Chapter 67: Breakthrough

“With great madness comes great possibility.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent I, the Unhallowed

It took three hours before the first envoy showed up, requesting the name of the sigil that had displaced the Urulan and politely inquiring as to its intentions. Some poor dzulu bastard who’d obviously been sent because it was expendable. It wasn’t allowed entrance into the Crossroads, not that it was eager, and I sent Ivah to meet it halfway through one of the bridges instead. Our diplomatic approach, if it could be called that, was rather simple: I wanted a meeting with the nine remaining sigil-holders in Great Lotow. In exchange I would provide information about a great common threat approaching, which Ivah had been instructed to make sound properly dire while remaining light on the details. Given the scope of the dwarven invasion, that was hardly difficult. Decapitating Mighty Urulan had earned me the attention of the city’s power-brokers, but I hadn’t made enough of an impression I could simply browbeat them into following me. To get an audience, I needed a gift.

A warning about the dwarves invading ought to do the trick.

The sigil that first approached us was the Slaus, who held the territory directly below the Crossroads. They’d been on decent terms with the Urulan, who usually had higher priorities than raiding their downstairs neighbours, but their envoy made it clear they weren’t all that broken up about a replacement having taken up residence. A stronger cork atop the bottle that was Great Lotow was a good thing, in their eyes, since weak Crossroads meant an open door for raids into their own territory. The dzulu provided names along a bare – and probably highly biased – lay of the land to my Lord of Silent Steps even as Akua and I settled the auction. The report I was given afterwards was illuminating, though I’d already known some parts of it from earlier interrogations. Aside from my own sigil, there were nine others in Lotow. The Slaus Sigil, my new ‘friends’, were fighting to rule the upper levels against the Kanya and Losle. Along with the Urulan, those three sigils had made up the ‘weaker’ tribes forced closer to the top of the city and denied the room and resources of better districts.

There were two sigils at the very bottom, the Orelik and the Vasyl, who were the largest of the city and had tacitly been allowed to monopolize the larger farms and lakes so long as they kept trading with the others: the balance there was a delicate one, where other sigils kept them weak enough they couldn’t refuse but didn’t want to damage them so badly the food would stop coming. That left four sigils to squabble over what had once been the core districts of Great Lotow: Sagas, Nodoi, Soln and Zarkan. From what I understood they’d been at war for the better part of a millennium and played out enough heroic alliances and wicked betrayals to fill a dozen epics, taking and losing territory to each other with every passing year. All four raided other sigils, but usually only to strengthen themselves against their adversaries in the centre. The rest of the city enabled the centuries-old feuds cheerfully, well aware that if one ever became strong enough to devour the others the remainder of Lotow would follow in short order.

Mighty Soln was a name I’d heard before, actually. It was the same drow who’d famously beaten the now-dead Kodrog so bad it had fled into the outer ring, where it’d had the misfortune of running into the dwarves and then myself. Soln was the most promising of the city’s Mighty, in my eyes, as it had a reputation for fair dealings. Which mostly meant it formally broke alliances before turning on its former allies, but that was already a cut above the rest. Willingness to make bargains in the first place was what I needed the most.

“I believe a cabal is the way to unite these Mighty under your banner, my queen,” Ivah said. “Outright subjugation would be long and costly enterprise, given our current strength.”

It had changed again, I thought. There was no trace of the original green or the grown silver in its deep blue eyes, but that was the least of the changes. My Lord of Silent Steps was still tall and blade-thin, but there was a sense of strength to its frame that’d previously been absent. Fae could be skinny as a goblin and still be strong enough to wrestle down an ox, and the bestowal of the title had brought that power to Ivah. That unspoken impression that its body was a disguise, that physical abilities were estranged from its flesh. It walked upon Creation like something not born of it, a transient guest. Its presence had bloomed to my senses, though I’d expected nothing less when I’d offered it the harvesting of Mighty Urulan. I had need of a strong right hand among the drow, and it had proved useful enough to deserve the reward. There were risks to that, but benefits as well.

If it came to a fight again, it’d be my side that fielded Urulan’s tricks.

“A cabal,” I repeated. “Those are a kind of warrior honour societies, no?”

“It is a nuanced matter,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “In olden days cabals were formed along the twelve purposes and three duties, but this practice has been abandoned by all save the most traditional of my kind. There are cabals that, as you say, are honour and recognition. Only Mighty of renown are invited to them, and their name swells from the joining. Yet this is no longer the accepted custom.”

“Which is?” I prompted.

Ivah hesitated. I’d give it a pass on that, I thought, since I was pretty much asking it to summarize what was beginning to sound like a fairly complex matter simply enough an outsider like me could understand it

“One might say a cabal is a compact of Mighty who share a single desire,” the drow finally said. “This desire can be near anything, my queen. The legendary Red Hunt formed when Mighty undertook the annihilation of the Fagran Sigil. The Hour of Twilight was raised when the strongest of Great Albenrak desired the conquest of Great Telarun – and a hundred cabals were born to sow the seeds of the Hour’s own destruction. The Old Vigil guards the temples and libraries that once belonged to the Sages, while the Wayfarers still keep the northern Hylian ways open for all who would travel them.”

