Chapter 64: Gehenna

“In war you must avoid fighting strength and instead attack weakness. Therefore, an army evenly mediocre cannot be attacked.”

– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general

“You know,” I said, “given that the first part of this plan was literally going to Hell, I kind of figured that the trouble we’d run into would actually be Hell-related.”

Masego cocked his head to the side.

“Technically speaking,” he began, and I spared him a glare.

“Don’t you fucking start,” I warned him. “Not when I’m looking at what appears to be a hanged skeleton.”

The five of us were standing in a village, which would have had me rather curious if it weren’t currently abandoned and on fire. Once you’d seen one burning village you’d seen all of them, really. Still, worrying as it was that we’d been in the Serenity for nearly a quarter hour now and the only sign of life we’d seen was an empty village set ablaze, I was rather more concerned by the other thing we’d found. There was a nice old oak in the middle of town, one I was looking at, and someone had seen fit to tie a noose to the tallest branch and hang a skeleton from it.

“Perhaps it committed a crime,” Masego suggested.

“She, by the looks of those hips,” the Concocter noted from my left.

I narrowed my eye, poking the skeleton with the tip of my staff. She rattled a little, but remained defiantly not undead.

“You told me the dead always rise in the Serenity,” I called out to Ranger.

It was one of the many ways the Hidden Horror had turned the Hell into his personal fiefdom, Hye Su had explained. The afterlife here was service in Keter’s armies, marching through the gate into Creation. Not all souls remained in the Dead King’s grasp, but many did. It was his most regular source of Binds, the ensouled undead used as officers for his armies.

“They should,” she replied. “Something must have happened.”

“She used to be undead,” Hierophant said. “It’s why the bones are still holding together, the necromancy fused them.”

“But she wasn’t destroyed,” the Silver Huntress grunted. “There’s nothing broken enough to break the spell.”

Which was the part that actually worried me, I mused. Any idiot could hang a skeleton, particularly if it wasn’t moving at the time. When you did it and it appeared to work, though, that was a different story. Something eldritch was afoot and this was a bad place to face it. The Hells were not the same as Creation, rules were not as firm here. And when you were powerful enough they could even be changed: how else would even a powerful mage like Dead King have been able to rule a Hell for so long? Which meant that somewhere in the Serenity an entity was loose that was capable of bending those rules. Possibly even when Neshamah was fighting them, which was a mite unsettling. Who or what would be able to fight the Dead King like this in his own private kingdom? Considering this place didn’t look like it’d been burning for more than an hour, we might just be close enough to learn the answer to that.

Joy.

“We’re not going to learn more from this place,” I finally said. “Fire’s burnt through too much. Ranger, have you figured out where we are?”

“About an hour south of the nine-hundredth stele,” she replied. “We crossed through further west than we should have.”

She paused, glancing at Masego.

“Wekesa would not have made that mistake.”

“If only he were still with us,” Masego agreed. “If only you had helped make it so in any way.”

Ranger’s face tightened. She was not, I suspected, used to being spoken to like that even when she loosed her little barbs – not from people she didn’t consider equals. Only Hierophant had not lied or insulted her in any way, for all the tacit contempt behind his words, so she was struggling to find a reason to be offended. She wasn’t used to dealing with Zeze at all, I thought. Not the way Sabah and Scribe had been. She’d not stayed with the Calamities long enough to be. Much as I would have enjoyed continuing to listen at Ranger continuing to fail at winning a battle Masego was unaware he was fighting, the sight around us was making it clear we needed to get a move on.

There were things going on in the Serenity I’d not anticipated, so I was in need of answers.

“So which is the closest gate?” I asked.

While there was only one Hellgate in Keter, it was not a simple tunnel through. The Dead King had, over millennia, tied the portal to several gates spread across the Serenity. Though the other end in Creation could only be tied to one Serenity gate at a time, there were at least nine of these spread across the Hell that Ranger knew of.

“It’s the Writhing Palace,” Ranger said. “The Banquet Hall is a lot less defended but it’s at least an hour more: there’s woods and a river in the way.”

Fuck. I’d heard that name once before, when I came to Keter for the talks, and thought it was not somewhere I ever wanted to visit. I should have known better than to tempt the Gods that way, I brooded.

“I don’t suppose anybody’s got a drink?” I glumly said. “I’m going to need one if we’re going to a place called the godddamn Writhing Palace.”

