Chapter 25: Dead Ends

“And so the First Under the Night came across a portal where great danger might lurk, and upon witnessing it halted and sought the council of Sve Noc. ‘O Night,’ said the First, ‘what wisdom do you offer?’ And so the Young Night answered thus: ‘Try a foot first.'”
– Extract from the ‘Parables of the Lost and Found’, disputed Firstborn religious text

Shit, I thought to myself, this is going too well.

“- the Alliance army has effectively withdrawn, and is making camp for the night,” the officer continued. “They have recalled everything but scouts, as far as our own can see.”

I’d told Vivienne what I wanted out of the manoeuvres, namely forcing the western coalition to give me just enough room that I could gate my armies away from this mess. It was starting to look like I’d be getting exactly that, which was highly suspicious. Reports had begun to come into the pavilion over the afternoon, everything going according to plan. First the opposition drew back, then General Bagram threatened their supply lines further north and they outright retreated. Had any of the crusader commander taken the Fourth Army’s distant presence as an immediate threat and charged? No. Had the drow been ambushed by some unforeseen sun-based sorcery kept in store just for this day? No. Had some hero assassinated half the general staff of one of my divisions? No. This was going off without a hitch, which meant it wasn’t and the Gods were about to dump a sackful of angry badgers on my plans.

“Your Majesty?”

“It’s always badgers, you know,” I complained. “It never goes a little badly, its’s always ‘oh no, there’s goblinfire burning the city’ or ‘oh no, the Praesi summoned a bunch of devils again’ or even ‘oh no, half the continent thinks a crusade would be just the thing’. Would it really be too much to ask for a mishap instead of a catastrophe once in a while? Like, ‘oh no, we’re out of the good wine, but that’s fine we’ve got this pretty decent bottle instead we’ll just drink that’.”

There was a long moment of silence in the pavilion.

“So, double watch and not single,” Marshal Juniper said, sounding vaguely embarrassed of me.

“Don’t you give me that, Hellhound,” I grunted. “You know I’m right. Matter of fact-”

I went looking through my cloak before realizing I was not, in fact, carrying anything that could remotely be used as coin. Arguably the main drow currency was murder – although, given how much obsidian they always seemed to carry around maybe in practice it was that – and it wasn’t like anyone had handed me a purse full of golden aurelii since I’d come back to the surface.

“Hakram,” I said, extending arm with my palm up.

I didn’t even bother to look, nor him to argue. Two heartbeats later I was slapping coins against the table, more specifically –

“- silver?” I said, turning to glare at Adjutant. “You cheapskate. That’s old Marchford coinage, too, it’s basically worth nothing nowadays.”

“Thought we’d get rid of it while in Procer,” the orc shamelessly admitted.

“Ugh,” I said. “Fine then. Juniper, I’m betting these eight silvers that when you send a rider out on the field they’ll run into a scout on the way back with urgent news.”

“To clarify, they’re silvers only in the nominal sense,” Adjutant helpfully added. “Their actual worth is closer to-”

“You believe we’re about to be ambushed,” Marshal Grem interrupted in a rasp.

The old orc was an interesting sight, I’d admit. The cloth covering the missing eye his epithet promised was nothing out of the ordinary, simple black linen with the First Legion’s symbol embroidered in gold. It was the Marshal himself I found interesting: neither as tall as Hakram nor as broad as Nauk had been, the sight of his frame in Legion armour brought to mind an old tree – all dry and corded, but likely to be nasty if pushed. He was, it would not do to forget, more than just one of the finest military officers in the Empire: he was also an old man who’d been born before the Clans were bound so tightly to the reformed Legions of Terror. Back in the days where the orc clans had preferred raiding each other and on occasion the Praesi to taking the Tower’s gold and serving in the ranks. For his clan to have been as prominent as it’d reputedly been, he must have seen some brutal fighting. And that was before he joined up with Black, through a civil war and the Conquest, I thought. There was a dangerous man, behind that red-brown eye. Simply because my teacher’s latest scheme had backfired on the Legions did not mean the orc was helpless.

“I believe this has proceeded perfectly when we know for a fact there’s heroes nearby,” I replied. “One way or another, this is about to get ugly.”

“Battle?” he asked, tone calm.

There was no doubt in his eyes, like what I had said was a statement of fact. I almost shivered at the sight of it, the old general waiting to dissect my instincts like an augur would a bird. How many times had Black stood in my place, lending his paranoia’s edge to a finer commander’s plans?

“Not tonight,” I said. “We’re too close to sundown. But they’ll spring a surprise on us, you can count on that.”

“Then it might be best to issue the recall for the Fourth Army early,” Marshal Grem said. “And allow the ‘Firstborn’ to handle the defences as our divisions withdraw through Arcadia.”

I flicked a glance at Juniper, who after a beat nodded.

“Do it,” I said. “Adjutant-”

“I sent one of mine to have a look,” Hakram gravelled. “We’ll know soon.”

