Prologue

“A horse and fall was all it took
For every last to take the hook
Now the kitchen’s full of cooks,
And the pot it is boiling
 
Crown of this, crown of that
They all chase after the hat
 
Princess said she has a right
Princess said it’d be a fight
So princesses are all aflight,
And the pot it is boiling
 
Crown of this, crown of that
They all chase after the hat
 
The wheel spins us all around
Up and north, south and down
Ebb or flow, we’ll still drown,
And the pot it is boiling
 
Crown of this, crown of that
All of this for a hat,
While the pot it is boiling.”

-“Too Many Cooks”, a Proceran folk song written and grown popular during the civil war

The wolves were at the gate.

Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Prince of Rhenia and Princess of Salia, Warden of the same West that was currently burning to the ground, did not wonder when it had all gone wrong. She was not an unintelligent woman, and so believed she’d already identified the point of failure with accuracy: the moment where she’d assumed Keter would remain quiescent. She hadn’t, though, not truly. Cordelia had believed there might be an increase in raids coming from the Kingdom of the Dead, perhaps a tentative incursion into the Alamans lakelands. That was the very reason she’d forced through the Highest Assembly the very unpopular taxes that had funded the restoration of all major fortresses north of Brabant, that she’d taken only a meager portion of the armies of the lakeside Alamans principalities and her Lycaonese kinsmen. There would be burning, she’d thought, there would be bleeding. But the borders would hold until the grim business of pacifying the east was done and full attention could be turned to the evil that lay behind the walls of Keter. In a word, she had assumed the Hidden Horror was a fool.

There was a young man at her Salian court by the name of Gabriel, a commoner who’d had the benefit of an education in letters by the House of Light. He had, several years ago, penned an interesting treatise called Fulcrums of History. A repudiation of sorts to the looming presence of On Rule over Proceran politics at the highest rung. It argued, rather eloquently, that disaster came to empires by an accumulation of smaller factors that drained the life out of them instead of through failures of will or cleverness, as the author of On Rule had argued. It had been, Cordelia felt, an attempt to explain the resounding brutality of the civil war by a scholar who had been born in its aftermath. It had concluded by arguing that the solution to such degradation was ‘an injection of fresh vitality’, in this case personified by Cordelia herself leading the traditionally aloof Lycaonese south to force an end to the wars. The conclusion was not as well written as the rest, and largely flattery directed at her in hope of an appointment. He had obtained it, though the flattery had not been the reason. Anyone displaying the sharp insight of the earlier chapters could and should be used by her administration.

She thought of that treatise, sometimes. To apply the logic behind it to her current situation, for there had been a clear accumulation of factors over the last few years. Strength and coin spent influencing foreign wars in Callow and the League. Erosion of her authority over the Tenth Crusade, by both Proceran factionalism and the prominent role of the Chosen, followed by the bruising strategic defeats of the Battle of the Camps and the assault on Red Flower Vales. Once the cracks were there, they had only broadened. Tensions within the Great Alliance grew. The Levantines had been less than eager to defend the heartlands of the Principate, even against Wasteland legions. A trail of burnt cities and granaries from Bayeux to Iserre had been the consequence of that, further weakening her standing within the very alliance she had assembled. Further disaster struck at Thalassina, with the Warlock obliterating the better part of the Ashuran war fleets along with the city he’d come to defend. Worse, the Chosen had now decided to buck worldy authority entirely: the Saint of Swords had openly admitted Procer was to be the pyre birthing her better world, and now the Grey Pilgrim had refused her order to immediately slay the Black Knight instead of capturing him.

The heroes could no longer be relied on. They would, from now, oscillate between being useful but uncontrolled battlefield assets and major strategic liabilities. The rulers of Dominion of Levant, her nominal allies and comrades-in-arms, were now attempting to twist her arms for better concessions after a war they were currently losing. Magon Hadast and the Thalassocracy of Ashur, her sole remaining solid ally, had been inflicted two vicious setbacks in a row. The disaster at Thalassina could have been recovered from, but the League of Free Cities had smelled the blood in the air and finally sallied out. The League’s fleet – essentially the Nicaean fleet with what few ships the other seaside cities could spare – had torched the last war ships of Ashur and sacked the city behind them. The Thalassocracy had effectively been evicted from the sea, and in a matter of months the blockade around its island would start causing major food shortages. There was a very real possibility that Ashur would have to capitulate within the year, else it would simply wither on the vine. Worse, the Hierarch had sent out armies as well, the full muster of the League. Still, had even a losing battle been given by her southern army down in Tenerife, the situation would have been salvageable.

Instead her entire net of spies in the League had somehow missed that the entire host had gone into the Waning Woods, only managing to warn her the army had disappeared off the surface of Creation a week before it reappeared on the outskirts of the Principality of Iserre. Cordelia did not consider herself to be faint of heart, yet she almost shivered at the notion of taking an army through that murderous patch of trees. How much of their army had they lost, passing through? A tenth, a quarter? Half? There was not a single creature of flower in the Waning Woods that was not violently hostile to the existence of humans on Creation. Regardless of the… practicalities involved there, however, the southern Principate had now turned into a strategic nightmare. The First Prince was no great general but even she could see as much. The twenty-thousand strong army she’d stationed in Tenerife to avoid this very outcome was now marching north in all haste, but the map splayed in front of Cordelia betrayed a stark situation. Were the Alliance forces not staggered, not dispersed, they would have held the advantage. Instead it was bloody chaos.

The surviving Legions of Terror, bereft of the Carrion Lord but still under the command of the infamous Marshal Grem One-Eye, had fled into northern Iserre. Their supply situation, her generals assured her, would soon turn dangerous: they were marching through lands they’d already thoroughly pillaged on their way south. They were still around eighteen thousand hardened veterans, including a dragon, led by one of the finest military officers of the age. Behind them, split in two staggered armies, eighty thousand Levantines were in hot pursuit. If reunited, Cordelia believed they could crush the Praesi. But they were not, with a few weeks of distance between them and no way to join up without allowing the Legions to slip the noose. Behind the armies of the Dominion, the host of the League followed. Reports on their numbers fluctuated with every message: fifty thousand, forty, more than a hundred. A brave Iserran outrider had come close enough to find out some of the ‘soldiers’ were actually scarecrows held up by gargoyles, which had the reek of the Tyrant’s scheming. Far behind all these, her southern army of twenty thousand was exhausting its soldiers to collapse trying to arrive in time. The situation in the region was not impossible to salvage, but the dangers were obvious.

Cordelia was unwilling to gamble the fate of the Principate on such odds, and so she had taken action: she’d ordered general conscription in Salia. The bottom of the barrel was being scraped raw, but she’d put together twenty thousand levies. Had she further enforced the decree, or even broadened it to neighbouring principalities, she could have easily tripled that amount. There was, unfortunately, no point in doing so. There were no armaments for the conscripts to use, and dwarven representatives had flatly refused any further sale without even bothering to explain why. Giving reasons to humans was, presumably, beneath their dignity. This entire debacle had the ugly reek of Catherine Foundling’s meddling about it. If there was one saving grace to this entire debacle, it was that the Highest Assembly had finally understood how close to the edge the Principate had come: without even need for her prompting, the personal armies of every single royal not already at war had been sent to reinforce her levies. It would still be a month before the last arrived, but her twenty thousand would swell to forty and gain a bevy of princes and princesses along with badly needed professional officers. Strategic considerations now dictated that the moment this army was readied it was so be sent by ship down to the coast of Iserre, where it could reinforce the Levantines against the Praesi and link up with the others field armies before giving battle to the invading League of Free Cities. Cordelia had that very command drafted on parchment and staring back at her from the surface of her bureau, awaiting only her signature. The fair-haired woman watched her inkwell for a long, silent moment. She did not reach for the quill, instead rising to her feet.

The wolves were at the gate, but not only in war-torn Iserre. Woe, Cordelia. Woe to the north and to the south. Agnes’ words were branded into her mind, the constant reminder that if she made even a single mistake the Principate would end. The First Prince of Procer tread softly until she stood by the tall glass panes of her personal solar, a magnificent view of Salia spread out below her. Frost touched the glass, and the city as well. First snow had already come, though it had melted quickly enough under the sun. The next fall would remain a little longer, and so it would continue until a thorough blanket of pale was draped over the capital. Fingers larger than was considered fashionable in a courtier, much less royalty, pressed against the cold glass. A taste of the north, a taste of home. Rhenia would be as much ice as stone, by now, fresh sets of fortifications being made out of a mixture of frost and gravel. The winds at night would be so loud they’d drown out even the howling of the packs roving the mountains. Her lips tightened, her throat closed up. Pressed against her heart, beneath the Rhenian blue dress she wore, was the last letter her kinsman Friedrich Papenheim would ever write her. She’d had to excuse herself, when she first read it. It would not do to weep in front of even her most trusted.

“I should not,” she whispered against the window, her breath blooming in fog.

She did it anyway, once more. Trembling fingers claimed the parchment and she looked upon Friedrich’s rough scrawl of a calligraphy. He’d never thought much of letters, not that many of her people did, and the words were as rough as the man had been.

