Interlude: Woeful

“Hardship does not create valour any more than rivers create fish. It is simply a circumstance where the valorous reveal themselves, and it would be a mistake to believe that what misery or ruin unveil could not also be brought into the light by love or duty.”

–  King Albert Fairfax of Callow, the Thrice-Invaded

Guillaume screamed in terror as he scraped desperately at the floor, trying to keep the winds from snatching him up in their like they had Leonie. His fingers were raw and bloody, the cut on his face was aching something fierce, he’d dropped his sword and Heavens it just wasn’t going to be enough.  He could feel the wind pulling at his feet, as if trying to drag him into the sky. The gales were thick with ash and dust, hard to peer through, but Guillaume had seen his friends go up into the whirlwind and never seen any of them return. It would be death if he went up. So he kept crawling forward as the cacophony of wind blotted out the rest of the world, like a fish fighting the current, but he was feeling a tug on his legs as the strength of the storm grew and – and, somehow, his hands had reached into a bubble of calm.

He did not waste time questioning the miracle, only dragging himself forward along the floor with the last of his strength as he panted and grunted and half-wept in relief. A hand grabbed him by the collar and he started in surprise, but he did not resist after realizing he was being dragged further into the bubble. There was not a trace of the winds here, he realized, and even the screams of the storm were muted. Guillaume looked up, his face covered in cold sweat and his arms still trembling, following the sight of a bracer-clad arm over a black gambeson up to a steel cuirass and then something that was impossible to mistake: a great black cloak with a patchwork of many colours stitched on, banners and stranger things.

The Mantle of Woe, he’d heard Callowans call it. And so it was the Black Queen’s brown eyes considering him, set in a hard and angular face that seemed like it had been shaped to keep a frown. Guillaume shivered. They said the Queen of Callow was kind to the commons, but she was still one of the Damned and who would tell if she decided to take his soul now?

“Your Majesty,” he stammered, “I-”

Idly she flicked a finger at his forehead, the lights dimming around them, and Guillaume felt something cold slither through his veins and all the way up his face. Like a coiled snake, it waited under his cheek near his wound.

“That’ll stop the bleeding,” the Black Queen said, in slightly accented Chantant. “But you’ll still need to get it healed or it’ll infect.”

Guillaume dragged himself up halfway to sitting, gingerly touching the edges of the deep cut on his cheek and finding that it no longer bled or stung. There was a cool, pleasant numbness instead when he prodded. Thanks stumbled out of his mouth and she offered half a nod before rising from her crouch, leaning heavily on a long staff of dead wood that gave off a sense of… solidity that one did not often find in dead things. The queen suddenly cocked her head to the side, as if she’d heard something he had not. He pricked his ear even as he pushed himself further away from the edge of the bubble, but he heard nothing aside from the distant screaming of the winds.

“Good, the Drake was overdue,” the Black Queen said, speaking to thin air. “And Ishaq said they got the Hawk as well?”

There was a silence, then the queen grimaced.

“I don’t care what the Artificer says, Hakram,” she said.  “Even if the Hashamallim themselves came down from the Heavens and personally pissed that Light, unless we see that body burn with our own eyes then the Hawk isn’t dead. Pass the word to keep an eye out for her.”

Merciful Heavens, Guillaume shivered. Were they all doomed, had the Black Queen had gone made and now spoke to the wind? Or had her powers grown so fearful that she could speak to others who were far away? He was not sure which thought scared him more.

“Your Majesty,” he tried. “I do not-”

Dark eyes turned to him.

“Be silent for a bit,” the Black Queen said. “No, not you. There’s this-”

She cocked an eyebrow.

“What’s your name?”

“Guillaume,” he slowly said.

She cast a glance at his equipment, the worried gambeson and dull cuirass that looked so shoddy compared to her own.

“Brabantine?” she guessed.

“I am,” he said.

“A conscript named Guillaume stumbled into my stillness bubble,” she told the air. “But never mind that. Does Archer have eyes on them?”

After a moment, she blinked in surprise.

“The Archmage came up himself?” she said. “Shit. They’re going for a major breach, then, he wouldn’t come personally unless he expected to have room to cast in. Who’s the other one?”

Guillaume had, without even noticing it, lowered his guard. He must have, or else why would he feel his entire body clenching at the sight before him? The easy expression on the Black Queen’s face went up in smoke, revealing a face that was all hard iron. Starlight dimmed around them, as if shying away in fear.

“Meant for Ishaq’s band to get him, but we’ll do,” the Queen of Callow evenly said. “’Drani knows?”

A heartbeat, then she nodded.

“Good,” the Black Queen said. “She can take the vanguard.”

Sahelian confirmed it,” Hakram’s voice spoke into her ear. “It’s the Pale Knight with the Archmage. Catherine leaves the vanguard to you.”

Indrani hadn’t needed Flighty Fantom’s say-so to be sure of what it was she was looking it at, but Cat letting her start off the waltz was good news. So long as that damned storm was swirling about, she couldn’t do much with her bow anyway. After the first and only time she’d been able to put an arrow in the Archmage by Seeing a weak point in the winds, the Revenant had rebuilt his usual storm defence from the ground up so there would be no repeat. The most irritating part seemed that the Archmage was now seemingly able to bring other Revenants into its storm to protect them, which he hadn’t been able to a few months back. The defences had improved again.

She was going to have to carve an opening with her swordarm.

“Got it,” Indrani quietly replied, letting the paired stone carry her words.

She unstrung her bow, as it’d make for too easy a target otherwise, and slid it against her back in the leather sheath she’d made. Crouched atop the bastion to the north of the one that’d fallen to the assault of the Scourges, Archer studied the grounds she was going to have to assault once last time. The ramparts of Hainaut had fewer bastions than most walls, though she wasn’t Cat or Hakram so she had no real idea why, but the way they were made was pretty straightforward. Two levels: the lower one accessible from the rampart themselves through gates on each side and the upper one accessible through stairs leading up from inside. Easy grounds to defend.

Trouble was that the dead had come from above, directly on the flat grounds of the upper level, so it was them that were defending. Might still be some soldiers huddled up below, since the Revenants seemed more interested in allowing iron ladders to land on the wall than pushing their advantage, but they wouldn’t last long one the dead got to clearing them out. Indrani wasn’t worried about the skeletons coming up the ladders, but she didn’t like the look of that storm: not only was it spreading out from the bastion on which it was centered, the winds seemed to be getting stronger. If she tried to walk her way to the lower bastion, she risked getting caught up in that.

She narrowed her eyes, trying out a Stride along the path. The feeling wasn’t as clear as when she used the aspect when journeying, but it still tended to give a hint – and this time, the sensation was that of a broken path. Yeah, like she’d thought those winds were going to be a headache. Fortunately, just because she had to go on foot didn’t mean she had to take this particular. Between See and Stride, finding the thin places between Creation and the Ways had always been staggeringly easy to her and tonight was no exception: a little below her perch, two feet forward and five feet off the ground, there was a weakness. Someone must have used powerful magic there earlier, it had that kind of a taste.

Would it get her where she needed to go? Indrani listened to the pulse of her aspects carefully, then nodded in satisfaction. Close enough.

“Going,” Archer told Hakram through the stones. “I’m using the Ways, and tell them to be careful with those winds. I think the storm is growing.”

She did not wait for an answer before leaping down, tumbling through the thin veil on the Pattern even as she reached for her longknives. The Pale Knight was at hand, finally.

Time to teach the Scourge that killing Lysander had been a very fatal mistake.

The connection severed itself before he could sever it, which Adjutant took to mean Archer had entered the Twilight Ways.

It wouldn’t be long before she popped out in the middle of the enemy then, as had been her wont since she’d learned she had a knack for ‘sidling’. Unlike using gates it wouldn’t forewarn the Revenants, another reason that Indrani was best suited among them to taking the vanguard. Even if he’d still had both his legs, he wouldn’t have been able to… Hakram forced himself to concentrate on the here and now. Too often these days did his thoughts take him down fruitless paths. Fingers pressing on another stone, the orc linked to Catherine.

“Indrani is moving, using the Ways,” he told her. “You need to prepare.”

I hear you,” she replied. “Is Masego ready as well?”

That was the essence of their striking plan, after all. Indrani was to interrupt the Archmage’s casting of the storm, freeing Catherine and Masego to hammer both Scourges immediately with strong workings. From there the plan grew… fluid, as things grew harder to anticipate, but there were ideas that’d been discussed.

“All he needs is my signal,” Hakram replied.

Then let’s get this going,” Catherine replied, severing the link.

From her tone, the orc decided, she’d be smiling. He found he was as well. Grim as the circumstances were, it had been too long since the Woe had fought as one. That Vivienne’s skulking would be replaced by Akua Sahelian’s was not an improvement to his eyes, but these days Vivienne had duties of her own and – and it seemed that Sahelian wanted to speak. He touched the corresponding tone, and immediately her smooth speaking voice resonated in his ear.

