Miraculous

“Courage is what’s left when the rest is gone.”
– Albrecht Papenheim, the Lone Sentinel

Captain Fredda squared her shoulders as she strode up the stairs leading to the summit of the Westenhaupt, her cloak tightly clasped at the neck over her grandfather’s mail. She was glad for the way the cloth over her lower face hid her mouth, lest the soldiers she had been placed in command of see her biting at her lip. Though the responsibilities of command were fresh to her, and she young for them, they were not the source of her worries. She could handle leading a company, on the wall or off it. No, it was the ringing bells that were summoning her to the top of the ramparts that had her uneasy. Her soldiers should have been given six hours of rest in the depths of the Westenhaupt, where no dead could get to them and not even the constant pounding of the Enemy’s mages could keep them wake, yet they’d only had four before being called back to the rampart. Father, who had been a well-known captain back home for all that he’d insisted he was a terrible innkeeper when she’d been a child, had always told her that you could tell a siege was going bad when they sent tired soldiers back into the fray. Her father who might be dead, for there were rumours going around about Hocheben Heights… No, she could not let fear win. It might be, Fredda told herself, that was seeing ratlings instead of hares. But it also might be that her father had been right, instead, and that the Morgentor was on the eve of falling.

Morgentor – Morning’s Gate, the last fortress barring the way out of Twilight’s Pass. The last fortress the armies of the north still held in the face of the Enemy, for inch by inch they had lost the grounds. We’ll hold, Fredda chided herself. The Morgentor hasn’t fallen since the founding of Procer. Had her mother not been a scribe, the fair-haired captain might not have known that the last time the fortress had fallen was the last time the Hidden Horror had invaded the north. As it was, the fond learning of her childhood was the dread of her later years.

“Blades out,” Fredda howled, glancing back at the soldiers following her. “They don’t ring the bells to make it lively.”

“Where else are we supposed to earn a tune, captain?” one of her soldiers yelled back.

“Certainly not your singing, Hannah, or the Dead King would run back to Keter in fright,” Fredda called out, and the lot of them hit the rampart to the sound of hard laughter.

The dead had forced a foothold, damn them all and Keter twice. A wyrm’s great fangs had sunk into the crenellation and the gargantuan dead serpent’s open maw was now spewing out an endless stream of enemy soldiers. Westenhaupt, the westernmost of the Three Peaks, was held by the soldiers of Neustria with reinforcements from those hard Hannoven bastards when the going got rough. There was no lack of soldiers, but Princess Mathilda Greensteel was fighting the dead in Hainaut so the Neustrians had few of the old blood to rally around. It didn’t help, that the finest soldiers and officers had gone south. But they’d earn the fucking keep, and if the Morgentor was to fall it would not be through their peak.

“Shield wall,” Captain Fredda screamed, raising her own.

Her company fell around her and they advanced briskly into the melee, smashing into the side of the dead. The fair-haired captain hacked down with her axe, tearing through dead flesh and smashing old bones, and as she howled her soldiers howled with her. Inch by inch they forced back the dead, until the melee was so tightly packed there was no room for the enemy trying to climb out.

“Where are the godsdamned burners?” Captain Fredda screamed. “Get that fucking wyrm off my wall.”

Before everyone here dies, she didn’t say. Were they out of pitch, she wondered for a horrible moment? It couldn’t be, how else were they to get ride of abominations like the wyrms? But then screams of Papenheim, Papenheim, and yet we stand sounded and flames spread across the dead serpent’s flesh. If custom hold, it would retreat now – the Enemy only had so many of those undead moving siege towers, and could not afford to lose them.

Instead, the head of the soldier to Fredda’s side disappeared into red mist. Fuck, the flaxen-haired captain thought.

“Chosen,” she yelled. “Torch the stretch.”

It’d kill her and half her company, but if one of the enemy’s undead heroes was allowed to linger up here they were all done for. She’s seen one shred near two hundred Hannoven heavies three nights back before it was thrown down the wall. The Enemy’s champion was a half-naked man, a mass of hard muscle wearing little but trousers and scarring, and even though she raised her shied her smashed through it effortlessly and grabbed her by the throat.

Audace,” someone screamed in Chantant, and the lance caught the Chosen in the throat.

Falling to the floor, Fredda wondered if she was dreaming. There wasn’t a man or woman in the army who didn’t know who Prince Frederic Goethal was – the sole southerner prince to bring his army to fight for the Pass – but the fluttering hundreds of horsemen in red and blue silk couldn’t possibly be here, could they? They held the Ostenhaupt, the tower on the other side of the Three Peaks. The dead Chosen vaulted up, even with his neck torn through, and after punching right through the head of the horseman who’d ridden him down he was run through by another three lances in quick succession, pushing him further back. Until the last had him dangling over the edge of the ramparts, and a ridiculously ostentatious man with long curls held by ribbons laughed out loud.

“Enjoy the drop, yes?” Prince Frederic Goethal said, and with his sword hacked through the lance holding up the Damned.

Captain Fredda had risen to her feet, by then and gotten her shield wall back in order. The wyrm’s fangs left stone soon enough, and it slithered back down the four hundred feet it had extended to serve as a siege tower. With the Westenhaupt secured and no other captain coming forward to do so in her place, Fredda ambled forward to speak with the Prince of Brus herself. He was still atop his mount, though someone appeared to have handed him a fine glass of brandy since she’d last looked.

“Your Grace,” she greeted him, and the respect was not feigned.

How could it be, when the Kingfisher Prince and his army had bled for every fortress from Volsaga to Morgentor? This would be remembered. There were Alamans, in the end, and there were Alamans. The man might look a fool, in silk and ribbons, but he was a fool who’d ridden down a sheer cliff to slay an undead dragon. Even the bitterest of Hannoven exiles had to approve of that.

“Captain Fredda, yes?” the Prince of Brus smiled.

