Chapter 77: Tribulation

“I agree that outliving your enemies is the greatest of revenges, my friend, but we seem to have something of a philosophical difference about how that is to be achieved.”

– Dread Empress Maledicta II

There was a pond on the guildhall’s grounds.

Like everything else in this cursed city, it was dead. The weeds in the drab water had withered, the grass around the rim blackened. Even the mud at the bottom looked darker than it should. But the water was warm, having soaked in the sunlight of the day, and it was a pleasant sensation when I soaked my bad leg in it. I left my boots in the dead grass and looked up at the sky through dead branches reaching out like fingerbones. Something ghosted across the tripwire of Night I’d woven around the thicket, giving me a name before I ever saw a face. It was a short list, the people who would be able to pass with so light a presence. I clutched my silence tight, staring up at the cloudless blue sky as I waited patiently.

“How very carefree,” Akua said. “I am surprised you did not send for a bottle of wine as well.”

I chuckled, eyes staying on the blue.

“I still have duties this evening,” I said, “and drinking half a bottle would make me want to take a nap.”

It was a tempting thought even knowing I did not have the time to spare. Leaning back on the soft ground, my feet in the water and with a belly warmed by wine? It’d be a pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon, even one soon to be shadowed by war. I heard Akua come closer, wondering if the way I’d heard a sound at all was a concession on her part. Back when she’d still had hooks in the Night, her steps had made no sound and left behind no trace. Now, though, who knew?

“Are you done making plans of war, then?” she idly asked.

A little too idly, I decided.

“No,” I said. “We want you with us when we go for the Archmage. Masego made paired stones.”

“You’d have no use of me,” Akua said. “I am without power.”

I blinked in surprise. I’d thought for sure that getting fangs of her own was why she’d disappeared. Peeling my eyes away from the endless blue expanse, I turned and found her leaning against a beech tree. It was a long black dress she wore, with elaborate patterns looking like sunflowers across it all the way to the straps that kept it fastened against her collarbone. Her hair was styled in a manner I’d never seen on her before, closely cut on the left and sweeping towards the right. As was often the way when she preferred her thoughts obscured, her face was unreadable. I cocked my head to the side.

“Are you?” I asked.

She smiled viciously, all the more beautiful for the anger she bared.

“Is this when you speak of the powers of love to me?” Akua asked.

“It’s not a force to be underestimated,” I mildly agreed.

It had kept the Dread Empire of Praes together for forty year, after all, made it the most powerful it had been in centuries. Without Black and Malicia, the genuine trust and affection between them, it would have all collapsed years before the Conquest could begin. And without the Conquest, neither of us would be here under the afternoon sun in faraway Hainaut.

“You do not love me, Catherine,” she said. “In any sense of the word. I am not your friend or your companion, I am the woman who butchered a hundred thousand of your people. I am the doom of Liesse, the mother of the folly you have hung around my neck.”

Her fingers clenched.

“Let us not pretend otherwise,” Akua harshly said. “I tire of the game.”

I studied her for a long moment, finding the anger boiling in her. The confusion too, or perhaps the shame? Even when sentiment peeked through clearly, she was more nuanced a woman than most.

“You know better,” I simply said.

It wouldn’t work if I were lying. If there was not a genuine affection, a genuine attraction. I was not skilled enough a liar to be able to fool her for long. She knew this, too, though she did not want to believe it. But this wasn’t really about me, I decided. It was about her. You are afraid, I thought.

“You made a choice, didn’t you?” I mused.

She flinched. My hands clenched, as I tasted the heady brew that was triumph and grief so deeply intertwined as to be indistinguishable. I’d done it. From here to the end, now, it was all writ.

“I sought the fae,” Akua quietly said. “Through eerie paths. And I found what I wanted: one of them blinded by story, who would not see the knife until it was too late.”

“Power through blood,” I murmured.

Masego had firmly rejected the notion of making up for the loss of his magic by acquiring another power, be it Night or something usurped from some lesser god. It’s not power I want, he’d told me. It is magic, Catherine, and for that there is no replacement. Yet it was not in Masego’s nature to seek dominion, not the way it was in Akua’s. For all that they were both the children of two of some of the most powerful figures in the Wasteland, they had been raised in fundamentally different ways.

“Through murder,” Akua thinly smiled. “As much the transgression as what is offered up. It would have been a… beginning. Once I devoured that strength, it would have been easier to gain more.”

“And yet you didn’t,” I said.

Her face closed.

“I still might.”

I half-smiled. She was always easiest to grasp when she was similar to me, and when I had I ever been above threatening to cut my nose to spite my face?

“And what would that prove?” I asked.

“That I am not weak,” Akua coldly said.

“You say that like there’s only ever one way to be strong,” I replied.

She hesitated. Once upon a time, she might have dismissed that. It was too late now, though. She’d strayed too far from the invisible fences of the Wasteland, seen the greater world beyond and the myriad strange and terrifying entities that strode it. She had seen powers rivalling the greatest of the Old Tyrants, not a single one having walked down their path.

“There’s only one way to claim the Tower,” she said.

Praes has failed, I could have said. Or, why would you want to? Or, why does your mother still rule you?

“And will that satisfy you?” I asked instead.

She did not answer, looking away. The silence stretched out until it was so taut I feared it might snap.

“Your way,” Akua finally said, “it gives nothing. I came back empty-handed.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” I murmured. “You came back after having made a choice, Akua.”

“Is failure a choice, then?” she scorned. “What great revelation did I drag back with me, fleeing like a fearful child?”

