Challengers

“To be good?

An empty boast.

To be good at!

There is the glory,

even in devilry.”

– Extract from the play “I, Triumphant”, author unknown, banned by decree of the Tower under Terribilis II

Rosalind hadn’t been a Fairfax until there were no Fairfaxes left. She still remembered the knight that’d taken her away and brought her to the monastery, grim and silent and hidden by the visor. She’d grown to love it there, growing up in the gardens with the Brothers and Sisters, but she would not forget that she had been an embarrassment. That it would have been scandalous if Good King’s Robert own cousin was known to have fathered a bastard, so Rosalind must be spirited away in a small monastery in the southern reaches of Callow where she wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.

Much as she still resented that, it had likely saved her life.

Lord William, his wife and their two children were all dead. The Calamities had butchered even the four-year old boy, when they took Laure. But no one had known that Rosalind existed, so no black-clad killers had ever come knocking at the gates of the monastery in the middle of the night. Not, Brother Harlan had told her, that she would have been given up if they had. Lord William had chosen for her upbringing a monastery where more than a few knights had retired, perhaps intending to throw a knighthood her way when she reached the right age.

They would have fought for her, Brother Harlan said, not only because she was now the rightful Queen of Callow but because she was as much their daughter as anyone of their blood. And their conviction had sunk in her, Rosalind thought, for someone needed to save kingdom. The Praesi were still taking tallies and establishing taxes, for now, but it was only a matter of time until their ‘imperial governors’ revealed themselves as cruel tyrants. Rosalind must stop them before it was too late, and that meant rising in rebellion.

And for that, when Harlan – once Ser Harlan, Grandmaster of the Sleeping Lions – had laid the blade on her shoulders she had not risen to her feet a simple knight but instead the Rebel Knight. Eleanor Fairfax’s own Name, she had been told. Her fate was to be one of resurrection, bringing back Callow into a golden age as her ancestor had long ago. Resurrection apparently began with a lot of riding around, though, because that was what she’d been doing since leaving the monastery.

“You’re sure that Countess Elizabeth will help us?” Rosalind asked.

Brother Harlan stroked his beard, which though white had lost none of its luster – much like the man himself had lost little vigor or muscles even though he was in his sixties.

“The Countess Marchford is ambitious but she loves this country,” Harlan told her. “She might insist that you be betrothed to one of her family – I believe her nephew is her heir and the ages are close enough – but she will rise for a Fairfax. Of that I have no doubt.”

And the Countess was wealthy, Rosalind had been told, because of the silver mines in the hills she ruled. Coin would be needed, if the Rebel Knight was to begin raising an army. That was what had the five of them riding north at night, Rosalind and her mentor and the companions she’d found since leaving the monastery. Jack and Jane, the ever-smiling twins from Liesse that always seemed to know more than they should and showed wicked skill with knives, and Lucian. A stuck-up ass of a squire, who though unseasonably handsome kept picking at every decision Rosalind made.

She was pretty sure he was some noble’s son, even if he insisted otherwise, because he kept being surprised at all sorts of common things.

And, surprise of surprises, he rode up to her side the moment Harlan stopped talking. It’d been pretty obvious he was eavesdropping the whole time, as he often did. The pretty boy offered her a smirk.

“Do not worry, Rosalind,” Lucian said. “I have been to Marchford before. When your etiquette fails, you can rely on me to avoid disaster.”

“That’ll be the day,” Rosalind replied, rolling her eyes.

Gods Above, if the squire would just shut up and be pretty this journey would be so much more enjoyable. Harlan looked disapprovingly at the two of them, at him for his presumption and at her for the rudeness, but then he froze and pulled hard at his reins. His mount stopped, and so did the rest of the company’s.

“Harlan?” the Rebel Knight asked.

“We’ve just entered a ward,” Harlan grimly said. “Everyone, scatter.”

Rosalind had been obeying him in the training yard for years, she moved without hesitation. Lucian did not, and a heartbeat later there was a plume of ash where he’d been standing. Rosalind’s heart caught in her throat as she galloped away. Gods, was he dead? Just like that, dead? Light bloomed in the night, and a streak of red flame died against a shining shield. Harlan grunted with effort.

“To me,” he bellowed. “We have to pull back to-”

Rosalind deftly obeyed, as did the wide-eyed twins a moment later, but there was a blur of motion as one of them and their horse were bowledover. A massive wolf ripped out the twin’s hair, the horse screaming as it convulsed with broken legs.

