Interlude: Kaleidoscope VI

“You can have the throne when I’m done with it, which will be never.”
– Dread Emperor Revenant, initiating the First War of the Dead

Rozala had only felt it once before, throughout the whole of her life. That limpid clarity that was perfect understanding, the crystallization of thought and moment into a single flawless shard. She’d been a child, last time, and her mother had kissed her brow before sending her out of the hall. She’d remained alone on the ancient throne of Aequitain, a cup of poison in hand. In that moment, as the oak doors closed behind her, Rozala Malanza had known that she would take Cordelia Hasenbach’s head or die trying. Known it in a way deeper than she knew her breath or the flow of her blood, felt that certainty become part of her soul. Now, standing at the centre of a storm of shouting men and bared steel, she learned something else.

She had overestimated her own cleverness.

It was a bitter lesson. She’d learned the ways of war since she’d been a young girl, been taught them so deeply her grasp on the Ebb and the Flow had paid for it. There were perhaps a handful of generals in all of Procer that were finer commanders than her, and all had decades of experience that in time she would come to match. The Iron Prince, she’d fancied, had been the only one who could match her own discernment in matters of battle. And Klaus Papenheim was old, stepping closing to death’s threshold every year. As the blue-eyed dead advanced in utter silence, Rozala Malanza realized that the waters of the world were deep and her understanding of them shallow. What had seemed like cleverness days ago might very well cost her this day, this battle, this campaign and perhaps even this crusade.

That the dead would rise was no great surprise. There were reports of the Black Queen having raised them for purpose of war in the past, and though the Army of Callow lacked Wasteland mages it would have been naïve of her to expect complete ignorance of necromancy. And so, even after the Queen of Callow was laid low, Princess Rozala had laid a trap. She’d crafted it carefully, drawing on the knowledge of the Rogue Sorcerer and the Grey Pilgrim. Even if the Black Queen woke, as the Pilgrim had hinted she might should defeat loom tall over the Callowans, Catherine Foundling had limits to the power she could draw. Great workings such as raising a mile of marshlands’ worth of dead would exhaust and weaken her. And so, patiently, she had ordered preparations. Rozala had no lack of priests and Chosen, and if there was one truth to be had about water it was that it could be blessed.

It would have been a beautiful counterstroke. The moment the Black Queen invested her power into the dead, heroes and priests would have gathered together to bless it and the touch of holy would have broken both the host of undead and the villain raising them. Two birds taken with the same stone, turning the Enemy’s arrogance into just demise. And so when the alarms had rung and the call to battle trumpeted, when she first received report that blue-eyed undead were rising from the marsh to attack the camp she had smiled. She might, after all, have just won the battle. Then the priests and the Chosen sallied out, carving an island of Light by the shore until they could finish their holy blessing, and when the ripple of pale shivered across the surface of the water triumph coursed through her veins.

Until the moment she saw the dead were still advancing, and Rozala Malanza was struck by terrible clarity.

The dead were coming. Thousands of them, leashed to the Black Queen’s will. It was possible for her host to successfully defend, even if caught by surprise and still half-asleep. With the Chosen holding the shore until enough soldiers could be assembled, it was possible to weather the storm. Unless the crusaders were forced to defend on two fronts. The Princess of Aequitan swallowed her fear and despair, soothing her mind. It was not yet done. If the Chosen managed to slay the Black Queen, the tide could be turned.

“Gather the men from Orne and Cantal,” Princess Rozala barked, her raised voice stilling the chaos. “We are, I believe, about to be attacked by the Army of Callow.”

She did not look to the shores, where the Named were gathering. The Pilgrim and the Saint would understand the situation without need for her to send a messenger.

It was as all on their shoulders now.

Christophe raised his shield and the undead’s blow glanced off the polished silver. The creatures were slow, for all that the Rogue Sorcerer had been astonished by them. The man’s insistence that they’d been raised through the pure power of Winter instead of a Damned’s fell abilities or even necromancy seemed to make little difference when it came to meeting them on the field. Flicking his wrist, he separated the abomination’s head from its body and the corpse dropped to the ground. The blue eyes winked out a moment later and he settled his stance. The wave was at an end, though already more were rising from the tepid waters. The Mirror Knight feared no Evil, yet he misliked the lay of this battle. His fellow Chosen were too few to hold the whole shore, and there were dangers in standing alone against the horde. Kallia had lost an arm to a dead crusader but a half-hour past, the thing clutching at her body until the munitions within detonated. Goblin devilry, the mark of a degenerate breed. The scuttling greenskins were without honour. The Forsworn Healer had reattached the arm and healed the wound, but the Painted Knife had been shaken. He could not blame her. Unlike him, she’d fought the monster up close. Christophe would never forget the sight of the Black Queen laughingly tearing apart an entire band of heroes almost by herself. She’d ripped out their lives like errant weeds, making a game of their struggle. Antoine, his young Alamans brother-in-arms, was still plagued by nightmares from having his arm torn out and tossed in Mansurin’s face as a distraction.

Yesterday had been almost worse. Christophe had come within a hair’s breadth of death leading the fantassins in their advance, saved only by the intervention of the Regicide. A second time he had felt the Cold Lady’s breath on his neck, when the Callowans had plied wicked sorcery and made river where there was once solid ground. He’d been on the wrong side of it, surrounded by the enemy, and prepared for his last stand when death suddenly bloomed in green flames. The impotence of it had been what stung the worst. Men and monsters he could meet sword in hand, but how did one fight fire? Soldiers he’d spilled blood with, comrades under the Heavens, had died screaming while the power he’d been bestowed by Above proved useless to save anyone. He was the Mirror Knight, granted his armaments by the spirits of the Old Lake after he passed their harsh trials. His power was the reflection of Evil against Evil, the conception of the snake biting its own tail. Yet he’d crawled away shamefully from the blazing green, fished out of the waters by a soldier after almost drowning in his flight. The Enemy had failed to scar his body, but the remembrance of that shame would leave mark on his soul until he drew his last breath.

Not all had been so lucky that dishonour was the price exacted. Mansurin’s second death had taken him beyond even the Grey Pilgrim’s reach.

Christophe chased away the thought and let the light of day wash over him. He drew strength from it, from the Dawn that was one of his aspects. He rose with the morning sun, tiredness and uncertainty leaking out of his body. The Elfin Dames had shaped him in this, granted him the boon that with every dawn his soul would rise – and never retreat. The Mirror Knight had once been a thin and sickly child, but the passing of the years had made him a warrior beyond mortal capacity. It was a slight thing, but every morning saw him a little stronger. A little faster. A little more enduring. Another decade of this, the Regicide had told him, and he would be beyond even her ability to match. Perfect within and without, as the Heavens meant him to be. His strength reaching its peak and a sliver beyond, he waded into the shallow waters and scattered the marching dead. He scythed limbs and shattered skulls, his silver blade breaking steel and the dead flesh beneath. He retreated only when none were left to stand against him, soiled water dripping from his greaves. The whistle caught him by surprise, and he turned so his helm would allow him sight.

“Mirror,” the Vagrant Spear said in broken Tolesian. “We gather. Take head of queen.”

The Arlesite tongue was not his most fluent, but he had made some study of it during his years defending the convent. Sidonia, as the other Chosen insisted they all call her in private, seemed unruffled by the darkness besieging them. Christophe admired this greatly, as she had been returned from the side of the Gods Above for nary an hour. The Pilgrim’s power had breathed life back into her still body so recently, yet she returned to their holy struggle without hesitation. The strength of her resolve was worthy of praise. No all the Grey Pilgrim had returned had been so unflinching in their devotion. There was no trace of daze and confusion in her eyes, only certainty, and the Mirror Knight wrestled with the strange thing that was attraction towards a Levantine. Had his vows not forbidden it… He cleared his throat, cheeks flashing with embarassment.

