Chapter 35: Stroll

“Seventeen: always agree when offered to share in the rule of the world by a villain. The three to four heartbeats of sheer surprise that will earn you are a golden opportunity to kill them before it comes to a monologue.”
– ‘Two Hundred Heroic Axioms’, author unknown

The Dead King kept a good table, for a corpse.

It was a little surreal that after that last bit of dramatics we were expected to have a meal, but wasn’t that diplomacy? Vivid theatre, followed by long stretches of tediousness. There were half a dozen kind of spiced meats on the table I didn’t recognized but tasted delicious, with the only dark mark on the affair that it was apparently expected that undead attendants would cut my meal for me. I dug in with reluctant enthusiasm, since it was unlikely I’d get to eat this fine a meal for months yet. The cooks at the palace had been weaned off the more complicated fare they’d learned from Mazus and the Fairfaxes and gently guided into making the simpler fare I liked better – if it used to squawk and had since been roasted, odds were I’d enjoy it – but they seemed to have taken that as a challenge to put all their efforts into dessert. Which, well, I had not found it in myself to deny. Masego had a sweet tooth as well, and blueberry tarts were one of the few plates that were never at risk of coming back full when sent into the Observatory. I laid off the wine, though out of politeness I took a few sips. It still tasted like ash to me, as all lesser spirits had since I fully claimed my mantle. Setting down the silvers, I politely dabbed away the bit of sauce on my lips with the provided cloth and leaned back into my seat. Meal time with the Woe tended to be a riotous affair, but not today.

Trading barbs with the Dead King as audience would have been a little too much even for Archer. The abomination sitting the throne waited patiently, by all appearances pleased with how quick we’d been to dig in. I caught his eye, purely by happenstance, and when I faced those yellow orbs the throne room went dark. Sighing, I put down the cloth.

It’d been about time for something to go wrong, hadn’t it?

A quick look around told me I was no longer sitting in the throne room. This was the pitch black of nothingness, not deep shadow. The cloth had disappeared into the dark the moment it left my fingers, and the table had followed suit the moment I took my eyes off of it. The only visible thing around was a standing man, and my brow rose when I took him in. The throne-sitting corpse had not been the Neshamah of millennia ago. This, however, was. Pale and mess-haired, with those thick eyebrows and calloused hands. Closely-shaven as he had been when I’d last glimpsed him, a heartbeat before he wrought the doom of Keter.

“There is no need for alarm,” the Dead King spoke in Ashkaran.

I forced a frown in my face.

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me,” I said.

No amusement bloomed on his face. He did not strike me as offended by the lie, either – if he even knew it was one. What had been spoken was simply put away behind those golden-brown eyes, to be studied at his leisure.

“My apologies, then,” he replied in Lower Miezan. “Would you walk with me, Black Queen?”

I rose to my feet, swallowing a snort when the greatest abomination ever born to Calernia chivalrously offered me his arm. In for a copper, I mused. I looped my arm into his and allowed him to lead me through the nothingness.

“I judged a private conversation to be in order, before negotiations began,” the Dead King said. “As reparations for the imposition, the least I can offer is an interesting sight to accompany it.”

The darkness bled out. It was like watching a painting in reverse, I thought. Instead of splashed of colour being put to canvas, strokes of black were removed and bared the sights beneath. He’d not lied, at least, about it being interesting. The two of us stood dozens of miles in the air, watching the slaughter that took place below. It was a siege, or at least an assault part of one. Surrounding a Keter near identical to the one I’d seen in Creation, hundreds of thousands gathered beneath colourful banners to take a run at the walls. My eyes lingered on the few heraldries I recognized. Most of them Proceran, but a few Callowan ones as well. The bells of House Fairfax startled a finger clenching out of me. That banner had not flown in the wind since the Conquest.

“Sixth or Seventh?” I asked.

There could be no doubt, after all, that it was a crusade beneath me.

“Sixth,” Neshamah replied. “The depths of that failure led to the birth of the Seventh, in many ways. The Choir of Contrition is hard of learning.”

“My own encounters have left me less than fond,” I said. “The first hero I fought was sworn to them.”

“The Lone Swordsman,” the Dead King drawled. “Ah, those pesky Hashmallim. All those centuries and they still believe the right sword in the right hands can accomplish anything. Their string of failures had made them increasingly heavy-handed. Mercy is the the Choir to watch, for subtlety.”

“And Judgement?” I probed.

“That sword only ever clears the scabbard when something needs to die,” the abomination smiled. “No coincidence, that the current White Knight is one of theirs. The Heavens have pressing need of blood on the ground, and the man will serve to herd the others towards the fated abattoir.”

“They can be beaten,” I said, watching a wooden ramp collapse under stone thrown from the walls.

Hundreds fell to their screaming deaths in the pit below.

“In a manner of speaking,” the Dead King said. “Praesi have slain and tricked them into falling, as have I. Yet the Choirs stand, for their existence is fixed. A dead angel does not detract from the whole. It remains as it ever was.”

“They have to play by the rules,” I said.

“Oh yes,” Neshamah murmured. “And they will pay for that, in time. That delightful child in Helike wove a trap for them right under the Intercessor’s nose. I expect the end of that play to be nothing less than magnificent.”

The Tyrant, he meant. I forced myself not to stiffen. I’d expected him to take a swing soon, either a Procer or whatever nation was limping heaviest at the time. This was a hint there was another game afoot, though. And I doubted it had been offered lightly.

“He’s offered me eternal friendship,” I said, hoping to shake a little more loose.

The abomination grinned.

“To me as well,” he said. “And the rats, though they ate his envoy. I confess I quite enjoy his sense of humour.”

The Tyrant of Helike was mad, this was well-known. I was starting to wonder if it was perhaps too well-known. Behaviour could seem erratic without actually being so, when you failed to grasp what someone was truly after.

“But I digress,” the Dead King dismissed. “We did not take this stroll to speak of the League of Free Cities. It appears we have a common foe, Black Queen.”

“Procer,” I said. “I would have preferred not to fight them at all, but Hasenbach left me little choice.”

“She is an interesting one, their First Prince,” Neshamah said. “A shame that her understanding of what a crusade is was so lacking, but it is too late to leave the saddle once the lion is ridden. She must follow through or break the Principate for a few generations.”