“Mighty but not sigils,” I slowly said. “It’s on an individual basis. If a sigil-holder’s part of a cabal, it doesn’t meant the entire sigil is.”

Ivah nodded.

“A cabal may hold individuals of many different sigils, some at war with each other, and so long as they act in the fulfilling of the compact they will not turn on each other,” the drow said. “It is a separate matter, not to be spoken of.”

Which did explain, at least in part, why the Everdark didn’t currently consist of half a dozen lesser gods sitting in their own city with the rest of the race long gone. If a sigil started pissing off all its neighbours, half the region’s Mighty would form a cabal and put it down together. Gains had to be weighed against the risk of backlash.

“It would not surprise me, for example, if many of Lotow’s Mighty were part of a cabal ensuring the farms of the bottom levels remain unspoiled,” Ivah elaborated.

“So we make our own cabal,” I said. “One that desires evacuation in the face of the dwarves.”

“Mighty are proud creatures,” Ivah said without a hint of irony. “Stating it differently would be more palatable.”

I snorted.

“I suppose calling ourselves the Get Out Ahead Of The Dwarves Cabal wouldn’t be all that impressive,” I said. “We are, let’s say… seeking out Sve Noc for instructions on how to answer the nerezim threat.”

“That would be acceptable,” Ivah noted. “The Sve speaks only when it wishes, but this is a great crisis. Custom can be bent.”

“And you think that’ll be good enough an offer they’ll take it?” I asked.

“The upper sigils, perhaps,” the drow said. “They will know that if a cabal is formed for the defence of Lotow against nerezim encroachment, its first act will be to devour them to strengthen ahead of the battle. I do not believe the others will enter your service.”

“And if I make the taking of oaths a requirement to entering the cabal?”

“None will bend,” the Lord bluntly said. “Exile would be more acceptable an alternative. Cabals to answer the threat can be formed without us, regardless. We will be seen as useful addition yet no requirement.”

Yeah, about what I’d expected. Even with a bearded apocalypse at their doorstep the drow would have issues with my rules. My sigil was just a droplet in the sea of the Everdark, and even in a border city like Great Lotow we weren’t the biggest stallion in the pen.

“We’ll try anyway,” I said.

Ivah’s blue eyes watched me closely.

“And if we fail?” the Lord of Silent Steps asked.

“Then I beat them with a stick,” I said. “And ask again, much less politely.”

It was not an auspicious beginning that I couldn’t even get every sigil-holder in the city to attend. The Losle refused to show if the Nodoi did, and the Zarkan boldly required both a tithe of dzulu from my ranks and an alliance against the Soln if they were to deign attending. Both the bottom sigils suggested in strong terms that the meeting should be held near their territory, at the lowest level of the Column, which essentially everyone else made clear was unacceptable. I chose the Nodoi over the Losle – the latter were angry they kept being raided by the former, which was reasonable, but the Nodoi were stronger and I needed them more – while Archer returned the Zarkan envoy to its sigil by throwing off the bridge in their territory’s direction after it got unruly. Seven out of nine would have to do, and I’d never seriously considered following the suggestion of the bottom sigils. Aside from how unpalatable that’d be to everyone else, it would screw with my contingency. Not make it impossible, no, but it would mean a significant increase in collateral damage if things went south.

Envoys went back and forth for most of a day until the cats were finally herded. It might not have taken as long if the spurned sigils hadn’t started ambushing them, but Mighty Soln seized the central levels of the Column for a few hours and guaranteed safe passage. I sent a polite message of thanks, it replied with a hint that the courtesy could be returned more materially and so I sent it back a single word: nerezim. I was not above playing favourites in the slightest if it any of them were willing to behave halfway-decently. It was about an hour before the meeting that Ivah came to me with a problem that hadn’t thought was one. If you are to stand among them as sigil-holder, my queen, you must have a sigil, it informed me. Though some of my drow had taken to calling our band a sigil, it was true I’d never really considered it that. I wasn’t a drow myself, and had no intention of remaining their equivalent of a noble when we left the Everdark. But Ivah insisted, saying it would be disrespectful to arrive without the proper apparel and would lower my prestige in the eyes of the others. I gave in, not willing to dig in my heels over something this minor.

There was a slight issue, in the sense that a sigil’s, well, sigil was usually the name of the sigil-holder in stylized Crepuscular with the colour of the cloth it was on denoting a creed. Black for the seeking of Night, red for ambition, different shades of blue for those espousing specific virtues and Ivah might have gone on describing for an hour if I hadn’t interrupted. The closest equivalent to ‘Catherine’ in Crepuscular was apparently Katarin, the symbols making it up possible to accentuate to mean either ‘elegant snake’ or ‘delicate dark pearl’. I was rather glad Archer wasn’t around to hear the second one, though Akua got rather smirky regardless. ‘Foundling’ had no real equivalent, though after conversing for a while like two deaf people shouting across the language divide I got the sounds and meaning of it in Lower Miezan understood. Losara, Ivah finally said. The characters of it meaning ‘lost and found’, and when drawn on the dirt resembling a tree with twin incomplete circles under the branches. Painted in silver over purple cloth, which symbolized seeking a higher purpose.