The fair-haired captain was glad the cloth still hid her face, for if she’d been caught blushing by any of her soldiers she’d have heard about it until Last Dusk.

“Aye,” she gruffly said. “I thank you for your help, it was a close thing.”

“It was you Neustrians who sortied at Graueletter to pull us out of that mess with the beorns,” the Prince of Brus replied. “An even scale requires no thanks, captain. This was due.”

None of this is due, she almost said. You could be safe south, but instead you’re here dying with the rest of us. But she’d been raised better than to insult sacrifice when it was so gallantly given, and so she kept her mouth shut.

“Then I look forward to returning the favour,” she simply said.

The prince smiled ruefully.

“I expect you’ll get the occasion before long,” he said. “The Enemy seems rather impatient of late.”

Fredda almost didn’t ask, for it was overstepping, but when else would she get such an occasion?

“Your Grace,” she hesitantly said. “I have heard that the Hocheben Heights have fallen. Is it true?”

The Alamans gazed at her steadily.

“Why do you ask?” he said.

“My father held command at Emil’s Displeasure,” she admitted. “And I know that letters are no longer carried, but it has been weeks since I’ve heard from him.”

Something like grief passed through the Prince of Brus’ eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he quietly said. “They held until dawn and got word to Tauenberg in time.”

Fredda’s throat choked. Then Father was…

“Thank you,” she croaked out.

Her fists clenched. The Morgentor would hold, damn them all and Keter twice. Her father had died for it, and if that was what it took she fucking would too.

Otto Redcrown, Prince of Bremen by virtue of having been spared by death longer than the rest of his kin, stared down at ink on parchment and saw writ there the death of his people. It might take, he thought, a year. Two, perhaps, if the Enemy spent months thoroughly razing the lowlands of Bremen and Neustria rather than forcing the Rhenian Gates. Yet the moment the fortress around him fell, and Twilight’s Pass with it, the last doom of the Lycaonese had come. They’d lost Hocheben Heights, last month, and the Dead King had since begun to march hordes through the plateau. The fortress at Tauenberg would slow them down a few weeks, he thought, for but after that the dead would have no wall or host hindering their advance into the heartlands of the principality his father and sisters had entrusted to his unworthy hands. Within the month they would be at the gates of the city of Bremen itself, which was in no state to withstand a siege: it was packed with children and the elderly, all those that could or would not fight. Already the roads south had been cleared and all were being sent further south into Neustria, but once the dead had their foothold in Bremen they would begin raiding the refugee caravans and the noose would begin to tighten. The Dead King had moved too swiftly for them, Otto Reitzenberg thought, his armies little quicker on the march than those of the living but ceaseless and tireless in that advance.

Now only a single fortress of Twilight’s Pass remained in the hands of his people: the ancient Morning’s Gate, the last holdfast standing against the march of doom. And if it fell… Oh, Otto understood the stratagem of the Hidden Horror well. It was writ plain in the lay of the map: the last armies of the Lycaonese would be driven from the Morgentor and find in their retreat that the Dead King’s armies were already waiting to the south of them. Supplies would end, the wagon-chains of grain and steel, and even should force of arms fail to end his armies hunger and winter cold would slay his soldiers by the score until none were left. The war was lost, though he could not admit it to the captains looking to him for orders. He must now see to preserving as much of his people as he could, sending them further south into Alamans lands so that a generation from now the war could be taken back to the Dead King and their ancestral holdings reclaimed. Neustria too would fall, of that there could be no question, but further south where the borders of Brus and Lyonis ran close it might be that Lake Pavin and the marshlands of northern Brus could serve as a new line of defence. They were Alamans holdings, as well, and would have many kin to call to their aid when the dead arrived. It might be enough for a time, ff anything could ever be enough when facing the Hidden Horror.

The sharp rap of a knuckle against wood was the sole warning Otto received before his sworn swords let in the man he’d asked for. Prince Frederic Goethal of Brus was still impeccable dressed and groomed even after two weeks of gruelling fighting on the walls and the plains, his ostentatious blond ringlets kept with ribbons made from cloth he’d taken from banners of the Dead King. The Kingfishers, as the prince’s retinue of horsemen had been fondly named by their Lycaonese comrades, had taken to taking the Hidden Horror’s banners at every opportunity so they might have a courtly game of the most insulting use one could make of it.

“Reitzenberg,” the other prince cheerfully greeted him. “Back staring at the maps, I see. Good, I’ve been itching for us to try a sortie.”

“That is what I would ask you to consider, in a manner of speaking,” Otto acknowledged.

The blond man seemed pleased.

“If you’d lend me some of the Hannoven riders, I do believe we could catch their camp near the mountain rivers unaware,” Prince Frederic said. “The waters are already poisoned, I daresay, but we’ll have better luck there than trying the Abomination’s frontlines. Last watch insists they brought in fresh Damned and another pair of wyrms.”

The Chosen dead and raised in the service of the Enemy had been leading the waves trying the walls for days now, though smashing through the ladders before they finished climbing was enough to keep most of them at bay. The wyrms were darker news, for the great serpents the Hidden Horror had crafted from corpses were worse than simple monsters: they were as undead siege towers, their insides made ladders so that the dead could climb up through them after the wyrms sunk their fangs into stone deep enough nothing could move them. Pitch fires were enough to set them to retreat, sometimes, but supplies were running low and more wyrms meant further thinning of them. They might have even less time than he’d hoped before the walls fell.

“I would have you ride in another direction,” the Prince of Bremen said. “Now, before it is too late. Take forty thousand with you, and all our horse. Delay the enemy near Tauenberg, if you can, but you must take everyone you can south.”

“Otto,” the other prince said.

“It is ill-done of me to ask after the sacrifices you have made,” the Prince of Bremen admitted, “but if you could let them into Brus, all who can will fight in its defence. If oaths must be made to you in place of the old crowns, then they will be. I have seen to it.”

