Interlude: Kaleidoscope IV

“And so Dread Emperor Irritant addressed the heroes thus: Lo and behold, I fear not your burning Light, for I am already on fire.”
– Extract from Volume IX of the official Imperial Chronicles

Abigail was beginning to reconsider her position on tanning being an acceptable vocation. Sure, the smell was horrible and they made you live outside city walls. Pay wasn’t that good, and good luck trying to get anywhere without joining a guild that’d squeeze you on fees. On the other hand, she mused, the average tanner did not usually have to deal with fifteen thousand angry crusaders howling for their blood. I probably shouldn’t have gotten sauced and insulted the entire family before leaving, she decided. Now even if I come crawling on my knees they’ll make me marry a cousin before taking me back.

“I just can’t do it,” Tribune Abigail of Summerholm sighed. “They all look like ferrets.”

“Ma’am?” Captain Krolem asked.

“We have to win this one, Captain,” she told the orc solemnly. “There’s a lot riding on it.”

“For the honour of the Black Queen,” the orc growled approvingly.

“Yes,” Abigail lied. “That is exactly what I meant.”

The queen could stab her way to an honourable reputation on her own, as far as the woman was concerned, but telling greenskins shit like that was never good politics. It wasn’t quite as bad as someone badmouthing the Carrion Lord – or, as this was known within the Army of Callow, suicide by stupidity – but orcs tended to be touchy about Queen Catherine’s reputation. She’d had drinks with a Taghreb once who’d explained it to her, and what she’d gotten out of the man was that greenskins had a great big cultural boner for people that were good at killing. And Hells, no one ever said the Black Queen didn’t have a talent for that.

“Rotation, Captain Krolem,” she said, eyes scanning her frontline. “We’re tiring.”

The Hellhound had, in her great wisdom, decided that the four thousand men under Nauk Princekiller were enough to kick an entire enemy column in the balls. The tribune wasn’t all that fond of the Marshal of Callow, who was rumoured to eat people who got sloppy with kit maintenance, but she had to concede this wasn’t going as fucking horribly wrong as she’d expected when the enemy had advanced. For one, compared to Summer fae and wights the levies were godsdamned pushovers. It was incredibly refreshing to fight people that didn’t keep attacking after you hacked an arm off. Captain Krolem sounded the whistle around his neck and the twenty soldiers at the front of her cohort withdrew, a fresh line taking their place. The crusaders didn’t have fancy manoeuvres like that. When they got tired they just died, thank the Gods. Her eyes flicked to the sides and she grimaced.

The crusaders had wasted the better part of an hour getting in battle formations before attacking, but what had struck her as unnecessary wariness was beginning to pay off. Sure, they were failing to breach the shield wall, but the flank to the west was a problem. General Nauk had left a full kabili of one thousand floating out there to prevent easy flanking, but the crusaders had the numbers to keep going around even after engaging those. The only reason the host hadn’t been enveloped yet was… A horn sounded, and Abigail kissed her mailed fist in thanks to the Gods Above. Retreat to the next line, at last. It was the third time the general called for one, and they gave more ground every time. Abigail figured at some point the entire army would just fucking leg it, and it couldn’t come soon enough.

“In good order, soldiers,” she called out. “Anyone falls out of line and I’ll drown them in the marsh myself.”

It was going well, she thought. Better than she could have reasonably hoped for.

“NAMED,” a legionary called out.

It fucking figured.

It was like trying to break a stone with a wooden hammer, Captain Pierre Dulac thought as he strode over the corpses of his fellow fantassins. It left a mark, but the hammer tended to break and considering his company was the hammer of this tortured metaphor this was not a pleasant state of affairs. The Brabantine had heard stories about the Legions of Terror, how they’d swept aside the armies of Callow effortlessly, but he’d always believed them to be exaggerated. They’d had twenty years to swell, after all, and he was not unacquainted with how evenings at taverns made yarns grow ever more vivid. After the first time he’d lost thirty of his finest trying to break through the enemy shield wall, however, he’d had to swallow his old opinions. The heathens fought as hard as the devils they bargained with. Horns sounded in the distance and the Army of Callow moved as a single living creature, retreating at a measured pace as balls of flame bloomed in the sky and began raining down on Proceran lines.

Pierre put his shield over his head and knelt, waiting for the rain to pass. A man to his left was a little too slow to bring up his own shield and sorcerous flame struck his face, searing flesh and muscle in the blink of an eye. The fantassin squinted. New recruit, he was pretty sure, some Segovian second son who’d enrolled to seek his fortune. The poor fucker should have listened, when his mother told him fortune was a fickle bitch.

“On your feet, men of Procer,” a voice rang out.

The captain obeyed before he even realized what he was doing. The man who’d spoke was tall, and his accent in Chantant was heavy with the thick syllables of a native Levantine. Armoured in silver, with a shield polished until it shone like a mirror and a sword that was more radiance than steel, the Chosen could be felt even from ten feet away. Like a pulse, a whisper of power bestowed by the Godss.

“The enemy retreats,” the hero said. “We must pursue. The Heavens will it.”

“The Heavens will it,” Pierre replied in a fervent whisper.

He would have formed the wings with his fingers, had he not been holding sword and shield. With the end of the wave of fire, advance towards the retreating legionaries was left unbarred. His company formed ranks and advanced, the Chosen at their head, and they shouted defiance. The humans and greenskins on the other side watched them in silence from behind their shield wall, grimly professional. No levies, these. The difference between soldiers trained and soldiers conscripted had been written across the field today.

