Chapter 34: Quickening

“If you want something done right, steal it from someone who did.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent I, the Unhallowed

I’d become unfortunately familiar with a certain feeling over the years that was hard to describe, at least in Lower Miezan.

It was that mixture of relief and wincing that came from looking at a debacle but knowing at least it wasn’t a catastrophe. Like if you came back one evening to find your barn was on fire, but at leas the livestock wasn’t in it. I’d told Akua this, once, after one too many times looking at the near wipe of a forward patrol that’d still caught a probe from Keter before it could do damage, and she’d answered with amusement that there was in fact an expression in Mthethwa for it. Kutofa ushidi, which more or less translated to ‘victory in failure’. It was a recurring theme in Praesi plays, particularly their comedies, with the traditional protagonist of those being Dread Emperor Baneful – who’d never actually been emperor, only one of the claimants during the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One. He was notable mostly for somehow having managed to hang on until nearly the end with only a string of mitigated defeats to his name.

Akua could actually quote some passages from one of the more famous plays, The Long Road to Ater, and it’d been as endearing as it had been surreal to hear her chortle about Baneful accidentally poisoning his cousin instead of his husband – only to later find out that she’d been about to betray him. He had, Akua had gleefully explained, avoided his own assassination but only at the price of a feud with his distinctly unimpressed warlock brother-in-law, who promptly cursed him. Any play with that much murder in it would probably have been a tragedy instead, in Callow. Except if it were foreigners doing the dying. Which was why I had rather mixed feelings, looking at the mutilated White Knight and the bloodied, unconscious body of the Mirror Knight. The Severance had been returned to the sheath and was now in Hanno’s hands, but there was less of those than there used to be.

Three fingers lost on his right hand, though at least he’d kept the thumb and index. He’d still be able to write with it even as he waited for a prosthetic, though I did believe he was ambidextrous regardless.

“You might say that,” the White Knight serenely replied.

Not quite so serene he was able to hide how he was trying not to put too much weight on his knees, gingerly shifting his footing. Though the cracked stone floor and the lack of cuts spoke to an overwhelming victory by Hanno of Arwad, I suspected it’d been a closer thing than it seemed. How many bones had he cracked just by hitting the other man? If the Mirror Knight had not fallen unconscious, it would have been the beginning of a downwards slide for the Sword of Judgement: I knew for a fact that his healing was shoddy, and not without adverse effects. Mind you, I thought as I pulled at my pipe and eyed Christophe de Pavanie’s blatantly broken nose, he’d still won. And without using a blade, by the looks of it, which was impressive. You were making a statement, I thought, studying him openly. That you can handle him on your own, and so there is no need for anyone to step in.

It was about three fingers too late for that.

Indrani, who’d been at my back this whole time, let out a low whistle.

“Nice scrap,” she praised. “But you missed a spot.”

The way she trailed a finger across her throat while looking at the Mirror Knight made it clear what she meant by that. I didn’t correct her, or indeed say anything at all, simply watching Hanno. I’d be a grave misstep for me to have even the slightest and most indirect of hands in the death of Christophe de Pavanie, as even the appearance of my involvement with the killing of a heroic opponent of mine would blow up in my face like a crate of sharpers. If the White Knight was the one who took his head, though, that was a different story. While an argument could be made that the Mirror Knight was simply too useful and powerful a Named to execute, I was lukewarm to the prospect of keeping the man alive. Part of that was that he was a very direct threat to me, but there was also the fact that he’d just fucking cut up the representative for the heroes under the Terms.

The White Knight hadn’t said anything, but after days at Hakram’s bedside I was painfully familiar with what cuts made by the Severance looked like.

“The Mirror Knight breached the Terms,” Hanno said, ignoring Indrani outright and looking straight at me. “But he has been subdued without lasting harm being done. I will now take him into custody, if you have no objection.”

I spewed out a stream of smoke, watching it spin and writhe before me. I didn’t want – and couldn’t afford – my hands on any of this, but I balked at simply leaving the Mirror Knight in a cell without further supervision than what Hanno might judge fit to provide. On the other hand, what were my alternatives? I couldn’t put him under a guard of my own without it looking like a villain had taken a hero prisoner and I sure as Hells wasn’t going to leave him loose in the Arsenal. Besides, the White Knight might have asked if I had objections but he wasn’t simply going to do whatever I asked. He’d listen to any grievances I had and try to address them, but Hanno wasn’t going to roll over something like this and I had little appetite for picking a fight. I still tapped the side of my own hand, where the dark-skinned hero was now missing fingers.

“That requires consequences,” I warned. “And do not expect to find much mercy in me.”

Or Hasenbach, for that matter, I thought. The First Prince would have taken it a greater victory to bring the Mirror Knight to her way of seeing things than to quell him, until now, but this little episode would change things. The baggage he’d be bringing with him when going under her wing would begin outweighing his uses, to such a canny princess’ eyes: anything he did after becoming an ally would reflect on her, and her position was too delicate to be able to afford much bumbling. Considering I spoke for Callow as well as Below’s lot and the Dominion had little reason to be fond of the Mirror Knight, that boded ill for the man in question. Hanno would be the one to pass the sentence, in the end, but the White Knight no more operated in a vacuum than I did.

Hanno did not blink in the face of my stare, unmoved.

“The Terms will be upheld,” the White Knight answered. “I will not let intentions excuse actions.”

But, I thought, for though his eyes were calm they had hardened.

“But make no mistake, Catherine,” the Sword of Judgement continued. “I will not sacrifice a good man for the sake of convenience. The Terms constrain, but they also protect.”