I didn’t quite manage to set aside the nagging feeling that we were about to get screwed, but we still managed to get some business done in the stretch that followed. We needed to hash out supply arrangements for Marshal Grem’s legions beyond this particular Iserran mess, and I had no intention of forever feeding the legionaries unless they proved of some use to me – either garrisoning the Blessed Isle or participating in the war against the Dead King. If they wanted to wait out the war until Black died or returned, it would not be through the grace of Callowan granaries. One-Eye hinted pretty bluntly – still, it was something of a novelty to see an orc hint at all – that private talks between he and I should be held on the subject, and I was wondering whether to push for either Hakram or Vivienne or both to be in the room instead when a legionary stumbled back into the pavilion. He saluted at me first, so he was one of mine and not the Legions, but his eyes flicked at Adjutant after. One of Hakram’s helping hand, then.

“Report,” I ordered.

“Your Majesty,” the legionary replied, saluting once more. “While the enemy’s forces have not redeployed, they have sent a party out in the plains towards us.”

My fingers clenched.

“How many?” Juniper asked. “Horse or foot?”

“Two or four,” I said, tone calm.

The legionary’s eyes widened.

“Two, Your Majesty,” he agreed.

“And they’ll be raising a tent, the smug pricks,” I said.

Something like fear passed in the soldier’s eyes.

“It is so, Your Majesty,” he said.

“Black Queen?” Marshal Grem rasped, tone inquisitive.

“One is the Grey Pilgrim,” I said. “I’m guessing the other’s the Saint of Swords, though he might have traded in for younger muscle. Well, fuck.”

The last word I said feelingly, as it looked like all my preparations had gone up in smoke.

“They raised a tent, soldier?” Adjutant said. “You are certain?”

“Yes sir,” the legionary nodded. “One of those Proceran pavilions, the ones they use to receive people.”

“We’re not gating anywhere, looks like,” I cursed. “Let’s find out why at least. Adjutant, have a space cleared for an attempt. With contingencies.”

My second nodded, and after a few nods of respect spread around left to see my will done.

“An explanation would be appreciated,” Juniper growled. “For those of us who aren’t Named.”

“The Pilgrim is under the impression we’ll be talking soon,” I said. “Considering I’m very much planning on getting the Hells out of here by Arcadia if it’s possible, that means he knows something we don’t about why that’s not possible. It’s his whole thing, Juniper, being wise and and all-knowing. In practice I’d guess he’s got some ties to a Choir, maybe some limited foresight. Not that he’d be a fool without, mind you, but he’s certainly got an edge. Either way, by putting up that tent he’s making a point.”

“Posturing,” Vivienne said. “That is to say, preparing for negotiations.”

“How kind of our friend Tariq to be willing to talk,” I said, tone gone sardonic. “Why, he might even be willing to consider peace as a personal favour to us. Entirely unrelated to the fact that he’s currently losing, no doubt. It will be our privilege, nay, our blessing to be allowed to make a truce with the side of the Heavens.”

“Manifold thanks to the Gods Above,” Vivienne agreed without missing a beat. “Who have ever protected and preserved us, praise be. We may have to raise a new cathedral in Laure as an expression of our gratitude.”

“I take it,” Marshal Grem said, “that you are less than fond of this hero.”

“Well, he’s only tried to kill me twice so far,” I mused. “So I guess that still puts him somewhere between Saint and Malicia, relationship-wise.”

“Wait, what’s the left extremity of that line?” Vivienne frowned. “It can’t be the Saint, we’ve barely fought her.”

“I think it’s still William,” I mused. “He tried to kill me every single time we met, I’m pretty sure. I mean, so did a few others but mostly ’cause they didn’t get to meet me twice.”

“That feels underwhelming,” she said. “He couldn’t even ruin a city without Contrition holding his hand, second rate at best. Really, they shouldn’t even make the list if they haven’t tried to murder you through use of an astral sphere.”

“Eh, I think Pilgrim’s star-thing is more like a metaphor,” I said. “That’d only leave High Noon Delight and Queen The-Sky-Is-A-Reasonable-Weapon from Summer. Two’s not a list. Besides, if we’re opening the floor to metaphors then Willy’s murder-sword thing kind of looked like moonlight.”

“Didn’t the Page have a similar trick?” Vivienne asked. “You mentioned it a while back.”

“Oh man, I’d almost forgotten about her,” I admitted with a hum. “When I think about Three Hills it’s always Nauk popping the Exiled Prince in the throat that comes to mind.”

Bambambam. Marshal Juniper smashed her sheathed sword against the table one last time, for emphasis, and then cleared her throat with a growl.

“Orders, Your Majesty,” she said.

“At the moment?” I said. “Everyone is to remain in a defensive posture, as they’ve already been ordered to. We won’t know more until I’ve tried a gate, which Hakram is securing grounds for me to do as we speak.”

I drummed my fingers against the table.

“I’d recommend for the two of you to prepare a plan of action for the eventuality of being forced to march out of Iserre,” I said. “Or being forced to give battle here, either against the current army or the entire Grand Alliance field force.”

“You don’t intend to participate?” Marshal Grem asked.