I thought of a few moments stolen away before dawn, in the Graveyard’s wake, of the same woman now before me standing above Kairos Theodosian with burning eyes. Of the words she had spoken then, addressed as much to herself as to the Tyrant.

“That you are more than blood,” I said. “That you are more than what they made of you.”

I saw something like hate in her golden eyes when she faced me, but for who I could not tell.

“It wasn’t you,” Akua quietly said. “So do not gloat, even where you think I cannot see. It wasn’t you at all, Catherine.”

I slowly nodded. Her face fell and she looked down at her hands.

“It’s never just power,” she said. “In that much at least you were right. I wanted to take from the fae and wield it as I once did sorcery, but in the end…”

She softly laughed, as if appalled at herself.

“All I could think of was those lessons with my father,” Akua said. “The joy in him, when he shared magic with me.”

She looked away again.

“It would have been ugly, replacing that with a thimble of power earned through cheap murder,” Akua quietly said. “Ugly all the way down.”

You told me about your cradle-sister, once, I thought as I watched her. A girl called Zain, whose throat your mother made you cut when you were barely eight years old. And you told me, after, that your regret about that day was that you cut her shallow. That she bled out slower than she needed to because your hand hadn’t been steady.

“And so now I return to Hainaut, empty-handed and fool,” she scoffed.

Deftly, I went rifling through the many pockets of my cloak until I had what I looked for: two small stones, enchanted by Masego’s own hand. Her set of paired stones. She went still as I reached out, slowly prying her fingers open and pressing them into her palm.

“You returned to us,” I corrected.

And golden eyes searched me, looking for the lie and finding only truth. I had meant every word. And I also thought: if you had to cut her throat again, right now, your hand would tremble.

Her fingers closed around the stone. I withdrew my hand.

I looked up at the blue sky, winning and lost.

“The city was made to be held,” Sapper-General Pickler said. “And if simple force of arms decides this, it will hold. You have my word on that.”

I cut into my slice of beef, chewing thoughtfully. I’d not necessarily meant our shared meal to be about our duties, but I honestly couldn’t recall ever having a meal with Pickler where business wasn’t touched on at some point. I’d never taken it personally, of course. Pickler didn’t draw the line between duty and her personal life the way most people did. To her it was the work that was the centerpiece of her existence and all the rest was secondary. I sometimes wondered if that was why Robber’s long-lasting affections for her had never been reciprocated: romance just wasn’t something she cared enough about to ever put above her tinkering.

Mind you, the goblin ways of romance were alien enough to me that even if they were engaged in a torrid affair I’d find it rather hard to tell. For one, their culture typically drew no direct link between being a romantic couple and being physically intimate. Sex was about breeding and arranged by the Matrons to strengthen bloodlines or alliances, nothing else. My understanding of it was that goblins didn’t really feel physical desire the way most humans or orcs did, so the… impulse just wasn’t there. It was pretty much unheard of for one of their kind to seek a brothel or a fling. It was more of an abstract craving of the other person for them, an itch that didn’t require skin to be scratched.

It’d made me rather curious about exactly what it had entailed when Nauk had been courting Pickler, considering he must have known at least as much about goblins as I did, but I’d never quite dared to ask back when we were at the College. And nowadays, what would be the point? He was long dead, and that wound would never heal if I kept picking at it. It wasn’t mine alone, anyway. For all that Robber had once made sport of Nauk at every occasion, considering him a rival for Pickler’s affections, I could not recall him ever speaking ill of the other man since he’d died. Enemies or not, they had been Rat Company.

That still meant something, to the few of us left.

“It’s different when the enemy doesn’t break,” I reminded her. “The ramp that gets them to the gate is a beautiful killing floor for your engines, but the dead won’t ever flee. It’ll not be waves so much as a wave, uninterrupted.”

“The skeletons aren’t the trouble,” Robber said, unusually serious. “We can handle the Bones and the Binds, Catherine. The constructs will be a little trickier, but you finally let my people off the leash for a reason.”

He bared needle-like fangs in approval. By that he meant I’d cleared all sappers for use of our last goblin munitions, to their riotous cheering. Goblinfire was still restricted, but officers of the rank of tribune and above were allowed to request its deployment in a limited fashion. We’d set aside part of the stock for that purpose, around a third. The rest we had more interesting plans for than just propping up the defence.

“It’s not Hannoven or Rhenia,” I sighed. “The Volignacs didn’t count on the walls cliffside being scaled, or things like beorns and wyrms coming out to play. It’s not the gate I’m worried about so much, it was built expecting a fight. It’s the rest.”

The city of Hannoven was, tales said, essentially a set of ever-taller walls circling a lone mountain. It was widely considered one of the greatest fortresses in all of Calernia even if it had fallen multiple times to ratlings and the Dead King. Rhenia had fallen to neither and was even more daunting a prospect to take: it’d begun as a fortress carved into a cliff but then become a city almost entirely dug within a mountain of solid rock that could be sealed up at will. Both of those great cities had been built without any great weaknesses because the people who’d built them had learned that Keter aways punished weakness. But Hainaut just wasn’t built the same, for all its striking presence.

It just hadn’t had to withstand the same kind of sustained, brutal warfare the Lycaonese cities had. Most of the time undead invasions that’d crossed the lakes and pierced into southern Procer hadn’t even bothered to siege the capital, just gone around the plateau and let the Volignacs hole up in their fortress-city up high. Princess Beatrice had admitted to me that there might actually be some truth to the old unpleasant rumours about some of her ancestors outright letting the dead through when the principalities to the south got too troublesome to deal with. I hoped none of the Lycaonese royals ever heard about that, because it was the sort of thing they would take very badly.