“A matter of some interest to you, I imagine,” I said.

“Come now, my young friend,” the Dead King laughed. “Do you take me for such a fool I would want the Principate to fall?”

“Without Procer there’s little left to contain you,” I pointed out. “The Dominion and the League might manage to salvage parts of the south and Callow would hold the passes to the east, but you’d be trading a single mighty opponent for several weaker ones.”

“I could bring ruin to them,” the Dead King mildly said. “Drown the Lycaonese in death, devour every field and city from the Tomb to Salia. I could have done this when they were grown fragile from their war of succession, and none would have been able to stand against me. Yet I did not.”

“Because it’d have hung a sword over your head,” I said.

“Not immediately,” Neshamah mused. “They would have allowed me to glory in it for some time. Lovingly tended to my legend, my thousands years of darkness – or, more likely, my few centuries. They would have been willing to pay that price twice over, to have me bare my neck.”

“And yet here I am,” I said. “Invited to speak of war. Because there’d be two heads but only one sword. It’s how you survived Triumphant, isn’t it?”

“She was a great woman,” the Dead King fondly said. “There was a clarity to her that I’d never seen the likes of. But you misunderstand my intent. I do not seek to use you. My war on stillness will not be waged in so half-hearted a manner. This is merely a welcome, Catherine Foundling.”

“To what?” I asked.

“That most rarefied of societies,” he laughed. “We few immortals.”

“I can die,” I flatly said.

“So can I,” the Dead King said. “So can she. And there have been others before, who came close yet passed in the end. But I have great hopes for you, Black Queen. You have crawled through the cracks in a most fascinating way – never before have I seen anyone reach apotheosis by accident.”

I bit my tongue before I could deny him. He was wrong. Had to be. I’d carved away at myself piece by piece and put a mantle over the remains, but I was hardly a god. Even a lesser one. If that delusion made him civil and open to negotiation, however, he could keep it.

“She,” I said instead. “The Wandering Bard.”

“The Name changes,” he said. “The faces as well, swift as seasons. The Role has not. Intercessor she was and will remain.”

“She’s got her hands all over this war,” I said. “She was in Callow, before it all went to shit. In the League too, before the shockwaves of that rippled across the continent. I know better than to believe she won’t pop out again.”

“She encountered a nasty little setback in the south,” Neshamah said. “And has remained… discreet, since. But do not believe her absent because she is not before your eyes. She has as many irons as there are fires.”

I bit my lip. Should I? It was a risk. But when would I ever have an occasion like this again to speak with one of the few entities that might have a decent grasp of her? The Wandering Bard was a shadow cast on everything I had been trying to accomplish.

“What is she after?” I asked. “I used to think it was destroying what was made of Praes, but this is too much. Too large. She didn’t need a crusade to accomplish that.”

“I thought I understood her, once,” the Dead King pensively said. “Then she ruined me with a smile on her lips. A dozen times again did the two of us dance that dance, and yet even now she remains inscrutable in her intent. Know her to be your foe, and that in this game of ours there is nothing more dangerous than allowing the others to grasp your heart’s desire.”

“But I should trust you,” I said. “Because Evil is one big happy family, give or take the occasional knife in the back.”

He laughed.

“Never trust me,” he advised. “Or anyone else. Those are the last remnants of who you once were seeking to shackle you. You will betray me, if we make bargain. Or I will betray you. That is the nature of things.”

His arm left mine and he smiled gently.

“I need you to understand, Catherine, that none of it should be taken a slight,” Neshamah told me. “That even if you wound me most grievously, there is nothing to bar you from seeking me out for alliance in centuries to come. That if rip out the heart of you, it is not a declaration of war: it is simply a single tide in a very old sea, and in time it will pass. All things do, in the end. Save for us.”

“You do not sound like a man who wants to make an alliance,” I said.

“Yet I will listen to your offers, and accept them should they suit,” the Dead King said. “I am in no hurry. Neither are you, though you have yet to grasp that truth.”

He patted my hands affectionately.

“You are about to begin a journey, Catherine Foundling. They will hound you,” Neshamah said, “to the ends of Creation. No matter where you flee, no matter how you plead and bargain and reason. They will scour the impurities from you until all that is left is the devil they feared all along. And when you rise from that grave of ash, crawling through blood and smoke?”

He smiled.

“I will be waiting on the other side.”

I swallowed, though my mouth was dry.

“The day is yet young,” the Hidden Horror said, looking down at the slaughter that once took place beneath his walls. “Let us return, and speak of earthly treaties.”

A drop of darkness touched the world, and like ink in water is spread. It was mere moments, before I sat before the table again. The meat on my plate was still warm.

My hands were trembling, and I could not bring myself to believe it was not warranted.

I watched moonlight wash over the Crown of the Dead in silence. We’d spoken with the Dead King for more than an hour after the meal was finished, but I’d been unable to concentrate as much as I should. Hakram had done most of the talking, presenting our offer and terms of alliance. Nothing I hadn’t known before. I’d provide the invitation out of his Hell, in exchange for limits on how much he could swallow. No promises of assistance in the defence of Callow required, none offered in his battles against the Tenth Crusade – though I’d left the door open for further dealings there. I did not intend to ever cross that threshold, but the pretence that I might should be enticement in its own way. Neshamah was, after all, preying on my desperation. He would suck that teat try if he could. No accord had been reached. The Hidden Horror told us the offer was worth considering, and that he would do so with due diligence. We were to meet again tomorrow at twilight, for further discussion of the proposed treaties. It was not a refusal, at least. I suspected that if the Dead King had been uninterested in the terms he would have made that clear without stringing us along, but that was just a feeling. As Akua had pointed out afterwards, the longer we remained in Keter the better his bargaining position became.

If we stayed here long enough, there’d be no time for further preparation of Callow.

