Chapter 34: Abyss

“You could gather the stuff of all the Hells and still find less Evil within than lies in the soul of a single man. The worst monsters are always those that chose to be.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

“So,” I said, “before we get into it. What are the odds that Athal is our good friend the Hidden Horror wearing someone’s face?”

I couldn’t exactly say I suspected that because it was what I’d do – though if Masego was to be believed, I was technically wearing a people cloak courtesy of Winter at all times – but come on. Of course the friendly servant ‘gifted’ to me was going to be a trap. Sure, it was possible Neshamah considered himself above those kind of shell games. People who murdered kingdoms for power did tend to have very particular notions about their importance and what they would lower themselves to do. On the other hand, it was becoming painfully clear that we had no fucking idea what the Dead King was really up to.

“I find it unlikely,” Akua said.

The Woe and the murderer – the one not part of the Woe, I supposed it was necessary to clarify – weren’t nearly enough to fill out the absurdly large bedchamber that had been given to me. It was larger than the entire Rat’s Nest had been, and furnished so richly if Robber had been around I might have considered looking away while he got sticky fingers. Pawning the stuff in Mercantis could have probably earned me enough to equip a few hundred legionaries.

“Possession would be difficult, if not outright impossible,” Masego conceded. “Bespelling the man for control is a different matter. It is not impossible anything his senses come across will be extracted and sifted through afterwards.”

“I hear one for mind control and soul cutting,” I said, putting a jaunty tone to my rising horror. “Anyone else feeling like putting their silver at work?”

“I bet he put some kind of fucked up devil bug in the man’s brain,” Archer mused. “You know, one he can look through?”

“One reason I’m glad I don’t really sleep anymore, straight into the pot,” I added, openly sickened. “I’m waiting on the rest of the gallery for counteroffers.”

“I’d be surprised if there weren’t enchantments everywhere taking our conversations straight to the Dead King,” Vivienne noted. “Athal himself might simply be a red herring.”

My eyes flicked to Hierophant, who shrugged.

“There are no active wards I recognize, save those surrounding the city and the Hall of the Dead,” he said. “Though everything in Keter seems touched by sorcery to an extent. The protections I set around us should be sufficient to prevent eavesdropping, or at least very difficult to breach without my awareness.”

“Reasonable paranoia, making three,” I sighed. “Hakram?”

“Negotiations in good faith,” Adjutant said calmly.

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“Playing the long odds, I see,” Akua said amusedly.

The orc’s hand rose to still the incoming tide of responses.

“We assume it a matter of course the Dead King is intent on crossing us,” he said. “I would ask you this, however: does he truly need to?”

“From an objective perspective?” I said. “Probably not. He can get what he wants out of us fair and square. That said, he’s a villain. ‘Need’ takes a different shade when it comes to those.”

“Yet we are not dealing with Diabolist, it’s true,” Vivienne slowly said.

I looked at Akua from the corner of my eye. She did not seem offended in the slightest. She might not even have been listening, scarlet eyes still thoughtfully considering Hakram.

“I do not advocate for blind trust, or even trust at all,” Adjutant said. “But let us not dismiss the possibility of forthright dealings from the onset, either. Salting the grounds prematurely is not to our advantage.”

“He’d bleed us all in a heartbeat, if it got him anything useful,” I pointed out.

“Is this not a recurrent trait in all our allies?” Masego asked, bemused.

It was a little depressing that I couldn’t really deny that.

“Point taken,” I conceded, passing a hand through my hair. “Which neatly takes us to our next point of order. Today’s lecture: what we want from the Dead King, why, and what we’re willing to give in exchange.”

Hierophant raised his hand. I eyed him darkly. Had he even ever sat in classroom?

“Yes, Masego,” I said.

“Is this a mandatory lecture?” he politely asked.

Archer smothered her convulsive laughter into Hakram’s shoulder, the wretch.

“Yes,” I patiently said. “Yes it is.”

The blind sorcerer looked a little miffed, but I pressed on before he could get it into his head to argue.

“For those of you who forgot, or weren’t paying attention,” I said, glancing pointedly at Indrani whose lips were still twitching, “Callow is about to have around eighty thousand Proceran and Levantines soldiers led by heroes invading through the Red Flower Vales. We need them, very badly, to be headed elsewhere instead.”

“Arguable,” Diabolist noted.

“Akua Sahelian, arguing that slaughter is the solution,” I said. “We are all blindsided by this turn of events.”

I bit my tongue afterwards then forced myself to look at the others in turn. We’d begun light-heartedly, and it was my own fault.

“I know levity is how we’ve kept our heads on straight,” I quietly said. “As much as Named can have those, anyway. But this is serious. We’re at a crossroads, and ahead are dead ends all around. The crusaders are in it to the hilt, and there’s no compromise to be had with them. Callow’s on the chopping block for the coming world order and we’re out of allies and alternatives – except for the Dead King. This is the deep end. So please, let’s act like the situation is as grim as it is.”

That sobered the room. I didn’t particularly enjoy doing it – it kept the pressure off my shoulders to treat it as laughable, even when we were all deadly serious. But I could not stomach making it a game even on the surface when things had gotten this undeniably bad.

