Interlude: Red The Flowers

“Red the flowers, red the crown
Red this day of bleak renown
How soon they forgot Eleanor
Along every oath they swore
 
Red the flowers, red the wreath
Red the sword that left the sheath
Now a king lies dead on the grass
Taught the vows of princes pass
 
Red the flowers, red the grave
Red the biers of knights so brave
They who thrice rode and died
Under banners of olden pride
 
Red the flowers, red the right
Red the fires this day will light
For every slight there is a price
Ours will be long and paid twice.”

-‘Red The Flowers’, a Callowan rebel song written in the wake of the Proceran occupation of Callow

It had been some time since Amadeus had last inhaled the scent of carnage. The dawn of the third day brought with it strong winds and burning sun: the corpses were rotting in the heat, the smell of them carried to the third line of fortifications in the southern valley. The Iron Prince had ordered a halt to the offensive with nightfall, the crusaders setting camp among the ruined walls and bastion they’d spent the day taking at such great cost. Papenheim was not fresh to the art of war: he knew better than to engage a Praesi army under cover of dark. Especially one that’d had most a year to raise siege engines goblins would field and aim perfectly when the crusaders stumbled along blindly with torches and holy flames. Grem stood by his side atop the tower known as the southern half of the Bloody Twins, the unusually slender orc towering two feet above him. Marshal Grem One-Eye spat over the wall, staring at the enemy stirring in the distance.

“They’re not wasting time,” the orc said. “Papenheim wants to bludgeon through as quick as possible, looks like. You were right about that much.”

Amadeus remained silent, for the moment. Grem had been of the opinion that there’d be probing attacks to weather but no serious offensive until the armies of Levant arrived to reinforce the Iron Prince’s sixty thousand Procerans. The initial span of the war had leant credence to the orc’s prediction, but after the crusaders up north passed through the Stairway the old Lycaonese had begun his march in earnest. There were political considerations at work, the Black Knight suspected. Cordelia Hasenbach had called this crusade and assembled the alliance, but mistrust still reigned between Procer and its temporary allies. Even just the impression that she intended to bleed Levant instead of her own armies would raise the spectre of suspicion within the Grand Alliance. The old fear of Proceran expansionism haunted her regime still. Amadeus could sympathize. Past Dread Emperors had burned all the Empire’s diplomatic bridges so thoroughly most ruins were still actively smouldering. It had taken Alaya more than two decades to craft a rapprochement with Ashur, and it’d still all gone up in flames after only a few months of diplomatic correspondence between Hasenbach and Magon Hadast.

“I’m not so certain he’s fully committed,” Amadeus finally replied. “The First Prince needs blood on the floor to show her allies, but Papenheim has not been careless in his advance. He’s willing to trade but not outright sacrifice.”

“Thinning our numbers is the best way for them to win this,” Grem conceded. “They’ve certainly got the levies to throw away.”

The legions garrisoning the Red Flower Vales numbered six. Twenty-four thousand men in full. The First under Grem was holding the southern passage along with Mok’s Third and Sacker’s Ninth. Marshal Ranker and her Fourth were leading the defence of the northern valleys, commanding the freshly-rebuilt Twelfth and Nekheb’s Tenth. That last legion they’d had to employ sparingly. General Catastrophe, as they were fondly called by their living soldiers, fielded a legion of undead captained by necromancers. But even alone the dragon was a force to reckon with. Combined with foot soldiers they could torch along the enemy at no great loss? Nekheb could turn around a battle, if well deployed. They were also, unfortunately, very vulnerable to heroes. Dragonslaying was an old heroic staple, and there was at least one hero on the opposite side with an archery-related Name. Wanton use would only result in the death of one of their primary assets.

“We’ve been light on losses so far,” Amadeus noted. “And we still hold three of the five defensive lines in both passes. It cost them at least seven thousand to get this far in.”

“Less,” Grem replied. “If our effectiveness estimates on their priests is solid, anyway. We’ll need to start deploying our contingencies today to blunt their momentum.”

Amadeus looked at the glittering wall of steel forming in the distance, brow creasing.

“You hold command,” he said. “I am here in an advisory role.”

The orc barked out a laugh.

“Meddling’s in your blood, Amadeus,” he said. “You can’t help it.”

“And yet my role remains advisory,” the Black Knight mildly replied. “I would caution you that sending Warlock onto the field before the enemy revealed their own Named casters will have consequences, but the the choice is ultimately yours.”

Marshal Grem One-Eye half-squinted at the enemy, then cracked his neck. When they’d been young, the orc had done it purely for the satisfaction. Now his bones creaked and bent with age, the one enemy neither of them could defeat on the field.

“We’ve got a few tricks to deploy before ol’ Red Skies gets off his arse,” Grem decided. “Let’s see how they like the taste of those.”

Amadeus inhaled the scent of it again. Blood and rotting flesh, shit and steel and a hundred other small things drowned out by them. It was still thin, for now.

It would grow stronger before the day was done.

Klaus had been raised to the old military dictum of never assaulting a fortress unless you had three times the enemy’s number. Back in the Empire the first Terribilis had noted in his Ars Tactica that twice the number was sufficient if you had spellcaster superiority, but that was a worthless piece of advice for anyone but the Praesi. You couldn’t go up against the Dread Empire and expect your spellslingers to be up to snuff. Much, as he had discovered over the last two days, like you couldn’t expect dwarven siege weapons to be a match for goblin engineering. The first day had been opened by an artillery duel and his host had not come out the better for it. The Empire’s trebuchets and ballistas fired further and swifter than the catapults and trebuchets bought from the Kingdom Under, and the knock-off scorpions brought by the Arlesites had been about useful as tits on a sparrow. Not a single one of the them had survived long enough to come into firing range. If the old general had twice as many men he could have swept through one line of defence after another, taking the losses as he went. But as things stood? If he went it half-cocked, less than a third of his army would emerge from the meat grinder to set foot in Callow.

The outer walls in both valleys were old Proceran fortifications taken by the Kingdom of Callow the last time the border principalities botched an invasion of the Vales, later repurposed to serve as defensive lines facing the other way. They were, essentially, piles of stone twenty feet high with steeply sloped hills behind them the Praesi had set their engines on. No bastions, no towers, nothing more elaborate than stones piled up high with mortar holding them together. One-Eye and the Carrion Lord had defended it with a bare few hundred, regulars and sappers, so he’d launched an escalade under cover of the artillery duel. Within the first half-hour of the offensive he’d lost over two thousand soldiers. Sappers lobbed their munitions onto the ladders, killing as many with the fall as the explosions, while crossbow volleys fired straight into tightly-packed ranks earned swaths of dead. They’d taken the damned walls, of course. Fortifications that bare couldn’t be held against his numbers, and he’d half-expected the enemy would let him have them uncontested. Instead the Praesi had defended for less than an hour, taken maybe three dozen casualties and retreated with all their engines intact. That’d set the tone for the second day.

Another four thousand gone to take the kind of defences you saw in your average Lycaonese border town. Low walls and towers, a single central bastion. He’d sent the heroes in with the first wave, with massed mage support, and run into a godsdamned wall. The fortifications were warded so thoroughly nothing he had could crack them in the slightest, and the grounds fifty feet from the foot of the walls were seeded what Praesi called lily fields. Hidden pits with spikes at the bottom. The assault’s momentum shattered, Legion mages began torching everything in sight and the entire attack would have collapsed if not for a Chosen called the Fortunate Fool. Klaus had considered the man essentially useless, considering he had truck with more herbs than your average alchemist, but the hero had stumbled his way onto a safe path through the lily field by sheer happenstance. The other Chosen rallied the levies and led an assault on the walls in the southern valley. None of the Damned had come out to meet them, at least, something he’d been assured was a consequence of the White Knight and the Witch of the Woods refraining from entering the fray.