That should have weighed on me. The possibility that this dark gambit would come to nothing, and I’d walk from Keter with nothing to show for it. But it wasn’t what my mind was lingering on. To him, all the treaties in the world were nothing but play-acting. I’d gotten a glimpse of what Neshamah believed Creation was, and it was nothing that a makeshift bargain could truly change. The kingdoms, the armies, the borders – they were just ink on maps. The Pilgrim was willing to let Callow burn if it meant the Grand Alliance turned its swords to the Kingdom of the Dead, but the abomination had never once been worried about that. Gods, he didn’t even need to fight them did he? He could just wait them out. Let the petty feuds of mortals tear apart that ambitious edifice. A century or two of keeping to his borders meant nothing to a creature like that. As long as the Serenity kept churning out soldiers, kept growing within the hellscape, he would pull further ahead. Because his realm doesn’t fight itself, while Calernia is a tinder box no matter the era. And that was the entity I meant to use for my purposes. It scared me, that he’d outright said he wouldn’t much care if I did. Because it meant that all of this was a passing distraction to him. Nothing that really mattered.

The flare of the match drove back the dark, for a moment, until I flicked it away. The wakeleaf in my pipe brought a sharp taste to my mouth when I inhaled, pouring away when I spat out a stream of smoke. The highest ring of the Silent Palace offered a beautiful view of the madness below. Wyverns passed the skies, silent save for the batting of wings, while in quiet streets the dead marched in blind patrols. Athal had brought me to the balcony when I’d asked for a view, and I’d remained here ever since. My hands itched for a bottle, but I’d forced myself to indulge other vices. I could think of few things more foolish than getting drunk in Keter, much as it would have relieved me. Hakram had already come and gone, getting me to eat from a plate when I did not truly need to and then sitting in silence. Offering wordlessly to listen, if I wanted to talk. I had not taken him up on it, for once. Neither Indrani nor Masego had come up. They tended to avoid me, when I was in a mood. Vivienne had passed to discuss the treaties for a half hour, and left when she realized my mind was only halfway there. It was time, I supposed, for the sixth to make an appearance.

Akua Sahelian was a sight, under moonlight, and how I’d shaped her had little to do with it. She’d had a touch of the eerie even before the changes, that too-perfect look Praesi highborn had bred into their lines. Soninke more than Taghreb, true, but the difference was less than you’d think. Aisha was from a family long past its glory, and she was still worth more than a passing look. Diabolist’s grown of silver and blue bunched up around her body as she leant against the balustrade by my side. I drew from the pipe and blew the mouthful of smoke out.

“And here you are,” I said. “The proverbial devil on my shoulder.”

“Is that to be my purpose?” Akua mused. “Let us spin wicked weaves, then. You lack not for enemies to entrap.”

“You’ve got games afoot,” I said. “I knew you would when I let you out. But I am not in the mood for them tonight, Sahelian.”

“No,” she said softly. “Evidently not. You spoke with the Dead King, without our knowledge.”

My fingers tightened against the dragonbone shaft. I forced them to loosen.

“I did,” I admitted.

“Such a creature can foster madness with but a sentence, when speaking to the weak-minded,” she told me. “I would not put stock in what it peddled.”

“An interesting thought,” I said. “Since a lot of what it peddled sounded like Praesi rhetoric.”

“We have our exalted,” Akua said. “Triumphant, Traitorous. The Maleficents and the Terribilises. Yet there is reason we do not hallow Trismegistus’ name so. Terror and awe are not treasured bedfellow among my kind. Our favourite gods are those that bleed.”

“God, huh,” I mused. “I keep hearing people throw that word around. Been guilty of that as well. But to this day I’m not sure what it means.”

“There are those that would say the term is a mere recognition of power,” the shade said.

I inhaled the smoke, filling my lungs before releasing.

“And you?”

“A fulcrum, perhaps,” Akua said. “Nothing more or less than the point on which levers pivot. The weight of it is to be respected, but not held sacred.”

“Except for the ones that get capitalized,” I said.

“Oh,” Diabolist said quietly, “not even those. When Below taught us of holy betrayal, it did not hold itself separate. It might be the single truest form of worship, to betray even our patrons.”

There was a deep and abiding madness to the Wasteland, I thought. It had sunk into the bones of that land, mottled the souls of the people that dwelled within it. And still, part of me sung to hear the words. The unrelenting defiance in the face of even the Gods. Praes had shaped Callow as much as the other way around. In that tight embrace of need and hatred, we had each served as the crucible of the other. Diabolist would betray even the Gods, if she rose from that betrayal, and she was in so many ways the personification of the worst and the best of her homeland. I thought of John Farrier and his hard eyes, long lost to Summer’s fire. Of Brandon Talbot, who would ride for Callow under any banner he could. Even of William, that tragedy of good intentions. Would you hold a grudge against even the Gods? I knew the answer to that, sure as my own heartbeat. To small slights, long prices.

There were none in this world or any that stood exempt from my people’s rancour.

“You put up a fight,” I suddenly said.

Scarlet eyes turned to me.

“What you did, Akua, it’s not something I’ll ever forgive,” I murmured. “You showed me that, you know? That even as heroine I would have had no truck with absolution.”

“It should not be forgiven,” Diabolist said. “What are you, if you were wrong in this? That hatred should be stoked and kept burning, lest you forget the lessons it taught you.”

I smiled ruefully.

“But you put up a fight,” I said. “Against odds I’d flinch at. Against people that scare me still, for all the power I’ve gained. If there is any part of you that I can respect, it’s that you might have been a monster but you were never once a coward.”

“One of my ancestor once said that the spurs to greatness are never gentle,” Akua said, sounding almost whimsical. “Mother often repeated that to me, when I balked at my sharper lessons.”

“Did you really?” I asked. “Balk. Even once.”

“I had a cradle-sister,” Diabolist said. “One who shared my wet nurse. She was also charged with taking my canings until I reached an age where healing sorcery would not hamper my growth, but that was a rare enough occurrence. Her name was Zain. Common as dirt. I loved her, I suppose, in a way that children love those who so thoughtlessly love them back.”

It was horrifying, deep down, that nothing of what had been spoken came as a surprise to me.

“When I was eight years old, Mother took me to the deepest chamber of the old labyrinths and put a stone knife in my hand,” Akua said. “Zain lay prone on the altar, mind clouded by potions. Yet she was aware enough to know my face and reach out to me. She was scared, you see. Shivering like a doe. She was right to.”

“You killed her,” I said.