“The Dead King is our counterweight,” Adjutant said, breaking the silence and continuing my thoughts. “If he breaches Proceran borders up north, the armies at our gate will be either thinned or entirely recalled to deal with him.”

I nodded my thanks to him.

“That said, we don’t want him to actually take Procer,” I said. “Aside from the horrifying loss of life that would entail, we’d be trading the hound at our door for a much larger tiger. So we need him to be enough of a threat the Tenth Crusade turns north, but not so strong the First Prince can’t win. I believe that’s possible to accomplish, for two reasons.”

“The heroes,” Akua said.

I nodded in agreement.

“The Heavens have already assembled their footsoldiers,” I said. “They’re on the field and spoiling for a fight. Crusades have reached Keter before, so we know the Dead King’s not invincible when there’s enough Named thrown at him. Baited out of the Kingdom of the Dead, he might be vulnerable in a way he isn’t while in his seat of power. That’ll draw them like carrion does flies. It’s an objectively better victory for Above to get rid of Neshamah than to topple us – the folks upstairs will push for it.”

“And our leverage,” Vivienne finished.

“To our understanding, the Dead King is stuck in his ‘Serenity’ unless he’s either attacked or invited out,” I said, inclining my head towards her. “Our current working assumption is that we’ve been called here because we can provide that invitation and we’ve been judged sufficiently desperate to actually go through with it.”

Which, in all fairness, we were. The only person in the room not already in on the plan to a full extent studied me intently before speaking up.

“You intend to add clauses to that invitation,” Akua said, eyes hooded. “Not obvious ones from an outside perspective, lest the First Prince find them out and consider herself to have options other than war against the dead. Limitation of strength? No, without a full assessment of his forces that would be too risky. Ah. Territorial boundaries.”

My fingers clenched. I knew there were few people out there who were both clever enough and knew me well enough to get to the conclusion so easily. It still worried me how little time it had taken Diabolist to see through me.

“Three principalities,” I said. “Hannoven, Cleves and Hainaut. That would be the enforced limit of his invasion. Hannoven is fortified enough it will be hard to take, and as Klaus Papenheim’s own territory it will strike bone with both the First Prince and her foremost general if it comes under siege. The other two principalities would give the Dead King foothold across the lakes, and so rally every Alamans of high birth in the Principate to the war. He’s dangerous enough a neighbour with natural boundaries in the way.”

“Preferably, we would want those principalities empty of civilians when the Kingdom of the Dead advances,” Hakram said. “Their armies retreating as well, to strike back in strength when reinforced by the crusader hosts. Once war erupts up north, the balance of power of the Tenth Crusade shifts enough we have room to manoeuver.”

“Sounds like a clever piece of diplomacy,” Indrani shrugged. “But you’re not dealing with some prick of a prince, Cat. You sure the Hidden Horror is going to be willing to put ink to that deal? To put oath to it?”

“Our game’s crooked,” I admitted frankly. “But as far as we know, it’s also the only game in town. He’d make appreciable gains through this deal, even if he went in expecting us to betray him. It’s not the finest offer he’ll ever get, but it’s the one on the table. And if he wanted to stay behind his walls, well, he wouldn’t have sent an envoy in the first place.”

Akua stirred.

“A warning, if you would,” she said.

I glanced at her and nodded.

“All of this rests on uncertain foundations,” Diabolist said. “Namely, that invitation his needed for him to escape his Hell. This is speculation, not established fact.”

“I’m aware,” I bluntly said.

“Then follow the thought to its logical conclusion,” Akua said. “If no invitation is needed and he still sent an envoy to you, what is the Dead King truly after?”

“We’re going into guesswork,” I noted. “And blind guesswork, at that.”

“If you try to ascertain objectives purely from his perspective, yes,” Diabolist said. “But that is not the full sum of the information we have. He sent for you, specifically. You are not the first cornered villain, Catherine. Yet you warranted an envoy where others did not. We can garner some knowledge from studying what sets you apart from other villains.”

I met her gaze, unblinking.

“And what would that be?” I said.

“Two facts seem most important,” Akua said. “First, you are now the crowned and recognized head of a traditionally Good kingdom. Ensuring you remain in power might represent a chance to tip the scales of the Game of the Gods on Calernia.”

There was a cheerful thought. The Pilgrim had bought into the notion, anyway, so there might be something there. We had no indication that the Dead King’s game relied on the balance of power, however, so the grounds were shaky.

“And second?” I asked.

“You are Queen of Winter in all but name,” Diabolist said. “Fae are sworn to you. You are capable of granting titles and assembling a court.”

Adjutant’s brow creased.

“Titles,” Hakram gravelled. “It’s about the titles, if Winter is relevant at all. If you start handing them out, our potential strength escalates faster than anyone else can match. All the heroes capable of fighting are already out there, and the crusade still hasn’t broken through. The Heavens are currently winning, but not by wide enough a margin to hold up. They would have to put a full hand to the scales to compensate, and if they do…”

“Below gets to do the same,” Vivienne quietly said. “It’d start a vicious circle. The Heavens push again, Below matches, and all the while the fire spreads. Winter’s the match to tinder. If Arcadia really was the sketch for Creation, then bringing Winter into this is like stealing the pieces of an earlier match to play in the most recent game.”