“There’s not much to be done with walls atop a cliff,” Pickler frankly said. “They built with quality stone and saw to the upkeep decently, which passed solid defences on to us. I stand by what I said, Catherine: we can hold this city, so long as Revenants don’t pry it away from us.”

An expectant gaze followed.

“I won’t say the Scourges will be easy meat, or even just the other Revenants,” I told her, “but I believe we can win that fight. We prepared, and we have gathered significant Named talent.”

I held no illusions that we’d win this without casualties, though. At best we’d lose at least a band of five’s worth, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it were more. We were aiming to snap the Dead King’s finest blades, that deed wasn’t going to come cheap. And I’ll bet one or two of the Scourges will get away whatever we do, I thought, so that they can come back to haunt us if our armies ever make it to Keter.

“If you say we can, then I expect we will,” Pickler said, and I started in surprise.

That was pretty effusive by her standards. She’d never been heavy handed with praise, at least outside her fields of interest.

“I do wish we had Juniper and Aisha with us, however,” she wistfully added. “Generals Bagram and Zola are skilled, but it isn’t the same.”

Preaching to the Choir, there.

“Agreed,” I murmured.

“Bagram doesn’t even inspect kits personally,” Robber told us, like this was a great offence.

Way I heard it Juniper had picked up that habit from her mother, General Istrid Knightsbane, but while Bagram had served as Istrid’s right hand for over a decade he did not seem inclined to continue the tradition. Juniper famously had been, and the chewing outs she’d given recruits who got sloppy were still legend among the old crowd from the Fifteenth.

“Juniper’s doing better,” I volunteered. “Last word I got was that she was now able to go several days without episodes.”

By year’s end she should be fit for field command again, though I wasn’t signing off on that until Aisha agreed regardless of what the healers might say. The Hellhound wasn’t above bullying priests or mages into saying what she wanted, but Aisha wasn’t the kind of woman to let herself get forced into saying a damned thing.

“The Peregrine shortchanged us, if it took this long,” Pickler coldly said.

“More like Malicia put her back into fucking with her mind,” Robber darkly replied. “Another account to settle out before the knife is sheathed, Boss. The old girl bled us a few times too many.”

“Praes will be settled,” I evenly said. “By treaties if I can, by the sword if I must.”

A shiver went up my spine and for an instant I almost felt like someone was looking at us. I pricked my ears with Night, but we were alone. My sudden distraction had been missed by neither of the goblins, Robber having already discreetly bared a knife under the table.

“False alarm,” I said, shaking my head. “The wait’s driving me mad, I think.”

“Won’t be long now,” Robber said. “It’s in the air, yeah?”

Pickler bared pale, sharp teeth.

“They have never fought a proper siege against our sappers before, Catherine,” the Sapper-General of Callow said. “And after this, they will never try to again.”

We drank to that, and the meal finished on the high note of Pickler showing me her latest improvements on the contraption of leather bands and steel that she’d first made for me years ago, the device that would send a knife up against my palm if I flicked my wrist just right. They helped me try on, and it was with a smile and a flourish that I revealed a sharp little rib-sticker in goblin steel. It would do nicely, I thought, watching my reflection in the side.

Gods knew I’d not lack use for it.

The moon was out in full.

It’d been days since anyone had glimpsed a single cloud above the capital, day or night, and this high up the sights bared by that absence were always striking. The rampart where I had gone to stand had become my favourite for the way it have me a good look at both Hainaut itself, the island of lights and flames that an inhabited city at night turned into, and the vast expanse of sky above. The stars were visible in a way that they rarely were when standing in a city this size, for the valley around us was a ring of unbroken darkness. The dead saw the same be it night or day, and the forges they used were hidden from our sight. If I let my mind wander I could almost imagine that the city was just an island drifting under the stars, the dark around us nothing but dark and deep waters.

Shadows moved against the darkness, cutting out the lights wherever they passed, but I was not afraid. I knew them too well for that. Two great crows, whose feathers somehow seemed darker than the night sky itself, circled slowly above. They were careful never to leave the sky above the city, where wards made it difficult for the Dead King to attempt anything against them, but that was the only concession to prudence they made. I stayed beneath them, the warmth of the Mantle of Woe pulled tight around me as I pulled at my pipe and let curls of smoke rise up like some fleeting offering to my patronesses. They came to me when they’d had their fill, and in Komena I found vexation at having been denied something to hunt.

The Dead King had robbed the Sisters of any prey they might have sought, killing everything that crawled or swam as far as the eye could see. Their talons had not been red into too long for the Youngest Night’s taste. Sve Noc took to the rampart I was leaning against, each landing on one of my sides in a smooth flurry of feathers, and I almost smiled when I heard those sharp talons rake at the stone. There would be marks. They seemed in no hurry to talk, so silence hung between us for some time as I breathed in wakeleaf and spewed it out over the edge of the wall. There was hardly even a breeze, tonight.

“The war does not go well,” Andronike said.

My fingers tightened around the dragonbone pipe Masego had gifted me. I forced them to loosen, even though what I had been told was nothing less than deadly serious. It was not the war here in the south that the oldest of the sisters would be speaking of.

“How bad?” I quietly asked.

“We sent Vesena Spear-biter and its sigil into the lands of the dead to ravage and draw attention from your own campaign,” Komena said. “All souls were lost.”

I softly swore. The Vesena had never particularly impressed me even before their last defeat, but they had been led by the Seventh General and been one of the great assets of the Empire Ever Dark.

