn’t it? :3

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Naeddyr

    Have we seen any actual heroic Mentors before this? The Wizard of the West etc. probably qualified, but they’re all gone, and the Bard… Probably doesn’t count.

    Thanks for the chapter!

    Liked by 4 people

        1. Letouriste

          Actually I think he meant the way she gather pupils is mentor-like but you are right her « rescue » is a little heroic-like…if she didn’t had being threatening to cat too at the same time^^

          Like

  4. JackbeThimble

    I feel like Cat’s best option here narrative-wise is to turn this into Kingdom of Heaven with Amedis as Reynauld de Chatillon and herself as Saladin. Since she’s already been seen on camera offering the heroes mercy and trying to find peace with Hasenbach it shouldn’t be too hard to sell herself as the Noble Demon to contrast with Amedis as the rapacious fanatic. Allowing Amedis to take Harrow is probably a good move as well as it gives him a chance to commit some atrocities to make the audience hate him even more. That way when the Northern army and it’s heroes get slaughtered it will be the consequences of their own moral failings.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. JackbeThimble

      To really sell it she needs to make a battle plan that somehow exploits the enemy commanders hubris and selfish goals to draw him into a trap or something, so the audience has no doubt whom to blame.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Rook

        Maybe work on her public image in Callow too. Nothing like being the common man’s champion to really take the wind out of the holier-than-thou sails that invasions like crusades sail in on.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Frommerman

          Her public image is already pretty good, what with personally fighting a Demon, the entirety of Arcadia, and Diabolist one after the other and crushing them all beneath her heel. They might not love her, but they can feel secure under her.

          Liked by 2 people

    2. Un-Metaphorical Grapevine

      Even better, she somehow tricks their army into a Fae Portal and they wander around, slowly dying of thirst and hunger until they’re cut down by Cat.

      Like

          1. B

            Even with normal soldiers I wouldn’t chance it. That’s just asking for a “At dawn, look to the East.” with some hero separating for a bit and returning triumphantly at the heroes’ most bleak hour, if not for Amadis’s forces then another hero army like the force Black is facing.

            Like

    3. haihappen

      If Amadis (Cmdr.) commits some ill-advised towards the general populace, then the heroes with him might object to his continued command. That he even does such a thing, or gets found out if he does, is highly unlikely. One doesn’t get to be and stay a major political player in Procer by being an idiot.

      Finding a hell-egg, realizing what it is, and taking it with him because he cannot resist the temptation of a super-weapon, however, that is something a an intelligent man blinded by ambition would do. Screwing everyone over in the process.

      There are a lot of tropes to play down the line ones the players and the scenario unfold…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Letouriste

        His first name yes:) he became the white after sarouman fall in corruption and his death/non-death in his fight with the balrog

        Like

        1. Big Brother

          Mayhaps Cat & the Woe can help the Grey Pilgrim defeat the demon contained in the Hell Egg that keeps getting brought up, helping him ascend to a ‘White’ form, while becoming the first Hero to join Cat’s Callow.

          Like

          1. Letouriste

            unlikely given the main factor in Gandalf transformation was sarouman not deserving the power of white or something. His near death experience or resurrection is only a fulcrum/pivot in his story.
            Here the gray pilgrim would need a white mage falling in disgrace…and not the white one of the white knight party given she is only a newby

            Like

  5. Naeddyr

    Silly prediction: Grey Pilgrim has such strong mentoring instincts he ends up mentoring Cat a bit.

    I mean, young (idealistic? yes, i’d say) Queen of a suffering nation facing insurmountable odds and hordes of enemies, who tries to make peace but ultimately fails as the fanatics on the other side break the truce or whatever…

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Letouriste

        Ranger doesn’t count. She didn’t care about cat back then.
        At most she didn’t kill her for black sake…or she just had a better prey to kill before her

        Like

        1. Mentors aren’t always nice. They just teach you something. Somehow.

          And Ranger didn’t just save them, she also named them the Woe. Or well, the Summer Queen named them, but Ranger was the one who heard it and said “You see that, kids? That is your Villain Team Name.”