“My affection made her a valuable offering,” the shade replied. “I had to be slapped twice before I cut her throat, and even then my reluctance made the wound a shallow one.”

Akua laughed softly.

“That was the part I regretted most, in later years,” she said. “She would have bled out twice as quickly, had my hand been steady. That was my mother’s lesson, dear heart. Hesitation is never a virtue: faltering is only ever the mother of agony.”

“Your mother was a monster,” I quietly said.

“Mother was a failure,” Akua said amusedly. “A far greater sin, in her eyes and mine.”

I pulled at pipe again, standing silent under the insolent radiance of the moon.

“How much of that was a lie?” I finally asked.

“Not a word,” Diabolist said. “Why bother, when the truth serves my purposes?”

“It doesn’t change anything,” I said. “You still are who you are. You still made the choices that you did.”

“Oh, that was not my intent,” Diabolist said. “The most important part of this tale is the moral, as your people are so fond of having.”

The shade smiled.

“Do not hesitate, dearest Catherine,” Akua Sahelian said. “If you are to cut the world, it is best to have a steady hand.”


132 thoughts on “Chapter 35: Stroll

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      For a sec there I really thought Cat was gonna kiss her. Oh she’d know it was incredibly stupid, I just thought she was in a place where stupid was more possible.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Vhostym

    Terrifying. But not very surprising. I wasn’t completely sure what the Dead King’s deal was with his restraint, but him being bound in a literal sense to his Serenity was unlikely, and this seems like a fairly good display of why. I’m still confused as to why Cat didn’t absorb the Bard’s memories from the echo with her and Neshamah, but it seems like even larger of a loss now.


    1. I think she did. And it’s not mentioned only because EE is a tease. Also, I think he is bound, but not in the way she thought. It’s not that he can’t leave Serenity per se, it’s that he can’t leave it without repercussions (of Evil). Invitation provides for him a fixed role, as a weapon of sorts. He is just a side story, and so does not risk destruction. Cat lets demon out of the box, and Heroes get him back in the box. He loses nothing.

      Liked by 14 people

      1. Exrot

        I feel like Cat would probably end up the same if she played the long game. Hand out a few titles, let good drive her back into Arcadia and make sure they know she’s staying out of Creation, only leave once every few decades when called upon but let her titled companions join villainous groups at their leisure and hand out lesser titles to notables occasionally.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. stevenneiman

        He’s almost like an evil Choir. Sure, he’s less interventionist than they are, but just like them he needs the fig leaf of being called on by a villain before he’s allowed to come out to play without consequences.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Metalshop

    Woof. That was a heavy one. The quality of this serial is always consistently good, but every once in a while we get one like this, where the skin of a character is peeled back we get to see some real artistry.

    Well done.

    Liked by 9 people

  3. magesbe

    I can’t help but like this Akua, despite myself. And that like from Cat… “If there is any part of you that I can respect, it’s that you might have been a monster but you were never once a coward.”

    A great chapter.

    And the Dead King… he is every bit the Eldrich abomination that he seemed. Except when Ranger is around. That was somewhat anti-climactic.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. stevenneiman

      I wonder if he considers her to be among the eternals. She’s almost as hard to kill as he is in her own very direct way, and as a result she’s one of the very few villains who actually gets much use out of the theoretically infinite lifespan. I don’t think she could actually take on the Kingdom of the Dead if she was trying to do more than have a bit of fun with some undead super soldiers and annoy the Dead King, but I’m not so sure he could kill her either.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Probably not – Ranger is a half-Elf (IIRC), and Named, but there’s a difference between Ranger’s having functional immortality as a Named and having a Mantle of Power like Winter, or what the Dead King probably got through his ascension ritual.

        Ranger is “just” a Named. Cat is the Queen of Winter and a Named(technically, she’s still the Squire, if barely).

        Liked by 2 people

        1. narcoduck

          On the other hand, she leveled up enough to think she can take on the Summer Queen. Her aspects, after all, are Learn, Perfect, and Transcend. Perhaps she transcended into her own lesser godhood.

          Liked by 4 people

        2. stevenneiman

          I’m not so sure. Remember that the Bard has basically no direct power of any sort from any source. All she has is what I assume to be Name memories taken to such an extreme that they take over the Name’s host completely. Also, the Dead King himself has admitted that he could be killed in the right circumstances, so I feel like all that really leaves as a criteria is that someone must have a realistic shot at living indefinitely. Most villains don’t because being a villain usually attracts heroes able to kill them.
          Cat is on the verge of being powerful enough to become a fixture of the world rather than a threatened player, and I think Ranger passed that threshold long ago considering that she goes out looking for the greatest challenges in the world, including beings like the Queen of Summer, just to assuage her boredom.


          1. Metrux

            The Queen of Summer and the King of The Dead aswell. But remember she never fought this guy directly, and neither finished her fight with the Queen, she retreated, even hurt. So yes, she is a whole league above the Calamities, but still under those of the most powerfull “small” figures. Call it small here because all of them are still part of the Gods game.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Counter-interpretation: Ranger chooses not to kill the worthy prey because then she couldn’t hunt them again. She’s also apparently had a history with the Saint of Swords, and from Saint and the Queen of Summer’s survival of this and Ranger’s repeated eye-gouging of Larat, I’ve begun to suspect that Ranger’s hunting MO (Dead King notwithstanding) is “track down, beat down, wander off without killing whoever was important.”

              Liked by 2 people

    2. Did you not notice the “her” when he spoke of their little immortal club?
      I believe it could only refer to The Wandering Bard, Triumphant or Ranger. There may be a good reason for him to put up with her whims.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. stevenneiman

    One small thing: Didn’t Hakram make Cat swear a binding oath never to drink while at war? I ask because she’s definitely still at war but it mentioned her drinking a bit of wine to be polite.


  5. Aeon

    This was just fantastic. It’s one of my favorites in a long while. The greeting between immortals was great, and I liked Akua’s little chat. She’s not to be trusted, but there’s a part of me that just wants to see her stay loyal, if only because it’s so interesting to see the juxtaposition between her and Cat and the Woe.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Byzantine

    It’s interesting how Cat assumes the Dead King is wrong about her. She really has yet to come to terms with what she is, now. Akua showed how her Mantle can really be used, but even she was barely dipping her toe into it. She is the Queen of Winter in all but name. And I suspect she can fix that by simply… letting it happen.