“Radhoste and Jutren were lost as well,” Andronike said. “The Dreamer to a breach in the Gloom, Jutren to an ambush as it pursued.”

That made it the Sixth and Tenth General dead as well. Fuck, the finest of the Firstborn were dropping like flies. I’d thought the northern front halfway under control, what the Hells was happening? The goddesses had never been shy about looking at my thoughts, so I did not need to ask the question to get an answer.

“The Dead King has perfected his answers to Night,” Andronike said. “With every battle fewer of the Secrets work unimpeded. The war cannot linger, First Under the Night.”

“If it lasts too long, we will die out,” Komena harshly said. “Our losses are becoming too great and there are…”

“Concerns,” Andronike finished.

Not here, I would have been tasked to address them. That meant up north again, and there were not many who might trouble the Sisters among their kind.

“Kurosiv?” I quietly asked.

“It is now the First General,” Komena said.

That wasn’t an agreement, not quite, but hardly a denial. I grimaced. Kurosiv the All-Knowing had long been considered a leech by the two Sisters, but not one that it would be easy to remove. It was only going to get worse with time, though. The same stuff of which the apotheosis of Sve Noc was made was what Kurosiv was now hoarding, and though that made the drow powerful it also made the Sisters uniquely vulnerable in some ways. I suspected that swallowing Winter had made them more vulnerable in some ways. That power was not one used to being ruled by the same face for too long, and now that it had been devoured by goddesses of theft and murder expecting loyalty out of it would be naive.

“If we win here decisively, then we can have Hainaut secured by winter,” I said. “After that, when the snows clear, it is Keter we turn to.”

“We are aware,” Andronike said. “It is why we have come, Catherine Foundling. This battle has our full attention.”

My heart skipped a beat and I set down my pipe, studying the crows closer.

“You’re not the same crows that were here before I left for the Arsenal,” I finally said. “How much of you is actually here, Sve Noc?”

The great crows laughed, the sound of it eerily like caws.

“Half,” Komena said.

I froze.

“Of everything?” I hissed out.

“This battle,” Andronike mildly repeated, “has our full attention.”

They had said what they wanted to say, and so found no need to linger. Without bothering with anything as petty as goodbyes, the Sisters dropped off the edge of the rampart and took flight. With dark wings they rose, cutting out even the insolent silver light of the moon as they passed before it. I found my hands were shaking when I picked up my pipe again. I filled it anew, more to have something to do with my hands than hunger for another packet of wakeleaf. Half, Gods save us all. That was… Well, I didn’t have to worry about any of the Firstborn here being raised from the dead at least. The Sisters would nip that right in the bud. And Night taken from the undead would form quickly and smoothly, so there was that as well. It was still a heavy investment on their part, to send half of their divinity so far from their seat of power, and I was not quite sure what had driven them to it.

If Komena alone had come I might have called it recklessness, for she was the more hardheaded of the two, but for Andronike to have committed as well? It meant that they no longer considered the war up north one they might feasibly win alone. They were betting on the Grand Alliance because it was the only good bet left to them, not because they felt a particular fondness for our collection of human realms. I let the smoke calm me, thoughts following down the cascade of consequences that Firstborn reverses implied for the war. It might make the dwarves more reluctant to intervene, I concluded with a grimace. The Kingdom Under wasn’t interested in picking a fight with Neshamah on behalf of an alliance that was losing, they’d made that much clear: a clear shot at the Crown of the Dead was their prerequisite for sending in their own armies.

With the drow front facing defeat and our three southern ones varying in degrees of deadlock, we did not look like a good horse to back from the dwarven perspective. Better for them to avoid all-out war with the Dead King and instead concentrate on the strategy of underground containment they’d been implementing for centuries. I breathed out the smoke, eyes closed. Yeah, with that in perspective I could see why Andronike would agree to investing so heavily here in Hainaut. We were highly unlikely to win this war without dwarven involvement, and if we lost the battle over the capital the chances of the Kingdom Under joining the dance were pretty much nonexistent. They’d be rushing to finish their containment, not sparing time for dying human petty kingdoms.

Gods Below, there was even more riding on the Battle of Hainaut than I’d thought.

I stirred myself out of the contemplative daze I’d been falling into. Hakram would still be awake, I figured, and I wanted to pick his brains about this. Not only would his insight be welcome on the consequences of the drow being driven back, but there might still be time to prepare some last defences for Hainaut. An idea or two were beginning to coalesce in the back of my head, and – and the city light up, flares of red light going up in the sky as trumpets sounded.

Hainaut stirred awake and from the corner of my eye I saw a patrol of fantassins bearing torches run towards me, but it was not them I paid attention to. Hand against the crenellation, I leaned over the edge of the wall and looked down. And there they were, keeping to shadows as they moved: pale skeletons beginning to climb the cliff, like a swarm of ants going up a wall. And beyond them the entire sea of deaths stirred, thousands upon thousands of corpses and monsters all moving as one. Roars shattered the quiet of the night, a chorus of wyrms announcing their presence and their hunger for the destruction to come, and below great ladders of black iron were brought to the fore as Keter began unleashing its preparations.

The battle for Hainaut had begun.

71 thoughts on “Chapter 77: Tribulation

  1. Sinead

    You know, I had had a great conceptual picture of poetic prose to about how the nature of being Named is to take steps on the mountain the seperates the mortals from the Immortals, and that the bindings and pressure of the power shapes you the deeper into it’s grip you go, forging your soul ito the absolutist mould that bears kinship to the Angelic hosts and Infernal hordes. And that while villians have cast down Angels, have any ever made a Devil Rise?

    But **** all that noise!