“At three fingers the chance taken on a fool, you’ll run out of one long before the other,” Archer sardonically said.

Well, she wasn’t wrong. I breathed in a mouthful of wakeleaf, savouring the burn I’d not allowed myself to indulge in when sharing a room with the First Prince out of politeness. Through flickering lights, rows of soldiers on both sides awaiting only my command to bare steel, I watched the White Knight. Even without armour, even without either of the swords on him having left their scabbards, he felt dangerous. Not like a blade at my throat, for there was not a speck of hostility in his stance, but like a sharp stone under water. It didn’t look like much until you tried to step on it, and by the time you felt the pain it was already too late. I’d trust him, I decided, at least for tonight. He had yet to disappoint me, and I’d not break that streak by forcing a fight that was not necessary. I hoped it would never be. But if it ever were, I would pick my grounds better than this.

I spat out the smoke, making my choice.

“I won’t war over what might be,” I said. “Take him, Hanno. But don’t forget how many eyes are on you, either.”

He inclined his head the slightest bit, not in concession but in acknowledgement.

“Have the Severance back in its room before night’s over,” I said, and it was not a suggestion.

On that I left him to his bloodied and bloody fool, Archer offering a singsong and almost taunting good night, and limped back to the ranks of my legionaries. They closed behind me seamlessly and I took aside the commanding officer long enough to order a line be sent to escort the White Knight as he carried the other Named to his holding cell. Some Proceran soldiers, I saw, were missing.

Cordelia would be getting a report soon enough, and tomorrow would bring consequences for all.

I woke up around what would have been dawn, were we still in Creation.

For all the weight of what had taken place yesterday – as much my conversations with the First Prince as the Mirror Knight’s beating and imprisonment – I found relatively little to do when I woke. I broke my fast quickly and retreated to Hakram’s room in the infirmary to see to what few affairs I had. I penned a recommendation to the First Army’s general staff for Lieutenant Inger to be promoted to captain, for her exemplary service when commanding against a demon, knowing it’d likely end up on Juniper’s desk. The First Army had been gutted to fill all sorts of needs, from garrisoning the Arsenal to organizing training camps and providing escorts for supply trains, which my marshal had been less than pleased by. It’d still been the natural pick, even she had admitted that, considering that Juniper still couldn’t work for more than a few hours a day without having… episodes.

Malicia had a lot to answer for. Tariq had seen to my old friend personally and assured me that eventually the damage that’d been done to her mind by the Empress’ planted controls would mend itself, but that it would take time. The Hellhound still got more done in a slice of a day than most people did with a full one, and had violently resisted the notion of resting more fully even though it’d accelerate her recovery, but these days she was forced to rely on her general staff too much for the First to be a functional battlefield command. I could have named someone else to serve as general under her and lead on the field, but why offer that insult when I had need of soldiers for all sorts of detached duties? At this point even if tomorrow she was healed her soldiers would still be more useful in their current assignments, so it’d change nothing. Mind you, if we were to assault northern Hainaut come summer I’d want her to be part of the planning so she might have to leave her staff behind for a bit. Aisha would be politely furious at me for making her travel, but there was no helping it.

I saw to some minor correspondence after that, the sort that seemed to accrue like dust wherever I stayed for more than a day, and wrote a formal request for the Arsenal to begin working on prosthetics for Adjutant. I’d already gone to the Named directly and found both the Blind Maker and the Hunted Magician highly amenable – the latter in particular, since he wanted to buy his way back into my good graces – but it would be easier to shake loose rare substances if this was made formal. As Queen of Callow I had no problem paying for any of this from my treasury, but a lot of the more precious materials in the Arsenal were bought through the Grand Alliance instead of anyone’s personal agents. It was half past Morning Bell that Archer strolled in to tell me of the day’s first arrival, which I’d been expecting for some time: Vivienne was, at last, about to get here.

To my surprise, Masego had roused himself to welcome her in person as well. The three of us set out together, which drew eyes enough as we made our way through the halls. The Woe had something of a reputation.

“I’m glad you made time for this,” I told Zeze. “It’s been a while since you’ve seen her, right?”

“We scried a fortnight ago,” Masego contradicted.

He was, I supposed, technically correct. He usually was, especially so when it was most annoying for everyone else.

“In person, I mean,” I specified.

I’d not seen Vivienne in person for… a little over a year, now? There’d been that conference in the Brabantine heartlands last winter, when I’d gone down in person to hasten along the negotiations over how the refugees were to be settled – the new Prince of Lyonis had been pushing for forced conscription of all those of fighting age, which would have been a disaster – when she’d sent word the process was being stalled. In all fairness, the Procerans hadn’t even been the most obstructive people in that conference. That honour had belonged to the delegates for the Dominion, who’d been trying to argue that the mass of displaced were an issue of the Principate alone and not worth discussion by the Grand Alliance at all.

We’d been in the same small city, Malben, for about a week before I returned north to prepare for the offensive. We’d spent a few hours together on several evenings, aside from the time duty ensured we’d spend side by side, but in truth we’d simply been too damned busy to spend much time together. She just as much as I, which not that many people could claim.  I’d effectively dropped all Callowan affairs and foreign diplomacy into Vivienne’s lap, and while she’d taken to both admirably in tidier times both those duties would have warranted different appointments by sheer virtue of the work they represented. There was a reason that her personal staff had swelled by more than a dozen times over but I’d never once balked at signing onto the costs involved.