I have eyes on the undead climbing the ladders,” the shade said. “Most are unarmoured, not shock troops, and they appear to be bringing up barrels. Should I risk a closer look?”

In most battles, it was Catherine that would have made such a call. Weighed the risks and benefits, then send out another to see her will through. Tonight, though, the burden fell on him. With the Woe being split among so many places, there could be no easy coordination save through the artefact Hierophant had crafted for that very purpose. That also meant that the one handling the artefact would make decision that would, typically, belong to the leader of their band. Hakram had been unsure of his own feelings, when Catherine had pressed the duty onto him. On one hand, it was a mark of great trust on her part. On the other, it seemed like an assignment perfectly tailored to keep him away from the fighting.

“Do it,” Adjutant gravelled. “Archer’s going in, we need no surprises.”

As you say,” Sahelian replied.

It had been the delayed realization that someone would have to take up this task even if he refused it that settled the matter for him, in truth. And that anybody but him would either understand the Woe less, be distrusted by Catherine to see this done properly or be Vivienne Dartwick, who was needed to keep an eye on the Army of Callow in their stead. That the work existed beyond him, that it was not simply made to tuck him aside safely, had soothed the ugly assumptions that had been lurking in the back of his mind. He was shaken out of his thoughts by footsteps, one of his goblin attendants scuttling up the ladder leading up to the belfry overlooking the western rampart where he’d set up.

“Word from the streets,” Lieutenant Tweaker called out, popping her head over the edge. “All invading gates are closed but two, and Beatrice Volignac is wounded but alive.”

Hakram nodded.

“Time estimate for the last two?” he asked.

“The Rogue Sorcerer is headed for the first one, so not long,” the goblin replied. “The other is still disgorging soldiers, though, so only when the Levantines get to-”

The head popped away and there was some chatter further down before it popped back up.

“The Peregrine took care of it,” Lieutenant Tweaker corrected. “Only the Sorcerer’s left now, a half hour at most.”

“Keep me informed,” Adjutant simply replied.

“That’s the aim, sir,” the goblin grinned.

He snorted, eyes returning to the rampart where a storm still raged, but the calm was not to last.

Ah,” Akua Sahelian suddenly breathed into his ear. “There appears to be something of a complication, Adjutant.”

“Define complication,” Hakram warily said.

I have obtained one of the barrels in question,” the shade said, “and just opened it. While I’ve no alchemical kit at hand, I do believe this is highly concentrated poison gas.”

It fell into place a moment later. The storm growing, how the Scourges had been remarkably defensive in stance after their initial overwhelming strike. The Archmage had not begun to unleash offensive magics because he was about to turn his storm into one, by making the winds poisonous.

“Can you delay this?” Hakram asked.

The fingers of his dead hand, one of two, drummed against the end of the arm of his wheelchair – a small sculpted skull that Masego had been kind enough to add at his request.

“Unlikely,” Akua Sahelian replied. “My acquisition of the barrel did not go unremarked, and I am now pursued by an entire flock of –”

There was a loud screech on the other side, followed by some very unflattering comments about vultures and baldness in Mthethwa that he suspected the shade had not actually meant for him to hear. Either way, it was now clear who the information needed to be passed on to.

Hakram’s fingers found the stone and the dance began anew.

Guillaume would, in the safety of his own mind, admit to being curious as to why the Black Queen was just standing there and waiting. He wasn’t fool enough to ask, though, or to look in the mouth the horse that was her continued presence here warding danger away.  Guillaume had been born in a proper town, been taught some letters by the House of Light, so he wasn’t some countryside yokel. Most of the stories about the Black Queen had to be guff. Tales swapped around camp fires, getting bigger with time or just invented wholesale – for some reason, some of the easterners kept insisting the queen had castrated an ogre in single combat. There had to be some truth to them, though, ands Gods knew there weren’t a lot of monsters out there that the Queen of Callow wouldn’t make think twice.

That was reassuring, in a grim sort of way, which had Guillaume wondering if he had not ferreted out the quintessence of what it meant to be Callowan.

“You’ll need to run when we lift the storm.”

Jolted out of his philosophical musings, Guillaume started and turned to look at the Damned that’d addressed him. The queen looked tense, face set in that frown again, but not otherwise particularly concerned. It was kind of soothing, to have someone around looking at the end times like they were some sort of irritating inconvenience instead of the end of the world.

“You don’t need to tell me twice,” Guillaume feelingly said, then bit his lip. “I didn’t ask, Your Majesty, but my company…”

“If they were on the rampart, they’re dead,” the Black Queen replied, not unkindly, suddenly then raised a finger to silence him. “I’m listening.”

There was a long pause.

“And Akua thinks the winds will carry it?” the queen quietly asked.

Guillaume blinked in confusion. He’d never heard of anyone of that name, though he then reminded himself it was exceedingly unwise to eavesdrop too hard here. Boys from proper little towns like him weren’t meant to hear royal conversations.

“We’ll only get one clear short at the two of them,” the Black Queen reluctantly said. “What’s the risk it could spread into the city?”

A grimace ensued.

“Archer should be able to burn out a single breath’s worth,” the queen muttered. “And she’s got the scarf to filter, afterwards. Shit. How many survivors left from that first strike, do you think?”

Even as she leaned against her staff, the Black Queen – Merciful Heavens, Guillaume thought as he realized with a start that he was probably taller than her – worried her lip. One of her hands was twitching, he noticed, fingers curling into claws as they clenched against her palm and then slowly unclenched. Brown eyes swept across the winds, and then moved to him. He looked away hurriedly, and three long breaths passed.

“Fuck it,” the Black Queen sighed. “We’ll improvise. I’m going in, let Hierophant know.”

Somehow dimly relieved, Guillaume risked a glace at the villainess. She offered her him a wild smile, for a heartbeat turning that dour tanned face into one that had him blushing.

“Hang on tight, Guillaume of Brabant,” she said. “This is going to get rough.”

“Why even bother making a plan, if she was going to discard it?” Masego complained.

“We hadn’t accounted for the gas,” Hakram replied. “If it gets into the city, this battle’s over.”

“As our defeat,” Hierophant hazarded.

It seemed a reasonable guess, considering.

“Yes, Masego, as our defeat,” Hakram amiably agreed. “Catherine’s striking, are you-”

The connection between the two paired stones fizzled for a moment, dimming the last of his words as in the distance Hierophant’s glass eyes glimpsed Night rising up in a great tide of darkness. Catherine was putting her back into it, if the reverberations from her working affected even active spellcraft in the area. An interesting phenomenon, and he itched to have a closer look at that in more contained conditions where the extraneous factors could be filtered out, but alas it would have to wait. Glints of a faded summer sun lighting up every dark, Masego studied his friend’s attack curiously. It seemed a brutish thing, at first glance, a mere tide of shadow slammed into the Tumult’s storm.

That the Scourge immediately answered with light magics, cutting beams of glowing power that tore into the darkness, was yet another reason why the Revenant was utterly underserving of being called an archmage. The effrontery was galling, truly. Someone with proper master of the higher mysteries would have noticed that Catherine, ever clever behind her pretence of thuggishness, hadn’t just gathered Night and tossed it at an enemy working. The light cut through so easily not only because of its properties as one of the classical elements but also because that wave of Night was meant to be broken. It shook the storm some, when impacting it, but when the winds unmade it the darkness allowed itself to be carried by the gales like smoke.

Within thirty heartbeats, the entire storm was filled with a thick haze of Night. Masego felt a sliver of pride had how well she’d learned the foundational principles of Trismegistan sorcery: the essence of magic was, after all, usurpation. Akua Sahelian was to be commended.

“-are you ready?”

“I am,” Hierophant replied. “You may tend to the others. My attack is at hand.”

Surrounded by three dozen barrels of bronze rods positively dripping with invested sorcery, Masego had not held back in Wresting what he required for a fitting admonishment. The magic was thick and pure, its tint strangely similar to that of a thin layer of oil atop water, and it was slowly circling around him according to his will. In the distance, his eyes piercing through the veil of Night surrounding Catherine, he found her silhouette raising her staff into the air. Good, she was about done then. The moment it struck down, to Masego’s unspoken glee, the Night spread out within the storm roiled for one moment as the Tumult had his own spell stolen away from his control. Just long enough for Catherine Foundling to disperse it, abruptly breaking the storm into fading wisps of wind.

“And now my turn,” Masego murmured, robes stirring in the evening wind.

Like a streak of lightning the sorcery shot forward through the sky. Hierophant’s concentration stumbled when he saw Indrani walk out of thin air – she must have sidled through the Ways – behind the Tumult, who did not notice. The Pale Knight did, however, and before a heartbeat had passed the Scourge had his great axe in hand and was moving towards her as he shouted a warning.

“Too slow,” Hierophant spoke through clenched teeth.