Otto,” Prince Frederic sharply said.

“I’ll hold as long as I can,” he promised. “And send word to the Rhenians to march everything they can through the Gates to slow the Enemy’s march south. A month, at least, I can promise. Beyond that-”

“If you speak another word of this foolishness, Gods forgive me but we may have to duel,” Frederic Goethal flatly said.

“We’re going to die, Frederic,” Otto Redcrown quietly said. “There’s too many of them and even the Morgentor cannot hold forever. Thrice in two days did we come within a hair’s breadth of losing one of the Three Peaks, and the moment we do our annihilation has begin. Go while you still can and take the seed of my people with you, so that one day the Lycaonese may return north.”

“Of course we’re going to die, Otto,” the other man replied, tone gentle. “This is no surprise to me. My cousin Henriette has already been confirmed as my successor and I’ve tasked her with preparing our lands. What remains of the Goethal army will advance north into the marshlands to raise forts and escort your people to safety.”

“It won’t be enough,” the Prince of Bremen said. “You are held in respect, Frederic, in a manner that will not extend to your cousin. A prince needs to lead the last of us.”

“Then go,” Prince Frederic languidly shrugged. “You, too, have been crowned.”

“I am the last of the House of Reitzenberg,” Otto Redcrown said, in a tone that brooked no argument. “So long as one of us breathes, dawn will hold.”

Of that matter there was nothing more to say, for Twilight’s Pass would be his grave as it had been that of greater men.

“I do not begrudge you that pride, my friend,” Frederic Goethal said. “Do not begrudge me the same.”

It was not the same, Otto thought. It was not the same, but he did not know the right words to speak and he would fail in this has he had been failing since the moment Elsa had pressed her bloody crown into his hand and breathed her last. Yet before he could say anything more, the door was roughly banged against.

“Your Graces! The enemy stirs!”

The two princes traded a glance, and wordless agreed to set aside the matter for now. If there was to be another assault on the walls there were more pressing concerns to attend to. Neither of them left their arms or armour save when they slept, these days, though attendants brought helmets to them as well as reports as they both made for the ramparts. The Morgentor had first been raised in the days of the Iron Kings, after the third time Hannoven fell and a ratling warband swelled into horde swarmed down Twilight’s Pass looking for yet more to devour. The Rhenian Gates had held, as they always did, so with the way north into Rhenia barred the ratlings had ended up heading south towards Bremen like a tide of vermin. The battle for the lower mouth of Twilight’s Pass was great victory, but a costly one. When one of the Krauff – who had ruled over Bremen, in those days, predecessors to the Reitzenberg – was elected Iron King in the years that followed, he ordered the raising of the Morgentor to ensure when the Chain of Hunger next broke through there would be walls awaiting them. In the centuries that’d followed, every great against the Dead and the Plague had seen it built into a greater holdfast. There was no greater fortress in the north, it was said, save for the cities of Hannoven and Rhenia themselves. That was no idle boast, Otto know, for otherwise he would not have been able to hold at bay the more five hundred thousand dead the Hidden Horror sent against the walls day and night.

The Three Peaks had begun as the two great towers leaning against the sides of the pass, the third one originally raised as a simple bastion before centuries of additions turned it into a massive mountain of granite masonry. The walls between the three towers rose higher and thicker with the passing years, until it seemed like peaks made by the hands of mortals had filled the mouth of Twilight’s Pass. The great gates that allowed armies and merchants to pass through were layers upon layers of enchanted steel, raised in times of peace but now fully closed since all to the north had been lost. Tunnels dug into the mountainside allowed for sorties from hidden places, though each had been built to it could be collapsed on the enemy if they found it. Otto himself had been commanding from the central peak, which was held mostly by Bremen soldiery. Prince Frederic’s army held the eastern peak, while the Neustrians held the western one and the Hannoven exiles served as reserve and reinforcements for all. It was at the heart of the middle peak that Otto had set his quarters, and it would be swifter for the Prince of Brus to rise to the top of the tower and head east from there than to descend all the way down before doing the same – as such, it was together that they reached the summit of the Herzhaupt and came to gaze down at the Dead King’s sea of dead.

“That is not an assault, unless I am gravely mistaken,” Prince Frederic said, frowning.

Otto did not disagree. The armies of the dead had made their camp further north, among the ruins of Graueletter, where their sorcerers were less vulnerable to sorties. Not without reason. The Lycaonese had proved more than willing to trade dozens of lives, if not entire companies, for the destruction of corpse-mages since the beginning of this war. It was known from ancient lore that the Dead King could not easily replace these, and that many of his foulest rituals required their presence. The Prince of Bremen had been forced to halt the practice of late, as he could no longer afford such losses no matter the prize, but the dead had remained cautious anyway. Close to the Morgentor they had only raised forts and filled them with tireless watchers: the river poured forth only when the ramparts were tried, be that day or night. What had at first been constant bruising assaults – some of them having lasted more than a day and night in length – had since slowed in frequency, though none wise would believe that to be good omen. Yet for all that the armies of the dead had come out of the ruins to the north, none of them had advanced further than the outer forts. Among the seemingly endless ranks of corpses garbed in ancient armour, there lay greater abominations.

The wyrms, foul serpents that were monster and siege tower both. The beorns, bear-like monsters that served as the first wave of assault by climbing the ramparts and spewing out a company’s worth of dead to aid their own rampage while ladders and wyrms advanced. Flocks of long-dead drakes circled above, waiting to spew their clouds of poison and acid. And among the lesser soldiers, ready to lead the dead hordes that would attempt to land their iron ladders on the ramparts, Chosen slain and raised into damnation stood still as statues. More than a dozen times now had Otto driven back that host when it tried to take the Morgentor, yet gazing upon it still sent a shiver up his spine every time. It was an army, he’d thought, raised to be the end of Calernia. And ahead of those dark ranks, a company of riders had approached under ancient banner: a circle of silver stars around a pale crown, the Hidden Horror’s own heraldry.  The riders bared their blades and raised them blades in salute, high and shining in the morning sun.