“Under those terms, it has been seventeen months,” Hierophant replied. “Not since her official visit to the Arsenal.”

“She actually likes the place, unlike some,” Indrani said, glancing at me sideways. “Mind you, that might just be the Thief in her salivating at so much nifty stuff being kept in the same place.”

“Vivienne would not steal from the Arsenal,” Masego firmly said.

Aw, I thought, looking at him fondly. The faith there was a little touching.

“Given the authority Catherine has granted her, it would only count as a requisition,” Hierophant told us.

A little less touching now, admittedly. Indrani snickered.

“Don’t Procerans have a saying about thieves and crowns?” she said.

“Petty thieves hang, the great wear crowns,” I quoted in Chantant.

Archer grinned at me.

“Give it a few years,” she said, “and we’ll proving that true.”

I snorted, mildly amused. I’d never made a mystery of my intention to abdicate in favour of Vivienne after the war, at least not among the Woe – though it wasn’t common knowledge outside them, to this day. It’d been with a mixture of pleasure and irritation that I’d realized that few of them actually cared. Archer was largely indifferent to crowns, and I suspected she fully intended on continuing send up bills to the royal palace even after it became Viv’s, while Masego had actually been pleased. It’d give me more time to help him with a few things, he’d been happy to tell me. We’d never made a proper study of Night, and since I’d have no use for all that power I wielded he did have a few projects that could use the fuel… At least it’d not been too difficult to talk him into setting up shop at Cardinal when it was raised, which as a side-benefit ensured Indrani would have a permanent anchor there no matter where the wind ended up taking her.

“I’m still glad you made time,” I told Zeze. “Unlike some here, you’re actually busy.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Cat,” Indrani blithely said, “I’m sure that whole queen thing will pay off eventually.”

“It pays for you, sullen wench,” I grunted back. “Though I’m beginning to question the wisdom of that.”

“I’ve never bought a drop of anything with Grand Alliance gold,” she righteously assured me.

I raised an eyebrow. Did she really expect I’d fall for that?

“How about silver?” I pointedly asked.

A heartbeat of silence passed.

“Zeze’s only here because he accidentally broke his spheres bothering elves,” Archer said, shamelessly selling him out without even a speck of hesitation.

I mouthed at her she was not yet out of the woods, then turned a cocked brow to Masego.

“I made the spheres,” Hierophant told me, a tad smugly. “And the spell that broke them. Therefore I did, in a sense, make time.”

Huh. I’d be damned. Compared to his usual brand of sneakiness, that was positively devious. I was inclined to blame Roland for this. The Rogue Sorcerer was pretty tricky sort, for a man who went around in a leather coat shooting fire at people.

“You’re spending too much time with Alamans,” I told him.

“The only thing you should listen to them about is the kissing,” Indrani agreed.

I shot her an amused look. Having recently basked in the luxury of displays of affections from her partner, it looked like she wasn’t willing lose the goods quite to soon. The braided mage cocked his head to the side.

“But it was from two of you I learned to dissemble,” Masego said, looking puzzled.

I swallowed a startled noise that was as appalled as it had been amused, because he’d been completely earnest about that. It was truly his most dangerous magic, I thought, that damned disarming earnestness.

“Catherine’s a bad influence,” Indrani told him. “The Grey Pilgrim said so that once, and that’s basically just like angels saying it.”

“Hear that?” I said, and allowed for a moment of silence. “That’s the sound of your discretionary funds getting audited, Archer.”

Naturally, she called me a brutal tyrant and the three of us managed to keep bickering all the way to the plaza where Vivienne would be translating in. Gods, but it was good to be home. It wasn’t the same with just Indrani or Hakram, though they tried. We’d simply gone through too many crucibles as a band of five for it to ever feel truly complete without all of the Woe there. Not that we would be, even when Vivienne got here. Adjutant had yet to wake. With that thought dampening what had been a rising mood, I found myself limping down the same bloody set of stairs for what felt like the hundredth time. Wasn’t there another access point without quite so many of those?

“It should all be slopes,” I muttered under my breath. “Nice, gentle slopes.”

The murderholes, siege engines and well-armed soldiers could stay, though. Those were always a good investment, in my experience. Indrani pretended she hadn’t heard me, hiding her smile in her scarf, and the three of us settled at the bottom to wait for Vivienne. It would have been convenient for her to arrive immediately, but instead it took long enough we ended up playing dice on the floor to make the wait tolerable. Masego cheated with sorcery borrowed from one of the silver trinkets in his braids, but that was fine: they were Indrani’s dice anyway, so they were loaded, and I’d yet to throw them without first weaving an illusion guaranteeing me the numbers I wanted.

Lady Vivienne Dartwick, heiress-designate to the crown of the Kingdom of Callow, arrived to the sadly not unprecedented sight of the Archer threatening to rise in rebellion if I didn’t stop abusing my powers to make her roll snake eyes – only to then roll another pair, as Masego was evidently finding her anger quite amusing and wasn’t above using an aspect for petty indulgence.

“This is Grand Alliance property, you filthy gambling vagrants,” Vivienne called out. “I’ll have you tossed out.”

The four mages that’d made the translation with her looked terrified, at least until I began laughing.

“She’s cheating, too,” Indrani complained. “It is a sad day indeed for the House of Foundling, that its head would resort to such sordid treachery.”

“We were all cheating,” Masego happily said, “you were simply the worst at it.”