“The skeleton I’ll leave to the two of you,” I shrugged. “I need to see some birds about something, and if that doesn’t work I’ll have to beat Larat until answers come out. Might take a while, it’s mostly lies and arrogance in there.”

“Understood,” One-Eye said, apparently unruffled.

Merciless Gods, what kind of insanity had my father put this one through that he wouldn’t even blink at that? I shot him an assessing look, but let it go for now.

“You coming?” I asked Vivienne.

“The birds,” she said. “From underground?”

“Those are the ones,” I agreed. “They’re perfectly safe.”

Vivienne’s brow rose.

“Probably safe,” I corrected.

The brow stayed up.

“To me,” I specified.

“I shall stay and provide a political perspective to these unfolding campaign plans,” Vivienne Dartwick serenely said.

“You do that,” I snorted, then glanced at the Marshals. “Until later, then.”

A dip of the head for me, salutes for them, and on my way I went.

It was still the better part of an hour before dusk when the Sisters came to me.

I could have tried the gate before then, of course, and very nearly did – though it would tire me to make the attempt, it was nothing that second wind coming with nightfall wouldn’t carry me through. Still, I was… wary. I’d not forgotten what Robber had told me, the tale of gates into Arcadia opening into the Hells instead or simply wildly out of course. Adjutant had done well in arranging for me a wide courtyard now surrounded by basic wards, but if devils started pouring out those wouldn’t be enough. I might be, even on my own, but best to exercise a little patience if it lowered the risks. The crow-shaped slivers of godhood sliced into the glare of the sun like knives, their unnaturally graceful flight taking them in twin spirals until they claimed my shoulders in unison. Perfect unison, I’d realized. Not even the fraction of a moment in delay. That kind of precision was unsettling, as no doubt they’d meant it to be.

“I have a problem,” I said, leaning on my staff.

“A servant of the Pale Gods,” crow-Komena said with relish. “Finally.”

“See, I don’t believe it’s actually him that’s the trouble here,” I said. “Well, not this particular trouble anyway. He’s definitely some other sorts.”

“You believe the ways into Arcadia to have been wounded,” crow-Andronike said. “Amusing, that you’d believe what frustrated some errant Splendid would be a threat to us.”

“Now that,” I said, “is the kind of talk that ends up with gods in boxes. Or cut up for parts. Or, you know, made to scamper away in disgrace by a hero. You’ve been down there for a long time, O Goddesses of Night. Here be monsters, and some of them were born to make sport of those like you.”

I could feel their roiling anger, not that it cowed me in the slightest. My very purpose in their service was to pull them back when they were about to make a mistake like this. Twirling the ebony staff lightly, I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth.

“So, let’s try this again,” I said. “I have a problem. Some hero with friends upstairs believes I won’t be able to gate out of here. In your opinion, how dangerous would it be to try opening one right now?”

“The taste of the boundary has not changed,” Komena said. “You worry for nothing.”

“It would not, if the change were coming from without,” Andronike noted.

My brow rose.

“So, if there’s a mess it’s more likely to be coming from Arcadia?” I asked.

“A more precise explanation would be well beyond your understanding,” Komena said.

It was surprising, I mused, how quickly one got used to being condescended to by a bird. I lowered my staff, tip touching nothing at all.

“So, a quick look is in order,” I said.

Night flooded my veins, abrupt and eager to answer my call. The gate ripped through Creation easily, to my surprise – and that of the Sisters, I felt. I’d felt this before, in Marchford. When Akua’s demon had weakened the fabric of Creation enough that it was made easier for the Winter Court to raid through. It’d not been like that when I gated earlier, I thought.

“This is unusual,” Andronike said.

I felt it too, even as the ink-black gate opened before me. Eyes, unfathomably large, gazing at me. The surface of the gate was like liquid obsidian, though without a single ripple, and I hesitated. I held back, leaning on my staff.

“Thoughts?” I said.

“Try a foot first,” Komena drolly suggested.

“Oh, we think we’re funny now do we?” I muttered. “Mark my words, that one’s going into the holy book.”

Godly advice, my ass, I thought. Still, wasn’t like there was another choice was it? I breathed out and stepped through. The rippling sensation was replaced by howling winds as my feet stumbled over Arcadia’s grounds. Blinded and deafened by what must have been half a hurricane, I called on the Night and let Andronike’s steady hand guide my will: a bubble of stillness bloomed around us, sudden and absolute. Breathing out, I put my cloak in order and finally took a good look around me. This was Arcadia, I was certain of it. The… sensation was the same. Which made what I was looking at all the more worrisome.

“That is not the work of fae,” Komena croaked.

“No,” I murmured, “I don’t think so either.”

Before us spread out a wasteland to make the heart of Praes flinch. Choking black dust billowing in a great storms as streaks of lightning erupted wherever they wished, striking at the ground with thundering claps. The noise of it all was deafening, even inside the bubble of stillness. I could see fractures of glowing red snaking across the ground, and liquid fire bubbling out when currents unseen made the heat rise in great geysers. The sky above us was an endless shifting tapestry of darkened clouds, with malevolent pale lights lurking behind them. This had been Arcadia, I thought, before someone broke it beyond repair.

