Chapter 47: Culmination

“Do not call a man loyal who still draws breath.”
-Dread Emperor Terribilis II

There’d be no replacing the whistle, and I’d long ago resolved to keep it for a particularly black day, but there’d be no replacing Thief either. I stood by my decision. What had once been Akua’s aspect had yanked the entirety of the Wild Hunt through Keter’s wards and whatever other nasty surprises Neshamah had awaiting people trying to reach his city through otherworldly means, unharmed. I’d address the Wild Hunt in a moment, though. I had a set of scales to even first. The sorceress who’d been breaking Thief apart had hastily ended her spell when the fae came out of nothingness, then panicked when I broke the ward. The remaining three casters that’d been keeping me imprisoned staggered at the backlash, and in that moment I acted. One step, the sorceress raised a hand towards me. Two steps, her lips began to form a syllable in the mage tongue. Three steps, my fingers clasper her wrist and with a sharp squeeze I shattered every bone.  Face paling, she mastered the pain and got the first word of her incantation out. Four steps, I pivoted and my elbow ploughed into her throat. The windpipe was crushed instantly, and as she choked and fell I straightened and gently set my hands against her temples.

One simple twist, and the neck broke with a crack.

“Thief, get out of here,” I called out calmly. “Hear me now, Rider of the Hunt: no prisoners.”

That was the kind of feast the Wild Hunt lived for, and they wasted no time digging in. Larat had hacked through the heads of two of my former jailors within a heartbeat of my finishing the order, grinning nastily, and the rest of them charged with wild hoots as they fell upon Malicia and her men. Vivienne tried to get up but her limbs were shaking too badly. I cursed under my breath – I might be able to walk off mage lightning, these days, but my companions were another story – and strode over to help her up.

“Will you be able to escape on your own?” I softly asked.

“Just give me a moment,” she rasped. “I still feel like my skin is on fire.”

She was burned badly, skin charred in strange patterns all over her body where the lightning had struck, and for a Named she’d always been on the fragile side of the scale. Not for the first time, I mourned that none of my powers were geared towards healing in the slightest. But Thief was wounded, not crippled, and I trusted she had the will to press on after the worst of it passed. Letting out a laboured breath, she pushed me away.

“Kill the Empress,” she said. “I’ll live.”

She’d do more than that, if I had anything to say about it. The moment Masego had healed her back up to fighting fit, I was going to teach her to hold her own in a fight if it was the last thing I did. For too long I’d waved the matter away, dismissed as largely unimportant since she wouldn’t be fighting on the frontlines anyway. That’d been naïve, and in retrospective a very dangerous kind of arrogance. We wouldn’t always get to dictate the nature of our fights with our ever-rising count of enemies. Today had been a harsh reminder that Vivienne’s lack of skills with arms wasn’t just fuel for verbal roughhousing, it was a dangerous liability.

“Keep out of sight,” I ordered, keeping the thoughts away from my face.

The entire aside couldn’t have taken more than a few moments, yet in that span the skirmish had already turned into a siege in miniature. The last of my surviving jailors was dead, his corpse impaled atop the lance of a dark-skinned fae who carried it along like some sort of gruesome trophy. Yet the Empress’ people had responded to the appearance of the fae with the steady hands of veteran killers. Colourful curtains of light had been spawned, overlapping and forming a sort of six-cornered shield over the entire delegation, and still a pair of Malicia’s warlocks were casting. The Hunt had not laid idle, of course. It tested the defences, but found blades and spears could not breach it, nor could the fae sorceries at their disposal. I recognized the wards, or part of them at least. Akua had used similar ones, called them ‘revolving wards’. A common innovation of her and her father’s, crafted to deal with the powerful but terribly direct sorceries of the Summer Court. I was less than surprised Malicia’s people had gotten their hands on the ward schematics, or adapted them to her purposes. And yet I was not worried, because one fact stood above all: the Praesi were defending, but they were no longer moving. No matter how tall the walls, fortresses always fell. Larat joined me as I strode towards the front, blade dripping with blood.

“A most pleasant excursion, my queen,” he mused. “Shall we give the dead a taste of our mettle as well, after these vagrants have been cleared out?”

“We’re not picking a fight with the Dead King,” I flatly said. “He makes sport of the kind of people that bled you when we assaulted the Proceran camp. Behave, Hunstman.”

“I always do,” Larat assured me with a too-wide smile. “My fellow riders are chipping away at this lovely turtle shell, one sliver at a time. Patience will deliver us the promised deaths.”