An offended squawk was his answer and I left them to it, instead turning to have a better look at my friend. I was struck, once more, with how little she now resembled the woman I’d first met in Summerholm all those years ago. In principle not much had changed: her hair was still dark brown, her eyes that pleasant blue-grey tone and her slender frame had yet to thicken. The hair was even longer than when I’d last seen her, and as was her habit kept in a milkmaid braid that evoked a crown, but it was the little details that made all the difference. She’d aged, not by much but enough that her face had grown mature. And though she was visibly tired, even in her blue riding dress and trousers there was a lightness to her that was the burning opposite of the anger she’d carried with her everywhere during her eyes as the Thief.

Losing her Name had been good for her in a lot of ways.

I limped up to her, leaning on my staff, and she met me halfway. I pulled her in close for a hug, enjoying how she was one of the few people close enough to me in height it felt like there was little difference there. Her grip was firm when she returned the embrace, and I noted with approval she’d kept in shape. Just because she’d traded the respectable form of theft that was burglary on rooftops for the organized form of theft that was taxation from a palace was no reason to let herself go. Mind you, Vivienne had always been whip-lean in a way that was from breeding as much as an active nightlife of skulking through alleys.

“Catherine,” she smiled, after drawing back. “It’s good to see you.”

It’d been a while since I’d last felt pangs of attraction towards Vivienne, but now and then when she smiled like that I remembered why I’d felt them. It was a done thing, but not unsweet to look back on for all that it’d been entirely one-sided.

“And you,” I replied. “Would that you could have gotten here sooner. I heard something about rains?”

She nodded.

“They flooded the roads,” Vivienne said. “There were levees but they broke – no plot there, simply gone unrepaired for too long.”

I grimaced. I doubted it’d be the only place where something like that had happened. Considering the dark picture that Hasenbach and Frederic had painted for me on the state of the Principate, I suspected that a truly staggering amount of maintenance work must have gone undone because there were more pressing needs to fill.

“We’ll have our fill of plotting in here anyway, I think,” I sighed. “Things had been moving quickly enough in here that I suspect even you won’t have heard all of it.”

The Jacks had people in the Arsenal, naturally, as did the Circle of Thorns. The Dominion did not have designated spies so much as captains sending regular reports, which was perhaps not too surprising – it was a lot less centralized than either Callow or Procer, and if I’d learned anything about spies since becoming queen it was that they cost a lot of fucking money. A lot more than, say, one of the major Levantine lords would be able to afford tossing into such an enterprise if they didn’t want to fall behind their neighbours when it came to fielding soldiers. The Old Kingdom hadn’t been all that different, even though the Fairfaxes hadn’t been the largely symbolic leaders the Isbili still were. Nowadays we could afford the Jacks in part because nobility wasn’t there to drain the pot anymore, so to speak. Callow hadn’t gotten much richer, but a lot of more of its gold ended up in the royal treasury than before.

“I’ve no difficulty believing that,” Vivienne grimly replied.

We parted ways entirely just in time for Indrani to squeeze in between us, throwing out her arms around our shoulders.

“Vivi,” she grinned. “Long time no see.”

The former thief snorted.

“Last time you gave me that grin it was after emptying my liquor cabinet,” Vivienne said. “Though I’ll admit it was a nice touch to fill the bottles back up with water.”

“A lot harder than you’d think, too,” Archer cheerfully said. “Especially considering how drunk I got from drinking all your liquor.”

Masego’s long fingers were laid on Indrani’s shoulders and he gently moved her aside, freeing Vivienne at the price of leaving me stuck with a pouting Archer. Hierophant offered her a smile and, as ‘Drani and I watched expectantly, bent down to kiss Vivienne’s cheeks one after the other. She froze, not answering even when Masego welcomed her to the Arsenal. The flabbergasted look on my fellow Callowan’s face had been well worth the wait, I decided. She threw Indrani a confused and almost pleading look, which Archer answered with her usual shit-eating grin. She turned towards me after, perhaps expecting a greater degree of helpfulness coming from there.

“Zeze’s been rubbing elbows with Alamans,” I sagely said.

Which explained the kissing, at least, though the initiative to start doing it was all him.

“People keep repeating variations on that sentence,” Masego said, sounding peeved. “As if it were some sort of conversational panacea. Shall I obtain such an elbow and carry it around so that I can behave outlandishly without facing questions?”

“There’s probably a few still lying around the Graveyard,” Indrani mused. “Couldn’t be that hard to get our hands on one.”

“I see that in some ways remarkably little has changed,” Vivienne drily said, catching my eye.

I shrugged, offering her a small grin. If her days were anything like mine, and they most likely were, then this… lightness must be a balm on the soul. After hours of deciding life and death for thousands, of making ugly compromises and closing your eye to small evils, there was nothing quite like ribbing and idle talk with people you loved to remind yourself you were alive. A person, too, not just a collection of necessary decisions given a frame to inhabit. The four mages that’d translated with Vivienne had given us a wide berth, accurately guessing that the reunion of four of the Woe wasn’t something to just stand around listening to, but she left us for a bit to thank them and request that she be informed when her personal affairs arrived. She’d come with several wagons, apparently, and only pulled ahead of them and her entourage when it came to crossing into the Arsenal itself. Zeze and Indrani took the lead in going up the stairs, leaving us behind in a conversation that was unlikely to be of much interest to either.

“We’ve got lots around the corner,” I told her as we began our way up. “And it’ll be coming at us quick.”

“The trials, for one,” Vivienne agreed.

She’d know about two, the Red Axe and the Hunted Magician, but there might be a third on the horizon she wouldn’t have heard about. Whether the Mirror Knight would end up before a tribunal or not I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected he would. Hanno would want the Grand Alliance to have the opportunity to speak, if not sentence.