The dead are coming.
I sent the young south. We will hold as long we can.
I am sorry. I cannot do more.
Dawn is in your hands, Cordelia.
We will meet again come the last summer.

Her eyes burned with tears she did not allow herself to shed. Hannoven had fallen before she ever received the letter, the man who wrote it dead and ash. She’d loved Friedrich, she thought in the same way she still loved her uncle. Trust and comfort and bonds of blood sacred to them both. He could have been the heir to Hannoven, had Uncle Klaus not named her that, and a lesser man would have resented her for it. She still remembered when she’d been fourteen, the announcement fresh, and she’d met him for the first time since. He’d smiled, rough hands pressing a bracelet into her palm. Not a single dark glance, not a single harsh word. Only a slip of leather with ratling teeth affixed, all carved with old Lycaonese blessings. For luck, he’d smiled. In the years since then, Cordelia had bought and been gifted some of the finest jewelry in Procer. On all of Calernia, truly speaking. And still, under the dress at her coronation as First Prince of Procer, ratling teeth had dug into her wrist. Gold, gold could be found everywhere in the world. Freely given affection could not. The First Prince of Procer wiped her eyes, grateful she’d already done away with her cosmetics for the day. The letter was slid back against her heart, weighing more than parchment ever should.

Across the rest of Lycaonese lands, cities and towns and villages would empty. The old and the young would flee into the mountains, and the rest of her people would prepare for war. Ploughshares beat into swords, cutlery melted into spears. Tables would be hacked up for wooden shields and lovingly tended-to mail come down from mantles. The Enemy was coming and her people would march to meet it at the passes, as they had unflinchingly since the days the word Lycaonese first meant something. Cordelia fingers curled angrily against the glass. Impotently. They could not stand alone. They were brave and they were strong and they were more than anyone had the right to ask of them, but they could not stand alone against the endless hordes of the Dead King. They needed reinforcements, they needed the south to raise its banners and come stand with them. And it was her duty to see to that, wasn’t it? There had never been a First Prince of Lycaonese birth before her, and there might never be again. The Dead King had come to wage full war on the Principate of Procer for the first time since its founding, and only now did while a Hasenbach sat the throne. She owed it to her blood, to her home, to her honour to abandon all this southern madness and march north to stand against the horror that would devour all the world.

“And I am going to fail you,” she whispered brokenly.

Because victory south meant taking all that remained of the Grand Alliance to fight the Dead King. Because the Chosen had held Cleves until Princess Malanza’s army arrived to reinforce them and the principality still stood. Because Hainaut’s coast was swarming with the dead, but she had ordered her uncle to take it back instead of returning to fight for his own home. And mine. She’d met the eyes of man who’d been father to her since she was a girl, and told him that if he disobeyed her orders and marched his soldiers home instead she would have to order him seized for treason. There would be no coming back from that, she knew. She’d seen the lay of it in his face. But in the end, all four principalities of her people could be taken by the Enemy without much greater cost than soldiers and mines. If the Kingdom of the Dead broke into the heartlands of Procer, its already ravaged farmlands, the entire realm would starve through winter. Hunger would kill a hundredfold the work of soldiers. Because even alone, you will stand long enough to save the rest of Procer and the Alamans will not. She was abandoning everything she had ever loved for the sake of people who still called her a savage behind her back. Who mere months ago had been plotting to destroy her.

“Because we must,” Cordelia bitterly said.

Using the words of the line whose duty she was failing to justify that very failure. She was damned, just as the hard-eyed warlord in Callow had warned she would be. Let me be damned, then, she thought. The wolves were at the gate, gathering in ravening packs. Summer friends and bitter foes, a procession of the viperous and the apathetic. Heroes who would bring salvation with a torch, villains cloaked in murder and madness. Let them all come, baying for the end of Procer. If she had to war against all the world to save her people, she would. The Warden of the West walked to her desk, dipped the quill and signed the fucking order. Before it even dried she had another scroll unfolded, her feathered quill dancing across. Dredge it out, she wrote. Prepare it. Fire against fire. The Augur had found a path through, narrow as it was, and it began with a corpse that was not a corpse beneath the waters of the lake at the heart of Procer. The Ashurans, it was said, had called on a masked and hallowed presence at the Battle of Thalassina. Cordelia Hasenbach would call on a lot worse if she had to.

Dawn was in her hands, and she would not let it fail.

The Empire was dying a slow, messy death.

Alchemical concoctions had allowed Malicia to resist the call of sleep beyond what even her Name would allow, though she knew there would eventually be a price to pay for that. It was still necessary, for rare was the hour that must not be spent dragging her wayward realm back from the suicide it was so utterly intent on committing. It was grim, thankless work, moreso now than ever before: two blows had come in quick succession, and as a result her authority was thinning. Thalassina had, to her still raw grief, been the first. The woman named Alaya had wept over the loss of her old friend, when she’d heard the news. Wekesa had been dear to her in a way that very few people had ever matched or surpassed – only one, if she was to be honest with herself – and to lose him over what should have been such a simple matter… But while the Dread Empress of Praes could afford most luxuries known to Creation, time to mourn was not one of them. Not when Warlock’s last blaze of vengeful glory had wiped out a city of nearly one hundred and fifty thousand people, along with her realm’s largest and most prosperous sea port.

There were survivors, a meager thirty thousand or so. Whatever Wekesa had used affected them, for within a day of fleeing the city ruins they’d begun to wildly mutate. Eyes and cysts growing over skin, teeth turning to stone, even a case of hair turning into straw. Malicia ordered a quarantine for the refugees, uncertain if the affliction would spread, but it turned out pointless. Every last one of them was dead within a week, seemingly cooked from the inside by the fading remnants of Wekesa’s sorcery left inside them.

As far as her agents had been able to determine, there had been only a single survivor to that catastrophe: the Hierophant. Young Masego had been observed to walk out of the wreckage in ash-covered robes, and her attempts to contact the boy had not gone well. The first messengers she’d sent on foot, and once they came within a hundred yards of him their heads had simply caved in. She’d ordered scrying rituals, after that. Of the ten mages she’d used, only one had survived the backlash. Healers managed to stop the screaming before the vocal chords gave, though there would be no salvaging the eyes that had rotten and fallen out from their sockets. That survivor had babbled about a ‘sea of death’, not coherent enough for a more comprehensive report, and bitten through her tongue before the night was out. Necromancy had revealed the dead woman’s soul to be even more damaged than the corpse, which worried Malicia a great deal. Even Warlock at his peak had resorted to rituals and specialized tools to tinker with souls. His son evidently need not, and was shambling his way back to Callow through unknown means: he would frequently disappear for a few days at a time before her agents caught sight of him again, moving too quickly for it to be purely on foot.

There was going to be a reckoning in that, and the best she could hope for was that it would be Ashur that’d bear the cost of it.

Thalassina alone would have been a crisis. High Lord Idriss had been one of her closest political allies for decades, the wealth of his holdings and his remarkable breadth of indebted of great use in keeping the influence of Tasia Sahelian and the Truebloods at bay. Malicia had never counted the man a friend, but she had respected him and made good use of his ambitions. In the wake of the dissolution of the Truebloods and the marginalization of Wolof, whose latest High Lord she had bound to her too deeply for anything but complete subservience, she’d been preparing to set him up as the natural rival to the Moderates led by High Lady Abreha of Aksum. Competition over court appointments would have neatly neutered both of them and kept them busy while Malicia set to laying the groundwork for what the Empire was to become. Instead Idriss was gone, along with most of Thalassina, and Abreha Mirembe was now the second most powerful individual in Praes. The sack of Nok and the destruction of the only other seaport of the Wasteland had dealt crippling blows to Malicia’s prestige, which had already been steadily eroding under the constant Ashuran coastal raids.

From Wekesa’s death, she had inherited the stuff or rebellion: the Thalassocracy was no longer raiding, which allowed household troops and legions to withdraw, and doubts were now being raised as to her ability to successfully defend Praes. If not for her treaty with the Dead King, there would have been a coup attempt by now. As it was, overwhelming pressure was mounting at court for High Lady Abreha to be named her Chancellor. If she did not swiftly act to suppress dissent, the situation would grow out of control. Her most direct tool in this should have been the Legions of Terror, of course, but as things stood Malicia knew they could not be used. Sitting calmly in her seat at the table where the Dark Council was usually held, the Dread Empress of Praes watched the kneeling Soninke mage before her and idly tapped a finger against the wooden table’s surface. Ime stood at her side, her spymistress a shadow silent and still.

“It is confirmed, Your Most Dreadful Majesty,” the young man said. “Foramen has fallen.”

“Of that much I was aware,” Malicia sharply replied. “Elaborate.”

“As of two days ago, a goblin army of imprecise size – at least ten thousand, less than fifty – attacked the city after sending a vanguard of infiltrators over what we now believe to be at least a month,” the imperial mage hastily said. “They attacked under cover of night, after having slain the watchmen on duty and opening the gates. The city was fully occupied by morning, after which the goblins seized control of the city wards and cut off our ability to scry.”