“Let’s see if I can quicken that,” I replied.

The Empress had holed up behind a fortress, hadn’t she? I could batter away at it, sure enough, but Black had always told me that the most dangerous of all siege weapons was a mule carrying gold and a promise. I cast a look at the Empress’ people, looking for a weak link. None to be found, sadly. They were all calm confidence incarnate. Didn’t matter, though. The masks were pretty enough, but I could smell fear’s dark stirrings beneath them. The Wild Hunt parted for me, and standing before the Praesi I cleared my throat.

“The first three to surrender get to keep their lives,” I announced. “Excluding Malicia. I’ll swear binding oath to it, with an agreed-upon phrasing.”

None replied, but I saw eyes narrow. Yeah, that was sounding quite tempting at the moment wasn’t it? Praesi loyalty was something of a contradictory term.

“An empty offer,” the Empress said. “She cannot breach the wards. Regardless, there would be immediate consequences to such a decision.”

The Sentinels stirred to drive the point home. She’d not accused me of lying, because she wasn’t a fool: these were mostly practitioners, so they knew I had enough fae in me I couldn’t break an oath even if I wanted to. As long as the phrasing held, which was on them, they’d be spared. So instead she was playing on fear and pride. For once, the battlegrounds were familiar to the both of us.

“You thought that about the last set of wards,” I said. “Look behind me. There’s a few corpses telling you otherwise. Sure, she could turn the Sentinels on you, but the moment the bubble is down she’ll have bigger problems than you. Is she really going to attempt an execution when she’s up to her neck in the likes of this guy?”

I pointed a thumb a Larat. The fae who’d once been the Prince of Nightfall idly touched the blood on his sword and brought it to his lips, licking it off with relish. As far as I knew he didn’t, uh, actually drink blood so that was purely to fuck with their heads. Good show, my treacherous lieutenant.

“This is not my true body,” Malicia reminded them.

She did not need elaborate on the possible consequences of betraying a still-living Empress. There was an entire hall of forever-screaming heads in the Tower that served as a constant reminder. And still, the pair of warlocks who’d been casting had stopped. Momentum was on my side.

“Sure, she rules for now,” I said. “How long is that going to last? She’s yet to win a battle and most her army’s deserted to other banners. Spend a year or two in Mercantis, wait it out, and you can come back to the Tower to make nice with her successor able to boast you turned on her. Hells, if you’ve got issues with Mercantis I’ll find you something to do in Callow. I’ve always a need for mages, and the pay will be generous. I’m sure most of you have respect for Malicia. It’s not unearned.”

I paused and smiled thinly.

“Are you really willing to die defending that hill, though? Because if I have to breach this ward myself, I’ll not be in the mood for easy deaths.”

“I would keep a few as playthings, my queen,” Larat added cheerfully. “It has been ages, since we’ve had proper entertainment.”

I shrugged, watching the faces of the Praesi.

“My mercy has a time limit, ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “Now’s not the moment for hesitation.”

I met Malicia’s eyes calmly. There was no appreciation for what I’d done there to be found, not when it was turned against her. The Empress paid lip service to the treasured Wasteland principle of ‘iron sharpens iron’, but when it came down to it she never settled for anything less than a victory. No matter how long that victory took to snatch. If it was Callowans I was dealing with, one of them would have cursed and folded. But I was dealing with Praesi, a people that had turned betrayal into art back when most of Calernia still used iron. One of the curtains vanished, and a Soninke in robes ran for it. That first betrayal was the collapse of the dam, no one wanting to be the soul that didn’t qualify as one of the first three, and within a heartbeat all the curtains of light save one were gone. A loyalist, how quaint.

“Kill,” I ordered the Hunt.

I had no intention of offering any of them safe harbour in Callow, and they really should have extracted the oath before turning on Malicia. They’d feared the Sentinels both too much and not enough. The Empress stood tall and proud in a man’s body even as it all went to the Hells around her. I advanced, slowly but surely. The Tower’s personal guards held the fae back, long enough that one of the traitors turned her cloak again and began reinforcing the ward, but a silver arrow took her through the throat and that was the end of that. The Sentinels began to break. Their armour held against even fae armaments, and their blades scythed down a handful of fairies, but lances and swords and arrows found weaknesses and exploited them ruthlessly. The fleeing Praesi were ridden down mercilessly, until all that remained standing was the Empress and a single sweating mage. I suspected the Hunt could have torn through that ward easy as turning a hand, but it had been left to me by the twisted fae understanding of respect.

