Chapter 71: Ozone

“A ruler must consider all necessary injuries before beginning to inflict them on an enemy, for through repeated opposition they will learn your virtues and your faults. Strike once, thoroughly.”
-Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)

Nefarious’ own Dark Council had once held session in this room, though in practice it had been the Chancellor’s council and not the Emperor’s. Amadeus had sat at this table before, when nominally in the service of the Tower, but he much preferred the current circumstances. It was only the two of them here today, as if often was: only Tyrants losing their grip on Praes regularly called full sessions. Those who felt secure in their rule did not bother with the pretence of seeking the opinions of others.

“We can’t keep this up much longer, Maddie,” Alaya said. “The last time taxes ran this high for more than a few years Pernicious lost his throne.”

It would have been easy to engage on the basis of technicalities, Amadeus thought. Dread Emperor Pernicious’s reign had been plagued by constant rebellions for reasons broader in scope than mere tax rates: his attempt to raise a new capital replacing Ater in the heart of the Wasteland, his inability to keep a Chancellor loyal for more than a few months and his failure to take the Blessed Isle back from the Kingdom of Callow despite three sieges. Still, it would have been beneath the both of them to play that particular game. Allie would not have begun the conversation were there not a true threat looming out of sight. Not for the first time, Black wondered how many such messes might have been avoiding by putting the nobility of the Wasteland to the sword after the civil war.

“I understand the burden is most keenly felt by the most influential among them,” he delicately replied. “But the Reforms have produced tangible results, Allie. We’re building an army truly capable of winning the wars to come.”

She leaned back into her seat, and even after all these years that she allowed herself such weaknesses in front of him warmed his heart. She’d come in formal dress, today, but left behind her proper regalia. As in everything she did, there was deeper meaning to be found. Formal attire for matters of state, lack of crown to make it clear this was a discussion between partners.

“I know that,” Alaya said. “You know that. But in court, they can speak of the fortune being sunk into the Legions of Terror without conquest to show for it. The Truebloods are pushing for either immediate war or dismissal of the military taxes.”

“That would be disastrous,” Amadeus bluntly said.

“The amount of professional soldiers we’re fielding is nearly without precedent in Imperial history,” she mildly pointed out.

“It’s not about winning the battles, Allie,” he sighed. “Our core legions under Grem would have been capable of evicting the paladins from the Blessed Isle as early as two years ago. It’s the aftermath that’s the issue.”

“I understand you have worries about heroes,” Alaya frowned. “And I don’t agree in the slightest with the time table suggested by the High Lords. Yet I do have to wonder if your level of caution is actually warranted.”

“We can’t leave them banners to gather around during the occupation,” Amadeus said. “Not the Order of the White Hand, not the Fairfaxes, not even the knightly orders. It’s not a question about the practical power of those entities, it’s what they represent. The Principate had massive city garrisons during its own occupation and they changed nothing. As long as there was a Fairfax loose, Callow still had fight in it. From there it was a question of what would give first: Callowan stubbornness or Procer’s willingness to bleed.”

“One rarely takes the pot when betting against Callowan spite,” Allie conceded, tone darkly amused.

“We’re not just planning the war, Alaya,” Amadeus said. “We’re preparing for the peace afterwards, and moving before the pieces are in place for that is wasting the entire effort.”

“Concessions will have to be made,” Allie said. “I know you have your doubts about the Imperial governorship system-“

“It’s ripe for abuse,” he flatly said. “And abuse unmakes all of this. The rule we bring must be, if not just, then at least fair. I trust not Wasteland lords to know even the shadow of that.”

“Then I’ll wrangle a role as overseer for you,” Alaya told him. “If nothing else, we can use the limits we place to weed out the ambitious when they overstep.”

Amadeus rose to his feet, pushing the chair back.

“This is the moment where I agreed,” Black said, turning towards me. “The first mistake I made after the war, though it would not be the last.”

My feet were on solid ground. Stone, the Tower’s own. I scuffed my boot against it and flinched at the sound. It felt too real. I’d had Name visions before, but this was… different. I’d never had any agency in them before. I glanced back up and found him patiently watching me.

“Black, what is this?” I asked.

“Remonstration,” he said. “Old favours were called in.”

My fingers clenched. I did not like the sound of that in the slightest.

“What happened?”

“Unimportant,” he dismissed. “It is your latest campaign that we must speak of, Catherine.”

“You shouldn’t know I’m here,” I frowned.

“I know a lot of things I shouldn’t,” he smiled, but the trace of mirth vanished quick enough. “You head towards a debacle. I am ashamed you cannot see as much, for I must have failed you deeply for that not to be obvious.”

“I came here because everywhere else was a dead end,” I bitterly replied. “Even you, playing your games in Procer. How’d that turn out for you?”

“My flaws are many, but no excuse for yours,” Black chided. “This scheme is flawed. Oaths can be broken, and bereft of that why would any of them obey you?”

“It’s a blinking game,” I told him. “If the Heavens break the oaths, there’s a nation’s worth of drow loose in the middle of their backyard. They can’t afford that.”

“There is no win condition to your plan,” he bluntly said. “Only different ways you can lose or put off those losses. You cannot even claim a purpose for this army you’ll mass beyond the current wars.”

“That’s not true,” I bit back. “I know exactly where I’ll settle them.”

“And where would that be?” he skeptically replied. “Your kingdom would not survive the process.”

I paused. It was an effort to keep my face loose.