“Do not be afraid,” the Chosen called out. “Their dark queen is wounded and they stand bereft of her protection. This battle will be won by faith and courage.”

“Company, charge,” the captain screamed. “Honour to the Wreath!”

Shouts gave answer, the oaths of half a dozen principalities sounding where no banners stood.

“Double pay to anyone who stabs the shiny fucker,” a woman’s voice called out from the other side.

Pierre blinked, but had not time to spare for surprise as a moment later his shield hit the enemy’s. A massive orc, who smashed him back with brute force. The fantassin had not survive the Great War without picking up a few tricks, though. He went low and stabbed up, finding flesh, and the greenskin howled in rage. Squaring up behind his shield the captain let the creature’s violent death throes bounce off wood and iron, pushing forward before the legionary behind this one could fill the gap. Along the line his men were like wave hitting a cliff, save for where the Chosen led. Legionaries were smacked down like insolent children, and those that tried to force back the hero found a sliver blur carving through their flesh. The fantassin rocked back as a Callowan went shield to shield with him but dug his feet. Gritting his teeth, he had to retreat when the legionary to that one’s right stabbed forward with his sword. Another of his men took his place, and he joined the pressing throng to look for a better opening.

“Scatter,” a voice too deep to be human shouted.

Pierre found his gaze moving to the side, attracted by sudden movement where the Chosen was fighting. The legionaries who’d been surrounding the man retreated swiftly, and a moment later lightning struck. The Brabantine’s blood quickened and he blinked away the bright light, relieved when he saw the hero stood unmarried with his shield up. Lightning scarred the earth around him. A trail of red went up in the sky above, some sort of munitions, and the captain grimaced. That did not bode well. A spike of flame formed above the Chosen and hammered down at him, but the mirror-like shield shone blindingly and the fire blew back into the sky. The second spike, though, shook the Chosen’s stance. The third drove him back. The fourth nailed him into the ground. Pierre hurried towards the grounds, not sure what he could do but knowing he had to try. The fifth spike formed… and went out. Snuffed like a candle. By the Chosen’s side a wrinkled old woman stood, glaring up with a sword in hand. The Regicide, Pierre understood with trembling hands. The fantassin hurried and helped the other Chosen back to his feet as the Saint of Swords casually carved through half a dozen legionaries with a single swing.

“What part of careful advance did you not understand, kid?” the Regicide said. “This is a battlefield, not your sister’s wedding. Going in with your dick out won’t get you fucked the fun way.”

Pierre would never be so foolish to admit this out loud, but he felt a little cheated that the first sentence he’d heard the Chosen of the Heavens speak involved mention of dicks. It was perhaps less radiantly heroic than he’d expected.

“I apologize for my failure, Honoured Elder,” the Chosen still leaning on him gasped.

“Apologize by not forcing me to drag my ass here again,” the old woman snorted. “Steady this flank, sorcerers are focusing on the right.”

The Saint glanced at Pierre, who blanched, and nodded approvingly at him before moving out in a blur. In the distance, horns sounded again and the legionaries began to retreat. The hole the Chosen had carved into the lines had already reformed seamlessly, and the fantassing let the hero he’d been holding up steady his own footing.

“Again, Captain,” the man said. “The Heavens will it.”

“The Heavens will it,” Captain Pierre Dulac agreed.

Well, at least she was still alive. Tribune Abigail rubbed at her left eye again, pretty sure she was going to have to get that looked at by a mage. She’d made the mistake of looking at the fucking hero when he made his pretty little shield shine and she’d had to deal with persistent black spots ever since. General Nauk had finally sounded what should be the last retreat before they got the Hells out of here, so her odds of surviving the day were looking sunny. She’d also gotten through a visit by the Saint of Swords without losing any limbs, which had her in a good mood. Named were like lightning: the odds of them striking at the same place in the battle line twice were pretty low once they left. She’d lost a quarter of her cohort when the shiny fucker had led a charge, and not even calling for heavy mage support had gotten rid of the bastard, but they were approaching the low earth slope the sappers had raised and that was probably a good sign. She hoped. It wasn’t like tribunes were high up enough the ladder to be in the loop for whatever secret plans were unfolding. The crusaders were pressing on all sides, but the measured pace of the retreat had continued to prevent encirclement.

Still, thank the Gods the enemy didn’t have cavalry.

Abigail squinted at the enemy, to her dismay finding out that the hero from earlier was still leading the pursuit. Fuck. She’d really been hoping that would end up being someone else’s problem. Her cohort still had two tracers to send up to request mage intervention, but for the heavy stuff the mage lines could only hit one place at a time. If her signal went into the sky and they were already busy, the enemy Named was going to fuck them up.

“At least they don’t fly,” Abigail mused out loud. “So there’s that.”

“Ma’am?” Captain Krolem asked.

He tended to do that a lot. It was a little unsettling for an orc his size to turn into an eager page whenever she spoke.

“Keep us at pace, Captain,” she said. “I’m just thinking.”

“May I ask about what?” the greenskin said.

“Comparing this to the Arcadian Campaign,” she said. “Didn’t fight much at Five Armies and One, but this is about as bad as Dormer.”

The orc looked at her eagerly.

“Is it true you ripped out a fae’s throat with your teeth?” he said.