    Also interesting that the Dead King doesn’t actually care about current events at all. He is ever patient, and he is waiting. He simply… wanted an introduction to a new god, one that he has a feeling will be important.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Novice

      There is a danger to becoming the Queen of Winter in full that’s worse than Principle Alienation or being stuck in a cycle or even the possibility of having a Summer counterpart in Creation: Catherine’s loss of her tactical acumen. As we’ve seen whenever she dips into Winter, she completely loses everything that she has learned so far, a regression of character development which is a no-no in a meta-narrative sense.

      Liked by 9 people

      1. Byzantine

        Yes, and so it is a question of how she will maintain her sense of self as she draws deeper on Winter. I suspect as Winter becomes more her the effect will be less pronounced. The question is how long that will take, and if Cat will find a way to cheat to skip the waiting.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Metrux

          One of my endgame theories is just this, a way to bind Winter to her without most of the bad repercussions, in the form of a brand new Name. Something especifically “tailored” for that.


        1. Byzantine

          Nah, Akua was better than Cat, but she had nowhere near the power of the Queen of Summer. And that is the level of power Cat really has, now. She just never realized she was only calling on a fraction of Winter, for the mantle was simply too deep.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I love the dead king is like where immortals so dont worry if you kill my armies or I kill yours we still cool at the end of the day.

    Kind of explains why he is OK with rangers tactics. Chat is now considered maybe not his equal but a peer to him. They wills till play game/roles but since he is going to be sharing his time with her in the coming millennia he just wanted to welcome her, how sweet

    Chat has a new father figure/mentor/enemy/horrifying nightmare

    Liked by 5 people

    1. stevenneiman

      I don’t think the Dead King is so much OK with Ranger’s behavior as powerless to stop it without wasting a lot more resources than she ruins and taking a lot of risks he can’t afford to take with the Heavens gunning for him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. BryceWilliam

        Ranger is to him what white caps are to large companies. they find holes in their security and point them out in a harmless way and the company pays them a nice sum. The Dead King gets exploitable holes pointed out and Ranger gets her favorite wine and a good fight.

        Liked by 6 people

        1. Rook

          Except instead of a white hat you hire she’s more of an unwelcome one that keeps changing your screensaver to lemonparty, and you really wish she’d cut it out

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Eh. The light trolling is still worth fewer bugs in the security framework. *shrugs* Besides, there’s worth in dangling the dislike her pranks cause out where she can see: it keeps her coming back without explicitly inviting her to.

            Because the minute Ranger feels as if she’s completely welcome, she’ll quit harassing the guards and him. That way, everybody loses out on training opportunities.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. stevenneiman

              I hadn’t thought of that, but now that you mention it I could see it just being the Dead King playing off Ranger’s natural defiance. If he ever stopped giving her the disapproval she craves I imagine she would either lose interest and stop providing valuable security checks, or else step up her behavior to a level that would cause him actual trouble.
              On the other hand, Ranger is defined by her ability to do what others consider impossible, so if there’s anyone who could actually exasperate him it would be her.


              1. Metrux

                The act comes even moreinto play when you consider the faces he used to deal with her, and how it is ever diferent for her, while still having the same wine she likes.


        1. Agent J

          I’ve never understood that explanation. What exactly is it about Catherine that brings to mind a Cheshire Cat? It certainly isn’t her personality, powers, or position in the story.

          I think Novice’s understanding makes the most sense.


          1. Yotz

            >What exactly is it about Catherine that brings to mind a Cheshire Cat
            Probably a response to question about usage of “Chat” explaining the “Chat” thing as a “Cheshire Cat” abbreviation after the chapter where Cat is described smiling from ear to ear with distinctly inhuman smile, and some speculation about abnormal amount of teeth said inhuman smile shows in the comment section of the stated chapter.

            Also, the grammar of the person constantly using the designation in question for the protagonist allows to suspect usage of skewed autocorrect algorithms in said person’s mobile device, constantly replacing “Cat” with “Chat” because of gigoformatted autofill functions.

            Or Novice is right, of course.


  8. SpeckofStardust

    oh, I know what he wants, he doesn’t want her to be a dead set enemy.
    After all if they fight its one thing, but if she comes to think that he must fall, well the effort to deal with her would give an opening to the other parties in existence. That would see them both dead.


  9. Benztaubensaeure

    Damn that was a great chapter. The best thing, besides the characters, is that i still have no idea what is going to happen. This chapter widens roads that were not as prominent before (immortality, more Akua etc.), resulting in even more possible events and outcomes. After the whole Cat basically sets up her own death agreement, possibly even before i would have said this entire thing ends with her dying (still my most valid theory), but now other outcomes seem realistic. Just fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Just wondering is this how the fae made peace. Two extremely powerful being Summer queen and WInrwe king made peace and were like look lets continually send are forces against each other that way we can never truly be wiped out. You take summer and I will take winter so its symbolic.

    The way The Dead king phrased it with a dont take anything personal between immortals was sort of how I saw the relationship between the big bads of the fae world.


    1. stevenneiman

      Actually, the way that Summer and Winter existed for so long was because each was renewed with the turning of the seasons. Every year one of them achieved victory and wiped the other out completely and enjoyed their triumph for a time before wiping themselves out and clearing the stage for the coming of Autumn and Spring, which in turn give way to Summer and Winter again.
      They only ever escaped the cycle because the Winter King grew more hostile to the cycle than he was towards Summer and arranged for Cat to force the marriage.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Katreu

    I presume this is a mechanical mistake but what an amazing (accidental?) quote by Akua here.

    >> “A fulcrum, perhaps,” Akua said. “Nothing more or less than the point on which levers pivot. The weight of tit is to be respected, but not held sacred.”

