Chapter 25: Edge

“My dear Betrayer, I resent this accusation of selling you out to the heroes. No coin changed hands, it was really more of a bartering.”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous

“I shouldn’t need to bring up the grave consequences that would of dealing with that entity in any way,” Vivienne noted calmly.

Maybe a little too calmly, I thought. She wasn’t angry – I’d learned to read that in her – but she was… weary, maybe. Like she was seeing the same lay of the land I did, and was horrified at what might come of it.

“Heh,” Indrani said. “Grave consequences. You know, because he’s the Dead –”

“Masego,” I interrupted. “Would you please smack her?”

“Do I get to pick where?” Archer leered.

There was a pause.

“No,” Hierophant replied pensively, and tried to slap the back of her head.

He ended up caught in a wristlock instead, and the two of them toppled to the floor when he called on sorcery to try to toss her away. The two of them fell wriggling as Indrani tried to get on top – no surprise there, I mused – and the council was forced off the road until Hakram rose to his feet, grabbed a water pitcher with a sigh and upended it on them both. Archer yelped, Masego looked peeved and I turned the droplets freezing cold out of petty spite.

“Back in your seats,” I ordered.

I looked away even as Masego evaporated the water on his robes, pretending deafness when Archer asked him to to the same for her. Juniper growled, which got both their attentions. Both of you could kill her with barely any effort, I thought amusedly. But all she needs to do is growl a bit, and you straighten your backs.

“Militarily speaking, cooperation with the Kingdom of the Dead would be both boon and threat,” the Hellhound said. “Its armies have been strong enough to weather five crusades: there’s no way the Proceran borders can hold if he comes out in force.”

“Which would leave us with a fresh liability,” Hakram said calmly, seated again. “Namely, that the Dead King would be out in force.”

“Forget armies,” Thief said flatly. “If it becomes known we struck a pact with the Hidden Horror there is not a nation on Calernia that will be willing to treat with us. The cost of that absurdly dangerous alliance would be that we are made pariahs forevermore. I cannot stress this enough: even the summoning of demons would go over better. The only person to have ever struck alliance with the Dead King was Dread Empress Triumphant at the peak of her power. That will be the precedent everyone sees us through, from that point on.”

“We’re already fucking pariahs, Thief,” Juniper grunted. “I won’t pretend working with the Horror would be pastries and flower crowns, but let’s be honest: what would we actually lose?”

“Any semblance of legitimacy, for one,” Vivienne hissed.

“I do not speak in endorsement,” Hakram said mildly, cutting through before it could escalate. “But Juniper is not incorrect. We are in varying states of hostility with the Empire, the Principate, the Dominion and the Thalassocracy. The League has already refused to negotiate with us, twice. It may be that situation will change in the future, but it has not yet.  As it stands the costs of this decision would not be a direct loss, only the denial of possible change.”

“Eh, no need to trumpet it around anyway. We could just be secret allies,” Archer said. “Doesn’t the old guard love that kind of stuff? He’d probably go for it.”

I sipped at my aragh, leaning back into my chair. Indrani wasn’t wrong.

“There’s more than a few steps between alignment – however temporary – and alliance,” I finally said. “Ideally, we would use the King as a distraction with full deniability. I don’t think anyone in this room wants him to actually win in any measurable manner. If he can launch a failed invasion that takes the pressure off Callow, though, that might be a notion worth entertaining.”

“If the dead cross the lakes into northern Procer, it will be butchery,” Vivienne said coldly. “Hannoven might be able to resist, heavily fortified as it is, but Cleves and Hainaut? They’ll break, Catherine. You know this. Hundreds of thousands murdered and made into abominations. Akua’s Folly, forged anew half a dozen times.”

“It would be,” I said slowly. “If they were taken by surprise.”

There was a long moment of silence in the room.

“Are you proposing,” Juniper gravelled, “that we double-cross the Dead King?”

“I mean,” I hedged, “I wouldn’t put it exactly like that.”

“That means yes,” Masego helpfully informed Archer in a whisper. “It’s the Callowan uprising. She doesn’t like to admit to betrayal.”

The Hellhound opened her mouth then closed it, licking her lips. Solemnly, she reached for the bottle of aragh and poured until her cup was nearly overflowing.

“If you would elaborate, please,” Thief said quietly.

“So we have a nice chat with Trismegistus,” I said. “Shake hands, kiss his dead babies – let’s not kid ourselves, he’s bound to have a few of those – and plan an offensive. We leak the plan to Procer at least a month ahead, enough time so they can evacuate everything. We time it correctly and Malanza’s army will be in a position to march north to fight a delaying action until the rest of the crusaders can reinforce her.”

Juniper choked on her drink.

“Hasenbach would have to send most her armies to hold the north,” Hakram said quietly. “And suddenly we gain a great deal of leverage. The Army of Callow could easily strike her back and collapse her supply lines. Or, if she makes peace with us, ferry her armies through Arcadia before either Cleves or Hainaut is entirely overrun.”

“There would still be a great many deaths,” Vivienne said, but she was hesitating.

“No civilians, though,” I said. “Soldiers. Loss of property as well, but I’m less than sympathetic to the monetary plight of princes trying to invade my homeland. We can limit the terms of engagement for the Dead King as part of our deal.”

“That will no longer hold the moment we betray him,” Thief reminded me.

“We can delay that until Procer’s in a position to give a good fight,” I said.

“It should be remembered,” Hakram said. “That if it ever comes out we were involved in the matter, we’ll be discarding every scrap of goodwill we have so far accumulated through our restraint.”

“We’ll deny it. Not like they’ll have proof, so it’ll be the Hidden Horror’s word against ours if he even bothers to say anything. And, to be blunt, Juniper’s not wrong. Goodwill hasn’t cut it so far,” I admitted. “And I think we could get a lot of it back by throwing in with the crusade against the Kingdom of the Dead, even if it comes to that. If it takes leverage to get things done, Hakram, I’m willing to go that far.”