Oh Gods, the rumours kept getting worse.

“I stabbed it,” she denied. “Blood just sprayed into my mouth.”

Because she’d been screaming at the top of her lungs in terror at the time, then nearly choked to death as the fae kept trying to knife her.

“Drinking the blood of your enemy is an honourable thing,” Krolem assured her.

Burning Hells, she’d never get used to orcs. Sometimes they were almost like people, then they said shit like that.

“Eyes on the enemy, Captain,” she said, retreating from the line of conversation.

Speaking of retreats, her cohort was nearing the position they’d been ordered to stop at. The beginning of the earthen slope snaking across the field. Abigail glanced at it and frowned. Wasn’t high or angled starkly enough to serve as proper field fortifications. What had the sappers been doing? Looking further back, she saw the packs of goblins standing in companies. No longer digging. Was this the sum of the plan, raising a second-rate hill? It was impressively long, sure, but all it meant was that her soldiers were going to be killed with the high ground. Pressing through the ranks to get to her, one of her lieutenants was making her way with an urgent look on her face. Tribune Abigail went to meet her half-way after leaving Krolem in command.

“Ma’am,” the dark-haired Callowan saluted.

“Report,” she ordered.

She’d sent the officer to have a look at what the goblins were up to, in case it ended up blowing up in her face.

“Tunnels, ma’am,” the lieutenant got out. “They dug tunnels.”

Abigail frowned.

“To where?”

The lieutenant gestured forward.

“In that direction,” she said. “I couldn’t tell how far, but at least beyond our position.”

The tribune wiped sweat off her brow, though she was pretty sure she’d smudged dirt more than wiped wetness. Tunnels, huh. What for? Her cohort finished falling back in good order moments later, and she got her answer. The ground shook with muted explosions, snaking across the field until a chunk of the battlefield went up in the air. The Callowan almost fell, but caught herself at the last minute. Dirt began to fall like rain maybe a third into the Proceran host, and her brows rose. That would have killed a few hundred, but it wouldn’t stop them. It’d dug some kind of trench in the ground, she saw, pretty deep and wide. Not exactly a knock out-blow, though. Then the water from the marshlands began pouring into the trench and Abigail of Summerholm breathed in sharply. A river. The Hellhound had dug a river in the middle of an active battlefield, too broad and deep for easy crossing. And now a third of the Proceran host was stuck on the wrong side of it. Horns sounded, but the call was different this time. It’d been on of the first she learned, when going through officer training.

All companies advance.

“Left flank, tracer just went up,” the human officer said.

General Nauk of the Waxing Moons did not reply, idly chewing on a finger. He’d had one of his aides drag a corpse out of the swamp. Bloated corpse wasn’t his favourite, but it beat rations and the water made the flesh easy to tear off the normally tricky finger bones.

“Use the Spikes,” Legate Jwahir said. “And keep hammering, the Marshal handed down orders to try a kill on any hero on our side of the river.”

Juniper of the Red Shields. The Hellhound. They had been friends once, he thought. He could remember parts of that. Enmity too, but that only to be expected. Nauk was certain he had not been a very good orc, even before Summer burned away most of what he was. Licking the last scrap of flesh and skin off the tip of the finger bone, the general swallowed. Eyes on the battlefield before him, he savoured the taste of meat and blood as he watched Proceran lines waver. The crusader left flank was attempting to salvage the situation by circling around, but he’d put most his heavies in the kabili standing in their way. It had meant more casualties for the regulars under heroic pressure, but that was necessary. He did not have enough men to be able to afford coddling.

“Jwahir,” he growled.

“Sir?” the Taghreb answered, turning to him.

“Burn them,” he said. “We’re not lingering, not with heroes on the prowl.”

His legate looked like she wanted to argue, but he stared at her calmly until she flinched and gave the order. Calm came easily, these days. Balance for all the things that did not. The old killing urge was muted, the Red Rage burned away. Instead now he had this vicious spasm of violence never too far from his hands. That and the hollowness, but he had grown used to that. There was satisfaction to be found in his work, as close to pleasure as it got. General Nauk watched as clusters of green flames exploded in the ranks of the crusaders on the wrong side of the river, picking at the flesh between his fangs with the finger bone. The screams were soothing, almost as good as listening to the spasm. He’d keep his troops in place long enough the Procerans could not escape, then pull back to the camp as instructed. Heroes could still bleed them, and if a commander on the other side managed to restore order long enough to start sending soldiers around the river – which only went on for so long, time had forced limits – defeat could still happen. The world shivered.

“Sir,” Jwahir said.

“I see it, Legate,” he grunted.

A pair of heroes were hacking at the river with great spurts of Light, trying to collapse a ford. He snorted, dimly amused. Might work, but it’d take too long. Even if they didn’t get exhausted before the end, the amount of men they’d be able to spare a burning death would be minimal. Dark eyes, one dead and one living, turned to the crusader camp even though it was too far to see. Soon that would go up in flames as well. Special Tribune Robber would be starting fires there, green and otherwise. Nauk felt like she should dislike the goblin, though he hardly remembered why. Something about a woman? Felt childish. And now he was hungry again. His fangs crushed the finger bones and he sucked at the marrow within, swallowing shards with it before licking his chops clean and tossing away the remains. A great ripping sound sounded in the distance, and the orc jolted in surprise. There was a wound in the sky, a woman running on it. Past the enemy lines, past the goblinfire, past his own men. Nauk’s brow creased.