    AKUA IS GONNA BE THE BEST COMPASSION GIRL!

    Liked by 7 people

    1. I’m pretty sure PGTE continues to not be a cultivation story, and the point remains down here around mortals where power is just a means to very socialist ends…

      But man, Akua swearing to Compassion honestly sounds weirdly less far-fetched than it really should. Cat’s estimation that her hand would tremble again 😀

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Sinead

        I mean, that’s an entirely fair point. I was more going that Akua’s family has been made out to be extremely irredeemable by the traditions they held, and Akua took that philosophy as the basis of her Name as Diabolist, which had to have left it’s mark. It’s all hammy exaggeration on the fact that few villains see value in raising up an enemy, even if in doing so, said enemy will be clapped in chains far stronger and cruel than any of their own devising.

        Really “Akua sworn to Compassion” boils down to my going theory is that Above’s angels appear to “those who need them to exemplify their chosen virtue beyond mortal means”. Willie wanted to be Contrite beyond mortal means in response to his own sins. He did not want any reprieve from owning his sins. Hanno was a broken young man who wanted to be an agent of justice in a way that left no room for doubt that his actions were just (note that this is different from systemic justice). I believe the same can be said for Tariq, though the exact details of his story elude me.

        Akua clings to story and ideals that made her an absolute terror as a Villain. Could she then embrace those ideals of Compassion (I was shown compassion when I deserved it. Who am I to not do the same for others?”)

        I won’t cry foul if it doesn’t pan out, but I will do the hammy hype train until it resolves itself one way or another. Because a) I like Akua’s character arc and b) I am _really_ curious as to what Compassion’s schtick is.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Sinead

        A thought I had that relates to your observation that PGTE is not a cultivation story. While I agree with that, I think where I got the idea from my description is from the Augur’s reflection of “the trap built into Creation”. I have always read that to be all Named (especially in the context of the climax of the story) rather than just a trap for those like the Wandering Bard. Those best to pursue and answer the Great Question(s) of Creation are granted the power and influence to chamipon their line of thought, but are also bound more tightly to the world in doing so.

        I agree that it isn’t a cultivation story because the power is always granted from an external source (regardless of Amadeus’ “coronation vs. recognition” distinction of Heroes and Villains).

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Amadeus was talking from his ass very much when he said that, desperately dancing around “I don’t actually like Below’s philosophy and I don’t champion it in any meaningful sense, I’m actually trying to do a revolution over here” because he isn’t going to just say that.

          Anyway.

          Yeah.

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          1. Sinead

            Good point their, although it always sounded to me that the “Coronation vs. seizing power” is how most people seem to view the difference between the factions, which is why I used it.

            Amadeus is very much a Hero, in the sense of being a champion of the people. However, his people are Praes. Cat has made the mental shift of extrapolating this philosophy to the entire continent, even if she holds Callow in her heart.

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            1. Yeah lol that’s also why Amadeus said that, he was reaching for cliches to get to his point without actually saying anything that would make him look good XD

              But I don’t think there is a real consistent difference there. Each story is specific, and commonalities between Good stories are generally a different set than commonalilties between Evil stories, there isn’t a fundamental difference XD

              I’m not sure if “external power source” is a meaningful distinction there, though. The way I see it, the power source is the very fabric of the world, the “narrativium” mechanic bulit into it. I guess that’s philosophically different from internal qi that’s yours to manipulate on a fundamental level… it just feels like Guideverse could support cultivation, too, if that was the story somewhere XD

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      1. Sinead

        She didn’t take a life here, when she was free to do what ever she desired. She is also labelled by many to be one of the greatest monsters in Creation, even though she was granted this second chance at existence. Akua hasn’t fully embraced the damage of her Folly in terms of the fact that she annihilated a city. If her looking at binding a fae in a story of false friendship (as someone else pointed out, a simulation of trying to kill Cat), what happens when she extends this line of thought to the rest of her actions?

        Besides, others have pointed out that while Cat’s plan has worked in the broad strokes, her expectations of the little details are often off. Having Akua turn to Compassion for atonement and not Contrition (in approach, not the Choir) would be a similar thing.

        I am not saying it’s not a long shot. I’m just saying that it would be a glorious landing if it is true.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    I had I > had I
    and fool > and a fool
    me try on > me try it on
    it have me > it gave me
    into too > in too
    Not here, I > Not here; I
    city light up > city lit up
    sea of deaths > sea of death

    Liked by 2 people

  3. edrey

    Akua is just great and way too sad.
    So, who was spying cat? The varlet, the bard, the heavens or the Dk, that is very suspicious. There are too many actors in this story who can do it but why this conversation? I feel foreshadowing here.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Frivolous

      edrey: I believe that was Cat’s approaching Name that she felt looking at her.

      Her new Name first sparked when she declared to Tariq and Hanno that she would put the East in order. This new feeling of being looked at echoes the same.

      Or it could have been someone scrying on her, maybe Malicia.

      In other news: It bothers me that Kurosiv the All-Knowing is ascending. I interpret that he is capable of usurping Sve Noc. This would be bad.

      On the other hand, if Cat or someone else can learn to reverse engineer Keter’s so-called answers to Night, Kurosiv won’t be so much of a problem.

      I suspect that with sufficient free time Masego could concoct a final solution to Kurosiv. Anyone who could solve the problem of how to keep the Wandering Bard from disappearing should be able to solve the so-called leech.

      Liked by 8 people

  4. Om nom nom.

    I’ll admit I thought this would happen, like, four chapters ago, but HELL IF THIS BATTLE DOESN’T DESERVE AN ARC OF BUILD-UP.