And then they left, and the army went with them. Not a word had been spoken, from beginning to end.

“What is this?” Prince Fredric softly asked.

“A miracle, my friend,” Prince Otto replied in a hushed whisper. “Gods save us all, it is a miracle.”

The dead withdrew all the way back to Graueletter and for three months took not a single step forward.

92 thoughts on “Miraculous

      1. erebus42

        I know everyone’s rather dismissive of flying fortresses, but someone really should look into the fundamentals around them and the practicalities of goblin fire carpet bombings

        Liked by 31 people

        1. konstantinvoncarstein

          Indeed, and also see if it is possible to make several smaller ones, so the loss of one is not a crippling blow. And for the fuel, why not use high-ranking fae?

          Liked by 8 people

          1. konstantinvoncarstein

            Gnomes don’t care about magical weapons, only technology. They did not intervene during Triumphant’s invasion, when a fight between the Warlock and a Gigantes create a lake as large as half of Callow. I doubt that a dozen flying fortresses is more destructive than that.

            Liked by 9 people

            1. Raivshard

              Hmm, or maybe what the gnomes care about is progress, which is the backbone that defines the rise of technology. Also, consider that individual cases of extreme power are the norm in Guideverse.

              A single magical weapon can affect a battle or even a war, but there’s always someone else with a counter. What if you could mass-produce that magical weapon, though? a single counter would be meaningless and you would win every battle in every war because all of your soldiers would have the weapon.

              The power of the American military during WW2 was not in its skills or sophistication but in its ability to build more ships and planes, more cannons and rifles, more food, more ammunition, more clothes.

              I suspect that the gnomes would treat any sort of systemic advancement or industry as worthy of a red letter, be it magical or mundane, with an eye to far-reaching ramifications.

              Liked by 2 people

          1. shveiran

            Practical? No, man. The Villains leads the conquest from his/her Fortess of Doom. Singular. Majestic, memorable, and vulnerable to heroic shanenigans. THAT is the Praesi way.

            Liked by 7 people

          2. While I am extremely partial to the idea of reimagining the sky-corps as a collection of flying watchtowers, pillboxes, and an odd fortress acting as an aircraft carrier with a magic base in place of fossil fuels, electricity, and mechanics, it’s be a different story and a very different setting.

            Once you seriously start expanding on the idea of flying fortifications, there is no logical place to stop for a long time; until the end result necessitates an enormous change in setting’s culture and the way wars are fought. Or at least that’s the case if you aren’t a hack.

            So as much as I’d like to see this nonsense, the author’s stopping point of huge city-size fortresses of doom is a good logical stopping point allowing him to write the story that he wants to write.

            Liked by 5 people

            1. And it can easily be handwaved as needed: Say, if you’re going to do straight-up levitation, the entry price is high enough that you might as well go big. Then too, smaller flying platforms would be progressively more vulnerable, e.g. to trebuchets or mages.

              Liked by 3 people

              1. So… exactly what we have in the story already?

                Though I do have to say that I find the effectiveness of ground archers against aerial threats to possibly be the silliest part of this story. A shame I wasn’t around when Dormer happened.

                Like

      2. RoflCat

        I mean, you could say she’s trying to reverse the reputation by the study of Lakeomancy.

        Maybe people will stop blaming her for all the fire when she douse any fire with a drop of a lake.

        Liked by 7 people

    1. I think she will, eventually, no one will know how long it will last, and if she tells them it will last three months because she set it up, then it actually lasts three months, then everyone who actually matters will know she was telling the truth.

      Only chance she doesn’t get credit is if the GA try to actively steal it, by revealing the time limit through the augur or another Hero. So it’s down to whether the Gods Above can spy on a conversation between cat and an undead god, shrouded by the power of another dark god.

      Liked by 5 people

  1. So we’re caught up to where Cat is, having gotten a temporary cease fire out of the Dead King.
    Hopefully, this pause will help the defenders more than the Dead King (he’s doubtless seeking a way around/under the defenses in this break)

    These side chapters with the Lycaonese are good.

    Arguing over who gets to die in the rearguard. Heh.
    They’re fatalistic bastards, but they’ve held this long, and not many could have done anywhere near as well as they have.

    Liked by 18 people

      1. Thor

        Overwhelming victory means that he’s going to get squashed by the story. Stopping just before he wins us only an issue if he had non named people he had to explain it to.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. Argentorum

            I wonder if he’s able to *not* invade Procer. It’s so intrinsically tied to his story, and on top of that stagnation is defeat. Eventually, a Crusade will win, 1 in a million shots happen 9 times out of 10 and all that. And even if the Dead King can make that 1 out of 10 or 1 out of 100 times, in the long run Evil does not get to win for doing nothing.

            The only way to survive all the Crusades is to ensure that there are no more crusades. That, plus all the other story driven impetus seems to show that he’s pretty locked in to attempting to conquer Calernia, vestigial ambitions from when he was mortal aside.

            Liked by 5 people

            1. I do suspect that he needs to put in the work for the narrative where ‘defeating him’ just means ‘pushing him back to his territory’ instead of ‘killing him’. Like a Crusade technically failed but was successful in the actual objective of stopping him, you know? A story buffer between him and being killed.