    The weight of tit indeed.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. stevenneiman

      I agree with TeK. Black and the Dead King might be mysterious, but they aren’t peculiar the way that some of the characters are. Both of them seem to actually have the same simple and reasonable objective, of out-cheating the Heavens.
      And speaking of our dear Tyrant, I’m dying (and possibly returning in service to the Dead King) to see what that trick is that he managed to get past the Heavens.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Well, the Tyrant’s thing is wanting people to be able to act according to their own nature, and his big maneuver was putting someone singlemindedly committed to enforcing the will of the people – with no regard to the will of the Gods – in charge of the Free Cities. The story play is that now the Gods Above and the angels have to respect that a sizable region has now removed itself from the usual story constraints.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. stevenneiman

          That’s actually a quite reasonable possibility, especially given that his first act as Heirarch other than trying to refuse his authority as Heirarch was to order the Wandering Bard arrested, and that her Name seemed to respond to that exactly the same way as an immediate threat to her life. Which makes sense because if he could arrange to have her effectively imprisoned it might potentially hamstring the entire side of Good for a potentially unlimited span.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. Jane

    You know, it’s been mentioned multiple times that Cat is now a goddess, but… Hey, someone actually acknowledged it, and it’s ramifications. Akua kind of touched on it, but her perspective was rather limited; here’s someone frankly acknowledging that she’s now above the world in a way that not even the Named are, and can play a greater game than others. No wonder she’s rattled, when she feels like she hardly ever has time to plan past the next day. Unless she gets herself killed, it’s likely that she’ll live long past a time when Callow is still recognizable, unless she decides to find a way to take Callow out of creation the same way that the Dead King did.

    Though, hum, that does open a new possibility, doesn’t it… I doubt the Guide will go in this direction, but she could literally become the patron goddess of Callow. Hand off her crown to a mortal Queen, and hang around as a goddess called in to protect Callow from her foes, and watch over Callow’s winters. Maybe even set up a few churches in her name; it’d be reassuring to the people to have a goddess who actually answers their prayers, even if the priests have to send her a letter.

    The Dead King has a pretty fool-proof plan, doesn’t he? Just… Sit back, and let the centuries do his work for him. It’s not a story that the mortal realm can do much about, since someone who only lives a hundred years will feel a need to do something within that hundred years, rather than work together to give their grandchildren an army that can challenge Keter. In the meantime, he gets to run his realm outside of creation without any tedious interruptions.

    It’ll be nice for her to have a piece on the board that she can always recognize, though. Whether as an ally or an obstacle, to one who will live millennia, it will be nice to have something that you can recognize throughout the years, and who won’t just die off as soon as you look away. It’s the kind of thing that is well known (in fiction) to drive a person to insanity after a few lifespans; having someone she can talk to will keep her grounded. Arguably. Kind of. Maybe she should look into making the rest of the Woe gods as well.

    Though, uh, I guess she gets to keep Akua for all eternity? The Dead King seems certain the rest of the Woe will die in time, but that doesn’t really apply to a soul in a cape, does it? That doesn’t really sound like what she was aiming for as Akua’s punishment…

    Speaking of Akua, though… It doesn’t really feel like she properly passed her empathy check here. She was probably the only person who Cat could talk to about this (possibly Masego, but he’s not really good with the human side of it), but it doesn’t really seem to have helped much. Well, just being able to draw her into a different topic probably helped in its own way, at least.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You touched on the matter that makes me think: what if we are watching the birth (or rather a rebirth) of pantheon gods? Cat will be patron goddes of Callow and wimters, whelp, this world need balance, so soon every nation will get it’s own god. Then they will have their cults, their champions, and Good and Evil will simply lose their significance in those fifty shades of grey.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Metrux

      Not only winters, she’ll come out every moonless night, so seven days for each twenty eight 😛 Also, this theory about she becoming a goddess that only comes to help has appeared before, long before, back when she was discussing things with Black and Malicia about the DOOM machine.


  13. Alivaril

    The Ranger interlude prepared me for someone entertaining, but this was something else entirely. As in, I think the Dead King is my favorite non-Woe character now. I mean, a few people seem to be saying, “confirmed Eldritch Abomination,” but aside from the bit on trust, he might actually be the sanest member of the entire cast. I sincerely hope he isn’t called the Hidden Horror because of that being a pretense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. More likely, he’s called Hidden Horror exactly because he is so sane and rational. I mean, what’s more terrifying: someone who commits atrocities because of Evulz, or for a cold and rational reason?

      Liked by 4 people

    1. Jane

      Well, looking at it through that lens, Cat did kind of accidentally marry Akua when she bound her sentient soul to her cloak for all eternity, without considering what eternity meant to one truly immortal…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Unorginal

        Even Better, Akua’s no longer bound to the cloak anymore but winter itself. She’s bound to Cat even closer.

        I say 60,000 years will be enough time for wounds to close and an understanding between the two. Then… wedding bells.

        More seriously though, I have no idea whether or not Erratica will have Akua literally, figuratively or effectively destroyed before the ending of the story or turned into Cat’s ‘loyal’ and ‘trusted’ adviser/freind/hatedally/lover for eternity.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Decius

          Disloyal and untrusted, but competent and playing the long game. For two immortals, that means “not likely to betray you this century”.


          1. Yotz

            Even more – evidently deceitful but competent adviser would serve an immortal ruler as a constant energizer, keeping her sharp and purposeful, forcing her to fight the lethargy of the Great Slow Beast, and whipping her to constantly rage against the dying light. …or dying Night in Cat’s case.


    1. Oh, and The Dead King is REALLY good at knowing things happening out of his kingdom, to the point I suspect an aspect. I mean, he know about the conversation between The Wandering Bard and Hierarch.


  14. “They will hound you,” Neshamah said, “to the ends of Creation. No matter where you flee, no matter how you plead and bargain and reason. They will scour the impurities from you until all that is left is the devil they feared all along. ”

    Is that the bitterness I hear? #GoodDeadKing ftw.

    But on more serious note, now I understand Ubua more. All Villains are technically immortal, but as Neshamah hinted, some are more immortal than others. And Ubua’s endgame makes so much more sense now. She’s going to be the most trusted treacherous underling to the Goddes of Winter.

    Also, it’s really funny in hindsight that Dead King basically invited Cat because he is so very lonely. He literally said that eartly matters matter not to him.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Rook

      I don’t think that part was genuine. All the rest of it might have been, but the bit about being hounded was a surgical targeted attack.