It’d taken most of the day to force the Praesi back in both valleys. He’d called a halt after that, well aware his men did not have the stomach to march into whatever nastiness the Carrion Lord had awaiting. Or the ability to match goblin nightsight: all torches and priestly glows would accomplish was mark targets for the enemy siege. Now the third dawn had come, and steel would be bared again. The defensive line ahead would be the beginning of the real fight, he knew. On both sides, though at different lengths from a bird’s eye view, the valleys narrowed into passes flanked by cliffs. Those natural defences had been the seat of Callowan fortresses for centuries, the rock Proceran offensives broke on. The Bloody Twins, Alamans called them. Massive towers forty feet high sitting atop slopes at an angle of almost sixty degrees. There were dirt paths leading up, but they were not wide. Forcing the Twins was going to be ugly business, but it had to be done. They were the high point of both valleys, the terrain going down towards Callow after them. Claiming the high ground would allow Klaus’ fucking engines to finally start being more than expensive targets, and with the fortresses still awaiting ahead he’d need every advantage he could get.

Klaus swatted Ratbiter absent-mindedly to keep him from chewing away at the red marigolds that grew everywhere in the valleys, and were allegedly responsible for their name. They were said to have been gold, once upon a time, but had since grown red from all the blood spilled on these grounds over the centuries.

“De Guison,” he called out, and the mageling snapped to attention. “Contact the northern front. We’re beginning our attacks.”

The man made a three-act play out of obeying a simple order, but the old general’s attention had already left him. He gestured for his personal hornblower to sound the offensive and eyed the grounds he needed to take before getting to the southern Twin. Almost four hundred yards of more or less flat grounds, before getting at the foot of the slope. Then another half hundred, marching up one of the continent’s most viciously designed natural fortresses. He was going to lose thousands just on the approach, and that’d be if the Praesi had no surprised awaiting. He knew better than to expect that. There was a reason he’d ordered for the Fortunate Fool to run ahead of the first ranks, the silly-looking idiot in silks taking point so good soldiers need not die. His instincts had been correct, he discovered shortly.

The Chosen walked over innocuous-looking grounds and was blown high into the sky by an explosion about a hundred yards from the bottom of the slope, landing on his back a dozen feet forward. Where he blew up again. Under Klaus’ sceptical gaze, five explosions were chained in a row until the man arrived halfway through the evidently mined field. He got up, looking a little charred, and patted himself in panic to put out the flames on his chest. The Prince of Hannoven was familiar with the effects of Praesi demolition charges, and he silently reassessed how bloody difficult this Chosen would be to actually put down. A few streaks of lightning shot down from atop the Twin but the Fortunate Fool ducked them by a series of very coincidental trips and falls, before waddling back to the Proceran lines and loudly claiming victory. Klaus now had a basic notion of enemy mage range and the concentration of buried charges. The assault proper could begin.

“Priests forward,” he ordered his standard-bearer. “Sweep for the munitions.”

The robed brothers and sisters of the House of Light strode forward as ordered, and it was but a few moments before streaks of light began hammering at the ground in an advancing wave. The growing narrowness of the valley here ran to their advantage, for once. Less territory to cover. Munitions detonated in plumes of earth and smoke one after another, destroying the traps at the unfortunate cost of breaking up the terrain. Advance would be even more difficult. The enemy waited patiently for them to finish, silhouettes atop the tower unmoving. The murder holes and larger openings for scorpions were bristling with steel, a promise of death yet to come.

“Mages and engines, forward,” Klaus told his standard-bearer. “Our vanguard is to prepare for advance on my signal.”

Never get into a siege with Praesi, he’d once told his niece. He still believed it, though he had no other choice. The Legions of Terror as forged by the Reforms were one of the finest war machines on the continent, and in this series of valleys he couldn’t even use the major advantage his people had over the Empire. Cavalry. Instead he was forced to play to the enemy’s strengths, to his distaste, and because of it this was not so much war as a slugging match of piled corpses. Dragged forward, the catapults were set down and panes of opaque yellow light formed to protect them.

The third battle for the Vales began.

“We are witnessing,” Grem gravely said, “the birth of a Proceran combined arms doctrine.”

Amadeus hummed in agreement.

“It was only a matter of time,” he said. “We showed the effectiveness of it during the Conquest. The Principate was too preoccupied with the civil war to catch up, but they’ve had time to breathe since Hasenbach took power. She gave her uncle free hand to reform the Principate’s war doctrine, and Papenheim is no fool. Catherine faced much the same tactics up north.”

The old orc grunted unhappily.

“If she’d listened to Istrid’s daughter and gone ahead with Bonfire, she wouldn’t have had to,” he said. “It was a solid plan. Would have taken Procer out of the war, and without the Principate the crusade collapses.”

It was a natural consequence of his former apprentice having folded two legions into her Army of Callow that Amadeus had gained plethora eyes and ears among her officer corps. The Duni had mostly used these to keep abreast of her war strategy and arrange his own accordingly. Scribe’s agents in her army, on the other hand, had been waging a war with Alaya’s own spies in the ranks. He’d preferred passing information to her amusingly-named Jacks rather than carrying out the killings through his own proxies, though on occasion more direct intervention had been needed. He was quite pleased, in fact, with how quickly and solidly her network of spies and assassins had grown. The Thief was proving skilled at the art, though it would be years before the Jacks were in the same league as Alaya’s agents or Eudokia’s. Penetration in depth was difficult to achieve with such limited time and coin.

“It would have painted a target on her neck for every single hero on the continent,” Amadeus replied. “The choice was correct.”

“They’re already out for her blood, Amadeus,” Grem grunted. “It’s a crusade, not a petty border dispute.”

“The difference is in being a target or the target,” the green-eyed man said. “No villain can survive the amount of heroic focus Bonfire would have brought. The initial stages would have been a success, but within a few months a band of heroes specifically geared towards killing her would have been grown or assembled.”

“A few months would have been enough to cleave Procer in half,” Grem said.

“Perhaps,” Amadeus shrugged. “But it would have signed her death warrant. She is cleverer than that.”

The hint of pride in his voice at that, he did not suppress. His old friend caught it easily enough.

“She stabbed you, Black,” he growled. “Don’t wave that away as youthful enthusiasm, because we certainly haven’t.”

Eudokia, to his occasional headache, had made that abundantly clear. He’d had to outright order her not to take revenge.

“One who rears a tiger should not complain of stripes,” Amadeus quoted in Mtethwa.

“Your tiger put on a crown and raised an army after stealing three legions,” Grem growled in Kharsum. “We’re past stripes.”

“My tiger beat back an army twice the size of hers strengthened by the two most famous living heroes on Calernia,” the dark-haired man laughed. “Three legions, one of which was always hers, is a paltry price to pay for that.”

“She’s going to turn on the Empire, Black,” the Marshal warned. “We all know it.”

Amadeus leaned against the crenelation as ballistas fired around them, hammering at the shields protecting the Proceran engines. The stones those were lobbing at the tower bounced off harmlessly or shattered. Wekesa had found it an amusing irony that the warding scheme he’d used here was a variation of a Callowan work. The very same that had once protected the walls of Liesse, dispersal of impact across the entire structure. The crusaders could fire at the Twin for months without making a dent, if they did not focus their fire.

“Is the Empire as it currently standsso worthy of survival?” the Black Knight murmured. “I think not. If it cannot adapt, then let it perish. Out of the ashes we will raise something other than a snake devouring its own tail, shattering the world with its throes as it seeks to sate empty hunger.”

“Dangerous words,” Grem said.

“Yet here you stand,” Amadeus said. “Without ever having obeyed your summons back to Ater.”

“It’s illegal to order a Marshal back from an active war front without evidence of treason,” the orc said.

The Duni turned green eyes to his old friend, brow quirking. The orc looked away.

“She won her games,” Grem One-Eye finally said. “But she still played them.”