The filaments of magic snaked forward, sliding between them, and with a curt gesture of the wrist Masego shaped the sorcery into one of the first formulas he’d ever learned: out of the end of the filament a textbook prefect magic missile erupted, splashing harmless against the Revenant’s armoured helm but blinding it for a moment. Archer ducked under the burning flame unleashed by the Tumult before he even turned completely, circling to stay behind his back, even as Hierophant began shaping the sorcery again. That missile had cost him, he estimated, one part out of a thousand.

Time to see what he might achieve with some halfway decent spellwork instead.

Of course Cat had gotten it into her head that was Indrani clearly needed was for her cover to be snuffed out just before she came out of the Twilight Ways. You know, just so she could be extra visible for the fucking Pale Knight and all. Gods, what a wench. Archer caught the axe between the edge of two knives, struggling against the Scourge for a moment before hastily stepping back when it became clear she wasn’t going to win on strength alone. The bastard was even stronger than she’d come to believe from their first tangle at Lauzon’s Hollow.

“This was unwise,” the Pale Knight said.

“So was that second bottle of red last night, but that’s life for you,” Indrani agreeably replied.

He might have continued the conversation, but instead a streak of colourful magic darted in behind his head and seven wisps of hellflame shot out. The Revenant batted at them with the side of his axe, smothering a few, but more snuck around and slithered into the gap of his armour where they burst. With the Pale Knight distracted, Indrani went back on the offensive and moved to put him between her and the Archmage – which wasn’t enough, damn it, the seventeen arrows of silver light that shot out from the top of the Scourge’s staff curved around his ally. Shit, she was going to have to- and a gate into Twilight shivered to life right in their way, swallowing them all up. Archer grinned. Good, Cat was finally back in the fight.

She stepped around the gate, ducking under a swing of the Pale Knight’s axe and darting forward. The undead in his pale plate tried to knee her at the junction of the shoulder and neck but Indrani tumbled forward and under him. Her longknives cut at the back of the knees as she rose, where most armours had a weakness, but she found no purchase as her blades scratched only steel. That they scratched at all was an improvement on her previous record against the armour, so- ah, she’d been right. There had been a weak point in the armour dead, it was just that the Revenant had had melted steel poured into the back of his knee. Still a weakness with the right tool, then.

And one more strike for Cat’s theory that the Pale Knight’s strange immunity was related specifically to his armour.

Archer kept moving forward, letting her enemy’s backswing pass less than an inch behind her quiver, and got to the Archmage’s flank. The Revenant was struggled with Zeze’s latest bout of cleverness, a pool of raw magic he’d Wrested and was using to pump out spells from a distance by giving shape to parts of the pool – at the moment it was shooting out small tendrils of darkness that Indrani’s Name screamed at her to avoid, so probably some kind of nasty Wasteland curse. The Archmage was frontloading a shield to deal with it, a pane of transparent light, and while its attention was there… ah, not so much of a sucker. Her attempt to sneak a blade into its back was met by a rippling circle of space that almost blew the longknife out of her hand.

And now the Pale Knight was on her again, only for a gate to open in front of him. Indrani went around, putting the gate between herself and the Archmage, which allowed her to see Catherine come out with a bare sword and sock the bastard in the side of the head with her pommel.

“Took you long enough,” Archer said.

Cat snorted, the two of them eyeing the Pale Knight as he steadied his footing and the gate closed behind them.

“Took the scenic route,” Catherine Foundling idly said. “It’s such a nice night out.”

And behind them there was a scream as the wind began spinning above the Archmage, who never did like fighting without a storm to cover his –

Hierophant cocked an eyebrow. Did the Tumult take him for an utter fool? Certainly he could not Wrest to separate entities at the same time, but what kind of a second-rate conjurer would he be if he’d not accounted for such a weakness in his chosen strategy? He set the magic he’d gathered to spinning around itself, slowly feeding a spell that made it rotate as a globe to insignificant costs, and dug into his aspect with relish as he reached for the dawning storm and-

A column of condensed lightning struck the Archmage three times, and Indrani’s heart skipped a beat. It simply could not be denied she had good – nay, exquisite – taste in men. The Pale Knight suddenly went stiff, turning towards, Catherine and in a strange voice spoke a single word to her in a language that Archer did not recognize.

Catherine went still.

I can’t stop them any longer,” Akua Sahelian said. “They have enough casters concentrating on me that should I linger capture is certain.”

Hakram grimaced. The shade had done well at keeping anyone from climbing the ladders and joining the melee atop the bastion, but it’d only been a matter of time until Keter put together a force capable of dealing with her. He’d honestly not expected her to last so long. Much as he disliked the woman, Adjutant would still acknowledge the skillful performance she had offered tonight given her… reduced capabilities.

“Retreat,” Adjutant gravelled. “Are Revenant coming up?”

“At least two, neither Scourges,” Sahelian replied.

“I’ll pass it along,” Hakram said. “You know what to do.”

She did not acknowledge his words, only severing the connection, a sure sign she was being attacked by enemies but trying not to show it too obviously. Hearing someone come up the ladder, Adjutant turned to see Lieutenant Tweaker’s head pop over the edge.

“Movement at the front gate,” she told him. “At least three wyrms seen, and it’s looking like an all-out assault.”

Hakram, idly, touched his prosthetic. A beautiful piece of work by Masego, that. He laid a finger against a groove in the wood, as if to scratch at a phantom itch.

“Sir,” Lieutenant Tweaker began, “should we-”

Skeletal fingers closing against the length of wood, Hakram whipped out the wand and pressed his thumb against the rune sculpted into the side. There was a ripple of kinetic force as the enchantment was unleashed, the lieutenant’s shape fading and turning into a misshapen Revenant halfway into a leap at him. Adjutant dropped the wand, hand finding the skull on the arm of his wheelchair and drawing out the axe it was the pommel of. He rose with the movement, Name pulsing with joy, and the blade split the skull in half as the undead’s iron claws failed to pierce his chain mail. The Revenant dropped to the ground twitching as the necromancy tried to assert control of the limbs again. Half his body felt aflame, but he steeled himself through the pain.

“You got a goblin’s speed right,” Adjutant clinically assessed, “but not the weight. Sloppy.”

The axe went up, the Revenant’s eyes going wide, and Hakram of the Howling Wolves bared his fangs.

“Next time, Dead King? Send a Scourge.”

The axe went down.

It was the aptness of the counters that allowed Hierophant to understand what he had been dealing with all this time. It was obvious, in retrospect.

The Tumult had answered the Liessen Chisel with a perfect shield in the Pelagian school, hellflame with a Stygian dry dousing developed during Maleficent the Second’s wars against the League, used Jaquinite uncertainty principles to disrupt the magic he’d wrested halfway through a spell. The uninitiated among the heroes had insisted on calling the Revenant the ‘Archmage’ because of its broad variety of masteries in magic, but they’d never noticed that the masteries were impossibly broad. The only individual Masego had ever seen use so many different magics was the Rogue Sorcerer, and if he had never met Roland he might have dismissed this interpretation as him misreading the enemy’s spellcraft. His eyes opened at the possibility, though, it was impossible to miss the telltale marks. This should not, however, be possible. Roland used a great variety of principles, but he had the protection of an aspect and though knowledgeable he was not a master.

The Tumult, however distasteful an entity, was.

Which was absurd, because those masteries could not have been acquired after death: the dictate that undead could not learn was not as absolute as some seemed to believe, but understanding the mysteries of an entirely new school of magic definitely qualified. And it was highly unlikely to have been achieved by living, as Hierophant was rather skeptical that someone capable of mastering multiple schools of magic, whether it drove them made or not, would not have made it into the pages of history. Which meant he was missing something. On a hunch, he tried a repeat: sending both a Liessen Chisel and a spurt of hellfame at the enemy from opposite ends of the massed sorcery. And he got his answer, at last.

The Tumult did parry both, but when it did it used Pelagian shields for both instead of the apter answer he had shown himself capable of using. Moreover, the Tumult had already shown he could cast two spells simultaneously so there was no reason for it not too. Unless it could not. He can only use one school of magic at a time, Masego deduced. And there was an obvious explanation as to why. He reached for his paired stone.

“Hakram,” Hierophant said. “I have a theory about the Tumult.”

“I’m listening,” Adjutant replied.

He sounded a little out of breath, strangely enough.

“It is not a single Revenant,” Masego said. “It is a multitude of dead spellcaster souls stitched onto the same corpse, likely with an oversoul – perhaps the body’s original one – handling matters of control.”

There was a moment of silence.

“If we target that oversoul?” Hakram asked.

“The King of Death is a skillful necromancer,” Hierophant reluctantly replied. “It will not destroy the Revenant. It should, however, make it highly erratic as different souls struggle for control.”

The orc chuckled.

“Well, let’s see what we can do about that.”