Not a single bit of news that Ime had not already brought her as of the morning the city was occupied. She truly had been too lax on the contingent of messenger mages directly sworn to the Tower, she thought. While their primary duty was to serve as couriers for orders, they’d also been granted funds to acquire and pass on local information from wherever they were posted. A way to keep a finger on the pulse of the Empire without ever leaving Ater. Yet if the best they could offer her was what half of Praes knew two days after Malicia learned of it, perhaps their funding needed to be reassessed.

“Do you have anything else to report?” the Empress mildly added.

The young mage hesitated.

“Rumours have begun to spread in Okoro and Kahtan that these foreign attacks are being used as a veiled knife by Your Most Dreadful Majesty to eliminate the High Lords entirely,” he finally said. “Our branch officers in these cities believe the whispers are too widespread to be of natural provenance.”

Malicia’s eyes narrowed the slightest bit. That was, in fact, fresh news. Perhaps mere discipline would suffice, then.

“You are dismissed,” she said.

The Imperial mage rose only to bow, and retreated from the room backwards with his eyes fixed on the floor. The Sentinels quietly closed the door behind him, and the Empress leaned back against her seat.

“Abreha prepares for a serious challenge, it seems,” Malicia said after a moment.

Ime finally stirred to movement, sliding into the seat at her left.

“It was inevitable the moment Thalassina happened,” the spymistress said. “Foramen just handed her the opportunity on a silver platter.”

They both knew why the rumours being spread were much more dangerous than they seemed at first glance. Ime’s agents had obtained greater detail of what had taken place in Foramen after it fell. High Lady Amina Banu had been skinned alive along with every other member of her line in the city before being drawn and quartered before the eyes of the entire city. Revenge for Dread Emperor Nihilis fashioning a leather cloak out from the hide of the matrons that refused to surrender when he crushed the Fourth Goblin Rebellion, or so they claimed. As the leaders of every single goblin rebellion in the last six hundred years had committed a variation of the same empty atrocity, Malicia could note that there had been a great deal more revenge taken than injury done. Unfortunately, the Banu of Foramen and the Kebdana of Thalassina had both been effectively ended as a bloodline. Oh, some distant relatives could be rustled up – the Banu in particular had been a tribe before a line, and were famously more a family thicket than tree – but that thorough an extermination would end them as political entities for generations. More than that, for the Kebdana. Foramen could be taken back, but it was dubious that Thalassina could ever be rebuilt given the toxicity of the former city’s emplacement.

Two High Lord lines centuries old destroyed in the span of a year. High Lady Abreha would find many willing ears, when she cast Malicia in the role of one trying to exterminate the highest rung of Wasteland aristocracy.

“She needs to die,” the Empress said. “And quickly.”

“The Eyes are already exploring possible avenues,” Ime replied without missing a beat. “Though she was a viciously paranoid old bat before taking a swing at the Tower, so the odds are not in our favour.”

Malicia closed her eyes, mind unfolding. Angles, angles, there were always angles. The knife that took the killing blow need not be hers.

“Her agents at court,” she said slowly. “Have they been preparing petition?”

“We’ve confirmed four,” Ime said. “I believe the one requesting that she be formally summoned to the Tower to answer for tax irregularities is the one she’ll truly back.”

Casting herself as being attacked by the throne while ensuring she was in Ater to gather support. Not the most inspired of opening moves, but then Abreha had always preferred boldness to elegance.

“Have our people change the text for one of the red herrings just before presentation,” Malicia ordered, opening her eyes. “High Lady Abreha will request a formal mandate and court title, for the sake of stabilizing Praes in the midst of war.”

“Overreach would give us an excuse to swat her around,” the spymistress reluctantly agreed.

“Swat?” Malicia smiled. “Nothing of the sort, Ime. How does one kill a lion without a spear?”

Her spymistress simply raised an eyebrow.

“Throw a cut of meat,” the Dread Empress of Praes said, “halfway between it and a bear.”

She drummer her fingers thoughtfully against the table.

“We will grant this petition, for we have great trust in the loyalty of dearest Abreha,” she lightly continued.  “As the Blessed Isle is still formally an Imperial territory, granting governorship over it is my right. Given the unfortunate refugee situation, it is evident there is great need of a stabilizing influence there.”

Ime let out a low whistle.

“That gets her household troops at the Callowan border,” she noted. “And nobody else will want to get tangled up there, so support will cool down. The reaction in Laure is the real danger.”

“Have the regency informed that its protest over Praesi refugee incursions were duly noted, and I have appointed a governor to remedy the situation,” Malicia said. “Of course, High Lady Abreha’s mandate ends at the border. Should she provoke the Kingdom of Callow, it is not on the behalf of the Tower and any punishment doled out by the regency would not be taken as an act of war between our realms.”

“Should such a provocation be arranged?” Ime asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Prepare one,” the Empress said. “I will not pull the trigger unless it is made necessary.”

There was a beat of silence.

“My Empress,” the spymistress finally said.

“You have doubts,” Malicia noted.

“Callow just slapped us across the face,” Ime reminded her. “There was a signed royal decree recognizing the independence of the ‘Confederation of the Grey Eyries’ before the city had even fallen.”

With Catherine’s own signature, which the Empress suspected had by now been used more often by Hakram Deadhand than the woman herself.

“The Matrons must have reached out to them months ago. And it’s only a matter of time until barges carrying munitions and goblin steel start sailing across the Wasaliti to equip the Army of Callow. They’re effectively funding a rebellion against the Tower, though Gods only know how they got a loan from the dwarves.”

“Given Catherine’s continued absence, I imagine an amount of brutal murder was involved,” the Empress drily said. “Though that is ultimately irrelevant. The Legions of Terror will move to blockade Foramen. Neither munitions, steel nor gold will flow. The bargain will remain entirely ink.”

“We’re in no shape to fight against Callow,” Ime quietly said. “We are divided, bloodied and beset with a goblin rebellion.”

“Callow is in no shape to fight against us,” Malicia replied, and raised a hand before her spymistress could object. “Marshal Juniper has raised a significant army, but it cannot move east. If the Black Queen still somehow seeks alignment with the ailing Grand Alliance, it must participate in the campaign against the Dead King. If she seeks to kill Cordelia’s grand design instead, it will fall on Salia instead and decapitate the Principate by surprise. Both offensives would be of great scale, and she has neither the manpower nor the resources to engage in war on two fronts.”

Silence reigned for a moment after the mild tirade, the other woman refraining from contradicting her. Ime – Lindimi Sahelian, once, before she’d cast that name aside – was aging. No amount of potions, rituals or cosmetics could truly hide it anymore. Her skin was wrinkling, her body losing its spryness. Even a branch Sahelian could expect to live a few decades longer than the average Praesi, but time would catch up eventually. Part of Malicia grieved that. Part of Malicia had to begin considering a replacement. She read hesitation, on Ime’s face. No, not hesitation. Reluctance. There were very few subjects where she had not given her spymistress to speak her mind fully and openly. Not even Lindimi’s participation in the slaughter of Amadeus’ kin when still served the Heir was warded subject, though it was one to be approached with care.

“Say it,” Malicia ordered.

Ime’s lips thinned.

“You have not spoken to the Black Queen face to face since Akua’s Folly,” she slowly said. “I do not think you truly grasp the woman we’re dealing with anymore.”

“A crown will not change her nature,” the Empress said.

“What happened in Liesse did,” Ime replied. “She reminds me…”

Reluctance again.

“… she reminds me of Nefarious,” the spymistress finished quietly. “After the Wizard of the West broke his power. There’s a sickness in her, Malicia, and it has little kinship with reason.”

It had been many years, since Alaya had last thought of Dread Emperor Nefarious. In a way, that’d been a deeper victory than simply killing the wretched man – she had grown beyond him, the wounds and the fear and the pain. She’d not hidden from remembrance of him, she’d simply let him disappear into utter irrelevance.

“Winter can be predicted,” Malicia said. “Rooted as it is in what she once was.”

“She’s unstable,” Ime flatly said. “And I’m afraid of her. We all should be. She threw a bloody lake at the crusaders, and that was her being diplomatic. If that pretence is discarded, what will we be facing? You speak of armies, but I think of a mountain falling from the sky above Ater. Of Okoro drowned by an ocean unleashed. She’s not the Carrion Lord’s apprentice anymore, Malicia. She’d a vicious, angry thing bearing a fairy court’s worth of power and I deeply mislike the risk of us making her feel cornered. She may yet come out with teeth and claw, damning all else.”

Where was this fear a year ago? Yet the Empress knew the answer. It had not yet come to fruit, because a year ago Wekesa had still been alive and poorly inclined towards the Black Queen. How quickly slight wounds had turned to mortal ones, Malicia thought. Procer was being smothered by the armies of the dead, Ashur strangled by the fleets of the League and the hosts of Levant were embroiled in the mess that had been made of Iserre, headed for doom or crippling. All three nations sworn to end her, bleeding out in broad daylight. And yet Praes was dying as well, by wounds of its own making. The Matrons to the south, High Lady Abreha to the north. Legions she held only by the barest of leashes, one that could only be tugged by causing mutinous sentiment in the aftermath, and with the coming of winter the Imperial granaries would have to be opened lest there be food riots. The grain would run out, eventually. And to the far west, someone had taken Amadeus from her.