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Un-Metaphorical Grapevine

      That actually sounds the most interesting. If Grey hears what Cat intends, he might turn cloak and join, he’s no longer a young idealistic kid, he’s an old dude with super hands.

      Monk Man
      Super Tan

      Like

      1. Morgenstern

        “Grey” also is in his very Name ^^ – and the tidbit that he’s too old to be a Hero actually seems to imply he might not be a Good Hero after all…
        He might be ANOTHER ONE of those mistakes Bard did by creating something between Good and Evil, ending up to be something that CAN bite Good and the Bard in the ass. At least I think something along those lines was implied in the last Hierarch chapter…

        Like

        1. Morgenstern

          I’m curious about the relationship between Grey Pilgrim and the Saint of Blades, though, as we already got mention that those two seem to come up together more often than not. I hope we got some PoVs for them or rather their past.

          Like

        2. ______

          He’s likely a hero, what’s with being a monk and all, but the heroes from Levant are on average closer to the “murderhobo” variety (see: Valiant Champion).

          Like

    2. Gunslinger

      It would be cool but when have last seen a hero without a stick up their arse. All of them would be gunning for blood right from the get go.

      Like

  6. Daemion

    Heroes tend to have big personalities and are rather opinionated. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were squabbling with each other constantly or even split into two sides over some trivial matter. That’s something a clever villain could exploit.

    Like

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      That rarely works. How many stores have it start that way, but either a stinging defeat or a overarching threat makes them all work together, and then they are a beautiful clockwork of complimenting strengths? A few might need to die first so they see they need to work together, but they always get there before crunch time. The only time that exploit works is if you can get them all at once.

      Like

  7. Nivek

    Traitorous is always hilarious isn’t he?
    Of course the best part is that you don’t know if he’s implying this before or after he replaced the friends with shapeshifting devils. (The fact that sooner or later he would do so is not in question, naturally)

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Snowfire1224

        If he did, he would have probably set up away to do it before he comitted sucide and framed a tone of people for it . Sounds exactly like something Traitorous would do.

        Like

  8. Rook

    The grey pilgrim sounds like just about the scariest thing next to the bard so far. Fourteen total heroes and most of them green, and you’ve got a guy in that midst who apparently specializes in mentoring green heroes into a force of nature. Maybe even starting patterns of three to help them grow. The dude is a walking force multiplier.

    Liked by 5 people

        1. Gunslinger

          Generally though, mentors always die off to let the hero grow. The Grey Pilgrim has survived by skipping stage 3. He’s mentored lots of them but never actually become anyone’s master

          Like

  9. White

    You know, it strikes me that if Cat wanted Hierarch on her side, then all she’d need to do is hold a legitimate election. Hell, if she sends Procer packing, she might even *win* a legitimate election.

    Like

    1. Rook

      Hierarch would probably charge her with treason for holding an unlawful election, unsanctioned by The People of Bellerophon

      Asking for a sanction would likely also get you charged with treason, for involving The People in the politics of a Foreign Nation, and simultaneously get whoever you contacted executed on several counts of affiliating with a Wretched Tyrant

      Abdicating might help though, since then she’d just be a Wretch

      Liked by 8 people

      1. TeK

        It is above Glorious Respublic Of Bellerophon to meddle in other country’s politics. Even if she condonned the elctions, it’s still one person leading country -> Wretched Tyrant. And if she abdicates? She goes against The Will Of People, because, obviously, she didn’t hold public referendum on whether or not she should abdicate. Same for reforming the goverment. Making Callow into democracy is just throwing it to be ripe for the taking for anothere Wretched Tyrant. Not mentioning all those pesky nobles, and landowners, and tavern owners. Truly, noone can reach the Bellerophon, Peerless Jewel Of Freedom.

        Like

  10. Un-Metaphorical Grapevine

    Seems like things are looking to be fairly drab, down, spooky, and all around grey.