“I wonder,” I said, looking Malicia’s simulacrum in the eyes, “if I can reach you in Ater through this puppet of flesh. Shall we find out?”

She met my gaze unflinching.

“No,” she replied, and the simulacrum dropped.

Ah. Well, that also worked. The last living Praesi turned fearful eyes on me.

“I surrender,” she said.

Then the arrow took her in the throat. A perfect arc, one I hadn’t seen coming until the last moment and that had sailed right through the last ward unhindered. She was dead before she hit the floor, the light curtain vanished.

“And once again, Archer saves the day,” Indrani called out from above.

She was standing on the lower reaches of the pyramid, posing triumphantly bow in hand. Before addressing that – and Gods, was I going to address that – I walked over to Malicia’s living but insensate simulacrum. My boot came down, pulping the skull, and then again over the throat since it usually paid to be thorough. I’d have to clean my boots later, I mused, or the stench would be horrible.

“Indrani, get your ass down here,” I screamed.

I turned to look around for Thief, but she was nowhere in sight.

“Vivienne,” I said. “Still here?”

The other Callowan winked back into sight, still looking half-dead from her hiding place behind a column.

“Good,” I said. “Collect all the corpses. I don’t want to risk any surprises. And strip away the Sentinel armour, please. It can take fae blades, it must be worth a fortune.”

I would have felt worse about looting the dead if Praes hadn’t looted Callow for two decades without a care in the world. I’d call it reparations and leave it at that. Thief weakly nodded, and I left her to the grisly work as Archer pranced her way down her perch. She saluted when she approached, using the wrong hand for a legionary’s salute and the wrong angle for a Callowan formal greeting.

“Ready to report, Your Queenliness,” she announced.

“Where the Hells have you been?” I asked flatly.

“Doing what you told me to,” she mused. “Which was, and I quote ‘take a walk and do whatever comes naturally’.”

I closed my eyes, pained on a metaphysical level. So she’d been the hidden knife I remembered thinking about in one of those unlocked memories. We must have gambled that without an actual plan about her involvement, she couldn’t be predicted by the Skein. Which made sense, but had pretty badly failed. Starting the fire was two birds with one stones, I thought. The smoke trail had been bound to get her attention and get her to come running.

“If you spent the entire time drinking and just now shot that woman, I’m docking your pay,” I told her as I opened my eyes.

“Hey,” she protested. “I did lots of stuff that wasn’t drinking. She’s my fourth kill of the day. Well, third and a half really.”

“Tell me you didn’t assault the Dead King’s patrol,” I asked.

“Nah, they never got close to me,” she said. “But while you lot were busy throwing down with the giant rat, the Praesi tried to pull a fast one. At least I think so. Two Sentinels carried out some sleeping woman earlier, so I took care of it.”

My brows rose.

“Was it a simulacrum?” I asked. “The woman, I mean.”

“Dunno what that is,” Archer cheerfully lied. “But if it was, it’s double dead. Cut off the head after just to be sure, as is our crew’s policy.”

Damnably, I could not refute that. The brains and bone shards all over my boot made it impossible.

“I think I’m supposed to congratulate you on a job well done,” I said after a moment.

“Oh, it was a labour of love,” she dismissed. “But do praise me. Loudly and elaborately.”

I did not reply, and allowed the silence to stretch.

“You wench,” Archer accused me.

“Namecalling is beneath us,” I gravely said.

She flipped me the finger and I smiled.

“You got any idea what we’re supposed to do now?” she finally asked.

“I think that –” I paused when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. “Hey, you. Give Thief that corpse.”

The dark-skinned fae I’d seen carrying around a dead Praesi on a lance earlier looked quite displeased at the order.

“He’s not dead yet,” the Rider replied.

“Then finish him off and hand him over,” I patiently said.

“It was my kill,” the fae protested.

“If I have to come over there to settle this, I’m going to make you sit on that fucking lance,” I grimly replied.

With ill-grace, the fae ripped out the Praesi’s throat and dropped him on Vivienne’s feet. I’d have to remember to ask Larat the Rider’s name later. That kind of discipline case was best nipped in the bud. I turned back to Archer, who looked rather amused.

“Right, so I think we’re supposed to gather at our escape route,” I said. “That’s where Hierophant and Diabolist will be, anyway. Did you run into Adjutant?”