She was alone. There was no one else that would – that could – avoid disaster.

Left to scheme on their own, when the granaries ebbed low the High Lords would begin musing war on Callow to acquire its own reserves. The goblins would not end the border of their rebellion at Foramen unless they were made to. And the moment collapse seemed inevitable, some clans of orcs would begin eyeing the weakened lands to the south of the steppes for plunder as they had under the reign of her predecessor. Some would stay loyal, but all that would accomplish was civil war among the Clans. She had to avoid reaching the tipping point, whatever the cost. For if she succeeded? If she asserted true control once more? Then she had won this war, and all the wars that would follow. The Grand Alliance would break. The League of Free Cities would either collapse into squabbling or by trying to keep the Thalassocracy contained. And Callow would have a choice: uneasy alliance with the Tower, or standing alone against a Kingdom of the Dead that had just devoured most the west. It always came down to survival, didn’t it? Outlasting what you could not beat.

“I am,” Malicia said, “the ruler of Praes.”

“So you are,” Ime murmured.

“Let us teach them once more,” Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, “precisely what that means.”

The Empire might be dying, but these lands were no stranger the walking dead.

Somewhere in eastern Iserre, under a full moon, a flicker of flame parted the night. It died quick enough, leaving behind only the cherry-red end of a lit pipe. The young woman holding it breathed in deep of smoke before blowing out a shoddy ring. Pearly white teeth were bared under moonlight, afterwards.

“Let’s try this again, shall we?” Catherine Foundling said.

Behind her, streaming out of an ink-black gate, a sea of raised sigils poured out in utter silence. Obsidian and iron, furs and mail, spears and swords and things stranger still.

For the first time in many years, the Empire Ever Dark was at war with something other than itself.

198 thoughts on “Prologue

  1. And so Book V sounds off. We’re back, folks.
    As this is the first update in forever, there’s also the extra chapter of the month up – Peregrine II, a continuation of last time’s Pilgrim POV. As usual, accessible through the Extra Chapters tab on the right.

    Liked by 23 people

    1. caoimhinh

      Wasn’t Ime’s real name Sabra Niri, with kinship to the High Lord of Okoro?
      Why is it suddenly Lindimi Sahelian, a relative of the ruling line of Wolof?

      It was stated as such in Book 4 chapter 5: Interests.

      {“Sabra Niri,” I said, tone caressing the words, and she shivered. “I was surprised, to learn of your kinship to the High Lord of Okoro.”
      Her name had been learned, not given, and this made difference. It was still a foothold. Fear spread in her mind like a drop of ink in water. Thinned, yes, but contaminating every part of her. I could taste it, even through this thin link of sympathetic sorcery.}

      And there was a foothold, so it can’t be that it was a wrong name. Otherwise, Catherine’s Fae Power wouldn’t have taken her. Ime was even shown later on as being stressed over the matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Skaddix

    Good Start as expected things are going poorly for Cordelia and Malicia. Though unless Cat is about to attack Malicia might be able to weather the storm since she mostly directly has to put down a Goblin Revolt. And heck the Goblin Revolt might even help her a bit since I doubt the Goblins know precisely which cities are loyal to Malicia and which oppose her.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Nah, at most, they are planning to backstab any High Lord they work with for specific mutual advantage against others – they have a lot of hate for the High Lords.

        If the Matriarchs are planning to work with anyone, it’ll most likely be Cat – after all, she may be a Callowan half-Wallerspawn, but she’s Amadeus’s protege, already has the only Goblin Colony outside of the Eyries, actively hates the High Lords, and isn’t going to continue High Lord policies as regards the orcs or goblins.

        Liked by 8 people

    1. Dainpdf

      Cordelia is also getting an unexpected boon, since Cat is bringing a whole empire full of demigods to fight Neshamah. That will probably distract him from destroying her childhood home.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. ______

        She brought them to Iserre, so she’s either extracting Black, or gating whatever army is willing to side with her (hopefully the one from Free Cities) north to fight the undead.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Dainpdf

          Good point. Her last interactions with both the Sve Noc and the dwarves seem to indicate she intends to take the fight to the Kingdom of the Dead, but that’s not that close to Iserre. Maybe she wants to link up with Black’s army (with or without knowing he’s no longer with them)?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Vhostym

            She wants to take the fight to the Kingdom of the Dead eventually, but first she needs assurance from Cordelia that they will leave the Drow alone there and stop their invasion of Callow. So I think the first thing she’ll do is make a display of force. Though actually, she may just be there to pull Black out of Procer like she mentioned she’d do, since I don’t think she knows he’s been captured yet.

            Liked by 1 person

              1. I suspect Sve Noc delegated the entire thing to Catherine. I mean, the entire reason she agreed to come to the surface was that Catherine gave off the impression of knowing what was going on up there, and also incidentally the impression of being overall fairly trustworthy and genuinely invested in her plan of having the drow cork in the Dead King. And not get massacred by the dwarves. Which is the extent of Sve Noc’s own ambitions re: this whole mess.

                So, y’know, that.

                Liked by 2 people

                1. Dainpdf

                  Pretty sure not getting drowned in dwarves was a huge factor, as was finding a place for her people.

                  I just think she’d have some questions about making a stop on the way there to fight some of Cat’s surface enemies when Neshamah is already going to be a terrible opponent.

                  Like

                  1. I mean, it’s not like she doesn’t know Cat’s got her own interest involved.

                    And I see Cat’s soujourn to Iserre as part of her plan to gather forces against the Dead King, which, y’know, is going to help the drow die less in the process.

                    Liked by 2 people

                    1. Insanenoodlyguy

                      And really, “they are enemies right now, we need to bloody them so they want to be friends” is going to make more sense to her than “If we help them I’m sure they’ll change their minds” anyway

                      Like

    1. nick012000

      I think you might be more right than you think. Keter’s Law, right? Warlock ascended to godhood, and that means that he’d release a bunch of waste magic into the environment. We know that the Dead King nuked a city when he ascended, so it makes sense that Warlock would as well.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Vhostym

        He didn’t really ascend, just drew on truly inhuman amounts of power, but I think you’re right that most of the death and destruction was from the Due. Though I am curious how, or if, Masego was excluded from the damage.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. It was a specific condition of the command Warlock gave to the power he’d gathered, I imagine, seeing as how it was the point. “Destroy everything except Masego”. It went haywire from there, but the core objective was kept to.

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Big I

            “A blind boy treading through a dead city, carrying the deaths with him – lash and ladder, into ever deeper darkness.”

            That’s one of Hierarch’s visions from the Book 4 epilogue. I think it’s about Masego and that he somehow harvested the dead from Thalassina, either their souls, the power from their death, or both.

            Liked by 3 people

  3. OK — out of Cordelia and Malicia, I don’t know which is going to head for the headache pills faster upon discovering the full extent of the souvenirs Cat brought back from her trip abroad.

    Amadeus, who I dearly hope is still in the land of the breathing, however… He might bust a rib trying to simply chuckle instead of rolling on the floor in laughter.

    Liked by 16 people

    1. Dainpdf

      Cordelia and Malicia (or at least Ime) are likely to be relieved, at least to a point.

      Cordelia, because Cat is bringing a whole empire of Drow to sucker punch the Dead King. Malicia (or at least Ime), because Cat is no longer a deranged fae, and thus less of a liability.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. luminiousblu

        Malicia has no real way of not knowing Catherine is no longer a fae. We also don’t know what the fuck her new abilities actually entail – she’s clearly somehow bought the loyalty of the Drow, so unless the Night has given her the ability to keep the title of Queen of Winter but none of its power (or unless Akua magically counts as “Duchess of Winter” for the tiny shard she still holds), Catherine clearly has a new ability more than equal to Winter if it’s still holding her entire court in check.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Dainpdf

          Pretty sure Cat has the Drow because she bargained with Sve Noc to lead the Drow to a new home in the Kingdom of the Dead.

          Plus she seems to be some kind of high priestess of Sve Noc (priestess of the priestess? I guess we need a new name for the gals), which gives her influence over the Drow even if her raw power doesn’t make them obey.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. RoflCat

        No, if anything Malicia should start to get worried.

        She wasn’t afraid of Cat because Cat was Winter and thus follows a certain pattern as is Fae nature.

        However, now that Cat is back to ‘gloriously mortal’? Nobody is going to predict her plan so easily anymore, especially not when she’s got a whole new Name, or an equivalent to it, to her.

        Heck, given that Cat’s Goddesses are not exactly a fan of either Above (who shun them, branding them as Evil) or Below (the whole rigged deal), I think there’s a lot of room for beating the crap out of both sides (specifically the Heroes on one side, Dead King on the other)

        Liked by 6 people

        1. Dainpdf

          Pretty sure they’re still at least nominally on the side of Below. And yes, I agree, but it does make her both more amenable to negotiation and much more stab-able.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. caoimhinh

      They will be scared shitless, the only relieve will come from the fact that they won’t face annihilation, but let’s not forget that they hate not being in control (Malicia is so obsessed to the point of her paranoia leading her to take measures to get power without relying on Amadeus, yet it was the thing that caused him to get at odds with her, thus beginning her fall).