“Are we to leave our fellow crusaders to stem the tide alone?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Great Elder say, battle won only when queen dead,” she replied. “Strike strong. Avenge dead.”

Reluctantly, the Chosen withdrew. Already crusaders were forming in proper ranks behind him, priests mingling amongst them. Holy flames would not burn as bright as they should against these queer undead, but burn they would regardless. It would have to be enough, until the Black Queen was slain. Christophe saluted the brave soldiers with deep respect, and there was a flicker of guilt within when they responded in kind. He knew this was retreat with purpose, but it still felt wrong to leave them to stand alone. He followed Sidonia, who led him surefooted to the gathering of Chosen further down the shore. The Knight was the last summoned, he saw. The others greeted him, grim but resolute. The Saint of Blades stood apart from the rest, lazily carving through undead without even relying on her Name, while the rest of the Chosen clustered around the Grey Pilgrim.

Some he knew by name, others only by Name. Kallia, face painted in a fresh coat of red as she held her twin knives, stood besides young Antoine. The Blade of Mercy had his greatsword propped up on his shoulder, eyes gleaming white as he drew on the Light to slay his fears. The Forsworn Healer had his eyes closed as he mastered the pain of feeling so many deaths bloom around him. The Silent Guardian, tongue forever stilled by her oaths, kept her shield close even with her sword sheathed. Christophe had shared a shameful escape with her, yesterday, and their eyes met with unspoken understanding. Never again. The Myrmidon, garbed in bronze and faith, was sharing quiet words with the Rogue Sorcerer. Often these two kept to themselves, as the Sorcerer was one of the few Chosen that could speak her obscure Free Cities dialect. This was the sum whole of the Chosen of the Heavens in this blighted place. Mansurin and François had been taken by the green fire, never to grace Creation again. Christophe sheathed his blade and formed the wings against his breastplate, commending the souls of the lost to the Gods. They had served unflinchingly to the end, and deserved endless felicity for it on the Other Side.

“Hear me,” the Grey Pilgrim said, and a ripple went through all of them.

None dared disobey, when the Peregrine spoke. The Mirror Knight felt a thrum of excitement. When had such a gathering of the Good last taken place? Blessed souls were a rarity in the lands of his birth, and like him often served their purpose in isolation. The Tenth Crusade had gathered them all for greater design, and they would see it through. The Heavens will it.

“We go now to make war on the Black Queen,” the old man said. “We were twelve, once, but no longer. Do not forget this. As the Heavens protect us, the Gods Below look well upon her – for she serves their purpose, however unwilling. Victory is not assured, for we now venture in her realm of death and ice.”

The elder Levantine smiled sadly at them.

“There is no glory in this,” he warned them. “Bards may write songs, one day, and chronicles sing your praises, but this is earthly luster. We march in the spirit of sacrifice, to bring light into the dark. Do not look ahead or behind, only to each other. There is no salvation to be found save at the hands your comrades.”

Christophe kept himself from frowning. This was far from the exaltation that he had expected, and suspected they all needed.

“Stand with pride, nonetheless,” the Pilgrim softly said. “You came here of your own will, proving yourself worthy of all that was bestowed upon you. Much has been demanded, yet nothing is promised but duty fulfilled. Stand proud, children. We are the torch taken into the night, and though our flame is passing today we burn bright.”

The Mirror Knight shivered. He felt it, just like the others. The eyes of the Heavens on them. That sacred thing that made them who they were. The trance was broken by a cleared throat, to his vexation.

“All right, kids,” the Saint of Swords said, idly decapitating another undead. “We’re going after the tiger in her own lair, so expect this fight to be a notch above anything you’ve been in before. This is the third dawn, and she’s fresh returned: she will be at her peak and out for blood. Guardian, you’re to cover Forsworn against anything she tosses out.”

The silent woman nodded, edging closer to the healer.

“Myrmidon, you’re sticking by Rogue,” the Saint added. “If she hits you, buy him time to retreat and hold her in place until we can flank.”

The old woman looked upon the rest of them with a hard smile.

“Knife, Vagrant and Blade,” she said. “You’re our knife. Stay out of it until Tariq gives the signal. As for you, Mirror…”

The old woman’s grin had Christophe uneasy, though the light of dawn pushed the failing away soon enough.

“You’re with me,” she said. “We’re claiming the first dance.”

The Chosen nodded gravely. If he could save the lives of others by enduring pain, there was no real choice to be made. His power had granted him the ability to withstand much.

“Steel yourselves,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It begins.”

The old man struck the ground with his staff, and the marsh parted.

Standing tall, the Chosen advanced.

Kallia’s heart grew steadier the longer they walked. The Painted Knife adjusted her stride so would not leave the shorter Vagrant Spear behind, silently hinting the Blade of Mercy should follow suit. The boy was taller than either of them, regardless of his youth. He’d have to be, to lug around that chunk of steel he called a weapon.

“There will be honour to be found today, strife-sister,” Sidonia murmured in Lunara when she caught up. “Worthy strife to offer the Blood.”

Kallia almost rolled her eyes. Alavans. The hill people were a ferocious lot, but they did clutch the old traditions a little too tightly for her tastes. She was from Levante, herself, which was a true great city instead of a remote valley of orchards and cattle fences. No one could deny the people of Alava were great warriors – their city was the home of the Champion’s Blood, after all – but Sidonia wasn’t someone she’d ever be able to discuss the latest songs from faraway Smyrna with, or even the latest couplets from the Hidden Poets of the old city. Still, she found her mood lifted by her fellow Levantine’s eagerness. In times of strife, it was heartening to remember the old ways.

“I’m not of any of the lines, Sidonia,” she reminded her comrade. “Either greater or lesser.”

The records of the Holy Majilis had shown that there had once been a Knife of Night a century past, who shared purpose with her, yet the man had never had children and so had spawned no lesser line to be added to the families of the Blood. Should Kallia ever have children of her own her line would be added to the rolls, but she had never been hungry for that honour. Only the greater lines won more than empty titles and emptier privileges from being recognized, as was only fitting for the descendants – in Blood or Bestowal – of the five heroes that had founded the Dominion.

“We Spears have timid boasts,” the other woman shrugged. “It will be good, to add this strife to our histories. We stand too deep in the shadow of the Champion lines.”

Not so deep, Kallia thought, now that Mansurin had been felled. He’d been born to the thinnest of the lesser Champion lines, but he had been descendent in Blood. His death was worthy of grief, but not unexpected. The descendants of the most fruitful of the founders of Levant were many and often Bestowed, but were known to die as often as they were empowered. None of those lines had ever learned fear, or the virtues of retreat in the face of the Enemy. The Painted Knife still felt awe at the remembrance of her meeting with the Valiant Champion, months ago. The woman was no descendant in Blood, but she had inherited the full Bestowal of her line’s founder. This was a rare thing, considered omen of great strife. Not, Kallia thought, that there was not even greater rarity ahead. Her eyes lingered on the crooked shoulders of the Grey Pilgrim as her hand unconsciously reached for the pouch of red paint at her side. She’d almost drawn the Mark of Mercy out of habit. And, she would admit to herself, wonder. The Great Elder was full inheritor in Blood and Bestowal of the ancient Grey Pilgrim that had been the first Seljun of Levant. Royalty beyond royalty, no matter what lesser kin now held the earthly title in Levante. More than that, he’d saved her life. Years ago, when that Spirit if Vengeance –

“Eyes ahead,” the Blade of Mercy spoke in Chantant. “We are nearing.”