“Scry our mages,” he ordered the Callowan officer. “The rest of you, go away.”

Legate Jwahir’s lips thinned.

“Sir-”she began.

Nauk unsheathed his sword.

“Disobeying a superior officer’s order had clear consequences, Legate,” he said. “The army now goes in full retreat. You hold command until told otherwise.”

The woman paled. The orc did not pay much attention as the mage officer placed the scrying bowl in front of him on a tripod and the rest cleared out. His eyes were on the old woman running across the sky. Heading towards him. She flicked her sword, carving another rippling wound and sliding down until she landed in front of him.

“You’d be the general, then,” the Saint of Swords said.

Nauk tapped the flat of his blade against the scrying bowl’s edge.

“Spike,” he ordered.

Flame hammered down a moment later and the world became a sea of fire as he laughed. Ah, that’d felt good. The impact had knocked him off his feet, but he rose.

“Again,” he called out.

The heroine carved apart the flames that bloomed above them both, glaring at him. Another cluster was born and they both went down. Fire licked at his hands and the Princekiller hacked out a cough. She wouldn’t die that easily. But neither would he. He’d felt harsher flames than this. Still did, whenever he closed his eyes. Through the smoke a shape burst out, but he was quick enough the cut that would have taken his throat cut through his ruin of a cheek instead. Barely felt it. The old woman eyed him contemptuously, raised her blade once more and then hurriedly backpedalled when a long knife scythed through where her throat had been a heartbeat earlier.

“So,” Archer said, blades twirling in her hands in a display of unnecessary dramatics, “Is it me or you’ve gotten a little crazier?”

Nauk hacked out a laugh.

“Try to get me a slice, will you?” he said. “Never had heroine before.”

“That wasn’t a no,” the woman drawled amusedly.

“You’re one of Ranger’s,” the Saint of Swords interrupted.

“And you’re…” Archer began. “Shit, I could have sworn I knew. Sorry, I really wasn’t paying attention during that briefing. Catherine was wearing this very flattering tunic and I was hammered like you-”

The heroine struck, but Archer danced around the blow and forced her back with a slash that would have gone across her eyes.

“Go for a walk, Nauk,” the brown-skinned woman said, as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “I don’t think she’s happy about your setting her minions on fire. Go figure. Some people just take things too personally.”

“Flank meat,” General Nauk suggested. “Or cheek. Tender pieces.”

“Gross,” the Named said, wrinkling her nose. “And I’ve been stealing goblin bedding for like a month, so I know gross.”

The orc snorted, and fled to the sound of Archer beginning to expound on the virtue of royal liquor cabinets with breakable locks as the heroine tried to kill her.

Princess Rozala clenched her fingers until the knuckled turned white around the reins. They had been so very, very close to utter and complete victory. She’d followed the classics perfectly. A first wave of levies to tire out the enemy infantry, followed by fantassin companies across the line while princely retinues struck at weak points. She’d tied down the enemy cavalry with a portion of her own, the sent the rest to circle around to hit the back of the Army of Callow while she thinned she extended the line of her left flank. The enemy mages had been more than a match for her priests, but the struggle had occupied the both of them and left her foe with no real check for the Chosen. Who’d torn into the shield wall with remarkable alacrity, constantly forcing the opposing commander to reinforce breaches with fresh troops. Within the first half hour of the battle, victory was in the air. Wherever Named struck, the Army of Callow bled men like a leaking barrel. Then her circling cavalry had struck, and found a thin line of scorpions awaiting them. She’d almost laughed at the sight. The wave of bolts tore bloody swaths, but it could not stop thousands of horseman on the charge.

Then they’d fired again, barely a heartbeat having passed.

The tip of her cavalry wedges disintegrated. Men and horses died like flies as the scorpions damnably kept firing. The losses promised to be brutal, but as her horsemen spread out and began to close distance she bit down on her fury and made her peace with the trade. A higher cost than she would have wished, but victory was coming nonetheless. Then the goblins had wheeled out some shoddy-looking slings, and packed munitions began to blow away whole chunks of cavalry. Her people were valiant, many of them hardened veterans from the Great War. It took them sixty heartbeats to break, and what should have been a triumph tipped towards a draw. The Callowan knights, though outnumbered, broke through the cavalry she’d sent against them after an hour of hard fighting. Losses on both sides were… steep. One of the few comforts of the day, that over a third of the enemy’s cavalry had died before her own fled the field. Without the Chosen it might very well have been a defeat. The enemy commander turned those vicious scorpions against her fantassins, revealing that in addition to being repeating they could also be swiftly moved by oxen.

Then the Grey Pilgrim had taken the field and radiant light carved through the engines like a heavenly stroke. The enemy commander ordered a retreat soon after and the legionaries withdrew in good orders, bleeding men to heroes and skirmishers they had no answer to. But the knights of Callow threatened to charge them, and Princess Rozala had no choice but to order a temporary withdrawal while she sent some officers to force back steel in the spine of her horse. After another hour she was gathered in good order again, and ready to order another assault. With the scorpions destroyed, her foe would break. The the sky streaked with sorcery across the march, and she learned that the other column was in full retreat. But a half hour later, another signal touched the sky. Her camp had come under attack. Soon after the flames grew tall enough she could see them even from this far out. Princess Rozala had fought a battle, today, against twelve thousand men. She’d slain near a third of that army, at the price of perhaps five thousand dead of her own.  Yet if she pressed the assault now, without the other column, she might very well be assaulting a fortified position with numerical inferiority. Gritting her teeth, she ordered a retreat back to camp.