      Accepting that Catherine is the one who can help her save her people is going to be a pill hard to swallow for Cordelia, but she will do it, because she actually loves her people and because an alliance with Cat would assure her a position of dominance in Procer.

      And yeah, Amadeus will laugh like a madman proud of his daughter. Or he would probably stare not-smugly at whoever is around in such a way that loops back to being smug.

      Now the thing to wait for is Neshamah and Bard’s reactions.

      Liked by 8 people

    3. luminiousblu

      Cordelia has no particular reason to worry immediately since Catherine’s ire is pointed towards Praes for now which implies that Catherine sees Procer as less of a threat and also less of an enemy than Praes. Since Catherine has, in the past, actually offered alliance, the implication is that Catherine sees common ground with Procer and despite the fact that things may have changed since then, unless Cordelia sends a missive and is turned down with prejudice, the beleaguered First Prince might still hope for a renegotiated non-aggression pact between her state and Callow.

      She won’t lose anything anymore, not when the state is decimated by fighting Neshamah; depending on how much damage there is, she might actually be able to claim a diplomatic triumph if she can pull off a peaceful resolution and/or aid from Catherine.

      So Malicia, really, is more worried, because Malicia has too many problems to deal with already while Cordelia can at least take comfort in the fact that both attacks are not happening at once.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. luminiousblu

        Ah, I misread the last part. Somehow I thought “Empire Ever Dark” referred to Praes not being at war with Callow for forty years.
        In that case, well, if diplomatic attempts fall through I think Cordelia will probably faint.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Skaddix

        Well Cordelia has plenty of reason to worry. Masego’s Parents are dead cause Cordelia and her Grand Alliance/Crusade. So is Masego really going to say sure Cat lets sign a Liesse Accords with them? I seriously doubt it. Also there is nothing that keeps Cordelia especially safe.

        Malicia has her Deal with the Dead King that no one really knows the details off. So even if the Goblins keep pushing, its doubtful they can go all they way to the Tower and even if they do. The matrons seems smart enough to not want to trigger that clause. Same for the High Lords and Ladies, they want for now a Chancellor, not a new Empress or Emperor for the same reason.

        So I say short term Cordelia is in serious trouble. But she is pretty good if she weathers the current crisis. Malicia though is more concerned midterm to longterm. Malicia has basically until the Dead King is dealt with to sure up her position.

        Like

  4. Antoninjohn

    Dread Empress: “Cat can’t attack us she only has one army and she would need two.”. Cat: “It’s nice to have an extra army of all powerful demigods to attack thing with.”

    Liked by 18 people

    1. WuseMajor

      The Empress really tends to underestimate Cat. It’s a persistent failing, and a very dangerous one.

      Admittedly, Bard does too, which is possibly the only thing that might save this situation.

      Liked by 9 people

      1. Vhostym

        The Bard might be underestimating Cat, but we really have no way of knowing. However, considering she orchestrated the creation of Sve Noc and seems to have lots of ways of knowing things, I wouldn’t put planning this out of the realm of possibility. We don’t know what her end game is, and we definitely don’t know what she knows.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. The only estimation of Cat Bard has expressed was what she said to Neshamah.

          Who, er, might be her friend, but is not exactly her ally.

          Bard’s a lying liar who lies. We don’t have enough data to guess what she /really/ thinks of Catherine and her plan. The consequences of her actions so far have been, on a long-term strategic plane, actually somewhat aligned with Cat’s goals: both First Liesse and Second Liesse were horrifying catastrophes (one narrowly averted), but Cat ended up hugely politically profiting from both. And thanks to Bard’s meddling in the Free Cities, didn’t end up saddled with narrative suicide in the form of keeping Akua’s fortress.

          I don’t think it’s an accident, or that Bard is just that incompetent. I think this means that Catherine’s successes fit into her plans quite well.

          It’s, uh.

          Confusing.

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Cap'n Smurfy

            Cat obtained the boon of travelling through Arcadia unimpeeded from the Monarchs of the Far. Since it was Cat who got this and not the Queen of Winter she can probably still do this but by powering the gates with night.

            Liked by 3 people

              1. Agent J

                Winter wasn’t erased, it was merged with Night. Cat just used an ink black gate to bring her drow forces to eastern Iserre. Why are we having this debate when she literally just used a gate in this very chapter?

                Like

        1. You think?
          There’s a bit of a time issue there. The Levantine armies still haven’t caught the Legions, and the region through which they’re chasing each other is much smaller than the distance from Everdark to Iserre, and she would have started later than that merry chase began.

          Admittedly it’s possible that between the Night and the underground passages that dwarves opened to them, they managed to go not through Arcadia. That brings us back around to the same point though: if the dwarves were willing to let the drow through their territory to far south from the war they’re actually supposed to be fighting (against the Dead King), they might as well let the Legions through, too.

          Like

          1. Agent J

            When did the dwarves grant Cat military access through their territories? It wasn’t mentioned in any of the negotiations far as I’m aware.

            Like

    1. Death Knight

      Should be interesting seeing as the Drow has traditionally been aligned with Below.

      Are the Princes and Priests of Procer against the ropes enough to accept Catherine’s aid? She did say she wanted to join the Grand Alliance? Will Hanno and the Pilgrim’s band stand side by side with the Army of Darkness or will they pull a Praesi and sharpen their blades while the Enemy is at the gates?

      Woo this is gonna be good….

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Considering Hanno’s Free Cities adventures with the Tyrant and also with Bard, but also particularly considering his origins – being unwilling to condemn his mother who literally put a curse of Below on government officials – I’m guessing he’s going to stand with Cat fully willingly.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. She, ah, did commit the crime, though.
            She was being marginalized and shunned for no bigger crime then being Praesi, yes, but then she absolutely DID call on Below’s debt to her for a lifetime of worship, killing herself and calling down a curse on Ashuran officials. She DID do that.

            And Hanno was asked if he would renounce her actions, and he said that he wouldn’t, and that’s how his journey /started/. That’s what /led/ to him bing a hero.

            Like

              1. I think you are misremembering.

                “anno knew his family was not wealthy enough that they would have been able to afford a driftwood funeral for Father, that his body would have never been set on a raft for the eastern tide to take back to the faraway home of all Ashurans, but that it would not even be buried in consecrated grounds wounded him. The Gods Above would know their own, and the soul of a good man would be brought at their side, but for profane earth to be the tomb of his own father was a shameful thing. The priests laid blessing upon the whole mine and spoke the names of the lost, but that was as much to allow work to resume as to honour the dead.”

                ^^^ the actual injury was the lack of grave for Hanno’s father.

                “Without Father, his mother would be expelled from Barcalid District and sent into quarantined grounds. ”

                “He asked her, then, if she wanted to go home. She told him his father had been home, and that it was now beyond her reach. The morning after, he found her gone when he rose.”

                It was not lynching that was coming, just being expelled, and she was not focused on that part, Hanno himself was.

                “It was instinct that had him find her but it came too late. The same committee that had left his father to mass grave was attending the districts where pensions were due to widows and widowers, and on that day that had come to Barcalid.

                “Gods of my ancestors, grant me due,” Zoya of Thalassina snarled, throwing the tile at their feet. “Blood for blood, life for life. Let every breath be a torment, every night a terror, every pleasure turn to insipid ash. Let them have no rest or peace until my love lies in the grave he earned. I curse you to this with my last breath.””

                Bolding mine.

                Zoya of Thalassina was pissed at injustice towards her husband, not towards herself.

                She turned to Below to remedy that injustice.

                And Hanno failed to condemn her for that.

                Like

      2. IDKWhoitis

        Considering how Catherine’s plans normally result in everyone losing (including her), I think she might twist Cordelia’s arm (or break it) before she helps her.

        I also believe just the mere fact that Cat will gate out the Legions will screw Cordelia over since she just sent several large army groups to NOT the Dead King Front, and now they are functionally hundreds of miles from being useful.

        If Catherine goes and knocks out Praes before engaging Dead King, she improves her bargaining position. The Grand Alliance can theoretically take another couple of months slugging it out with the Dead King, and Cat or Callow owes them no favors.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. ninegardens

          I mean, sure, BUT, you’re bargaining position can be improved even further by “You see all these armies of yours that are in the wrong place? Give me treaty and a Black Knight, and I will give you transport.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Cat WOULD break Cordelia’s arm gladly, I imagine, in the literal personal sense, but I don’t think she would take it out on Procer. Not after losing Winter and being utterly horrified by the decisions she’d made while holding it. Under influence or not, I predict that Cat’s going to counterbalance her strengthehed ties to Below (being a priestess of an Evil goddess and all that) by a renewed dedication to lowercase good.