They left it at that, eyes returning to the unfolding battle. Papenheim had learned over the last two days the price of an infantry advance on Legion-held fortifications, even with dwarven engines providing cover, but he had little other choice than to repeat the previous performance. He could not starve out the defenders, nor did he have another path than the Vales to march through. The old bottleneck that had kept Procer at bay for centuries was bleeding it once more. Grem ordered for mage fire to be held as the crusader vanguard advanced, passing the engines and charging towards the slope. A handful of heroes were at the front, but Amadeus saw no need to intervene. They’d likely be able to shatter the tower gates if they made it there, but there was the rub. If. The orc that was the highest-ranked officer in the Legions of Terror waited until the enemy was fully committed before ordering the mages to send the signal. Up on the mountaintops, faraway, there was an explosion. Months of work by sappers, all for this single moment. Amadeus counted seventy-nine heartbeats before the water began pouring down from the very discreet channel carved into the mountainside.

There was a deep mountain lake, far out of sight. Digging a tunnel through hard rock and corking it with a dike had been a wonder of goblin engineering. He’d been quite amused, hearing that Catherine had dropped a fae lake atop her enemies up north. What the sappers had devised was not so different. The stream of water, quickened by the slopes, hit the outer edge of the Proceran lines. A few were killed by the sheer weight and momentum, but the real damage came from the spread of water sweeping away everything it touched. And continuing, at that same steady pace. Mages moved their shields to contain the situation, struggling to find the the location the water was pouring from – it was hidden by an illusory ward. All they achieved, in the end, was to contain the flood until the pressure grew beyond the ability of their hodgepodge spell formulas to weather. Priests intervened as well, weaving fences of light, but they were not sufficiently organized to form a comprehensive wall. The water went around it. Surprise, Amadeus mused, was the most dangerous weapon in any army’s arsenal. Still, it would not be long before heroes intervened now. There was a flare of Light from Papenheim’s camp moments later, and the illusory ward broke. The fences and shields immediately shifted to block off the opening.

“Send the second signal,” Grem ordered their signal mage.

A streak of red light splashed across the sky, and twenty heartbeats later another explosion sounded. A chunk of the mountainside broke open and water began pouring again. A plan with a single point of failure, after all, was no plan at all.

“The bouquets?” Amadeus asked.

“As soon as they shift,” Grem replied, eyeing the battlefield. “Lukran, tell the sappers I don’t want a single Proceran engine on the field to survive this engagement. They’re naked as babes in the woods.”

Left shieldess, the dwarven machinery was methodically broken down by the goblin-manned ballistas as the Proceran mages and priests refocused their efforts towards the more immediate threat of water. They split, much as Grem had predicted when the general staff had planned this. The mages shielded one entrance, the priests the other. Amadeus personally would have focused on swiftness instead of optimal impact, with heroic intervention being in the cards, but he trusted the orc’s instincts.

“Bouquets,” Grem ordered with a feral smile.

Sorcery flared as the mages lines wove tendrils of air, each hooked to a heavy wooden barrel. Within moments a hundred of them snaked through the sky, coming to rest above the mages and priests. The spells petered out and the barrels fell. Hasty tongues of holy flame and sundry spells shot up to intercept them, but there were too many targets to handle. Many of them were duds filled with rocks, regardless. Others simple munitions. Of the hundred barrels, sixty-three fell with impact by Amadeus’ count. Twenty-one of those were a mixture of smokers and sharpers, and exploded with billowing poisonous smoke. Twelve were filled with goblinfire, and the battlefield turned into a hellish green landscape in the blink of an eye. The mages and the priests broke, no longer able to hold back the waters, and the streams began to pour out again. Prince Klaus Papenheim had sent eight thousand levies and fantassins as his vanguard, with fourteen mixed catapults and trebuchets to cover them.  No engine survived. Fewer than two thousand infantry did.

When night fell over the Vales, it was to the flickering of green flames on still water.

“Report,” Klaus ordered, exhaustion bare in his voice as he sat slumped in his seat.

Princess Mathilda of Neustria was pushing forty these days. It never surprised him to see it. He remembered Mati as the rambunctious child that had been close as kin with his sister, a mischievous devil in mail skirts that never laughed as brightly as when she was shattering ratling skulls with that monster of a mace she wielded. Neustrians as a rule kept a closer eye on the happenings down south and had been known to twine their lines with those of Brus and Lyonis on occasion – unlike most Lycaonese royalty, who’d sneer at such thinning of the blood – but Mati had never been one to have an interest in courtly games. It was an old compact of the Four Houses that soldiers from the the southernmost Lycaonese principalities would reinforce the walls and fortresses at the border when the thaw came and warbands went on the march, but Mathilda had never been one for half-measures. Every year since her crowning, she’d taken all soldiers not garrisoning the border with Brus to fight the Plague as soon as spring arrived. Klaus did not consider her an exceptional tactician or strategist, but her the sight of her distinctive green armour on the front had a way of lighting a fire in men’s bellies. Lycaonese had a well-worn love for royalty that led from the front. The princess’ face was streaked with dirt and her short red locks pressed with sweat against her face.

“They dropped the mountain on us, Klaus,” the Princess of Neustria told him in Reitz. “The fucking mountain.”

Klaus leaned forward.

“The Warlock took the field?”

She shook her head.

“We think it was munitions,” Mathilda said. “Wasn’t sorcery, the mages say, and there were explosions. They must have mined the side through tunnels. I sent in my vanguard and the entire cliffside toppled down on it like some titan’s flyswatter.”

“Gods Above,” the Iron Prince croaked out.

“That bloody dragon made a pass right after, blew fire straight through my priests,” she said, passing a tired hand over her face. “The Silver Huntress put a magic arrow in one of its wings, but it’s the only wound it took. It’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Casualties?” Klaus asked.

“Maybe two thousand dead, twice as many wounded,” the princess sighed. “What’s left of my priests is getting the wounded back on their feet.”

“They went straight after our priests and casters,” the Prince of Hannoven said. “They’re trying to cripple those before a decisive engagement.”

“They’re doing well at it, too,” Mathilda said. “And I don’t need to tell you morale went down the drain. There’ll be no volunteers for the vanguard tomorrow, I can tell you that much. Doesn’t help that our two alleged heavyweights have been sitting pretty this whole time.”

“Chosen logic,” Klaus said. “They say the Sovereign of Red Skies and the the Carrion Lord will remain out of the battle so long as they do the same.”

“The other Chosen are bloody useless,” the Princess of Neustria bluntly replied. “Oh, they’re a pretty sight leading the charge. That Levantine girl, the Champion? She’s been at the front of every offensive. But we’re swinging at mist, Klaus. They can be as good at killing Praesi as they want, we’re not fighting Praesi. We’re fighting falling mountains, and the Champion’s no use there. We need the Witch and the Heavens’ hatchet man.”

The Lycaonese balked at the notion of needing Chosen to win his battles for him, but there was also truth in this so he held his tongue. Outside, in the distance, water still burned green. Seven days and seven nights, that was said to be the lifespan of goblinfire. Unless he was willing to send his soldiers wading hip-deep in a lake topped by a hell of alchemy, there would be no more offensives in the southern valley. The Praesi would shift their forces accordingly, reinforcing the northern Twin, and there would be no chance breaking through there against the full muster of the Empire’s finest.

“Then we will have them,” Prince Klaus Papenheim. “Even if I must drag them to the front myself.”

Hanno had died twenty-one times since morning.