    And Akua ❤ ❤ ❤
    I love how Cat cannot really predict her. She knows the broad strokes of what Akua's going through, but she got multiple surprises here at the end for how exactly it went. It wasn't all according to plan so much as… Cat bet on inevitability, and was proven right.

    And no, it wasn't for her sake that Akua did this at all. From the start, this was her own struggle. From Book 3, when she asked Fasili if he ever got tired. From when she was eight and first got grievously wounded by the system she was asked to uphold and glorify. From when she went looking for expunged records and found a cautionary story about what happens to those that run away, conveniently leaving out that he had a family and Sahelians never managed to do anything much to it.

    Cat provided the environment for Akua to fight this battle in, but if one of them was doing this for love of the other… well, both, either or neither, really. They both had their own reasons, and they both care.

    And Cat's a dumbass, but it's okay, because she's not alone and doesn't have to do everything herself. She can just… count on people, and it'll be fine.

    And Akua gets to wield Arsenal-grade artifice nasties, I'm guessing 😀

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Hmm… I wonder if Akua’s story is going to steady her hand, or play up that deep down, she does have a heart.

    The Crows investing Half of themselves in this is concerning. It’s a serious gamble, and more than a few stories come to mind in which one or the other halves is lost in some way. Also, the mention of countermeasures to the Night and Keter attacking when Night is strongest is *concerning*.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Frivolous

      Burlyraven: I know I’m concerned.

      This chapter strongly delineates the limits of Night and of Sve Noc. Sve Noc and the drow don’t seem to have any resources besides Night. That’s a terrible weakness. No versatility.

      I think that, if Sve Noc has any foresight at all, they must mull over the necessity of diversifying their portfolio, so to speak. They need to learn to do other things besides Night. If they don’t, sooner or later they’re doomed.

      I mean, the fact that Keter only took a few years to engineer a strong and reliable counter to all the facets of Night is alarming, considering Keter is mostly dumb and uncreative undead.

      Compare that to the Alliance, which took many many living regular and Gifted and especially Named minds to generate the copperstones, the Unravelers, the Severance, and Quartered Seasons in the same span of time, even though living minds are better at learning and innovating.

      It could be that Keter’s being ruled by the Dead King, who doesn’t have to argue or do diplomacy with anyone else, makes Keter’s Research and Development more effective than the Alliance, which is made of multiple sovereign nations.

      However, my feeling is that Keter has many more legs to its power base than the drow, who make do with Night alone.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Alternatively, Sve Noc can lean into the overspecialization and count on having allies to have their back. Sometimes, weakness IS strength: “you could beat us if you wanted but it’d cost you all the support we can provide with our specialty so y’know do the math” + “well YEAH we arent really a danger to you. We’re just really really useful 🙂 “

        Liked by 2 people

      2. caoimhinh

        “Keter is mostly dumb and uncreative undead”

        No, it isn’t.
        That’s judging a civilization by its armies. Which, while useful in some ways, it’s not a way to accurately grasp.

        Keter has the most accomplished sorcerer in Calernia’s history, Neshamah.
        It has countless bound souls and Revenants that have been exploited throughout the centuries, and it has the Serenity, which is filled with living people among whom very well might be thousands upon thousands of practitioners of magic who have been tutored in magic by Trismegistus himself through millennia.

        Besides, I have been telling this for a while, Catherine and everyone else is so convinced Neshamah can’t learn in a meaningful way or change his ways, yet we consistently see him do that. He can learn, we have seen him learn. Even if things like his personality might be stuck forever unchanging, he is constantly learning and improving. He is constantly creating new constructs of undead, new wards, new spells, and new artifacts. How is that not learning? How is that just a bunch of dumb and uncreative undead? We even have confirmation of him experimenting and making trial runs for new runed artifacts and slowly improve them and developing new ways to fight Night.

        It is undeniable that he learns.

        Cat is just in denial or too stuck in the ways of what the Bard said about him being unable to grow.
        The Dead King is not like any other undead, because he reached Apotheosis through his undeath, he is on a league of his own. Cat’s thoughts on how Neshamah surely is simply letting the Revenants do the planning and strategizing and thus Keter “learns” through that indirect means, seems like she is oversimplifying things.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Cat’s splitting a very fine hair wrt Neshamah learning.

          He can improve skills he already his. He can pick up tricks and invent schemes.

          He cannot gain entirely new skills, cannot master new mindsets. All his gains are on top of his old mindset. Picking up a new profession entirely requires changing how you think in a way that he’s not capable of. So he can do anything that “a really powerful and cunning sorceror” can do, but a war general? He cannot become one, he can only ever be a really powerful and cunning sorceror acting like one.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. caoimhinh

    Question 1: how is that Drow so dangerous, exactly?
    Cat has been very vague about it, and how it is a leech, but why is it difficult to dispose of? Sve Noc should be able to rip the Night out of it and be done with it. So why aren’t they capable of that?

    Question 2: Did Akua run a sort of simulation of herself and Catherine through that Fae she found? I don’t know if maybe I’m reading too much into it, but hear me out.

    “I sought the fae. Through eerie paths. And I found what I wanted: one of them blinded by story, who would not see the knife until it was too late.”

    What story is that? A story of trust and treason, of course. It would mirror her relationship with Cat to a degree, where she is always walking the line between loyalty and betrayal, always standing on the edge of that moment of treason with a concealed knight, always deciding to not do it. Until she does.

    “(Power) Through murder. As much the transgression as what is offered up. It would have been a… beginning. Once I devoured that strength, it would have been easier to gain more.”