They’d taken too long to put down the Scourges, so now it was all going south. Indrani backpedalled, letting the axe pass half an inch away from her chin as behind her a blue-tinted shield took the impact from the four black streaks of sorcery that’d been aimed at her back. She flicked a feint at the Pale Knight’s face that the Revenant didn’t even bother to parry, ending up touching his helm, but the shaft of his axe was smashed into her elbow and she was forced to abort her actual blow and scuttle away as she swallowed a scream. Fuck, was it broken or just sprained? Either way, it strung like a bitch. She spared a glance for Cat, who’d just set a Revenant aflame and blown a few skeletons off the bastion but had just been forced to coat herself in a bubble of Night as a pack of undead mages tossed fireballs at her.

Indrani’s straying eyes were not, to her surprise, rewarded by the Pale Knight pursuing. Instead the Revenant was going for… shit, barrels? As in those things full of poison Hakram had mentioned? One, two, three, strokes and three were split open as grey fog came billowing out. She hastily pulled up her scarf, trusting the enchanted weave to filer to toxins, which was long enough for the Archmage to attempt birthing another storm and Masego to shut him down. Unfortunately, the figure in grey and purple robes seemed indifferent to the lightning that was cast down on it. It flickered down the robes, grounding itself into the stone floor, and the Archmage began casting again. Keeping Hierophant tied up, Archer decided.

On the bright side, Indrani had just been given a moment to breathe so she reached for the pouch at her side and carefully unfolded the green cloth folded within before sliding it down the length of both her blades and tossing it to the side. It left them coated in a heavy transparent film, as she’d been told it would. Breathing deep, she went for the fog even as Cat wove some kind of bubble of darkness to suck it out and keep it from spreading too far. As she’d expected, the Pale Knight came out of the smoke aiming at Catherine’s flank. Indrani sped forward, leaning into Stride to quicken her steps, and had to leap when just before she got into range the Revenant turned and swung at her. Catherine hammered at the Pale Knight’s knee to hinder him, but a lesser Revenant was going after her again with a spear so…

Flow, Indrani thought, letting the aspect fill her up.

The axeblade went up, but she slapped it aside with a longknife and spun on herself. She landed on the Pale Knight’s shoulder, tempted to attack but knowing that if she ended movement the aspect would end with it. She slid down the Revenant’s back at is tried to catch her foot, landing behind it in a crouch and smoothly stabbing into the back of both knees. She found only a little bite, but it would be enough. The Pale Knight turned and struck at the same time, sweeping along the ground but she rolled between his legs and emerged in front of him. His extended arm was an opening, and she swiped the flat of a blade against the armoured elbow. The kick caught her in the ribs and one broke, but it was with a smile of triumph that she rolled against the ground and drew herself into a crouch.

The Pale Knight froze for a moment, before dropping his axe and pawing at his elbow as her aspect flickered out.

“Bad choice,” Archer said. “The doses on the knees have had longer to spread.”

Idly, she reached in the pouch and picked out a white cloth she used to wipe her blades clean with.

“What did you do?” the Pale Knight asked.

He stumbled, finding his footing hard to maintain.

“Delivered to you with the Concocter’s regards,” Indrani coldly said. “An alchemical acid that devour only bone and steel, repelled by all other substances.”

The Pale Knight collapse to the ground, the only think keeping his upper legs connected to his thighs the stretch of pale plate covering them.

It was, Indrani thought with a hard smile, just the start.

Hierophant Wrested control of the storm again, jaw clenched, and shattered the spell.

How very irritating. Having grasped that he was facing a superior practitioner, the Tumult no longer even tried to do more than toss the occasional spell the way of Catherine and Indrani: instead he now repeatedly spent his power trying to birth another storm, not in hope of success but because doing so would command Masego’s attentions. Hierophant himself rarely had long enough to do more than to form the occasional second-rate spell and send it flying before he must focus his attentions on the spell again, and the repeated struggle of wills against the Revenant was starting to tire him. Unlike the magic taken from inert objects, the Scourge’s own must be forcefully usurped.

Masego felt sweat beading his forehead and going down his back. No, this stalemate was not to his advantage or that of his companions. The Tumult indicated the rhythm of their clashes, which meant he had an easier time sending spells at Catherine and Indrani than Hierophant had of defending them. The last three times it’d begun using increasingly obscure curses, and for the last Masego would admit that he’d been largely guessing when he’d used Sisi’s Sphere as a defence – he’d not been certain it would actually work. He must regain the momentum, and that meant one thing: when the storm next began to form, Hierophant let it.

Instead he gathered all the sorcery he had left in a spinning globe, shaping it in one great working.

“Seven pillars hold up the sky,” he began.

The world shuddered, seven wooden pillars forming out of raw magic around the Tumult. The Revenant tried to abandon the spell hastily, but Masego smiled. It is too large, he thought. And it takes you a moment to change between schools. Four runes formed above the Revenant’s head, linked by a circle of pale light.

“Four cardinals, one meridian,” he continued. “The wheel unbroken, spokes that are not. Thou shall not leave the circle.”

And that, Hierophant decided, was a stalemate he could live with.

“Funny thing,” Catherine Foundling said. “It was actually the Mirror Knight that helped me figure out how to kill you.”

The Mantle of Woe fluttering around her Cat – no, in that moment Indrani could only think of her as the Black Queen – parried the last lesser Revenant’s spear blow and severed its head with a brutal riposte, ripping out the blade and kicking the body over the edge of the bastion and onto a skeleton trying to climb up. The Pale Knight tried to push itself up with its axe, but Indrani kicked it away. The Revenant fell to his knees. She stepped away, sheathing her blades and reaching for her quiver.

“It’s the Named you avoided in Cleves,” the Black Queen idly continued. “The Red Knight and the Myrmidon. The Red Knight I understand – Devour is a headache and a half to deal with, but the Myrmidon? I couldn’t figure out why.”

The Pale Knight brought out another axe but Indrani had an Unraveller in hand – a great javelin artefact, one she’d adjusted so it could be fired from her bow but still very much a javelin. A swipe had that axe clattering away again and Archer added a smack against the helm so he would fall down on his back.

“But then I remembered that I never struck at you without adding Night to the blow,” Catherine added, Night gathering to her like rivers to the sea. “And it fell into place. It’s strength you have trouble with. Of that front, aside from the Mirror Knight who’s damned slow those two are the physically strongest Named.”

It was kind of hot, Indrani admitted to herself, when she monologued. She got that gleam in her eye, like she… well, maybe after this if they could spare the time. Probably counted as a form of healing, if you squinted a bit. Night caught her by the shoulders and tendrils began hoist her up into the sky. Higher and higher and higher, until the Pale Knight was barely more than a silhouette trying to get up, and then the darkness seized her tight.

“And down we go,” Archer manically grinned.

She angled the unraveller downwards and the tendrils of Night drew back a bit before throwing her down. Eyes wide open, silent as she went down, she watched as the Pale Knight hacked away at the tendrils of shadow tripping him and slowly began to rise just in time to look up and see her. She met his eyes a heartbeat before the impact, too late for him to swing at her, and she slammed the unraveller through his throat through the gorget of pale steel. The Scourge gasped and she leaned in, ignoring the tremors of pain going down her legs from the landing.

“His name was Lysander,” Indrani whispered. “Where you end up, carry that with you.”

And with a final wrench she severed the head clean. Panting, Archer tried to get up but stumbled only for Cat to reach her side and help her stand. She also, bless her petty soul, kicked the Revenant’s head. Indrani cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Fucker killed my horse,” Catherine said, unrepentant.

Indrani saw that already undead were coming over the wall, the iron ladders steadily disgorging their lot, but it was the Archmage her gaze strayed to. Though bound by Masego’s miracle, the Scourge had barely scuffed his robes throughout the fighting. For a bastard who preferred to fight at range, he’d proved remarkably resilient up close.

“Still need to finish that before we retreat for healing,” Catherine muttered, “though at least he’s still-”

A wooden pillar loudly cracked.

“Fuck,” Cat said, “I really ought to know better by now.”

Three of them blew and the Archmage’s hand swept out, but no magic ensued. Indrani pushed away and reached for her longknives even as Cat struck out with a spear of Night, but a shape moved in the way before it could hit the Revenant. Akua Sahelian, dressed in threads of shadow, moved stiffly so stand between the Archmage and the Night. Cat pulled the blow at the last moment.

“Go through,” Akua said through gritted teeth. “I’ll-”

Her mouth shut. The last pillars shattered one after another and the Archmage shook free. Masego struck from a distance with brilliant blue flames but they splashed harmlessly on a shield, and when Cat threw a few threads of shadow they were carved through with arrows of silver light. Archer cautiously approached, keeping an eye on Akua as she did. They couldn’t let the Revenant flee, as it was obviously ramping up to. The Wastelander must have been sneaking up on the Archmage and gotten caught, she thought, only that didn’t seem like Akua at all. Weapon-wise, if the Archmage put her in the way it shouldn’t be an issue. She had only a silver dagger in hand, enchanted by the looks of it, but wait wasn’t that a –

 A flock of yellow bee-like spurts of flame from Masego had the Scourge putting up a swirling ball of power to suck them up, while Catherine’s curving arrows of darkness were met with matches in silver light. And with both hands occupied, the Archmage had nothing left to spare when Akua Sahelian thrust a ritual dagger into his left eye.