He’d used his aspect in a similar manner before, but those had been shallow readings. The seeking of similarity so he could draw on the experience of his predecessors to make up for his own shortcomings. Never before had he sought lives and memories purely to learn how to kill a man. His enemy had made it difficult, nonetheless. Heroes rarely survived their first encounter with the Black Knight, and those that did were usually engaged by other Calamities on the second meeting. He’d found a single instance, the Rebel Knight, who’d bared her sword at the man twice. Three years after the Conquest, a hidden bastard child of a branch line of House Fairfax who’d inherited the same Name as Eleanor Fairfax herself. Flight after the first engagement had bought her an hour before the Black Knight caught up and slew her in her wounded exhaustion. Some other lives had taught him near nothing of use, like the Merry Brawler – the knife through the back of the neck that’d killed him only served as a reminder that the Carrion Lord preferred to kill without any struggle if he could. The Unconquered Champion had yielded the greatest amount of information. The Levantine hero had trapped his foe in his domain and teased out more tricks than any other before or after him, in large part because five mortal wounds had been needed before the man died.

Memory by memory, death by death, Hanno had woven together a whole. Sitting with his eyes closed in a tent muted from all noise by Antigone, his sword in his lap, he had studied the many murders of the Black Knight. The man had limitations. Hanno had almost thought otherwise, after their duel in Nicae, but he now saw his mistake. When recalling the skills of his predecessors his plunge had been too shallow. Mere versatility was not sufficient to kill the Carrion Lord, not when he only brought to the fore part of the skills called on. That was, the White Knight now understood, playing the villain’s own preferred game. The Black Knight was himself a jack-of-all-trades, facing him with a similar approach would only lead to the victory of the older man’s greater experience. The method had been incorrect, and so he had adjusted. Studied the swordsmanship the villain had learned from the Lady of the Lake, the weaknesses of that tutelage. And, upon finding them, Hanno had spent hours seeking the right combination of lives that would allow him to capitalize on those weaknesses. Three would be required: the Flawless Fencer, the Lance of Light and the Barehanded Pugilist.

The sequence was adaptable to the villain’s own approach, but the result would ultimately be the same. He’d sought a handful of other lives to draw on as contingencies, should tactics he’d seen employed through other eyes be employed again, and another pair as escape and disengaging sets. Night had fallen, when he emerged from the trance, and he remained seated. Tired down to his bones and struggling to master the lingering echoes of the lives he’d dug so deep into. He would need rest before he was ready to fight. The tent’s flap parted and a masked of painted stone topped by long dark tresses stared at him. Antigone, still wearing the face the Gigantes had bestowed upon her. Hanno suspected that of all the host around him, only he understood the significance of that. The favour of the Titans was not lightly earned, and no less terrible than their wroth.

“Hanno,” the Witch of the Woods said, her words from no language known to man and yet perfectly understood. “The Champion wishes to speak with you.”

The Gift of Tongues never ceased to invoke wonder in him when so displayed. No man or creature that could understand the spoken word would ever fail to understand his friend.

“I am done,” the White Knight said, voice rough with disuse. “Come in, both of you.”

The inside of his tent was bare save for a bed of straw and his armour, and so he had no earthly comforts to offer either women as they entered. Neither seemed to mind. Antigone disdained any life but that of the wilds, and Rafaella’s cheer had already proved undaunted in the face of greater discomforts. The Witch’s long cloak-tunic pooled around her as she sat gracefully, surrounding herself in coarse green cloth that revealed only sandal-clad feet. Rafaella, on the other hand, slumped down in a cacophony of shuddering armour. The Valiant’s Champion snarling badger helm was dropped into the dirt as she shook free the long braid going halfway down her back, her tanned face split in a grin. She was not wearing, for once, the wolf fur cloak she’d claimed from someone that was no wolf at all.

“Have good day, yes?” the Champion said.

Hanno inclined his head.

“I am ready,” he said.

“Good,” Rafaella hummed. “My day, up and down. Easterners drop mountain on me. Tried to fight it, went not so good.”

Hanno glanced at Antigone, her green eyes finding his own through the mask.

“The Legions detonated a cliffside onto the Proceran advance,” she said.

The White Knight’s fingers clenched. His work had been necessary, but he grieved that it had allowed the Carrion Lord to weave the deaths of so many through his inaction.

“Then dragon came,” the Champion continued, sounding noticeably more pleased. “Went on dwarf machine, told soldier: ‘Bald Procer man, I stand on machine. Throw me at dragon.’”

Hanno’s brow rose.

“I take it he did not,” he half-asked.

Rafaella sighed.

“He said ‘no, stupid savage, if I do this it kill you’. I say ‘maybe if I feeble Procer soldier like you, but am glorious champion of Levant’.”

The tanned woman scratched her chin thoughtfully.

“Bald Procer man not happy about that,” she mused. “Left and did not reply. Think he complain to tall red princess about it.”

The Ashuran snorted. Proceran royalty had avoided him like the plague after the first time he’d been called upon to render judgement in a dispute and a cousin of the the Prince of Orense had been judged as unfit for continued existence by the Seraphim. Oddly enough it had warmed some of the Lycaonese to his presence, though the true gain of the affair had been the end of the insistent invitations to share cups of wine by the rest. He doubted any of what Rafaella had mentioned would be brought to him as a dispute to arbitrate.

“The Warlock still waits,” Antigone said. “The Carrion Lord with him. None of our companions ever reached them.”

“They were not all meant for this war,” Hanno quietly replied. “For many it is beyond the scope of their Fate, bound as they are elsewhere to other works. They must be careful, lest sudden death find them. The Grey Pilgrim is not with us to forgive such mistakes.”

Rafaella discreetly traced a sign on her leg at the mention of the Peregrine, expression sobering. To see her act bashful when they’d first met the man had been an almost frightening experience.

“You ready now, yes?” the Champion asked. “Time for fight.”

“At dawn,” Hanno replied calmly. “The fourth day is the beginning.”

Finally,” the Witch of the Woods murmured.

Hanno of Arwad breathed out slowly. The sentence had already been given.

It must now be carried out, at last.

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139 thoughts on “Interlude: Red The Flowers

  1. Antoninjohn

    Giants wroth is bad, Giants really hate Procer, Witch of the Wilds is helping Procer. Looks like the Giants are going to intervene on Procer’s ambitions

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Highwayman

    Well, it isn’t the goblin fire party I was expecting, but nowadays I take whatever I can get.

    And the Champion’s wolfskin cloak from something that was not an wolf…
    Someone’s gonna get hurt real bad real soon, methinks.

    Liked by 9 people

      1. Someguy

        I envision the following:-

        At the dawn of the fifth day Black’s battle standard hung a new talisman which had been added to their demonic paraphernalia.

        There, suspended in the breeze, hung the remains of the Valiant Champion.

        Her skin, rather. Flayed from her body by the orcs, sewn into sacks which bellied in the breeze, and smeared with the excrement of goblins. The skin-sack had been cleverly designed so that it channeled the wind into a wail of horror. The skin hung suspended by the hair of one who had once filled them in life. The Blackguards took great care to hold it in such a manner that the crusaders and remaining heroes could see her face.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yotz

          Pools of blood glisten so brightly. Death cries echo so harmoniously. We drink deeply of fear and pain. Only thus we can soothe our fiery hearts.

          On that vein of thoughts we may as well repurpose old Rusty Prince’s fucking engines into the literal copulation machines. And chain them into a train, for good measure. Well, Bad measure. Without brakes, of course – for there ain’t no brakes on that bloody thing…

          Liked by 1 person

        2. ALazyMonster

          I feel like this description came from a relic from one of the item guides for exalted. Probably one of the Infernals or Abyssals items.

          Like

      2. It like that comic Invincible a sign of respect to the enemy. I mean the Champion claimed that they had songs about the Captain, she respected her as an opponent. Lets face it the captain had it coming she is a villain and has murdered countless people in fits of rage her damage has been so widespread, she spawned many heroes to counter her.

        Without the Black knight maneuvering the Calamities they would have died long ago. Still Champion is similar to Chat who wove the banner’s of her enemies. I like a little equality in my stories when you die your number is up good or evil. So make the best of your story while you can.