“It’s fated,” I said. “I doesn’t need to be me who does the heavy lifting.”

“Fate is a useful tool,” Black said, tone irritated, “but it does not-”

I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth, interrupting him.

“So that’s what this is,” I mused.

His face blanked. He’d always been eerily pale, but as blood-red lips split into a fanged grin I saw he’d become pale as driven snow. Our surroundings broke apart, ripped away by howling winds – entire chunks of not-Tower whisked away by the raging blizzard. The two of us stood ankle-deep in the snow, facing each other. Above us there was only an endless pitch black night, unknowing of moon or stars. There was only one source of light in here: the burning blue eyes set in my teacher’s face.

“And so we resume the lesson,” he said, voice echoing of Winter.

His sword left the sheath with a quiet hiss and he advanced. Around us I felt other silhouettes rise and there we no need to look to know whose they were. It would be the Woe, at first. Then Juniper. Aisha. Ratface. Nauk. Robber. Pickler. Kilian. Everyone I’d ever shared a laugh with, everyone I’d ever given the smallest speck of affection to. Anyone I’d ever loved, no matter the manner of it. This was not an unfamiliar sight. While my armies struggled through the Battle of the Camps, Masego and I had been… otherwise occupied. I’d visited his own fever dream, taken him out of it. Mine though, I’d never spoke about. With good reason. They would come for me, swords high. They’d curse and scream and die and poison everything we’d ever shared with their last words. Then I’d stand alone, for a heartbeat.

And it would start again.

The backlash from our broken gate had entrapped Masego in his own desires. Mine, though, had ground away at me one murder at a time. Winter did enjoy matching its torments to the disposition of the tormented.

“It would be capable of doing this, it’s true,” I spoke out loud.

The raging winds drowned out my words to even my own ears, but that hardly mattered in here.

“But it would also have known about Black,” I calmly continued. “You could only reach old Name dreams, couldn’t you?”

I paused.

“No, more than that,” I corrected. “I’ve never had one of those with the Dark Council room featuring. You’re riding a vision I could have, if my Name took the fore. You can probably look at most of what I’ve dreamed before as well. But for the personalities, you had the bare bones that gives you with guesswork grafted on.”

The fakes ceased marching towards me and I took a deep breath before raising my hand. Will against will, that was all there was to it. I ripped away the veil and met my enemy’s eyes. Deep and perfect silver on pitch-black skin. The last time the glare of them had blinded me, but we were in my head now. My rules ran deeper than hers.

“I’ve gone rounds with demons and fae, Sve Noc,” I said. “If you want to fuck with my mind, best sharpen your game.”

The drow’s long hair flowed endlessly behind her, turning into gargantuan strands of Night the further they were from the silver light. She did not seem pleased.

Child, she said. Your arrogance beggars belief.

“Mine?” I laughed. “You think you get to win this because I’m close to your domain? I carry mine with me, Priestess. And you stepped in it of your own free will.”

Your doom comes, she said. You will drown in despair, alone and lost.

“And we got off to such a good start,” I drawled. “Whatever happened to ‘I await you in Tvarigu’?”

Sudden rage suffocated me. A wrath beyond understanding, beyond any single person’s capacity. I buckled under the weight of it, but there was something behind. Small, almost like a whimper. Fear, I thought. There was fear.

And wasn’t that interesting?

“That wasn’t you,” I said.

Sve Noc snarled.

All is Night, she proclaimed.

“Which are you, I wonder?” I grinned, slow and mean. “The rider or the horse?”

She did not answer with words. The pressure should have crushed me. Would have, if this was her realm and not mine. But old words echoed and rippled, the whisper of a pair of crows surrounded by a sea of birds of paradise, and it washed over me like rain. It was not my truth, but I had partaken in it.

“Uninspired,” I said, and the dream shattered.

My eyes opened with perfect clarity, lacking the transition between sleep and not.

“That’s a little off-putting, I’ll admit,” Indrani sighed.

I wiggled out from under her arm, already missing the warmth, and sat up. The blanket slid down, baring the upper half of my body, but Archer didn’t even bother to leer. She just snuggled deeper into the covers, to my mild offence.

“Dare I ask?” I said.

“The heartbeat thing,” she elaborated. “I got used to the cool and skin and stopped noticing when it wasn’t there, but it started up the moment you woke up. How does that even work?”

“Fuck if I know,” I admitted, passing a hand through my tangled hair. “Zeze says it has nothing to do with pushing blood anymore, so it might just beat when I remember it should.”

The fire had gone out while we slept but that changed little for me. The sensation between different temperatures still came to me, it just… didn’t matter. It was more like a colour than a feeling. It wasn’t the same for Indrani, though, because my toes informed me she’d put on pants at some point I definitely remembered taking off. Among, uh, other things. I cleared my throat awkwardly. Indrani cranked open a bleary eye.

“You’re not gonna get all skittish about this, are you?” she said. “Considering how enthusiastic you-”

“I remember, yes,” I coughed. “It’d been a while, ‘Drani.”

She laughed musically.

“Yeah, well, it shows you’ve been mostly with women for a few years,” she said. “You’re a lot better than I thought you’d be at giving h-”

“If you keep dishing it out, it’ll burn out the embarrassment,” I tried.

She mulled over that for a moment.

“True,” she said. “I should probably ration it out.”

She finally deigned to rise, pushing herself up and stretching out like a lazy cat. Considering the blanket had completely fallen, that did rather interesting things to a frame I was now intimately familiar with. She caught me staring and grinned.