“On my way here,” Archer replied. “That was also where he was headed, though I don’t know what that location is.”

“Neither do I,” I admitted. “But Thief should. We’ll move out after she’s taken all the corpses.”

“I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Indrani said, waggling eyebrows.

Ugh, the wench.

Vivienne was well enough to walk at a decent pace without my support by the time we reached our ‘escape route’, which turned out to be the front of the Silent Palace. The fires had long been put out, but the place was still crawling with undead. Masego was having a pleasant cup of tea at an iron table, a full service having been put out for Akua and Hakram as well. Athal, to my surprise, was seated at the edge of the table as well though unlike the others he was silent. I heard snippets of conversation from the other side of the plaza, snorting when I realized they were having a very civilized debate about the influence of sorcery on the development of the early Dread Empire. Hakram was actually winning, by the sounds of it, which was just delightful in so many ways. Our advance, three Named surrounded by the honour guard of the entire Wild Hunt, hardly went unnoticed. Neshamah’s armies gave us no trouble, which I took to be a good sign. We might have gotten away with murder. Well, murders technically. But it was really the one that mattered. Although, since Archer had killed a puppet as well… I’d never really thought, growing up in Laure, that I would one day have a mental debate about whether you could kill the same person twice. Truly, villainy had expanded my horizons.

“Catherine,” Masego greeted me, then glanced at my boots. “You seem to have had an eventful day.”

He seemed much better than the last time I’d seen him. The sweat and pallor was gone, though the impression of frailty was not.

“We ran into the Empress,” I lightly said. “She’d fallen down some stairs.”

Athal’s head lowered, hiding his expression.

“What an unfortunate accident,” Akua mildly said.

“Indeed,” Hakram agreed. “We can only hope the Dead King will be not be too affected by that tragedy to resume negotiations.”

I grunted in agreement, dropping into an iron chair on the other side of the table. Vivienne and Indrani followed suit.

“Found Thief for you,” I told Athal. “Sorry we didn’t stick around for the guards, but I was sure I’d seen her skulking about.”

The dark-haired man bowed to me, then offered me a smile.

“It was no trouble, Great Majesty” he said. “I had to interrupt the search myself, as I was given other instructions.”

“Oh?” I said. “Anything interesting?”

“Ensuring no bedroom was touched by the flames,” he replied. “Though I was told that should you wish for different accommodations this can be arranged.”

“We’ll be fine,” I said.

“He would not participate in our debate,” Masego said, almost complaining.

“It’s always awkward to enter a conversation after it’s already begun,” Hakram said, immediately pushing aside the unspoken reprimand.

Unlike Hierophant, he understood the weight of our words towards the servant the Dead King had ‘gifted’ me. The Wild Hunt settled around us as an honour guard of sorts, valiantly ignoring the pretty salacious jokes Indrani was making about fae flexibility and its many possible applications. I’d been about to reach for a cup of tea myself, when Athal suddenly left his chair to kneel and press his forehead against the floor. I looked to the direction he was facing and my eyes widened. A single undead was approaching, which was unusual in and of itself. But what worried me a lot more was the massive… pressure I could feel coming off what looked like a perfectly normal Keteran foot soldier.

It looked like the Dead King had come to visit.

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68 thoughts on “Chapter 47: Culmination

    1. stevenneiman

      Hey, we’re on top again! I think every webnovel worth its salt has that story about the time it topped the latest Wildbow series for a moment, but we’ve actually managed to hold the spot a couple of times for a decent span.

      Liked by 7 people

        1. Gunslinger

          I’m curious what you don’t like about it?

          Personally I think ward isn’t doing as well in topwebfiction.com since discussions moved away from the article comments where the voting link used to be rigorously posted to the reddit threads.

          Also I’m not sure how many new readers the ranking site brings anymore. Wandering Inn for example is usually never high up but pirateba has a pretty decent patreon following.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Dainpdf

            Pirateaba gets people from RRL though, and there TWI is pretty high up.
            In any case, people don’t seem to like the more… psychological bent of Ward, or the way the plot goes.
            I don’t really know – I myself like it.

            Liked by 2 people

          2. Ben

            I’m finding it a rough slog myself. The chapter endings feel disjointed, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of plot momentum, and what there is just isn’t catching my interest the way that Worm did. These are obviously subjective reactions and more power to you if you feel differently. But I’m finding myself these days skimming the chapters to get information about characters I’m interested in rather than reading them with real excitement.