        Like

        1. Yotz

          Pro’bly ’cause of Monsters forfeiting the right to not being skinned upon becoming a Monster. If she’d were killed in her human form, she’d retain her skin intact.

          Liked by 4 people

        1. Metrux

          Well, except for a single soul, the cloack is made of CLOTH, like any other cloack… The distinction is from where this cloth came from. So, not using parts of dead things.

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    1. Straight up blocking both valleys with goblinfire or trying to detonate massive caches of goblinfire under the crusade’s entire army is just begging for heroic intervention to turn the goblinfire back on you in the worst possible way. This is probably the smartest possible use they could have made of it.

      Gods, heroes do take the fun out of everything. They make all the really big, grand tactics nonviable.

      Like

  3. Argentorum

    “She won her games, but she still played them.”

    Facts.
    Also the heck does Malecia think she’s doing, recalling her marshal during the middle of an invasion? Does she *want* to lose this war? If Klaus gets through the Vales with too many men, there’s no way Callow holds, bound by truce or not.

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      1. Yotz

        There is a possibility. Though, that was probably the “attic promotion” move to weaken Black. Then again, now that Marshal had shewn his colours, that possibility becomes frighteningly inevitable.

        Like

      2. Nah. Malicia isn’t that stupid, she knows she needs the best she’s got to the defend the Vale. Rather, I’d guess this is part of a long strategy. She *knows* Grem would refuse the recall order (on legitimate grounds, yes) but she’ll finagle that into Grem’s removal after the worst of the immediate threats is dealt with anyway.

        Outright removing Grem One-Eye is a no-go, but if you start setting up the pieces a year or two in advance and get Grem to voluntarily bow out of the political process you’re assembling against him, well, that might be doable.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. RanVor

      Actually, I think this is the shittiest moment possible for Black to die, narratively speaking. Not long ago he witnessed his lifelong best friend betray everything he believed in. If he died now, before taking any action to deal with the consequences of what was undoubtedly the turning point of his life, this entire plotline would amount to nothing.

      He’s probably still going to die before it ends, but not now. It would be a total waste of an excellent plot thread.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. nerferf

    The whiteknight still doesn’t know that that fight before with black was all about bard vs black vs tyrant and only included him as the tool

    Ya figured bard giving black a victory monologue after black went down should have tipped him off

    Poor bastard is a dead man walking, gonna be funny though

    Like

    1. Mr. Nobody

      Are you sure about that? Don’t forget the possibility of Black being in a pattern of three with Hanno. Black always tries to avoid those, but last time Hanno was pretty much trashed by Black and survived; I can already see the story taking shape. Although Black is no fool to engage him in a fair fight, I expect Hanno to have a few tricks up his sleeve to make Black confront him again.

      *Sigh*
      Champion really managed to bring my hate for the Heroes on this story to a new level.
      Really, it’s frustrating to see her being alive for so long. Even Akua was more likable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. nerferf

        Nah, too obvious that bard took the spotlight and overshadowed whiteknight and took the main role for the gods above in that story and made the heroes into the support cast given she sacrifice them to kill captain at the same time

        I think that happening there allowed Hierarch to banish her when she tried to strong-arm him since she couldn’t use her bystander/ ignore me to just manipulate things given it may only work as long as the story sees her as a side cast

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        1. Metrux

          The thing is, that as a very experienced Named, Black can recognize when there is a pattern. He said himself that no pattern arised between him and White, which just means, in his book, that he will soon die and the White is predestined to confront ANOTHER Black Knights, who he thinks Catherine will be.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. nerferf

            Yeah, he said that before cat lost her name after that clusterfuck at liesse

            And given that at this point its more likely cat would get a ruler name if she ever can given her fae nature that belief is void

            If anything from that story i would say black started a pattern of three with bard given he beat her in that showdown of the callow rebels, lost to her in the free cites clusterfuck and they still havent had the 3rd confontation

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  5. Ah, we finally get to see Black and Grem! And they did not disappoint. Grem’s as clever as Black’s made him sound and I always love to hear Black doting on Cat.

    That Hanno though… The boy really was specifically made to kill Black, wasn’t he? We’ll see if his LEGO strategy works. I’m also immensely curious about what makes the Giant-taught mage so dangerous to the Warlock.

    It does hurt a bit to find out that the Champion skinned Captain. I hope her husband never finds out…

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Hano was made to counter Chat his whole being is to counter her style of fighting along with her role. His healing actually damages anything nearby hurting Chat who is close ranged fighter. His aspects of ride will counter her use of un-dead horses. His other aspect of recall gives him an experience leverage being able to adapt to enemies and having a large wealth of knowledge at his fingerprints. This counters chat who relies on others for experience and is not a battle tested as other names.

      Black tried to end the white knight several times but was unable to because he was not “his” enemy. He tried to initiate a rule of three battle sequence but was unable to. His role afterward was to be an evil obi wan for Chat making the ultimate sacrifice so that Chat could reform creation. The Malicia ruined it all with her death ray mega weapon.

      SOOOOO Chat vs White Knight is final fight most likely.

      Like

      1. I disagree. His kit is built around beating Black. He has the memories and skills of all the heroes Black killed and through that can adapt to Black’s skillset whilst also learning how to counter everything. His entire power revolves around being better at Black’s own game. He knows Black’s tricks, he is also unpredictable for Black due ti his variable skillset and as a result Black can’t plan for him as he othewise would.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Darkening

      As I recall she mostly just has a whole lot of raw power, since the point that was made is that she’d beat Warlock out in a slugging match. I’m sure she’s fairly talented, but a slugging match is the last thing Warlock would get into if he could avoid it. Hedge mostly gave him trouble because she had a counter for every one of his tricks. I expect he’ll find some ways to attack from unexpected directions.

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    3. Argentorum

      Where do baby villains come from, I wonder.

      Above acts like it has the monopoly on righteous vengeance, but if Champion doesn’t die here (this tying off her arc under Black’s own revenge), it wouldn’t surprise me to see one or more of Captain’s kids getting a name. Hell, maybe even all together.

      Mother who tried to keep them from the dark realities of the world killed and skinned by a hero? Said hero literally wearing their mother like a scarf? Yeah, this is the stuff revenge stories are born from.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. RanVor

        Above *do* have a monopoly on righteous vengeance. Any kind of vengeance against them or their servants is non-righteous by default because they get to define the righteousness. But that just means their righteousness isn’t worth a shit.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. But as we have seen woth Cat, they don’t have a monopoly on the “heroic” stories. Riteous vengeance, fighting to kill the monster that slew your parent is certainly a heroic story. But also, villains can fight villains. Who is to say that heroes cannot do the same thing. WIthin narratives it often turns out that “they were good all along” but it wouldn’t stop the riteous hero from delivering the final blow before the revelation.

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      1. Yotz

        Oh, you mean The Curse befalling the Champion’s bloodline, so they will hunt, torture, and skin alive their brothers and sisters until the entire bloodline will cease to be in a cacophonical crescendo of glorious self-annihilation… Naughty, naughty boy!

        Liked by 5 people

          1. RandomFan

            The poster above was advocating that Captain’s children and further descendants would kill off the Champion’s line. If you reverse it, Champion’s line gets the curse, but that wouldn’t take away Captain’s line’s curse, and so you have a glorious conflict of cursed vs. cursed, even while Champion has to deal with her spawn being the same type of monster she’s killed so many times. Cursed is probably an evil name by default, too.

            That’d be a fun story, especially since Champion is the type of person who wears the skin of thinking creatures as a boast.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. esryok

              In fairness, Catherine smokes narcotics using the carved bones of thinking creatures. And our friendly neighborhood orcs consume thinking creatures. I’m down for being mad at Champion for taking trophies from a well-liked character, but I give her a pass on the “and also she was sapient!” part.