              Liked by 5 people

  2. antoninjohn

    Cat saves their skins even though they are trying to kill her and take over Callow, they definitely owe her and Callow a great Dept which she will call in later

    Liked by 6 people

    1. shveiran

      What erebus42 said, plus no one in the Alliance has yet admitted that maybe invading a foreigner country was so much as rude.
      The closer we got was Tariq and a few others admitting it was the lesser evil, but still, no one ever acknowledged it was wrong… and you can’t have a debt without a wrong to act as its source.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes, you can? If someone lends you money you owe them money without having done anything wrong. The Grand Alliance does not need to acknowledge wrongdoing against Cat to acknowledge she did a favor to them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. shveiran

          I misspoke, I was referring to the debt incurred by the invasion, which falls under the “I wronged you and thus I owe you” label. That does require either the offender acknowledging they wronged the other party or a superior force believing so and enforcing its view on the matter.

          You can have a debt without a wrong, but it still comes from an imbalance: the other party owes you because they did something you didn’t want to you, or because they did something you wanted for you.
          That’s how lending money works, but in this instance things are a bit muddier because the GA asked Cat to do nothing, and thus is not “in her debt”.
          I mean, it is, but only from a moral perspective. Which may very well be how Story works, but it’s not how politics work.
          I expect they won’t really grant her points for that. Which may lead to more story-fu, but still.

          Like

            1. shveiran

              Which Lycaonese? An hypotethical one with reader information? I very much agree, but they won’t be the ones that get to make the call.
              Who knows, maybe this is what gives Cat an in with the GA. Maybe not.

              Like

  3. Walter

    “The Kingfishers, as the prince’s retinue of horsemen had been fondly named by their Lycaonese comrades, had taken to taking the Hidden Horror’s banners at every opportunity so they might have a courtly game of the most insulting use one could make of it.”

    I read this and thought of how this echoed Cat’s cape. I can see these people appreciating her sense of style and building upon that.

    Liked by 16 people

      1. The Lycaonese might not have a tradition of producing great mages but they have the deepest institutional memory of what the Dead King can do of anybody on Calernia. If there’s a risk of that I’d expect they’d already have a counter (prob using priestly blessing of some kind) or they would have warned the prince off of doing it.

        Liked by 6 people

    1. My very own name

      For a while now, I’ve felt that the war against the Dead King is, given the universe differences, the Long Night we should have gotten in GoT.

      The dead army is amazingly awesome and varied and makes use of all sorts of fucked up stuff; the defenders are glorious and honorable, but even as PoV characters they still fucking die; the main characters who don’t die actually literally have plot armor; the battle logic is sensible.

      All that to say, I’m fucking loving reading all about these badass Procerans so much, that I am almost sad that a truce has been negotiated. Still, yay for our characters (and for my feelings, reading about them brave Procerans and their infinite amount of self sacrifice also hurts me).

      Liked by 21 people

    2. konstantinvoncarstein

      Yes, and we probably don’t even see his full might. He should have several millions soldiers in the Serenity. And not a single chapter mentioned devils in his armies, and we know he conquered an entire Hell. It is probably for narrative reasons.

      Liked by 6 people

  4. JJR

    Hard for the Dead King to resupply mage corpses? So hard for him that the Lycaonese will trade scores of deaths for even a single mage corpse destroyed. I honestly don’t buy that for a second, he has a whole civilization inside his personal hell (which is apparently more pleasant than that phrase usually connotes). Mages should be easy to come by in the population, unless growing up in a hell makes it impossible to develop the gift. Even then, getting Named to raise as Revenants should be harder than common mages, and we know he has Revenants for days.

    I think this is more a case of, he has to give them a way to win that’s ultimately harmless to him or the heavens will cheat into giving the Good guys a way to win that is harmful. So he pretends that the mages are a scarce resource and, “Oh my plan is thwarted” when they get destroyed, but in reality it’s water of an undead ducks back.

    Liked by 12 people

    1. We don’t know how big is the population of the Serenity, and we do know that a Gift of sufficient enough power is a rare thing. Your perspective may be scewed because Cat so often interacts with mages, that you think they are common. And while he does has Revenants in droves, hardly he has the whole companies of those? Morepver, it is not necessarily that he is lacking mages, but mayhaps he is lacking mages in this army, and they serve as as a relay point for his power over undead. He has a limited supply of those on the front, and they are probably spread across all the front and the entirety of Keter, and it takes time to resupply them to the front, and while they lack sufficient numbers, his control may suffer. And finally, I suspect that DK simply abhors waste. No matter how many undead mages he has, they are still a farely rare commodity. Why lose them, when all you lose is time, which, as Dead King, you have no lack of? We do now that he is overly cautious, to a point where he would rather throw a few Revenants away, then leave an opening, however small. Seems like a fair trade.

      Liked by 11 people

      1. konstantinvoncarstein

        In 3000 years, he probably captured several relatively high-level mages and breed them, so I think his mage contingent is quite large.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. He also had like, six Crusades, a few Secret Wars, squabbles with rattlings, elves, drow and dwarves. All those three thousand years, I doubt he had peaceful borders. And whatever had happened when he was with Triumphant. Tikoloshe theorised that DK himself was slayed, and to keep living needs powerful mages as hosts. He has mages for days, sure, but they are a limited supply.

          Liked by 8 people

          1. konstantinvoncarstein

            Obviously. But I was speaking of the fact that all humans in the Serenity descend of people he captured alive and then breed. The Praesi breed their nobility to produce more powerful mages, nothing stop him from doing the same.

            Liked by 4 people

              1. > Inbreeding is an issue, you can’t have a population of mages from just ‘a couple captured early on’.

                I mean, it’s not like mages can only breed with each other. They’re not a separate species. Taking a relatively limited characteristic in a population, breeding it with fresh blood to avoid inbreeding issues, then breeding the more promising results of that back into that limited population (repeat as necessary) is very much something that people know how to do in animal husbandry. I really doubt that the Dead King would hold off on applying animal husbandry techniques to a human population given that he’s essentially raising them to be willing cattle anyway.