Kallia’s mastery of the Proceran tongue was better than Sidonia’s, but both understood him perfectly. Her instinct was to move closer to the boy, stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the threat, but she could not – he needed room, to swing around that greatsword of his. The Painted Knife flicked a careful glance at the walls of water flanking them on both sides. After the Saint of Swords dispatched the first few undead to wander out effortlessly, the probing assaults had ceased. Their march had been unhindered; the path of mud they strode across leading to a tall glacier ahead. The Levantine stared at the mass of ice, still unused to the sight. These lands were strange ones. She had never seen snow nor ice before crossing the Stairway and glimpsing the tall peaks of the Parish, but now she had seen too much of it for her tastes. All the Bestowed grew tense when the enemy came within sight, save for the Great Elder and the Saint. It settled Kallia’s nerves some to see them so calm. They were a mighty pair, no lesser than the foe ahead. The Black Queen, she saw, was patiently awaiting them.

The Painted Knife’s fingers clenched around the hilt of her blades when she took in the full sight. The glacier had been turned into a blasphemous challenge to the Heavens, sculpted by eldritch power to nestle a great throne upon which the Enemy was seated. No, not seated. She was lounging, almost mockingly, with a long dragonbone pipe in hand. The Black Queen blew out a stream of smoke, eyeing them nonchalantly. The Bestowed slowed, spreading out as the Saint had ordered. Kallia felt Sidonia let out a delighted breath.

“Now that,” the Vagrant Spear murmured, making the Mark of Valor with shaking fingers, “is a worthy foe. Honoured Gods, a thousand singing praises for offering a great struggle to this humble one. Blood spilled on these holy grounds I dedicate to your name, my unworthy life placed on the scales of your judgement.”

Naturally, the Alavans was excited by the sight of this. She should have known better than to expect wariness from a Heavens-maddened lover of war. The Blade of Mercy glanced at them.

“Prayer,” Kallia explained in Chantant.

The boy looked approving. It was probably for the best he did not know about Levantine battle prayers. Whatever chatter had bloomed was whisked out then the Great Elder strode to the forefront, passing even the Saint of the Blades and the Mirror Knight.

“Child,” he said, tone appalled.  “What have you done to yourself?”

Sidonia shuffled impatiently. She did not know Lower Miezan, and so had no understanding of the conversation taking place.

“What needed to be done,” the Black Queen calmly replied. “My side doesn’t get to walk away clean, Pilgrim. I see you’ve been tossing around resurrections like they’re godsdamned solstice treats, too. Charming. Not going to have any long-term ramifications at all.”

The monster paused, then leaned forward.

“Did that register as a lie?” she grinned. “It didn’t, did it? Have a good think about that one next time you try to sleep, Pilgrim.”

“Surrender,” the Great Elder said. “Abdicate. It is not too late.”

“You missing the part where I’m currently winning the battle?” the Black Queen drawled. “Hells, it’s not too late for you either. Terms were offered and they hold. Take your army and go home. This doesn’t need to turn into a Named pissing contest.”

“You would argue this, after slaying thousands?” the Pilgrim asked.

“I feel like we might need to revisit the concept of foreign invasion,” the villain noted. “Specifically the part where it has fucking consequences. Like, you know, people dying. You’d think that one would be a given, but apparently you’re slow learners. Wahwah, my attempt to conquer a – sort of – sovereign nation wasn’t met with flowers and a godsdamned parade. It’s almost like we’re not happy about the whole thing. Go figure.”

“And you think your reign a better alternative?” the Grey Pilgrim asked calmly.

“Hells, Pilgrim, I was born to rule,” the Black Queen replied with a toothy grin. “But I’ll settle for getting you fucks out of my backyard, this once. Any takers?”

The monster’s gaze swept across the crowd of Bestowed as she idly emptied her pipe and put it away within her cloak. The only answer was Light blooming and weapons raised.

“Ah, well,” the Black Queen mused. “Pissing contest it is, then.”

If Akua had always known heroism was this entertaining, she would have begun dabbling years ago. A hook of Light lashed out at her as the healer Named shaped the heavenly power and tore through her throne, but she’d already been moving when the working had just begun. Landing in a crouch atop her glacier, she unsheathed her sword and tapped it pensively against her armoured leg. It was unfortunate that the deception required her to remain in dearest Catherine’s garments, as they were admittedly horrid, but needs must. The body was wonderfully responsive, and though without the Gift the mantle allowed her powers not fundamentally different. Tainted with Winter, perhaps, but that was no great trouble for her. Her angry little overlord had, as usual, allowed herself to fear her own power to such extent it crippled her when instead she should have been learning to master the influence. One never quite escaped one’s origins, it seemed. A shame Catherine was disinclined to take lessons from her in such matters.

Akua Sahelian was no stranger to otherworldly influences, and so she embraced Winter eagerly.

The mantle howled through her veins, and eyeing the healer and his grim little sentinel she flicked her wrist. Her glacial throne, a useful mass of ice she had chosen as her seat for purposes both practical and theatrical, twisted sharply and speared forward. The Saint of Swords shattered it within a heartbeat, sword clearing the scabbard, but Akua was unmoved. Ice remained ice, even when broken to pieces. An exertion of will transmuted the shards into cold mist and it fell over the pair of heroes like a blanket. Beneath her a man with a mirror-like shield was climbing the glacier with unseemly haste. And was that sorcery she felt? What familiar taste. A pilum of concentrated yellow flame tore towards her, and she raised a contemptuous eyebrow. The Half-Hornet, truly? How provincial. No one she knew would be caught dead using that in a serious battle.

She leapt down, feet landing on the climbing hero’s head, and measured the angle so the only corrective action the spell formula allowed for would fall well short of her. The sorcery hit the glacier with a thunderous crash, splitting it in two. Ugh, he’d even overcharged it. It was like watching a grown woman improperly dose last season’s poison. Movement flicked at the edge of her vision and Akua’s boot came down to smash the helmet beneath her, forcing the hero down and allowing her to avoid the Saint’s blow by less than an inch. The tips of Catherine’s pathetically unadorned crown were shaved cleanly off. The sorceress threw herself to the side, sliding down the falling glacier as streaks of light further shattered what had been a very tasteful throne, in her opinion. A piece of the crown fell at her side, and once more Akua mourned Catherine had not even been willing to add some sapphires to it. They were only moderately costly to import through Mercantis, and they would have fit a Queen of Winter perfectly. A triad of heroes, two of them Levantines by the skin tone, charged towards her as she caught her footing at the edge of the slope. The pair still shrouded in mist, she noted, were beginning to disperse it.

That just wouldn’t do.

Akua flicked her wrist and turned the mist they’d inhaled to ice again, clogging up their throats and lungs. Transmutation, she noted approvingly, came particularly easy to the mantle. Likely a consequence of the ever-fluid nature of the fae, or that these waters had come from Arcadia in the first place. The triad closed in, an inexplicably barefoot woman serving as the tip of the wedge.

“Glory in strife,” the beggar screamed out in Lunara.

Did Catherine know any Levantine tongues? Most likely not. Still, a responding battle cry was in order. It was the heroic thing to do. Something about Callow? Akua pondered her understanding of Catherine’s temper. I am angry, the sorceress decided, because I am disappointed as I have mystifyingly failed to grasp that the Heavens prefer their pawns powerful yet rather dim. I must now protect the venerable sanctity of farms and countless peasants everywhere, as I am very concerned with their fate even though they are ignorant and full of lice.

“Fuck off and die,” Akua called back, tinting her voice with wroth.