The irony amused me. Upwards was where I meant for them to go, after all.

A nisi with some aptitude for painting that hadn’t been slain for the talent was rustled up and a sigil produced, barely dry by the time I set out alone. I had need of Diabolist and Archer elsewhere, and given the nature of my plans bringing a retinue would be a waste. Besides, the agreement was for a meeting between only myself and the sigil-holders. A solid third of the debate through envoys had been settling on a language for the conversation, which had ended up being Chantant. It got stuck in my throat that odds were good people had been killed so all the sigil-holders would be fluent in the Proceran tongue when they arrived, but Indrani’s words had stayed with me. I’d not come here to save the drow from themselves. I wasn’t sure if I could. Or even if I should. I came to the Mighty of Great Lotow without my cloak, draped instead in the cloth of my sigil over my clothes. The glamour I wore had been anchored in a stone I’d made myself swallow, carefully crafted over hours to be flawless. There was no room for mistakes today.

The meeting was to be held in the Column, my first venture into the dead heart of this ruined city. The structure itself was a broad pentagon, every side measuring exactly sixty-five feet and seven inches. Given the Column’s ridiculous height – it had to make up most of a mile – simply stacking stones wouldn’t have been enough for it to hold up. The ancient drow hadn’t done that, anyway: masonry was a different business when you lived underground. The Column itself was the remains of what had once been solid ground before a pit was excavated around it, further reinforced by five spines of some red metal going all the way up and a plethora of bridges linking it to the surrounding districts. I’d actually thought the metal was just rust steel, when I first took a look at it, but it was oily to the touch and perfectly preserved. If not for my suspicions it was the main thing holding up the structure, I would have ripped out a few chunks to bring back home to Callow: I’d never seen an alloy like it, and if it could survive a few centuries without regular touch-ups it was heads and shoulders above anything my people had ever used.

The inside was surprisingly elaborate. Most everything that could be pried or hammered off had been, including entire spans of mosaics and anything even remotely shiny but every single floor was a book in Crepuscular, beautiful curved characters spreading out in rows and swirls. Historical chronicles and stories, songs and poems and every written thing that made up the lifeblood of a culture. It was a stark contrast to the stumps left behind by stolen statues, the dusty holes of ripped out mosaics and the spider webs woven into the complicated arrays of dead magelights and absent mirrors that must have once cast light all over the Column floors. The structure had not been the administrative centre of Great Lotow, or its religious one – temples and palaces were in the middle districts – but it had been the heart of the old city. I walked through empty marketplaces and riots of now-dry fountains, gardens of dust and the wrecked stands of what must have once been a public playhouse. It was the grave of an ancient people, still haunted by the last remnants of it. I allowed myself awe, but not too much. Past glories were a little thing in the face of breathing dangers.

Having Masego along for the calculations would have been preferable, but admittedly Diabolist was no slouch when it came to numbers. She’d counted the bridges, figured out the weight and given me the correct floor. I hoped, anyway. There would be no second chance if she was wrong. Ten floors deep, that was the sweet spot, but I’d had to compromise and go to the eleventh. Most levels of the Column had multiple access points aside from the two sets of spiraling stairs every single one boasted, but the eleventh floor had once served as a court where lesser offences were settled. There were no bridges leading to it, and the heart of the floor was a large courtroom whose only point of entrance and exit was a set of massive stone doors. Given the temptation of ambushing this large a concentration of Mighty in one place, this floor had been judged the most fitting place for a meeting. Time was fluid in the Everdark, not in the way that it was in Arcadia but because there were so few devices that measured it. No bells, down here, and so I was not overly surprised I’d been the last to arrive. I’d taken my time to ensure as much, after all.

The doors were slightly ajar, just enough a single person could pass through, and seven Mighty seated on high thrones beyond them. For all that power swam around them like currents, I could not help but think they looked like children. There were nineteen seats set against the walls, and the sight of the sigil-holder failing to claim even half of them made it seem like they were just kids wearing the regalia of adults. Playacting at empire in a pile of ruins. None rose when I entered, remaining seated on the thrones of stones where they had draped their sigil’s banner. Without a word I leaned forward and clasped the red metal rings set into the stone doors, closing them shut behind me with a clap as my bones creaked under the weight. Seven pairs of eyes studied me in silence as I wiped my now dust-coated hands on my pants and strolled forward. I didn’t overthinking my sitting position, simply claiming the throne to the left of the doors and putting my banner over it.

“Losara,” one of the Mighty said. “And so we finally have a name.”