“The war council, too, which will start when Lord Marave gets here,” I said.

She nodded.

“I take it the First Prince has spoken to you on the subject of the Mercantis troubles as well?” my heiress asked.

“She did. Their envoys due here in a few days, Hasenbach and I are to dazzle and scare them so they continue coughing up coin,” I replied. “You heard about the Gigantes?”

“The Arsenal seemed like the natural location to entertain their envoy, this Ykines,” she confirmed. “Considering they requested the White Knight personally it was almost a given it would have to happen now, before the two of you return to the front.”

“I’ve limited hopes there, but even their scraps would be damnably useful,” I said. “Talked about them with the White Knight, he has good insight. Hard to say when they’ll get there, but I’m betting after the trials.”

“Quite a few weeks,” Vivienne drily said. “And to think we used to have the occasional restful month, you and I, where there was no especially urgent fire to put out.”

“A lot more ground to cover these days,” I mused, “and a lot more fires with it. There’s also a last thing, now that I think of it, which ought to be soon-”

Behind us sorcery roiled as another translation into the Arsenal began. Ah, of course Creation would deign indulge me now. A moment later the Painted Knife and her band of five passed through the gate, bringing with them a secret the Dead King believed would chill our blood.

Well, I supposed it’d make something to chat about over lunch.

64 thoughts on “Chapter 34: Quickening

      1. dadycoool

        Oh dear. Now I’m imagining it, and maybe that’s one of the tricks Bard was talking about, that he’d unleash if/when he finally decides to take it serious.

        Liked by 6 people

        1. Ninestrings

          Too easily negated, one decent explosive or fireball would send the whole thing up in one big goresplosion.

          Big expensive death machines with one small exploitable weakness is exactly the sort of trap the Dead King avoids.

          Liked by 4 people

    1. Salt

      Precedent is my guess. Use of Choir corpses are unprecedented in known history, but the Dead King probably predates most of the known histories by a fair margin.

      I’m betting that there’s some sort of permanent wound on Creation. Some feature of Calernia that tends to cause endless problems, one that most people believed to be the natural lay of things, proving to actually be a wound leftover from the last time around. Maybe for example, Demons aren’t something natural so much as an aspect of creation that was supposed to be beneficial, but was damaged beyond mending by a similar event.

      Liked by 11 people

      1. Salt

        Whoops, didn’t mean to hit post yet. 2/2:

        It’s always been a bit off to me that Above and Below are supposed to be perfect mirror opposites of each other, but the Angels don’t have a true mirror in the Devils. The Choirs are obviously virtues incarnate, based on classic Christian theology, so that begs the question: where the hells are the classic Sins? Pride, Wrath, Greed, etc…

        The actual capital-H Hells seem to just be a collection of monsters more than any particular theology of Below. Maybe they once did have a direction, and instead of expanding endlessly and aimlessly, there was a real theology behind them as a true mirror to the angelic choirs.

        Maybe devils are the substance, left over and separated from demons which are the wreckage of what used to be the ideologies of the Sins. It then makes sense how demons are all based on specific capital-letter concepts instead of just being big scary monsters – Absence, Fear, etc…

        Liked by 7 people

        1. Xinci

          Personally, I presume all three creatures(Angels, Demons, and Devils) are just aspects of the Gods experimenting in making concepts. I presume the Demons came first as they and their Hells seem to more or less be dimensional laws that want to spread themselves. Devils are more fragmentary versions of Demons to a degree, their concepts being wider and possibly smaller in scope in some ways. Though if given time like Tikloshe they can grow quite a bit. Devils too are immortal in a fashion as killing them just disperses them back to shapelessness and they are constantly being made in the Hells. Or at least the Hells are constantly generating and as such Devils cannot be exterminated just as Angels may not be exterminated. Angels actually seem to be sort of like Demons but aligned to a virtuous concept instead of a more physically aligned ones like Time or Apathy. The choir itself remains constant, it cannot be added to or taken from, which kind of makes me think of how Demons Hells don’t go away. Given the Gods have worked to make sure their servants cant escape the bounds of their test I suspect that Angels don’t grow for the same reason the Deoraithe placed bindings on their gestalt. So that it couldn’t easily be usurped by others. The choir retains its power even if a physical body is killed as it can never be separated, which is an interesting similarity to how Winter itself was noted to never be separate regardless of time and space. Basically saying all of them seem to be different creations made as the Gods refined their test. Demons for the building blocks, Devils randomly being made in the Hells for ideas of what they could do with those blocks, and Angels to guide people down avenues aligning to specific concepts.

          Liked by 3 people

      2. mamm0nn

        I don’t think so with the demons. While they are indeed not mirroring the angels that well, in truth they do. Angels and Demons are made to be a threat that cannot be destroyed by the Damned and Chosen respectively too easily, or they would’ve already been destroyed millennia ago.

        Angels cannot be assassinated, for the Choir gets stronger if one is slain. Nothing is lost, the remaining angels merely grow equally stronger and become a greater threat to Evil than they were before. Likely the remaining ones are both those proven in battle and intrigue, as granted enough power to simply nope most Villains who plot to slay one. Angels are, in their design, not meant to be defeated by Villains, not even in the first act as a sacrificial lamb to the Villain before said Villain is slain by the Hero in act three.