              Actually, I’m pulling a Masego here and going with “eh, Champions gonna Champion.” I’m enjoying seeing such an archetypical murderhobo wandering around an otherwise serious fantasy world, and haven’t got enough room in my brain to be mad and delighted at the same time. Delight wins!

              Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m very sorry that WordPress does not allow you to suppress dissenting opinions by committee like you can on reddit lol.

        Also, hope Wekesa gets a mandala enema,

        Like

      2. Mr. Nobody

        I don’t even know why he’s still reading this despite his dislike for the mc and her companions. But who cares?

        There’s a lot of masochists out there, and I won’t condemn their twisted tastes and terrible use of time.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t like this. In a narrative sense Black is setting his side up for a big loss. In stories, the villain’s armies usually have the upperhand initially before the heroes rally the tired survivors into a big comeback victory.

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    1. Oshi

      Except they don’t. Papenhiem has a host of 50k. He lost a fifth of it and still has twice the number the legions field. The story is 300. Black might die but they will lose the war. The bard will interfere to stop this and change. It should be fun to see how.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. IDKWhoitis

        If White Knight gets KO’d somehow, the offensive will fail, with or without Black. Grem can hold this line if there are no Named on either side. Also, Bard may not be allowed to intervene, since the main plotline of the war may be Cat’s play to be Chaotic “Good”. The Bard doesn’t get to pick where she shows up, and she may not be able to interfere.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. SpeckofStardust

        eh without the white knight and the Witch they wouldn’t be able to break though until the reinforcements from the Levant got here.
        They got stopped on the third defensive line.

        Considering each line got progressively harder to break, and that they failed to break the third one today…

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        1. Darkening

          I kinda read it as this being the toughest part, since it’s the height of the slope of the pass and it’s downhill from here, that’d make it easier on the people assaulting the later walls without having to contend with the ridiculous elevated hill. And given that natural benefit, you’d probably invest most of your effort into fortifying that natural choke point. I’m sure the later walls aren’t pushovers, but the Bloody Twins are probably the high point of the defenses in a lot of ways.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Rook

      It’s not about how hard your swing is, it’s about whether your swing hits correct target, and in the way you need it to. The overall narrative flow of the battle right now is less important than the initiative he gains in being able to make the first strike in the Named struggle against the White Knight & co.

      Especially since the WK is a reoccurring opponent (warning signs, that nearly never happens against Black), with nearly the perfect skillset to counter Black. Drawing experience from every Hero he’s has ever killed removes the issue of being impossible to adapt to Black due to being brutally murdered on the first or second confrontation. On top of that it gives Hanno every skillset he could ever ask for to try taking him down.

      This comes on the back of a greater context in Black having several death flags to begin with – no rule of three triggering, Captain falling, a successor in place and independent enough to rise on their own, and having predicted/planned for a very likely death around this exact time. He’s currently more vulnerable than he has been in an extremely long time. He needs to play this fight like he’s a titan skating across a thawing lake in order to ensure winning or even surviving this battle.

      Forcing the Heroes into making the opening move against the Legions is 100% the correct move here.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. This is what I love about the set-up: Hanno is currently built to counter the old Black Knight — this Amadeus, however, is the doting daddy who loves and supports his stab-happy daughter. He’s not quite the same old Black Knight supporting his Dread Empress. 🙂

        Liked by 4 people

    3. Jonnnney

      That story involves the villain being on the attack. Not too many stories about the villain dying while defending the outer reaches of the territory he conquered 20 years prior.

      Like

  7. ______

    > The First under Grem was holding the southern passage along with Mok’s Third and Sacker’s Ninth. Marshal Ranker and her Fourth were leading the defence of the northern valleys, commanding the freshly-rebuilt Twelfth and Nekheb’s Tenth.

    Is Mok the vampire general, or that was the Eleventh and the legions were shuffled around?

    Like

  8. werafdsaew

    The hostility between Black and Malicia’s camp surprises me; I thought they patched things up after their talk in the Epilogue of the previous book. And wasn’t Malicia the one who said that their differences would be settled privately?

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    1. Yotz

      Guess that’s as private as it can get – official handshakes and proclamations of unity, and Polichinelo’s secret of undercarpet moves against one another.

      Like

    2. That wasn’t patching things up. That was Black implying that the Foundling Queen’s plan to make a better world was a better bet than the Dread Empress’ plan to loose every horror she could find to save her skin.

      And the Dread Empress either not listening or not caring about her Black Knight’s opinion of the strategic situation. I’d be thinking with my feelings, too, if I’d just lost the magic fortress that I’d put years of work and used up entire provinces of resources to have built.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. Jonnnney

      Their differences between each other will be settled privately. Their differences involving how to deal with Catherine and Callow aren’t private

      Like

    4. Nah, they don’t have hostilities. Merely a friendly disagreament about whether or not Cat should be brutally murdered. Ya know, in Praes, assasination is a mere sign of respect, and poison is used as a gods damned flavoring. What suprises you?

      Like

      1. lennymaster

        I do have a problem with Ward, or rather Worm. I think it has dominated the Top Web Fiction List -undeservedly- for far too long. I do not consider it to be bad, merly mediocre. The thought it might, or rather already has, inspire other authors to cover up weaknesses in their writing with pure gruesomeness fills me with dread. It is a fact after all, that there are alwayes trendsetters influencing others to follow their lead.
        Like Harry Dresden caused a slew of run-down, more or less dark and tragic hero mages, being physically and emotionally abused into one halfhearted finale after another.
        Or twilight the creation of half baked vampires, that were just about as bad as the original, but were so dark and gritty, or completly overpowered, because they did not sparkle and HAD to drink blood.
        Or the countles OTHER versions of magic schools after Harry Potter.
        It is a fact that medicore works, like Harry Potter, or Worm for that matter, fill market niches and thus become trendsetters. I do not claim that all of those books are bad, hell some even achieve greatness, but most following such trensetters are worse then the originals.
        There are always exeptions, like Aleron Kong’s Chaos Seeds, who, riding the epidemic of terrible LitRPGs, created an amazing series. But that is what they are, exeptions.
        That is why the adulations for Worm/Ward on sites like these, going even so far as to imediatly challenge even a harmless call to vote for Guide and beat Ward.
        I know, many people familiar with my posts consider me annoying, constantly harping on about Worm whenever somebody mentions it, but I love reading Guide, I love reading the discussions about it afterwards, but every time I see Worm/Ward mentioned, it soures my enjoyment.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Daemion

            I think the Wandering Inn might beat that. There’s also a story about a deceptive chest that gets large updates quite often.

            Worm was cool and funny, all the other Wildbow stories afterwards were basically the same setup with different themes and were missing the humour of it. Ward is still interesting but also not very exciting. It doesn’t draw me in at all.

            Like

          2. @Matthew
            Sounds like you’d like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It’s much, much shorter, but the book was written in a single mad typing session over two or three days.

            Like Wildbow, Kerouac had done lots and lots of work on different aspects of their stories in the months and years prior to writing, and I think that’s the rea key. Do your foundational work first before that transcendent creational flurry is possible.

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        1. You thought Worm covered up weaknesses in its writing with pure gruesomeness? What weaknesses, exactly?

          I think Worm is among the very best scifi ever written. It’s what George R.R. Martin aspires to: an epic sized story that’s coherent throughout and that has a satisfying ending that lives up to the massive scale of the story; the ending is what really sets Worm apart for me. There are a lot of writers who know how to build up an epic world, but don’t know how to craft an ending that answers all the important questions believably, without some deux ex machina to fudge things (ahem, Peter F. Hamilton).

          I have faith Brandon Sanderson will achieve this kind of ending for Stormlight.