The Chantant it had spoken in was a strange mixture of Crepuscular pronunciation and an ancient Alamans way of speaking, but still perfectly understandable for all that. I eyed the banner behind the speaker, having memorized the names going with the symbols. Orelik, I thought, recognizing the swirly fish-like pattern. One of the two bottom sigils, those that held the farms. It was the first fat drow I’d ever seen and the sight was jarring. The loose hide tunic failed to hide the folds of grey skin, though its pure silver eyes served as reminder that fat or not it was accomplished in the art of killing.

Mighty Losara, you bloated old slug,” another drow replied. “Urulan would speak to that truth, if it still spoke.”

Its symbol looked like eyes over three fangs: Slaus, my downstairs neighbours. That sigil had the most skin in this game, as they were both sharing a border with me and the next in line if an outside threat came muscling in. I settled into my throne, comfortable allowing the byplay to go on without me. Which it did, hissed sentences in Crepuscular starting to go back and forth as the Mighty began what sounded like an old and bitter argument. They were interrupted by the sound of stone shattering. The Mighty who’d struck its throne and powdered a chunk of it rose to its feet, face twisted in irritation. The sigil behind it was one I easily identified, as I’d paid particular attention to it: a ring of swords, with an open mouth in the centre.

“You spend the time of your betters frivolously,” Mighty Soln said. “Be silent.”

Both the other drow looked furious, but they did not argue. I cleared my throat.

“If we’re quite done,” I said, eyebrow rising, and none gainsaid me. “You came here because I promised information. As it pertains to the conversation I wish to have afterwards, I’ll begin by laying it out in full.”

Silver eyes all turned to me, and I shifted in my throne. The fucking thing had been carved for someone Hakram’s height, not mine, and so my legs were dangling off of it like I was a kid in her father’s seat. It was adding insult to injury that I knew for a fact I fit in dwarven seats just fine.

“As of two months ago,” I said, “the nerezim have begun an invasion of the Everdark.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed.

“Allow me to be perfectly clear,” I said. “I did not misspeak. This is not an expedition, it is an invasion. At least a hundred thousand soldiers came through the Gloom, their vanguard led by a Named. They bring with them civilians because they intend to stay. Even as we speak most of the outer ring has fallen into their hands. They aim for nothing less than the extermination of your kind.”

One of the Mighty scoffed. It sigil looked like a wall broken through. Sagas, I thought, one of the strong sigils in the centre.

“Burning words,” Mighty Sagas said. “Yet what proof do you bring?”

“I have witnesses, if my word is not sufficient,” I said. “They saw the vanguard with their own eyes. Saw it slaughter an entire sigil of the outer ring.”

“I doubt not the word,” Mighty Orelik said. “It has been delivered. You have done service, human, and may now leave.”

“That won’t be happening,” I mildly said.

“Do you think aping our ways gives you seat here?” the drow hissed. “You are interloper, not guest. Know your-”

“Be silent, Orelik,” Mighty Soln said softly. “If I must ask you a third time, there will not be a fourth.”

The first Mighty opened its mouth, but Soln rose from its seat and the lips closed. I nodded in appreciation, though got only indifference in response.

“I came here today to propose the founding of a cabal,” I said. “Not to defend Great Lotow, for it is already lost. It was the moment the nerezim crossed the Gloom in force. But to seek out Sve Noc and ask instruction.”

One of the Mighty snorted. Nodoi, I saw, the last of the central sigils in attendance. I needed those the most, if I was to make any progress at all.

“The Sve speaks when it wishes,” Mighty Nodoi said. “That is custom. To request words is to beg for a curse.”

Mighty Slaus sneered.

“Are we inner ring darkskins, to prattle of tradition?” it replied. “Mighty Losara speaks sense. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.”

I would have been more moved by the support if I hadn’t known it sprang from the fact that the Slaus would be on the chopping block the moment the central sigils decided to band together to defend the city. It was less belief in my solution that bade it to speak than the urge of self-preservation.

“Do we know when the nerezim will strike?” one of the Mighty said, staring at me.

Vasyl, the symbol said. The other bottom sigil, and noticeably less hostile than the Orelik so far.

“At least two weeks,” I said. “Perhaps more, if they spread their forces to completely clear out the outer rings.”

“Then this is no time for quibbling,” Mighty Vasyl grimly said. “Defences must be seen to, or the city abandoned. There is no middle path.”

“I’ll be frank,” I said. “You can’t hold Lotow. They’ll bring down the city on your heads and drown the districts in molten stone without ever engaging. They have the engines for it. This is not a war like those you know. They will not harvest or take prisoners: their intent is to claim the Everdark without any of you in it.”

“You know nothing, child,” Mighty Orelik sneered. “We have fought wars, turned back the Hylian Dogs when they tested our borders. You-”

“- have commanded armies larger in number than this entire city,” I flatly replied. “I’ve slain heroes and tricked fae, walked the streets of Keter as a guest and pried life out of the hands of the Hashmallim. You’re just a rat in a hole, Orelik, and if you try my patience once more I swear on all the Gods I will feed you your own fucking limbs.”