                That said, while I’m sure DK has quite an appalling number of dead mages under his command I’m also sure that the number is vastly more finite than the number of regular dead under his command. I think the statistic cited was that even in Praes (which has made just the kind of concerted effort to encourage sorcery in the population that people are saying the Dead King would have done) the Gift only appears in something like 1 in 100 people, and most of those will be relatively weak? I don’t think we have any solid indication of what the population of the Serenity is either, it would presumably depend on how large the Hell is/how difficult it is to turn literally Hell itself into farmable land since both of those would restrict population size/growth.

                Furthermore, DK isn’t the only one who knows it’s better to keep your mages towards the rear, meaning that it is comparatively more difficult for him to pick up more dead mages from his wars as opposed to his internal sources. Certainly not impossible, but definitely harder; it would pretty much require a full rout/total slaughter as opposed to just forcing the enemy to retreat in good order, which it’s been repeatedly noted the Lycaonese excel at even under insanely adverse conditions. And outside of full invasions/crusades almost all his fighting is against the Lycaonese, who in addition like I mentioned elsewhere don’t really have a grand tradition of producing mages at all, even by the limited standards of Procer at large IIRC. You can’t take what your enemy doesn’t have to begin with.

                tl;dr – yes, the Dead King probably has a lot of dead mages but losing them would still be disproportionately harmful to his forces relative to losing regular corpse-soldiers, not just because they’re more valuable but because they would in fact be replaced more slowly. So prioritizing destroying them would make tactical/strategic sense.

                Liked by 4 people

                1. Mhm!

                  He might also need a lot of mages in more passive/infrastructure roles, like just keeping the undead constructs going. Whatever his personal capabilities as a necromancer, they’re finite and I’m not buying he wouldn’t make use of the ability to use undead mages as a force multiplier, meaning they’re not expendable.

                  Liked by 1 person

  5. superkeaton

    Interesting. Alright Cat, you’ve paused the Apocalypse. That was the easy part. Time to win the hearts and minds of people historically, philosophically, economically, militarily, and theologically opposed to you on a personal level.

    Liked by 12 people

  6. Ok, that is it, I love those Lycaonese interludes more than anything else I read in the Guide. It had made me crack up, but not quite a thing I read from Cat’s persepective had me crying in abject awe. It’s one thing to have our protgonist struggle, when I know she will win in the end. Not to mention she is a Named, or a goddes, or priestess all the time. It doesn’t feel cheap, but it is diminished. Quite different when it’s simple mortals, fighting a war we know they are going to lose, because the plot demands it, yet they still break your heart with unimaginable bravery and sacrifice. Maybe it’s just me, but I just want to thank you, EE, for this unimaginable ride.

    Liked by 15 people

  7. WELP

    THIS IS ABOUT AS HEARTRENDING AS LYCAONESE SHIT HAS BEEN
    BUT AT LEAST WITH A SORT OF HAPPY ENDING NOW

    I would offer a bit of critique, though: the last sentence feels like a timeskip, and I’m pretty sure we’re not getting one in the main timeline… quite yet, at least. A better phrasing could be “The dead withdrew all the way back to Graueletter and for three months took would take not a single step forward.” Just a suggestion 0.0

    …man, this was… as usual 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I guess the larger strategic and political question is this: will the Procer’s northern northern army be reinforced or will they retreat? Three months is quite a lot of time, Cordelia will obviously be attached to protecting the rest Lycaonese provinces and there’s a ton of narrative juice in making a last stand up north.

    It strikes me that not knowing the particulars of what’s happened here is a great detriment to whatever strategy the higher command can cobble together. I mean, how many of them will suspect a deeper ploy? As far as the defense is concerned the dead might start attacking any second now and not knowing how much time is available means they can’t formulate any long term plans. I think Catherine will likely inform Cordelia about the bargain if only to let Procer remobilize better.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. shveiran

      I guess the question becomes whether RS and Saint actually heard the deal, and are willing to confirm it.
      And or whether or not Cat will allow Tariq to behold this, and whether or not he will believe this is her lowering her defenses and not using a different Goddesses trick to fool the Hashmallim.

      It would be neat if people trusted her when she announces it, but it wouldn’t be the first time Cordelia or the rest operate under the “Black Queen must be assumed to be lying until proven sincere, and evidence of sincerity should be considered some sort of ploy or trick” assumption.

      Liked by 4 people

        1. shveiran

          It is possible, the most damning chapters were from Cat’s POV IIRC, so Cordelia could have been lying. But with that said… I don’t know, that’s not the rad I got on her during their two last interactions.

          It seems she at least still sees beating her into submission as the one way forward, whether for political pressure or out of sincere belief that she is and will remain an enemy. But admittedly that is not the same as not believing her.

          I’m honestly at a loss about how that thing will evolve. Is it weird I’m kind of bored with this god-crafting, friend-saving, betrayal-rich, action-packed showdown with the Big Bad through unlikely alliances (which may or may not include a romantic conclusion) BECAUSE I’m STOKED ABOUT A FREAKING PEACE CONFERENCE?

          Damn it, EE. I have to read all this awesome stuff before I can get to the stuff I think is MORE awesome.
          That’s just cruel.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. I think it was mostly political concerns that had Cordelia pushing further than Cat was willing to give. And, to be fair, those are actually things that Cordelia needs to worry about and pay attention to.

            Those political concerns are likely largely alleviated by the Dead King’s invasion. It takes a special kind of thinking to oppose making a limited deal, even if it’s just a truce/non-aggression, in the face of a far greater and far more obvious enemy line the Dead King and his hordes of undead.
            On the other hand, the Proceran and Ashuran (IIRC, anyways) Houses of Light/equivalents were maneuvered/pressured/persuaded into formally and officially declaring Cat the Arch-Heretic of the East, instead of the Arch-Heretic being Malicia, the ruling Dread Empress of Praes, as had been the presumed case (all prior Arch-Heretics of the East had been the sitting ruler of the Tower). That complicates things way more than the secular political concerns Cordelia had, even before the Callowan House of Light got irked by that and the rest of the Conclave’s actions and demonstrated why Callowans are considered the most spiteful of all Calernians.