“I don’t like it,” Vivienne said. “This… scheme is not as bad as I first thought it would be, but playing with fire doesn’t do the danger of it justice.”

“Neither do I,” I said. “And I think we can all agree this is a last ditch plan, not the first arrow out of the quiver. I’d much rather cut a deal with Hasenbach herself or the Pilgrim if I can, and I intend to try that as soon as this council is done. But if they’re not game, then I think we have to seriously consider this.”

I met her eyes unflinchingly, and saw the war taking place behind them. Between the patriot and the decent woman. Better than anyone else in this room, she knew how dangerous the army standing on the other side of the Vales would be to Callow. Thief had always been lukewarm about making treaties with Procer, reminding me there was a reason Red The Flowers was a popular song in the country to this day. On the other hand, she was not a killer. She had killed, to be sure, and arranged the death of others. But it was not in her nature, and unlike me she’d never grown used to it. Making common cause with something like the Dead King, no matter how false the premises, ran against the grain for her. There was a reason it was to her I’d handed the means to kill me. Of all the Woe, she was the only one I could trust to pull the trigger if it came down to it. Her moral compass wasn’t exactly pristine. I knew that. She was, after all, a thief. And capable of dark things to keep Callow whole. But she’d yet to lose that spark of decency that none of my other friends could truly claim to have. Not even Hakram, for all that I loved him more than any other. The moment passed, and I did not need to wait to know which part of her had won. The repugnance on her face made it clear enough.

“Before this plan is seriously entertained, there is a great deal to address,” Thief said.

Your people becoming warped by your presence, the Grey Pilgrim had said. Old traits grown more vicious and acute. Was I slowly breaking down my own contingency? I shivered in a way that had nothing to do with cold.

“Agreed,” Hakram said. “Namely, why the invitation at all?”

Juniper set down her cup and it rang empty against the table. She wiped her mouth.

“That’s had me wondering,” the Hellhound said. “It doesn’t seem like he’d need us, at first glance. Out of all his possible allies the gates make us arguably the most immediately useful for an offensive in Procer, but our strategic value is limited.”

I glanced at the two bickerers in the back, since this part of the conversation was exactly why they were here. Masego as our expert in all thins arcane, one who’d had access to Tower archives to boot, and Archer as the pupil of one of the few people who was known to have entered the Kingdom of the Dead and returned.

“I can tell you a few things about how Keter is run, and the lay of the city,” Indrani said. “But not much more than that. The Lady speaks fondly of him, but that’s not surprising – he’s probably one of the few entities kicking around she can’t kill.”

Less than useful. I glanced at Hierophant, who was frowning.

“The only precedent I can think of for the Dead King making alliance is Dread Empress Triumphant,” he said. “He was not her equal, but neither was he her vassal. During none of the crusades directed at his realm did he seek Praesi assistance.”

“He’s launched offensives into Procer before,” Juniper said. “We have records of the battles. But they always seemed more like large-scale raids to me. Cities were sacked more to grab people than to grab territory, and I can’t recall an instance he went deeper south than northern Brabant.”

Three Hundred Years Against the Dark, Amalia Holtzen,” Hakram murmured. “I have read the volumes as well, and always found the mentions of his presence with the armies to be somewhat dubious. Nowhere as powerful as a necromancer of his purported strength should be. Chronicles are the crusades are hard to get by, for us, but in those he’s said to have fought heroes. There can be no comparison between the power displayed there and in Holtzen’s volumes.”

“He can raise Named with some of their power still attached,” Archer said suddenly. “The Lady’s fought a few.”

I blinked at Indrani. Was she implying that Ranger took walks into a poisonous undead-infested wasteland just so she could scrap with – I forced myself not to think about that too deeply. Ranger was fucking insane, trying to figure her out would lead me nowhere.

“You’re implying he hasn’t led his armies in person since Triumphant,” I said, eyeing the others.

“Father has long suspected he cannot easily leave the Hell he rules,” Masego noted. “Though the scarcity of solid information on the entity prevents this from being proper theory. The Tower has suppressed most writings ascribed to Trismesgitus since Dread Emperor Revenant was overthrown.”

His brow creased, after that, but he said nothing.

“Hierophant?” I pressed.

“It would-“ he began, then stopped and sighed. “There have been always been rumours of some High Lords having records of the Secret Wars that Dread Empress Maleficent the Second never managed to erase.”

“The what?” Indrani said, leaning forward.

“Bunch of Emperors tried to invade the Dead King’s personal hellscape through hell,” I told her. “Malicia mentioned them to me once. It went about as well as you’d expect. Maleficent the Second loosed a bunch of demons to erase the whole mess, since it was bad enough Ater itself was about to be invaded.”

“That would have been…” Thief said slowly. “Well, I doubt there’s a word harsh enough for it.”

“Yeah, there’s a reason Imperial histories aren’t bedside reading,” I said. “Unless you enjoy vivid nightmares, anyway. I think I get what you’re trying to avoid saying, Masego. If any Praesi city has those records, it’ll be Wolof.”

The dark-skinned mage inclined his head in agreement.

“It has always been the heart of sorcery in the Wasteland,” he said.

I thumbed the collar of my cloak. Where the soul of the former heiress to Wolof was currently kept in captivity.

“Diabolist might know more, then,” I sighed.

“She doesn’t deserve to get out again,” Vivienne said darkly.

“It’ be a simpler world,” I said, “if people always got what they deserved.”

I breathed out slowly.

“I grant you leash,” I said. “I grant you eyes and ears, tongue and feet, at my sufferance.”

Akua Sahelian made her entrance with the languid grace of a cat at play. My eyes narrowed immediately. There should have been hole in her chest where I’d ripped out her heart with my bare hands, but she stood intact before me. More than that. No dress of red and gold clung to her form: she wore instead a long gown of trailing darkness, jewels of pure frost glittering around her neck.

“Your Dread Majesty,” Diabolist bowed, smiling pleasingly.

“Huh,” Archer said. “Even dead she’s still a looker.”

I blinked, eyes turning to Indrani.