          Like

          1. the verbiage ecstatic

            Worm is fantastic, a super-fun read, and a tremendous accomplishment in terms of how well it sticks the landing after so much escalation and build up. But best sci fi ever written, really? I don’t think it (or Practical Guide, which is also really enjoyable) is anywhere near in the same league as:

            Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
            The Martian Chronicles
            Dune
            The Fafherd and Grey Mouser stories
            His Dark Materials
            Starship Troopers
            Cryptonomicon
            A Wrinkle in Time (and sequels)
            … to name the ones I can think of off the top of my head

            I think the web serial genre is great and I love the disruption of traditional publishing, but people have been writing really good books, many of them in the sci fi and fantasy genres, for a LONG time.

            Sanderson’s books (which I haven’t read yet and am sure are great) are pretty much the only traditionally-published novels I see called out in threads like these… there’s a LOT more to the world of amazing sci fi and fantasy writing than that!!

            Liked by 2 people

        2. Naoru

          Worm is really good, but Ward falls behind. So far is…something. All the good parts come from wanting to know what had happened to characters that were in worm, and the rest is rather bland. Abuses of infodumps in the beginning, has a lot of chapters that go nowhere and it just not as good as worm. Only now it has started to warm up after arcs, which is A LOT. I read it just fine, and is not a horrible story by any means, but it doesnt deserve top one, and I think is there for all the worm fans that just vote blindly for ward. The guide and The wandering inn are so, so much better, both of them.

          Like

    1. Darkening

      Especially archers sounds like. Since a smart dragon could just stay flying and breath fire and avoid the epic confrontation with a knight or whatever. (Though I’m sure champion launching herself out of a catapult would be suitably epic enough a moment to give her a fighting chance at reaching it and killing it.)

      Like

  9. Heh. I just noticed something. White is pretty much tailor made to fight Catherine, right? But what about Akua? She fights way differently compared than Catherine. Where Catherine is a melee-focused fighter where she will surely get trounced by White’s many methods, Akua tends to trap and confuse her enemies before bombarding them with spells. I can nearly see the fight happen. White dominating the fight and Cat on the backfoot before she suddenly switches with Akua who throws White offguard. White switches to style designed to fight Caster type opponents then Catherine comes back in with a brutal melee throwdown. The two of them switching back and forth to match White’s switching. It’s ironic that it’s similar to White’s Recall Aspect.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Metrux

      If this trully happen I’ll only laugh, because diferently from Cat, White can’t reutilize the same powerset. So, each time they trade and make him trade in turn, he loses another option, until he wins by being a hero on his last legs, or he has nothing else to throw in the fray.

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      1. Mr. Nobody

        Maybe it will not be in a single chapter, but I can see how massive of a cliff hanger it would be if deployed.

        Cat’s chapter >>> Akua and Hanno’s interlude >>> Cat’s chapter wrapping up the fight

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    2. Greg

      That would be an interesting twist, that she has to switch between practical and monster evil just to confuse the White Knight.

      But honestly? At this point Hanno actually seems like his tricks would lose handily against Cat as she is now. He is a good counter to Black, who is supremely skilled bit constantly stated to be weaker and more vulnerable once you can actually hit him. So was Squire; she just made accepting mutilation for victory into her shtick. But Winter Queen Cat? She has ridiculous regenerative abilities, necromancy that seems not weak to Light, and unlike Black, is apparently able to tank an Angel’s intervention long enough to finish off a hero.

      Which is a sign, I think, that Cat truly is succeeding in forging her own, unforeseen path, because the nemesis the Gods Above seemingly made to end her is not particularly suited to her new form. Saint and Pilgrim seem to be Heaven’s greatest BS heroes right now, and they were sent not after the decades-proven hero-killers, but against Cat and her band of slightly less competent killers. I think that says something, and it’s not about striking the weakest link with overwhelming force.

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    3. Sol Invictus

      This*
      Cat has a Rivals Team Up story in her pocket. Thats an unbeatable story whenever its first used.

      Also I would like to point out that Akua said that the only reason that she was able to contorl Cats body is because she found a stray piece of Winter and made it her own. This is after Saint cut the winter mantle. Odds are the stray piece that Akua found was the one Saint cut off.

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  10. I can’t help but find it a bit amusing that the Procerans’ hopes are now based on two more heroes taking the field. The Crusaders began with an advantage of two and a half against one, it’s now two against one.
    Plus no matter what they say, it’s not the last fortification they have to deal with. There are two more behind this one. And the siege engines of the Crusade becoming once more useful is not really realistic given the rate they’re losing them.

    At least it validates completely Cordelia ‘Stairway’ strategy. If they had not opened up a passage in the mountains, it would have been Black and Cat waiting for them with near fifty thousand troops. The Black Knight and One-Eye in command with five more villains to make the passes a hell on earth. Pilgrim and Saint aside, it would have been an even more crueller massacre than the one we see occuring right now.

    Heroes against heroes aside, the fate of the battle is definitely not in Procer’s favour. The Legions are unbloodied and morale must be excellent for them. The Crusade must attack on a narrow front, the Black Knight and the Warlock are fresh and rested. Praes troops have gotten used to slay heroes. Cavalry is impossible to use here. Judging that Catherine lost roughly ten thousand to slay twenty thousand when she was on open-terrain and overwhelmed by heroes, the Army of Papenheim is going to crumble under the corpses soon. Unless the Witch of the Woods is an army-killer and managed to take down Warlock in one round, it is going to take more than three dead men for each egionary they kill. Given that they are already down to less than fifty thousand…of course reinforcements are coming from behind, but Procer is soon not going to have this problem of excess mercenaries and war veterans. Between Cat and Black, already thirty thousand have died…but the real threats have not come out of the shadows.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I think I have insight about what the Grey Pilgrim might do! I have a Russian blue kitty, and if you know about cats then you know that she’s just as grey as anything.

    So if she were in the story, she’d stalk Catherine mostly ineffectually, then run away the moment everything isn’t going perfectly. If the Grey Pilgrim is anything like my Grey Cat, Catherine can probably find him hiding in the closet or underneath the bed afterward. Oh, he’ll lash out with his claws probably, but he won’t really put up a fight, and once she’s stroking his back hairs he’ll be purring in no time.

    Incredible plot twist if true!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. SMHF

    I have a feeling the end result for Black is going to mirror Cat’s… the battle ending with him retreating from the Vales but leaving the Crusaders utterly devastated and unable to advance.
    Which I’m totally fine with, as long as he gets to kill Champion… bitch really pissed me off with that whole skin thing .>:\

    Liked by 2 people

      1. oldschoolvillain

        I think that the cloak was an actual cloak that Captain wore, not a mantle made from her carcass. Hanno has been much more traditionally heroic, as opposed to the vainglorious assholes who have composed the bands facing Catherine. He considered the claiming of sword tips as gruesome back in his interludes – I don’t think he’d casually note an ally of his wearing a skinned enemy, no matter how Villainous.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. “And, upon finding them, Hanno had spent hours seeking the right combination of lives that would allow him to capitalize on those weaknesses. Three would be required: the Flawless Fencer, the Lance of Light and the Barehanded Pugilist.”

    So White’s aiming for precision attacks to get through Black’s defenses? All three of these Heroes emphasizes quick and accurate thrust attacks to overcome opposition instead of the heavy swings and brute force most Heroes tend to utilize. Makes sense, I guess. Black’s always fighting in the assumption that the Heroes he faces will always be stronger than him in raw power so he tends to avoid direct clashes and instead waits for opportunity before striking with quick and accurate strikes kinda like his spar with Captain where he avoids getting into a melee contest where he will certainly lose and instead waits for an opening before ending the match with a single attack. White’s aiming to overcome Black in his own game.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Morgenstern

      The Lance was the one who could call a horse for quick attack, if Black tries to retreat, if I remember correctly. The Fencer is about being able to counter his incredible melee skills (one on one), I guess, if not being about a weapon he is not really comfortable with. And the Pugilist is about a fighting style much different from a sword fighter’s, when going in close, for the additional surprise and/or avoiding easy countering (like Cat who surprises enemies by fighting like a brawler instead of a normal sword fighter), I’d guess.