It flinched, and murmurs spread across the room. They might not know much about fae or heroes, down here, but the mention of the Dead King’s capital had made an impact. Him they remembered.

“It is said you make even Mighty take oaths,” Mighty Soln said, voice cutting through the whispers.

“I have rules,” I said. “They bring power as well as bindings. Many have thought this a worthy trade.”

“And these rules,” Soln said. “Will you seek to impose them on any that join this nameless cabal of yours?”

I rose to my feet, hand going through through my clothes and taking out a parchment scroll. I tossed it at the Mighty Soln, who easily snatched it out of the air.

“I will,” I said. “These are the oaths, written in Crepuscular, though they will have to be sworn in my own native tongue.”

The drow unfolded it, silver eyes studying the contents, and didn’t even get halfway through before it snorted and tossed the scroll at Mighty Vasyl.

“This is subjugation, not alliance,” Mighty Soln said

“They are standards of behaviour,” I replied calmly, “enforced by my mantle.”

That did nothing to move it, so I moved on to the larger audience when I kept speaking.

“Are none of you tempted by the thought of an alliance that you know will hold?” I said. “That will lead to no betrayal, for going back on the oaths means death. How much could you actually accomplish, if you were not always watching your back for knives?”

“A cabal is a worthy idea,” Mighty Soln said. “Yet this is not a cabal, Losara. It is… queenship, your kind call it.”

“It would make me warlord,” I said. “Until the war is over. An extraordinary measure for an extraordinary crisis.”

Mighty Vasyl had passed the scroll to Mighty Nodoi, who outright laughed.

“You give terms like a victor,” it said. “You are not. This is overreach. To obey your orders without fail? Madness. Arrogant madness.”

“You’ve overplayed your strength, child,” Mighty Orelik said.

This time no one chided it.

“I’m sad to hear you believe that,” I said. “Should I consider this to be a refusal for all of you?”

“Obedience is not our way,” Mighty Slaus said. “The terms must be changed.”

Mighty Soln laughed.

“Look into its eyes, Slaus,” it said. “Do you see compromise there? No, this was not request. It was an order.”

Slowly, I sat back down on my throne.

“Is there nothing,” I asked, “that I can do to change your minds?”

“If you seek the terms of a victor,” Mighty Soln said, “prove yourself one.”

The challenge rang loud and clear in the room. There was only agreement on the faces of the others, and so I tugged at the chains that bound Akua to me. Our signal.

“I considered that,” I admitted. “But what would be the point? I’ve no need of corpses and chaos. It’s you I want. The whole lot of you.”

The Column shivered under our feet and every single Mighty had left their throne within a heartbeat.

“Ambush,” Mighty Orelik said. “Your last mistake, human.”

“I’m not going to fight you,” I calmly said. “That would be wasteful, and I was taught better than that. This is a… counterargument.”

The sound of stone shattering sounded in the distance, and half the Mighty began boiling with Night. It was pointless. The moment the shiver had been felt the gate had opened. Akua and I were not without cleverness, and so we’d planned to have it unfold right under the ceiling of the floor below. Unfelt until it cut through the walls, and by then it’d be too late. The bridges had snapped under the weight, and the Mighty that would have fought me found their footing failing as we began to impossibly fall. The conclusion was appropriately impressive: our chunk of the Column hit the ground with a massive impact, and the gate sliced right under the ceiling above us as it closed. I fell from my throne, ankle bone snapping from the bad angle, but forced myself to rise.

Midday sun shone down on us, bring a cold breeze with it.

“What have you done?” Mighty Nodoi howled.

“Welcome,” I calmly said, “to Arcadia.”

“This is not the Everdark,” Mighty Soln said, tone confounded.

“No,” I smiled. “And if you ever want to return there, well, you have the scroll. All it’ll take is a few oaths.”

“You will not survive this,” Mighty Orelik screamed.

“I will return tomorrow,” I said, ignoring it, “to see if any of you have reconsidered. Try not to die.”

Without bothering with goodbyes, I abandoned the glamoured drow corpse I’d been controlling and left them to stand alone in the outskirts of Winter.

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85 thoughts on “Chapter 67: Breakthrough

      1. stevenneiman

        I’m thinking it’ll go for the Dead King. They’re both major but somewhat distant antagonists, but the Dead King is more honest about his nature, and has this sense of grandeur about him where Cordelia just seems like William except with tact. That’s just my thinking, but it looked like the votes agreed, with Neshamah leading by about a 2-to-1 margin. Still a lot better than Klaus vs. Cat, but Cat’s a good part of why a lot of people keep reading.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Jane

          I’m hoping Hasenbach can rally, but… Realistically speaking, they’re just competing for the right to lose to Cat anyway. Neither is going to make it past the second round.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. Insanenoodlyguy

            Yeah, but there’s absoutely no chance Cat will kiss the Dead king. There’s a very small but still more then 0% chance of Cat engaging in something with Hasenbach, though I suspect it would be in this sort of manner.