“Jane,” the survivor screamed, anguished.

The Rebel Knight could see, now what the purpose of the ward had been. It had broken, perhaps because of the Light, and now a large mounted company of armoured riders could be seen spreading out around them. The Blackguards. And at their head, riding by the side of a tall Soninke in red robes that must be the Sovereign of Red Skies himself, was a man in plain plate. The Carrion Lord himself, Rosalind realized with a shiver. Harlan moved between the two of them, Light burning in his gaze.

“Ser Harlan,” the Black Knight calmly greeted him. “It appears your retirement has come to an end.”

“Had me watched, did you?” her mentor growled.

“We have people in Marchford,” the Carrion Lord replied. “Making contact revealed you.”

To their side the Blackguards were still fanning out and Rosalind felt fear creeping up her spine. If they got surrounded…

“Run, child,” Harlan quietly said.

Rosalind rocked back as if he’d slapped her.

“Harlan, no,” she insisted. “I can’t leave you-”

“I can hold them back long enough,” Harlan said, back straightening. “It will be my last gift to you, Rosalind.”

She choked up. He’d taught her since she could wall, taken care of her through every tantrum and skinned knee, every… He was more her father than some dead Fairfax could ever claim to be. Jack put his hand on her shoulder, pulling her back.

“We need to go,” he said, voice raw with grief.

Around them the riders were still spreading out, moving methodically. Harlan turned to her, smiling through his white beard.

“Farewell, Rosalind,” the old knight said. “Rule well.”

And she ran, Gods damn her. Followed his last order even as Light bloomed like a midnight sun.

“Come on, Carrion Lord,” Grandmaster Harlan of the Sleeping Lions laughed, “let’s have the fight that should have ended you on the Fields.”

A pause.

“All crossbows fire at will,” the Black Knight mildly said. “Delay pursuit, it’s pointless now – Wekesa, track her.”

Whatever happened after that, Rosalind was too far to hear it. She rode her horse hard, Jack sticking close to her. But these were flatlands, and when enough time had passed that she could look behind without tears in her eyes she saw the Blackguards had resumed pursuit.

“There’s a village to the east,” Jack shouted at her. “Off the road. We need to hide there.”

She nodded, not trusting her voice. Something was burning her belly, a rage she’d not known before. It had been a duty, driving out the Praesi, but now it was something more. It was personal. They took Jack’s advice, the Blackguards pursuing in the distance, and before long found the village he’d mentioned. A nowhere place, wide asleep. There was nowhere in sight.

“I’ll find us fresh horses to steal,” Jack told her, pulling ahead. “Keep an eye on-”

The crossbow bolt took him the throat. The Rebel Knight threw herself to the ground before another could take her in the chest, but her horse was not so lucky.

“No,” she wept, but Jack was already dead.

What could she do but run? The village was swarming with goblins in Legion armour, suddenly, and if she stopped moving she was dead.

She was exhausted when the enemy caught up to her. Rosalind was fast, but not so fast she could outrun horses. She turned around, sword in hand, to meet her enemy.

“Come fight me, coward,” the Rebel Knight shouted.

The Carrion Lord studied her through his visor in silence, then simply raised his hand and lowered it. Rosalind was already running, but there was no avoiding that many crossbows. One bolt after another punched through her chain mail, every step becoming harder until she collapsed. She had not, she realized, gotten even half of the way there. The monster dismounted, a dozen soldiers following him as he approached her with his sword bare.

Rosalind tried to raise her arm, strike at him, but she was too weak.

“Three years,” the Black Knight said, shaking his head in disgust. “Even Scribe thought we’d get six before the first of you popped out.”

“I won’t be the last,” Rosalind gurgled out. “Damn you, I won’t be the last.”

Eerily pale green eyes met hers.

“No,” the Carrion Lord softly agreed. “In every sense, child, you will not be the last.”

It was mercifully quick.

The Scholar had heard what the monsters did to heroes in these parts, and he wasn’t going to meet that fate. That was why he was drinking in a dingy tavern, sipping at stale beer, instead of trying to hook up with one of the dozen would-be rebel groups that dwelled in Vale. Julian was Callowan too, just as much as any of them, but he’d been abroad. He’d been studying in Atalante when the Conquest happened, so he had… perspective that the people who’d never left lacked. These villains weren’t like the ones from the old stories, they’d take longer to drive out. Coming at them plain wouldn’t work. So instead of adding his corpse to the growing pile, Julian Evers was going to do the smart thing.