“Please,” the shade amicably smiled. “As if I would allow myself to be snatched like some petty errant soul. For that presumption, allow me to take one of yours.”

The Revenant screamed with a dozen different voices as she ripped out the knife, its blade glinting with eerie light, and the Wastelander smiled in triumph. Indrani hurried forward. If they could finish the Archmage here and now… All Indrani saw was a flicker, but she was the Archer and so she knew what she’d glimpsed. An arrow. And, heart clenching, she knew where it’d been aimed. She turned, watching a circle of Night flare around Catherine but failing to stop the black-feathered arrow that punched into the side of her face. Cat fell the floor, spurting blood, and even as Akua let out a scream of dismay the Archmage leapt off the edge of the bastion.

In the distance, two crows screeched in agony.

In the sky above Hainaut there were great rumbling sounds as power gathered, thousands of mages in the plains below unleashing their rituals at least. One after the other, three great gates above the city.

And water began pouring out of them.

165 thoughts on “Interlude: Woeful

  1. ruduen

    So, we have a gap in which Cat wasn’t visible (while going through the gate), and Cat getting killed by someone who explicitly told others to anticipate as still living.

    How many ‘deaths’ does that make it for her now? It really isn’t one of her best habits.

    Liked by 18 people

        1. I meant that normally we get some closure on why the narrative changes, here it just stopped without even his take on how she put her game face on or a comment from her to take cover, i just feel is weird and suspicious.

          New theory: that thing Cat did to him wasn’t healing or just healing, she did something to have a failsafe to come back or take him over (a little too villaounous but who knows)

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Big I

    Hahaha, Cat taught the Dead King Lakeomancy. Which is a horrible twist for our guys, but still pretty funny.

    Also, Cat keeps being heroic. Saving Guillame, then throwing out her plan to stop the gas. And I wonder if Akua gets to keep the soul of the Tumult, and what she might be able to do with it.

    Liked by 16 people

    1. AndromedaStar

      I’m mostly surprised that it’s described as water. Why not pour nasty poison/acid/etc out of the gates? Though it’s more difficult to get a lake’s worth of those I suppose.

      Like

      1. There probably aren’t acid lakees in Arcadia, no.

        The threat of the lakeomancy gates is that even if you close them instantly, that’s still several tons of water crashing down into your army. It doesn’t matter that it’s water, it’s the “several tons” part that’s crucial.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. KageLupus

      I’m sure Cat would day she is being practical with both decisions. Saving Guillaume didn’t cost her anything, and stopping the poison is more important tactically than sticking to their plan.

      If that poison got in the storm and blew over the city it would kill every non Named. There would be no army and the Dead King would have won. He doesn’t need the Scourges to survive at that point, since all he wants is to break the army anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. btnerb

    Oh no! The dead king has learned Lakeomancy!

    To be fair, the essence of (Trismegistan) sorcery is usurpation — using your enemies ideas is just that same principle in a different arena. Still, that is going to be a bad, bad day for the defenders. If only the Saint of Swords was there to counter it.

    Liked by 13 people

    1. Well at least he didn’t improve on it.
      Wasn’t there a magical girl fic which used portals and differences in the rotational speed of the earth at the equator compared to the poles to let the magical girl launch kinetic attacks consisting of gigantic piles of rocks, dirt and water travelling at a very high speed?
      PS I think it was this one https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/SagaOfSoul
      At least he isn’t hitting them with accelerated lakes that hit hard enough to carve into the mountain the city is on.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Okay, so Cat’s Name was solidifying in this chapter, and she has story weight when it comes to deaths actually strengthening her, but she is a villain, so there’s going to be some side effects, to say the least. I have to wonder how much the Crows anchored themselves in Cat, and how many thousands of soldiers are going to die before Cat returns in a dark miracle.

    Liked by 8 people

  5. Sinead

    At last, the Fall.

    Crack theory: She has to petition the Gods themselves. The Angels were just a warm up act.

    I hope Cat’s return (as I presume we are not getting a full book without her perspective) is in the form of getting her body back (or at least a constant form). The Wandering Bard’s “sentient Name” style is horrifying, and I would think is antithesis to what Cat’s goals are.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Either we are about to see some really dramatic come back or something much simpler: it was a grazing hit as in enough to knock her out a bit but not kill her (it happens even to bullets, sometmes it even looks like a clean shot)

    Also did Nessie just copy Cat? This is plagiarism!! I knew he was bad but this is just horrible, can’t believe he is willing to go to such low ways, shame on him!! xD

    Liked by 9 people

    1. It’s definitely not a grazing hit.

      Not because of whatever it said in this chapter (though the crows and Akua screaming is a bit of a hint), but because that’s what happened the previous time. The Arsenal arc already had a cliffanger of “is Cat dead???” drawn out across several chapters even, only to reveal that It Was Just A Flesh Wound.

      Now everyone expects that, so… it wouldn’t really carry the drama and tension that it did the first time. Nah, we’re going to find out next chapter that yes she is in fact actually dead, that’s a dead body, not alive, the arrow worked, the Hawk’s Aspect struck true.

      What also happened during the Arsenal arc was that we had multiple POVs that were utterly unaware that anything had happened with Catherine. So what I’m predicting is that this time, we’re going to go across POVs that are very much aware / find out before our own eyes that Catherine died, and we’re going to see the ensuing reaction / panic.

      Someone on discord also wisely pointed out that this might be the disaster Vivienne was summoned to prevent: she can rally people in Cat’s absence in a way no-one else can.

      Cat’s dead, but she has a history of not STAYING that way… 😀

      Liked by 15 people

          1. Sinead

            I like the idea that after Cat’s return as Peacemaker/Arbiter/whatever her name will be, she fully embraces the Mantle of Woe’s colour scheme with a a coloured dress under the Mantle of Woe and just spends an entire chaper enjoying the fact that she is no longer the freaking Black Queen and can actually wear something nice once in a while.

            Also RIP Black Queen Name. It’s twice it’s almost come to being and then broken at the pivotal moment. Hell Indrani started thinking of her as Black Queen.

            I’d say Cat dodged the bullet there, but that’s not in the best of tastes at the moment is it?

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Sinead

              Would it be premature for Cat to add the Dead King’s purple banner to her cloak for coming back from Death? That would just make her missing Orange and Red for a complete Pride Flag, yes?

              Liked by 2 people

              1. Sinead

                Will she be Cat the Many Coloured, or Cat with the Technicolored Dream-Cloak?

                I mean, I think everyone should wear kilts, so I wouldn’t complain if she does wear vibrant colours.

                Liked by 2 people

                  1. Sinead

                    I would genuinely love it if she did make that switch. If she’s one of those few villains that lives a long long time, it would be great to see how the Black Queen (which I suspect will live on as a Name that used to exist, even if that never was the case, and I suspect that it will never arise now) legend exists in the future, and will Cat the Arbiter/Peacekeeper be remembered as being the same person.

                    This works especially with a complete wardrobe change, as one would never associate it with the Black Queen (which is kinda the point).

                    Liked by 2 people

          1. agumentic

            Well, I agree that we certainly won’t have another set of chapters where Cat’s state is unknown. The story will promptly answer whether she is “really” dead or merely deeply injured.

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Won’t be “merely deeply injured” because the crows wouldn’t react like that to a mere deep injury – Cat can stem blood loss with Night and is currently surrounded by allies. She’s instadead, from evidence.

              (Also from narrative beats – we did “merely deeply injured” last time, the audience is expecting it now. Which I suppose you are (as well as I), so valid, )

              Liked by 3 people

              1. agumentic

                I think Crows’ reaction is entirely unrelated to Cat’s “death” – they were hit with something else. The text structure indicates that to me, at least – that reaction is its own paragraph, not the continuation of the one where Cat was shot. And Cat can’t do anything herself if she is in a coma, not to mention the possibility of Night being lost. Healing from allies is exactly what can bring her to “won’t die right now, we don’t know whether she wakes up” state.

                In the Arsenal, we had “state unknown, perhaps even dead??? (jk)”, which, while resolved with Cat merely being injured, wouldn’t be the same story as “Cat is grievously injured and out of commission”. We did have something similar during the Battle of the Camps, but even then that story didn’t play out completely – no getting up in the darkest hour there.

                Like

                1. considering how strong the suggestion that this is Cat being dead is, showing that it is not so in the next chapter would be a tension-breaking fakeout (and drawing it out further would be a copy of the Arsenal arc)

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. agumentic

                    Is it a particularly strong suggestion? Sure, arrows to the head tend to be pretty lethal, but not as much as, say, decapitation, and we have already seen someone surviving an arrow from Hawk, Cat is also surrounded by allies that can stabilize her condition.