“Already?” she smugly said.

“Any port in a storm,” I sneered.

“Ouch,” she said, putting a hand over her heart. “That one drew blood, Cat.”

Not really, if her deeply amused tone was any indication. I rested my bare back against the stone and closed my eyes to wallow in this passing moment of peace. Soon enough I would have to arm myself for war and strike the first blow of the Battle of Great Strycht, but just for a little while I could enjoy this. The world outside our nook could remain a faraway abstract a little bit longer. If I’d done this with someone else I might have feared that it would change what lay between us, but not with Indrani. She had a rather cavalier attitude towards bedplay, as a rule, even if she’d largely refrained from indulging since becoming part of the Woe. That’d been a choice on her part, though. She was attractive, a well-known war hero and Named besides: if she’d actually sought out company, she wouldn’t have spent a single night alone since Second Liesse.

“And what great thoughts are we having?” Indrani said, sitting up at my side.

I opened my eyes and found her looking at me with fond amusement.

“I was wondering about the self-inflicted nature of your dry spell,” I admitted.

“Was trying something,” she shrugged. “Still on the fence about it. Besides, you’re one to talk. When we first met you could hardly keep your hands off the redhead.”

Kilian, I thought, but no pang of blurry regret came. It’d been a while since it had ceased to. It’d seemed so much more important when I was in the middle of it. But now my hours were filled bargaining with empires and waging desperate wars, when the stewardship of Callow did not swallow them whole, and the intensity had faded. It seemed such small thing, compared to what was behind me and what still lay ahead.

“It was new for me,” I admitted. “I’d never stuck that long with anyone before. Never wanted to, either.”

“Heartbreaker, were you?” Indrani snorted.

I shrugged.

“I knew I was going to leave someday,” I said. “So there was no point.”

“I can’t imagine you married,” she admitted. “Or even settled down.”

“I was kind of proposed to the once,” I mused.

She grinned.

“Now this I’ve got to hear,” Indrani said.

“I used to work at this tavern in Laure, the Rat’s Nest,” I said. “The owner hinted pretty heavily that if I married his son I’d inherit the place after he died.”

“Truly a love story for the ages,” Archer commented gravely.

“He was kind of an ass, and pretty busy ploughing our bard,” I noted. “Harrion didn’t push when I made it clear it wasn’t happening, he was a good sort. Now if Duncan Brech had gotten on his knees, my tender maidenly heart might have skipped a beat. That boy was fit like you wouldn’t believe.”

“And no one else has tried since?” Indrani said, sounding genuinely curious. “I thought popping out heirs was the queenly thing to do.”

“Talbot mentioned it once or twice,” I agreed. “And everyone influential with spare kin paraded a prospect at court. But I’ve no intention of staying on the throne, so why bother? I was only ever a temporary measure.”

The Foundling dynasty would be short-lived, which was probably for the best. If a successor bearing my name got into even half the messes I had, they’d be more curse than king.

“We children of dew and lightning,” Indrani murmured. “Transient and terrible in our passing.”

She did say beautiful things, sometimes, for all her cheerful crassness.

“Where’s it from?” I asked.

“Some poem the Lady taught me when I was kid, from far across the sea,” she said. “Her father loved it.”

“It’s a big world, isn’t it?” I said. “We’ve seen more than most on this continent, the two of us, and it’s still such a small fraction of it.”

“It’s not about how long we last, I don’t think,” Archer said. “Who could possibly live long enough to see it all? We just have to make the most of what we get.”

“We’re probably the first humans to walk the Everdark in a few centuries, if not more,” I offered.

“Oh, we’ll do a little more than just walk,” Indrani said, lips quirking.

The certainty in her voice forged a smile of my own, though it faded after a few moments.

“I dreamt, while I slept,” I said.

“Winter again?” she asked. “Hakram said whatever you’re seeing must be pretty fucking grim, if you’re not even willing to talk to him about it.”

“Yeah, well, Winter doesn’t do nice as a rule,” I muttered. “But it wasn’t that, at least not tonight. I got an important visitor.”

“No shit?” Archer said. “Our old buddy Sve Noc showed up? What did she want?”

“They, I think,” I said. “And I don’t mean it the way it’s usually meant for drow.”

“A two woman show,” she frowned. “Didn’t see that one coming. They tend to watch each other’s back the same way Praesi do – considering where to plunge the knife. Did she drop in for a bit of trash talk? It’s only traditional before villains throw down.”

“She wanted me to believe that real bad, by the end of it,” I said. “But she played tricks early on trying to get me to answer questions.”

“O Mighty Catherine, would you pretty please tell me your battle plans?” Indrani mocked in a high pitched voice.

“That I wouldn’t have minded,” I admitted. “It’d mean she thinks it could go either way. But what she was actually asking was where I intend to take the drow down the line, and I mislike the shape of that. It feels like she’s playing a different game.”

And Captain’s death was proof enough of how costly that sort of disconnect could be.

“We’re the outsiders here,” Archer said. “It was given we’d have to go in blind. But two heads, huh. Wonder how that came about.”

“I’m more interested in how it can be used,” I said. “The first one I spoke with had a fairly different take on this mess than the other.”

“Think there’s an angle there?” she asked.

I breathed out slowly.