            Liked by 4 people

            1. shveiran

              Sure, but I’m not saying she was a moron, just that I don’t see many signs of her acknowledging Cat may be a decent human being or a trustworthy one. I see evidence that she believes Cat to be a dangerous opponent, but nothing more. Am I missing something?

              Also, I’m not sure her politicla concerns have been alleviated by the invasion. IIRC, Malanza stated the opposites when she met Cat in teh beginning of the book and asked to orchestarate a defeat.
              That sounds like an alliance between Callow and the GA remains an impossibility, at least right now.

              Like

              1. Ehhhh … as far as the “orchestrating a defeat” request goes … that’s because Augur said that if Alliance didn’t go after the retreating Legions and Army of Callow, Procer would fall.
                Without having gone after the Legions+AoC, there would be no way to stop the Arcadia-shard Masego is in from impacting Creation. And that would be all kinds of bad, at best.

                In other words, I’m not sure that the close pursuit of the Legions+AoC was launched on purely political grounds – a precog said that if they didn’t, then Procer fell.
                Remember, if it were purely up to Malanza, she would have either let them go North to fight the Dead King, just leave, or give them an escort out. In her personal thoughts, I think Cordelia would have had a similar opinion. Unfortunately for them both, the Arcadia shard on a collision course for Creation is/was a thing, and it’s the sort of thing Augur has to give a warning about. And it’s not like they can ignore a warning so explicit and of that magnitude from Augur. Even if they are misinterpreting the reasons/causal factors behind the warning.

                As far as Cordelia’s opinion on Cat … it’s not clear, IMO. I think Cordelia wanted to accept the deal Cat offered, but didn’t think she could afford anything short of a clear cut victory. Now, what that means for her opinion of Cat, I’m not entirely sure, but I think that if Cordelia thought Cat was nothing more than an enemy, Cordelia would have been less willing to deal. And she probably wouldn’t have kept maintaining the communications with Cat after launching the Crusade.
                Also, I’m pretty sure Cordelia acted more or less immediately on Cat’s warning about the Dead King moving, but Cordelia had already had some degree of warning about that from Augur, so that’s not necessarily the clearest indicator.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. shveiran

                  –> as far as the “orchestrating a defeat” request goes … that’s because Augur said that if Alliance didn’t go after the retreating Legions and Army of Callow, Procer would fall.
                  Without having gone after the Legions+AoC, there would be no way to stop the Arcadia-shard Masego is in from impacting Creation. And that would be all kinds of bad, at best.

                  While unconfirmed, that is a very nice explanation. Good catch. You may very well be right, and I hope you are.

                  –> As far as Cordelia’s opinion on Cat … it’s not clear, IMO. I think Cordelia wanted to accept the deal Cat offered, but didn’t think she could afford anything short of a clear cut victory. Now, what that means for her opinion of Cat, I’m not entirely sure, but I think that if Cordelia thought Cat was nothing more than an enemy, Cordelia would have been less willing to deal. And she probably wouldn’t have kept maintaining the communications with Cat after launching the Crusade.
                  Also, I’m pretty sure Cordelia acted more or less immediately on Cat’s warning about the Dead King moving, but Cordelia had already had some degree of warning about that from Augur, so that’s not necessarily the clearest indicator.

                  As you say, it is not clear. I may be wrong.
                  But I am with Aqua on this one: keeping communications open allowed her insight on an unknown entity, it was in her best interest to fish for information. Especially because Cordelia was a better hand at it than anyone with Cat’s experience had any right being.
                  She did seem to take the warning seriously, I must admit; but that could be because it fit a warning from the Augur, or just because it was so dire a warning it was better to take it seriously and check.

                  I am operating under the assumption that Cordelia is very good at reading people, and I find strange that if she was honestly considering striking a deal with Cat she would keep pushing rather than say “between closed doors, I need more than you can give to make this work and you can’t give me what I need. Under that working hypothesys, how can we make this work?”
                  Being that antagonistic during the pre-keter conference really strikes me like she decided enmity was inevitable. Her opacity doesn’t FEEL like she was looking for an honest compromise.

                  But again, that is an assumption born of my impressions.

                  Like

                  1. >and I find strange that if she was honestly considering striking a deal with Cat she would keep pushing rather than say “between closed doors, I need more than you can give to make this work and you can’t give me what I need. Under that working hypothesys, how can we make this work?”

                    Note that Cat did not do that either. She did not give Cordelia more information, she did not bring up the Accords, she did not share intel on Praesi internal politics, she did not bring her & Pilgrim in the same room for a 3-way conference.

                    It’s just not how you do diplomacy. Normal person communication style is just not how it goes. Even Catherine played the game; Cordelia was raised to the game.

                    Like

                    1. shveiran

                      True, but their position was not quite the same.
                      Cat was trying to end the earth, whereas Cordelia was its architect and the one refusing peace. If you refuse a compromise and don’t even share the reasons to try and find a way around them, I fedeli the fallout is on you.
                      Cat could have bent over backwards and share military informations with an invader, sure. It may have earned her points.
                      But she was not the one sitting at the table like a bully saying “well, if you give me all your lunch money I GUESS I could consider not punching you anyway.”
                      Mind you, she had reasons and I acknowledge that. It’s just that I really don’t think She was ever looking for a compromise, just informations and possibly one sided concessione.

                      Like

                    2. I mean she never wanted Callow added to Procer in the first place, she’d be losing nothing but political feathers and potentially gaining a lot in dealing with Cat… IF she had the political feathers to spare on this.

                      Like

              2. >I don’t see many signs of her acknowledging Cat may be a decent human being or a trustworthy one.

                I do.

                Let me find.

                Alright, let’s start here:

                >“I have taken great pains, Your Highness, to display moderation in how I’ve waged this war,” I said flatly. “At no small cost of my own. There is a point where doubt becomes denial.”