“I haven’t been granting anyone titles,” I flatly said. “Precisely to avoid this kind of complication.”

“If you did, however,” Akua said. “What entity is arguably the most powerful on the side of Evil?”

We all knew the answer to that. An argument might have been made for Praes, back in Triumphant’s day, but that era had passed.

“So if it all goes up in flames, he’s likely to be involved when Below makes its play,” I completed grimly. “He’d want to put his finger to the pulse before it comes to that, and have assurances in place for when the arrows start flying.”

“Indeed,” Diabolist smiled pleasantly. “Which is quite the interesting development, don’t you think? Whatever the truth of his intent, we have something that is desired. What we succeed at making of that is all that matters.”

Gods forgive me but in that moment, even after all she’d done, I was glad she was out of the box.

The white-robed servants came to help us prepare for the audience several hours before twilight, but I dismissed mine. Hakram was quite enough for me. It was soothing, to have him help me into my armour. A ritual just for the two of us. The carapace of steel grew steadily around me, until all that was left to add was the cloak around my shoulders and the crowned helmet that had already needed reforging several times. I only put them on after the others were readied, the Woe in the fullness of their regalia. There was sense of solemnity to it. Archer’s ceremonial garments were not significantly different from her usual, merely trading her usual leathers and silver mail for ones we’d had tailored for her in Laure, but it was oddly nostalgic to see her with the face covered by a hood and scarf again. Hierophant was all flowing black robes and silken eye cloth, somehow turning the simplicity of it into a statement of might. Adjutant and I were steel from head to toe, a frank admission of the nature of what we wrought. It was Thief that was barely recognizable. Her short hair had been styled and coiffed, going from haphazard to carefully arranged, and her prowling leathers were traded for Callowan court garb: a dark green overcoat bordered in brocade, over a long high-necked white tunic going to her knees. Soft and well-polished boots went up to her calves, with only a simple sheathed knife at her hip serving as a reminder of her Name. Diabolist remained as I had made her, somehow wearing her ghostly garments as if she’d been born to them.

Athal was our guide to the Hall of the Dead, along with several others Hosts. The pale man was subdued today. Not cowed, but well aware of the gravity of his duties. It was not often one was granted audience with the Hidden Horror. The inside of the spire was not as I remembered from the shards, everything within having shifted. Dimly, I could trace the pattern of our journey in my head. It all revolved around the royal hall now. The heart of the tower, where the portal and the man who’d made it awaited us. The antechamber to that hallowed place seemed filled with statues, at first glance, but a second revealed otherwise. The fifty silhouettes standing still were not stone or the remembrance of kings.

“Revenants,” Archer said, and none of us replied.

Heroes, I thought. Dead heroes, and perhaps villains as well. Ripped out of whatever ancient age they had fallen, still garbed in the armaments of their defeat. Men and women of every stripes, knights and sages and wizards. An honour guard that none but the Dead King could boast. We passed them by in uneasy silence. Athal bowed low as we stood before the bronze gates of the hall.

“We part ways here, Great Majesty,” he said. “What lies within is not for the likes of me. May you find all that you seek, and leave a friend to the Serenity.”

I nodded at him, then took a deep breath. A memory flicked back to the front of my mind, quick and silver-bright. Too clear for a mortal mind. A thumb running up my cheek as the lesser god smiled

“You are in need of a reminder, Catherine Foundling, of the difference between bravery and ignorance,” I murmured to myself, with a bitter smile.

Another king, that one, that I had only ever beaten on his own terms. Something to keep in mind when facing the king ahead.

The bronze gates opened, and we went forward to meet with the King of Death.

“Her Majesty Queen Catherine Foundling, Tyrant of Callow, Sovereign of Moonless Night, the Black Queen.”

The announcement rang loud and clear in the hall as I advanced, coming from a dead man’s throat. The others were announced behind me. Lord Hierophant, Lord Adjutant, Lady Archer, Lady Thief. The Shade of Splendour. The words washed over me, made faraway by what I witnessed. No portal there, not today. A tall dais with a throne of bones, with a long table set before it. From the tall rafters hung banners from all the great hosts of Calernia. Old and faded. Some still keeking of blood long turned to dust. Yet the greatest of all banners hung behind the throne, the deep purple of the Kingdom of the Dead’s heraldry set with crown and stars. None of it mattered, compared to the thing that sat the throne. It was a man, or perhaps just the mockery of one. Not living yet not dead, so thin bones could be made out through the parchment-thin skin. Pale locks of hair tumbled down messily, reaching down to the elaborate purple robes decorated with gold chains and riotous jewels that together twice earned a mortal king’s ransom. The thing was sprawled lazily, the ancient crown of Sephirah on its brow, watching us with sunken yellow eyes. A curtain of power hung between us and it, unseen but thick against the roof of my mouth. Illusion. The Dead King was not within the hall. It was not Neshamah’s body I was seeing, either. Not his first one anyway.