                    As for tension, there is precisely zero tension involved in Catherine “dying” here. I think literally no one believes it’ll really stick. Cat being injured instead of “dead” creates practically the same situation om meta-level – “Black Queen is incapacitated and there will probably be some desperate measures involved in her coming back”. Sure, the characters might express more despair in text, but I am not really seeing the virtue of it – anything that additional despair could provide can be provided from other sources. Like the situation on the battlefield growing worse and/or Sve Noc getting their asses kicked.

                    Liked by 2 people

              2. shikkarasu

                I broadly agree, but I have to point out that Cat wouldn’t move without preparing for Hawk. She knew that there is a 100% chance that Hawk would be alive since she was given the ol’ “no-one could survive that!” report from an underling. I’m thinking decoy zombie.
                I know, I know; what kind of idiot uses undead against the Dead King? Catherine would. The only proper Necromancer within Raising distance is the Temult, who is heavily occupied and no rational person would expect such a strategy. It’s also low-risk. If anyone takes control of her puppet then she just shreds it since it isn’t even Bind-level.
                Long story short I refuse to believe that Catherine wasn’t in control of this encounter. Not when we aren’t seeing it from her POV. That’s when she has her best Mastermind plans.

                Liked by 1 person

                  1. agumentic

                    God, I feel like that would be just the fucking worst. I do think that Cat “really” dying is a possibility, but if it happens, I strongly believe it shouldn’t be a part of some plan from her. That way we can have a plotline where everyone (and Viv in particular) can be hit with a realization that yes, Cat really dropped the ball and now they have to handle the situation on their own, with whatever desperate actions on their side providing Cat with the way back. But if it was her plan all along, it would all be so cheap and repeated that I am honestly disgusted by the mere thoughts of it.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. Sinead

                      How would you feel if “it’s part of her plan” in the fashion of “Fuck it, we’ll improvise” is the moment she had the plan? And that her priorities would mean that her dying would be less of a cost than having any of her key subordinates die instead?

                      Cat’s entire goal is build systems that do not require her, and thus can survive her and protect what she values.

                      Think back to her reflection on if she hadn’t gotten a resurrection, but everything else worked out, it still would have been a steal. She has built up systems to take care of what she values without her needing to oversee it. From her perspective, as soon as she has all these lines of succession sorted out (which she does because Vivienne is available to oversee Callow, the Woe can take care of themselves, and the Firstborn are at the point where they just have her as a liaison with humans, but can handle themselves).

                      Combine this with Cat always wanting to protect what is her, that scene with Guillaume stating “this is going to get rough” is her committing to secure the victory of the walls and thus take the arrow from the Hawk (Keter always gets the last word).

                      Cat’s way back is her taking the dream as a warning: You are going to Fall regardless. Do you let it come to you, or do you take a leap of faith?

                      Or to rephrase the abve a bit: Cat’s juggling so many glass balls, and when she misses a step, she instead trusts those around her to grab and take control of those balls that are closest to them and does a swan dive for the one that she can recover?

                      Liked by 4 people

      1. “It Was Just A Flesh Wound” — maybe in the Monty Python fashion! In the Arsenal Cat remarks that she came pretty close to bleeding out, and the fae did think she was dead.

        Yeah, this is going to be nasty — obviously it’s not going to take Cat out for good, but she may yet need a true resurrection from Sve Noc, perhaps with Masego’s help. And in the meantime, everybody else has problems, especially with DK pulling that “see how you like it!” move.

        Liked by 1 person

              1. Crash

                Oh since we’re doing wild speculation.

                EE pulls the plot twist of the century and she is truly dead, comes back as a Revenant.

                Final Book is Cat planning and executing the undoing of everything she has built. Or, seeing that everything she has built works and she is beaten back.

                Liked by 1 person

                  1. Sinead

                    I guess my only issue with that is that I hate “trapped in my own mind” perspective for first person narratives.

                    Even if Cat’s own systems prevent her from breaking them, that method of making the point would be a really rough read.

                    Then again, I don’t even like the idea of Sve Noc losing here, so I like my stories potentially a bit more on the lighter side than you do.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. > I guess my only issue with that is that I hate “trapped in my own mind” perspective for first person narratives.

                      yeah i fucking hate those too

                      to clarify, i hate that scenario on every level

                      Like

        1. That Other Guy

          This is step 23 of her plan into infiltrate Keter. She just needed the right way to knock on the door. The successor to Trismegistus sorcery is Quatmegistus/Catmegistus sorcery.

          The twins subvert the throne and take over the brood stock in Keter so there is a socially acceptable pool for the first born to draw night from. Unbeknownst to the surface, Keter undergoes a great innovation in schooling sorcery and other knowledge based skills, deeply increasing the skill pool for the firstborn.

          Then Cat is made honorary princess of the Kingdom Under

          Liked by 1 person

      2. Actually hasn’t it been mentioned a lot of times that Mighty can revive? In the chapter where Cat saw a vision of the northen front (drow one) she made a point to note the dead king countered this by eating the corpses before they could revive or have the night harvested i think.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. yea but Cat’s not made of Night the way drow kind of are (they cannot survive without it, it’s their lifeblood literally)

          and in the Arsenal it’s been established through her neck wound that she cannot use the Night to restore herself this way

          Liked by 1 person

      3. Miley

        It’s pretty simple the first time she died on screen she was facing the big bad after a victory against his minion and on the cusp of a name, so she got a name dream.

        Now she’s facing a bigger, badder big bad, only on a battlefield this time; she just had a victory against HIS minions, two at once this time and she actually helped in all stages of the fight, and she’s on the cusp of a more powerful Name. She’s obviously about to just ascend to kratoshood.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Xinci

    Ah so I may have been correct in it being the bindings on the soul that limited one to a school. Presumably apotheosis could let one get beyond this but the calcification would instead push one towards a differing rule set. A gestalt is a excellent solution, I wonder if you could make enough proper bindings to enough matter from a Hell /Arcadia/other dimension to mimic this artificially? Really glad to see more frameworks of souls and how they can be used.

    Only one framework of effect/behavior for a specific variable or I suppose entity does seem to be a general rule for everything so I suppose its not surprising it has to switch out souls or that Masego cannot Wrest multiple entities at once.

    Also great to have Lights uncertainty principle be noted for Jaquinites. It makes sense that they learned it and formatted it from miracles now. If it can be anything then specific patterns of stimuli would be needed to be used to get a specifc result out of a possibly endless list of alternatives. Perhaps it works by them mimicking the faithful prayers probably “keyed” to useful patterns of effect(given the words of the book of all things definitely have actual effects on the world when uttered,transcribed, etc)Its kind of shortcutting what a trismigestian sorcerer does with a “automatic calculator” but its possibly rather slap dash and may not actually give you that much understanding of what happened. So a Trismigestian sorcerer may prefer to be able to do similar things with better mastery down the line(thus Wekesa and Masegos disdain)

    Other things of interest being, Idrani seeming to copy the Lady when sidling. Creation cant make a counter-balance to sidling since it works specifically by finding weaknesses and holes in it, perhaps?

    Liked by 3 people

      1. shikkarasu

        Yeah, I don’t remember Ranger using that trick, either. Not saying she couldn’t, that’s how you get I-Told-You-So stabbed, just that I’m sure the Lady hasn’t done it on screen.
        The normal method to getting in/out of Arcadia seems to be kidnapping fae (Used by Warlock when he and Black came to Marchford, also mentioned as a plan B for Masego if Cat refused to open a gate for him just before Underdark) so I would guess that is how she normally does it.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Xinci

        Ranger was noted to be able to cut her way into Arcadia and able to find such weak spots naturally. So similar to Flow, Idrani seemed to be using See to find the spots and Stride to aid in her getting through. As has been a theme with her she kind of copies stuff Ranger can do naturally.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Xinci

          To clarify I mean, Idrani seems to be using See and Stride to attain a level of skill and level of understanding similar to how Flow allows her attain a level of understanding similar to Ranger’s.

          Liked by 2 people

  8. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    in their like (missing word)
    gone made > gone mad
    last long one > last long once
    make decision > make decisions
    suddenly then > then suddenly
    clear short > clear shot
    her him > him
    underserving > undeserving
    proper master > proper mastery
    pride had how > pride at how
    prefect > perfect
    that was Indrani > that what Indrani
    armour dead (something wrong here)
    was struggled > was struggling
    to separate > two separate
    towards, Catherine > towards Catherine,
    by living > by the living
    made or not > mad or not
    hellfame > hellflame
    three, strokes > three strokes
    filer to > filter the
    at is tried > as it tried
    that devour > that devours
    collapse > collapsed
    think keeping > thing keeping
    he must focus > he had to focus
    must be > had to be
    indicated > dictated
    He must regain > He had to regain
    began hoist > began hoisting
    through his throat through (might want to reword this)
    stiffly so stand > stiffly to stand
    Cat fell > Cat fell to
    rituals at least > rituals at last

    Liked by 5 people

  9. mamm0nn

    This is Orc radio, sending you smooooth jazz over the airways. Dum, dum, dumdidum~

    Cat: Damn it Hakram, stop clogging the airways with this stuff. Doesn’t matter if no one’s saying anything anyway.