    If only Cat had gunpowder and gelatine

    dynamite with a laserbeam.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. savadrin

        the gnomes are my only beef with this entire story. it’s such a cop-out deus ex machina it gives me indigestion. it would be different if the reader was given any explanation about it, but as it is the entire continent of calernia is eternally under the sword of damocles, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to the rules that would trigger it’s drop.

        Like

      2. Unorginal

        @Savadrin.

        It’s a copout how? the only other reasonable way would to have another deus ex-machina keep the setting from advancing because lets quickly see what was required for a European style renaissance.

        Well Developed trade.
        A preponderance of wealth.
        (relative) stability
        Mathematics
        patronage of the arts and sciences fueled by the above.

        First and foremost Procer is heavily implied to be the state most at war with an internal conflict every decade, and they cover most of the continent and this internal strife is rarely big according to a short history of Procer. This is frankly amazing, they don’t even usually sack each other’s capitals to boot! The continent may be hopelessly divided and warring by modern standards but compared to the middle ages and the feudal system it inspired/is marked by this is amazingly peaceful. They, in fact, sound like a combination of Renaissance Italy and Holy Roman Empire and the Renaissance kicked off in Italy despite all the brushfire wars during the time period. so stability check.

        So do they have the wealth? taking from the fabled wonders of the wasteland and their Venice Expy on crack with added slavery as well as the amount of money and troops the first prince has been throwing around throughout the books yes there is enough freed up wealth to be used to patronize the arts and sciences. So yes checkmark here as well.

        Do they have well-developed trade? Callow does healthy business and Ashur has fought multiple trade wars to maintain superiority over the sea-lanes and let’s not forget mercantis the Venice expy. So yes, they have a healthy exchange of goods, expertise, and ideas.

        Maths? Hells yes, Magic puts them far ahead of anything the middle-east managed while Europe was stuck in the dark ages. Forget dinky algebra and geometry they have trigonometry down and its implied to be old hat in the empire these days.

        Patronage of the arts and sciences. See the Empire in regards to magic and the fact that we know there once was a power bloc of mages in Procer who only were disassembled because of politics. Guilds seem strong and healthy and while they have a chilling effect in some regards it does suggest that the conditions to kick off the Renaissance exist.

        So why not technical innovations that allow them to move past the opening phases of the Renaissance?

        The gnomes make a better answer than any other fantasy series I’ve read so far with similar conditions. and it’s less Deux ex Machina that the D&D explanation which is literally the god of technology saying no.

        [RANT OVER]

        Welp there went 20 minutes of my life.

        Like

        1. TameCurtsy

          @Unoriginal Wow. I’m impressed.

          @Savedrin My response is that it is hardly a deus ex machina when they haven’t impacted the story yet. It’s a reminder of the wider world, and the author has been so incredible in maintaining internal consistency that I’m willing to believe there’s an explanation behind the gnomes that is impossible to know right now from our current perspective.

          And to be clear, it is obvious that the gnomes want to keep the continent in an earlier age. The main hidden explanations are: How did the gnomes reach their current heights? How do they factor in to the good vs evil wager?

          Like

          1. agumentic

            Come on, it’s obvious that gnomes are literal deus ex machina and GM race with a job of keeping the setting from advancing and the status quo intact. Gods want to stop their world from going full industry or magitech.

            Like

        1. Dude, have you seen the elves? Those Emerald Blades the Bard met? Nobody in their right mind would even consider the idea, it’s the most suicidal thing I can imagine in this world. Also please keep politics out of this.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. ______

            There was that one mention in chapter 22 of book 2 of an elven kingdom getting corrupted by a demon, so that may be the reason that they’ll never show up in the story and that the elves of Golden Bloom aren’t just racist, but also isolationist.

            Like

            1. There’s a big difference between “elven kingdom” and “continent-spanning elven civilisation”, I think. The Golden Bloom were kicked out of there exactly because they were a racist and isolationist splinter group.

              Like

          2. grzecho2222

            How many times Perfect Magic Kingdom get invaded in fantasy? Even in Tolkien by the time of Lord of the Rings is there any elven kingdom that is doing good?