“There was a story I used to love when I was a kid,” I said. “The orphanage was an Imperial institution, when it came down to it, and the tavern I worked that was heavy on Legion clientele. Neither was in the habit of peddling Callowan stories to impressionable young minds.”

I half-smiled, thinking of those days where the trifling had loomed so tall.

“But I got my hands on this old book at the Rat’s Nest,” I said. “Called Stirring Tales of Chivalry.”

“Was it all about lances and ladies?” Indrani asked, wiggling her eyebrows.

I rolled my eyes.

“It was water damaged, so most of it was just blurry ink – probably why the family never managed to pawn it,” I mused. “But there were a few stories in it that were readable, and one I must have read a hundred times. It was about this giant ogre, you see, that lived somewhere in the south of Callow. It had two heads and it could do magic, so even though knight after knight tried to slay it all that happened was that it made a house of their bones.”

“They call their city in the Wasteland the Hall of Skulls, right?” Indrani said. “It holds up.”

I imagined General Hune would have some issues with the story if she ever heard it, but then most my high-ranking officers would have problems with Callowan folk tales. They, uh, tended to get killed in them. To popular acclaim.

“So there’s these three knights that head out to slay it,” I said. “One’s strong, one’s quick, the last is clever.”

“Clever survives at the end,” Indrani immediately predicted.

“The last one listed always survives, you’re not impressing anyone,” I grunted. “Anyway, they go up to the ogre one after the other. Yes, bad tactics I know so don’t even start. Strong and quick get fried, because magic is perfidious and all that. Each of the ogre’s heads eats one of the dead.”

“I thought it was using the bones for its house,” Archer said.

“Look, I never said it was high literature,” I said. “Clever knight goes up, and then says ‘I surrender’, flatters them and says they’re invincible.”

“And then it asks which head is going to eat him after he dies,” Indrani said.

“Exactly,” I said. “The heads start arguing, the clever knight makes it worse, and eventually one head clubs the other in anger and they both die.”

“I thought it was a mage ogre,” she said.

“It also had a club,” I sighed.

“This is why people make fun of Callowan literature, Cat,” Indrani said, not unkindly.

“My point,” I said, valiantly pressing on, “is that creatures with two heads can be of two minds.”

There was a pause.

“Was that all?” Archer asked.

“There’s another version of it that I came across later,” I said.

“No doubt it will be as stirring as was promised by the title,” Indrani replied, smothering a smile.

“In that version, the third knight is a young Elizabeth Alban,” I said.

“The Queen of Blades herself,” she said. “She plies a clever trick as well?”

“No,” I said. “She straight up murders the ogre, because that’s what Elizabeth Alban does.”

That surprised a laugh out of her and so I left it at that. We shared a comfortable silence for a little while longer, until I could no longer even slightly justify lingering. Reluctantly I rose up, somewhat pleased she was finally taking the time to ogle my nakedness, and picked up my clothes. I shimmied on my trousers as she reached for her leathers and I was surprised by the muted intimacy of getting dressed together. It wasn’t domestic – the word would never feel anything but forced matched to Indrani – but it was a kind of closeness we’d never shared before. There was, I thought, nothing to regret about last night. Belts tightened, weapons at our hips, we left the dead fire behind us.

There was a war to wage.

120 thoughts on “Chapter 71: Ozone

    1. Novice

      Oof, this is a hard one. Ol’ Willy was a great first antagonist for our Cat showing how heroes can be such bastards early on while Thief is currently showing great character development.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Dainpdf

      Dark and stabby vs Light (fingered) and sneaky.
      I’m taking Vivienne. William was fun, but in the end he didn’t get enough camera time to beat Thief. Plus, Yoink is still one of the best scenes in APGtE to date.

      Liked by 5 people

    3. NerfGlastigUaine

      Going for Lone Swordsman. He’s just… he’s so fucked up yet so compelling. He’s a terrible person, he’s racist, he’s shortsighted, his end game was horrific on the scale of Second Liesse, his greatest regret was entirely his own fault, and yet… there’s something so human about him. He starts a caricature of stupid anti-hero good, but his interlude chapters flesh him out without changing him. They do nothing to redeem him, and yet I still agree wholeheartedly with Bard

      “Oh, you poor Contrition fools. You break my heart every time.”

      Liked by 13 people

      1. stevenneiman

        I personally feel like Thief just seems a little bit more well-rounded. William honestly always felt kind of like a badly-written D&D character more than a person to me. Thief always felt to me like her flaws and anxieties were more real, where for William they seemed like they were just a particularly fucked up generic tragic backstory tacked onto a mindless drone of the Heavens. I found Hanno a much more interesting take on the same idea, because he felt much more like he had actually made a choice rather than being a victim of the Hashmallim, and even if he was just as much of an obedient drone he owned it.

        Liked by 7 people

        1. Metrux

          That’s probably the diferent between Contrition and Judgement. Just like the pilgrim’s story is diferent, cuz he’s from… Uhh… Don’t remember the right word. Anyway, each of those seek out not only diferent types of people, but diferent ways to interact with them. Contrition is all about “you have no choice, just accept and contrite”, which gets melodramatic easily.