            Like

            1. JackbeThimble

              I’m not sure what you’re basing this assessment on. The Dead King’s a gentleman with some serious prospects, not to mention a more than passing resemblance to the Father figure that Cat doesn’t know she’s lost yet. Plus they both like to spend time inhabiting reanimated corpses so they’ve got that much in common.

              Like

    1. Shequi

      I’d suggest next time linking to the poll page, not the /r (results) page. It takes some of the fun out of it if you see how the vote is going before casting your own vote, IMO

      Liked by 4 people

    2. God, I love both, they’re two of my favorite characters, but I have to give this one to the Dead King. He and Bard are the two greater scope characters in the entire story and every one of his lines is just so perfect

      Like

    1. stevenneiman

      Every part of that trick has been shown before, it’s just the combination and the coordination that are remarkable. She’s woven glamours, puppetted whole armies of corpses, and sensed through her constructs before, she just put those all together in a clever way.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. She’s puppeteered individuals and directed large numbers previously.
        She’s never before shown the level of fine control over one of her undead that she displayed here.
        And as far as I know, this is the first time she spoke through one at all, far less used one as an avatar.

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          1. naturalnuke

            And there’s nothing that said she directly spoke through one, none of them had ever heard her voice before after all. And even if they had she can glamour sounds.

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            1. Morgenstern

              Those undead mages were speaking *on their own*, not directed by her. She enquired, they answered to the best of their previous knowledge that they’d retained. That’s not the same as controlling and speaking through another corpse on her own. She only controlled her Zombie horses and gave some controlling commands to an army of corpses, but never outright took one over, as far as I can remember.

              Like

          2. That was her making the consciousness of the Winter Dead speak about memories of the body from life.
            Different thing.
            She told them to answer questions, she wasn’t speaking through them as though they were her.
            It is the difference between Speak With Dead and possessing the corpse.

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              1. naturalnuke

                I get that, but we know she can control her undead with mental commands, and we know that her undead are capable of speech when prompted. It’s a logical step that she’d be able to at least feed them lines to say.

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    1. Darkening

      Depends on the Fae, Urulan was supposed to be one of the weakest of this lot and he nearly killed Cat. Granted, she’s not using her power to the fullest extent, but she is still a lot harder to kill than your average fae noble proved to be.

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      1. Andrei

        True but as far as we know only Winter has similarities to Night. Since the winter court is no more the mixed court may not have enough common ground with Night for the mighty to be able to harvest the fae. In addition to that this seems like such an amusing ploy I don’t see the gods throwing a hand on the scales and allowing the mighty to harvest fae just to see what other funny things this Catherine-monkey does.

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      2. Rook

        Gotta keep in mind that Catherine’s threat level varies wildly based on narrative context, rather than anything concrete. She has a history of nearly (or actually) dying at the hands of minor characters, then later kicking the shit out of antagonists several orders of magnitude more dangerous, all with very little concrete powerups in between.

        She almost got bopped by bog-standard winter fae at the start of the Arcadian war too, and ended up going toe to toe with the highest levels of Summer nobility by the end. William waltzed through everything she could throw at him and beheaded her back when he was the main antagonist. A few hours later she literally squished him underneath her boot, solely because that was her moment of triumph.

        Liked by 6 people

        1. RandomFan

          I think that’s a named thing, not a Catherine thing. The prince of silver swords nearly upended the status quo- and got killed by a single arrow to the throat from an orc.

          Also William was bullshit not just because he was a hero- for all that novice heroes wind up being plausible threats no matter how unfair a mundane-oriented villian like Black might feel that to be- but also because he had a pattern of three going. That’s two hands on the scale pushing in William’s favor. Even if Catherine is literally being given capital G godly support from something on the other side of the scales, that’s going to push hard enough that she’ll still lose that fight itself.

          But with the sword, she basically stole his plot, and conservation of ninjutsu made it that Catherine was probably stronger- after all, Akua and William teamed up against her, and as you mentioned, it was a moment of triumph. Both give the edge to Catherine.

          Is my thoughts on the matter. That every named has an approximate power level, but swings all over the spectrum as needed.

          Liked by 3 people

  1. Quite Possibly A Cat

    I remember a plucky band of people getting trapped in Arcadia. How did that end exactly?

    Seriously, the Drow should just go a looting. Faerie a rich environment for them to get power ups. Then they can beat a Fae into making a gate for them.

    Like

    1. This is Arcadia. The Drow, even Mighty, are not the big dogs they are at home in the Everdark.

      The very land is their enemy, especially since they got dropped on the edges of what was Winter. They aren’t dressed for the cold, and probably don’t have an environmental adaptation power.

      Plus, the locals aren’t exactly friendly and welcoming.

      Liked by 11 people

      1. Dainpdf

        That plus fighting groups of millennia old Fae in Arcadia is quite different from fighting a single Catherine in Creation, especially one who’s still figuring out her powers.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Rook

        The locals are only half the problem with Arcadia anyway. The other half is Arcadia itself.