“No,” Andronike said, disagreeing with my thought. “To the very point it can tolerate breaking, and not a step more.”

In the distance I could see the great storms strengthening, until what looked like the eye of the madness: a great hidden shape, the dark winds whirling around it masking the true appearance of what lay there.

“This was done on purpose,” I murmured. “And you felt it too, didn’t you? How easy it was to open the gate here.”

The Sisters did not speak the approval, though a hint of pressure against my thoughts served as acknowledgement. It was almost secondary, now, that I wouldn’t be able to evacuate my armies through Arcadia – as if I’d not lose every damned soldier, trying to march them through here. I suspected now that if I tried to open a gate leading to anywhere I’d still end up here, as if all the paths now led to this place. In a sense, I thought, they probably were. Something, or someone, had damaged this chunk of Arcadia to pry it loose from the rest. And now, if I was not mistaken, this wretched placed was slowly dropping down into Creation.

“We are seen,” Komena suddenly hissed.

Behind me, the still-open gate shuddered. Well, shit. I wouldn’t be using that one to leave anyway, but it looked like we’d drawn the attention of something I’d rather not be in the eyes of.

“What is it that’s here,” I urgently pressed. “Before going back we have-”

The gate broke. The inky power it was made of shattered, and the shards started slinking through the dusty ground – towards that hidden shape in the distance, I judged.

“Tell me,” I hissed at Sve Noc. “Is it the Dead King, or-”

An eardrum-breaking shriek tore through this nightmare of a realm, then four grinding cacophonies in interweaving succession. Almost like rusty metal being pulled apart, but the truth of it was much worse: in that storm-cloud covered sky, burning red circles formed. Out of them winged creatures poured, swarms and swarms of them, weaving in and out of the horrid winds. Hellgates. Temporary and unstable, but hellgates nonetheless.

“- or Hierophant,” I finished, shivering. “Fuck.”

“We need to leave,” Andronike said. “The gate, First Under the Night.”

“There’s something happening,” I said. “Look, under the hellgates.”

Some glittering array of runes formed in a circle, at twice the height of a man, though looking upon them cut at my eyes in an almost physical way. I thought I glimpsed something ghostly at the centre of the runes, but it was there for only a moment – and then the massive detonation that followed blew me off my feet, ripping right through the miracle. I landed in a sprawl of dust, cawing crows stumbling with me, and didn’t ignore the Sisters twice. The gate ripped open in front of me, though to my horror something fought me for control of it. A will pitched against my own, though that was no person’s. It felt more like one of the fae, though one of royal title at least. The goddesses slid their will along mine, and that bought us just long enough to drop through the bloody fairy gate. I dropped on the ground maybe three feet to the left of where I’d entered the other gate, covered in dust and lightly smoking.

“Well,” I murmured, looking up at the setting sun. “That’s going to be a problem.”

135 thoughts on “Chapter 25: Dead Ends

      1. Definitely Masego.

        Arcadia was broken ‘to the very point it can tolerate breaking and not a step more’. Indicating someone with Masego’s obsession with precision.

        The giant flying shadow and hellgates indicating Liesse, which we know is in Masego’s hands.

        Many references to eyes and being seen which is Hierophants whole thing.

        His current power level and the inhumanity of his will is likely due to witnessing his fathers momentarily usurping the mantle of a god. The miracle would have been a massive power boost but almost certainly caused alienation.

        Liked by 7 people

          1. stevenneiman

            I don’t think so. Not because I don’t think that Kairos would drop a match onto this particular fireworks shop, but because I don’t think he ever had the opportunity. His game is being unpredictable, not predicting the unpredictable, and in order to have had a reasonable chance to mess with Masego he would have had to see the fate of Thassalina coming. After that, the only way he’d have to mess with Masego would be magic, and we saw what happened to Praesi mages who tried to use magic on him.

            Liked by 1 person

              1. P

                Counterpoint. Kairos is the Joker. His plans aren’t really plans so much as making sure just though dynamite ends up in a mine too make sure it collapses. If we were arguing about whether he wanted the city to fall AND take the next with it, I’d be all for blaming him. But this is a result of multiple prickly personalities fighting each other, with the event that caused either their prickliness or their running against each other being at least 2 steps down _any_ plan. This is the choir taking the threads left by Kairos and trying to work around what they think might be his final goal, out, at the very least, using his chaos to deal with other ‘threats’.

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                1. Dainpdf

                  I don’t understand.

                  But my point was just that Kairos might have had something to do with Masego’s piece of Arcadia being here, now. Just that.

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              2. Even so, Kairos is simply not in that league of sorcery, and neither is anyone he’s known to have access to, He doesn’t have a chance to mess with Masego magically, and IIRC the two haven’t interacted at all, which makes story-fu unlikely.

                With the death of his fathers, Masego is almost certainly the most powerful human mage on the continent, and we’ve seen him slaughter people with diabolic magic just for trying to eavesdrop on him, much less trying to manipulate him. Also, he is, if not autistic, at least something similar — and a lot of the usual tactics for manipulating people will utterly fail against autistics. In particular, Kairos’ chaotic demeanor will only annoy Masego.