“You can see her?” I hissed.

Masego inhaled sharply.

“Anchor,” he said, sounding reluctantly impressed. “You made your own prison into an anchor. That is impressive.”

“A compliment from a practitioner of your skill is worth hearing,” Akua said, inclining her head in respect.

“Yes, Cat,” Archer contributed helpfully. “We can see her.”

I glanced at Vivienne, whose fists had tightened so harshly the knuckles were turning white. Still and silent, she was glaring at Diabolist.

“Akua,” I said flatly. “Explain.”

“She devoured part of the mantle, I would say, and wove herself into its very fabric,” Masego said before she could reply.

“An accurate assumption,” Diabolist agreed.

“And so now you’re… healed?” I guessed.

“Bandaged might be more accurate a term,” she suggested.

“With Winter,” I murmured. “Interesting.”

I drummed my fingers against the table and exerted my will. Her hand rose, her eyes widened in surprise and she began choking herself.

“That seems unnecessary,” Masego said as the sound of rough strangulation filled the room.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that before,” I replied without looking at him.

My eyes were still on Akua.

“Nothing without a price, eh Diabolist?” I said calmly. “You’ve given me a much deeper hold, with that little trick.”

“She cannot die through this,” Hierophant sighed. “Only feel pain, which a caster of her calibre would have long learned to ignore.”

I released my hold and her hand fell as she weakly caught her breath.

“I’ve not grown any fonder of surprises, Akua,” I noted. “You’re rapidly heading towards a place where your occasional usefulness is inferior to the risk you pose. I shouldn’t need to tell you the consequences of that, should it come to pass.”

Diabolist bowed deeply.

“Your chastisement has been heard,” she said.

“Might want to do that again, just to be sure,” Thief said, smiling viciously.

“If you want to tear out butterfly wings, do it on your own time,” Juniper grunted. “Sahelian, do you have knowledge of the Dead King?”

“I have made study of him as a worthy example,” Akua replied. “The horrors he has wrought are second to none.”

“What does he want?” Hakram asked plainly. “As an entity, what is he after?”

The dark-skinned beauty – Archer, much as it pained me to admit it, wasn’t wrong about that part – cocked her head to the side. Thief’s fingers clenched even tighter.

“I am bereft of context,” Diabolist said. “And so cannot make accurate assessment. A creature whose existence has covered the span of millennia cannot be summarized in a single sentence.”

Eyes went to me. No one was going to release information to the shade without my say so.

“He’s invited Cat to Keter to discuss an alliance or something like that,” Indrani said, picking at her fingernails.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose. Of course she would. Archer wasn’t one to keep her mouth shut around a pretty anything, much less about things she barely cared about.

“How interesting,” Akua Sahelian drawled, and there was a glimmer of something wicked in her eyes. “I suspect that what Trismegistus seeks is a return of the favour. An invitation.”

I exerted my will and she slapped herself across the face.

“Once more,” I said, “only without the smug cryptic boasting.”

“You used to have a better sense of humour,” Diabolist sighed.

I raised an eyebrow and eyed her hand. She got on with it.

“This is supposition, I must warn,” Akua said. “In matters Trismegistan, certainty is scarce luxury. It is known to my bloodline that the Dead King took the field to lead his armies during the Secret Wars. An event without reflection in his many petty wars with the Principate.”

I studied her.

“You’re implying there’s conditions to him being able to leave his personal hell,” I finally said.

“Indeed,” Akua agreed. “When crusades laid siege to his realm he took the field to humble the Heavens, yet never when he sought to break Procer. If, indeed, he ever sought such a thing at all. This absence might have been taken a weakness of contentment with what he has already achieved, if he had not also fought the Legions across a dozen hellscapes in person. I believe that asymmetry in action to be indicative of a… restraint. A leash, if you would.”

There was a spark of humour in her dark eyes when she spoke that last sentence looking at me.

“He was allied with Triumphant, during her conquest of the continent,” Hakram said quietly. “Histories have always seen that as Evil standing with Evil. But considering this…”

“It might have been a condition,” I finished. “To let him out at all.”

“That sounds,” Indrani grinned, “like leverage.”

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117 thoughts on “Chapter 25: Edge

  1. Stormblessed

    I love the conceit of back stabbing the Dead King. Because he probably also knows they want to backstab him. He is a villain after all.

    I do hope we get to see Akua’s reaction to Cat’s plan of betrayal and just loves Cat even more for it.

    Liked by 11 people

    1. Akua’s part of Cat’s Winter pseudo-aspect. Apprentice cut out an aspect before to lance the corruption in her, and the results were crippling. At this point she can’t afford to lose winter or even damage it. The stakes are high and they’ll keep getting higher so i think we’re stuck with Akua for now.

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      1. Metrux

        I disagree, actually. While the cut before was crippling, there was much diference: to start with, this is not part of her soul, but bound to it, which seems like only diferent words for the same effect, yet when dealing with sorcery anything is a diference. Masego wasn’t as good as he is now, and fae powers enter into his Name powers this time. There was a invading power consuming and turning, he had to cut indiscriminately and in a timely fashion, it could hardly be considered his best work. The story and narrative itself point to Winter either (1) bending under her control, or (2) being separated from her, since she has no Name whatsoever for now, and both Named and unNamed paths need one of those to be true.

        So, while it isn’t something that can be done whenever they want to, it is still possible, if at a price…And we all know how Cat is about paying prices…

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        1. Dragrath

          While Masego has grown stronger Winter is also at the core of Cat right now given she is the Queen of Winter. Severing the embodiment of Winter from itself is a whole other level from cutting out an aspect it would be far closer to severing a Angel from its aspect.

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      2. Sanityfaerie

        Also… Well, Akua has made *herself* a creature of Winter at this point (it fits her pretty well) and the fact is that the hosts of Winter ever scheme against their masters. Cat, too, has grown more Winter-like, and with it more in tune with the flows of such things.

        If anything, I almost see this ending with Akua as the new Winter Queen, once Cat discards the mantle for better things.