One night. One night of rest in whatever was left of her camp, and then with dawn she would dispose with all strategic subtlety. She would muster her entire host, and hammer at the enemy until they broke.

Vivienne woke to the sound of someone pouring wine. She had a knife in hand before her eyes opened, and she was halfway out of her chair when a chuckle gave her pause. Thief stilled her heartbeat, meeting the former Prince of Nightfall’s lone good eye. The fae had a cup of wine in hand, sitting at the edge of Catherine’s bed. There were four mages in the tent and over thirty of her Jacks outside, yet not a single one of them had raised the alarm. The Callowan eyed the mages, who had neither noticed her waking nor Larat’s presence.

“Where have you been?” she croaked out, voice still-half asleep.

The sound broke whatever glamour had kept the mages from noticing what was going on. Their eyes widened in alarm, but Vivienne’s hand rose and they shut their mouths.

“Around,” the fae drawled.

Instinct warred in the woman. Part of her wanted to dismiss the mages, since this might be a conversation best kept private. Another part of her was very much aware the nonchalant fae could kill her with a flick of the hand and Catherine was not awake to hold his leash. The mages might be her only chance of survival, if the fae felt inclined to violence.

“Every word spoken in this tent is under seal,” Thief told the mages, choosing self-preservation with a bitter taste in the mouth.

“Precious,” Larat smiled.

“We fought a battle, today,” Thief sharply told him.

“And won it, I hear,” the fae replied. “Or at least avoided loss, which is victory enough for the likes of you.”

“She’ll have your hide, for staying out of it,” Vivienne said, forcing calm.

“I take no orders from mortals,” the fae sneered.

The implication that Catherine was not one of those hung heavy in the air. Thief’s lips thinned. It might even be true, to an extent.

“Then why have you reappeared?” she asked.

The one-eyed fae idly set down his cup on the bedside table and rose to his feet.

“Perhaps I’ve decided to dispose of my shackles,” he suggested. “Or merely to hack away at dead wood.”

The way he smiled at her when speaking the latter sentence sent a shiver up her spine.

“Doubtful,” Thief said. “There’s no Hell horrible enough for what would happen to you if you did, and we’re both aware of it. That’s not the game you’re playing.”

Larat shrugged languidly, leaning against a dresser.

“Perhaps I am simply waiting,” he said.

Vivienne frowned.

“For what?” she pressed.

There was a gasp and Thief wheeled about. One of the mages was staring at the bed, where Catherine was… well, her body was no longer shuffling around. The woman flicked a glance at the fae, who was smiling thinly. Amused. After a long moment, the Queen of Callow’s eyes opened and she let out a ragged sound. Rising to a sitting position on her bed, she rubbed the bridge of her nose.

“Well,” Catherine Foundling rasped. “That was a thing.”

“Oh thank the Gods,” Vivienne whispered.

Then Larat plunged his blade into her throat. Thief froze in utter surprise, but Catherine did not. She slapped the fae across the face, breaking his chin and teeth, and got on her feet. She took out the sword and her throat reformed within a heartbeat. Larat began to get up, but Cat kicked him back down and kept her bare foot on his chest. The fae began to laugh.

“Already?” the Queen of Callow said, and glanced at the mages still in the tent. “Bind him.”

She reached for the cup of wine on the bedside table, then after a sigh withdrew the fingers. Thief’s fingers clenched.

Hold,” she said.

The mages looked at her in surprise.

“And in wickedness doth Evil sow the seeds of its own defeat,” Vivienne quoted, meeting Catherine’s eyes.

The queen rolled her eyes.

“For barren is the womb, and certain the fall,” she replied.

Is was, Thief knew, the correct second half of the verse from the Book of All Things. It was also not the correct answer to this phrase. It should have been the punchline to a truly filthy joke about sailors and holes in the hull she’d learned while a waitress in Laure.

“Hello, Akua,” Vivienne said.

The Queen of Callow’s face went blank and immediately a long spear of ice formed from her extended hand, the point resting on the sleeping Hierophant’s throat.

“None of you,” Akua Sahelian said through Catherine’s lips, “are to move or make a sound.”

The mages went still. Larat was still laughing.

“You won’t,” Thief said.

“I assure you,” Diabolist said, “the survival of this man is of middling import to me.”

“You won’t,” Thief repeated, “for the same reason you didn’t drink from that cup. You’re still bound by the oaths her body took.”

Akua’s eyes narrowed and her wrist flexed, but did not otherwise move.

“Clever girl,” Catherine’s lips said. “She took an oath not to harm any of you.”

“Moonlight,” Thief said, and the body froze.

Passing a hand through her hair, Vivienne felt her stomach drop. This, she thought, had just gotten a great deal more complicated.

“Bind her,” she ordered the mages.

Larat, she noted, was still quietly laughing.

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215 thoughts on “Interlude: Kaleidoscope IV

  1. Yotz

    Irritant slowly but surely becomes my favourite Dread Emperor. Reminds me of Nathan from ‘Misfits’ – annoying as all hells, and immortal, so you can’t even get rid of him for long – sooner or later he’ll return like a migraine he is.