“I do, actually,” the Concocter surprised, going rifling through her haversack.

She got out a small crystal flask with something that looked like water in it, though after she handed it to me when I took out the cork the smell of strong liquor assaulted my nostrils. I took a pull and almost choked, eyes watering.

“Is that moonshine?” I croaked out.

“It is,” Cocky proudly smiled. “I made it myself.”

I took another pull from the flask, having gotten used to the strong taste.

“You’re a delight,” I told her, “and now my favourite person in this band of five.”

Ranger took a step closer, reaching for the flask, but I moved it away from her hand.

“We ask,” I chided, “before we take.”

“No,” the Concocter immediately said, smiling beatifically.

When I turned to have a look at Ranger’s face, though it wasn’t irritation I found. She looked like she’d been slapped in the face, I thought, or perhaps had seen a ghost. And it was on me that her eyes rested, not her former pupil. She withdrew as if burned, striding ahead of us.

“Come on,” Hye Su gruffly said. “Let’s get this over with.”

I corked the flask again, handing it back to Cocky with a murmur of thanks, and settled into a thoughtful frown. If it was a ghost she’d been looking for, well, there was only the one we shared.

And I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about Ranger seeing my father in me.

Deep down part of me had expected something about the Serenity to be fantastical and disturbing, but by all indications the Hell was one of the single most boring places to ever exist.

It was all fields and forests, with occasional river or dirt road passing through. I barely saw any animals, but there had to be a few around else the people here wouldn’t be able to clothe themselves. In a way, it was the pinnacle of the Dead King’s achievements that his personal Hell was something so violently unremarkable. It was a land without dangers or excitements, a seemingly endless sprawl of pretty little villages without fear or famine. And it was only villages. Not a town to be seen, much less a city, and the two villages we’d passed through had shown only a few different trades. The Serenity had been carefully crafted to remain forever pleasant and stagnant, not a soul from it ever interested in leaving.

If we’d had more time, I would have studied this place with fascination. What had it taken for Neshamah to turn a Hell full of devils into this pastoral dream? How had he shaped his people into being so utterly content, growing and pruning them over centuries as an immortal gardener would a tree? Though horror lurked behind what the Dead King had done here, I itched to learn the methods. There’d never been a ruler like Neshamah before, not really, and likely there never would again. That was something to be fervently sought, but when he passed the Dead King would take with him a unique mind. One that had learned secrets deeps and strange, for all its malevolence.

The boredom ceased about the moment we found the first corpse by the road.

“Those bones have been exposed to the elements for decades,” Masego said. “This used to be undead.”

And now the skeleton by the dirt path was, by all appearances, laid to rest. Once more without a mark on it to explain how that had come to be. Even Light would leave traces, I thought. Did something dispel the necromancy keeping it moving?

“It’s too close to the road for it to have been coincidence,” the Silver Huntress said.

“Agreed,” I grunted. “Whatever’s responsible for it collapsing was going up the road.”

Which Ranger had said led to the Writhing Palace. The entity responsible for this would likely beat us to the place, which while simplifying getting to the bottom of this was just a bit unsettling. We still had no idea what had caused any of this or why. We kept going up the road, finding at first another few lone corpses and then soon entire companies of them. All prone, all without marks.

“Someone was sending troops after whoever walked up that road,” I frowned.

And it’d been more than one person doing that, as it turned out.

“There’s tracks all over the fields,” Ranger told me. “At least a hundred people heading towards the palace, not all at the same time.”

“Ominous,” I noted.

We hurried, for lack of anything else to do, and followed the path at a pace just short of a run. I found it more difficult to tell time here – the Serenity had no true dawn or dusk I could measure myself against – but it could not have been an hour by the time it began. It was a pulse I felt. Steady like a heartbeat, rippling through the air like a drum. It battered away at all of us, and though goddesses riding my mind for years had hardened me I was not the only one here. Masego and Ranger seemed more irritated than truly affected, but the other two were looking dazed.

“Shit,” I muttered.

“Warden?” Ranger asked.

“I’ve felt this before,” I said. “I know who it is.”

“Who?” Alexis said, tone disbelieving.

“The Hierarch,” I told them. “Though his aspect didn’t reach quite this far last time I encountered it.”