He’d learn everything he could about them, all their tricks, and give that information to every hero on Calernia. Time would do the rest for him.

Still, he had to wonder if it was the occupation that’d made the beer so watery. Surely an honest Callowan tavern-keeper wouldn’t cut their drinks if they had any other choice, right? The brown-haired man shot a suspicious look at the man behind the counter. He’d already used Examineon the tavern-keeper to make sure he did not have the tattoo that marked Eyes of the Empire, so he knew the fair-haired man was at least marginally trustworthy. He leaned around one of the candles on the counter, avoiding the uncomfortable wafting heat.

“I’ve a question,” Julian said, “if you have a moment.”

“Maybe if you order another beer,” the tavern-keeper mildly replied. “You’ve been nursing that tankard all evening.”

Fair enough, the Scholar thought with a sigh. He ordered again, setting aside his old tankard and sipping at the new one in a gesture of goodwill. It was significantly better, he noticed, and took a deeper swallow.

“Do you cut your beer, by any chance?” Julian asked, stroking a finger against Examine.

The blond man puffed up, looking offended.

“Of course not,” he replied.

A lie, Julian saw. His aspect wasn’t entirely foolproof, it tended to get caught up in details, but it saw clearly through most situations. Besides, particular attention to detail was only natural for someone who’d studied in Atalante: the philosopher-priests had quite literally invented the discipline of semantics.

“So yes,” Julian drily said, “but not this one.”

The tavern-keeper glared.

“Fine, there might have been water in the first,” he admitted. “But not your second.”

Truth, Examine told him. Julian took another swallow.

“What do you want, stranger?” the tavern-keeper asked.

“Your advice,” the Scholar said, smiling at the knowledge he now held the advantage. “I have been thinking of heading to Summerholm, but I hear the place is swarming with Praesi.”

“Largest garrison in Callow,” the other man agreed. “What about it?”

“I can deal with soldiers,” Julian shrugged, “but is it true that the Calamities often go there?”

He hoped so. Finding employment, laying low for a year or two and then begin quietly gathering information was his plan but it would only work if he could find a place where at least some of the villains regularly spent time. The Black Knight had not taken up a city as the capital of the occupation, unfortunately, which made the business tricky.

“Way I hear it, the Black Knight blows through every few months,” the tavern-keeper said. “And the Captains’ supposed to stick to him like glue, yeah? Don’t know about the others.”

The Scholar hummed. One tavern-keeper was not a certainty, but it was a start. He’d moved around, ask in other places after having changed his appearance like he’d done in Dormer. He offered the blond man his smile and thanks, then set about finishing the rest of the tankard out of politeness. Best not to be rude, it risked making him into a story to be peddled. Only when he was halfway through, he felt a sudden and vicious cramp. Julian looked down. His limbs were trembling, he saw, and he dropped to the floor.

He had, he realized with horror, been poisoned.

Distantly, he heard a few screams and people running out of the hall. Footsteps too, large, but his eyes were on the candle on the counter. Burning, he thought. Destroying impurity. And what poison, if not that? He focused, feeling the life leak out of him, and thought of a flame. Of it scouring his veins, destroying all evil. A hulking shape leaned over him. Not a woman, he dimly thought, for what woman could possibly be so large?

“Did you just learn to burn out poison on the fly?” the Captain said, sounding impressed. “It’s not even that common a trick.”

“I,” the Scholar gurgled out, “you won’t get away with-”

“You certainly didn’t,” the Captain said, raising a great hammer. “We lost you after Dormer, Scholar, but if you keep using dives for information then it’s just a waiting game.”

The hammer came down.

It’d all begun when a wolf king had come out of the Waning Woods and begun to raid farms. It’d not exactly caused a panic, since it or something like it happened every few decades. The tale was well-worn: some fae lord came into Creation, played court with some animals enchanted to talk and then when they got bored and abandoned the whole affair. Leaving the territory closest to the woods, the Barony of Dormer, to deal with the aftermath. The wolf kings were the worst of the lot, what with the way they gathered large packs and went after cattle single-mindedly, but it was nothing that Baroness Anne’s knights wouldn’t be able to ride down.