There. Crass more than witty, but Catherine did tend to walk that line. Entirely disinclined to engage three Heavens-empowered hardened killers with only a sword and dubious moral grounds in hand, she retreated into the waters and let them envelop her fully. Breathing was not necessary to this body, after all, and she could feel her foes where eyesight failed. She took a moment to touch the marching dead with her mind, noting with approval that though after the heroes claimed her attention she’d only succeeded in making them mindlessly advance and attack, they were bleeding the crusaders. Slowly but surely. She’d been rather displeased at the haste the enemy approached her with, as she’d been amusing herself by redeploying Catherine’s old goblin tricks against fresh opposition. A heartbeat later, the water surrounding her blew away as the Saint’s blow forced the marsh to recede.

“There you are,” the unseemly old woman grinned.

“Dodge,” Akua replied with a friendly smile, greatly enjoying herself.

Two massive blocks of ice formed into the waters on each side, their mass smashing forward and sending the tide hurtling back towards both of them. The wicked enemy of all things Callowan blinked in surprise, but alas it was not to be. Starlight stolen and made a streak cut towards the sorceress, evaporating the water and prompting a frown. This was not mere heavenly lightshow: it was the principle of untainted radiance directly from firmament, made into a weapon. Such a thing could be interrupted by workings, but it would take nothing less than a miracle to usurp or reshape it. Fortunately, she was not without answer. The gate opened before her, a perfect circle pressing back the fabric of Creation, and Akua carefully threaded the needle. Difficult, on such short notice, yet not impossible to a practitioner of her skill. Orienting the gate properly, she wove will into forming the corresponding exit behind the trifling Proceran who’d tried to hit her with childish sorcery. The radiance hit him in the back before he could react, though to Akua’s displeasure it did no harm. The Pilgrim could control his working to a truly despicable extent. Tying off the two gates so she could not be made to suffer the backlash of their breaking, the sorceress condensed a platform of ice to leap off of before the Saint could bisect her.

She landed smoothly atop the water on a foothold of ice, moving towards the flank of the assembled heroes before the old cutter could catch up with her. The enemy seemed puzzled, she saw, by her refusal to engage them on their own terms. Had Catherine truly traded blows with them up close? The sorcerers almost wrinkled her nose. Waving about swords was the business of people who failed to murder demigods for power. Perhaps it was time to make that exceedingly clear to the opposition. Winter burning gloriously through her frame, Akua Sahelian shaped the full power of the mantle. Half a mile of marshlands turned to ice as she remained standing on an elegant pillar, the surrounding waters disappearing as they froze and gathered into a monumental ball of frost hovering over the heroes. The Saint was running on now solid ground, sword flashing to carve a groove through both Creation and the pillar, but the sorceress merely cocked an eyebrow. Even severed, the upper part of the pillar remained unmoving in the air. Fire and starlight shattered the mass of ice, but the heroes were gravely mistaken if they thought this was a mere foot to stomp on them with. A flick of the wrist had the ice transmuting back into water and falling into a shower over the Named.

Another flick had it freezing again, and they were buried in falling ice.

“Come now,” Akua said. “This is as obvious an opening as you’ll get.”

The Saint of Swords was a wizened old killer, with an impressive reputation. She was not, however, invincible. Even as she turned around in an instinctive parry, the old woman took the arrow in the shoulder as the Archer finally made her presence known. The sorceress felt the trembling heat of the wounded heroine, and Winter demanded her screaming death. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mind, will lashing out to take the mantle by the throat and choke it. The urges receded ever so slightly. More dangerous than she’d believed, this influence. The principle alienation was similar in nature to the bleed from binding an ancient devil, but unlike the latter it did not recede after the moment of binding. Akua leapt down from the pillar, power lashing out to smash both broken halves on the Saint. The heroine flickered with Light and it pulsed in a perfect ring around her. Aspect, the sorceress decided. Weak enough it could likely be used more than once, which would be difficult to deal with. No matter, there were more tempting prey. Akua felt mild revulsion at the term her thought had ended by, to her surprise.

She did not have the time to linger on the matter, as the heroes had escaped her little greeting gift. Light broke through the ice, once, twice, and then in an eruption of steam the entire structure vanished. The second-rate wizard’s doing, she suspected. For a heartbeat she mused leaving the battle entirely, going to lead the dead personally, but found she could not. It would mean leaving Archer on her own, something she could not accept. The notion displeased her, even. The sorceress’ brow creased. This was not coincidence. She could feel her mind even struggling to consider the subject, which was telling. Feeling the Saint pivot to cut through a second arrow, Akua moved towards the other heroes as she fought the influence.

“Oh,” she murmured to herself after a moment. “My dear, that is exquisitely done.”

The sorceress had slipped her bindings by snatching an errant piece of Winter and making it her own. Through it she’d opened a path to the greater mantle that she’d eventually managed to crawl through, entirely so when she found no opposition awaiting. In her current state, it would be impossible for her to claim this body if Catherine disallowed it. The discrepancy in will and power was overwhelming. Yet using the sliver of Winter, Akua had succeeded in stabilizing the construct she now inhabited and claiming use of the full mantle – which she’d drawn on, this entire fight. The path going both ways, the mantle itself was now influencing her. Which had seemed a minor concern, until she realized that Catherine Foundling had bound her very soul into its fabric. The more Akua drew on the mantle, the more she called back the body’s true owner. I had wondered, as to why you never had Hierophant lay deeper bindings on me, the sorceress thought. It never truly mattered, did it? You left yourself a backdoor. She could not help but approve. Perhaps some mundane sorts would have been horrified, but Akua had first ripped out her own soul to use as a tool as the tender age of thirteen. Ruthlessness turned against yourself could be a very useful tool, if properly employed. In matters of self-mutilation for the sake of advancement, she must admit Catherine Foundling had few rivals. Eyeing the spreading steam, Akua made a decision. Struggling against this was pointless, and might be taken as treachery she did not intend.

“Let it not be said, my Empress, that I did not offer service leal and true,” Akua Sahelian mused.

She called on Winter again, the fullness of the mantle, and kept digging deeper until her vision blurred. Her reward did not take long to be delivered.

Back into the box, Diabolist.

Darkness came, yet Akua smiled.

A useful tool, after all, was never allowed to rest for long.

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283 thoughts on “Interlude: Kaleidoscope VI

  1. Vortex

    >The enemy seemed puzzled, she saw, by her refusal to engage them on their own terms. Had Catherine truly traded blows with them up close? …Waving about swords was the business of people who failed to murder demigods for power.

    One of my new favorite lines in a story packed chock full of good ones. I love her viewpoint on this. Lmao.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. And now I’m actually looking forward to Akua (or Akua’s soul-copy) becoming a Hero. Of course, it probably won’t happen for quite a while, and Cat won’t allow it, but hey, it’s a possibility.

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    1. Jessica Day

      I’m with you on this. It feels like she’s more dangerous to Cat as her “loyal” tool than she was even at the height of her power. Now she’s in a position to whisper in her ear all the time.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Dainpdf

      I was originally quite concerned, as I expressed before. After seeing this, though, I actually liked her here. As an antagonist, Akua is so very played out, but as a tool and temptation she is *fresh*.
      Also, it’s fun seeing how she looks at things in a wholly different way from Catherine. The heroes must have been SO very confused.
      …and now the real OG gets to kick some ass.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. HiggsUnbound

        Trust in EE.

        Knows exactly what we’re thinking and definitely checks our thoughts both here and other places, I’m pretty certain you can trust in the unexpected being slightly expectable… Sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Dainpdf

          Reading this, I thought Akua might be merging with Cat via drawing on Winter. Akuat, so to speak. Cakua?
          Anyways, turns out Cat was better prepared than that. And has had enough garbage grafted onto her soul.