                And what’s happening in Arcadia is certainly Masego — manipulating natural law is his specialty, and he just took possession of the most powerful portal generator in history. As an aside, I’d kind of like to see him throw some portals directly from the Hells to Heaven(s). Let the angels and demons fight directly, on their own territory!

                As far as that fae-noble-like force challenging the exit gate, I suspect Cat may soon be getting a delegation from the Autumn and/or Spring courts, asking for help.

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        1. Dainsleif

          Not to mention a will more fae than person, noble. Much like the Sun masego saw that made him Hierophant. It isnt even a fucking question at this point.

          Its him, and it scares me.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. stevenneiman

      This doesn’t seem like the Dead King’s aesthetic or the Tyrant’s ability. The Dead King primarily focuses on undead and generally seems to prefer minimum effort to maximum effect, and messing with an entire plane doesn’t really fit that, and it seems to me like straining it exactly to the breaking point and no further is too much restraint for the Tyrant, if he even could pull this off. That leaves either Masego, or a new power. A new power almost by definition means too little information to speculate well, but Masego would fit perfectly. He just gained an unspecified but large amount of power, and I could see him setting parameters in Arcadia to the most extreme levels that would allow for sustained observation to see how it reacts.
      And he knows Cat would be upset if he did it in Creation.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Cicero

        The Dead King definitely has significant experience with Hellgates.

        It’s probably Masgo, but I don’t think we can rule out the Dead King. After all, he would be the type to make contingency plans, and Arcadia might be a plausible staging ground for him considering his interest in Cat, who to his knowledge is still a fae noble.

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        1. By the same token, he already has his own plane of Hell, and he already got slapped down by the Gods for trying to conquer more of the Hells. I suspect that attacking Arcadia would get similar retaliation, given that he didn’t even take over the echo area around Keter.

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    1. caoimhinh

      Yep, something like “I’m not gonna doubt her instincts, the last time I doubted Amadeus on this kind of matters we had to use a freaking Dragon to get out of that mess.” Or something along those lines.

      Liked by 15 people

      1. Another point just occurred to me: Masego hasn’t encountered Night yet, though he might have learned something of it from scrying. He may not have recognized that the new entry to his realm was in fact Cat.

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    1. stevenneiman

      I don’t think it was confirmation. Just her agreeing that it was a possibility. Still my working theory considering that stretching Arcadia just barely short of breaking sounds like a science experiment of the sort Masego would do. And that it involved hellgates, which Liesse was designed to produce.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. IDKWhoitis

      90% sure it’s Masego, as opening that many hell gates without the artifact would take too much energy. And Cordelia wouldn’t do hell gates, that would be heretical.

      Liked by 18 people

      1. Tom

        Yeah it looks like he’s trying to pull one (or both?? not sure if the Warlock ends up in a hell after death) of his daddies out of the hells, judging by the shimmering thing that almost appeared.

        From his perspective he’s probably annoyed at Cat for portaling in and out while he’s trying to work because the portals probably mess with the metaphysics of what he’s trying to do. Metaphorically she’s a cat (ha) clambering on his keyboard and staring at the cursor on the screen while he’s programming.

        Plus he was so thoughtful that he went to Arcadia to open the hellgates rather than opening them in Callow! Really he’s come so far in his courtesies with people, but Cat’s just as dense as ever…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m not sure I buy that he’s trying to retrieve his fathers. Remember the emphasis on “he did not flinch”… he did care about them, but he also knows death happens, and he is Praesi. Revenge I could buy, but the question is, against who? Given the nature of his Name and his prior comments, my guess would be that he wants to strike back against the Gods Above. Maybe he can, maybe he can’t; Cat recently learned the fallacy of “I’m the baddest thing I’ve met so far”. Or maybe he’s preparing for the next such confrontation.

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            1. Remember that whole discussion about “is Cat really Cat anymore?” This is the flip side.

              If Cat is still Cat, after having her entire body replaced with magical Winter-stuff, and then again replaced with flesh (the Winter having been eaten by Sve Noc), well the only thing left to be “Cat”, is her personality and memories (the “software”).

              But that implies that Tikoloshe, stripped of its memories, personality, and (in its case) the constraining magic that shaped it, is perforce not Tikoloshe anymore.

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  1. IDKWhoitis

    So Masego is shattering Arcadia?