      It hits every sore spot of Catherine’s both short term and long term. Ever since she was the squire (or even before, when she was an orphan) she’s been hounded nonstop by enemies or troubles, and she’s very visibly showing the fatigue of it. On top of that the factor that brought her to the current breaking point is that all her reasoning and bargaining and pleading with the Crusade is falling on near completely deaf ears.

      Amongst all those great truths and honest opinions he slid a well-worded knife into her hopes of ever getting to the light at the end of the tunnel – saying it won’t ever change, THEY won’t ever change until you force them to.

      On top of that Akua just took her chance to twist the knife afterwards. Don’t hesitate, no half measures? Near perfect push over the edge when Cat was rattled after the Dead King’s stroll. The very moment Catherine voiced that she respected Akua for her fight, that was a turning point. Akua just won a major victory as far as pushing Cat down the Praesi mindset rabbit hole and she damn well knew it the moment she heard the words.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. RanVor

        The scariest part is that both Neshamah and Akua are absolutely right.

        There’s no reasoning with the enemy who believes you’re a threat to their continued survival. No matter what you say or do, they will never let you live. No price is too high to pay for your destruction, for in their mind, it’s you or them. There’s no middle ground. Your only choices are to let them kill you, or adopt the same mindset and fight back with everything you have.

        Fighting half-heartedly leads only to more bloodshed and suffering. When you strike, you must crush your enemy utterly, lest they come back stronger and more determined than before, until they wear you down. When you defend, you must leave no openings, lest your enemy exploits every one of them, leaving all you’ve built in ruin. You mustn’t grant mercy, for you won’t be given mercy in return.

        Being Evil is like running from a fire up a tree. You know it’s not smart, but you do it anyway because you see no other way. And the higher you are, the more desperate you grow, until you’re willing to sacrifice anything to escape the fire.

        That’s how monsters are born.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Dylan Tullos


          Cat is talking with a monster who killed his entire city to rise to godhood. She’s planning to unleash the Dead King, the “original abomination”.

          The Dead King sees the road ahead of her, and he thinks that in time she can become like him. It would be better to turn and go into the fire than to embrace becoming an evil that would turn Callow into the Kingdom of the Dead.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Offset Crank

            You say that but his “people” live in peaceful harmony in a hidden dimension protected by the valued ancestors who willingly volunteer to serve on their death.

            Its almost Cats dream, her people protected and unassailable by almost any means.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Snowfire1224

              Wasn’t there a comment early on in the first book when Cat met Black about how the how the real devils give you exactly what you want and let you find your own way to hell?

              Liked by 1 person

          2. RanVor

            Out of several replies I thought up for you, I choose this one: do you really think someone who spat in the face of the Angels and usurped Fae for power would consider suicide an option?


            1. Metrux

              More than that, I must agree with them both being right in this point. The methods they used to get there are wrong, but the precept is true: When you act it must be with all you have, no half-measures. That’s not only for villains either, it’s even a real life thing, teached from ancient times, that to be kind to your enemy is to be cruel upon your allies. The plan you choose can and will change, but after you have a plan, no hesitation is allowed, you must go through.


              1. RanVor

                That’s what I originally wrote, but Dylan Tullos’s Heavens-mandated perception filter parsed this as “all hail Dead King” or something, which is not what I meant, but I decided to reply anyway.

                Liked by 1 person

      2. Byzantine

        It was all an attack.

        But it was also all completely true.

        The best monsters have no need to lying. The truth is a far more horrifying weapon.


      3. Azure

        Catherine was very stupid to turn away her most trusted advisers Hakram and Vivienne, and instead listen to Akua. She’s done this to herself with very poor decision making, which is really frustrating to see.
        Ok so yeah The Dead King just told her she’s immortal. She can die, but guess what, she gets to come back. Suck it up Catherine, and stop making terrible decisions on some ridiculous teenage angst premise. ‘Oh woe is me, I am immortal, the horror!’
        And speaking of Woe, Catherine has something the DK and Bard do not, and this is her own band of trusted friends. She doesn’t have to be alone on her journey, but if she keeps making dumbass decisions and allow Akua her ear, then that might lead to the Woe falling apart.


  15. Rook

    I feel like for all the power that the Winter Mantle gave her, the real apotheosis – the real turning point – just happened here.

    The change in mindset, the slight change in perspective from an unfiltered exposure to the hidden horror, with the following moment of weakness being shored up by a shade of one of the most singlemindedly pure Praesi monsters to come along for centuries? That’s going to have far greater consequences down the road than any mantle or Name power.

    She just stared into the abyss called the Dead King and the abyss grabbed her by the throat rather than bothering to stare back. He poisoned her *perspective*, and I doubt this kind of poison is going to be one that wanes with time.

    Liked by 6 people

  16. nick012000

    Am I the only one who’s sort of pitying Akua after that little bit of her backstory there?

    I sort of wonder how often Praesi children turn their knives on their parents when they pull that stunt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, you’re not the only one. Praesi High Lord’s are so fixated on “bigger, harder, stronger, better”, they’ve forgotten to let themselves (and their children) be people.

      When you view being human as inferior and only something holding you back, you kind of lose sight of the fact that the fae and the gods are supposed to be so much more… But, yet, it’s the supposedly flawed mortals they need to have play the game in the first place.

      The godly fae with their “sublime” and “splendid” nature’s… failed. And, the very creation of the game is a failure, too. Since the minute either (or both) side(s) get an answer they don’t like, they’ll just try for a best of three, five or seven. 😛


    2. Yotz

      “Do you remember that night, Father?”

      “Night when you dared to rise against me? Night when you outwitted me, stabbed me in the back, and forced me to flee from my own manor? Of course I remember that night! It was the happiest night in my life!”


  17. Nethermore

    So it seems the Dead King isn’t looking to marry… yet.

    Also, Akua is great at playing shoulder-devil. Hey, Cat could actually downsize her so she’d fit on her shoulder!

    Liked by 2 people

  18. burdi

    So, Cat came to The Dead King with many plan to use him for their purpose
    yet, the answer is simple…she being cornered because she hesitate
    She already has the power to repel the crusade, she just doesnt have the right mindset


  19. Novice

    To add to everything else, I think he is lying, or at the very least misleading, when the Dead King says he doesn’t care what goes outside his borders. His “Finally” line at the epilogue of Book III is the biggest proof so far.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Or it could be that the orb only detect the birth of a potential new member for his little club. It was only précised that it had not lit since Triumphant, nothing more, nothing less, and this scene was just a little after Catherine let winter loose.
      Event if I am wrong, since he obviously only comment about the orb lighting up, it does not particularly mean that it has anything to do with “earthly matters”.