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  2. Byzantine

    You can’t bless away Winter, silly. If it was that easy Cat would have purged herself of it long ago. The mistake she made, then, was not knowing that Cat’s necromancy has little to do with traditional necromancy and is actually a Winter construct. Those aren’t undead – they are weak Fae created by imbuing an empty shell with Winter.

    Liked by 7 people

  3. Good gods this is perhaps the most terrifying performance I’ve seen from Akua yet. Because she *didn’t* betray anyone. Didn’t act selfishly or undermine Cat’s interests. Just demonstrated a preeminent mastery of Winter, a solid grasp of how to improve Cat’s combat style, and (most importantly) a way of invoking Absolute Positioning without being vulnerable to backlash.

    This is horrifying because it makes Akua so clearly *useful*. And what is useful will be used.

    We just witnessed Akua mastermind the first step of her return to power and she did it in such a way that it would seem almost insane for Cat to *not* keep Akua around and call on her more often. And she did it almost effortlessly. That’s fucking terrifying.

    Liked by 18 people

    1. Byzantine

      “Iron sharpens iron” means a lot of things – Akua was defeated. Utterly. So long as the situation does not change and Catherine does not make a misstep leaving her vulnerable Akua will be loyal. Because if the defeated remain alive (or, close enough, in her case) they are now a tool for the winner. Simple as that. But that doesn’t mean she won’t have plans and schemes for if Catherine makes a mistake.

      Both of these are simply the Praes philosophy.

      Liked by 11 people

    2. RanVor

      We’ve come to expect treachery from Akua because we only got to know her when she (believed she) was the top dog. Akua is neither stupid nor insane. Treachery is only useful when there’s something to gain by it.

      Akua’s mindset has always been the survival of the fittest. The weak exist to be ruled by strong – that’s the Praesi way. The Diabolist challenged the Squire and lost. Catherine Foundling has proven herself stronger, so now Akua Sahelian stands ready to serve, at least until the balance of power shifts radically.

      Remember that the actual target has always been Malicia. Her failure with Cat made it clear she severely overestimated her own standing in the game. She knows she has no chance to get what she originally wanted in foreseeable future, so she’s starting again from the bottom, stripped of all her power and influence, as a lowly servant of her former enemy.

      It’s actually pretty obvious in hindsight.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. Dainpdf

      If only Cat didn’t show a complete disregard for arcane scholarship… I’m sure Masego could also school her in the proper usage of Winter (though Akua is still probably the best teacher in resisting the bleed through).
      Yeah, I don’t see Cat learning the intricacies of her pseudo sorcery save perhaps by monkeying Akua doing it in her body.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. HiggsUnbound

        I think you’re entirely right.

        Except for one thing.

        Cat can still gain a name. That could be a synergy with Winters Mantle, who knows? Hopefully we find out soon.

        If she gets even one learn or sorcerery aspect, she could become so much MUCH more.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Dainpdf

          I am convinced the pattern of three with Queen Names at Liesse will hold. Who knows, Fae Queen, Winter Queen, Witch Queen all seem to be open (also Dancing Queen! Although Cat is not sweet or seventeen).

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    1. Wasn’t much of a “call” though.
      You have Akua, the Diabolist; Winter’s power to make undead easily; and a lake full of undead.

      Put them together and what do you get?

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      1. grzecho2222

        I meant that I predicted it in earlier chapter based on the info that necromancy isn’t Evil from Masego and the fact that calling on dead companions for help is very old trope

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          1. grzecho2222

            Deoraithe use necromancy and they seem like Neutral faction, also Priestly Powers are for Good, Diabolism is for Evil. There is balance (if only in name) in the Creation. What is Good mirror of necromancy then?

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      2. HiggsUnbound

        But they’re not really even undead, by the own Canon right?

        They’re just… Shells… Stuffed with temporary purpose under the banner of winter.

        I don’t think death is even important aside from having a vaguely empty shell to fill with something.

        *Something like winter.*

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        1. Metrux

          If you are right she can probably make soldiers out of armors. But this seems a little strange, as much as I whanna agree with you, because her revived keep the memories.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. HiggsUnbound

            That’s true, so I’m going to succeed it to a backburner thought.

            I would like to point out, we have no clear rules outlined (afaik) for the difference in animation of the dead between Winters Mantle and strict arcane necromancy.

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  4. Happy Camper

    And lo, said Erratic, your balls shall be bluer week-to-week than the hypothetical sapphires of Akua’s crown.

    And so it was.

    Really Erratic, maybe you shouldn’t have learned from Wildbow so much. Wibbles always had the best cliffhangers, and now you are following in his footsteps, to my sad/happiness

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Richard Ngo

    ‘I am angry, the sorceress decided, because I am disappointed as I have mystifyingly failed to grasp that the Heavens prefer their pawns powerful yet rather dim. I must now protect the venerable sanctity of farms and countless peasants everywhere, as I am very concerned with their fate even though they are ignorant and full of lice.

    “Fuck off and die,” Akua called back, tinting her voice with wroth.’

    Redeeming moment for Akua. As a snarky sidekick, she is unparalleled. And rather useful too. Sure, she has loyalty issues, but it seems like she’s pretty close to mentally acknowledging Cat as her superior, and narratively she’s already had her chances. So I’m backing a redemption arc, then a Catkua ship. No weirder than Warlock hooking up with a demon, after all.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Dainpdf

      Just remember “superior” means “person I haven’t backstabbed and overthrown yet” in Praesi.
      Also, best passage in the serial so far.
      I would read a spin-off consisting solely of Akua method acting every other character.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. haihappen

        I am Very Sure(TM) that “Turn Unread” is actually a spell to repel illiterate people.
        A worthy addition to every wizards spell book in a medieval fantasy world with a poor education system.

        Liked by 4 people

    1. Novice

      Is that a ‘If the Emperor had a Text-To-Speech Device’ reference? I automatically hear that “My Glorious Overlord” in my head in the Custodes’ voice.

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          1. 1queenofblades1

            In book 1 or 2 Catherine wonders that Co sideline she’s now Evil, where her oiled up manservants are and thinks she’s getting a raw deal with having to be the underdog in every fight.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. 1queenofblades1

              Considering*

              I typed it in right but for some reason WordPress loves fucking with me: changed the word after I clicked ‘Post Comment’

              Has happened in previous posts too…

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  6. Cap'n Smurfy

    “I am angry, the sorceress decided, because I am disappointed as I have mystifyingly failed to grasp that the Heavens prefer their pawns powerful yet rather dim. I must now protect the venerable sanctity of farms and countless peasants everywhere, as I am very concerned with their fate even though they are ignorant and full of lice.”

    Akua demonstrating her ‘flawless’ insight into Catherine’s character once again. Best line of the chapter.

    Liked by 7 people

  7. Big Brother

    This is why Akua has been and will continue to be my second favorite character in the Guide, just behind Masego.
    She’s brilliantly written, and embodies the opposite side of the magical coin from Masego. Implementation of magical knowledge to his discovery of magical knowledge. The Binder of Otherworldly Entities and the Unraveler of Miracles could prove a deadlier combination than the entirety of the Calamities, if they so chose.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. 1queenofblades1

    >Akua pondered her understanding of Catherine’s temper. I am angry, the sorceress decided, because I am disappointed as I have mystifyingly failed to grasp that the Heavens prefer their pawns powerful yet rather dim. I must now protect the venerable sanctity of farms and countless peasants everywhere, as I am very concerned with their fate even though they are ignorant and full of lice.

    ….Akua what are you going? Akua stop. Please don’t make me like you as a character…

    >“Fuck off and die,” Akua called back, tinting her voice with wroth.