      Like

    1. We theorise that she is currently stuck between Creation and Nowhere due to how her tactics got called out and her banishment by the Hierarch. In short: she’s not finished with Time Out. It’s put a ginormous wrench in a number of things for the Gods Above.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I thought being stuck between Creation and Nowhere was kind of normal for the WB. Like, I assumed that’s where she always goes between her appearances in Creation. She’s definitely not in Creation contiguously, right? So now she just can’t make it to her scheduled appearances for a time, is the theory?

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        1. Bingo. That, or her schedule has become messed up thanks to Cat, Anaxares and to some extent the Calamaties not sticking to the Stupid Evil tropes while nicking off with scuffed heroic ones they clocked over the head in some dark alley. Well, I’m doing Anaxares a disservice: he genuinely is refusing to pick any broad category beyond Blue And Orange Democracy.

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          1. Oshi

            I still don’t really understand that. Her sudden disappearance was because the Hierach refused to be manipulated? How is that even possible?

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    1. They’re both stubborn and downplay their emotional needs. Soooooo, it’s liable to be a while. And, when they do meet again, it’ll result in a competition of who can downplay their enthusiasm to make it up the most.

      My money is on Black, by the way. He’ll swing around to so downplayed, it amounts to a whopping big trench in the ground the size of a canyon. 😛

      Liked by 4 people

  14. tbarim

    Theory on the weakness of joke characters.

    Comic relief characters (Bumbling Conjurer, Hedge Mage, Fortunate Fool, Dread Emporer Traiterous) nullify attempts to harm them through annoyance, thereby lightening more serious stories or fights.

    Conversely, my guess as their weakness is the moment when the story turns back to serious. The more sudden the switch, the better.

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    1. Zoolimar

      Yeah, that seems to be the case. But we still haven’t seen one of them having a “Serious Side” switch. When a normally light-hearted, smiling and happy-go-lucky character actually stops smiling and takes the challenge before him seriously. Such archetypes are capable of completely wrecking the opposition and frequently sport overwhelming power that they normally don’t use for different personal or story related reasons.

      And a Name capable of flipping from, for example, Fortunate Fool to Brutal Gentlemen (say they share the Switch aspect and have 2 unique aspects each) would be just the kind of unfair advantage that Gods Above like to use.

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    2. Would irony work?

      Not a 1:1 comparison, but in the classic movie Seven Samurai, one character is introduced as someone with the personality to keep everyone’s spirits and morale up in the dark and trying times to come; it turns out he’s the very first to die.

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  15. JJR

    So, when is Black gonna light the hidden caches of Goblin Fire that were hidden deep underground in this valley ever since the conclusion of the Conquest?

    I can’t imagine he doesn’t have any. Until the stairway this was the only land path into Callow, and while dropping the mountain/lake was impressive, it wasn’t a kill-the-entire-invading-force level of impressive. Then again, maybe heroes would mess it up somehow, they tend to do that.

    The other option would be to use a Demon of Absence to make everyone forget that the valley even existed in the first place. Of course, for all we know the empire already did that to a few other valleys, and left the one open to encourage future crusades to be forced to use it. Absence is somewhat interesting in that regard, it’s hard to say that anything concerning it hasn’t actually been done. I have to wonder how the hell containing the demons was even discovered in the first place. Probably started as a hypothetical hell that seemed to be missing from the numbering scheme and gave anyone who thought about it a headache.

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    1. Because absolutely fail-save villanous plan bound to fail every time. So no, such obvious and absolute solutions as Bonfire, droppng an actual mountain at the Vales, to shut them up for good, just burn it all in goblinfire, or use demons would backfie SPECTACULARLY. Ever wonder why Black covered in goblinfire only one of two passes? Or more importantly, used goblinfire only when there was another route for enemy? Because if there’s no exit, Heores will make one, it’ll accidentially lead straight to your only weakness/source of your power.

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  16. You know, if I’d heard that Cat had killed some noble cousin and was relieved at how it cut down on asinine dinner invites, I’d laugh. Because her, her I’d trust to only kill someone because they legitimately deserved it (or at least if she thought they did). And her relief would be tinged by the recognition and understanding of how fucked up it is that she’s taking petty relief in someone’s death. I could trust her to course-correct if she’d made the wrong decision, and so it’s easier to laugh along without guilt.

    But Hanno? Hearing he did the same is fucked up. Because I *know* he didn’t actually give any thought to why the noble died. He just did as commanded by the Seraphim. And I do not trust the Seraphim’s definition of judgement, not when what we’ve seen of angels so far has basically been defined by ‘absolutely zero fucking chill’. But the worst part? It’s how he takes his relief so casually, with no tinge of guilt or remorse, because he is *certain* that he is right. He has no doubts, or qualms about the fact that he just murdered someone. And sure, maybe he was right to do so. Maybe she did something truly unforgivable. (Given Procer’s nobles I give it 50:50 odds).

    But maybe she didn’t, and Hanno would still be joking to himself about not getting dinner invites without a shred of self-reflection. And that horrifies me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. RanVor

      For me, Hanno is one of the most repulsive and tragic characters in Guide, simultaneously.

      He is repulsive because all he does is walking around and putting people to death with impunity, and he doesn’t even accept any responsibility for what he does. He’s basically a glorified executioner. His conscience is always squeaky clean because he lets someone else make all the hard decisions for him. “The Heavens’ hatchet man” is the most accurate description of him I’ve seen so far. It fits any Hero, really, but none to the same extent as Hanno. He basically gave up his free will to become a walking, talking weapon of the Seraphim, utterly incapable of any independent thought.

      He is tragic because all he really wanted was to help people who got wronged by an unfair justice system, but he realized he was incapable of doing so. He had no way of determining the guilty party and the appropriate severity of a punishment without a shade of doubt. Anything less, and he wouldn’t be any better than the earthly justice systems he despised so much. This led him to be easily manipulated by the Seraphim into submitting to their will.

      Basically, he wanted justice but got Justice instead.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Second that. If to choose between a repentant murderer and the one who thinks he actually did a good thing, I would choose the repentant one hands down. Then again, they are both still murderers, and both to some degree are forced to do those things by their life’s circumstances. They both took it upon themselves to do terrible things, because those things are right. Just as Cat kills regardless of her grief at the loss of life, Hanno does so too. But the fact of the matter is, to be able to do what they do, and still retain some humanity, they need that illusion of rightness. If Hanno didn’t believe that Serafim always right, would he be able to kill so casually? Would he be able to sleep at night? Without that ironclad certanty that all Heroes share, most would broke, unable to protect innocents. And their place would be took by those, who are already monsters and kill without shred of regret. And monsters protecting you from other monsters is a really bad idea. This is why at war propaganda dehumanises the enemy. This is why the rate of actuall shot that kill is so low. Most people kill accidentially, because noone, noone with healthy psyche wants to be the kind of person that kills living, breathing human just like him.

      What I meant to say is not that he didn’t do nuthing, but that, from Hanno’s perspective, he was dissapointed by humanity so utterly, he clings to Heavens word, because if they can be wrong too, how the hell he supposed to live? He may just as well kill himself.

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  17. Hm. Wasn’t the Champion mentioned to be one of those old class heroes? Not the Good or good kind, just the ones mentioned in epics?
    So, I’m not surprised if she considers Captain fur cloak as the highest kind of respect.

    Also, here be dragons, aka hero food. Villains beware.

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  18. Captain Amazing

    The White Knight’s tendency to find insights in other heroes will be interesting when he examines Cat. He’ll see that she repeatedly goes out of her way to beg them not to attack her, even at the expense of strategic losses. Maybe he will be the one to turn back.

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  19. TotesOlive

    I really really want the Valliant Champion to die in a completely pointless and non heroic manner, and in a painful way. Maybe backstabbed by the procerans, or getting buried in a hole.

    Like

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