    Archer: No! I like it!

    Zeze: This station helps me concentrate when I study…

    Dead King: Love this show.

    Cat: Wait, you-

    Dead King: Whoops.

    Liked by 19 people

  10. Frivolous

    Akua let out a scream of dismay – Akua showed more reaction to Cat getting show with an arrow from the Hawk than she did from seeing her own father getting killed by goblins.

    I feel good for Hakram, killing a Revenant in single combat.

    I curse EE for making me wait until Tuesday to find out what happened, if even that quickly. We may have to wait until next Friday to find out, if EE is sadistic enough.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. > Akua showed more reaction to Cat getting show with an arrow from the Hawk than she did from seeing her own father getting killed by goblins.

      TBF that’s an emotional repression thing – I don’t doubt Akua’s emotions were stronger the first time, she was just not exactly in tune with them 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Frivolous

      On further thought and after some brooding, it occurred to me to be thankful for my blessings.

      If anyone else, anyone else in the Woe, had been shot in the head by the Hawk, I might consider that death to be permanent. I would be devastated, which is really bad for me.

      But, since Catherine is the protagonist and main POV of the entire story, then I must assume something will happen to ameliorate that. I hope so anyway.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Vlatko

        Cat’s coming back for sure. Probably through her connection with the Crows. Still, her death here is pretty significant. Expect the new Cat to be different in some fundamental way.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Christian Oaks

            I think what happened is the arrow had the same anti night poison on it as seen earlier with the varlet. I think the crows screamed cause they have. To sever themselves from their priest lest both be consumed

            Liked by 3 people

            1. huh, interesting and likely! though I think varlet’s poison might have been produced by their Aspect, it would be very much like neshamah to reverse engineer something like that and give it to hawk

              Liked by 1 person

  11. Velrix

    Cat go to battle without helmet then get shot by the foe she warned was not dead and to keep a lookout for ?
    Seriously ? Nice baiting. Foundation of a new aspect, Reveal, Learn, Know, Improvise ?

    Liked by 4 people

      1. DoOd

        She’s been mocking the Shiny Prince for years for not wearing his and made a point of wearing one multiple times in the story.
        Makes you wonder: Why wasn’t she wearing one this time ?

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Sinead

            That always seemed a bit odd to me, because she could have a “Black Queen” visor or even a shaped helmet inspired by the Crows depending on what she wanted to lean into (probably the second, since her martial side is more in line with the Firstborn this arc, and potentially a revision of the masks of the Twilight Sages as a revitilisation of the Firstborn culture) and still work as both additional protection, and still have her get shot in the eye at the end of this chapter.

            Then again, Cat’s restructuring of the sigils and the creation of the priesthood of Losara was some of my favourite parts of the series, so I would love it if there was more coming out of the Firstborn that we see in the field.

            And you can have her remove her helmet to prevent terrorising poor Guillaume, so he still reacts to reading her face.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Open faced helmets also exist!

              Honestly, my opinion on the Broken Bells raid is “Catherine is swamped with WAYYY too many things to handle, consider and coordinate all at once, and is therefore occasionally a HUGE dumbass in random places that are lower priority than others. That Catherine considers making sure she doesn’t die in a fight a lower priority than the REALLY critical stuff is just Catherine for you”

              Like

              1. Sinead

                That is true, but I also want “tasteful and effective face protection” in my fantasy war stories.

                Huh….maybe that’s why I like Akua so much. She also agrees with tasteful and effective armour.

                Liked by 1 person

                  1. Sinead

                    *snort* Fair. I’d argue that she’s walking around with a bright multicoloured cloak. Functional armour can still be a statement.

                    I have literally heard “tasteful” and “elegent” used interchagebly with fashion, so I was not meaning anything crude by it.

                    But that’s on me, if that is a possible point of abiguity

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. I didn’t think you meant anything crude, I’m just deeply amused by remembering how Cat had 1001 problem with Akua’s armor XD

                      Also, well, Cat never said her cloak was tasteful either lol

                      Like

  12. Earl of Purple

    Great fight, Guilherme was lucky. Pretty sure he wasn’t being puppeted by Cat, either. Were she planning that, he’d not live to overhear. Also, it worked with Tancred because they were the same height and she burnt the body.

    Hakram still has it, pleased to say. Pity about Lieutenant Tweaker, though.

    Wonder what the one word Neshamah passed to Cat was, via the Pale Knight.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. So, three more interludes from different perspectives and maybe five chapters of will she/won’t she. I predict we’ll find out Cat’s actual status towards the end of January.

    Anyway, an enjoyable chapter though I’ve found Guillaume’s inclusion unnecessary unless Cat had some grander plan and EE didn’t want us seeing her thoughts or he was used as a body double. There’s been enough common folk marvelling at how awesome she is that it’s treading old ground and I’d rather see her thoughts in a chapter names after her band.

    Like

    1. > unless Cat had some grander plan and EE didn’t want us seeing her thoughts

      oh most def

      “i took the scenic route” huh cat

      > There’s been enough common folk marvelling at how awesome she is

      NEVER

      Liked by 2 people

  14. It seems somewhat weak to bind a bunch of skilled magi together in one body but only allow one at a time to use it for spellcasting.

    Is there some kind of interference that would prevent dozens of mages from being sewn together and be capable of all casting at the same time?

    Like

    1. I’m guessing it’s only one really skilled mage, and the other souls are just “expansion packs” to add on more types of spells. If Keter had a dozen Archmage-tier casters in different schools there would be no reason to glue them all together.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Andrew Smith

        Thinking on it, I would say either it is one powerful caster with a bunch of souls that did whatever part of learning a magic system that is beyond a Undead and just added on. Though it seems unlikely to me since in that case any damage to that caster soul will completely remove the ability to cast( or reduce if the other souls have weak gifts).

        I think most likely I see that each soul has at least a decently strong Gift for magic or the strength of the gifts were made to pool together to make the archmage with each one focused on a school, that way there is not as much of a single point of failure in a villain’s minon.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. magesbe

    Oh my god I have to sit on this for how long now.

    I fully believe that if Cat’s actually dead she will not stay that way, but it may be several chapters before we find out for certain which pisses me off. Yeah this updates regularly, but while it could be next update, it could be weeks as well.

    I can see Cat doing a Heroic Sacrifice in the last book, I don’t see her going away before the last book has even begun.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Sinead

    My guess is that hte remaining chapeters are allof Cat’s successors stepping up into new Roles:

    Vivienne: Sun Queen (The Queen is dead! Long live the Queen). Supreme commander of all Callowan forces.

    Ivah: First Under Night (assuming First Under Night and head of Losara are the same thing. Drow are not particularly sentimental creatures, so it may be that Losara becomes the Ivah (or who ever takes over the sigil) and First Under Night is a different role)

    Ishaq: Head of the Villains and supreme commander of Named forces in Hanauit.

    Any other roles/”hats” I am missing?

    Like

      1. Sinead

        Oh, this is me being unclear in writing again. Sorry about that.

        My theory is that Cat will come back with a different purpose. However the last book will not have her juggling all her different roles, and instead have a very specific goal. Think of how Amadeus has his breath of relief at the epilogue before striking out with Hye.

        However, much like her father, Cat made a point now to build up systems that mean that the parts of the Alliance that she has personally built up will continue on without her. All the “crowns” she wears will fall to other heads, and she will take up a new Role.

        Liked by 3 people

          1. Sinead

            Thanks!

            Granted, I could be wrong, but I think that it works well to have Cat basically leave a lot of the current structure behind in a lot of ways. It’s a completion of Nemeshah’s prediction, but in a way that he couldn’t foresee as he is.

            I don’t know if it works to have the organisation around the Truce and Terms have a thing for the biggest monsters (thinking what Cat’s becoming, Hye, all quasi deity powers) where it’s the case of they still need to abide by the Accords, but no one really wants them to be moving around mortals too much, with Cat’s current arc as the establishment of the precedent.

            Not sure if I’m getting the idea out properly, but Cat’s level of Named are not just fish in the stream of the Story able to swim against the current. They are the ones that can jump the waterfalls and thus dictate where the stream goes. Hye doesn’t have that to the same degree as Cat is going, but she did change the curse of Summer into an acknowledgment, so she is not without her own weight, even if it’s of an old monster recognising baby monsters.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Akua would be a better pick for Head Villain. Not technically a Named, but she knows story-fu better and she’s got better social skills. And it’s the one job where being the Doom of Liesse is more of a benefit than a detriment.

      Like

      1. Akua is a bad pick for Head Villain, because her incentives and priorities have nothing in common with those needed for that position. She’s not interested in leading others, she’s not interested in establishing a stable society on Calernia, she’s not interested in acquiring influence among villains (and if she were, it would not be a good sign). She’s barely recovering from her childhood trauma, don’t make her jump on a broken leg.

        Like

    2. Frivolous

      Sinead: Agree with this. Also agree with your following posts on this issue.