    Also, I think Grem is now another believer of Cat is the incarnation of what Black and Ranger’s daughter would be like.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. SpeckofStardust

      No I think the Fae broke this part of arcadia off to have all the gates made to arcadia (from the hells or the mortal realm) to ah defend themselves from whatever the heck is happening.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. Interesting possibility, but I see a couple of counter-indications: (1) It felt “the same” from both inside and out, even to the crows. (2) Remember there’s some correspondence between Arcadia and Creation — and her last gate to this battlefield came from an Arcadian fortress, probably one of the Autumn/Spring courts.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Agent J

        She’s half Deoraithe, so not the Ranger’s get. Since Black is still alive, it can be assumed he didn’t cheat on the bloody fucking Ranger either, so she’s not Black’s biological kid.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. RandomFan

          Ranger could be in an open relationship with Black rather than a closed one- but it’s highly unlikely that Black would take a partner who isn’t both a named and someone he trusts implicitly. Captain wouldn’t cheat on her husband, and if Malicia had a kid we’d all know. That leaves Scribe, but- I doubt that, too.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Yeah Black’s demisexual too, Ranger is the only person he’s ever been emotionally close enough to to feel sexual attraction to. Except maybe Malicia, but she’s not Deoraithe and that’s not their dynamic besides.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. caoimhinh

      I think it would be Rozala, since her presence would be needed if negotiation between the armies is going to happen.
      I wonder where Pilgrim left Amadeus, or if Amadeus is still their prisoner (although it’s unlikely he escaped so easily, but anything can happen).

      Liked by 5 people

  2. SpeckofStardust

    Well.
    So hell (1 or many) is basically invading Arcadia due to either the dead king or Masego. Ripping tears in existence while looking for something. weakening the walls in all things, and the fae are being royally fucked with here. Well I think that getting the 7 crowns + 1 might be needed to stop something truly unpleasant from happening.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I’ve missed the bantering. Good to see some of it again.

    Yeah … that’s a problem. Cat is still an expert at understatement.

    The longer that the plan appears to be going perfectly, you know that the bigger the problem is going to be.

    Liked by 15 people

    1. I personally found it out of place. You’d expect levity out of Archer in these kinds of situations but not from Catherine. She doesn’t do that in serious meetings unless she’s doing it here on purpose.

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      1. byzantine279

        Watch what else she is doing: She’s observing Grem. That whole conversation was seeing how he would react to it, since she hasn’t had a chance to get his measure.

        Liked by 12 people

          1. Decius

            Grem knows exactly what Cat is doing, and is doing exactly the same thing back, so that they can get over the early unease and lack of complete instinctive trust as quickly as possible.

            Liked by 2 people

        1. It’s also a semi-public show of confidence in and comfort with Juniper and Viv.
          Who Cat had just had a sort of dispute with after they did something that looked more than a little like a (bad) attempt at a coup.

          Liked by 5 people

      2. Catherine is nervous and tense and Indrani is not there to crack jokes for her, so she does it herself. It did seem a little exaggerated, likely for Grem’s benefit, yeah. But the basic logic is solid: when you can’t do anything more useful, might as well joke.

        Liked by 5 people

    1. KageLupus

      The Pilgrim still has plenty of power versus Cat, whether or not she has a Name. We have already seen that he can use his Behold aspect on mortals which means he still has that intrinsic understanding of people and their feelings.

      The only thing that changes with Cat not having a Name is that she maybe isn’t as susceptible to Story shenanigans like the Rule of Three or Dying for Her Redemption. And even that I am not really sold on since she is running around with another capital title. How different First Under Night is compared to a standard Name is for the likes of Masego to figure out.

      If nothing else, Pilgrim is a servant of Above and Cat is currently playing captain for a Below team. If he doesn’t have a Narrative lever to use against Cat he still has a Choir of cheating angels at his back.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. naturalnuke

    Okay so, a piece of Arcadia broken off, a fae title, unstable hellgates.

    Masego grew up on an isolated piece of Arcadia, dissected fae nobles before, and has stolen the ‘broken’ super weapon that makes hellgates.

    Hierophant lost his moral compass with both Archer and Cat gone.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hierophant didn’t really have a moral compass. However, there were four the people in Creation who could tell him No and make it stick. Two of them are now dead (modulo demonic values of “dead”), while two were not present for his breakdown.

      Liked by 4 people

        1. Skaddix

          Callow seems like a stretch. Maybe he blames Viv she is running an intelligence org but that is similar to Malicia missing a large number of mages and clerics going missing. Now Cordelia and the Crusade though.

          Like

          1. ChillyPepper

            Considering that the action is taken against the armies of callow, unless it wasn’t directed and instead was a side effect. It could be a “Woe on you and I” thing as well.

            Like

            1. Cicero

              Almost certainly a side effect.

              Perhaps even an intended benign action. “I need to borrow Arcadia for a while, better put up some fences so Cat’s toys don’t wander in and get squashed. She’d be irritated at me.”

              Like

  5. Burdi

    Maybe its the consequences for breaking the story
    Arcadia is dimension based on story about summer and winter
    they stuck in story since the beginning, thats their breath of life
    And when the story broken, so their existence along with their home

    if its true, then cat needed to became one of the title once more to weave new story for them

    Like

  6. caoimhinh

    That epigraph had me laughed loudly for a minute. I really like those fragments of the future, seems like Cat really fulfilled her promise.