            Like

            1. And this entire story is about subverting classic fantasy tropes. Dwarves a dwindling remnant? No, they’re at the height of their power and everyone fears them. Gnomes some bungling inventors? They keep every civilisation locked in medieval stasis because of their massive technological supremacy. Elves on the decline? Nope, they’re extremely succesful and nearly untouchable. A classic fantasy story wouldn’t be named (heh) a Practical Guide to Evil.

              Like

              1. Snoogle

                You are right.

                Almost every fantasy story ever is about human heroes bumbling around in a mostly human world, where all of the other creatures are basically dying out to the rise of the humans. It’s fun to read a story about humans bumbling around in their own little continent while the test if the world is so much bigger than them. You know, for a change.

                Like

  11. Well on one side we have the Woe, twenty thousand men, orcs, ogres and goblins.
    On the other side, fourteen heroes and fifty thousand men.
    A demon is somewhere around and will undoubtedly emerge at the worst possible moment.
    This is going to be good.

    I love the Traitorous quote, as always, predictable and yet so fascinating…
    The first flaw in Cordelia Hasenbach’s plan is about to begin with the Tyrant of Helike, attacking Tenerife and Procer by surprise.
    This continent is going to burn in the flames of war…can’t wait to see it!

    Like

        1. He is exactly that mad. Dude’s whole deal is to always be in the narratively invincible first stage of his plans. He needs constant enemies.

          He can’t beat ‘Ranger’, but he has a pattern going with Black after killing Sabah. A fight between the guy who killed your subordinate and your love interest…that happens offscreen? He wins that 10/10.

          Like

  12. Author Unknown

    It must have been fraking terrifying to be a Trueblood during Traitorous’ reign. Betrayal is your nature, the foundation of your civilization, but Traitorous is so much better at it.

    Like

  13. TeK

    Just kicked in my head, we got Levant crusading. Funny. Crush those pesky infidels.

    Gotta say, love Tyrant. I really want him to actually hold to his words and NOT betray Cat. I mean, it’s the ultimate betrayal, when someone expects you to betray you, make up all those safety nets and contingencies, and you just don’t. Who would’ve seen this coming?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dainpdf

      And then, after they lower their guard, double cross them and reveal you had actually been stabbing their back all along, from a completely unexpected angle.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Then, as they die, reveal you’re going to replace them with a shapeshifting demon that does your bidding and you’re going to pretend that they won the backstabbing exchange, but really their side ‘winning’ will actually be you winning because you’ll be puppetting their side.

          Like

  14. We march West once more
    Waging that same old war
    To foreign rivers’ banks
    Take heart and hold your ranks

    Raise arms and lift your voice
    In glory we rejoice
    With banners bright and tall
    Could pride herald a fall?

    Step to the drummer’s beat
    For life is short yet sweet
    Lay down on broken shields
    Across those foreign fields

    We march West once more
    Waging that same old war
    Onward to the fields of Callow
    Swift death and graves shallow.

    Someone wrote an extension to the lyrics the last time they appeared and I liked it so much I wrote them down; I thought I would share. Anyway, great chapter, very ominous.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Dainpdf

    Come on, erraticetera. You feed the shippers like this, you know they’re going to follow you home. And you don’t know where they’ve been, they’re probably covered in Mary Sue from rolling around in the Pit of Voles. Plus, if they smell like author, their mothers won’t take them back.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Bonesawer

    I wonder what a fast-travel vs prophecy war would look like. Can Cat switch destinations once she’s already in Arcadia? “Whoops, looks like there’s a Proceran host defending this city, let’s just close that gate and go a province over”. Can Augur predict far enough ahead to prepare a host in case of fast-travel? Can she predict fallback destinations? It *feels* like a win for fast-travel, but I don’t know.

    MUCH more importantly, can Arcadia travel facilitate intercontinental trade with reasonable time savings? This would be an absolute game-changer for both Cat herself and Calernia as a whole. If the gnomes didn’t object, and the dwarves didn’t object, and the dead king didn’t object, and the elves didn’t object, and the drown didn’t object, etc. etc.