Only this time the fae had decided to go for broke, and horse-sized fox that spoke in rhyme had attacked the knights’ camp as they slept, tearing through them while they were unarmoured. The fox – a vixen, to be precise – had all the while been telling them that she was truly a princess and that the only way to be free of her curse was to slay as many men as there were days the enchantment was meant to last, but the good people of Dormer took that one with a grain of salt. Everyone’s grandmother had a story about some frog-prince who’d ended up being a badger with delusions of grandeur or a cousin who’d freed a buck only to find the promised treasure was a pile of acorns painted gold.

The survivors from the attack had sent for reinforcements and gathered the dispossessed farmers in a small town called Strawthorn, walling up there until the baroness’ troops could arrive. Blake had gone out to help, of course he had. He might have left behind his life as a Brother to marry Sawyer, but he was still a healer at heart. So long as he could wield Light, he’d pitch in when Evil came calling in one form or another. Sawyer hadn’t argued, one of a hundred daily reminders of how he’d made the right decision upending his life to be with her, and instead hung her apron to belt on her sword.

That nasty business with her father had ensured that Sawyer Halcroft would never be a knight, but her years abroad as a mercenary had taught her entirely more practical skills.

They were a month in Strawhtorn, Blake to heal the sick as he ignored the sideye from the priests and Sawyer spending her days training the town’s fledgling militia under the disapproving gaze of the Dormer knights. His wife was teaching them Free Cities spear tactics, not a proper Callowan shield wall, which while more likely to save their lives was apparently lacking in patriotism on her part.

“Never mind that a shield wall that green will melt away like summer snow the moment wolves run at it,” Sawyer groused at him in private.

Just as they began to get restless, however, word came from Dormer: another force had been assembled and was on its way. Darker news came too, to everyone’s dismay: rumour had it the Carrion Lord had taken an interest and might be headed this way. Hopefully it was really just be a rumour.

“It probably is,” Sawyer reassured him. “If you listen to gossip, the man’s bloody everywhere.”

“I won’t mind that,” Blake said, “so long as it’s everywhere but here.”

The Calamities might not have been the kind of tyrants he’d expected them to be, but they were harsher in doling out punishment than the Fairfaxes had ever been. Best not to draw their attention at all if you could, that was just plain sense. The two of them made plans to leave Strawthorn when the reinforcements arrived, deciding it was best to get gone before they could get caught up in the inevitable pissing match between the Dormer soldiers and the Praesi.

Only they didn’t get to, because the wolf king came straight at the town. No one had expected it, because the creatures never did that. It might have a crown seared onto its head, but it was still a wolf: those didn’t attack towns, or even most villages, unless hunger made them desperate. The knights were caught with their pants down again, although even half-dressed their core of veterans made a bloody fight of it, but things were looking bad.

“I need to form up the militia,” Sawyer hissed at him. “Can you-”

Blake kissed her.

“Go,” he said, and she did.

He should have gone with the priests, readied himself to heal the wounded, but a doubt was niggling away at him. Why would the wolf king act this way? Following a faint instinct, he headed for the House of Light and there found his answer: the great fox, trying to force open the gates. Around her neck hung the limp and bleeding body of a she-wolf.

“You took the wolf king’s consort to draw him here,” Blake said, fingers clenching around his staff. “Why?”

The fox turned to look at him, smirking as much as an animal could.

“Poor priest, blinded and crossed

Knowing not what was buried and lost

I came here cunning, and will have my bite

Of that old treasure made of Light.”

Blake stared her down.

“Your metre’s terrible and your rhymes second rate,” he told the monster.

It did not take kindly to that. But even though he was no longer a Brother, he was still a wielder of Light and standing near the threshold of a House. When he called it to him it came strong and easy, burning at the great fox’s fur until it yelped and ran away. The vixen was a coward at heart, it was why she’d gotten the wolf king to do her dirty work, and in the haste of her flight she abandoned her unconscious prisoner. In the distance Blake still heard the screams and howls of battle, the wolf king still attacking desperately to claim back his consort, and the healer hesitated.

The fox had revealed that some manner of artefact lay underneath the floor of the House, something powerful enough the creature had desired to devour it for power. If he claimed it, he could drive away the wolf king. But though Blake was no longer a priest, he had not forgotten the lessons of the Book. If the choice is between lighting a candle and a pyre, ever choose the candle: to save is a greater act than to destroy. So instead Blake knelt by the she-wolf and laid a gentle hand on her side, Light blooming around her pelt. Her breath steadied, and she woke. Too-clever eyes met his and he smiled.