    Liked by 12 people

      1. Yotz

        I tried to soldier on, and it was a slog. Like a spark went out, and what left was only vapidity itself. Skipped to the end making checkpoint viewings just to see how it ended.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. nimelennar

      The reveal of Irritant’s Law back in Book 4, Chapter 6 wasn’t enough for him to win that contest outright, in your mind? It certainly was for me.

      Like

      1. stevenneiman

        For me it was still a contest with Traitorous (or possibly Treacherous, I can never remember which), but I think Irritant is ahead with this one.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yotz

          The one with “I’m not saying that I’ve killed all your friends and relatives long time, and replaced them with shapeshifting devils… Just saying, that’s a possibility to consider”, or something to thouse lines, yeah.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. stevenneiman

            The conclusion was “…but I’m certainly implying it very heavily”
            And yeah, that was a large part of the reason why I liked him so much. But let’s be honest, all of the quotes from either of them have been amazing.

            Like

  2. Draeysine

    Larat is super cool for a treacherous lieutenant. Knew something was up, so he shows up pours wine out as bait so Thief knew what was up, as well as tell thief about removing “dead wood” in a vague double meaning, THEN stabs the annoying girl possessing his queen as soon as she wakes up because it’s both expected of him AND he knows that Thief is there to stop her further. Laughs the entire time because it’s all a fun play.

    Liked by 10 people

  3. Dylan Tullos

    This battle was a defeat for Team Practical Evil. Whenever a legionary dies, Catherine loses a highly trained professional soldier that she will desperately need later. When a fantassin dies, Cordelia Hassenbach loses a dangerous mercenary who has no place in a peaceful Procer. The Tenth Crusade has reserves; Catherine doesn’t.

    So far, the Crusaders have killed more than seven thousand soldiers of the Army of Callow. That’s nearly half. Their own casualties have been substantial, but they have more men, and this host is built out of the First Prince’s political enemies and the fantassins she wants to get rid of. The loss of the peasant levies is sad, but the only people in this army that Hassenbach actually needs to survive are the Heroes. Everyone else is either someone she can afford to lose or someone she actively wants to die.

    Catherine can’t simply replace her legionaries; professional soldiers take years to train properly. Even in the best case scenario, she’ll be left with a crippled army, while the Crusade has armies to spare. Juniper is tactically brilliant, but Cordelia understands that strategy beats tactics; the alliance with the bigger army can afford to trade at a loss, since she can afford to replace her losses and Catherine can’t.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The military aspect is fairly fascinating. I’ve been questioning, ‘Could Procer eventually make a professional military like Praes?’ Historically, the rise of a professional military, with leaders such as Kaiser Wilhelm and Napoleon, was tied to the modern notion of statehood and ‘countries’ as opposed to ‘kingdoms’. While one didn’t cause the other, they were definitely synergistic influences.

      Praes, for its flaws, is at a place where having a professional military works. They have centralized political power in a way that Procer cannot, and both the cultures within Praes and the pre-existing Imperial bureaucracy lend themselves to its existence. Though it still took a period of severe internal strife and political upheaval to make it happen, one could say that Praes already had the elements for it before Black catalyzed them.

      Procer is not ripe for such a thing AT ALL – their ‘Princehood’ political structure is practically designed to obstruct the creation of one, with only the threats at the northern borders giving a compelling reason for a truly national army. Though Praes is giving a convincing argument for having a national army at that border too, simply by existing as a unified state with Callow for so long.

      The closest I can see Procer getting is the Ottoman style of semi-professional, semi-tribal, semi-mercenary (and semi-Janissary i.e. slave, but I don’t see Procer going that far). Actually, a more apt comparison would be the Macedonian states post-Alexander. Meanwhile, the Legions of Doom are analogous to Roman legions almost 1-to-1, discounting mage lines and goblin fire. We all know how that contest went.

      Professional militaries historically trounced states whose military was mostly levies and mercenaries, such as Renaissance Italy and the fragments of the Holy Roman empire, even when vastly out-manned and out-financed; besides Rome’s example there’s also Prussia’s takeover of the German states demonstrating this. If it weren’t for that Procer *enormously* outpopulates Praes/Callow, has large allies to fight with them, and has Praes/Callow still recovering from ugly internal strife, Procer wouldn’t stand a chance. It might still not.

      Though the disparity in naval power is disconcerting – Britain built the biggest empire the world ever knew on naval power. Praes is in France’s position on that one compared to the Ashurans, and that is a bad matchup. Something to watch, that.

      Obviously, Procer will take notes and want to copy this whole ‘professional military’ idea. But I suspect it will take deep political reforms before Procer is able to field anything like what Praes has – even if Cordelia Hasenbach made such a thing her priority, conflicting internal interests would tear the military apart like we’ve seen in historical Europe and more recently Africa, the military juntas, tribal divides (‘Principality’ divides – we say tribes, but they could be considered on the same level of cooperation/competition for internal power) and precursor states to much of central Africa coming to mind.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. “Praes is in France’s position on that one compared to the Ashurans, and that is a bad matchup. Something to watch, that.”

        What with the games that city lords like to play, I presume all Praes’s cities are heavily fortified. And since they don’t really have a navy, they probably don’t really care what happens on the ocean. If merchants want to make money, merchants will take the risk and run a potential blockade, etc.