            Like

            1. bowekin

              I kind of feel the same way, but I’ve noticed that it’s been improving lately. The last two interludes were really good. I think the best thing for wildblow to do would be to bring Victoria’s story to a close in the next few arcs and maybe switch perspectives.

              Like

          3. stevenneiman

            I think that being #1 specifically might not be a huge deal, but consistently being in the top 10 or so means that people who scroll along when they’re voting for their current favorites will see it and wonder if it’s any good. I’d estimate that there’s probably somewhere between 1000 and 2000 active voters on TWF and there might be a decent number of lurkers who check the rankings without voting. Combined with a flashy banner, an intriguing title and a promising description, there’s a very real possibility that eventually someone who’s seen it hanging in upper portion of the rankings long enough will check it out, and if it’s a good match you’ll have another follower and possibly another voter.
            Of course, this is all just speculation and a bit of extrapolating from my own experience. I might be completely off-base in any number of interesting ways.

            Liked by 2 people

        2. stevenneiman

          I’m not really sure what to think about Ward. I quite liked it for the more fleshed-out characters and the interesting where-are-they-now follow-ups, but I also had a lot of trouble motivating myself to continue reading.
          It definitely has much more of a character focus and a slow-boil plot compared to Worm. Worm was mostly about setpiece fights and relentlessly rising, very direct stakes, and Ward is much more about subtle things that might have personally significant long-term consequences for a few people who might prove important later. There’s also much more of a police style “do this right or our captures will walk” focus where in Worm the combination of justifying stakes and the protagonist being a villain meant that they could get away with a lot more to get what they wanted. It’s probably more realistic to have the more consequence-focused mindset of Ward but it’s also harder to keep the pacing consistent and the plot exciting.
          The only complaint I can really put my finger on is throwing too many plotlines at the reader at once. It was one of the problems I had with Cloud Atlas as well, how it had so much going on and you didn’t have enough time to make sense of one timeline before it skipped to another. Worm pretty much just started with Skitter’s one, fairly simple backstory, and the Undersiders, who had personalities but not much of a significant backstory. Ward has a larger group of main characters, and each of them brings backstories, and problems to the table which are all given roughly equal billing with the POV character’s problems and an overarching plot on top of that.
          I think the real challenge Ward is having isn’t being bad, it’s that it’s not what the Worm fans looking for a second helping expected. People who liked Worm are unhappy that it’s not Worm, and people who didn’t like Worm never realize that there’s a difference.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Gunslinger

            I’m curious to know if you’ve read Pact and Twig? The change in styles between Worm to Warm makes sense as you see the way Wildbow’s changed styles for each one.

            Like

            1. stevenneiman

              I read a little bit of Twig but I couldn’t really get stuck into it the way did with Worm. I think it was because I was too confused about the setting. Worm was pretty standard world of superheroes stuff with some dark deconstruction thrown in that didn’t make the formula harder to understand, whereas Twig (as far as I can remember anyways, I read a few pages a long time ago) was a sort of like biopunk London and I couldn’t really figure out how anything works.
              And I’m not saying that Wildbow’s shift in writing style didn’t make sense. Even if their other works hadn’t been moving in that direction, I imagine anyone would get burned out on writing something in the style of Worm after writing something as long as Worm.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I can understand that, Twig was definitely a culture shock at first. That said, after having read Worm, Pact, Twig, and Ward, I can say with no uncertainty that Twig is my favorite story I have ever read.

                I’m not entirely sure why, but something in it resounded beautifully.

                Like

  1. Lark

    ‘ “I think that –” I paused when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. “Hey, you. Give Thief that corpse.”

    The dark-skinned fae I’d seen carrying around a dead Praesi on a lance earlier looked quite displeased at the order.

    “He’s not dead yet,” the Rider replied.

    “Then finish him off and hand him over,” I patiently said.

    “It was my kill,” the fae protested.

    “If I have to come over there to settle this, I’m going to make you sit on that fucking lance,” I grimly replied.

    With ill-grace, the fae ripped out the Praesi’s throat and dropped him on Vivienne’s feet. I’d have to remember to ask Larat the Rider’s name later. That kind of discipline case was best nipped in the bud.’

    Oh dear lord, in the absence of other royalty the remnants of Winter are adapting to fit Catherine.