“I greet you, Black Queen,” the abomination said in a rippling voice. “And confirm by my own tongue extension of hospitality to you and yours.”

I bowed my head.

“We are duly grateful of the offered courtesy, Your Majesty,” I replied. “And offer guest-gift as a sign of our own.”

Hakram strode forward, face serene. It had been trouble, finding something that was a worthy gift yet easy to carry through Arcadia. So many of the things that would have pleased the monster would have been dangerous to us. In the end, it’d been Ratface that came through. He knew people that know some people in Mercantis, and for a cost that made me wince they’d nabbed something of worth from an auction. Adjutant removed the silken veil from the cushion he carried, revealing a small shard of black stone.

“A piece of the Tower as it once stood, before twice being cast down,” Hakram announced.

A white-robed attendant, this one without a heartbeat, came forward to take the cushion from his hands. It was offered to the Dead King, who took it in hand and studied it with a thin-lipped smile.

“A sliver of greatness,” he said. “And a reminder of frailty. A worthy gift, Black Queen.”

I bowed my head in silence. He set the stone back down on the cushion, and it was spirited away by the servant as he returned those wicked yellow eyes to us.

“Sit,” the Dead King invited. “You are my guests, after all. It would not do for you to remain standing. Would you partake of my table?”

“We would be honoured to do so,” I lied.

“I am pleased to hear it,” the thing that had once been Neshamah said. “We have much to speak of, and it would make me uneasy to do so while your throats are dry.”

I forced a smile.

“I confess,” I said, “that your invitation roused great curiosity in me. Talk is much welcome.”

“And yet you wonder, what are we to speak of?” the abomination chuckled. “Allow me to shed light.”

Yellow eyes met mine.

“We must speak of that most ancient trade of kings, Black Queen,” the Dead King said. “War.”

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103 thoughts on “Chapter 34: Abyss

      1. Leave it to us to unrepairably damage the fabric of reality because we are too impationed to wait a couple of days. Guys, ya all will make great Villains, and I love you for that.

        Liked by 6 people

        1. Jane

          Let’s be honest here, little of value would be lost by tearing apart the fabric of this reality.

          …Well, I suppose I would regret losing the Guide… But not much else. Bring out the demons, I say!

          Liked by 3 people

  1. I just had a thought. I bet the Warlock is inside Serenity. We know he navigates Hells. He probably escaped from the Witch of the West. But he hasn’t come back, and his return is likely to be narratively relevant.

    So I’ll bet he got waylaid in Serenity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JJR

      I’m betting that he won the fight and is now waiting for Black to be in his most desperate straights before he shows up to pull off a last minute rescue.

      Like

      1. Jessica Day

        I’m imagining that the fight still rages on, the two of them caught together within their own spells and the winner tbd by the side who needs a save… If Black “accidentally” gets himself too deep into enemy territory, cut off from all allies…

        Like

      1. d_o_l

        IIRC The Dead King’s culture refer to the Fae as the Splendid. He’s basically just calling her what she is; i.e. a shade animated by the power of Winter.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Someguy

          I don’t think the Dead King can be easily fooled by a soul shapeshifting, the farce was mostly for the benefit of any Callowan or crusader watching as they travel.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Danus

            I agree that the Dead King wouldn’t be fooled by a simple cosmetic change – but Akua is literally animated by the Mantle of Winter. This episode devotes significant time to develop the importance of mantles in BQ’s powers, so I read it as foreshadowing.

            I wonder if Killian could eventually bear the mantle of Summer.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Dantalian

            Now that her soul is kind of tied to Winter she’s more Fae than human. Seeing how they refer to Fae as the Splendid, sounds like they see her as a shade created by the same thing Fae are made of.

            Like

      1. He’s being polite enough to acknowledge the fiction of this “anonymous plus one fae ghost” that has been presented to him in a way that is, incidentally, open to interpretation the next time the Woe make a trip to the fridge. 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Someguy

    >“If you did, however,” Akua said. “What entity is arguably the most powerful on the side of Evil?”

    Robber & Pickler to fuck with the Goblin Matriarchs and maybe creating a new lineage of goblins with extended lifespans. Nauk as a test to see if the Winter Title can counter his mental wounds from Summer ‘s flames and restore him fully. Maybe Hune to pull the Ogres influence. Bringing the Greenskins/non-humans under Cat will allow her to undercut Malicia and widen her talent-pool to draw manpower.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jane

      …Allying with the Goblins sounds a lot like allying with Akua crossed with the Dead King, though. Ridiculously treacherous, and possessed of reckless power that could blow up on her just as readily as her enemies.

      Working with goblins in the legions is one thing, but working with the Matriarchs is… Something else altogether.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Someguy

        Not working with the Matriarchs, FUCKING them over by granting Robber power and extended lifespan. They kicked him out for shitting on their authority by not fighting remember?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Danus

          Robber with a Title would be absolutely brilliant. I wonder how Summer is going to become relevant to the plot again, because it constitutes another “leftover” piece from the “previous game.”