        Praes is in Spain’s position with the Rock of Gibraltar. No navy wants to try to take that.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Dylan Tullos

        donforrester456:

        I agree with what you’re saying about the qualitative superiority of Black’s Legions. From what we’ve seen, they are the best human army on the face of Calernia.

        However, the Dread Empire’s political situation is drastically different from that of Rome. Rome had the advantage of being able to fight their enemies in sequence, digesting each conquest before they embarked on their next war. There was never a Grand Alliance dedicated to destroying Rome, and there was no unifying ideology that could bring all of their foes together.

        The Good nations of Calernia aren’t going to sit back and watch while Praes conquers the continent one bite at a time, and they have Named to even the odds. With Heroes to back them, fantassins can fight a Legion shield wall and win. Catherine just lost more than four thousand expensive, highly trained professional soldiers in exchange for five thousand mercenary fantassins. That kind of exchange rate leads to inevitable defeat.

        Having the best military on the continent doesn’t count for as much when you’re at war with the rest of the continent. At some point, quantity outweighs quality, especially when one side can simply replace their losses in a matter of months and the other side requires years of training and preparation to produce new soldiers.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. grzecho2222

          Unless you count the fact that only the core of Army of Callow is made from veterans, And with it you can raise new legion in 2-6 mounths (if we compare them to roman legions). Training soldiers is faster than training warriors. Problem for Cat wasn’t time but cash, she had to rebuild the country. If can defeat this attack and has a year of peace she can easly make even bigger army next time.

          Like

    2. It’s like Larat said – “[You] won [the battle], I hear. Or at least, avoided loss, which is much the same for the likes of you.”

      True, it may not have been a true victory in the sense of soldiers exchanged, but Callow achieved its operational objectives – burn the camps, hold Procer back – while Procer achieved no such objectives. Additionally, 5000 men were trapped between a river, set on green fire, and then executed by Nauk’s legionnaires. Rozala lost an additional 5000 on her side of the river. Add that to the couple thousand that the Lake maneuver killed, and Team Practical Evil is actually coming out about even in terms of casualties, going by percentages.

      Like

      1. Dylan Tullos

        oldschoolvillain:

        Cordelia Hassenbach sent this entire army to bleed Catherine and die. The leaders are her political enemies, most of the soldiers are surplus mercenaries she needs dead, and she doesn’t care if they come back.

        So far, about half of Catherine’s army is dead or wounded. None of the Heroes that Cordelia actually needs to survive are permanently dead. At this rate, Cordelia will achieve her operational objective of destroying the Army of Callow and her operational objective of getting rid of her troublesome fantassins.

        Catherine’s “victory” involves killing a lot of people Cordelia wanted her to kill. In the process, she lost most of her skirmishers, a third of her cavalry, and about half of her highly trained professional infantry. Cordelia has more armies, while the vast majority of Catherine’s forces are involved in this battle.

        Tactical victories are only important if they lead to strategic victory. And when we look at the big picture, the score so far is Cordelia: 2, Catherine: 0.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Ah, but what about Juniper’s observation about the skirmishers/levies being comprised of more young farmhands than she would have expected?

          Could the loss of this army be putting Cordelia on more of her back foot in terms of negotiating with Cat later down the line, which has been foreshadowed since the end of the last book?

          Like

          1. Yes, it puts them in a hole for the next harvest.

            Still, this was interesting, down to the staged withdrawals.

            Looking at the next one, with the way team good’s supplies are going even faster than expected.

            Like

        2. That’s true. I admit I was focusing more on the scale of Rozala vs Catherine, seeing as how in the big picture, Catherine is not the only army that Cordelia has to contend with. There is also Black and Juniper+ up in the Red Flower Vales, there are still several legions in Praes headed by – if I remember correctly – a dragon, a vampire, and an Ogre marshall. Not to mention the troves of untapped artifacts that Malicia has to draw on if things get truly ugly. So far, the objectives of the Crusade – those being, unseat Catherine, unseat Malicia, dismantle Praes – have been entirely unmet.
          So, when we look at the big picture, the score so far is actually Cordelia: 0, Praes: 0.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. grzecho2222

            I would say Cordelia: -1, Cat: 0, Black: 1, Malicia: 0
            You are missing the bigger bigger picture. Pilgrim said it. The worst possible outcome for Good is Callow turning Evil. And when you look at Abigail and married couple from Prologe you can see that they start hating Heroes and Good more and more. The two points of this attack were flanking Black and getting rid of Cat, because when Crusade will go through Callow to Praes they will need food and water and you can bet that they won’t accept food from Evil ruler and everytime they take something from people of Callow by force they will remember it and it forces Cat to lead them to fight them which make them more Evil and so on. Even if Crusade wins this war this way they lose in long run which is opposite of what Cordelia wants and what Black wants.

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        3. d_o_l

          Cordelia wants the crusaders to take loses, but she still wants them to *win*. Without a flanking force, the crusaders are unlikely to be able to defeat Black at the Vales. If they can’t break through there, the whole Crusade collapses.

          Like

      2. Someguy

        Actually, I thought Juniper has already won. The invaders have 2 days worth of supplies at most. Team Evil doesn’t have to win any battles, they just have to stall until Procer starts starving and discipline falls apart with mass desertion. Unless the Grey Pilgrim can do the ‘breadcrumbs to whole fish’ thing, they will all starve to death.

        Like

    3. dusting

      excellent deduction my friend.