    Liked by 19 people

  2. Metalshop

    Fantastic. Im loving the fact that Catherine’s strategy at the geopolitical level is just her earlier method of breaking the table scaled up. She’s not the biggest dog on the field, but damn if she can’t make that irrelevant.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. “I’d never really thought, growing up in Laure, that I would one day have a mental debate about whether you could kill the same person twice. Truly, villainy had expanded my horizons.”

    Everything in the chapter was great, but this was my favourite.

    Cat just cashed in a trump card with that whistle. Does that mean she now has inventory space for an even more powerful artifact? ;D

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Yotz

      She may already have one – if her experiments with Winter gave other results, that is. One artifact per one Aspect. Maybe, per one foe cast down…

      Also, a vile act a day makes you smarter in every way!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. ______

      You’d think the answer would be obvious to the person who was killed and resurrected before, but no. Then again, it’s not like many people get second chances with her.

      Like

  4. Snowfire1224

    Yeah that makes sense that’s what they told Archer to do. I mean Archer does whatever she wants anyway– it’s what she does best.

    Also, Larat and Cat playing good cop bad cop is just awesome. (I was going to make a joke about cheap wine vs getting stabbed, but I couldn’t figure out how to work it in there.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ______

      “Three can keep a secret, if two are dead. Unless you’re a necromancer, anyway, then the world is your blasphemous undead oyster.”
      —Dread Emperor Sorcerous

      For a man who lost an army of tigers to defection, Sorcerous has a surprisingly clearer view at the problem.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. grzecho2222

        Given that he seems to be based on Twardowski (diabolist on the moon) being both insightfull and moronic is very much in style for him

        Like

    2. John Laing

      He’s not saying anything one way or another about whether you can trust the dead, only that you definitely can’t trust the living.

      Like

  5. That went about as well as could be expected.
    I wonder who the sleeper that the Sentinels were trying to sneak out was. That seems an important detail. Perhaps that was Malicia for real, though that seems risky. But who else could it have been?

    Like

    1. WuseMajor

      Probably a second flesh puppet. I mean, why send just one when you can ship a backup (or two) just as easily? Who knows, the Dead King might get mad at you and destroy one of them in a fit of pique.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. Insanenoodlyguy

      It makes sense and is a valid “master planner/magnificent bastard” story. Cat kills the Empress. Empress shows up while she’s negotiating with Dead King, taking the pivot and complete control of the situation. If there was a good plan to kill the Empress, that’s how it would have went down. Because they were winging it as much as they did, the story let Archer stumble upon her backup plan instead.

      Like

  6. Silverking

    The game’s not over yet. Maybe Catherine broke one of the few rules the Dead King has. Maybe the fight with Malicia was all a feint while a representative of hers finalized the agreement for a large scale invasion. Maybe Neshamah is happy to be dealing with the Queen in Callow, and has announced their alliance to all the nations in the continent.

    ….Maybe Archer makes a bawdy joke at just the wrong time.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Jane

    Mmm… I don’t know that not teaching Thief to fight was arrogance, so much as it was playing to the strengths of an important asset. Most of her work involves not fighting, after all, and her talents are strongly geared to working on her own; teaching her to fight takes a lot of time away from her work, for whom there is no one who can substitute for her, to address circumstances that will rarely arise. If fighting were something that came naturally to her, that would be one thing, or if her work involved a higher chance of ending in a fight, but given her role and character, it’s a large investment to address rare problems.

    But, that’s if she’s being treated as an asset, and not a friend. As Thief, Spymistress of Callow, it’s not worth the time taken. As Vivienne of the Woe, every time Cat asks her to join them, there’s a chance things will go… Well, like this. Thief, Spymistress of Callow, would be a huge headache to replace, but it’s possible; Vivienne, not at all. To paraphrase Warlock, members of the Woe aren’t gears to be replaced, but hearts that die when you remove them. As such, a hefty investment spent keeping her alive is worth every second, no matter how unlikely fighting is supposed to be… Assuming that she can be taught. Some people just don’t have the character for it.

    I mean, looked at a different way, the problem here wasn’t that Thief didn’t know how to fight, but rather that she should have stayed out of sight and waited for a less direct way to intervene. Maybe not have come to Keter at all, but continued to run things back in Callow. But that would also mean, in a narrative sense, not truly being part of the Woe, but instead being a very important supporter of the Woe. Maybe that would be more suited to her talents, but… Well, she shot that arrow without needing to, and without truly being asked. She put herself in danger this time for Cat’s sake, and will no doubt do so again in the future.