          She’ll twist everyone’s arm precisely as much as needed so that people she’s trying to help would, y’know, stop fighting her, and get the accurate idea that accepting help good and fighting drow bad.

          Not any more.

          Like

  5. Huzzah. Cat is back.

    Malicia has badly misjudged Cat. Ime isn’t entirely right (as far as her information goes) but she’s not wrong, either. Backing Cat into a corner generally ends badly for everyone involved, unless they’re either Ascended or well on the path, ie, the Dead King or Sve Noc … Malicia is nowhere near that level on a good day. And Malicia is not having a good day, and isn’t likely to have one that isn’t bad anytime soon.

    Cat is invading Procer … how much does she know about what’s been going on while she’s been underground?
    Also … very interested in what Cat can do these days beyond light her own pipe.

    Liked by 10 people

      1. Cat was never not Cat.

        And it’s not like even a “Fakerine” being backed into a corner by Malicia is somehow an improvement over backing Cat into a corner.
        Remember, as Ime says, Winter Queen Cat dropped a lake on the Proceran Crusaders when she was (a) being “diplomatic” and (b) very carefully trying to limit the damage she did so that a diplomatic resolution would still be viable and (c) trying to work around a dozen Heroes. WQCat doesn’t have those restrictions when she’s dealing with Malicia. And while Cat hates Procerans, it’s not like she is any more fond of Praesi, especially Malicia, especially post-Folly.
        And, the only reason Cat’s megagate was stopped and messed Cat up in the process? Grey Pilgrim pulled a miracle out of his ass. Malicia isn’t going to get a miracle, and if Cat were to pull another megagate, she’d disconnect from it before it could be broken … if it can be broken quickly without a Miracle or Mage-Name.

        Cat recruiting the Drow to enter the surface is actually kind of a mixed blessing for Malicia – sure, it gives Cat an army she didn’t have, but it also means Cat’s less likely to be in a position where she has to go all out and/or pull a Bonfire-type operation against Praes.

        Liked by 7 people

        1. Dainpdf

          Well, Cat admitted she wasn’t herself when hollowed out and filled with the stuff of Winter. Plus Warlock thought so, and he was quite knowledgeable about such things.
          .
          As for the backing into a corner, Malicia started her career facing powerful, deranged villains. I believe that’s mostly what she was counting on – such villains tend to self destruct eventually.

          Of course, she was playing with fire. I agree harrying Fakerine was a dangerous game, and that Cat being back is good news for everyone. It’s just that Malicia’s position was better thought out than you made it out to be.

          Oh, and I’m pretty sure Cat does not hate Procerans. She just hates Procer’s tendency to invade neighbors (more specifically, Callow).

          Liked by 1 person

        2. IDKWhoitis

          To be fair though, All Cat has to do to fuck over Praes is burn the Green Stretch, and retreat to Callow for a defensive war. Malica would be dethroned in a brutal civil war that would eat itself alive.

          This is with or without a mega gate that could or not be blocked or broken through spells and magecraft.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. bad nombre

          My take on this is that the mortal soul and Winter are different substrata. Cat’s soul was imprinted onto Winter as a simulation of a mortal soul. But it was an imperfect simulation so she drifted away from how a mortal would think.

          Whether or not Cat was herself depends on how one feels about simulations. I’m inclined to say that Winter!Cat was still Cat because she hadn’t held her mantle long enough to entirely lose herself. Every day she drifted further into being Winter with some minor affectations and a mortal past.

          I think the Dead King knew how to ascend with a perfect simulation of his original soul within his new mantle… and I think Masego will be able to do that too. His mastery of souls and insight into divinity point to this.

          Like

      2. luminiousblu

        Queen of Winter!Catherine was not “not Catherine”. That’s the excuse she tries to make for herself but everyone tells her she’s full of shit immediately.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Dainpdf

          …everyone? Warlock seemed to think so. And he hated her.

          Also, that’s not what I got from that conversation with Sve Noc. So who are you basing this on?

          Like

          1. Catherine was “fake” in the same way somebody who is drunk or high is “fake”. To put it another way, she was in an altered state, true; but, when they are in a manic or depressive part of their cycle, somebody with bipolar disorder is still themselves, however differently they act.

            That definitely was Cat… with her brain on Winter rather than on Squire. Or on what she’s on now, which is Night (once removed).

            Liked by 4 people

            1. Dainpdf

              That is not what Warlock seemed to indicate on the subject. Or what Cat seemed to indicate on the subject. There was *some* Cat in there, but mostly she was a mold into which wintery goodness was poured as filling.

              Like

              1. Apparently you’ve never been near a drug-induced psychosis. :/ Altered states are tricky and profound things. And, it’s not a lie that “the chemicals made me do it”, but how what was done was done? Still shaped by the underlying personality, however different others think the outcome.

                You’re still you, even with a lesion-riddled, dementing brain that can’t make even three quarters of the connections it used to. Generally not a you people who knew the whole you enjoy being around, and thus won’t consider that you to be still be you, but however much warped and reduced… that crumbling framework is still you.

                Just as you are not the kid you were because you’ve added and lost bits. But, that kid and you? You.

                Liked by 3 people

                1. How different do you have to be from “you” until you aren’t you anymore? Were Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde truly the same person? Physically you’re you, and your personality is going to inform your changed persona, but I think a strong argument could be made both ways, that you’re no longer you and that you are still you.

                  Like

                  1. luminiousblu

                    Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were literally the same person, the entire book repeatedly beats you with the fact over the head. Hyde IS Jekyll, he’s the bad side of Jekyll, the side Jekyll tried and failed to get rid of. Jekyll and Hyde is at least partially about how you can’t just run away from the bad side of you by pretending it doesn’t exist. Just like Catherine was absolutely told that she can’t run away from the things she was capable of, the things she’s still capable of, by blaming it all on Winter.

                    In any case, Warlock didn’t say Catherine wasn’t Catherine, he was quibbling about trivial stuff like whether or not she’s human and arguing about souls. Trying to argue that ‘w-winter was corrupting you h-haha’ is bullshit, it’s like saying that the carefree, fun-loving prince who put on the crown isn’t the prince anymore because now he has to act with the authority and weight of a king. It IS him. He’s changed. We call it growing up in real life.

                    Catherine is the one who chose to put on the Crown of Winter. She’s the one who planned to get the Title from the Duke of Violent Squalls, she’s the one who decided to fuck the consequences and let loose the dam. People have always commented on how Catherine is no longer the girl who chased after Black’s shadow, even less the girl who was sure that she was in the right, no longer someone that her old self would emphasise with. That doesn’t make it ‘not her’. In life, there are choices you make that lead you down roads where you are changed utterly – you could argue that *every* road you could take will do so. Catherine happened to take one where there’s outside influence, but unless you want to argue that Black’s mentoring made her “fake”, and the changes she went through during the war games made her “fake”, and Second Liesse made her “fake”, Winter Sovereign Catherine is fully Catherine.

                    In any case, I’m completely unconvinced that Winter, without the alienation from overuse that got shoved onto Akua eventually at any rate, actually affected her logic. Sve Noc actually calls her out on this, you need decades, centuries for that to actually start melting your mind. Cat’s had it for maybe a year, it’d be a wonder if she had gain so much as an inclination towards blue clothing. Catherine’s responses were generally vicious while she was the Winter Queen. They were also generally reasonable, and the things she’s most horrified about are also things that have near-direct parallels in our own history done by great empires and respected leaders.

                    Liked by 1 person

                  2. Even decomposed and three thousand years forgotten, your physical remains are… what remains of you. 🙂 To cease being you requires a rewrite and reboot of reality by, say, something like a specialist demon that eradicates everything of a thing for a living. Merely a different take on you due to damage or change is still you. However heartbreaking the change to those around you (and even to your own dismay).

                    Simple as. 🙂 Change happens to you as you go along, and it can be fantastic, horrible or both.

                    Like

                2. Dainpdf

                  It’s more like there was an actress playing Cat than that Cat was drugged out. If a doppelganger studies one superficially, then wears one’s skin, is it really the same person? I would say not.

                  Like

                  1. luminiousblu

                    Sve Noc, Akua, and Masego all say to varying degrees that Warlock is full of shit. We’ve been shown that Warlock is neither infallible nor the pinnacle of magic, and considering that Masego has the ability to fuck with souls directly without rituals, Akua used a fae soul as a power source for her flying city and is was merged with Winter, and Sve Noc is a pseudodeific entity with thousands of years of brute-forced knowledge dealing with the collective souls of her entire species, I’d take their opinion over his.

                    Also, “an actress playing Catherine” doesn’t even make sense. What happened to the original one? Do you actually buy the idea that the original one straight up died? Did Sve Noc bring her back to life? Is she just a triple zombie now?

                    Catherine being influenced or controlled was literally something she made up to excuse herself and it’s immediately swatted down by someone who knows way more about how fae mantles work and little reason to lie to her.

                    Liked by 3 people

                    1. I think Sve Noc had a much higher bar for ‘influence’ than Catherine did, not giving a fuck about the little things (like making fae eat their fingers) that left Catherine horrified. That, and the whole ‘human vs drow’ thing.