        Time doesn’t even make sense there. If she weaves the story well enough, she could in theory re-open the gate five minutes later in Creation proper, and fifty years of wandering a wasteland could’ve occurred on the Arcadian side. Reality will bend over backwards to enforce the stories.

        Liked by 5 people

    2. Byzantine

      If the Drow were heros there would be a problem. They aren’t. Catherine is trying to enforce some degree of heroism on them. That story gives Catherine quite the edge in Arcadia.

      Liked by 5 people

    3. I imagine that the main difference is that the plucky band was a young cohesive group who invaded by choice, were invited by the monarch and were plastic enough to mould themselves around a story that favoured them.

      In this case we have a handful of ornery individualists who are taken unwillingly, being held prisoner by the monarch, and who were rigid enough that they couldn’t take the bargain that would have spared them in the first place.

      The odds are good that some of these mighty will be fractured by the experience, and that at least one will die and be consumed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jane

    Planeshift, an age-old solution to troublesome encounters you’d rather just bypass.

    …Incidentally, if even this isn’t enough to get them to swear, it’d probably still make it a lot easier to take the rest of the city without the Mighty there to fight or give orders. I don’t know that it would be take-the-city-in-two-weeks-and-get-out easy, though…

    Liked by 9 people

      1. Dainpdf

        She could also probably lake the city and get whoever swims up from it. Pity Masego is not there to enable it, but maybe Akua could help? If Cat ever trusts her enough to weave magic with her, of course.

        Like

      1. Jane

        But if she swoops in and takes the territories lacking their sigil-holders, the two remaining Sigils can hardly hope to challenge her – and even if they tried, it’d be two relatively straightforward, if stiff, fights, as opposed to having to slowly chew through nine difficult fights while hoping that none of the other Sigils attempt to flank her while she’s busy fighting. Even if it wouldn’t be ideal, it would still dramatically simplify her problem.

        Like

    1. soonnanandnaanssoon

      Humans and non-humans love swearing oaths to me. Especially after I gate them to a parallel dimension containing vicious, sadistic human-like caricatures who toy with bodies and lives like we do with clay.

      – Extract from A Guide to Being Loved by All by Dread Empress Victorious Catherine Foundling

      Liked by 10 people

      1. JackbeThimble

        ‘Before you decide whether or not to make me the happiest Dread Empress in the world you should know that I’ve always booked our honeymoon.’
        – Dread Empress Precipitous, formulating what is now a traditional Praesi wedding proposal.

        Liked by 5 people

  3. ALazyMonster

    I love this, we’re back to Cat playing the players rather than the game and it is glorious!

    Also, I’m wondering if the area of Arcadia she dropped them in is specifically under her control as she stated that Arcadia on the way to Keter wasn’t really winter anymore (I’m talking before the whole broken flashback world stuff) and this area was described as being winter. Which as the queen of winter means her sticking them in her personal prison also goes great narratively since Drow aren’t heroes, they’re the attack dogs for bigger nightmares. This is them learning their place.

    Like

    1. Dainpdf

      No area of Arcadia is exactly Winter anymore. First, it’s not the season (the Hunt exists right now), and second, Winter and Summer don’t exist in Arcadia anymore. It’s a single Court now.

      Like

      1. The Wild Hunt that answers to Cat is always in existence. They do not care about the Season.

        At any rate, Cat specified she dropped the Mighty on the outskirts of Winter.
        Plus … the lands that the Duchess of Moonless Nights inherited from the Duke of Violent Squalls would have remained hers, and thus remained of Winter after the King of Winter married the Queen of Summernand the Courts merged.
        Besides … we don’t know the extent of the changes.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Dainpdf

          Did she? I know she inherited the title of Duke, but I don’t know about any lands. Cat is not a member of Arcadian Court anymore, so she most likely has no holdings there even if she inherited some.
          As for the Hunt, where did you get that they’re always extant? It might be that the end of Summer and Winter means eternal Autumn/Spring in Arcadia, or that by swearing to Cat these fae have broken out of the cycle, but I’ve seen no indication of that.

          Like

          1. ALazyMonster

            It was implied by the conversations with Larat and referencing his story about foxes escaping traps that the hunt had slipped out of the normal fae cycle.

            As far as the courts not actually existing that was kind of my point since winter doesn’t exist anywhere other than Cat, then theoretically as Javvies mentioned if she inherited land/ territory from the Duke of Squalls, it would technically be a domain of winter. It would in theory simply be like an independent nation due to her separating from the courts. However, this is more or less just speculation and I have no idea if this rabbit hole is really going anywhere. It is just fun to consider though. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Dainpdf

              I believe the words of Larat referred only to the cycle of Summer and Winter fighting ending. It’s most likely that there is a new state to which things transition during the Summer/Winter season, instead of just stopping at the Spring/Autumn stage.
              As for lands, nothing was ever said of her inheriting lands – in fact, she’d have probably gotten rid of any she did inherit, since it’s a connection of Arcadia to Creation (specifically Callow) she couldn’t afford.