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  2. nerferf

    Knew it
    He is a controlled tool for whenever the plot gets boring and needs a big bad to spice up the story of the continent if any of the other usual villains get boring to watch or just too weak

    Whats the point of keeping heroes around if there aint a big bad to throw them at after all

    Liked by 8 people

    1. BroadAxe

      It isn’t even leverage, malicia contacted the dead king at the end of book 3. So this is only percieved leverage, he probabbly already has 1 aliance :3

      Liked by 2 people

      1. stevenneiman

        We know that a magical indicator indicated something. For all we know it was that Cat had become the first suitable ally to summon him since the days of Dread Empress Triumphant (may she never return). Even if her backyard is on fire, Malicia almost certainly understands how ill-advised trying to use the Dead King is, even aside from her doing fine when the Dead King saw the indicator. Besides, if there was a red telephone from the tower to Keter some crazy Emperor would have used it since then. That leave Malicia contacting the Dead King with magic if she did at all, and her best mage answers to Black, who would definitely not be willing to work with the Dead King.

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        1. Sanityfaerie

          Malicia is a pretty decent mage herself. You don’t need the best for a scrying, if you know which scrying to do. Also, we know that she was planning on doing *something* horrible to deal with the current situation – she outright said as much to the Black Knight when they had their confrontation over Akua’s terror weapon.

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      2. Metrux

        I honestly believe this theory about Malicia flawed in so many ways… But even if it wasn’t, we don’t know how or why Cat is needed. If there is a smidgeon of truth that he is contacting on hopes of leaving, then he has no other deal yet, since there would be simply no reason to deal with Cat at all. What this implies is that, at the worse possible, he is dealing with other villains, and at best, that he is limited in who he can deal with. I’m leaning more on the second, because firstly he would’ve done it with others if he had the chance, and secondly because of the red light. What if that is not communications? We we’re never shown it to be, but this theory has taken root into many people’s head. It could very well be a magical instrument to see when someone he can deal with has appeared. He has means of seeing a whole lot more than we know of outside, and of countering Masego’s “auto” tracking magic, which implies he has what is needed for such a complex magical detection.

        Thus, my theory is this: Cat is the first one, or one of the few, that he can use to leave his territory after Tirumphant.

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  3. CaptainSemantics

    And the plot thickens. I can’t wait to see this doublecross play out and (inevitably) fail horribly somehow.

    Theoretically, the doublecross sounds feasible. But if Cat has to let the Dead King out of his realm… Procer is well and truly f***ed.

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  4. Big Brother

    Oh, it’s getting one step closer to Cat and Akua being able to fight at the same time. The Immortal Brawler and the Eternal Diabolist, two sides of a bloody coin that can determine the fate of nations from a single flip.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Havak

    I don’t buy it. If leverage over The Dead King was that simple, Akua’s mother should have known about it too. The fact that she didn’t use it implies that there is probably more going on.

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    1. stevenneiman

      It’s like a favorite food which is so hard to cook that a good enough chef might or might not exist in any given century. Yeah, you might be able to win favor or leverage if you are or have control over that one chef, but it’s not super useful information otherwise. Until we know the proper conditions required to summon him, we won’t know much more. I’m guessing that the glowing stone was actually telling him that a suitable summoner (or possibly a suitable host) exists, and there’s a good chance the Truebloods couldn’t have deliberately created the same conditions even if they knew what they were.

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      1. Oh fucking christ. You have to go find a line labeled Extra Chapters, down below the comments. That is literally the only way. I didn’t even know such.a link existed, it’s so hidden. Why bother writing chapters if you’re going to hide them?

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        1. stevenneiman

          Uh, the “next chapter” button at the bottom of each page will take you through all the special chapters. I didn’t even realize there were situations where they could be hard to find until I read comments related to it.

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    1. nerferf

      Yep, he became to powerful and victory is boring after-all
      Stories are at there best with conflict and a invincible character is just too boring to let go free
      And a boring story means no audience and thats a death sentence given the nature of creation and how the gods abandon Arcadia to boring repeats of the same stories

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Rook

      I’d bet money he fucked up his connection with greater creation and is in a similar situation to the Fae. The permanent hellgate and whatever power he stole from the Hell he took over came at the cost of being treated similarly to the natives of the hell – an outsider to creation proper.

      Which brings up a very plausible reason that he’d care about a (currently minor) character like Cat, the one thing she has in common with Triumphant. She recently laid down precedent for giving outsiders a permanent foothold into greater creation – The Hunt by accepting them into her newly minted Earthly Winter Court.

      Akua is probably right in that sense. What he wants from her is an invitation. An invitation into Creation through Cat’s winter court

      Liked by 7 people

      1. nerferf

        Dont think he fucked up to be honest,

        I think he was “encouraged” and had “help” by the bard or narrative to become a controlled big bad for the gods above to send heroes at and also provide a hold the wall scenes for the gods to enjoy watching mortals holding the wall against undead hordes like in a tower defense game

        dude should have been careful about what he wished for

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Dantalian

    What a wonderful chapter.

    Few authors of Web fictions are able to write a chapter composed entirely of dialogue(in a single discussion with some introspection in-between), and still make the plot progress so much.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Jane

        …You know, I bet his castle still has a ballroom. Now I kind of want to see the Dead King and his court hosting one of those eerie silent waltzs…

        Eternal life with no one (who matters, at least coughRangercough) to talk to must be rather dull… He must have at least tried this sort of mimicry of life, no? You leave a bunch of dolls on the table, and pretty much everyone is at least going to arrange them into a proper scene, no? What’s the point of having a bunch of undead just standing around if you aren’t going to use them for anything, no?

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  7. Cicero

    Uhh….

    Let me summarize the plan so far:

    Step 0: Pretend to be a loyal vassal to Praes so as to delay war with them. Despite independence from Praes being the ultimate goal.

    Step 1: Promise to ally the Crusade in order to convince the northern Procer army to agree to a truce. Implies betraying Praes.