    And, well, she is immortal now. Not by the Dead King’s definition, but she doesn’t age, and being near a “real” immortal will probably keep her from dying in conflict for a while. Even if she spends years training with Cat, it’s time they can afford to spend. Maybe Callow couldn’t, but they can always free it again.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Novice

      “Well, she shot that arrow without needing to, and without truly being asked.”

      She was asked to do that by Cat. That was the whole point of Cat’s “invisible crossbow”.

      Like

      1. Jane

        Cat asked Archer, who actually knows how to use a bow, could conceivably kill an unaware Malicia, and who could safely get away if it all went pear-shaped. Thief, as we saw, would be near-useless in the role, and quite likely to end up dead.

        If Vivienne had stayed hidden, she’d have a perfectly reasonable explanation to give Cat as to why she waited to try to free her.

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        1. Novice

          No, that was Cat not knowing the full extent of their plan(s). Indrani’s plan consists of her taking a walk and literally do whatever she wants. No codes, no signals, nothing except a meeting place after they were done. Notice how Skein never mentions Archer back when they were fighting.

          Present-Cat thought the ‘invisible crossbow’ was Archer when it was really Thief. I suspect they wouldn’t call it a crossbow if it was really Archer since Archer does not use a crossbow.

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  8. Alivaril

    You know, I was initially really worried about a third puppet, but I think Hakram took care of that one just fine. Now I just hope the seeming harshness toward Thief doesn’t brew any irritating misunderstandings.

    Anyway, that was a fun chapter. Brain bit seemed a little unnecessary gorey, just like the time she crushed Lone Swordsman’s skull, but that’s about it. Mildly concerned the “lying about surrender” bit will come back to bite her, but that doesn’t seem to be as harsh a flag as I’d initially thought it would be. After all, Black is still alive and walking around after murdering Akua’s father.

    …I’m, uh, not actually sure Cat planned for the possibility of an outright praesi invasion from her rear. Sure, it’d be the height of stupidity right now, but the empress seems to be going full Dumb Villain these days and it’ll take weeks to months for Cat to return.

    My reaction to the arch-heretic announcement remains “Welllll, they aren’t exactly wrong.”

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    1. Jane

      Now I just hope the seeming harshness toward Thief doesn’t brew any irritating misunderstandings.

      Eh, Cat just broke an irreplaceable artifact to save her life. That kind of thing speaks louder than words, in their circles.

      Personally, I’d be more concerned about Vivienne’s feelings of self-worth after this fiasco. “They already joke about how I can’t kill anything, my moonlight blade failed to assassinate a fake Malicia, and now I forced Cat to blow a powerful weapon to save my life when I couldn’t stand up to an unnamed sorceress.” That’s the kind of thing that can hurt more than a sustained lightning spell.

      It’s also the kind of thing that could be used to tarnish a moral compass, but in this story, I’d more expect a plot point like that to end up subverted than played straight.

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    2. Insanenoodlyguy

      I doubt it will effect much of anything, it wasn’t a lie about surrender, it was a “I kept to the letter of our agreement exactly. I am after all a man/woman of my word.” while smiling and absolutely violating the spirit of said agreement. The “Exact wording” troupe is a classic villain move and a classic magical creature (fae) move alike, and used against other villains rarely backfires.

      Cat was willing to make an oath for safety for those surrendering, but nobody actually took her up on it. It would have been hard for them to do so and survive long enough to get her to keep to it, admittedly, but that was moot since they just dropped the shield instead. Maybe if she hadn’t said the second part, and just said “The first three to surrender get to keep their lives”, but she’s fine with how she did it.

      Like

  9. Foxfire710

    Suprised cats “plan” didn’t blow up in her face with all those moving parts. I’m also wondering why people keep trying to ward her with cold iron and not just straight up stabbing her with it to see if it stops her regeneration. Hopefully this success didn’t just burn up all of cats luck.

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  10. My guess at what Nemeshah has to say: that since Malicia is no longer around to negotiate, he regards her current terms as her final offer, and Catherine still has to figure out a way to beat them.

    My guess on that subject is that Cat will echo what she did with the fae with an arrangement to help strong-arm Cordelia into marrying Nemeshah, without giving him any territorial concessions.

    Like

  11. Berder

    “Nah, they never got close to me,” she said. “But while you lot were busy throwing down with the giant rat, the Praesi tried to pull a fast one. At least I think so. Two Sentinels carried out some sleeping woman earlier, so I took care of it.”