    ….Why do you do this? Now I like you as a character.

    Liked by 10 people

      1. haihappen

        Amoral, check, sadistic, not really. She knows the worth of methodically applied pain. But her fun stems from the knowledge that she outwitted, outmaneuvered or outsmarted someone, and then rubbing it in their faces.

        No kidding, Akua’s worst weakness may well be her inability to resist a good gloat. And the megalomania, but for someone as capable as her, ambition and megalomania get indistinguishable.

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        1. Dainpdf

          I won’t say it applies to all, but much of sadism comes from the feeling of power over others. The pleasure of rubbing defeat in the face of others (and watching them grovel) has a sadistic tint to it.

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  9. I’m impressed that Akua can imitate Catherine’s manner of speaking that closely. Although I suspect that the older heroes will notice that her fighting style has shifted.

    Also, it’s kind of cool how Cat is now a multi-stage boss fight. Villain speech from her throne, followed by that part of the boss fight where she leaps around blasting you with magic from range, then when you wear her down she takes out her sword and starts fighting up close.

    Liked by 8 people

  10. Logous

    Dear god this is my favorite book ever, and although Akua is monsterous, backstabbing bitch, i cant help to just love her for it, she has style. Love it where she is right now, binded to Cat by her mantle and cant wait to read more.

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  11. Jane

    Love her or hate her, Akua certainly does have style, from lounging on her throne of ice to her contemptuous inner monologue. If she weren’t originally from the doomed-to-lose school of Villainy, one would wonder what would have come of her having successfully stolen Winter.

    Seeing her effortlessly outplay a reinforced party’s worth of Heroes, including two legendary heroes, without overloading on Winter and getting stabbed while monologuing… One hopes that Cat notices, and asks Akua for some pointers later. It’s more of a perspective shift than it is anything technical, so Cat could take to it easily, I think. If Cat could stomach the notion, maybe Akua could also provide some advice on resisting Winter’s pull… From her remarks, it sounds like demon summoning has similar problems, and that there are ways to counteract it. Or maybe it’s just pure Will, in which case Cat’s pretty much trapped in a permanent Summoning and is going to need a lot more wine.

    Geeze, the Mirror Knight certainly got hax powers… Get stronger every morning until you’re perfect? Good thing he’s getting put down today (I assume)… Who knows what he would have become, elsewise.

    You have to feel sorry for Rozala, really. Trapped on the outside of Procer’s political struggles by her mother’s actions, forced into a onesided political alliance with a man she doesn’t respect, and now humiliatingly outclassed in the one area she felt confident in. She was just plain born into the wrong generation, wasn’t she? If she was facing anyone other than Triumphant reborn (metaphorically speaking), she probably would have won this easily, and if her position wasn’t quite so precarious, this defeat wouldn’t be quite so personally dire.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Byzantine

      The “stronger ever day” powers are a curse in any narrative world. Because bearers of those powers must always die before they reach their potential.

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      1. Agent J

        Ranger didn’t. Hedge Wizard died because of her own stupidity and Mirror Knight is an even dimmer sort. I think such powers are rare to begin with and the casualty rate for Named is so high that a long lived Named with such a power winds up being astronomically rare by the sheer odds of it.

        Which is why Ranger has few equals.

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        1. Metrux

          But Ranger is not an always growing power type? The only thing she does for that is learn her enemies ways of fighting, and this doesn’t let her grow forever, after a decade of fighting even new styles won’t trully improve her capabilities, only bring more ways to use it.

          She is that great because of her mentality, even if her Aspects help, and not because she has super growth powers. Which just makes her power level even more insane, if you think about it.

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          1. Agent J

            According to her entry in Tvtropes, Ranger’s Aspects are Learn, Perfect, and Transcend. Learn is the Aspect that Hedge Wizard had which Warlock(? If I’m not mistaken) had commented would allow her indefinite growth if she lived long enough to make full use of it. Perfect and Transcend just make an already bullshit power base exponentially so.

            Liked by 2 people

    2. Dainpdf

      Gotta remember heroes have a finite lifespan. And “more powerful every day” can only take you so far before the narrative weight towards your fall becomes overwhelming. Narrative abhors an invincibility.

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    3. GreenSunLuminary

      Well, presumably, like most heroes, he’s not immortal, so eventually he is going to have to deal with aging – either he gets stronger and stronger until he drops dead all of a sudden, or eventually degeneration from old age will outpace the power up each dawn and he will torturously fade away. Which would be worse, not knowing when you could die at a critical juncture (in a narrative world, no less!), or a hundred years of decay?

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  12. Terion

    Brilliant! Now we get to like Akua, even though she’s a horribly nasty villainess. Also brilliant, the way Catherine ensured that Akua would bring her back.

    I see a whole lot of potential storylines with a multiple-personality heroine. Personally I don’t like those in general, but in this story, they might be enjoyable simply for the sheer amount of absurdist witty banter that it will involve. I just wish there was a guarantee that Akua never returned.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dainpdf

      Catherine probably didn’t do it on purpose… Getting her soul all mixed up into Winter was a consequence of ripping off Masego’s working, after all. She was probably notified by him that it would happen if Akua took her mantle, though.

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  13. Well, I wish I could say I’m now starting to like Akua but I can’t as I liked her all the way back from book 2 though she had more than a few blindspots and traits of stupidity. Now though, now she’s being fun as an ally instead of an opponent, and honestly I could see making further use of her. By her own philosophy she’ll always be a threat to catherine, yet so long as she believes that she can’t take the throne (kinda difficult due to akua no longer having a power base and likely never being allowed the chance to get one) she could be a magnificent tool. And I have to admit, she’s a beautifully amusing bitch.

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    1. Chat is Callow’s last chance at peace in Callow, she is striving to change things I think the Empress would be ok with Akua as an ally because she is easily controlled where as the Black Knight would understand that Akua continued existence as Chat in some way can change the constant wars. With the seals in place to keep her in check it might be a lie that everyone will have to buy for the greater good, but I could mistaken.

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      1. Agent J

        At first, I just thought it was a typo, but now I’ve got to ask. Why do you keep calling her Chat? Short for Chatherine?

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            1. “The Great Elder was full inheritor in Blood and Bestowal of the ancient Grey Pilgrim that had been the first Seljun of Levant.” How would the Grey Pilgrim’s child have gone to Praes, become a High Lady, then had Akua?

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  14. Muspellsheimr

    Overall I feel her portrayal of Catherine was well done, but Akua did have one major slip.
    “I was born to rule.”

    I will be surprised if the Gray Pilgrim does not pick up on that at some point.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Well he only had four fights with her over the past three days so it’s not like he studied her and grew up with her. We forget that for most people Chat is just your typical bad raised by the Black Knight, they see her as a typical villain who is a cliché as they come. Of course they are mistaken.

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        1. Dainpdf

          Not for him. He has had a pretty good read on Catherine ever since their negotiation of terms before the war, and in this chapter he even noticed there was something new odd with her (though perhaps not what).

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    1. Cicero

      That also stuck out to me as a false note.

      However… it could be interpreted in an ironic self-deprecating way once you consider Cat’s cynicism.

      As in: “I was born to rule” = “I was cursed to rule”

      Basically like “The Cost of the Crown”
      www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=MUjayqeu8SA

      Actually… that song fits Cat really well.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Dainpdf

      She probably gets a normal husk. Maybe a well trained one, but I don’t think she gets their Name power into the undead.

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        1. Dainpdf

          With enough time, sure. Must have taken the genius necromancer only a few centuries to perfect his craft. I mean, unless there are specific shenanigans at work with him (Black theorized he might be what the Gods Below got in exchange for Aoede).