          Like

          1. stevenneiman

            All of the Choirs are variations on the theme of a virtue taken beyond the extreme of madness and further corrupted by the dictatorial nature of Good. Contrition twists a victim’s conscience until their own mind is a torture device, and further fails to recognize any virtues but its own. Judgement claims to have be the only justice, never mind that it just decides who serves Good and then kills anyone who doesn’t. Mercy seeks to minimize suffering, but it doesn’t recognize that suffering can be the best option or that serving Good can cause unnecessary suffering. Of note, for all their talk about alleviating suffering, Mercy basically tortured Tariq because he couldn’t come up with a more elegant solution to the problem they gave him to solve and because it knew he wouldn’t call bullshit. We don’t know too much about Endurance, but I suspect that it drives its adherents to persevere long past their mental breaking point, and to persevere even when it becomes clear that they’re on the wrong path, not that they have exclusive rights to that particular failing if William is any indication.

            As a sidenote my personal headcanon is that the Pilgrim has become addicted to the power rush he only gets when he’s protecting heroes. He doesn’t recognize it, but he actually chose to go to war with Cat rather than accept her offer to gate the Tenth Crusade straight to the Tower because he wanted to protect heroes when the war he could have avoided put them in harm’s way.

            Like

    4. superkeaton

      Oh William, a failure to the end. But a third of the votes ain’t a bad showing, so cheers to that.

      I hope your sister forgave you and I hope that Hell was worth it.

      Like

  1. I like the version with Elizabeth Alban.

    Playing games inside Cat’s head never ends well.

    Huh. Sve is playing games with themselves.
    I wonder how Sve has differentiated its component selves. Perhaps one closer to the original pre-spreading of Night Sve, and one closer to the Night Sve created.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Dainpdf

        Other question is “can they be killed while the Night exists?”
        Their interest in Cat’s use for the Drow post their apparent demise indicates this is at least a “not easily”.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Rook

          Sure they can. The same way the king of winter and the queen of summer were killed without shedding a single drop of blood or damaging their mantles.

          This isn’t a street brawl, this is a war of domains. Specifically, domains that make a statement out of endlessly devouring whatever it defeats. Two snakes trying to swallow each other.

          You don’t win this fight by shoving steel through a mortal throat or stopping a heartbeat. It’s won by superseding the other player.

          Liked by 6 people

          1. Dainpdf

            A dangerous assumption to make, considering how Cat made specific mention that assimilating the Night was a trap.

            Also, the Sve is Named, not Fae. Their nature is less fluid than a fae’s. Plus, the King of Winter may have been no more, but he left behind a King of the Fae. Something tells me we want nothing of the Sve left behind.

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          1. Dainpdf

            *Moonless?
            And Cat already has Diabolist… Taking the Sve sounds like one (two?) monsters on a chain too many.

            Let’s not forget how Cat killed Akua herself… That’s not a story she wants to be on the other side of.

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              1. Dainpdf

                That only works if there’s no collective story – a band of heroes, for example, don’t get in each other’s way.

                Unfortunately, there are stories about keeping multiple things caged – Kairos even told one, of one of his ancestors who kept a bunch of animals.

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        1. RanVor

          Forcing Sve Noc to take oaths would be the most complete victory Cat could ever hope to achieve in the Everdark… Except the Dwarves might considered it a breach of the contract, and I don’t have to say how bad would that be, do I? It’s safer to just murder the shit out of her.

          Liked by 2 people

    1. Dainpdf

      Well, Sve went into Cat’s Domain and didn’t get frozen and snuffed, so I think she’s been the most successful invader yet.

      I guess invading whole she’s dreaming may have helped, as may whatever immense power the Sve’s Name gives them.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. WuseMajor

      I suspect there’s a Priestess of Night and the Night itself. And I don’t think the Priestess is in charge anymore.

      In fact, That might be why Cat is down here. Two potential immortals, two queens, one lost in her Mantle, one mostly supressing hers. The one who manages to take real control it is likely the one who wins and becomes a true immortal Villain.

      I hope Cat spots that and manages to carve a way around it, because it looks like Below is hoping to combine them together into a really powerful pawn.

      Liked by 16 people

  2. Nash Equilibrium

    Darn, I was kind of hoping this would be a new name coming to the fore, but I can’t say I’m surprised or disappointed. That said, there being two minds involved with Sve Noc seems almost too literal. Though it does lend itself to some interesting ideas for how the current ascension play might have stalled.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. FactualInsanity

        Yeah, but tell me honestly you didn’t think it was Black making contact in his dying moments to pass on a few final lessons to his pupil. It was a beautiful bait and switch, for the first few paragraphs.

        Liked by 11 people

          1. FactualInsanity

            Well, I didn’t mean literal “head on the chopping block, sword already swinging down” dying moment. Just, you know, aware the end is nigh, so cashing in all the chips. :3

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Morgenstern

              No, nothing like that. Just him realizing most his own plans failed and how, thus having to rely on his plan for Cat and thus contacting her because he thinks she, too, might fail. But only for a the first rememberance. It became clear VERY quickly during that talk following the cursive that nothing fit together…

              Liked by 1 person

      1. 1queenofblades1

        For the 100th time Queen of Blades isn’t a name lmao. We already have WoG that Elizabeth Alban was simply called that because she was just that much of a badass.

        Liked by 6 people

        1. Morgenstern

          To be fair, that doesn’t mean that nickname couldn’t ever be turned INTO a real Name somewhere down the line. We have enough proof that new names DO crop up (aka Hakram and Masego).

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Na

          While I doubt Cat will end up with a name like that, for queeny reasons rather than bladey ones, it might not have been a name *then* but maybe Lizzie managed to carve a deep enough grove into fate for it to be one now.