    Step 2: Ally the Dead King, inviting him into creation to attack Procer. Thus betraying Procer.

    Step 3: Betray the Dead King. Use his invasion as leverage to join the Crusade.

    Step 3.5: Assume the Crusade can defeat the Dead King.

    Step 4: Finally betray Praes for real, and break free to become independent. Using the Crusade as your muscle to make it happen. All while not actually following a redemption story, (which implies betraying the Heavens, who are the nominal backers of said Crusade).

    So basically betray everyone in sequence, and rely upon Callow’s position as the fulcrum of the balance of power to make everyone still try to be your ally despite all the betrayals. Callow is England parallels intensify.

    Well… I have to admit that kind of plan is probably not consistent with a redemption story. But Cat… I think you might have become infected with chronic backstabbing disorder.

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Nguyen Hong Hai

      Do note that Malicia has contacted him since the end if the previous book so I don’t think Cat is the only one to cut a deal with him.

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      1. oldschoolvillain

        Everyone assumes it was Malicia, but another important event in that epilogue was Cat’s coronation. The glowy red stone of doom might just be an indicator to let the Dead King know that someone has come onto the stage who can unleash him. If only specific people can let you off of the leash, would you not have a notification for when they appear?

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Or, at least, tear up the bonds and let him go home. Technically, his slice of the Hells is his actual place of abode, not Creation. He might be suffering from being continually “summoned” in some way.

          The individual he’d probably like a few words with about what she pulled on him is also in the Hells, somewhere. With her Legions. He can’t have a good argument with her yoke still around his neck. :/

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      1. limlimrevolution

        I do love that’s she pulling her classic “flip the board and beat everyone with it while shoving the pieces down their throats” gambit.

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        1. Thea

          We must keep in mind that her gambit in Book 1 didn’t play out as planned. She salvaged it, but it was rough. Also, the “basis” for Foundling’s MO was said to be the Battle of Three Armies and One, not the Melee.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. TideofKhatanga

            The battle plan at Five Armies and One: con the Deoraithe into joining your campaign, play Ranker and Kegan against each other, lie to every general on your side, lie to the Winter Host, taunt Summer for fun, use the cavalry that you betrayed an Empress for and deceive the Princess of High Noon as a closing act.

            It’s not as backstab-happy as the Melee but it compensates by sheer amount of lies, dishonesty and creative wording.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Jane

              Really, if Cat hadn’t been transitioning into the Black Queen, she would have transitioned into some trickster name. For as much as everyone jokes about how she deals with all of her problems by stabbing them, I can’t think of many problems she hasn’t dealt with through misdirection, trickery, creatively reinterpreting how her powers are “supposed” to work, and outright lies (before stabbing her problems to death, of course).

              That, setting aside how manipulating fate itself is kind of her thing.

              Liked by 3 people

                1. Jane

                  Um… I just wrote up a nice long explanation of what I meant? But then when I hit backspace, well… My hand had drifted across the touchpad without my notice, clicking on the page outside of the box, so it kind of took me to the last page instead of deleting my typo. Which “deleted” my entire post instead. So to quickly summarize what I had wrote, because I have to get to work…

                  Trickster archetypes are common across the mythology of nearly every culture that I can think of; almost every society has famous figures celebrated or reviled for their reliance on cleverness and deception to build their legend. Cat herself, relatedly, has mostly relied on cleverness and manipulation of the story to achieve her ends; while she’s been in her fair share of scraps, the more important aspect of her victories is usually related to some dramatic turn she set up beforehand (becoming undead to rob the Lone Swordsman of his win, faking a story to kill a god, tricking two other gods out of Creation, her current plan which involves betraying darned near everyone to keep Callow free and herself alive). If we take the ruler archetype out of consideration, as she has indicated that she has no long-term interest in ruling, then in my opinion, that really only leaves warrior and trickster archetypes as possibilities for her, and I think trickster would be a more natural fit than warrior. She has more in common with Odysseus than she does Beowulf.

                  Of course, trickster names might not be in the Guideverse at all, but as I said – they’re present in nearly all of human mythology. If they are actually outright absent from Guideverse (as opposed to my current presumption, that no holder of a trickster name has been relevant to the story yet), then I would suspect that to be some form of foreshadowing – that neither the Gods Above or Below favor human cleverness for some reason, and would prefer to discourage it by rewarding other virtues. But at this point, I see little reason to believe that they don’t exist.

                  Like

                2. Jane

                  Ah, shoot, left out a point in my summary –

                  Of course, as Duchess of the Moonless Night, she’s not eligible for a Name, and if she should lose that mantle, her new name is almost certainly going to be related to the dramatic circumstances under which she lost her mantle. What I’ve written isn’t especially relevant to that, so far as I know.

                  Like

    2. Hinkel

      I think it is not by chance that the quote at the start of the chapter is by Dread Emperor Traitorous. If you have read the chapter with Thief, there are even more parallels with Cat leading her own opposition.

      Like

    3. Katreu

      Reminds me of Cat’s book 1 adventures in the war games in the legion academy… Wasn’t that just a series of spectacular betrayals in succession?

      Who knew that training would come in handy? 😉

      Liked by 9 people

      1. Letouriste

        Well,that failed spectacularly at the end.she lost to juniper because she underestimated the bound between juniper and aisha. She learned from it to never do complicated plans with several critical points…so i’m a little surprised she is willing to do that now

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Novice

          To say that Cat “failed spectacularly at the end” is an exaggeration. It was a draw and she ultimately got Juniper as her general. A badass general that’s currently kicking everyone’s ass. I’d even call it a win, all things considered.

          Liked by 1 person

    4. nick012000

      >But Cat… I think you might have become infected with chronic backstabbing disorder.

      It’s basically the war games from the War College all over again…

      Liked by 1 person

    5. Jane

      When you lay it all out like that, it kind of makes the Tyrant look like a stand-up, dependable guy, doesn’t it? At least his betrayals are straightforward and spectacular, after all.