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  15. jack

    I like the idea that the Mantle isn’t just of ‘winter’ anymore, but of Cat herself, so drawing on it makes you both more like a winter fae, and also more like cat.

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    1. well, Cat is the last noble of winter, and as such quite possibly the queen of winter so it would make some sense for her to alter winter into becoming something more like her/what she thought of her name’s power as.

      That said, it’s that she was drawing on the mantle and thus Cat as well since Cat is tied to said mantle. I don’t think Cat’s actually changed the mantle that way, yet.

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      1. I think it was due to the wards/scaffolding Masego used to tie the Winter mantle to Cat’s soul.
        When Cat ripped out the “training wheels” during her fight w/Diabolist, her Soul and Mantle musta mingled.

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        1. Dainpdf

          I’m pretty sure it was stated, back then, that they merged. And it was more of a safety lock than training wheels. You know, restraining the power but also keeping it from going bananas.

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      2. oldschoolvillain

        That . . . actually explains why she hasn’t been bestowing titles on anyone. If Winter is tied to her soul on that deep of a level, giving out titles like duke or duchess would probably be lopping off bits of her soul and tying them to other people.

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  16. Nafram

    You know, I was so sure that Akua was going to break the terms of engagement by summoning demons and that would be the consequence of her pretending to be Catherine. Although in retrospective that was too obvious to actually happen. I must say that I’m quite happy with this turn of events. Kudos to you, Erraticerrata, for bringing us this delightful chapter

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    1. Dainpdf

      I don’t think she could. Cat bound herself to the terms of engagement, and Akua has been shown to be bound to Cat’s oaths.
      Plus, she probably doesn’t have her Name anymore.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. crescentsickle

    This seems like a couple points in favor of my theory that Akua is planning on escaping her prison by transitioning into Chancellor. Being super useful to the sovereign is how Chancellor gets bestowed. Akua even called her Empress.

    So yeah, either she thinks that Cat will have to fight and take the title of Empress eventually, or she’s confident she can manipulate Cat into doing so.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Based on the extra chapters it seems Chat is unable to find anybody suitable to rule. The education required as well as the bloodline required for people to follow your rule for each position in the bureaucracy of running the empire is too much. This she can’t stab her way out of this position. If she relies too much on those she trust then all the Praes empire would have to do is a few well timed assassinations and Chat’s whole empire would fall down. Akua might be necessary to keep enemies that Chat can’t trust in positions of power where they still can be used despite there allegiance lying elsewhere.

      Chat’s chapters where she is simply running the country has shown me how amazing that Praes was able to rule so long without a name dedicated to controlling the nobles. Even more amazing is Procer who has a no named Prince who is extremely young doing the same thing that two named are doing by herself.

      Hope we see a change of heart in Akua may be Chat can resurrect her father once more as a revenant once she becomes strong enough. Keeping her loyalty and ensuring no double crosses less she murder her own father, again.

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        1. taovkool

          And it was banned by Malicia because it gives too much power on whoever bears the Name.

          I think delegation is a bit of a recurring problem in Praes, what with most of the underlings there preparing knives for their superior.

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      1. Let me see if I have this straight: Chat’s body was being controlled by Akbar, and her teacher is called Brak. So the Grey Pilgrim is Space Ghost, then? That explains a lot. And the Dreaddy Empress is not really a person but actually a Bob Marley song from 1969 I think.

        Can ne1 plz verify?

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      1. Dainpdf

        Her Domain. There’s a small difference. And yeah, I suspect attempting to steal the Pilgrim’s mojo would end badly. Taking the Saint’s sword probably would, too, but more because she’d likely be easily able to take it back then roflstomp the thief.

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  18. Important note here.

    CAT IS WINTER.

    Her soul is woven into her winter mantle, to call on winter is to call on cat.

    Consider an entire court of fae bound to the soul and will of cat?

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    1. Dainpdf

      No other Fae are Winter anymore. And we already knew her soul and Winter had merged, back when she ripped Masego’s stabilizing working off and had the Fae power go nuts on her very being.

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  19. WuseMajor

    I gotta say that Akua’s impression of Kat was pretty good and watching her attempt to act correctly was pretty funny. It’s interesting to just flat out enjoy an Akua chapter for once.

    It also just occurred to me that Kat has two treacherous lieutenants. Which means that they might end up backstabbing each other instead of Kat.

    Liked by 3 people

  20. You know, Akua has a point. Cat has been fighting like a brawler because that’s what she’s used to, and her newfound regeneration makes that even more effective than it once was. But Cat’s fundamentally making the same mistake she did when she gained political power. She’s still doing the same thing she’s always done, just with more oomph, without having to adapted to the new options her newfound power gives her.

    Cat’s powers make her a good brawler, sure. But they make her an even better battlefield controller. Way better. Pinpoint gate-crafting, floating ice, that mist trick, control over the very frozen ground, *glamour* (even though Akua never used it, likely because that wouldn’t have worked against the Grey Pilgrim), the scale of her undead control, the potential of tied-off gates, Absolute Positioning, all of it. Cat is no longer a brawler and should not be used as such. She is the ultimate crowd control. She should be used to fight individual heroes on the field, she should be used to fuck with them, debilitate them, deny them ground, fling goblinfire through small gates around them, keep them off her soldiers, and keep them occupied with the dead rather than living soldiers. Cat has the power to completely neutralize quite a few heroes’ impact on her army without ever actually engaging with them.

    And I’m hoping she learns that, applying the same lessons she learned from her mishaps with political power to this. She is not a brawler. She is crowd control. And better yet, if she can make *that* the role her Winter mantle adopts, she can much more safely draw on its power without risking getting into a fucking monologue pissing contest against the *Saint of Swords*.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. … actually … did the Mirror Knight ever engage with Akua? … I don’t think he did. Yeah, there’s the key example of how Cat’s power should be used. Don’t fight the guy with the ultimate deflection abilities. Just *never let him get near you*.

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    2. Oshi

      Guys try to remember and give Cat some credit. She may actually be aware of and capable of most of the things Akua demonstrated (though likely with less skill). However Cat is trying to buy PEACE. You don’t get that by demonstrating how your a nigh unstoppable demi-god villian that needs to be put down. This situation is more a mistake then anything IMO. Not sure where things go from here.

      Its really fucking cool though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I mean, yes, going all-out is an existential retaliation risk for Cat. But when she held off the heroes so the Wild Hunt could kill officers, *this* is how she should have done it.

        Cat’s power set is allowing Akua to basically ignore 9/10 (literally) of the lesser heroes, just by virtue of running faster than them and having access to aerial platforms. Her gates, ice walls, and general mobility are allowing her to defend against the Grey Pilgrim. And her strength and speed are allowing her to play keep-away with the Saint of Swords. And all the while she’s keeping up *devastating* attacks on them that they can’t ignore, just via long-range ice manipulation and transformation. She’s practically *toying* with two legends and ten anointed heroes by sheer virtue of being able to outrun them while she engages them with ranged attacks.

        Even when Cat was calling so deep on the mantle that she started a monologue, the Saint of Swords beat Cat like a rug. The Saint of Swords plus the Pilgrim were so far out of Cat’s capacity to deal with she had to flee outright. Which was the right decision. Because they did outclass her. No matter how far Cat drew on the mantle she wouldn’t have a prayer of lasting more than ten seconds against them both. *In melee*.

        The difference between Cat and Akua’s combat prowess right now isn’t the degree to which they’re drawing on the mantle (even though Akua might be drawing somewhat deeper), it’s how they’re using it. And Akua is just using it better.