      But I’ve been thinking. This is all slowly going down hill. For Team practical evil. Even though they have been doing the utmost best with all resources available, excellence on all fronts.
      Now why is this important? Hero does everything in his power and more that can be expected from him and yet still falls short. *wiggles eyes*
      Also lets not forget this is essentially the most “Evil” part of the crusade. Traitorous elements, violent mercenaries etc.
      Also, what do we call the one invading a country where the general populace prays to good? Yep.

      Like

    4. TeK

      Procer doesn’t have reserves, you fool. Only second waves.

      Truly marvelous to see Rozalia loving up to fame of her ancestor, the only one to ever defeat Theodosius the Unconquered in the field.

      Like

  4. Trebar

    YES! Called it on the river!

    “What are some things sappers can do other than munitions? Well, we know they can dig but that hasn’t been utilized often as it is often less effective that munitions outside of siege situations. But this time there’s this random lake just begging for an outlet…”

    Liked by 2 people

        1. That’s quite possibly even worse. Imagine the horror everyone would have when they think of what those two could get up to. :V

          ‘Sides, we all know Masego and Archer is the real deal.

          Like

  5. One thing that I haven’t seen commented. The “The Heavens Will It” thing Mr Shiny is pulling out of his fancy ass.

    I’ll just say that looks like some really fancily hidden mind control. Because *damn son* I’m impressed with how far you have your shiny fingers up in people’s ass brains.

    Like

    1. I enjoyed the perspective of the good side. There heroes simply tell them to do something and they do it. The jedi trick used over a large area is really cool. Reminded me of the scenes in kingdom of heaven whenever crusaders where about to go to battle to kill people in the name of “god”, they always said “god wills it”, to justify there actions. Which were clearly in contradiction of turning the other cheek.

      Whereas the evil side are dominated by there named villains and run from them fearing there wanton destruction. The good side calls on human armies to surround themselves while evil villains are singular powerful yet ultimately tragically flawed individuals.

      Which gives credence to how the calamities were such a force to be reckoned with, they were able to benefit in the same way that heroic bands benefited by rallying around others. They covered each others weaknesses thus in there flaws they grew even more powerful. The fact that Chathrine’s band posses heroes, neutral, and villainous name working in conjunction with one another is a symbol of there ability to not just benefit from the villainous power, but heroic bands proficiency with groups, and neutral parties lack of influence by either of the below or above powers.

      Like

  6. Richard Warriner

    I am conflicted.
    I wait with baited breath for each next chapter, railing against patience and silently pleading that time magically shift.
    Never mind it has to be written first before it is put up.
    Hi my name is Folly, and I am an addict.

    Like

    1. I too suffer from an addiction it seems the more of this wonderful fiction I am given the higher my tolerance for it. The more I read the higher my tolerance and the more I need.

      I tell others at my work and home about how ground breaking this book is and how it checks off each of my needs and they just don’t get it.

      I recommend adding to the wiki it will give you an excuse to reread previous chapters with fresh eyes.

      Like

      1. “I tell others at my work and home about how ground breaking this book is and how it checks off each of my needs and they just don’t get it”

        Maybe this is on you for not explaining in a way they understand, or not creating the proper expectations?

        Maybe this is on EE because the typos and irritating still-uncorrected errors from chapter 1 on turn people off?

        Like

  7. So no one thinks Nauk is getting a Name?
    He dodged one of Sword Saints strikes and laughed in her face, much like Adjutant did. He is a legend in his army.
    All the pieces are there.

    Like

    1. He’s too shallow as a person. Names are more than reputation and feats, they’re an attitude. As Cat has said so many times, to be Named is to be dead certain that you have the right of how Creation ought to be. Nauk -especially this new Nauk- doesn’t have that. He’s just floating along atop the currents of war.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. grzecho2222

        I agree, but I think that we will see Callow spawning its new villianous Name before long and I think that Talbot will be the one, something like Grandmaster

        Like

        1. What I really want to see is a Name spawn in Callow in response to the Crusade that has nothing to do with the Legions. A villainous take on Callow’s many rebellion and resistance stories.

          Like

    1. JJR

      I’m not sure if I’m reading this right, but does Thief have a some sort of power to freeze cat’s body? Maybe an oath that Cat gave to be still if Thief ever says ‘moonlight’ to her or something.

      Like

  8. TeK

    I think whoever says that Nauk ain’t gonna get a Name should reconsider. Nihilstic view is still a view. And he’s a Princekiller and we got Princes of Procer as well as Prince’s Graveyard ahead 😉

    Like

    1. 1queenofblades1

      Not really. The Saint would have just used her sword-fu to cut through the arrows….and the bow….and the hand. At least with blades you can actually keep her occupied long enough to be a distraction or whatever.

      Like

  9. 1queenofblades1

    I really want prequels to this story with protagonists of Dread Emperors Irritant and Treacherous and their shenanigans.

    Like

  10. Pilgrim the White

    You know i kinda fancy Amadeus’ story. Starting from when he was a farmboy.

    I hope she considers that one whenever guide is concluded 🙂

    Like

  11. fbt

    I love Abigail sooo much! great chapter, ty!
    Not sure what’s up w/ Akua, but hoping she ends up as catbox liner in one of the hells, ofc.Gray Pilgrim has noted all Cat wants is peace..and he’s not in the forming 5-some. Maybe he realizes she’s (kinda sorta) in the right in this? At least compared the the hypocritical warmongering hero set.

    Like

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