      Liked by 1 person

    6. Jane

      We thought she was building up to be Triumphant Reborn, being the undefeated champion who could take on an entire continent without any hoping to match her. Instead… She’s become Traitorous Reborn, selling out pawn after pawn just because she can.

      Like

  8. Anon

    Why the hell is Akua still allowed to be given form at this point?

    Yes, she’s ‘suborned’ herself under the yoke of Cat’s control over the mantle of winter, but she’s also been shown to clearly be able to subvert that control at the opportune moment.

    The gods below’, as long as Cat keeps trying to straddle the fence, will end up pushing for Akua to take the reins.

    She’s outlived her usefulness by FAR at this point, and Vivienne should be screaming bloody murder.

    Like

    1. haihappen

      That may even be used as an exit-strategy for Cat at some point: Akua takes Winter -> Cat is free of Winter, free to take on a True Name -> defeat Akua -> happiness all around…
      Too bad ripping out Winter would probably kill Cathrine at this point. … Unless someone with mighty resurrection powers is close by, convinced that Cat is one of the good guys under the influence of a bad one (Akua), … damn, could that be one of the irons the Pilgrim has in the fire? Can he SEE Akua? The man is not omniscient, but really perceptive. And he may not need Akua specifically, most of the rest of the Woe could be chalked up as “Bad influence” too. He jsut needs to craft a story that sticks…

      Damn. So. Many. Angles.

      Liked by 4 people

  9. Berder

    This feels like a horrible mistake. But didn’t the Dead King have another message for Catherine, carried on a black seal? Seems so much planning is premature without hearing that first.

    One option Catherine has failed to consider is surrendering. Which is worse: the Dead King let loose, or Procer divvying up Callow more or less peacefully? But perhaps she’s sunk too deep into villainy to allow this option.

    Like

    1. Berder

      Another point is that Akua needs to die ASAP. She’s already shown, when she battled Catherine in Arcadia, that her devotion to traditional tropes grants her greater control over Winter than Catherine herself had. And now she has a shred of mantle that lets Catherine control her. I’d wager that connection goes both ways and is a question of attunement to Winter. How long until that shred of mantle combined with Akua’s greater affinity for it, lets Akua control Catherine?

      Like

      1. burdi

        And that is what make it all more interesting
        ever changing situation, plot after plot, revelation after revelation
        that catherine has to keep improve, dance after dance because all thing fuck up and not according to the plan
        even her oath to made akua folly tremble of men for thousand years not much succeeded because the situation always changing and she has to improve

        Like

        1. burdi

          its in this chapter

          “She doesn’t deserve to get out again,” Vivienne said darkly.

          “It’ be a simpler world,” I said, “if people always got what they deserved.”

          that the world not so simple, compromise has to be made

          Like

          1. Berder

            Akua’s value is extremely dubious. She hasn’t given much if any useful advice. The best thing she did was fight the heroes for a while, only possible because she took over Catherine’s body. Does Catherine view Akua’s ability to take over her body as a positive? She shouldn’t.

            I wonder what the Dead King’s source of intelligence on the Observatory and Catherine in general is. I would not be surprised if his communion with the dead extends to Akua, who is the spy feeding him information.

            Like

            1. Fern

              I don’t think Akua’s going to try for a betrayal until she has enough story flags to make it worthwhile. Cat may have survived her use of “monster betrays its Evil master,” but that’s mostly because she had a tremendous amount of leverage beyond that; there’s no guarantee Akua will survive her use of the same flag. If Akua’s going to try for a betrayal, it’ll be when she’ll be able to both survive the use of that story and not get beaten to death by the multiple cudgels arranged against her.

              I think as long as Cat keeps using her competently, there won’t be a betrayal for the rest of the book.

              Like

              1. Micke

                It’s been heavily implied Akua wants Cat to usurp the Tower, and that it was never her own, only her mother’s, goal to have her become Dread Empress; Akua being far more interested in unleashing interesting horrors like a proper villain than in the boring minutiae of ruling nation.

                Like

  10. Antoninjohn

    Pattern of three in the stories, One: Dead King Two: Praes Three: Callow, the Dead King might need all the three groups working together to get out

    Like

  11. So, if Cat needs credibility (with any side) and alliances of any kind can only be minefields of various kinds of disaster…

    Exactly how many points would she rack up closing the Dead King’s gate into creation? With everybody? (Including, maybe, him.)

    Like

  12. I agree with the Thief the plan looks far more sane than it was implied last chapter. Unfortunately, there’s still a big problem lurking around the corner.
    Can Procer, who has just lost around 40 000+ men, muster enough strength to stop the Dead King from overwhelming them?
    Malanza is not bad for a general, I admit. But she was defeated soundly by Juniper and Catherine, at a moment where she had absolute hero-superiority and a large advantage in numbers. Her army’s morale must not be brilliant, the officers ranks have taken crippling losses. The Dead King has literally centuries of experience and emerged victorious against total crusades where he was the sole opponent.
    Procer, on the other hand, has not had the time to erase all the problems their long civil war has caused. Their armies, as Klaus Papenheim put it, were brittle and weak.
    There are still twenty heroes around for the Crusade and 110 000+ men available…more if they can get rid of Black sacking their cities right and left. But they have taken a lot of losses recently, and though they have fought the Black Queen and the Warlock, they really are unprepared for the ‘original abomination’.
    I am afraid the Dead King has already anticipated betrayal…and we still don’t know if he has contacted other villains. The Tyrant for one would not be exactly shy to use evil to cause more and more massacres…the Tyrant seeks to end Procer after all.

    Like

    1. haihappen

      The Tyrant would invite the Dead King to tea if it meant to be able to try to betray him/it. The Tyrant is, after all, mad.

      Th invitation said “the champions of Below must either face demise alone or overturn the wheel of fate in coming striving”, that does _NOT_ exclude any of the others.
      Malicia could be there, and the Tyrant, or even the Hierarch (doubt that one, but telling off the Dead King would certainly be something I would like to see him do). Any capital E evil leader could be there.
      In this case, it is probably someone’s *cough* Malicia *cough* idea to forge an “evil” counterweight to Hasenbach’s “Grand Alliance”: The “Alliance of Dread”, or “Unholy Congregation”, or “Covenant of Lies/Betrayal” (last one would be a favorite of the Tyrant I am sure)

      so much possibilities

      Like

  13. Daemion

    Is no one going to comment on this?