“Let us end this,” the healer said.

And they did. The fight went out of the wolves the moment the two of them arrived, and Sawyer ordered the wall of spears to part so they could pass. The two wolves reunited, lovingly rubbing their cheeks together, and Blake’s heart clenched. He glanced at his wife, who was looking back with a small, secret smiled. The wolf king took a few steps towards him, nervous townsfolk raising their spears, but the crowned wolf did not attack: it bowed its head down in thanks before rising again, eyes expectant. Blake knew his stories, like all good Dormer boys. He was being offered a boon.

“I ask,” he said, “that you no longer attack humans and their cattle, Your Majesty.”

The wolf king stared him down with amber eyes, then curtly nodded and trotted away. The large pack, nearly sixty wolves even after all the deaths, followed in his wake. Blake slumped, the wind gone out of him now the danger was passing, and might have collapsed if Sawyer had not come to help him up. It was over, finally. The townsfolk cheered themselves hoarse, and that night a feast was thrown. The couple stayed two more days, long enough that Blake could be satisfied there would be no one who died from their wounds, and as they did they felt a… change.

The townsfolk and even the knights had begun calling Blake a wise healer, and the words were beginning to have weight. Almost like a title. And Sawyer, who’d been offered by the town elders to stay on as captain of their militia, had begged off by telling them that though a mercenary she was now retired. The words stuck to her too, the way she got called the retired mercenary. The both of them feared the change, and decided it was time to get gone. They could ride this out at the bakery, piece together what was happening.

Just to be safe they did not wait until morning to leave, riding out in the night and finding a roadside inn to stay at. The rooms were full so they had to sleep in the stables, but neither of them minded. It wasn’t their first night roughing it, and they settled together in the hay.

The woke up to a bright light being shined into their faces.

Sawyer was on her feet in a heartbeat, sword clearing the scabbard, but it was caught by another blade. As Blake struggled to get up, reaching for his staff, he saw his wife getting headbutted by a man in plain plate, the crunch of the steel helmet on her forehead a wound to his heart. She reared back in pain as Blake called on the Light, letting loose a bolt, but the man moved out of the way with a dancer’s grace. Sawyer struck again, but the stranger was so fast – he slapped aside the thrust and his gauntleted fist struck her in the mouth, smashing her back down into the hay and breaking teeth.

“Robbers,” Blake shouted, drawing on Light. “You fools, even if the baroness doesn’t get you the Legions w-”

And then froze, because the man had not come alone. The stables were full of soldiers in plate but no heraldic markings, and there was only one company in all of Callow that wore such armour: the Blackguards. The Carrion Lord’s personal retinue.

“No,” Blake got out. “Why? We haven’t done anything.”

Under the visor he saw pale green eyes studying him, the violence pausing. Gods, let them be able to talk their way out of this.

“We don’t want to fight you,” Blake desperately said. “I swear. We want only to leave, to return to our bakery. We’re not rebels.”

“I know,” the Black Knight said, and he sounded sounding genuinely sorry. “But that is only in the immediate. Should I leave you alone now, fate’s wheels begin spinning.”

“We have no quarrel with the Empire,” Sawyer croaked, down in the hay.

“Not today,” the monster said. “But eventually an imperial governor will wrong you, or a legionary’s carelessness, and when that anger reaches a boil another hero will show up.”

The man sounded vaguely irritated.

“Someone young and strong, with potential but little experience, who would need companions like a wise healer and a retired mercenary to reach the fullness of their power,” the Carrion Lord said. “By then, it will be too late. This is best nipped in the bud before the band of five begins gathering.”

“You’re mad,” Sawyer hissed through her broken teeth. “This is all nonsense, you’ve just gone rabid and-”

A sense of immediate danger blared across Blake’s mind, but the Carrion Lord was not moving so what could possible be the cause of it. Oh, Merciful Gods, the Wise Healer realized. He wasn’t really talking to us, it was just a distraction so the Warlock could-

The last thing Blake ever felt was the scent of burning brimstone.

23 thoughts on “Challengers

  1. Unrecovered

    When I first started to read this series, I was like “Damn, another filler chapter?! Annoying! I want to know what happened next!”

    Then I catched up. And it became “Ohh! Two chapters instead of one this week?! Great!”