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Someguy

            Summer invaded Callow when someone pissed them off right? Winter had no idea why they were pulling that shit and there was no follow up.

            Like

            1. Death Knight

              That would be grounds for all out war between the goblins and the Callowans. Remember their entire culture is based around male subservience. For Catherine to bestow a title on Robber, an outcast male? If the matriarch’s do not do something about that then it will weaken their perceived position in their own tribes and may initiate a culture change. A titled Pickler would be a manageable diplomatic situation, seeing as she is (or was) of matriarch lineage. But Robber? Not unless Cat wants to smite the Grey Eyries.

              Liked by 2 people

              1. Metrux

                But if she do grant him a title that has nothing to do with any other goblins, a title that is also held by other people of other races… Yes, it will piss off alot the matriarchs, but they won’t have a clear reason to enter war, thus they can only act indirectly, and with nothing that can be tied back to them. Dangerous, but not as much.

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                1. Agent J

                  There’s optimism and then there’s that. No, Cat herself pondered the consequences of bestowing a title on Robber when Larat first mentioned the possibility. The consequence was war with the Matrons. No amount of legalism or clever politicking will get them to stomach it.

                  That being said, I’m all for an all out war with the Matrons. Let the goblins and the highborn back Malicia. They make themselves all the easier to clean up.

                  Like

    2. Decius

      Anyone capable of generating a Red Letter from the Gnomes can mobilize forces greater than everything on the scales so far.

      But they can’t WIN that way, so they don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jane

    You know… It occurs to me that, no matter how much one trusts Heirophant’s talents, it probably would have been better to have had this conversation in Arcadia, before they passed into Keter proper. I mean, the Dead King has had how many centuries to perfect some sort of eavesdropping spell cast across his entire domain? Much better to go over things one last time before returning to Creation, and just have a quick “Did anything we learn once we were here change anything?” session that repeat everything to prying ears.

    I’m not saying that the Dead King was listening in, necessarily, but wasn’t that kind of reckless?

    Also, interesting (though not surprising, really) that Akua agrees that they could probably win the war if Cat were to start utilizing Winter to greater effect. I don’t think the Narrative would work like that, but it’s nice to hear that it’s sound on paper – even if it would trigger the Guide-verse equivalent to World War Three. Akua once again proves herself the most useful cloak, providing a perspective none of the rest of them considered.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Azure

      Yup this conversation should definitely have happened earlier, after Catherine had her epiphany after the vision with the Bard and Dead King. Yes the Woe’s banter is part of their charm, and treating this like a road trip worked to an extent, but the serious parts need to be dealt with with the appropriate weight as well. I’m glad Catherine addressed the levity and it’s timing, but maybe if Erraticerrata ever gets around to editing some parts of this, then perhaps he would move this conversation to an earlier chapter, perhaps to just after Catherine overhearing Thief and Akua conversing.

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  4. Trickster315

    So I have a pretty crazy theory. what if instead of an alliance the Dead King is looking for something more impact full in terms of breaking the story. What if he is looking for a marriage to change the status quo, similar to the Winter King? We’ve seen that he acted against the Wandering Bard who was supposed to keep the game going and the status quo the same.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Snowfire1224

      Going along with your theory then I propose the person that is most likely the “Summer Queen” to his “winter king” is Cordelia. She may not be named but she is the ruler of the big Good nation. I thought of bard too, but that wouldn’t last because bard could just die and become someone knew again. The Dead King can only marry the person, not the Name or so I would suspect Bard would argue of that situation happened.

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    2. Dantalian

      If the Dead King is really thinking about marriage then he should be more aware of how unprepared he is trying to charm his “future bride” using a sack of bones as a body. After all, Catherine is well known for ogling attractive people(even her enemies).

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Berder

    They shouldn’t have talked about their plans for betrayal while in Keter. The Dead King certainly has the power to spy on them here with a necromantic construct or some other trick. I suspect the Dead King is three steps ahead anyway.

    Akua’s hypothesis: granted fae titles lead to more Good playing pieces which lead to more Evil playing pieces which leads to the Dead King being put into play. But this supposes the Dead King needs to be put into play by the Gods Below, and can’t do it himself.

    Suppose the Dead King can put himself into play, and doesn’t need any permission from the Gods Below or from Cat. And yet, apparently he only has exited his realm when attacked. (or “invited” – do we know if he was ever invited out to wage unprovoked war before? or is this just wishful thinking by Cat.) This paints a picture of a fundamentally peaceful, defensive monarch who doesn’t care about conquering the continent, but who is attacked by Procer just because he’s Evil. That sounds a lot like Cat. Is it possible that the Dead King sees Cat as a kindred spirit and genuinely wants to help her?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Daemion

      He’s constantly at Procer’s borders and would invade them if they didn’t defend themselves. So, not really peaceful or defensive.

      Like

          1. Hes showing bias, not brainwashing. Nothing he said was actually wrong. If one takes the forgotten histories of Keter and Procer into account, than its a pretty legitimate point of view.
            Depending on what the Dead King is actually like anyway.