    “Your Dread Majesty,” Diabolist bowed, smiling pleasingly.

    The Woe didn’t even react to Cat being addressed as if she was the Dread Empress herself.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Death Knight

    “I stared into the Abyss and found the Abyss… wanting.”
    -Dead King

    The betrayal plan seems sound except for one teeny tiny point of failure:

    Notifying the cities a month beforehand.

    The Dead King was shown to be aware of what happens outside of his borders and he managed to create a necromantic construct that eluded the eyes of the Observatory. It is extremely unlikely that they could keep such an endeavour under wraps-too many moving parts.

    Given that the Dead King is also an otherworldly entity and knows the rules of the Fae, to subvert any potential betrayal, have Catherine swear on her Mantle and/or the Gods Below.

    … This plan is dangerously stupid and full of holes and highly likely to blow up in the Woes face

    Liked by 1 person

  15. jhhu

    Damn, these last two chapters make me so sad for Vivienne. The whole of the woe is a sorry bunch, but Vivienne’s relative innocence makes it more heart wrenching.

    They feel like they have no other choice than to go deeper, and it feels like with every win, they lose more.

    Like

  16. Also, on the complete side note, I have a question. EE, if you indulge me, I’d be glad. Back in the epilogue to the book 1 it has been mentioned that no nation on Calernia can muster even one tenth of what dwarves could. Procer had mustered about 130k soldiers. Does that mean that Dwarves can gather almost one and a half million soldiers?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. TideofKhatanga

      Most likely, yes. What we know of the dwarves: 1/ their underground kingdom spans about two-third of Calernia, 2/ the mercenary company that got hired for the Liesse Rebellion was numbering in the two thousands, which is like twenty times the size of a human mercenary company, 3/ their industrial base is solid enough that they can sell enough surplus to arm the majority of Calernian militaries and 4/ they have enough manpower to consider sinking kingdoms into the ground a reasonable plan A.

      So yeah, the Kingdom Under is massive compared to the surface nations of Calernia.

      Like

  17. Jane

    This… Really isn’t a good plan, is it. But, well, what other choices do they have, really?

    1) Lose. I mean, yeah, theoretically that’s an option? But I’m kind of under the impression that it goes against the core of being Named. How many stories can you think of, outside of maybe a couple of the less popular Grimm tales, where the Hero or Villain just… Gave up. It’s not generally considered a satisfying story. Unless there’s a Heroic Speech on the floor, of course the Villain is going to reach for the doomsday weapon when their back is to the wall. There’s too much at stake not to.

    2) Hope for an eleventh hour miracle. Okay, sure, they look doomed on paper, but… Maybe if Archer visits home, Ranger will be willing to come back! Or maybe there will be some unexpected conjunction of the spheres, and Winter gets supercharged! Or maybe the magical duel had side effects that will boil anyone in the Vales in six months! …Yeah, okay, literally none of that is plausible. If she was a Hero, yeah, maybe the Gods Above would pull that kind of a rabbit out of a hat for her, but she’s on the wrong side to just be handed a win for no discernable reason.

    3a) Ally with the Dead King. So… Being a vassal to the guy whose entire shtick appears to be making the world undead, and who has his own hell portal. How can that possibly go wrong? I mean, yeah, maybe he’d hold to any bargain they struck, and leave Callow alone. You’re still going to watch the rest of the continent (at best) become rather unlivable, and go down in history as one of the bigger monsters. More likely, you’ll end up having to offer regular tribute – and I don’t mean in the form of gold. And worst case scenario? He just takes Callow when the whim takes him, and he has no more use for you.

    3b) Ally with the Dead King. Okay, so… You have some cunning plan to put the Dead King back in his bottle, or maybe he just wasn’t actually interested in staying out to begin with. But, uh, everyone kind of knows you’re the one who took him out of it. That kind of spectacular display of power and folly kind of gets you noticed. Does said cunning plan also give you the raw power of Triumphant Reborn? Because if you’re not capable of taking on the entire continent alone yet, you’re going to need to get it fast. Because I’m pretty sure the Grand Alliance is going to refocus on you as a bigger threat than the tower. And Malicia is probably going to help after a stunt like that if she doesn’t think the alliance can take you on themselves.

    So… “Secretly ally with the Dead King, and sell him out to as many people as you can” has so many ways it can go catastrophically wrong, especially since they don’t know how he knows what happens on the continent, but… Well, they did just spend a chapter looking for alternatives, and the only ones they came up with somehow managed to be worse.

    I mean, they didn’t look at all the alternatives, true. They could try finding the Demon of Absence, and siccing it on the Vales – if they remembered it existed, which, well, the entire point of them is that they can’t. Or they could revisit Bonfire – a gamble, but with less points of failure than the current plan. Or they could use Akua to steal all of Wolof’s ancient abominations and treasures to defend the Vales with.

    Ah, or they could embrace Winter’s power to its fullest, and make the Vales a deathtrap beyond compare – the Witch and the Warlock could have destroyed either army by accident, and Cat isn’t actually weaker than them; she’s merely denying her power. If she were to gate in to difficult to reach places in the Vales, using the Hunt as her retinue to protect her (and possibly start handing out titles, if she were to take the plan to its logical conclusion by empowering others to assist her), and start doing things like freezing and releasing the water in the mountains to cause avalanches (if she wanted to be careful), or drop a few more pieces of Arcadia onto the army (if she didn’t care about the consequences), she could do considerable damage to the army without risking anyone but herself. If nothing else, it would be disastrous for enemy morale, to take such blows without being able to make any visible progress. Of course, it’d make her a hero beacon that would kill her within a year, surely.