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          1. When you get a queen whose first choice is “slash and slice the thing” and they come with enough determination to slash and slice a lot of things, well… *shrugs* Get another queen like that, and you’re getting a pattern started.

            Third time is probably the charm.

            Like

      1. Darkening

        Considering her body is an artificial construct created out of Winter magic and her soul is threaded pretty firmly into Winter now, that feels unlikely.

        Like

  3. Skaddix

    Ah two heads, two minds, this will be an interesting trick although Cat is right Captain went down because the Calamities rolled into a land when they didn’t fully understand the stories they be dealing with.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Rook

      The problem is that Cat doesn’t have any inkling of what stories Sve Noc is working with. Even the skeleton of a drow story is going to be exceedingly dangerous. This might be a grave, but it’s the grave of a giant that makes the Kingdom of Callow look like a newborn babe in comparison.

      The only way I can see her avoiding the same pitfall Black ran into with Bard, is to start utilizing her peerage properly and draw more knowledge from them. It’ll be near impossible for her to make the right moves unless she at least understands what game her opponent is playing.

      Liked by 9 people

    2. Me

      What a “coincidence” that Cat and Sve “mirror” each other so much. Both can enter each other Domain, both soon will gain a rank up, Sve has someone else within it’s Night, Cat has a Villain within her Winter.

      Like

  4. Dainpdf

    Cool to get another piece of dialogue with Sve Noc, nice to know what Cat’s dream was. Also fun to get a bit of interpersonal relations going.

    In terms of theorizing, I guess the dual nature of Sve Noc is an interesting bit, though I find it hard to go anywhere with it; the fact that she wants to know what happens to the Drow after is very worrisome and might be reason enough to just execute all of them, need for an army or no.

    Oh, and thank you for the chapter!

    Now that I’m done being nice…
    This is filler! Filler night!
    And no one’s gonna save you
    From the two-day wait to write!
    You know it’s filler! Filler night!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Morgenstern

      Sve Noc wanting to know what will happen to the drow could either be VERY worrisome – or, actually, not worrisome at all. Some part of her might be rather willing to hand over – if only the terms are right and her people stay protected. *shrugs
      (Nah, probably not very likely… but still. There’s something about that fear. And also the acknowledgement of the first pieces of Night Cat encountered that Winter was “akin”, but not quite the same – AND more powerful at that. Squirming like an Igor to please its master / soothen a more dangerous predator into letting it live…)

      Like

      1. Dainpdf

        I don’t think the Sve care a whit for their people. Not with what they’ve reduced the Drow to. Not as anything other than tools.

        Now, if, similarly to Cat, they have found a way of imprinting themselves into their Domain, I could see it. Could also be some other sort of trap.

        Like

      1. RoflCat

        Probably this really, heck Sve Noc might literally be Sve (Priestess) and Noc (Night) in a sort of the Holy Trinity…Unholy Duo? way where they’re both the same and separate entity at the same time (a theme that’s been mentioned with Cordelia before)

        Noc saw Cat does her murder thing, and welcome her, even if it’ll results in the story Akua told Ivah, because worthy rises and here’s Sovereign of Moonless Nights.

        Sve, on the other hand, either see what Cat’s trying to do, or is afraid for her position, and is trying to deal with that.

        Liked by 11 people

        1. Alternatively, Akua is going to get a wonderful chance to see what happens when you reach for apotheosis while firmly clinging to a compartmentalized life-style to cope with, you know, ruling without coping with personal responsibility for what you do.

          The woman as a private person and her public persona as the priestess might… have become two actual beings sharing a single space thanks to the influx of power. Which could well then have stymied the attempt to complete going all godlike. :/

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Snowfire1224

    I freaked out in the beginning and thought she was having a name dream, until I thought about it and then realized she wouldn’t be having one until she got a new name, if she ever gets a new name, and nothing climatic enough has happened yet for that to happen.

    Wonderful ogre story, it seemed to me to be making fun of a stock fantasy story side quest.

    Like

      1. Snowfire1224

        When writing my comment I thought about trying to make a joke around that but decided not to.

        Not sure I want to know what kind of name she would get from sleeping with Archer.

        Like

        1. Raved Thrad

          How about “Fuck Buddy?” At some level, Cat doesn’t really want to have to fight her way through all of Calernia, and ascending to heroic (or villainous) office as The Fuck Buddy just might help her not have to do so. I mean, seriously, who wants to kill their Fuck Buddy? I’m betting even Pilgrim wouldn’t be able to say no to her, and once she’s slept with a couple of the more influential heroes Callow might not only be safe, but it would have heroic defenders wanting to make sure their queen, and by extension her kingdom, are safe. I’m sure Champion would love to jump on that.

          Not Hanno, though. He’s such an emotard no fuck buddy will ever be able to turn him into anything other than a self-hating whiny turd. He needs to die.

          Like

  6. I really, really love how Indrani and Cat’s night together and the morning after have been written. It’s just really good and sidesteps all kinds of cheap tropes and drama for some really genuine connection of a classically unusual sort.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Also, a bit of meta commentary:

      Authors redefine and create new tropes every time they write. What stories are is changed a little with every new word. Erratica, the way you’re redefining and adding to the body of relationship tropes with this character interplay is something very worthwhile, and I’m genuinely grateful to see the little marks you’re helping whittle into our collective consciousness of stories.