    Also, every time Tyrant shows up I become more convinced that EE literally rolls dice to determine his actions (presumably with some set events, end goals, or general direction that ensure that Tyrant isn’t a joke character or wrench in the story).

    Like

    1. TeK

      Well, I can safely asure you, that drown can’t object. Unless it’s the Dead King, who is behind them.

      And I highly doubt that Cat’s gate will bring any difference to the trade. For one, they need to be stable and multiple, safe (and they can’t be, unless SHE leading them), of course, she can trade with Courts, but something tells me that trading with entities who can made up any amount of money on the whim is not a valid economical move. She could make her Wild Hunt open gates, but aside from the fact that it’s, well, will require their constant attention, and even then their power is not endless, and even then they are techincally not nobles, and only nobles can open up portals.

      Of course, maybe, as reigning Queen of Winter she can make up nobles on the whim, and say, grant titles to any merchant, so that they can create their portals, but frankly, it’s so OP, GM will probably ban this.

      Like

  17. ““Heroes age,” I reminded her.”

    Okay so Bad Guys just sorta do the ‘I hover indefinitely at my peak until killed’ thing, while heroes age. But what about Neutrals such as Archer and Theif where they name isn’t Good-Evil aligned? Is there WOG on this?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Villains are given the means to evade death. Heroes to reach past it.”
      This or a similar quote was mentioned in one of the earlier books. Yes, Villains have Eternal Youth but not Immortality, whereas Heroes will age and die normally, but if they’re Killed, then they can be resurrected. This is why Villains can (theoretically) hold the crown for 1,000 years, but rarely manage longer than a normal lifetime, because Heroes kill them off.

      Like

  18. One thing bothers me about this Crusade,
    Hasenbach really DOES have ugly, not-Good motives for this Crusade. How does it really serve the Heavens if a mass-murderer on par with a starting Stalin deceives her allies into allowing her descendants to liquefy their nation’s seats of rule and absorb them all into Procer? (Which in Cordelia’s PoV is pretty much her stated goal.)

    A super-state like that makes the Stories really, really clunky. Whenever ANYONE tries to absorb land like that, bad things tend to happen.

    Shouldn’t these old-head Heroes KNOW that???

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Metrux

      I don’t think they know of her motives, and even if they have a glimpse, the idea of so many troops and heroes uniting to destroy a great evil is too much for man of them to resist. I mean, they couldn’t simply stop it even if they wanted, and if the don’t participate the results may be even worse, no? So, what choice do they have?

      Like

    2. In Cordelia’s PoV, she was actually trying to bind them together as a Grand Alliance, like the League of Free Cities or the United Nations. That’s what she was setting the groundwork for, not for a bloodless coup. All of the other diplomats were pretty much specifically watching for any clauses or tricks like that, since Procer has a history of expansionism and no one wanted to get colonised again.

      Liked by 2 people

    3. I mean, I’m sure plenty of old knights and templars were well aware every time the Papacy declared Crusade that there were more political motives than religious ones motivating the fight. But they went anyway.

      Like

  19. Voice of Reason

    I honestly don’t think working with Cordelia is going to work out. She and Cat simply have to many conflicting interests.

    Like

  20. Shequi

    If Catherine wants educated administrators without political ties to the political factions forming in her court, why hasn’t she gone to the same imperial orphanages that raised her? It was repeatedly stressed that the girls were educated well enough to be tutors to nobility; there must be some of them who would be great bureaucrats and the fact that Catherine was one of them will give weight of loyalty to them, at least to begin with.

    Like

    1. Author Unknown

      Because Akua burned it down…

      I guess they could do some kind of ritual and make the dead bureaucrats, but that probably wouldn’t go over too well with most of Callow.

      Like

        1. Author Unknown

          I think she actually did burn it down. If she hadn’t followed through on her threat it would undermine all future threats. We didn’t see it on screen, but I’m pretty sure it still happened. Perhaps EE can clear it up.