                      Catherine is /tangibly/ different after she accepts the mantle, and it was getting fairly unsettling.

                      And yeah Catherine did literally die and get remade in the stuff of Winter, during Second Liesse. The question of whether the copy is equivalent to the original is like the existential horror of Star Trek transportalizers excuse me warp pads or whatever they were called. Warlock had one opinion on it, Masego has another, and Masego’s is better founded.

                      Hum, actually Masego had a good reason to consider Wekesa to be full of shit on the matter: remember the little incident during the northern crusade campaign when Saint cut Catherine’s mantle and she went temporarily mortal, to the point of resuming normal bodily functions? It was Catherine’s /non/-existence, rather than her existence, that was the trick played on Creation. Masego knew that.

                      Liked by 3 people

                    2. Dainpdf

                      Masego doesn’t so much refute warlock as deny him. He accepts Warlock’s reasoning and evidence, but denies the conclusion.

                      Sve Noc was arguing over whether Cat is culpable for her double’s actions. Of course, we know in the end she chose not to kill her, which is endorsement that Cat as she is now is not, in fact, very culpable for them.

                      And Akua… is Akua. She’ll say whatever she needs to get ahead. Plus, she’s not exactly known for her restraint and wisdom with regards to the consequences of consorting with otherworldly beings and/or removing one’s soul from one’s body.

                      As for the original, she was, effectively, dead. Now she’s back, as she did once before.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    3. RanVor

                      Although it is undeniable that Cat was influenced by the Mantle of Winter, I find the notion that she’s not responsible for what she did during that time rather insulting. It seems like a cheap cop-out to avoid dealing with issues caused by Cat’s descent towards, for the lack of a better word, villainy. It’s not an honest change of heart, it’s just a reset.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    4. I agree with RanVor on this.

                      “I was drunk” is not a good excuse for hitting someone while driving, because you fucking chose to drink. In fact, drinking and driving is an offense unto itself.

                      Catherine is responsible for everything she did while after Winter’s influence, because killing a Duke of Winter to take his power was /her/ brilliant idea, and every single step she took since then was a fairly informed decision.

                      On that note though, Cat didn’t really fuck that much shit up while under Winter’s influence. She took oaths and kept Vivienne close for a reason – she was a very careful drunk driver XD

                      The influence was there, but because Catherine was aware of that fact – even though she couldn’t /feel/ all of it – she kept it at bay.

                      She was like a drunk driver who refuses to go over 10 kmph because she knows she’s drunk and would rather slow to a crawl than hit someone.

                      Catherine is fully responsible for everything she did while under Winter’s influence.

                      That doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference between her actions and mindset with or without it.

                      Malicia’s about to learn that Winter!Cat was not the scariest Cat can be 😀

                      Liked by 1 person

                    5. luminiousblu

                      Making people eat their fingers? Look, to begin with, the fae aren’t exactly human. It’s debatable whether or not they can’t just regrow said fingers and are too terrified of Catherine to do it, since it’s meant to send a message.

                      “Tangibly” different? Howso? Because it looks to me like any other story of the weight of the crown and somesuch. Nothing she does is actually unreasonable, except the idiotic way she refused to learn to use her mantle correctly, and that seemed more like a “and man grew proud” thing, or a reflection of how Catherine knows less than nothing about magic.

                      “existential horror of Star Trek”
                      It’s just the Ship question and it’s hardly existential horror. Though philosophy has a lot to say on the matter, what’s agreed upon is the fact that it doesn’t actually matter, it’s mostly an academic point. At what point does the ship become a new ship, well, at what point does the captain actually care, you know? Catherine was clearly in control. You can argue that all of her fae tricks made her more than human but on a mental level she wasn’t somehow being puppeted by Winter. She’s the one who decided to take on Winter and then decided to break the dam, WQ Catherine was as much a “fake” Catherine as Angry Catherine or Horny Catherine are fake.

                      Like

                    6. We know Fae can’t regrow body parts because of the precedent of Larat’s eye. He wouldn’t be that pissed at Ranger if he could simply regrow it.

                      It’s hard to tell the specific examples of Winter influencing Catherine, but IMHO, the entire tone of the story changed in Book 4. Sure, some of that was maturity / weight of the throne, but note how differently she feels once Winter is gone. I’d compare it to depression, to a degree: making things matter /less/, blunting her passion, cooling her fire in every respect except the most dangerous ones.

                      Her /empathy/ is gone or blunted, the most immediate reason people care about things. Catherine is an empathetic person, counterbalancing the cold reason at the heart of her: she simply feels bad at seeing others suffer, even if she can shut it down. It’s a different thing than caring about someone personally, it’s the immediate feeling when something is /right in front of you/.

                      As a fae, Catherine kept her /morals/ – the more abstract reasoning of what is right and wrong, and she kept her /attachments/. Empathy though, the thing she used to figure out what her morals were in the first place? She needed fucking Indrani of all people to tell her that she was crossing lines, and Indrani punches empathy in the face every time she meets it.

                      Catherine reacts less to the world around her, in Book 4. There’s a lot more calculation and a lot less emotion to her POV, compared to early Book 3 before she got Winter (which I believe started tangibly influencing her immediately).

                      She still manages to grow and develop, even through Winter. That’s what makes this confusing: Catherine in the last six chapters of Book 4 is not the same Catherine as in the first chapters of Book 3. She’s not the same Catherine as in the immediately preceding chapters either, though.

                      Like

    1. Amoonymous

      Well, Cat’s whole deal with the dwarves (for the dwarves to allow all the drow to leave) was that they’d be going to fight the only real threat to the dwarves – the Dead King.

      She is still invading Procer technically – and first reactions to her host should be rather amusing – but she’s almost certainly going to offer to help Cordelia.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Death Knight

        Hey, it’s not like the Principate can bitch about a veritable army of demigods showing up on their doorstep unannounced. After all, this is just an “expeditionary” force.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Face to face, not through a meat puppet or a scrying link, Malicia and Catherine hadn’t seen each other since Catherine was in Ater at the beginning of Book 2.

          Sure, their conversation during Akua’s Folly, which Ime refers to, was specifically through a scrying link and not a meat puppet, but I’m not sure what kind of feedback a scrying link has that a meat puppet doesn’t. It should be the other way round if anything.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. Dainpdf

    Ooh. Seems promising. Though I wonder whether Cat intends to stay on the campaign in the west instead of returning home to help her beleaguered adjutant and conscience.

    Also, I wonder how she’ll react when news of what happened to Masego on his family trip. At the very least, Indrani will want to go keep the man company.
    …of couse, that assumes Masego is actually making his way to Callow as opposed to a beeline for Cat.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Well, Callow didn’t get set on fire in her absence, so they can’t be /that/ beleaguered! They can handle it! It’s not like there are interpersonal issues that Catherine blithely ignored between them or any fun news waiting for her about their resolution or anything…

      I have no idea where this is going.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Antoninjohn

    A corpse that is not a corpse in a lake, I think the Bard mentioned that angel in a talk with The Lone Swordsman. I wonder how much night Cat will get when she kills it.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Death Knight

          I think it might be a sleeping deity, only brought to the field when Procer is in dire straits. Or it could be a legendary Named Wizard, the same Wizard that once fought with Triumphant that resulted in the Titan’s Pond being formed.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. nick012000

          I’m pretty sure it is. Look at her thoughts. “Let me be damned, then.” “Fire against fire.” Now consider that Procer was playing pretty heavily into the villain role during the invasion of Callow, and I’m pretty sure that Below is angling to get her a Villain Name, most likely that of her distant ancestor who fought against Neshamah prior to his ascension – the Witch Queen.

          Like

    1. ______

      That corpse was in the lake Hengest, the one Liesse was built by. The corpse in the lake Iserre may also be an angel, but that would be repetitive. My money is on something remaining from the Old Iserre, the city that was sunk into the lake by the dwarves.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Shaerick 68

    “The first messengers she’d sent on foot, and once they came within a hundred yards of him their heads had simply caved in.”

    Oh, how I’ve missed this. Welcome back, EE!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. oliverwashere

    Typo thread:
    so be sent-> to be sent
    Cordelia fingers -> Cordelia’s fingers stuff or rebellion->stuff of rebellion
    given her spymistress to speak-> given her spymistress leave to speak
    She’d a vicious -> She’s a vicious

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Anon

    I like the opening, but as one of the people who was not at all a fan of what ended up happening with Catherine and the Drow at the end of the previous book, I really think that long-term it’s gonna depend on what Catherine ends up becoming – having her ‘revert’ to being a priestess/follower indebted to a god directly would be a massive setback, imo.

    But I suppose we’ll wait and see.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. caoimhinh

      Catherine should mention her in chapter one, I really don’t think she won’t at least say what Indrani is doing or whether she is alive or dead.

      I really, really hope Indrani is alright.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. ______

      Grem is heading out of there, actually, and the Levantines may have already passed it in their pursuit. If I had to guess, she couldn’t scry from underground and was heading for Black, and is going to gate north the highest bidder.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Right, so the Legions under Grem and the Levantines are moving away from Iserre. Catherine brought a fully armed Drow army with her. A little bit of an overkill just to pick up Amadeus I think. She might be there for something else.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. byzantine279

          I think she’s there to pick up Black, his remaining legion, and make a ridiculous public announcement about the drow in front of as many witnesses as physically possible.