        And I actually think this will be a good character growth thing for Cat, once Archer tells her how much better at using the mantle Akua was. Because while Cat has successfully grown beyond her own limitations in *one* arena *after* experiencing consequences from failing to grow, and learned much from that, we’ve yet to see evidence that she’s internalized the attitude of reacting to new powers by transcending the mindset of her old powers. I think this, a catalyst for her to realize she’s still got a ways to go in this mindset, could be a really interesting thing to read, as it pans out.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. Metrux

          It could, but I don’t think this is a Cat thing. From one thing to another, she gets harder, even her new tricks and smarties are the hard kind, instead of finesse. My own bet is that she will not learn to control winter, she will outgrow it with her new Name, becoming more and stronger.

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    3. Dainpdf

      Gotta remember Akua is a superbly talented sorceress, raised by (formerly) one of the greatest mages on Creation. Meanwhile, Cat has little arcane ability.
      Akua can build precise gates that don’t backlash, create great ice formations and such because her skillset allows for it. While I’m sure Cat will pick up some of it, as she has with the intrigue, she can’t just learn Akua’s lifetime of expertise just like that – especially since Akua had a talent and she doesn’t. Maybe if she still had that Learn aspect.
      Look on the other side: Cat has the narrative mastery to have orchestrated an okay ending (for Callow) to this Crusade, and the leadership to get the country this far. Akua would probably not have managed it.

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  21. Someguy

    The “Heroes” are in the wrong Story. Cat has taken the role of a “Jeanne d’Archétype’ (less religion, more cussing), they have taken the role of the Invaders. They are all going to die.

    Black chose a Callowan orphan of no/mysterious background as Squire because it allows her to fulfill the conditions to seize the heroic narrative momentum. Lone Swordsman and that stupid angel was just the start.
    Black

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    1. Dainpdf

      They could argue they are the Army of Light coming to liberate the people from the Tyrant and empower a new regime.
      This story doesn’t resonate well with us because of Iraq, but the very fact that Lybia happened shows that the trope is still alive.

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      1. Agent J

        Firstly, how was Libya any better a result than Iraq? It could be well argued that it’s even worse off than both Iraq and Syria combined. What with all the organ harvesting and literal slave markets. It’s a ghastly and painful mess, just doesn’t get as much media attention.

        Real world politics aside, the crusaders are not here to empower a new regime. If they were, Cat would have willingly abdicated. She even offered to do so, as long as Pilgrim was willing to ensure Callowan sovereignty would be safeguarded. He wouldn’t, so she didn’t.

        It’s been made clear that the crusaders aren’t here to liberate, but to subjugate. They mean to chop up Callow and divide it amongst themselves, as if Callowans were little more than cattle on pasture to be divvied up and sold to the highest bidder.

        They are an invading army out to conquer new lands. They have gross numerical superiority in both troops and Named. They used a massive sorcerous ritual to invade with the element of surprise.

        *cough*Invisible army, sapient tiger army, some army that invaded from under water*cough*

        It’s been mentioned in the comments section of some previous chapter, but Procer is acting much more Praes-like these days than even Praes itself. Through human greed and naked ambition, the crusaders have made themselves the villains of this story and Black has raised Cat to be genre savvy enough to capitalise on that.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Dainpdf

          I didn’t say Lybia had a better result. What I said was that, despite the result of Iraq, the same sorts of arguments and justifications were used again to invade Lybia.
          As for a new government: they do wish to install a new government. Just not a Callowan one, partly because the possible Good rulers in Callow were all put to the sword by Black (or recruited, in Cat’s case).
          Sort of like the original first Crusade IRL was an invasion force attempting to make sure the holy land was under Christian rule.

          Like

    2. Jean, by all accounts, was very nifty with cussing in at least two languages and a couple of dialects. The advantages of growing up around Rouen at that point in time — English and assorted Frenches with some Low Dutch/German/It’s-Complicated… Even peasants learned multinational swearing, if only to get creative when the mule stubborned at them. They had cause to, beyond yelling creatively at mules, too.

      Like

    1. I thought she was already countered by Hano who had aspects that countered Chat’s inexperience. A healing ability that literally is like a hand grenade preventing any from coming close Chat’s favorite activity. You think the heavens are going to just resurrect various anti-chats that specialize in killing her because she is such as stick in creation’s gears.

      Like

  22. Drd

    Have to say, the transmutation of water/ice/mist is definitely a trick Cat needs to explore further, if it doesn’t push her too far into winter’s embrace.

    Like

  23. Dainpdf

    Goddammit, erraticetera. Now Akua is my favorite character. Her method acting is great, and the snark is soooooo good! She manages to be more interesting a read when fighting than Black.
    Now if only we could have “Akua pretending to be Black” POV…

    Like

  24. Kurt

    shouldn’t “Did that register as a lie?” she grinned. “It didn’t, did it?” be “It did, didn’t it”? Seems like that was what she meant so say.

    Like

    1. Byzantine

      Nope. She was being sarcastic – his lie detection isn’t so stupid that it registers sarcasm as a lie because it is not literally true. So she got across exactly the point she intended: Mocking him for doing something with serious consequences.

      Like

  25. burdi

    when akua draw on winter she got the power
    when cat draw on winter she got the power and knowledge, i think that because she has the gift of winter
    cat has rightfull claim on the mantle of winter and thats what make her better than akua on how to use the mantle

    Like

    1. Metrux

      I… Thinkk you’re confused. Akua is clearly better when using the mantle, Cat is better elsewhere, like swordfighting and keeping allies/friends.

      Like

  26. Aran Ilyaris

    Something about Callow? Akua pondered her understanding of Catherine’s temper. I am angry, the sorceress decided, because I am disappointed as I have mystifyingly failed to grasp that the Heavens prefer their pawns powerful yet rather dim. I must now protect the venerable sanctity of farms and countless peasants everywhere, as I am very concerned with their fate even though they are ignorant and full of lice.

    “Fuck off and die,” Akua called back, tinting her voice with wroth.

    I love this bit.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. *sighs* dammit me, why do I gotta read so fast… such a great series and I caught up from the first chapter in like a week.

    Well, other than me moping about not having more to read… Wow that was a great chapter. Very happy to have Cat’s perspective back though, should be very fun :).

    I loved seeing Akua’s perspective on how to use Winter – hopefully she can help Cat figure out how to use her powers more properly. I’ve been thinking for a number of chapters now that she wasn’t really using her powers to their full potential. I don’t think Akua’s method is the full potential way of using them either though – I think the best way would be a combination of the strengths of how Akua and Cat use winter really, since that would bring really excellent close combat abilities with mid-ranged attacks and distractions.

    I also found it interesting that Akua wasn’t seemingly as affected by using the full strength of Winter’s power as Cat is. She was still affected, but not nearly as much as Cat was when fighting the sword saint… I wonder if it’s Cat being unaccustomed to using power like Winter (Akua has apparently used similar powers in the past and was an accomplished mage, maybe that has something to do with it?), and will be able to ‘power up’ as she gets more familiar with fighting enemies while restraining winters effects on her mind.

    Like

    1. Alegio

      I believe Akua probably was trained in ‘How to make the most out of being demonically possesed’. We are talking about the girl whose culture includes using the right poison so the other person doesnt gets offended if it’s too cheap.

      Like

  28. Alegio

    I really don’t like Akua as a person, but as a character she is probably my favorite. I’m a sucker for villians of the old type, specially someone as rutless and smart as her.

    Like

  29. I am so damn hyped. Why? Well in about 2 and a half hours the next chapter will land and it will be a Cat chapter after the last six chapters and Daaaaaaaaamn am I excited to see how the second stage of this raid boss goes.

    Like

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