          Like

          1. narcoduck

            “Did you have time to look into what I asked you to?” I asked after a breath of hesitation.
            “The orphanage is untouched,” he replied. “Not a soul missing. A good thing you killed the other claimants in such spectacular manners, I doubt Heiress would have taken you seriously otherwise.”
            “That would have been unfortunate,” I murmured. “Because I meant every word.”
            -Book 1: Chapter 19 Pivot

            Liked by 1 person

  21. So let me get this straight.

    Callow, which stands united under the banner of orphan native who has pulled her country from the ashes to rise anew and face a new era, now faces down an enemy led by backstabbing traitors doing the political bidding of a monarch seeking empire. Callow is outnumbered, out-Named, and is beset by monsters of such power that they have never been lain low, any one of whom could expected to crush Catherine with ease.

    Procer is fuuuuuuuuuuuucked. Oh it’s gonna be a shit show. But they are dooooooomed.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Speaking of typos:

      he was also one of the founders of the tight-knight group
      Change knight to knit, tight-knit, as in sewn together, i.e. knitting.
      So I think it’s a typo. 🙂

      Aside from the brutal bounding our manpower would take
      Change bounding to pounding

      Like

  22. aran

    > “I’d kiss you, if you weren’t so painfully indifferent to women,” I replied with a smirk.

    Damn it, that ship hadn’t even left drydock yet before you sank it. 😛

    Like

    1. Unorginal

      To the contrary, her reactions mean that it not only rose from the depths of our broken hearts but sails again resplendent in all its glory and heraldry.

      Like

  23. grzecho2222

    I wonder when others guns will fire, other then Hell Egg. There are also: missing bell from angel island, bloodline ritual and wierdly similar deaths of White’s and Archer’s fathers

    Like

  24. Unmaker

    It seems to me that you could _make_ a person like the Gray Pilgrim. Take an organization with an intelligence network and enough money or special powers to have someone travel regularly. Take an exceptionally competent person in the organization. Then, every time you hear about a hero’s creation, send your competent person to assist the hero in a tight spot. It wouldn’t take long before the narrative that controls both Good and Evil would just about _force_ the helper into a distant mentor role.

    Like

  25. TameCurtsy

    MINOR SPOILER-ISH Warning: I doubt anyone is going to read this, when it’s so far down the comment list, but haven’t seen anyone else bring up this tiny detail from a random earlier chapter about Saint of Swords.
    .



    One of her aspects creates a domain. Saint of Swords is mentioned when they are discussing Catherine’s Fall, as an example of Names known to create domains.

    @ERRATICERRATA Can I get a brownie point? 😀

    Like

    1. Link/source? So the Saint of Swords could lure Cat into a cave, create a domain in the doorway, and then Cat couldn’t get out because she’d have to go through a domain and she can’t do that without an invitation? (Or matching through the fea world through the cave walls.)

      Like

      1. TameCurtsy

        Super impressed someone actually read my comment. Source is Chapter 37, Book 3.

        As for that tactic, it’s a nice idea, but I think there are too many problems with that course.

        Like

  26. Isa Lumitus

    You know, I think Cat’s worried a bit too much about damaging her chances at diplomacy with the invaders. I mean, they already hate her so much that they are bankrolling armies to go after her. Squashing them isn’t going to make things worse. Bonfire is a plan that warrants serious consideration.

    That said, I had an idea for another way she could force Procer to back off. She could go through Arcadia, and then destroy all the Lycaonese fortresses meant to defend against the Chain of Hunger. That would force Hasanbach to deploy far more forces to that front to compensate, and it wouldn’t involve slaughtering as many civilians as Bonfire would.

    Truth be told, Cat is reminding me of Empress Mercury from Dungeon Keeper Ami, with her reluctance to win the war. Don’t get me wrong, I love DKA, but the main character is a 15 year old goody-twoshoes. Cat just feels a bit out-of-character at the moment.

    Maybe she can cut a deal with Armin. Something like he doubles back to “chase the Black Queen” out of Procer, and in exchange his political alliances are left intact to attempt to topple Hasanbach.

    Like

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