    When I read the “Eyes, unfathomably large, gazing at me” part, I considered the possibility of it being the Gods Below, but they don’t intervene in such a direct manner. So, the list of suspects would be: Dead King, Masego, the ghost of Wekesa, the mysterious corpse that First Prince ordered to drag out of that lake, or an entirely new and not previously introduced entity.
    Since the last three are unlikely, I was originally inclined towards it being the Dead King, but considering the changes of the Observatory and the use of High Arcana while trying to get something from Hell makes me believe it was Hierophant’s doing.

    Also, I’d say his current attempt failed given the explosion.
    Is he trying to recover Tikoloshe? Is he so out of his mind that he didn’t recognize Cat? Maybe he did but she didn’t understand his subtle hints of breaking the gate and making the fragments slither to his direction?

    The meeting with Pilgrim will be interesting undoubtedly, now another reason was added, since he might provide more information about this situation thanks to Angel’s whispers.

    Typos found:
    -wise and and all-knowing / delete one ‘and’
    -if the change were coming from without / if the change was coming from within
    -condescended to by a bird / condescended by a bird
    -this wretched placed / this wretched place

    Liked by 4 people

    1. caoimhinh

      That’s also a possibility to consider.
      He was opening gates to Hell while using High Arcana (which then I guess failed and thus the explosion) so my guess would be that he’s trying to recover Tikoloshe.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I’m pretty sure Warlock is with the Gods Below.

      It occurs to me that in the entire epic, we have seen or heard about exactly one ghost-like spirit, that being Akua. And that spirit remained only because she had made prior arrangements to separate her soul from her body. (Which backfired when the soul was captured by her enemy.)

      I think the Gods of this world are conscientious about collecting loose spirits.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Agent J

        It would make sense. The whole debate about how to allow for growth without being usurped debate puts this in an interesting context. What is a ghost, but another immortal? And, having been born mortal, would likely be as free to learn and grow as mortals do rather than the static immortals.

        Can’t have that.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Sanctus Obscurum

    Lo, opened she the uncertain gate,
    Way to safety sweet, or fell and damned doom.
    And to the most sacred crows,
    In whose feather’d forms Sve Noc sat
    ‘Pon her shoulders draped in Woe,
    Did the First Under the Night inquire
    As to what wisdom, what thoughts
    They could give on how might she find
    The truth of that which lay beyond her gate.
    And to her was given most sage advice:
    “Try a foot first” spake the Night
    In crow’s feathers cloaked.

    Liked by 18 people

    1. caoimhinh

      “And that, kids, is the reason why we Firstborn always put one foot first and wait for a few heartbeats before completely crossing any boundary, be it a door of wood, gate of stone or portal of magic. For thus is the Wisdom bestowed by the Night.”
      – An old Drow educating Drow children.

      Liked by 14 people

    2. Several centuries later, Ethnographers from the Royal Callowan College collected this traditional folk song:

      One day the Black Queen went riding-O
      With a hey-derry-down a-down-e-o
      Until she came to a Portal-O
      Say hey-derry-down a-down-e-o

      “Oh, what shall I do with this Portal-O”
      With a hey-derry-down a-down-e-o
      “That stands so dark and forbidding-O”
      Say hey-derry-down a-down-e-o

      With her came riding Sve Noc-O
      With a hey-derry-down a-down-e-o
      Full of Night and black as coal-O
      Say hey-derry-down a-down-e-o

      Up spoke Young Night to the Black Queen-O
      With a hey-derry-down a-down-e-o
      “Stick a foot into the Portal-O”
      Say hey-derry-down a-down-e-o

      Liked by 2 people

  8. JJR

    The fact that she keeps thinking of Black as her father is kind of worrying me. That he wasn’t secretly her father was one of the first things they got out of the way. And the way it just started happening so suddenly a couple chapters ago. I think the Bard is to blame, somehow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That he wasn’t *biologically* her father was one of the first things they got out of the way.

      It’s not sudden, either. Both of them made references to it as early as Book 3, and Cat kept thinking of him that way throughout Book 4. It’s just that it’s ramped up in Book 5.

      Liked by 10 people

    2. Honestly the very first reference to him as a potential father figure for her (not biologically) was in Book 1 Chapter Fall, when she came out to the balcony to scream after Akua’s fuckery and he joined her there. She specifically comments on how he DID NOT act like she imagined a father might, went on a whole paragraph long description of how it wasn’t like that between them and would never be. You know, just randomly out of nowhere decided to deny this specific idea, as one does XD

      This has been building up for a while. The dam broke is all it is.

      Liked by 4 people

  9. broadaxe

    My guess is that’s really masego, but i’m also guessing he is turning arcadia into his own little “miracle machine” like he is magically terraforming the place to serve a purpose, he did after all, just recently witness an actual summoning of a god, so as Hirophant his inspiration should be at its highest :3

    Liked by 5 people

    1. caoimhinh

      Well, Cat said that force of will surpassed that of a human, and compared it to the will of Fae Royalty, but we already know that Masego’s will is way beyond that of ordinary mortals, leaving aside the fact that High Arcana requires great power and fortitude of mind, Masego has faced Fae Royalty, multiple Demons at the same time (even hold a piece of Corruption inside him without any apparent trouble), and even made a piece of the Gods Above shut up. His Name of Hierophant makes him grow more powerful as he witnesses more things, and things of great power; he has just come back from witnessing the descent of a sliver of Divinity and the temporal Apotheosis of Wekesa, so it would make sense that Masego’s will and power have taken a huge boost.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. SMHF

    So this whole debacle with the Gates and Scrying isn’t part of some grand plan… just side effects of somebody trying to napalm Creation with a chunk of Arcadia… That does sound like something Hierophant try after losing both his parents. Though where he’s gonna drop this dumpster fire is the real question!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Hastien

      I’m pretty certain Heirophant is out for blood, he’s here for whatever Cordelia is pulling out of the lake. Between cheating it’s way out of a binding and killing his fathers the entity at Thassalina represents pretty much everything he hates.