    But, well, all of those would probably get them killed sooner rather than later. They’re not good alternatives either, and also leave an axe of “We ignored an ancient abomination’s request for a meeting, think he remembers?” hanging over their heads. He doesn’t strike me as the sort of person you want to ignore. Not that betraying him is any better, I suppose, but at least you get the satisfaction of having beaten him once that way?

    That said, I wonder how badly this will go for them. Think the rest of the world will find out that they’re the ones who loosed the Dead King on the world? It sounds like the kind of thing that would make a good book… And he does pretty much have to find out that Cat sold him out, right? Sealing the Dead King away again sounds like the kind of plotline that she has to end up personally involved.

    Liked by 6 people

  18. Jane

    Ah… I just thought of one way this could all go hideously wrong for Cat, though I doubt it will happen.

    What if… Procer doesn’t believe her? She tells them that the Dead King is preparing to attack, and they just think it’s a trick on her part, and do nothing. And then, after the Dead King does strike, realize that she knew because she was in on it. She’s then forced to play the entire thing straight because, well, it’s not like anyone decent is ever going to work with her again after that, right?

    She took Liesse badly, and she really had fairly little to do with that. How much worse would she take the destruction of multiple cities through her own machinations? The others could shrug that off with little problem (well, except Thief), but it seems like the kind of thing that would break Cat for a while.

    Like

    1. Argentorum

      That’s why Cat said she’s going to *leak* the plan to Procer. She’s not gonna stroll up to Klaus Papenheim and say “Oi, you lot best get north. The dead king is climbing into your windows and snatching yo people up.”

      As amusing as such a scene would be. Then, she uses the need for her fairy gates as leverage to join the alliance, not any “good will” from informing them about the attack.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jane

        Sure, but there’s no guarantee that Procer will believe the leaked information. I mean, what’s more likely – that Cat somehow knows that the Dead King is preparing to attack, or that Cat has figured out who Procer’s agents are, and are feeding them misleading information in hopes of getting some breathing room?

        Like

      2. Jane

        Ah, though, like I said – I don’t think that’s where the story is going anyway. I’m just pointing out that her plan is strongly reliant on something that’s not actually a given, and which would cause a disaster if it were to go wrong.

        Like

  19. I think Cat is presuming a lot when she figures Dead King *needs* a month. I imagine that if she agrees he’ll be like “Ok, let’s do this, fae gate to Procer’s capital, please.”

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Thea

    Nobody commenting on how Akua is lacing Winter into her soul? Cat-laced Winter? That has some interesting options. Their souls could meld. Akua could try to come out on top with superior sorcerous skill (remember that usurpation thing). Akua might be screwed because Cat has so much more of Winter to her… soul. The Oath of Akua’s Folly might trigger and hand Cat the win. They might learn to work together.

    On that note: Akua is becoming to the Woe what Scribe is to the Calamities: The unofficial sixth member that few people know about, but those that do are scared. Very, very scared.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Thea

        How so?

        Speaking of Akua face-turning: It would make her a Dark Magical Girl? Requiring time and effort to be befriended and always a bit edgier? Bonus points for being dark-skinned.

        Speaking of Akua’s Folly: The oath ends in “when they speak of Akua’s Folly and the woe that came from it”. Woe for whom? In the original context, it’s clear, but… you know.
        Also: The woe that came from it… member of the Woe? Okay, this is stretching it, but… you know.

        Like

    1. Jane

      On that note: Akua is becoming to the Woe what Scribe is to the Calamities: The unofficial sixth member that few people know about,

      If that were to happen… You could write an entire book about how Vivienne and Akua came to an understanding with each other. Those are the kind of character dynamics that can really drive a narrative.

      Not that there isn’t an interesting dynamic between Cat and Akua, but Cat can snuff Akua out any time she wishes, and is a lot less… Rigid about the implications of keeping Akua around than Thief is.

      Like

  21. nipi

    And Akua is copying Cat with all that my hearth has been replaced by Winter thing. Anyone else suspect that at some point she is going to be so entwined with the Winter mantel that Cat cant or cant afford to get rid of her any more?

    Like

    1. Someguy

      Nah. Akua gets sacrificed along with Winter (as it’s eternal prisoner) packed into Zombie as a cryogenic explosive (implosive?) to bomb Saint & Pilgrim.

      Like

    1. Jane

      You know, Akua got more Cat-like when she drew upon Winter while she was let out… Does this intertwining now mean that Akua is now permanently slightly more Cat-like? I mean, it’s just a shred, so it shouldn’t have much effect either way, but the implications are… Interesting.

      Liked by 2 people

  22. werafdsaew

    I think Cat isn’t leveraging her Winter powers enough. She should be creating a lake at her side of the Vale so that the crusaders would have a hard to getting into Callow even after clearing the debris.

    Like

  23. Matthew

    The Grey Pilgrim and Augur would entirely undue Cat’s plan to keep her plan secret.

    Either one could find out instantly that she worked with the Dead King. Cat can’t preserve plausible deniability. Both of their powers allow them to ask, “Did Cat work with the Dead King?” “Yes” Burn the witch!

    Like

    1. Jane

      Eh, the Augur doesn’t seem reliable enough for that. Warning that something really dangerous is about to attack, sure – if she can recognize that’s a warning she should pass on. “Cat was in on it”, though? That sounds like the sort of detail that’s beyond her. I mean, we’ve seen the sort of things she tells the First Prince, and they’re kind of… Muddled.

      The Grey Pilgrim could probably finagle the truth out of her, but only if she was willing to talk with him at length on a related topic – and since she doesn’t “really” plan on working with him, just siccing him on Procer and helping stop him, she might still be able to squirm out of such a conversation altogether.

      Like

  24. Maginot's Wall

    And it turns out this was all an elaborate plot to tell dead baby jokes!

    Great plot twist with a long and delicious wind-up.

    Thank you, also, for the detour to see the Black Knight. That was much appreciated in the rich ensemble cast you’ve assembled and tamed. Will we see more of the Hierarch soon? We all wait with baited breath.

    Like

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