              Like

        2. Antoninjohn

          The Winter King at the time gave the Fea rights to her land in creation not Arcadia, it was the entire plan to change the story “we are now part of the dream you call Callow”

          Like

          1. werafdsaew

            The Winter King also recognized Cat as heiress to the Duke of Violent Squalls, which means she gets all the Duke’s holdings without any additional bestowal

            Like

      2. Anonymouse

        Don’t forget that the unification of the Courts only applies to Arcadia that is accessed from Calernia. The Everdark may not be included.

        Like

        1. Dainpdf

          That is true. Then again, Drow are still somewhat active in the surface, and were even more in the past. Courts in other places would also not need to be season based.

          Like

    1. Rook

      Even if they don’t submit, she doesn’t theoretically have to fight them herself. She could just assimilate what she can, leave, and rig a gate to dump them in front of the dwarves when they come knocking. Hell, it could just pop them back into the pillar as the city is getting glassed with molten lava.

      Like

  4. Dainpdf

    Once again, Cat was playing a completely different game from everyone else.
    She should be glad no one had the “Arcadia Portal” secret, though. I mean, powerful spellcasters can cut through Arcadia (see Warlock), so Drow with enough Night might have been able to…
    Also, she should take some of that metal back for Masego. I mean, you know the dwarves are just going to take everything they can and destroy everything else, so why not bring her favorite Hierophant a souvenir?
    It also ought to be good bait to bring him back from his parents’ company.

    Liked by 7 people

      1. Rook

        A treat for masego would be vivisecting Ivah in four dimensions to study it. A distraction is the word you’re looking for. That or coercion, in the form of several poorly-carved wooden ducks thrown at his head.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Now *that* was how Black fights! Approach your enemies with a corpse puppet, and engage them by removing their ability to engage you. Use the awesome power of Winter not to fight, but to control the battlefield in a way that makes fighting unnecessary. And layer it all with a studied understanding of your opponents and a full exploration of the options your power gives you.

    A+, Catherine is piecing together Black’s lessons very well indeed.

    Liked by 12 people

  6. Oh cool, the drow have magical weathering steel.

    Not gonna lie, I’m disappointed Cat hasn’t killed the rest of the sigil-holders and absorbed their forces underneath her banner. It would be more difficult in the short term but in the long term having direct control over a large force would be better.

    She’s placing a lot of trust that the oaths will hold and can’t be undermined and I think it will bite her in the ass.

    Like

    1. Morgenstern

      I’m banking on Soln being the first to swear to her, as he basically asked her to show the benefits that come with it and that she can really hold up her end of the bargain, that she has enough power and that she can go up against other, bigger foes they’d be going against by showing them she can at least trump the ones she tries to “bargain with” here. Displaying such powers, dumping them in Arcadia, and taking over the city (or at least the sigils that they “left” rather involuntarily) while they’re gone should count as enough of a victory.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Morgenstern

        Enough of a victory to be counted as “victor” who can impose such terms, I mean. He *seemed* rather reasonable, in a Praesi way of thinking, I mean. To the victor go the spoils and all that…

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Tohron

    Given that most but not all of the sigil-holders just suddenly disappeared for a day, I get the feeling that the ones who didn’t attend will move to take advantage of their absence. Wonder if Catherine will do anything about that.

    Like

  8. Snowfire1224

    “You want me to play by your rules? Screw you and your rules! Speaking of places that regularly screws the rules, have you ever heard of a little place called Arcadia? Lovely weather this time of year. As someone who has been there, I can only describe it as an experience like no other. Oh look we’re already there, I wonder how that happened, hmm? Too bad you wanted to play by your rules instead of my own, perhaps this time out will help relieve your stress, I’m sure being a Sigil Holder is a very demanding occupation after all and stress, I’m told, causes one to make stupid decisions. By the way, I was never here, have fun surviving”
    –basically Cathrine to the Drow Sigil Holders.

    On an unrelated note could enforcing the rules on the drow perhaps be a warm up to enforcing the Leisse Accords?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m sure Oaths can be kept in reserve. For the chronically intransigent. Or the really, really dense. Because you can never underestimate the number of people who will refuse to see the benefit to new ways, even if the potential rewards are pretty obvious.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. So Black dies and shortly after Cat starts really applying Practical Evil once more as opposed to the “throw my power at them and watch them die” approach.

    Good use of the inheriting the teacher’s spirit trope, which isn’t an actual trope apparently. Surprising, considering Naruto is a thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. StabBacker

    This is foreshadowing/(sideshadowing?) of what Capn Black did on his armada of rafts – possess a body to expose the flank of the opponent.

    Possession is nine tenths is the lore – Masego the Distracted

    Like

  11. Deviant Loader

    Cat: I have commanded large armies
    Mighties: We can do it too

    Cat: I’ve slain heroes
    Mighties: Meh, we don’t care…

    Cat: I have tricked faes and angels
    Mighties: What’s that?

    Cat: I walked the streets of Keter….
    Mighties: Oh Shit! She’s the real deal!

    Liked by 3 people

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