          Liked by 3 people

            1. “Uuuuugh. I take my eyes off him for five minutes and this is what happens. Fine, dear teacher, take care of your own stupid business while I’m busy saving your people from your sideways backfire of a plan. Ta-ta, try to be alive next time we meet”

              Liked by 1 person

  11. Skaddix

    I wonder if this leads credence to my theory that Warlock and his Husband made Masego with magic and that Masego is actually half Devil or Demon Cause Masego is moving in a weird way, at unnatural rates and seems to be passively rekting any human that gets close.

    Like

    1. luminiousblu

      “Hierophant” is the equivalent of “Archmage” for Clerics in D&D (“Warlock”, in case you’re wondering, refers to a type of spellcaster who makes pacts with demons). Trying to scry an archmage without his knowledge or against his will is a poor idea at the best of times.
      Also, moving in a weird way sort of implied to me that he was either flying or teleporting.
      “But teleporting is impossible!”
      Well, Hierophants are known for their miracles…

      Liked by 2 people

        1. luminiousblu

          Really I wonder how “teleporting” works in this setting.
          In D&D, teleporting technically takes you through the Astral Plane across an arbitrary distance, but that’s because the Astral Plane is the place you go when you’re nowhere else, it’s the representation of the “place between places”. That said, going through Arcadia is, well, it’s suspiciously similar. More like ethereal travel but I wouldn’t really be surprised if Masego realised the inherent similarities.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s been mentioned that teleporting is impossible, as is generating matter out of nowhere, but since both of them can be emulated in 1000 ways the distinction is largely academic.

            Like

            1. Oh, and Masego sure did make wooden pillars appear out of nowhere when pulling his binding trick, Catherine actually commented on how utterly terrifying it was that he could do that suddenly.

              It’s equally possible he’s /actually/ teleporting here and not using some kind of extradismensional shortcut…

              Like

  12. NerfGlastigUaine

    Just finished first week back to college, tired as all hell. Saw this chapter and all my fatigue washed away, replaced with pure, octane-fueled hype. Thank you so much for being back.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Someguy

    >How quickly slight wounds had turned to mortal ones, Malicia thought.

    Gee. Really Malicia? I’m sure the Allied powers thought the same regarding Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles right when Germany shoved a spiked gauntlet (WW2) up their ass.

    Liked by 6 people

  14. Ali Khan

    So warlock sacrificed himself and an entire city of over a hundred thousand souls for his sons survival. It’s confirmed that hierophant can affect the souls of his targets even through scrying. Didn’t dread emperor revenant also sacrifice that many souls for apotheosis? It looks like masego has gotten quite a power up.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. byzantine279

      Masego witnessed the power of Above and Below. Only a sliver of each, but as someone whose power is to usurp miracles… Well, he’s probably almost as strong as WinterCat was. Stronger even, since he knows what to do with it. I suspect he may have let that one mage last long enough to deliver a message.

      Liked by 6 people

    2. luminiousblu

      Warlock doesn’t seem to have “sacrificed” the people who were killed, at least in the magical sense, just included them in the blast radius because he couldn’t really give a damn.
      You know I find it dubious how Akua is largely hated for killing a hundred thousand in Liesse, but Warlock is given a pass despite doing essentially the same thing. It really does matter whose side you’re shown.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. byzantine279

        The reasoning behind it matters a little too. Akua did it because she needed an army. Warlock did it because he had more power than he could control and considered literally everyone except Masego acceptable losses. Including his husband. So it was a cold & calculated decision for power vs a last act to save his son.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Akua’s slaughter was a calm and calculated plan carried out over a large amount of time.

        Wekesa’s last act was an act of desperation and self-sacrifice, as well as sacrifice of one of two people he loved most in the world for the sake of the other.

        One was an atrocity, the other a tragedy.

        That said, Wekesa was also 100% a horrible person, and loving him and crying about him doesn’t stop me from knowing that.
        And Akua being a mass-murderer doesn’t stop me from loving her and wishing her all the best.

        So, y’know, nuances.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. luminiousblu

          I dunno man, I would rather know that my murder at least was a step on the path towards greatness than know that it was literally just an accident haha sorry bro. Maybe that’s just me though but like, if I have to die anyway I’d like it to at least have been useful.

          Liked by 1 person

    3. Ravenfrost

      blind boy treading through a dead city, carrying the deaths with him – lash and ladder, into ever deeper darkness.

      I think Masego took the 100k souls with him and that’s the reason for his power up and soul manipulation.

      Liked by 3 people

  15. byzantine279

    So any bets on how the Warden of the West (Is that a Name now? That sentence looks like she’s taken a Name.) is going to react to Cat appearing out of nowhere with an army of ridiculously powerful drow, declaring war on the Dead King, and probably asking for a truce until the world stops burning? …Because I think she may have an aneurysm and die. Because this is ridiculous even by Cat’s standards. …Then again having seen it happen I suppose that makes sense. I have no idea how she pulled this off even having witnessed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haihappen

      A Name is a Role. Warden of the West sounds like a Role, but is more of a formal title for the First Prince, which, as repeatedly reinforced, will never be a Name for the reasons that Procerians believe more in the might of many than in the might of One.
      These titles simply do not have the cultural groove to become Names.

      But getting a Name without realizing that it is happening is reinforced by both Vivienne and the *SPOILER for the current Extra Chapter Peregrine II*.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think with the degree of disaster currently happening in Procer, Warden of the West might have gone from a ceremonial title to a very real thing in the minds of people, putting it on track to being a Name.

        The phrasing in the chapter certainly suggests that.

        Liked by 2 people

  16. Malicia thinks that a legion blockade will prevent the exchange between the goblins and Callow? Catherine can open portals and she knows this–Ime knows this. I can understand them failing to consider the Drows but this? There is no excuse for the two of them to miss this. They’re supposed to be smart.

    Liked by 4 people

  17. Aotrs Commander

    Well, nice to see that, for a change, everyone else is getting as much crap as Cat has been.

    Though at this rate, the entire continent is likely to be entirely depopulated to the point of collapse whatever happens…

    I can’t help but feel Praes has been dealt a mortal blow with the permenant loss of it’s major port – even if it survives the current crisis, that catastrophy seems like it will spell long-term disaster for the nation that was already dancing on the edge of a starvation cycle. And, of course, desperate people with a penchant for insane sorcery equals what could be a rather nasty final lashing out before the end,

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Daemion

    This is my understanding:

    Night and Winter got merged into one and are now either. This provided the necessary power for Sve Noc to ascend to godhood.
    Cat is no longer a fae noble but a mortal human again. As compensation she’s now the (high) priestess of Sve Noc, which gives her nearly full access to their power (what do we call that? Winternight? Nightwinter? Ninter? Wight?^^). Technically she should be able to use it as the Mighty do, which means she hasn’t become any weaker and luckily she learned all their skills while she was down there. The primary advantages are that her mind is her own again, usage of more power won’t turn her into a cliché villain and she’s no longer affected by wards.

    That is a major upgrade, even factoring in that her human body is limping again. It’s a bit unclear what role Akua plays now. She’s a soul bound to Cat’s cloak, but has since been empowered by Winter and by Night. She’s not alive again… I think. But… what is she now?

    Imagine the fun and chaos when someone prepares to take on the Queen of Winter and instead the Black Queen arrives, wrapped in Night and followed by an army of Sigils. This is going to be so epic.

    Now she simply has to rescue Black, pick up the marauding legions, secure the goblins and then kick everyone’s ass to bring peace to the continent. Should be a piece of cake. 😉

    Re-uniting the Woe is next on the agenda. Perhaps Hakram would enjoy a Hand of Night to go with his Deadhand? Perhaps Masego would enjoy being hugged by Cat and Indrani? Perhaps Thief would enjoy giving up all the responsibility of a regent to Cat?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haihappen

      Pretty sure Vivienne is transitioning to a Name Adivor, Regent, Heiress or something in that general direction. The hints where there: How she started changing again (or never stopped), and how she lead a spy network instead of thieving about; and for some time was the direct advisor to the Queen.
      She is positioned as a successor to the title, and probably Name. Basically all is missing is the Black Queen’s seal. Hakram may even stay with her, but there I am unsure. Perhaps if Cathrine ordered him to stay as an Adjutant to Queen Vivienne.
      Then the new Murder-Squad would be Cathrine, Masego, Indrani, Akua, Hakram/X (because the Five Man Band is a thing)
      X -> Black, Ivar, … no more names that seem plausible.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, Thief will transition to a hero ruler name. Physical chages has already manifested and she is becoming more regal in appearance. Cat will hand over the queenship to her and objections to Callow joining the grand alliance will all but disappear since Callow will now be ruled by hero. Cat will remain as the neccesary evil of the nation to deal with the ugly things they are faced with.

        Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply to Al Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s