      Liked by 10 people

    2. and is this first time in this story that erratic has actually managed to have two characters have chemistry past their first sleeping together
      no consent issues this time, no dissolving one’s personality in favor of just being ‘the one to sleep with’
      nice

      Liked by 3 people

  7. OneConfusedChild

    Agh, I need someone to clarify for me. This whole time, iv’e been under the impression that Cat isn’t named anymore. Is that wrong??? What I thought was that Winter just put itself into the general shape of a name because that’s what Cat was when it did its thing.

    But now we have name dreams going on??? I sort of figured that kind of thing had stopped.

    Send help, very confused.

    Like

    1. Yotz

      Sve Noc using an unborn vision that Cat would’ve had is her Name was still with her. Since Cat’s Name was replaced by the Mantle thouse visions remain unrealized. Sve Noc called in some favours to hijack one of such visions being under the wrong impression that opposing actor is one of the usual Named. Which leads to following:

      >You’re riding a vision I could have, if my Name took the fore.

      Have Sve been better prepared and wore the flawless image of Black, she would, probably, still be caught by Cat cause to her current inability to experience Name Visions.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. RanVor

        Wait a sec.

        Sve Noc (whichever one it was) has went into Cat’s dream disguised as Black. That means all “Black” said wasn’t actually backed by real Black’s narrative expertise. Does that mean that the “oaths can be broken” thing is a legit threat Cat needs to prepare for, or was it just wishful thinking on Sve Noc’s part meant to poison Cat’s mind with doubt?

        Liked by 9 people

        1. the second, most likely

          Black doesn’t think that way, actually. Oaths can be broken, everyone can betray each other, but he doens’t think love is a weakness and he’s ridden this far on Power of Trust and Power of Friendship. This is not a particular issue he’d have gone for, I don’t think

          Liked by 8 people

    2. Cicero

      It seems to be some matter of argument as to whether whatever remains of the Squire counts as a name anymore.

      It’s sort of like asking if a person is wearing a cloak, and that cloak is ripped to shreds, but the person keeps on wearing those shreds, is she still wearing a cloak?

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Na

        I don’t think the metaphor holds up unless you stitch those threads to a new cloak and start wearing that. The whole thing seems kinda ship-of-Theseus-y; she’s not the Squire, but also isn’t not the Squire either.

        Like

    3. We got clarification on this back in Chapter 10: Alegro:

      ‘It would have been a lie, though, to still call myself the Squire. No one did anymore. I could still feel the bare bones of that Name, some days, but the flesh and muscle over them was Winter’s. Whatever I’d done in Liesse, when I had broken Masego’s scaffolding, it had ended my tenure. I had no aspects anymore’

      Liked by 2 people

    1. haihappen

      Trust is a weakness.
      Or: An entity divided in itself cannot stand!

      Two minds in the entity of Sve Noc could be the whole reason why Drow society is fucked: If they struggle for dominance inside the domain, trying to devour each other, this may influence all of the Night, and the Drow with them.
      The whole society collapsed because the conflict, however minor, spread with the domain, consuming their ability to work together.
      The only solution to this would probably be to BREAK Sve Noc, TAKE the now loose domain of Night, and let it FALL into her own domain of Moonless Night.

      Liked by 6 people

  8. Jay

    So, I really want to get into how much I loved the last chapter and the morning after portion of this chapter, cuz I’ve definitely had of minor ship going on for them at least although I definitely ship Archer with Heirophant more. BUT i have been fucking WAITING for a 3rd court of Fae to form EVER SINCE Cat’s Apotheosis. The aftermath of the previous courts merging hinted (to me) that they had essentially become Spring Court (although they could be Fall.) And ever since Akua has been around as a shade ive been waiting for the shoe to drop and become the new Summer to Cat’s Winter. With the tones being set throughout the Drow arc, i FULLY expect Sve Noct (or at least the Night) to become Fall.

    Like

      1. Ermanti

        The only issue with that is Cat still having access to Winter, and her ability to make a new Winter court. The Court of Arcadia will become, inevitably, the new Summer court, only with vastly more Fae in its ranks. This whole arc has been about the creation of the new Winter court. To balance out the vastly more powerful Summer court, Winter has to subordinate Night. Conversely, should Night win, then the current Court of Arcadia will become a Day court to counteract it (Same principles apply really). with corresponding Dawn and Dusk courts. The WInter King knew this, which is why the his gambit left all the power of WInter in Cat’s hands. The purpose wasn’t to end the cycle, but rather leave a way for the courts to absorb new stories, so it can mirror the way Evil has been changing since the ascension of Malicia and the Calamities, and now the Woe . Now Arcadia has access to all of the stories of Callow and the Drow, leading to a very different Winter and Summer dynamic when Winter inevitably returns to Arcadia.

        Like

        1. Jay

          “four Courts of Arcadia – one for each season – but the delineation between them isn’t clear. They don’t all exist at the same time, either.”
          Interlude: Gate; book 2

          Like

  9. Yotz

    So, I̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶b̶e̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶l̶a̶z̶y̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶M̶o̶n̶d̶a̶y̶ I undertook a quest for a poetic inspiration – which was, admittedly, for naught since I couldn’t find a vid of Es Y’Golonac online for the life of me. T_T

    …oh well, here’s something romantic for our lovebirds

    And – as a special “two-for-one” for the world that waits for their wake

    Like

  10. So the Priestess of the Night has two heads and it’s not a metaphor…pity for her at least one is going to roll, if she continues to bungle things so badly. Challenging Catherine in the heart of Winter…tsss…
    Looks like the chaotic battle is for Friday, can’t wait for it…

    Like

  11. 1queenofblades1

    So basically what that story told us is that Cat will just straight up murder Sve Noc instead of fucking about with elaborate tricks. Because that’s just what Catherine Foundling does. She murders the hopes and dreams of hundreds like a good and proper villain. Then she skewers them like a kebab and plants their corpse by the side of a road.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Drunken Dwarf

    Huh so Sve Noc’s failed apotheosis might stem from the fact that she tried to preserve her old self to avoid what the Warlock feared and in doing so ended up as a broken monster with both a new and old Sve controlling one source of power. It certainly doesn’t help that the other Sve seems more story bound and aloof of mortal matters like the fae are.