            Liked by 1 person

          1. Decius

            The information directly from Procerean interludes is more reliable than the information that filtered through more levels. Akua might have accurate information about the Keter/Procer situation, but her information isn’t more reliable than the least reliable element in its source.

            In particular, if the Dead King doesn’t need a treaty to invade, and has the power to, it must be because he doesn’t want to.

            Like

    2. Metrux

      He did small attacks, though none that were trully treatening, except for one time: He marched himself besides Triumphant. People have been drawing parallels between Cat and triumphant for several reasons, but if she is the second one to have him accompany her in war… Wouldn’t you say this paints a pretty powerfull picture? The last one conquered the continent, for as small a duration as it was.

      Like

    1. Homestly, it’s already better than:

      ““And yet you wonder, what are we to speak of?” the abomination chuckled. “Allow me to shed light.”

      Yellow eyes met mine.

      And then the Dead King spoke.”

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Death Knight

            I feel like that’s like telling me “We’re gonna kill you by shooting you in the head whereas we could have burned you alive.”

            Like

  6. Rook

    The war Neshamah is talking about is most likely not cut from the same cloth as the one that Cat is currently involved in. The tenth crusade is a big deal for small time players, but it isn’t worth fireflies for someone that’s playing the game on the scale that the Dead King is. I suspect he’s talking about theoldest war in the book: Good vs Evil

    Which is a bit worrying considering that there’s been considerable foreshadowing that this trip is where Cat really starts going off the deep end, alignment-wise. All that talk of Evil being a steep cliff vs Good being a slippery slope, followed by a decision to go to Keter our of desperation in a chapter titled *Plunge*, followed by ‘into dusk’ and ‘abyss’

    Similar to how capital-G Good was shown to be so far removed from the traditional casual idea of good to be totally alien, this might be where capital-E Evil gets the same sort of reveal and starts to drag her in, even with her personal ideals remaining mostly intact.

    Most likely scenario? He gives her a picture perfect solution to the threat of the Crusade on a silver platter. No strings attached in any tangible or magical way shape or form, with no visible benefit to himself. In ‘return’, I wouldn’t be surprised if he influences her in the process to really start going down a bad road, just one little nudge changing the direction of the course. No direct benefit, nearly no direct involvement, and no direct target – an airtight move with no gaps.

    It would fit his style of operation, just like his ascension by having external threats indirectly propel him to power, and his messenger avoiding the eyes of creation via indirectly getting to the Woe via preprogrammed commands coincidentally in the right direction instead of a going to a target.

    In this case he could indirectly secure an ally far in the future by making use of external (Proceran) pressure in the present.

    Liked by 11 people

      1. mindsword2

        Yeah, so this is my worst case scenario.

        “Black Queen, thank you for coming. I want to discuss war.” Turns to Akua. “Good work on turning 10,000 zombies and opening a permanent portal to the hells. Lets talk.”

        Like

        1. Metrux

          This is actually ridiculous. Akua was never called Black Queen, and the title doesn’t go well with her in any way or form, she didn’t even wear anything of black. Sure, imagining this is terrifying, but has 0 chances of happening.

          Like

          1. Insanenoodlyguy

            no no no, he’s saying “Thank you for coming Black Queen, now I can talk to Akua since you brought her here.” In this worst case he doesn’t think Akua is the Black Queen, he’s just aware of her nature enough that he knew to get her to him he needed to invite Foundling.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. mindsword2

              This was what I was implying. Also, a mistake on my part; 100,000 zombies.

              But seriously, Akua’s ambition killed 100,000 people, turning them into undead under her control and opening a permanent portal to Hell. His ambition caused his kingdom to be turned into undead and opened a permanent portal to hell. Sure they were for entirely different reasons, but all of this could have been for Akua, not Cat. And that is the worst case scenario I can think of.

              Like

      1. Death Knight

        I really am surprised I haven’t seen the fandom try to ship Cat and a bottle of Aragh given how much Cat loves to go down on that..”bottle.”

        Like

  7. Berder

    The big question on everyone’s mind is, “What does the dead king want?” The chapter Witness seems to have cryptic answers to this.

    (By the way – at the end of Witness, Cat tells Hierophant to extract memories from the Wandering Bard and Neshamah. Did this happen, and what did Hierophant learn?)

    In Witness, Neshamah describes his belief that people should not die, and nor should they be trapped in a cycle of repetition. He says the Splendid are trapped in a cycle of repetition despite their immortality, to prevent them from learning too much. In the chapter Keter, we find out that Akua is an example of a Splendid. But what, exactly, is a Splendid?

    Neshamah says this in Witness: “The Splendid are bound to repetition because they are feared, Intercessor. Because with the span of eternity before them, they might learn beyond what they were meant to learn were they not so tightly constrained. And so mortality is the answer to the deeper question: how do they loosen the bindings without birthing their own usurpers?”

    And he answers his own question: “Why, by cursing their work with decay,” he chuckled. “By ensuring the banner can only be carried for so long by any one soul before it is recalled at their feet.”