        Meanwhile Demons cannot ‘just’ be defeated. They can be defeated, for telling a Hero that they cannot possibly win or stand only but the smallest of chances is equal to making it more likely for them to prevail. Instead, though Demons can be defeated they cannot be defeated forever (They merely reform in Hell and/or new ones spawn) and their battle remains even after being slain. Where the White Knight may heal his broken kneecaps soon enough, a demon is like his fingers being severed. It won’t be reversed ever, no matter the Story or situation.

        A hero cannot win against demons easily, cannot have a shining victory instead of tons of misery and hard choices. A demon of corruption leaves behind corrupted people that have to be put down, no matter the Hero’s ideals or the cuteness of that little now corrupted girl. If the Hero disagrees and tries to do the hard but good decision of saving these people, all the better for it will make everything worse by the Hero’s arrogance.

        Once a Villain summons the demon, often not the finale they’re destined to lose rather than the beginning they’re destined to win, there’s no winning for the Hero even if they win. In that, the Demons are a fundamental anathema to Chosen despite not being unbeatable. In this, the seven sins just don’t lend themselves well thematically so EE probably chose against using them.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. nick012000

          I think you’ve gotten the relationship between Demons, Angels, and Named precisely backwards. Heroes are the *only* ones who can kill Demons; Villains can merely bind them away. Conversely, Villains can cause Angels to fall.

          Like

        2. Salt

          That’s what I’m saying though – Demons do mirror the Angels in a way, but if I recall correctly the known Evil-equivalent mirror to the angels are supposed to be the Devils, not the Demons.

          From what I remember the Devils are the direct Evil-equivalent mirror to the Angels that occupy nearly the entirety of the ever-expanding Hells, while Demons sort of just exist in the Hells, occupying several fixed layers of them (I don’t recall the actual number).

          The choirs are also supposed to be fixed rather than getting stronger if an angel is slain – angel corpses are supposed to be the stuff of nonsense, logically, because apparently killing one doesn’t diminish either the overall power or the actual number of them.

          The Devils mirror the Angels in being endlessly growing in number to their unchanging nature, but they don’t really appear to have much in the way of actually mirroring the ideologies that the angels – they’re not the “below always gets their due” opposite to the angels tendency to “above always wins” in a straight up confrontation; the damage done by Devils is apparently not permanent and can be healed or recovered. The ideological mirror seems to be Demons, which are the other way around. They don’t properly mirror the Angels in only occupying a set number of the Hells rather than being endless like the devils, but any victory against a Demon isn’t a true victory as the damage is done and permanent the moment they set foot in Creation. They always get their due, even if they lose.

          It just seems to me that any true Evil-equivalent opposite to the Choirs should be some combination of what the Devils and the Demons are, rather than apparently just the Devils by themselves.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You miss more metalayer, I think. Below, fundamentally, does not deal in virtue – as in the set of inviolable moral principles rigidly defining good and evil. They, insted, operate in “as long as it works, it’s good”, basically “might makes right” taken to the logical extreme. In that, devils can’t represent any kind of “opposing sin” as you would expect from making obvious Christianic parallels.

            Talking about Christianic parallels, in Christianity, sin and virtue are, though opposing, also fundamentally different concepts. Sins are nature. They are not some kind of creation of Satan, they are inherent characteristic of human and inhuman beings i.e. “original sin”. Virtue is, however, something that can only be found in following the teachings of the Church, and the words of the God. Unlike sin, virtue is fundamentally outside of humanity. We have to reach for it.

            To put into perspective, we already know that Demons represent at least some of christian sins: Sloth (Apathy), Gluttony (Hunger), Wroth (Anger), so it is quite reasonable to assume all seven of them made it into the twenty three of the hells. Along with other things like Terror and Madness, along with Order and Time and Absence, my headcannon is that Demons are the stuff Creation was made out of, or a leftovers after the Creation was made. Or maybe, more creatively, they were the specifically crafted “brushes with paint” that were used to make Creation. No matter the reason, they are inherent to the Creation itself. This is why their “taint” is so pervasive, Creation is like a painting, so if a new layer of paint is put over, it will hid all that was under it forever. And why can’t they paint over each other? Because Demons are both brushes and paint. Not only do they paint things, but everything painted in their color becomes also part of a brush, which paints futher, which… you get it. And well, it ties also neatly into why Light is able to fight Demons and Demonic taint – to get the paint from the picture you need an eraser to just scrap it away. Of course, you can’t really get what was painted over that way, but you can scrap away all the paint.

            Angels, coming over on the second place, are a direct outside attempt to influence those inherent elements of Creation. This is why they are of Creation, but not in Creation – they are also a set of brushes, in that they can paint over the picture, but they can’t be in the picture, because they are not the paint, the angel by itself is just a brush, with a Choir being the source of paint. This is how they can be killed and fallen without Choir diminishing. We know that the Creation is a wager, so Angels are the way to win, by just painting over the Creation whatever Above wants. They are fundamentally the tools for the Gods themselves. Although the number of Choircs may very well be unlimited, they are just the number of paints that a painter can think of while making a painting, they represent what the author wants to see

            Devils, however, do not represent any rigid set of concept. They are not limited by Below’s desire to see something, because Below does not want to paint over the Creation. Instead, Devils are a set of tools given to the denizens of the Creation to paint whatever they want. The number of fundamental concepts Devils represent is infinite, because they represent every mortal concept that can be thought of. Not something as all-encompassing and bland as virtue of Compassion or Endurance. It can be just “desire”, or can be specifically “hunger for fresh blood”.