      Cat’s death or semi-death is why the Augur and the Wise Astrologer sent Vivienne and her Army to Hainaut.

      Cat’s death might trigger Vivienne into receiving the Name, not of Shining Princess as some of us originally thought, but of Good Queen.

      The other role/hat you may be missing is that of supreme commander of the Alliance military, at least in the field. No one ever seems to gainsay her when it comes to making a decision.

      Because one of Cat’s Stories is that she has never lost a battle. Except perhaps until now.

      I think at some level this was always going to happen. The Hawk was Keter’s one-shot unavoidable kill, and Cat was a major, perhaps primary, resource for Neshamah’s enemies.

      I mean, even the Mirror Knight almost died from an arrow from the Hawk, and Cat’s nowhere near as invulnerable.

      So this feels a little like destiny.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Sinead

        Thanks!

        I’m hoping Vivienne becomes the Sun Queen personally. Starts out by chucking a ball of sunshine at someone. Current theory is that she uses “sunlight” (not Light) to break the hiding aspect of Varlet and deals with them.

        As for Cat being “supreme commander of Alliance forces”, I think that that role was mostly hers in part for being someone who wears so many hats. Her successors sitting in council and not being a disaster about things works just as well as having her at the head of the organisation.

        As far as Cat having lost that battle, I remind you that Cat does not see her death as meaning that she has lost the battle, so long as her objectives are achieved. I suspect she will have a Lord Nelson at Trafalgar moment here, but that the battle will not actually be lost.

        Will Cat then take a Gandalf the White moment of spending some time as a wanderer tying up lose ends?

        Perhaps she settles the East the hard way as part of the winter break before the push on Keter.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. laguz24

    I have a theory, you know how the twilight ways can kill revenants, what if they can resurrect cat, or mercy decides to repay the favor and resurrect cat. Also, I was half right with the revenants.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sinead

      It would be interesting if her “scenic route” is revealed in flashback to be her setting up the possibility. At least, I would rather Cat pulling a Magnificent Bastard moment where it was her thinking as soon as Hawk wasn’t killed that they were going to get a victory cut short.

      Cue Cat’s reasoning of “I have both built up systems such that I am not _required_ to make things function (all her successors are gathered to take up her roles), and I may have 1 more trick up my sleeve….”

      I wonder if Twilight’s “anti Nemeshah” defense will evolve into something more nuanced in the Age of Order? say “against those that are antithesis of the Accords (Revenants would definitely apply). Hell, Since Light kills demons, Twilight gates may be a way to dispose of Hell Eggs.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Sinead

    New thought just occured to me: I wonder if Rumena Tomb-Maker uses the falling water to flood out the lower tunnels and drive out undead assault.

    Not so much because I suspect Cat to have predicted the Dead King to have flood them out, but that Rumena has taken the time to think out counters to allies as well as enemy tactics and thus the Firstborn minimise their personal assult. Besides, the drow probably have ways to deal with lakes like this since floods in the Everdark would be extremely dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Miles

    They say the Dead King is supposed to be some kind of genius who leaves no chance for his enemies’ victory. Then he drops a lake on the inventors of lakeomancy and a bunch of heroes who’ve seen it all before and survived, and have been working on how to stop it.

    This is almost as bad a move as attacking Keter with only a bunch of Trismegistan sorcerers andno experts

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Praneeth Kolichala

      Nah, you have to remember that at least some of Cat’s legitimacy rests on the fact that she’s “never lost a battle.” By using lakeomancy, Cat’s “signature” in some sense, you not only cause immense damage (remember at the Battle of the Camps ~10,000 soldiers died despite the Grey Pilgrim shutting it down quickly), but you also draw attention to the fact that Cat was taken out. This will hurt morale, especially among the Army of Callow, and hurt Cat’s legitimacy I think.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Sinead

        I don’t see how the fact that the Alliance wins this battle that Cat dies in (they kind of have to win this or else the Grand Alliance will just fail on so many different fronts) breaks Cat’s legitimacy?

        Yes she is a warlord, but she has spent the last few years building up the legitimacy of her own that at the very least others can take over those roles.

        Lord Nelson died in the Battle on Trafalgar, but is still venerated in British military history.

        The risk of the lakeomancy is the crush of water and the underground flooding unless some work was done to allow the city to drain better.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Konstantin von Karstein

      I don’t think so. Even if the 3 gates are closed immediately, the damages done will be massive, and I doubt it will be the case.

      It’s difficult to prepare against hundreds of tons of water falling from hundreds of meter. At this point it’s just physics, and they don’t have the WotW, Cat or Akua to stop it. Maybe Hierophant could destroy the gates, but before he does the city will be devastated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sinead

        True. I was just thinking of the flooding effect as well as the water hammer.

        Also, I am sort of surprised that they would not have anything prepared against this since Cat used it with great effect and we already know Nemeshah learns from his enemies.

        I’m not saying this isn’t bad. I’m more saying that this isn’t “breaking open the city” bad since I really cannot see where this becomes recoverable if the city is lost. That’s why I am wondering about having allies having made a practise to planning deal with lakeomancy effects.

        It could be that this is instead a fighting retreat through the gate with the gate broken behind them, but we have in text that Procer will fall in a year.

        Unless the idea is that the city is broken and everyone flees, while Hanno is successful, which results in Cat coming back to the living surrounded by the dead and then doing her own thing with out a support network while the rest of the Woe come into their own dealing with war.

        That would also be something interesting. I just don’t see how they withdraw from the city without massive, massive losses that just starts a death spiral. It was clearly spelt out that “If this battle fails, the Drow front fails, the dwarves withdraw, and Procer falls”. I really cannot see how we can then have them fail the battle, but still win the war. Unless that sending Hanno away meant that he survives which means he is the White Knight riding back to be the deliverer of victory, which kinda leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

        That’s why what I expect is that there is a means to deal with the lakeomancy, even if it’s just all these systems reacting to the aftermath.

        (Sorry for this being a bit jumbled. It’s hard when you have a thought intertwined with other thoughts).

        Liked by 2 people

  20. Goibnu

    I think everyone seems to be forgetting me forgiveness is jaunting around the battlefield right now and with all she has done I doubt that mercy would leave her gone

    Like

  21. Only in the face? We’ve seen what she can shrug off in the Arsenal. Cat’s gonna be fine. Beyond that, although DK’s seen Cat use the lake trick, does he know breaking that trick is old hat for the Pilgrim? We’ve little reason to believe so. DK thinks he’s played Cat but it could be he just lined up thousands of his own binds’ heads to go pop

    Like

    1. Sinead

      I am pretty sure that we will see the reactions and responses of the Grand Alliance to this chapter and then the Epilogue will be the set up for the last book.

      The last chapter will likely be Flow, as Malicia gets her claws in elsewhere.

      Like

        1. Sinead

          Think of how Book 4 ended with everything starting to get ready for Book 5, and then it cuts to Cat appearing out going “Ok let’s try this again”.

          That’s why I expect Flow to happen as everyone thinks that they have a measure of the events (that is Grand Alliance, Dread Empire, and Mercantis), then have Cat enter stage left. Perhaps she gets a greeting from Nemeshah or Bard, but I would like it they just assume that Cat is gone and don’t look for her. This allows Cat to be the knife in the dark for really the first time on this scale.

          Liked by 1 person

  22. ByVectron!

    I don’t think she’s dead- multiple times, it was written that “arrows sprouted from their forehead…” when a kill shot is delivered, and the one that hit Cat “…punched through the side of her face.”

    Like

      1. ByVectron!

        I think the theory that the arrow was enchanted, and cut Cats ties to the Darkness, holds water. Side-effect of that would be the severing of the connection to Akua (though she is no longer bound, so this had a little less likelihood?) but the Shades reaction could also have been to the Archmage getting away, and unrelated to the injury.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. ByVectron!

            A scream of dismay is a specific thing, though. And again- Akua is no longer bound to Cat, so she would have no psychic impact from the attack.

            Thinking more critically, would she necessarily even have witnessed it? Archer did because she is Named and could not only see the flicker but also identify the arrow for what it was. Akua is neither and she would have been focused on the Archmage.

            Great discussion, though.

            Like

  23. plot armor presumption

    Does this story actually need Cat? Several readers are pointing out she laid a groundwork for success without her. What if Book 5 is all Interlude? We are assuming she has plot armor and I think that’s sloppy. The more creative direction would be for a deconstructed novel where the protagonist died and it didn’t really matter, long denouement, 3rd Letter ends Keter and everyone else.

    Like

    1. Book 7 you mean lol

      And no, “this is unusual” does not mean “this is a good idea”. The audience is invested in the fate of Catherine Foundling more than in the things she cares about, there’d be a massive reader dropoff should she die.

      Liked by 2 people

  24. aran

    … wow! I admit I didn’t see this one coming.

    It looks like Neshamah has taken lessons from how she dealt with the Exiled Prince and gone for Why Don’t You Just Shoot Her.

    Like

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