    Then the Bard counters: “Below’s favour comes with the end of aging.” To which Neshamah counters that those with Below’s favor are cursed to die from strife.

    To tell the story more plainly: the Splendid are bound to repetition by something that fears them, so they create work cursed with decay to help the Splendid escape the cycle of repetition, and Below’s favor is an example of this work cursed with decay. That implies the Splendid are the Gods. (And so is Akua – so Splendid seems to simply mean any kind of immortal spirit. Perhaps the Gods were not always so powerful, and were once like Akua.) It also implies there was some other entity, perhaps above the Gods, that feared the Gods and was able to bind them with repetition.

    Neshamah’s highest objective, therefore, seems to be to escape both death and repetition, and usurp the Gods. Conquering Procer is not what he really cares about. He would like Catherine’s help in usurping the Gods, given her unique situation with Winter.

    And after that… they would have to contend with whatever originally bound the Gods with repetition.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Metrux

      You… Seem to interpret things in a very strange way. We were never shown anything of the Gods, only their agents, so we can’t really know if they dable in repetition. No, the most clear definition is that the Splendid is how he called Fae, and that they could grow in power, if not for the cicle of repetition between the courts, enough to be a threat to the Gods. While mortals, and Named alike, will die, thus they can’t grow enough. Yes, he does want to surpass the Gods, or so it seems, but this is a desire thousands of years old, before he made his kingdom and his true claim. We can’t completely know what he wants of Cat, because too much changed, and we don’t even know if he can change. There isn’t anything after the Gods, because the Gods created everything.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Berder

        If he was talking only about Fae in that passage, how is mortality the answer to the question of how to “loosen their bindings without birthing their own usurpers”? Are you suggesting the Fae created mortality?

        Neshamah said: “Why, by cursing their work with decay,” he chuckled. “By ensuring the banner can only be carried for so long by any one soul before it is recalled at their feet.”

        How does this make sense in regard to the Fae? What banner? It makes sense in regard to the Gods: the banner is the blessing of Gods Above and Below, creating Named. And if it was about Fae why would the Bard then counter that “Below’s favour comes with the end of aging”? The whole passage makes no sense if it was about Fae.

        Now, the Gods might be some relative of Fae. We have been shown a couple beings that Cat called gods: Fae royalty, the King of Winter and Queen of Summer. This might be exaggeration by Cat, or there may be a true link.

        Like

  8. Un-Metaphorical Grapevine

    “We must speak of that most ancient trade of kings, Black Queen,” the Dead King said. “Having the chance to have a sane conversation with a sane person.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Burnsy

      He picked the wrong guests entirely for that. I think, between them, you could maybe fashion a single fully functional person. Or at least a lunatic capable of adequately faking it.

      Maesgo could probably put it together out of some sort of flesh golem if you give him a lab and some privacy for a week.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Burnsy

    “Akua Sahelian, arguing that slaughter is the solution,” I said. “We are all blindsided by this turn of events.”

    I have to admit, even though keeping her around is a decision that is inevitably going to blow up in everyone’s faces, it’s almost worth it for the banter.

    However…

    ‘She might not even have been listening, scarlet eyes still thoughtfully considering Hakram.’

    *Sighs*

    Akua. Honey. I get that whatever scheme you’re running relies at least partly on you faking your way through a redemption narrative. Personally, I think that you’re angling for one of those resurrections that only the good guys can dish out, but that’s neither here nor there.

    But. This thing you’re going for here? The slow realisation that orcs are fully capable of being rational, intelligent and insightful beings? The whole ‘Akua learns a lesson’ you’re building to? We can see you doing it. Vivienne can probably see you doing it. And Hakram can definitely see you doing it.

    Which means the second you try to have a heart to heart bonding moment he is gonna throw it back in your face and, frankly, embarrass you sweetie. Because you’re still faking it, and you’re still underestimating him.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Agent J

      I read that completely differently. It was mentioned earlier that Hakram makes her uncomfortable. I think this plays into that. Rather than wide-eyed shock that orcs are fully sapient beings, I think her uneasiness around him is a show of extreme caution. Around him more than anyone else, Vivienne included, she makes absolutely certain to keep on her toes. He’s the most dangerous to her. His eyes are sharper than goblin steel and his loyalty to Cat is unmatched by anyone, Nauk included. Worst yet is his disposition. The man is an unmoving stone amidst raging rapids. Nothing shakes him or clouds his judgement.

      I liked what Cat said of her, Akua’s uncharacteristically open-minded for one of her breeding. Everyone is equally beneath her. It’s not a smart orc that worries her, it’s Hakram specifically. Whatever scheme she’s cooking, if there’s anyone in Cat’s camp that can spot it and shred it, it’s the Lord Deadhand. And she fucking knows it.

      In short, her underestimating Hakram is the absolute last thing she’ll do.