    And now, since they’re patreon exclusive, it’s just “Aw :C”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Miley

      It creates a bit of a conundrum. Am I going to bother once the story is done? Seems like it would diminish the ending in some way to read that before these. But you know the penultimate chapter has to be a cliff.

      On the other hand, if EE doesn’t release a bonus book as the “and one” then these bonus stories would fill that role.
      Also, the bonus content has introduced red herrings in the past – for example lots of people thought Roland confiscated Masego’s magic after his side story revealed that aspect, but we just found out the SOS removed it.

      Back on the first hand, maybe those bonus chapters contain some critical foreshadowing that make the pandering lately a bit more palatable. I mean I doubt it, but a girl can dream.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hey I’d love to know what you mean re: ‘pandering’

        And I’d highly recommend jumping on the patreon to read them before the story’s over, they add a lot, and EE’s patreon tiers are very cheap compared to many.

        Re: the red herrings; I’m not in any social media circles that discuss the story, so I only see comments here/patreon, but did people really think Roland took Masego’s magic? I’m pretty sure Nessie did it explicitly on screen no? And I like Roland, but somehow I doubt he could front Masego. I mean, it’s Masego.

        I thought ‘Challengers’ was one of the weaker side chapters this book, but the rest have been fantastic, and last I saw the polls showed that the next extra chapter will detail Rumena’s origins as the Tomb Maker, way back from the end of the Empire Ever Dark, so it should be hilarious and exciting!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. John Jacob Smitt

      I completely get why you, and other commenters below, don’t like the idea of having to pay for content. The fact that it is free is part of what drew many of us to web fiction in the first place.

      That said, the bonus chapters are good and EE has done an insane amount of work writing this very very long story that we all love. I feel like $1 a month is a pretty good deal for that.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Troy Hunter

      I’m not a patron either, but like, from what I can remember they’re not usually important to the actual story. It’s more Silmarillion than anything. Nice, expands on the world, not necessary to enjoy the main content. And it’s questionable if it’s “deeply important”. I mean if you feel it’s deeply important that’s fine, but objectively it’s not important at all to anyone’s actual comprehension of the story. Enjoyment is completely subjective but personally it hasn’t been a detractor for me. And as someone pointed out, this is still better than any normal book. We still get all the content for free eventually. And again, the main content is completely free no strings attached. I really don’t see anything to complain about here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jeremiah Johnson

        The incredible entitlement of some people tbh is mind-blowing

        You have this brilliant work. It’s enormous, larger than Harry Potter by a factor of at least two. It’s completely free.

        And just because the author dares to ask for money – for only optional lore chapters – people are pissed. You can get these for 1 US dollar a month you horrific cheapskates. Good lord is a DOLLAR A MONTH so much to ask for this quantity of amazing writing? And again, you don’t even have to pay anything if you just want the main story.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Josh Brooks

          They aren’t optional, important information has been stacked behind them. And no I won’t support the patreon specifically because the chapters are paywalled. If they were free to everyone it would be a different story.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

            They are 100% optional. You could easily have learnt this from reading the extra chapters that were released before the paywall, and now that the paywall is down you can read the newer extras and find them functionally superfluous to the main story. They just tell us what various characters were like before they reached the points in their arcs at which Cat met them, alongside a few lore tidbits like Neshamah’s theories about where demons come from or this chapter’s inclusion of fae-influenced talking animals.

            It is not stingy of EE to ask compensation in exchange for EXTRA chapters. If you’re broke and mad about it, be mad at your bosses for not paying you a living wage. This attitude is completely insufferable.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Josh Brooks

              Insufferable would be this toxic rhetoric you’re on about where not only I am not allowed to criticize the situation but clearly the only viable reason to do so would be being broke and just not personally wanting to support this method of monetization. It’s the latter friend for three main reasons. First off, I have read them now, and much like the ones published in the past when they were free while some are really just optional (like this one) others are not either because they are actually important to the story like the Nemeshah chapters were or because they fill in seriously needed characterization bits and complete plot arcs that felt rushed or incomplete without them. It’s almost like “optional” is remarkably hard to gauge properly when talking about situations like this one. Second, the long delay between publication for patrons and non-patrons combined with a remarkably lax spoiler policy both here and on the reddit meant I got spoiled for almost every interesting reveal or cool moment in these things long before they were available for me. Third, I personally prefer that being a patron come with short term exclusivity for the reasons above or come with generally non-exclusive bonuses that the whole community can benefit from as to not create a “haves and have nots” situation. And you do get that people are in fact allowed to criticize the author’s monetization strategy without also saying the author shouldn’t get money at all right? I’m not saying EE should be broke and sad and chained to desk to write for free.