                >“It has not gone unnoticed,” Hasenbach conceded, to my surprise. “You must understand, however, that you are a villain. Deception is the trade of your kind. There is a chance, however slight, that you are genuine in your intentions. Yet precedent remains a stone around your neck, as it has been around mine.”

                >“I’ve wrecked a third of my army to prove goodwill,” I said bluntly. “Against the advice of most my generals, it should be said. I have to ask, in your eyes what would actually prove I mean what I say?”

                >“Abdication,” the First Prince replied without hesitation.

                > […]

                > “That I must even pretend you have the right to speak for the souls under your yoke is a concession greater than any you have right to ask of me,” the First Prince said. “Even a usurper would be more palatable: you have merely ridden from one field of corpses to another, waiting and swelling in might from the deaths of your own people until none were left to gainsay your crowning. Well, here we are now. Consider yourself gainsaid, Black Queen.”

                > […]

                >“Abdication within ten years of the signature,” I replied instead of screaming. “With the understanding that other nations will have no say in the succession, in exchange for which I will give assurance it won’t be another villain.”

                >I saw her visibly master her anger and that had me frowning. A diplomat that practiced, having a fit? It irked me I couldn’t read her heartbeat, because I was beginning to realize I might just have been played. The scathing rant had felt genuine, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been used as a way to pressure me. Pressure me into giving something I’d been willing to give, sure, but what I’d intended to use as a bargaining chip for further concessions had just been put on the table just to keep negotiations going. Fuck. Horrid as the thought was, I wished I’d had Akua along for the ride.

                Do you think this is Cordelia having the slightest bit of a wrong read on Cat?

                Then we have Empires.

                >Cordelia’s blood went cold. She studied the Callowan carefully, looking for signs of dishonesty. She found none.

                Oh look, Cordelia believes she can tell when Catherine lies! I mean she’s probably wrong about that – though in that situation Catherine really WAS telling the truth – but it does mean a baseline assumption of honesty being her default, yeah?

                >“Wait,” she said.

                >The utterance had been much too desperate for her tastes, yet she couldn’t simply let Foundling end it there. She needed to know more or thousand would die. The Black Queen eyed her the way a wolf eyes a limping deer.

                >“You know, I was trying to think of a reason for it earlier,” Foundling said. “To give you more than a warning, I mean. Then I realized I genuinely couldn’t. I’m not rejoicing at the loss of lives, mind you, but at the end of the day you’re trying to fucking invade me even as we speak.”

                >“A victorious Dead King would turn his eyes on you,” Cordelia said, regaining her calm.

                >As long as the conversation continued, she could convince the other woman.

                >“Your eyes are on me right now, Cordelia,” the Black Queen noted. “You expect me to lend a hand to people trying to conquer my homeland? Good night.”

                >Her hand rose again but the First Prince knew that for the tactic it was. Foundling was attempting a bargain, now that there was another enemy on the field.

                >“Are you truly willing to mother the slaughter of thousands out of petty arrogance?” Cordelia accused.

                >The other woman’s eyes went cold.

                >“There is more at stake,” she replied softly, “than you know.”

                >The irony was sharp, her own word thrown back at her. The Lycaonese drew back in fury, but something in the Black Queen’s eyes gave her pause. For all that Catherine Foundling ruled with Wasteland methods, in that moment Cordelia was not looking at the Black Knight’s pupil or Malicia’s mistake. She was looking at raw Callowan spite, coursing deep and dark. For small slight, long prices.

                Cordelia thinks of Catherine as:

                – someone in whom she can recognize lies;

                – someone she can bargain with when she’s desperate;

                – someone on whom arguments from morality actually have a chance of working.

                Cordelia probably underestimates Catherine, but she underestimates her in direction of being someone more palatable to bargain with, not less.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. shveiran

                  I’m not saying your read is wrong, but I don’t share it. To me, that is not what those paragraph suggests.

                  Cordelia may believe Cat MEANS well, can’t lie for shit when she is playing with the pros, and is inexperienced enough that capitulating to SOME of her demands (we have no idea what Cordelia would have suggested had the conversation continued) when faced with the DK was a possible way to make an horrible situation a bit less horrible.

                  But with that said…

                  …Well, all that amounts to is “Cat can be played” and “Cat is not Kairos”.
                  Most of the characters in the novel MEAN well. The Aquas, the Kairos… they are the exception. But we still see a LOT of conflict, most of which seems inreconcible.
                  This doesn’t suggest to me that Cordelia is any closer than she ever was to deal with the Black Queen as an equal, or as a long term ally, or as someone she can strike a deal in good faith when her back is not against the wall.

                  Cordelia being a skilled politician, she doesn’t wear her thoughts on her sleeves even in her own POV. I feel both our reads are possible… I guess we should wait and see.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. I would say that Cat being not Kairos and playable is exacty WHAT makes her a possible peer from Cordelia’s point of view. She’s not like Dead King, she’s not after ‘worthy opponents’; she’s after making the world more like she would liker it to be, and her understanding of Cat matches the idea that Cat might be helpful for this making. Making deals in good faith is a good practice, wherever your back is against.

                    Like

                    1. shveiran

                      I agree that’s Cordelia’s goal, but I don’t think she ever considered Cat like Simeone that can inhabit the world she envisions.
                      Lower priority target in a vacuum than other villains MAYBE but aside from that… No, I don’t think so.

                      Maybe that will change, maybe that has already changed ooffscreen, but not pre-everdark

                      Like

          2. Well, I do admit that for me the main sources of tension I’m inerested in in this action sequence are Laurence’s, Tariq’s and Roland’s evolving attitudes towards Cat and Co 😀

            Oh, and the deal made for the Lycaonese! Now THAT is shit that matters!!!

            So… no. Not weird 😀

            Like

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