    Liked by 7 people

  13. > the whisper of a pair of crows surrounded by a sea of birds of paradise

    This is a pretty metaphor. Hopefully it becomes clearer as we get a better picture of Sve Noc’s abilities. Are the two faces the crows, and the birds of paradise their domain?

    Also, “birds-of-paradise” can refer to lots of things, from a flower (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strelitzia) to a startling variety of bird species (https://juanvelascoblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/birds-of-paradise_final.jpg).

    Like

    1. It’s funny that the most common one (the swan and the dove) aren’t listed. Notably the swan was known in a lot of Anglo Saxon mythology for being the bird of heaven. (Bird of paradise)

      Like

    2. Shequi

      This is Cat’s recollection of the Court at Ater, IIRC. She and Black are the Crows. The Court are the Birds of Paradise, and the whisper is Black’s Arc Words: “We Do Not Kneel”

      Like

  14. Hellspirit

    Does one have to be named in order to ride stories? In the way of beating an enemy that is so much more powerful? With named the stories tend to even things out to balance out the narrative, but would this work in Cat’s current state?

    Like

    1. RanVor

      It’s the matter of narrative weight. The more narrative weight you have, the more the story pulls you along; whether this is good or bad for you depends on what you’re trying to do. The Names are, in essence, signifiers of the narrative weight – they codify your place in the story. That’s why people with enough narrative weight usually become Named. Cat’s mantle, coupled with her position as the protagonist, gives her enough narrative weight to qualify as a Named for narrative purposes, even though she’s technically not.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Wolper

      Cat’s fae title is Name-adjacent – and is powerful enough without aspects and a specific Named story, that universe is giving her the narrative attention a ‘main character’ gets that is normally reserved for Named without actually being one.

      A Name is an attempt to shape a person who is close enough to a storybook ideal into the actual ideal itself – if a person is already fitting that ideal as good as any Named, then the fact that she doesn’t or possibly can’t have a name right now doesn’t matter – she’s still filling the role a Named person would in the story. It’s possible she has more flexibility that someone with a true Name, in that the world is not trying to make her go down the specific paths that a Squire would.

      If she changes her plans and attitude and behavior to fit any random villain name that would fit with her powers/resources, then her stories would probably fall into similar lines as those names.

      Like

    3. Having a Name is a sign that you are important to the Narrative and influence it. Without having a name you can still have influence but whether you’re aware of the narrative and your impact on it as a whole is a separate thing. It’s been shown that the many generals don’t understand the narrative. It might be that only Named can perceive it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. RanVor

        Well, not really. I think it’s more like Named learn to work with narratives through experience because they directly influence the outcomes of their actions. As we’ve seen with Archer, they don’t have any inherent understanding of narrative patterns. I believe everyone can learn to recognize narratives, but most people don’t because it doesn’t affect them directly.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Pretty much every Named character has admitted awareness of the narrative at this point, whereas non named either do not acknowledge it or just are not aware of it in what looks suspiciously like some sort of mental interference with non Named characters just putting it down to Named shenanigans and simply rolling with it. Just because some refuse to accept or act within the narrative doesn’t mean they don’t believe in it. Archer admits it exists but she doesn’t want to let that affect her worldview as she states to Cat. Cat does the exact opposite of that, acting constantly within the narrative and trying to control it.

          So essentially my point is that Named have a significant impact and in turn have a greater awareness of the Narrative. The only major non Named players currently are Cordelia and Juniper at this point and they haven’t demonstrated any thoughts towards a narrative weight. Cordelia has set into motion the crusades but she clearly had very little if any at all awareness of the narrative and it’s inpact (as Saint told her in a roundabout way).

          Unless you can demonstrate a conversation where non Named discuss the narrative outright and it’s not brought up indirectly by Named?

          Like

          1. RanVor

            The very existence of the Names makes narratives common knowledge. Most people don’t acknowledge the narratives because they have no direct influence on their lives, not because they’re unaware of them.

            Named have greater awareness of the narrative because they’re much more bound by it. I’m not denying that. What I’m saying is that this knowledge is not inherent.

            The wording of your last paragraph is unfair because it excludes the scene back in book 1 in where Juniper explained pivots to Cat, which disproves your point in rather direct manner. We were clearly shown that Juniper had much greater awareness of the narrative than Cat, who had been Named for months by then.

            Liked by 2 people

  15. Your character contest had some sort of invisible box that links to an ad. I tried to “verify that I was human” and when I went to click a square it took me to some ad page that wouldn’t let me back out.
    Android (latest), Samsung.

    Like

  16. Rup

    “if not just, then at least fair”
    ..the very heart of ‘Practical’ Evil…

    We children of dew and lightning
    Transient and terrible
    ….👏👏😊

    Like

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