    Without Archer, the plan would have definitely failed. Who could the sleeping woman have been except another simulacrum? I would not be surprised, though, if Empress had a number of simulacra going in different directions and Archers only killed one of them.

    But what stops the Dead King from continuing negotiations with Empress via scrying? Aside from the security risk. But if anyone could secure scrying, the Dead King could.

    Or the Dead King could simply wait for Empress to send another party. After all the Dead King is in no hurry to sign a deal, a few more months or years are nothing to him. It’s only Catherine that has a deadline.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John Laing

      The Dead King wants to negotiate in person. Even if he did have a way to scry across all that distance and through mountains, narratively it would bring him dangerously out of the role of “hidden horror,” and politically it would mean treating Malicia nearly as an equal instead of a petitioner at his door.

      Malicia doesn’t have an unlimited supply of sentinels and simulacra. As cat pointed out, that armor can’t be cheap. The Woe just showed they’re willing and able to murder an entire Praesi diplomatic delegation, and the Dead King probably doesn’t care, so what’s to stop them from doing it again and again? Hells, if the Dread Empress keeps throwing good money after bad, and the Woe keeps grinding, Cat might even conceivably be able to afford to walk away from Keter without cutting any sort of regrettable deal, simply solve her strategic problems by auctioning off the top-shelf plunder for cash to fix Callow’s economy and hire mercenaries.

      Malicia doesn’t have fae gates for high-speed travel, either, so just getting the next group to Keter will probably take months, during which time the Crusade is, at minimum, continuing to sack her port cities.

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      1. Jane

        simply solve her strategic problems by auctioning off the top-shelf plunder for cash to fix Callow’s economy and hire mercenaries.

        The problem is availability rather than money; all of the mercenary companies are already hired up, and there’s probably issues with the Arch-Heretic of the East hiring most companies anyways.

        That said… Outfitting an elite company with that kind of gear would also be a pretty neat opportunity. The Narrative means that such companies are doomed to failure at a crucial moment, but they’d be pretty useful until that point, and they’re free anyway, so why not? It’s almost unfortunate they don’t have the time for that kind of game.

        (That said, the real issue is that the Dead King really would prefer to deal with Cat, and was just setting this whole “Kill Malicia first” as a test, with a nice consolation bonus for himself if Cat failed. “Oh, gosh, now I, the obscenely powerful master necromancer, can’t find a way to negotiate with a fellow expert practitioner of the arts” is just a pretense, after all.)

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  12. Following comments regarding The Thief of Stars earlier I’m interested to see what this future training might mean for Thief.

    Could this result in a transition into a specialisation? Perhaps Thief of Blades. She has already set a precedent by stealing the Revenant Elf’s moonlight blade. A character that fights by stealing the opponent’s sword and using it against them might be entertaining at least.

    Incidentally, That moonlight blade is definitely going to be used on Cat at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      “So heyyyy, Vivienne I did vow I’d take Akua out someday, but I may need to make out with her a few times in the present?”

      *sighhh* “Whelp, can’t say I didn’t see this coming.” *STAB STAB STAB*

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Okay I finally get it the dead king put Catherine against the Skein or rather had Malicia guarded by the Skein seeing how he could have had her guarded by the knight or thief or any number of other names to expand her mind.

    By continually having her face god like enemies(Spell Blade and Skein) that should have been able to destroy other named with ease, he expanded what she thought she was capable of. The Skein’s ability unlimited time reversal aspect allowed her a punching bag that was big enough to punch back and survive. Thus she learned how to use winter in more ways that previously thought. She now sees herself for what she truly is, a higher being on a different plane of power. Where she previously limited herself she now is able to grasp how powerful she really is. It seems that she is the last to know as Dead King, Malicia, Black, Masego, and even Akua saw her potential and saw her flaw in limiting herself.

    Not only is she a godlike being, but she is crafty enough to almost instinctual manipulate stories in that she is always the underdog ensuring hero like dramatic saves while harboring the immortality of a villain. A villain who has been able to garner the favor of a former kingdom and is slowly influencing it seeping its ideals in the very fiber of the culture.This paired with her godlike power and her now expanded mindset to use those godlike power she is truly a terror to behold and there is no way of stopping her, based on the Dead King’s stamp of approval.

    The even crazier notion is that this was all planned by the Black Knight who in order to break creation he managed to craft a blunt instrument/weapon that would be a plague to creation itself.

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