    Yet Akua refused to walk that line, to the point that even in the parallelism and simulation story that the Fae would be walking to fall victim of Akua, she failed to carry on with it.

    “Your way gives nothing. I came back empty-handed.”

    She gains nothing from remaining loyal, she obtains no new strength, no sudden source of power. Nothing, except having made the choice. And maybe keeping what she now has.

    This phrase picks my interest:
    “It wasn’t you. So do not gloat, even where you think I cannot see. It wasn’t you at all, Catherine.”

    What exactly is she talking about here?

    Like

    1. What agumentic said. Akua stepped back from killing because of memories of her father, and Catherine had only the most indirect relation to it – that of encouraging her to rediscover her own emotions and her own self and act on it. She didn’t do it for Catherine’s sake, to make Catherine like her, because of what Catherine said or anything like that. She would do it to spite Catherine, but her own unrelated sentiment stopped her.

      Of course, that was just as planned ™ on Catherine’s part, but it’s still significant for Akua that as far as Power of Love involved goes, hers was her for her family, not for Cat.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. About the Drow there could be many reasons but my guess is that divinity comes with rules and if they break them they will be i deep shit, for example it may be a case of hoist by their own petard in that he isn’t doing anything against their teachings and if they remove him without reason or pretext (and even then it would need to be a good one) there could be consequences.

      Plus he could be efective and losing him without a replacement when they already lost 3 generals could be too dangerous.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Andrew Smith

        Also like Cat said the Night was already a power of taking from others so more than most other kind of powers it would be able to change the face of the greatest holder of it and then they took in Winter a power that straight up is used to having different faces in charge of it

        Like

  7. Xinci

    Hm, so it seems like Cat has gotten Akua to go down the new growth route, which I presume inevitably will be rife with strife and struggle and involve Akua cutting ties/and or being hurt herself to achieve it(much in the same way Cat too has self-mutilated to achieve her goals).

    Well unsurprisingly Sve’s maladaptive allocation style is getting them exterminated. It isn’t adapted in any way for a non-closed system where its the sole methodology. The sigils betting methods may act as a manner of diversification but it is slow forming. A nice thing in peace or for petty raids, but not in a methodological arms race between frameworks. Such organization is nice but the bedrock of information transfer isnt there to improve every group of drow for every iteration. A chance was had to reform the allocation methods of secrets or at least generation of secrets to aid in larger cooperative and aid the Drow in emergently self organizing specialized groups specializing against against specific foes(much in the way the Longstriders were specialized against Mighty). But this wasnt done so now they suffer.

    Like

    1. > A chance was had to reform the allocation methods of secrets or at least generation of secrets to aid in larger cooperative and aid the Drow in emergently self organizing specialized groups specializing against against specific foes(much in the way the Longstriders were specialized against Mighty). But this wasnt done so now they suffer.

      What do you mean?

      Like

    2. Darkening

      The drow have all sorts of different specialties, that’s the point of the different generals that all have their own combat styles for their armies and tribes. Sve Noc even says, the secrets weren’t all countered at once, it’s a process where every battle a few more get more neutralized. The problem is that they don’t have traditional magic, just night, so all their power stems from one source. Given time, they could probably develop more mundane tactics that would let them fight without leaning on Night so much, but that’s a process that would take experienced commanders and years of training, which is not exactly readily available while fighting an extinction war for a couple years.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sinead

        You should give them the grace then that they never left a =n extinction war since the Sisters struck their bargain with Below.

        It was just a civil war then.

        I suspect that they used to have sorcery, but Secrets of Night system converts the spells to Night secrets. That’s the only way I can think of for Secrets to be wide spread, when most drow are killed for their knowledge instead of teaching and training. The Secrets must have origin from some form of education system, and I don’t think Night existed in even the proto form that Cat first encountered during the time of the Twilight Sages.

        Like

  8. Finally!! Who wants to bet on who’s interude we see first and the POV used? In such a big battle they are necesary.

    And since a loty has been talked about it i will just add (or re add since it is posible someone mentioned it already) Cat has made a weapon out of Akua, she is firmly in the redemption equals death path i think, if she survives the battle it will be a miracle.

    My guess is she dies in a pivotal role/point and Cat gets her name finally

    Like

  9. Sinead

    I wonder if Sve Noc could work around the nature of Winter being “ever changing faces” by just cycling between the two of them as the predominant face of Night? I think as deities, they have enough base archetypes split between them, that an internal cycle would resolve the issue.

    Of course, they need to correct for the issue of their First General, and I would think that if Cat pulls through on this, you may see Sve Noc gaining more personal power and influence to deal with their First General. The majority of the Drow is in the North, but Losara (Cat’s attempt at a formal priesthood) is all in the south. So a consolidation of power here may also lead to a consolidation of power within her new system. If she cedes the mantle of First Under Night (my guess is that it will go to Ivah) then it could be that the drow will head North over the winter to refortify the Duskwood.

    What I wonder is if Sve Noc will diversify in terms of allowing non-Drow Sigils to form. I like Cat wielding Night. It will be a shame if she loses it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. nomedeplume

    Cat’s comments on Praes recall the old line about the Romans, “they created a wasteland, and called it peace.”

    Could mean she’s headed towards a name like”Peacemaker.” Still a name sworn to below, as she’s perfectly willing to burn a nation, if it means peace in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Daniel E

    This feels like exactly the kind of fight that Juniper could make or break, and yet she remains sidelined. Like the loss of the most brilliant strategic mind of a generation has just been completely shrugged off. At this point, I don’t think her making a return will matter in the slightest, given how casually she has been written off.