      Like

  10. Yotz

    So, riddle me this:
    A Girl Lost, her Beast Tamed, a Keeper of Corn, a Knight of Tin, a Trembling King, and a Ghost of the East enter the chambers of the Beryllium Magus…

    Like

  11. Jessica Day

    I find myself wondering if the worst fate that could befall Akua would be if she was *truly* redeemed…

    Like, any Buffy fans out there remember what it was like for Angelus to get a soul and become Angel?

    What if she had to truly understand the full extent of her crimes and accept responsibility for them?

    Like

    1. Yotz

      A guilt of such magnitude can be a powerful drive behind The Redeemed actions, but given Akua’s history and attitude, her path to redemption will be a story in itself, and any attempt to tell it would force Author either to gloss over nuances, making a disservice to all involved, or shift focus of current story specifically to her. Though telling that story aparallel, or as a possible sequel – a-la Angel to Buffy – would make for a splendid tale. Especially, if she’ll try to earn the redemption while retaining the title of Diabolist…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Fifty Named…the Dead King has more Revenants guarding him than there are heroes in the Tenth Crusade at the moment and it is AFTER four visits of Ranger. Forget Black and Assassin, the undead abomination is the true leader in the contest of killing heroes…

    The negotiations are going to be explosive and fascinating, but I wonder how Cordelia Hasenbach would react from a position of ‘forcing Catherine to abdicate as Queen’ to ‘we have lost three provinces to the Dead King’. Losing three Prince territories out of twenty-four would be the greatest defeat of Procer in its entire existence since it was born after the defeat of Triumphant.

    And of course there’s the classic cliffhanger…well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. crescentsickle

    Adjutant is a brand new transitional name for Chancellor~

    Akua’s got her knickers in a twist because he’s her prime competition~

    She doesn’t know what else it could transition to because Orc Names are brand new, so she can’t force him to be anyone different unless she tries to do so blind~

    Like

    1. nimelennar

      I thought we’ve been told, again and again, that greenskin Names used to exist, even if they haven’t for a long time. This is why Catherine will never get the Name Warlord: it’s a greenskin Name, and she isn’t part of a greenskin Story.

      Adjutant being a new Name, though, comes out to about the same thing.

      Like

      1. crescentsickle

        Yes, we’ve been told that again and again. I’m not sure what the point of saying so was? I don’t think Adjutant has been confirmed as an old Orc Name. My hypothesis is that it’s not even an Orc name. It’s possibly a Praesi Name, or perhaps just a Practical!Evil name.

        The point of my prior post was that I believe Akua’s current fascination with Hakram is because his existence jeopardizes her plot to become Chancellor, because if Cat magically became Empress today he would be the only one in the running to become Chancellor.

        More than that, Adjutant is basically Chancellor in role itself, if on a military skew, which has been repeatedly emphasized with everything about Catherine (armor in this audience, flag of scales where the sword is heavier, etc.). Given that, Akua is probably thinking Cat would be less inclined to outlaw Chancellor like Malicia did.

        Like

        1. crescentsickle

          Ah, disregard the bit about not knowing why you mentioned Orc Names. I forgot I had that specific bit at the end worded like that.

          Didn’t mean new as in Actually New (TM) but that they’re an unknown quantity suddenly relevant again.

          Like

          1. PotatoMan

            Orc names as a !New Old thing are only relevant again because the orcs have experienced under Black and Cat a culture shift, eg. being allowed to have a culture at all. I thought that Akua was having racism issues with Hakram, but it could be that she is realizing how Cat gains power by investing in and lifting up her subordinates and allies, as opposed to spending her followers’ lives on throwaway actions all the time. IDK though. Guess we’ll see.

            Like

          2. Someguy

            Adjutants are generally a junior captains or senior first lieutenants in the US Army on the Battalion managing administrative functions so it may be a Transitional Name to [Captain] now that the Name is empty without repeating history with the next [Cursed].

            Liked by 1 person

  14. Looks like nobody has said this yet…

    Territorial considerations don’t mean much when two people mean different things when they say the same territory. I bet it’ll turn out that one of those territory names was actually the continent name when the Dead King was alive, or something like that.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The current boundaries as specified by whom? The boundaries as the Dead King has known them for the past three millennia or the boundaries as per the current upstart country that has usurped those names? 😉

        Like

  15. Soronel Haetir

    I’ve been thinking some about the theory that Cat is triumphant reborn. I can think of few things that would piss her off more than if that turned out to actually be the case.

    It would mean she really is nothing more than a pawn in the game between the gods above and below and that it doesn’t matter a stinking crap what she does, the show must go on and all that.

    Like

  16. RedoneAgain

    You know, I’m seeing a lot of overlap between what is going on now and the summer and winter thing. Summer seems to be in many ways a mirror of callow, and cat is the queen. The Dead King is a king stuck in a cycle he hates and wishes to escape. He also rules over a kingdom of darkness. The winter summer conflict ended with the winter king marrying the summer queen by making marrying him the only option brsides giveing up her central tenets. Are we going to see cat marring the dead king?

    Like

    1. Technically, Procer is more the Kingdom’s designated opposite than Callow is. Well, Cordelia’s single… 😛

      But, I doubt wedding bells of any kind are in the offing. There is more than one way to gain a merger.

      Like

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