            So they mirror Angels perfectly, because they are their opposite by the very nature. Angels represent a limited set of rules, used by Above to make Creation how it should be, while Devils represent a freedom of expression, used by people of Creation to make it how they want it to be. I personally think that the wager was about which method is more effective, with Above very smartly and pragmatically taking the “good” concepts, that most denizens of Creation would agree that are worth following. It is like them saying: look, these creatures don’t need free will anyway: we are perfectly capable of making the right choice for them, the choice they would’ve made for themselves anyway. While Below probably argue that there are things Above couldn’t think of ever while being outside of the picture. This is why they conceeded to give Above chance to pick the “best” concepts, because they believe that inherent ingenuity and freedom will still be Chosen by the people of Creation in the end, that they can live their lives just ok without living up to the ideal and unrealistic standarts of virtue that were made up by other people anyway.

            Well that’s my headcannon at the moment, but I am probably wrong anyway.

            Liked by 1 person

      3. He said it dates back to the first Grey Pilgrim, and that Tariq would know what the secret was, so it can’t be that old. I also don’t think it’s another angel corpse – the Pilgrim said that only two Praesi ever managed to harm a choir, and both of those are accounted for.

        Maybe a fragment of the gods, like the one that attacked Thalassina? That would fit with the Dead King’s comment that it would be interesting to the Hierophant.

        That, or something related to the Bard, which is usually a pretty safe bet when you see something you can’t explain but you know it’ll be terrible for everyone.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Salt

          To be fair anything related to Demons is a coinflip for recordkeeping – any time Absence is involved it becomes largely impossible to fully account for anything at all.

          I do think it’ll be something more directly related to Above and Below or the balance of them than something mundane, regardless of potency. There’s too much narrative relation to Above and Below for an angel corpse, for the consequences to be wholly unrelated.

          Like

  1. dadycoool

    It’s interesting how entertaining the image of Cat, Zeze, and ‘Drani playing cheating, loaded dice is. The Woe really does need each other, in ways that are frankly surprising to realize. It’s like they’re each other’s ties to their own humanity or something.

    Liked by 13 people

    1. LizAris

      Yes this reminded me SO much of Sing We of Rage when Warlock described how the Calamities literally can’t play any kind of game without all cheating. it’s absolutely adorable but at the same time makes me heartsick for all Black has lost…

      Liked by 7 people

  2. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    at leas the > at least the
    I’d be a grave > It’d be a grave
    roll over something > roll over for something
    princess’ eyes > princess’s eyes
    At three fingers the chance taken on a fool (is this correct?)
    we’ll proving > we’ll be proving
    was pretty tricky > was a pretty tricky
    willing lose > willing to lose
    quite to soon > quite too soon
    from two of you > from the two of you that
    “Catherine,” she smiled > “Catherine.” She smiled
    I think,” I sighed > I think.” I sighed
    envoys due > envoys are due
    deign indulge > deign to indulge

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Not again!!! How many tiems will you makes us wait anxiously for the next chapter?!!

    As for the chapter i can only say this: I SIMPLY LOVED IT!!!!

    Seeing Masego’s character development is simply beatiful among other things.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ninegardens

    See… here’s the thing I’m trying to figure out with the judgement corpse:
    How does EE make this interesting.
    If its “Oh yeah, the angel corpse is used to nuke/mindcontrol/judge the entire continent”, It’s like “Yeah, okay, sure, we expected that.”

    So What is it that makes it MORE upsetting then “Yup, that’s a superweapon”.

    Is it a superweapon where you gotta sacrifice 1000 innocent kittens first?
    And how’s it supposed to work? Its not like Angels haven’t taken a swipe and Nessie before, so presumably there needs to be something more to it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. alele

      I think it’s the “oh shit!” Calernia Reset button. Leave a couple thousand “good souls” on the continent, “cleanse” the rest. New people and new stories to answer the “riddle of creation”, none of the pesky non-complying people and cultures you have now.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Insanenoodlyguy

        I think you’re onto something. What if it effectively flips the coin in its area of influence? Contrition made a crusade, maybe Judgement makes a purge. So all the evil in the area is destroyed, but so is a vast majority of everything else. Only the most sinless left over, in much smaller numbers. Death of nations. And Bard wanted it because she knew shed be on the chopping block after all she’s done

        Liked by 5 people

    2. mamm0nn

      Cordelia: Soooooooo…. We’ve got a problem.

      *Shows the angel’s corpse.*

      Carved into the angel’s chest: I have died permanently so that Dread Empress Triumphant may never return. Revive or destroy my body, and she too shall rise again.

      Cordelia: *Puppy-dog eyes to Cat* If we use this corpse, would you defeat Empress Triumphant for us? You’re the goddess of blood and dirt, you can do it…

      *Cat points at the P.S.*

      Carved into the chest as well: P.S. Remember that Dread Emperor who’s now the moon? Yeah, he’d return too if I’m raised. And he’s not going to leave the moon behind.

      Cat: Yeah, no.

      Liked by 6 people

        1. Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, tugged her modest cotton nightgown closer together and watched the crescent moon from her rooms above the clouds, near the summit of the Tower. Soninke called it Sorcerous’ Grin, for the eldritch rituals the Emperor had concocted in its light had not been seen since the days of the Miezans. Some said a sliver of the man was still up there, scheming his escape from death.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. That looks like confirmation that Mirror Knight is going to have trouble from more than just Hanno over his behavior.

    It’s good to see Viv again, and good that the Woe is getting back together at last.

    Juniper still hasn’t fully recovered from Malicia’s mindfuckery? Dammit, Juniper, take the time to finish healing. You’re going to need to be at the very top of your game for the offensive against the Dead King – and I’m certain you’re going to want to be involved in getting revenge on Malicia.