      He’s not interested in Procer and he certainly isn’t helping the army of Callow.

      My theory is that he realized permanently binding something like that would require more power than he could bring to bear. He was bringing a Name to a god fight. So he decided to take a leaf out of Cat’s book and murder his way into a fae title. But between being able to take Liesse into Arcadia thanks to Creation being weakened by the three demons, having four demons stored in his pocket realm and such an intimate knowledge of the fae from spending so much time with Cat he was able to kill his way right to the top.

      As a Fae King in his seat of power he would have oomph to dictate the terms of reality and get around the entity’s I win hax. Now he just has bring his seat of power to a creational anchor for the entity to successfully bind it

      Liked by 1 person

      1. konstantinvoncarstein

        It would the most awesome moment in the entire story!😃 But it is not likely, and would make him an even bigger target than Neshamah.

        Furthermore, the entity at Thalassinia was a God. As in “creator of the universe”. And I doubt that what Cordelia will try to unleash is in the same league.

        Like

      2. Also, his father may have taught him not to depend on aspects for casting, but even so, much of his power comes from his Name. If he goes Fae, he risks losing that. And for that matter, the Fae and Arcadia are just a separate creation from what the protagonists think of as “Creation”. They were also created by the Gods (who would later be Above and Below), and there’s no real reason to think they rival their creators.

        Like

        1. Hastien

          Cat remained Squire while a lesser titled Fae, interference isn’t a given. And between the nature of his name and his possibly unrivaled experience, Heirophant should be able to get the most use out of the power with the fewest drawbacks.

          I think it was stated that the Fae would be powerful enough to be dangerous to the Gods if they weren’t so tightly bound to their stories. I believe it was Masego who said souls in Creation have the freedom to be a threat but the lack of power or lifespan to accumulate more.

          We don’t really have hard limits on the power level of the Fae. They’ve nearly always been fought in a weakened state from being in Creation, but we can assume their royalty is nearly unassailable in their strongholds. Ranger had to wait for the Summer Queen to be exhausted and far from home and she still only managed a superficial wound.

          And you’re probably right, in an even slugging match the Gods above would probably win out. But with the Hierophant’s will shaping Arcadia into a cage meant to hold a God… It’s not a zero percent chance of success.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Since everyone involved is not an idiot and has met her before, the test was presumably specifically for her identity, and not any metaphysical properties she might have acquired or lost in the meanwhile.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Also, imagine what this scene looked like for Cat’s people observing: She walks through the gate… then the gate shatters. When a new gate appears, Cat and the crows fall out of it, “covered in dust and lightly smoking”. She won’t have much trouble convincing people there’s a problem!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Cap'n Smurfy

    Okay so this chapter is ominous and all, but can we talk about the fact that Catherine does get to write her Drow Religious text in the future: ‘Parables of the Lost and Found’, disputed Firstborn religious text.
    How much of it do you think is just insults and lies about Mighty Ruamena?

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Sylwoos

    So Masego is causing a mess in Arcadia and the fae royalty is trying to force Cat to address the situation by redirecting gate to him and trying to prevent her from leaving.

    Liked by 5 people

  14. Raved Thrad

    “Hellgates. Temporary and unstable, but hellgates nonetheless.”

    For anyone else who’s read the Merlin novels of The Chronicles of Amber, does this sound suspiciously like a Guideverse version of Ghostweel?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Raved Thrad

        Remember that Ghostwheel was like a Trump-generating machine, that could open gateways into multiple shadows at once to find things. In this case, the multiple temporary hellgates looks like someone’s combing through the Hells looking for something or someone.

        Like

        1. There’s a very different scale of “multiple” here. For Ghostwheel, the virtual Trumps were innumerable, and iirc were actually the substrate supporting its mind as well as its mapping abilities. In this world, the amazing thing is being able to open more than one portal at once, and there’s nothing virtual about them — they are full hellgates with creatures coming through them.

          Like

  15. Walrus

    Is it just me, or does anyone else want to see Cat straight up murder Grey Pilgrim during the talks? He did break hostage bond, so his life is forfeit, even under truce…

    Like

  16. fbt

    loved the return of the snark 🙂 although cat missed a chance to say something nice to her generals, that I think would be more consistent w/ her current self (i.e. i have 2 of calernia’s finest, go handle that sh*t). Overall, fun as always.

    Liked by 1 person

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