    Like

    1. They have a lot of good strategic minds, and it feels like another brilliant one just wouldn’t change a lot on the scale of this battle. It’ll be made or broken by Named on both sides, and that really isn’t Juniper’s song and dance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sinead

        Also Juniper was behind a lot of this approach, so there could be elements of her work in here.

        I think Juniper will be part of “..with a sword if necessary.” , since her arc started out with loyalty to the Empire.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Sinead

            True. I was thinking of Marchford where Juniper has demands from Cat they will not march against the Empire (she didn’t want to fight her mother at the time, but I think just the principle mattered to her too).

            Now though… she may have plans already available when Cat comes stating that they need to march on Praes.

            *Cue thought train going fully off the rails, Ozzy Osbourne blazing loudly*

            I just like the idea of Cat expecting to have _another_ grueling war, and then Juniper slams down a comprehensive invasion plan of Praes because she was left to her own devices and wants to get back at the Tower for one betrayal too many.

            Cue an interlude or two for the other factions to reflect on the incoming invasion, and then back to Cat wondering if Amadeus ever found himself utterly terrified by General Grem.

            Instead of Cat climbing the Tower, Callow’s First Army gains the cognomen “Victorius” as they tear down the Tower, may it never be raised again.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

              (Also, let me check that conversation now…)

              > “I will not see the Fifteenth turn on the Empire while I breathe,” Juniper said and her voice was like bedstone.

              > “I’m not rebelling,” I told her, meeting her eyes. “I’m not asking you to fight your mother, Juniper. Or you your family, Aisha. But things can’t continue as they’ve gone on. Not anymore. Not after all the lines they’ve crossed.”

              …right, Catherine was talking about Istrid, Juniper about the Empire. You’re right!

              and then I kept reading because I love that scene

              > And just like that, there was only one. Juniper was close, had been this whole time, but she’d not moved in a while. She came closer to me, spine straight but shoulders tight.
              >
              > “Swear to me, Catherine,” she said hoarsely. “Not my mother. Not any of them. That they won’t be the enemy.”
              >
              > “I swear,” I told her, and offered my arm.

              …we were both right lmao

              Like

              1. Sinead

                Huh, violent agreement.

                (If you wonder why I don’t just hit like on things, my WordPress account formed via this comment section exists, but I’ve ended in a Catch 22 trting to resolve it. It’s the damndest thing).

                Liked by 1 person

                1. I have a principle to not track who ISN’T pressing like or something like that as a principle lmao that sounds like a good way to create drama out of absolutely nothing and some badly working internet or something

                  Like

                  1. Sinead

                    True. I was more reflecting on the fact that the “like” system is more important in a comment section like WordPress due to the visual space taken up by every comment. It’s something I notice every time I end up chiming in with a two word piece.

                    Then again, I could just stop viewing this site on mobile and that would solve nearly all my problems…

                    Liked by 1 person

  12. Lucy Rose

    I feel like this is the beginning of a Pattern of 3. If the Dead King unveils a secret weapon and by treachery turns this into a decisive loss, then the Grand Alliance will be hunted and fleeing with no allies to turn to. That sets them up for a direct march into Keter, with no options available but to take the fight to him. If they fight there, they get rebuffed but manage to deal blows to the dead forces as well, for a draw. Then, they sweep into the capital in a last ditch effort, under cover of night. They storm the castle, but become surrounded. As the sun rises, all those allies who previously turned from them, the dwarves, the goblins, etc, flood into the scene and rescue the Grand Alliance, and the fight is taken straight to the Throne where the Dead King is beheaded in a decisive victory.

    Like

    1. > I feel like this is the beginning of a Pattern of 3.

      It’s not.

      If they lose there, they’ll be wiped out. There is no recovery. They’ll lose the army, then they’ll lose the defensive lines, then they’ll lose the war. Dwarves won’t interfere, the drow are losing too. This is legitimately the ONLY chance. If they lose they won’t HAVE an army to invade Keter with. Not a sufficiently big one. And they can’t do shit there without a sufficiently big one.

      This loss will send them into a death spiral. DK knows his shit. He’s not setting them up for a victory with any defeat he ever inflicts.

      Not to mention, a Pattern of 3 is between two specific people who are rivals. Not between factions. It just doesn’t work like that.

      Like

  13. Sinead

    Since Creation is a giant philosophical question, I always read patterns of 3 as the beats in a specific argument, the fact that it’s “loss draw victory” or “victory draw defeat” is more to do with the fact that the villains that make it through the claimant stage are usually rising a high in a place with little resistance until a Hero arises (the reason that Tariq and Laurence were notable is that they basically did a zero tolerance policy on any villain rising, forcing even those that did survive them to keep on the down low. Hell, one can look at their time as an example of what a form of the Accords could achieve. Similar to Malicia and Amadeus keeping Heroes in line to keep their version of the Peace.)

    I would think that “loss draw victory” is more to do with the fact that letting an opponet survive allows them to be shaped into something specifically aimed to defeat you rather than anything specific to “Heroic narrative”. It’s just that Above had it’s argument all laid out in the beginning, while Below keeps chucking stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

    Like

  14. aran

    Her hair was styled in a manner I’d never seen on her before, closely cut on the left and sweeping towards the right.

    She didn’t leave to get more power, but to get a more lesbian haircut; oh my~

    Like

  15. aran

    Praes has failed, I could have said. Or, why would you want to? Or, why does your mother still rule you?

    “And will that satisfy you?” I asked instead.

    I like that we see the rejected dialogue options

    Like

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