    I kind of expect that this secret the Dead King is spilling is likely to be related to Bard and the secrets he learned about her.
    If there ever was a time he’d be able to find someone to listen to what he has to say about Bard, now is it. Which makes me wonder, just how many of the Grand Alliance’s secrets did Bard leak or arrange to be exposed where the Dead King would learn?

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Salt

      The Bard probably leaked just enough that the Grand Alliance would be driven into a corner by the Dead King, but not enough to truly give him an edge in defeating the Grand Alliance.

      The Bard is actually enemy to the Dead King as well, so I expect that she’s more of a hand on the scales keeping the balance more than anything. She might even be a temporary boon, if Neshamah starts to get too much of an upper hand, I suspect that she acts as a rather heavy restraint on the Dead King just by existing, that stops him from pulling out many of his nastiest tricks.

      As far as Malicia goes, Juniper being so heavily affected by her commands may be a slight advantage for Catherine in the long run. Poetic Justice/deserved retribution tends to give you a little bit of an edge in many stories, and every bit could make the difference. Simply wounding your opponents in a way that causes great suffering but doesn’t cause a lasting permanent loss tends to be a liability that way.

      Cat used it against the Bard herself recently, where her victory was cemented both by the Bard making three mistakes and “the weight of what you did to us”.

      Like

  6. So, these people are back from checking up on a battlefield where the first Grey Pilgrim killed a great many men.
    Something that the Dead King thought would chill them, and make them thankful for Kairos’ actions.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. 'Ladi Williams

      Wait. I think i missed the part of the story where this was…
      What did the dead king do to point them in a direction and how does it concern the first Grey pilgrim.
      Just point me towards the chapter please if you can.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. hakureireimu

        “There is a place,” the last king of Sephirah said, “in the heart of Levant, where the first pilgrim of grey slew many men.”

        Red embers lit the hollow sockets, as the Dead King finally spoke.

        “In that place lies a secret that Tariq Isbili will know,” Neshamah continued, “and it will tell you, should you be clever enough, of the doom you all so narrowly escaped by the grace of Kairos Theodosian.”

        c84: Declaration

        Liked by 6 people

        1. ninegardens

          “By the Grace of Kairos Theodosian”
          -“Grace” and “Kairos” Words no one ever expected to see placed in the same sentence.

          Gods bless that trecherous little gargoyle.

          May he look upon Creation from the Afterlife, and find amusement.

          Liked by 3 people

    1. mamm0nn

      No no, a previous Grey Pilgrim. Specifically the first. The one we know is but one in a string of many. Many Names are like that, almost like the avatar in that there’s ever only one at a time though in this case not with a new one appearing the moment the old one dies.

      Liked by 5 people

  7. It’s one of those things which goes without much commentary for obvious reasons, but the chapters in which tension gets to unwind are really a key component to why PGtE is so good. The pacing they provide is masterfully done, and the characterization and humanization and warmth in them gives the story something it wouldn’t be the same without.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. BritishTeaLover

      I must have missed it, I remember Malicia having implanted orders in high ranking officers, but I can’t remember Juniper being affected (I remember her suspecting she might have been, but not it being confirmed), and I can’t remember these episodes/consequences for the mind control?

      Can anyone give me a link back to when it was mentioned?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Daniel E

        Juniper had herself arrested as she suspected that she was influenced. Although only the Legions of Terror heeded the call to return to the Tower, Malicia’s mind control might have still messed with the Callow loyalty in other ways. This is the first time we’re seeing any mention of it after Cat’s discussion with Pilgrim about removing it.

        Like

  8. Xinci

    Well, it seems Cat retains some semblance of her mentors relationships in how she interacts with Hanno. Using trust as a bridge to make a great institution to reform longstanding issues reminds me of Black and Malicia for sure. I just hope it doesn’t end as tragically here when one of them doesn’t take the leap of faith.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Insanenoodlyguy

    I think you’re onto something. What if it effectively flips the coin in its area of influence? Contrition made a crusade, maybe Judgement makes a purge. So all the evil in the area is destroyed, but so is a vast majority of everything else. Only the most sinless left over, in much smaller numbers. Death of nations. And Bard wanted it because she knew shed be on the chopping block after all she’s done

    Like

  10. Tom

    > The Rogue Sorcerer was pretty tricky sort, for a man who went around in a leather coat shooting fire at people.

    Put it that way and Harry Dresden comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Big Brother

    Little bit of hidden foreshadowing I haven’t seen anyone mention. When Cat’s thinking about Juniper, she brings up that Jun will have plenty of time to heal as the First is currently more beneficial, spread out as they are in noncombative roles, but that would quickly change if they had to march on the Hainaut in the summer.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. spencer

    > the respectable form of theft that was burglary on rooftops for the organized form of theft that was taxation from a palace

    Is a libertarian queen a self-contradiction?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Honestly I’m guessing Catherine’s opinion on the matter would be:

      “Oh yeah, taxation is absolutely theft. It’s very necessary theft however, which benefits people if done for the right reasons and is the cornerstone of any working civilization. Of course the existing incentive structures of nobility typically ensure that the benefits of taxation are only marginally returned to the working class insofar as it maintains their taxable productivity and levy capabilities…” and that’s where she launches into an hour-long lecture at Cardinal.

      The lecture series is called: Taxation, Theft, Trade, and Tyranny – A Helpful How-To.

      Liked by 1 person

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