      Liked by 2 people

  20. Antoninjohn

    Cat does have the big escalation button with the mantles of Winter she can handout, after all Winter has almost Unlimited Power so if Cat wants to escalate she can just make her entire army into Winter Named, thousands of Named into​ an army requires a lot of force to beat


  21. And so it begins…

    The words of the Grey Pilgrim seems more hollow than ever. If the Dead King really wanted to crush the Good-aligned nations he could do so at any moment. There were hundreds of thousands soldiers in the Sixth Crusade, perhaps more in the Seventh…and each generation makes the Dead King more powerful. The Crusades in fact seem to give him more corpses to harvest.
    Procer, Levant and Ashur have nearly zero chance to end the King of Death. He will outlast them all and should a Crusade be launched after the Victorious Tenth, he would exterminate the invaders once more.

    I liked very much how the Undead Abomination spoke of the Choir of Contrition. They were treated as naughty and ignorant children, not as true opponents.

    I can’t wait to see what the Wandering Bard and the Tyrant of Helike have planned.

    And one word after the next, Catherine begins her descent further into the darkness…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Dylan Tullos


      It’s true that the Choir of Contrition only seems to have one great victory.

      But don’t forget that it was Contrition that birthed the first and greatest of all the Crusades, bringing down Triumphant at the height of her power.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Metrux

        The true problem with contrition is not power, but hte lack of learning, and that is what he implies. They used to be great, and think the same formula will still make them great, but it doesn’t, not anymore.


  22. > “Oh yes,” Neshamah murmured. “And they will pay for that, in time. That delightful child in Helike wove a trap for them right under the Intercessor’s nose. I expect the end of that play to be nothing less than magnificent.”

    > The Tyrant, he meant. I forced myself not to stiffen. I’d expected him to take a swing soon, either a Procer or whatever nation was limping heaviest at the time. This was a hint there was another game afoot, though. And I doubted it had been offered lightly.

    Any ideas about the trap The Tyrant has in store?


    1. mórrígan

      There’s no way to know. I don’t think we’ve heard heads nor tails of Tyrant in this book, so we’ll probably get it covered in an interlude or something. I admit, I’m curious myself. A trap so well crafted that not only will Bard be caught flat-footed, but (somehow) not well enough that the Dead King can easily recognize it as one. That’s quite a slim margin for efficacy, as far as plans go.

      Perhaps an excess of Stupid Evil (with no small amount of genre savviness) is the best way to deal with the Intercessor? Catherine should take notes.


    1. Metrux

      Why would she ask of that? She has no direct line to them, and also, they must die for both her and Black’s plan. Sure, it isn’t to be now, and she will mourn his death, but they both agree he will end up dead so… If she has no direct line of fealty and he will die eventually, why ask for their safety?


  23. mindsword2

    “You will betray me, if we make bargain. Or I will betray you. That is the nature of things.”

    His arm left mine and he smiled gently.

    “I need you to understand, Catherine, that none of it should be taken a slight,” Neshamah told me. “That even if you wound me most grievously, there is nothing to bar you from seeking me out for alliance in centuries to come. That if rip out the heart of you, it is not a declaration of war: it is simply a single tide in a very old sea, and in time it will pass. All things do, in the end. Save for us.”

    Well, that adds one thing that makes me a bit… interested. In this Society of Immortals, the Wandering Bard is the other one. Does the Dead King view her the same way? Foe she may be, but is she a foe that he can betray and make alliance with again, or is she only a foe?

    Also, we hypothesize she made Cat into her current form. She stopped the Elves from killing Akua so that the Gate could be made and Cat come to kill Akua instead. Everything with Black in the Free Cities was to push him to destroy the control, stopping the Name of Black Queen from ever forming. This pushed Cat to lose Squire with no new name to transition into, save for the Queen of Winter.

    So while it was by Accident from Cat’s actions, the Wandering Bard quite likely arranged all of it. If so, where is this dagger being aimed at? The Gods are what we hypothesize, as we think perhaps the Wandering Bard wants to End herself. But could Cat be aimed at the Dead King? Its rare one needs to make someone into a God after all.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Metrux

      What if this is another kind of need? The bard has been shown to suffer alot more than the Dead King, so much that all that accompany her through all the lifes is the instrument and alcohol. Endless alcohol, that she never let’s go. What if she, more than him, needed more people to speak with? Even enemies can bring respite to her solitude.


  24. Great chapter! Cat has now had how many villains now try to break her out of her thinking that once an enemy, always an enemy?

    But is seriously no one going to comment on the “dozens of miles in the air” thing? I assume it was supposed to be dozens of meters, because miles is ridiculous. This is the kind of thing that shatters my suspension of disbelief.

    One dozen miles is 63,000 feet. For comparison, airliners cruise at 35-45,000 feet. This is already a wildly implausible height. Two dozen miles, or 126,000 feet, is beyond the edge of outer space by any definition.


    1. anon

      Actually while it is above the height of planes in flight, 2 dozen miles(~38km) is still in the range of the stratosphere(20-50km) where weather balloons fly and space is recognised as being separate from the Earth’s atmosphere at the Karman line which is at 100km (~62 miles).


    2. Yotz

      Li, also known as the “Chinese mile”, is now standardized as precisely 500 meters or 1640 feet. This makes one dozen miles (12*1640)=19680 feet, or (12*500)=6000 meters. Which in turn places two dozen miles height (12 km) either in the high troposphere or low stratosphere, depending on latitude.

      Though I can speculate that Miezan mile would be some multiple of 12, and local units untouched by Miezan cultural legacy would be all over the map, without knowing precisely what kind of “miles” is commonly used in Callow/Calernia nowadays we can not determine exact height of their standing.


        1. Yotz


          Since I have neither time nor willingness to comb through each instance of “mile” usage in the text, you have my permission to chalk it up as your victory.


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