              Liked by 2 people

              1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

                I’ve actually been fairly aggressive at times in telling people off for trying to raise EE or his work above criticism, I just think your specific critique is bad, or perhaps I should say that you overstate your case.

                Neshamah’s extra chapter is, in my view, a very good example of how genuinely non-critical these are, though. We know from the main story that Neshamah is an extremely powerful necromancer, diabolist, and sorcerer of various other disciplines; we know that he desires ultimate personal freedom from the Game of the Gods, at all costs; we know that he is extremely clever and extremely cautious, willing to throw away what a mortal would consider their life’s work if it results in better long-term odds of survival; we know that he destroyed his own homeland and all therein, and by extension that he was not truly close to anyone emotionally at the time he did so; we know that he was very low-status royalty, often overlooked by other royals.

                What we learned from his extra chapter is how he was originally set on the path that eventually led him to rebellion against the Gods; whether he was always completely lacking in emotional ties; how those ties he had came to be severed; one thing he suspects about demons (the demons themselves being character-less plot devices whose only non-trivial details are how they can kill you and vice versa); and what some of the cultures were whose secrets he studied, as well as a few cultural details from them, e.g. how the Twilight Sages comported themselves and what exactly their order’s political significance was. You know, those guys whose only main-story relevance is that their fatally-misplaced arrogance almost doomed the drow.

                Your point about the difficulty of determining what should be optional is valid, albeit it cuts both ways. After all, they’re extra chapters, not superfluous chapters. If the story wouldn’t lose something without them, that means their presence doesn’t add anything– but they still don’t give us more than a bit of context for who various characters were before their arcs intersected with Cat’s, plus enough background details to be more than a blurb.

                Re: spoilers: I’m sorry that happened to you, but it’s not a monetization issue so much as a moderation one, to my mind. Still not something I wish to argue against though.

                Mostly what set me off to begin with was your remark about withholding financial backing you would otherwise presumably have given because the extra chapters were held back for that purpose. One of the two times I’ve seen EE reprimand a commenter, it was for making a superficially similar remark that I now realize had less in common with yours than I’d thought.
                For that, I apologize.

                Liked by 1 person

            2. caoimhinh

              Hmm, but the Extra chapters do contain important information.
              Perhaps not the ones that were put behind the temporary paywall (I haven’t read them all, though they are indeed enlightening and broaden perspective), but it is understandable that many people reacted badly to that decision, because up to that point the Extra Chapters HAD provided vital info in some cases, especially those chapters that were providing context for events, such as Fatalism.

              An important example, the Colossal chapters introduced Kreios and gave the background information for who he is and what his relationship with Antigone is. Without those chapters, Kreios would be a Deus Ex Machine that came out of nowhere. Because there is zero info on him until Antigone summons him to ask for help in the war on Keter.

              True, it’s not wrong for EE to ask for money for his work (though being free is the main appeal of web serials, reaching a large audience that provides support through donations without needing to sign with an editorial) or to give a reward to Patreons, as they very much deserve that for being the supporters that are actually giving money.

              But, it is a bit disingenuous to claim that the Extra chapters are simple optional things that don’t add to the story or don’t affect the reading experience.

              A much better strategy would have been to have chapters early for Patreons instead of leaving people without this info up until the end of the saga. That would have helped get money and more Patreons and wouldn’t have aroused indignation in so many people.

              But at this point this kind of discussion is pointless since what’s done is done and the Extra chapters are now available to all.

              Liked by 2 people

    1. caoimhinh

      Interestingly, the way Amadeus dealt with the Wise Healer and Retired Mercenary is contrary to the way he dealt with Vivienne when she became Thief, which was simply scaring her off and telling her to not act against the Empire (which worked for a while, until her father died and she joined WIlliam’s band).

      Makes me wonder, why did he spare Vivienne?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. asazernik

        I think because the name of Thief isn’t necessarily a heroic one; with these two, he knew their Names would force them into some rebellion, whereas a Thief going around and Thieving can be neutral or even evil.

        Liked by 3 people

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