In Rochelant I’d need to reach the plaza where he was before it was this strong. Now we couldn’t even see him yet and it was like a tide in the air. That was a small thing, though, compared to the revelation that Anaxares the Diplomat was for some fucking godforsaken reason in the Serenity. How? Last I’d heard he should have been wrestling the Choir of Judgement, and stubborn as the madman was I didn’t see him winning that tussle. He hadn’t at the start, and unlike him the angels could not tire. How could he have- no, that didn’t matter. Not really. The particular method was irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. What mattered was why he was here.

We were to late in the game for it to be an accident.

“I had thought him imprisoned by the Choir of Judgement for his blasphemy,” the Silver Huntress slowly said.

“More like imprisoning with,” the Concocter replied, sounding amused, “but you’re not wrong.”

“How kind of you to say so,” Alexis acidly said.

“It’s an interesting trick,” Ranger mused. “Something like projecting an abstract kind of domain, if I had to guess. It’ll be tiresome to deal with inside a place like the Serenity.”

I tuned them out, closing my eye and forcing myself to think. An obvious answer was there to the second question I’d asked myself, but I forced myself to consider others. And yet as I went through one possibility after another, discarding the impossible and the unlikely, I found that only one remained standing. The Intercessor had done this. She’d done it because she had a use for the Hierarch’s presence here, even though I could not be sure what it was yet. It had to be the Wandering Bard, because it wasn’t anyone one my side that’d done this and there was no one left that could screw with angels and wasn’t aside from Yara of Nowhere.

What was the play here? Obviously Hierarch was poison to a place like the Serenity, so it might be the Intercessor was trying to poison the Dead King’s bolthole should he lose on Creation. On the other hand, in one of the conversations I’d had with her she had pretty convincingly sold me on the Dead King being stuck in the Serenity as him being defeated. ‘Sealed Evil in a box’ wasn’t a story that ended well for the Evil in question in the long term, she’d not been lying about that. She could have been lying in a broader sense, sure, but that was a rabbit hole not worth going down.

If the Intercessor meant to cut off the Dead King’s retreat and believed there was nothing he could to against such a stroke, then she could have done this years ago. She hadn’t. Which meant she was after something else. Aside from cutting his retreat, what was she- oh. Oh, fuck.

“It’s actually that simple, isn’t it?” I murmured, rubbing the bridge of my nose.

There was nothing aside from cutting off the Dead King’s retreat, because that was the whole fucking point. She was making sure Neshamah knew that if he didn’t win in Creation, he was done. No way out, no path of retreat. The Intercessor wanted us to be fighting against a cornered animal with nothing left to lose. Someone capable of anything so long as it bought him even a heartbeat more of survival.

“Catherine?” Masego asked. “You’re talking to yourself again. Are we still headed to the Writhing Palace?”

I grimaced. It was the closest gate, and I needed to get a finger on the pulse on what the Hierarch was after. Occasionally violent madman the Bellerophan might be, he wasn’t necessarily an enemy. Not unless his remarkably even pissing match with the Seraphim had changed him too much.

“We are,” I answered. “Prepare your minds, it’ll get worse the more we approach.”

At least, I mused, I finally knew what had happened to the undead we’d been finding. Necromancy keeping soldiers fighting in a war that hadn’t been voted on in the service of a tyrant? The Hierarch would see that as so furiously intolerable they’d drop down the moment they entered his aspect’s reach.

And so for once, I smiled, someone had popped up that was scarier for the Dead King than me.

The Writhing Palace was a ruin.

I could see the bones of what it had been meant to be, a boast as to the power of the man who’d made it. Curved pillars of ivory rose like rib bones from the grass, their shadows cutting across the green. Their shape drew the eye, outlining the belly of a great beast ending in a head that was a now-shattered throne room. No single stone was left unbroken, as if someone had wanted to take a hammer to the very principle of royalty, and among the ruin someone had started a fire. Anaxares the Diplomat, a too-thin man in tattered beggar’s robes, roasted a slab of meat over an open flame in the wreckage of the Dead King’s throne room. He used a snapped gold scepter as a spike and sat on the shattered back of the throne, his burning grey eyes wreathed in smoke.

He looked like the death of crowns, feasting over their demise.

Yet what gave us pause when we approached was not the sight of him but instead what lay around. The Writhing Palace had not had walls of stone, Ranger had told me. It was a boast, after all. Between the ribs and the throne room of pure white marble, it had been a great palace made entirely of devils. Thousands and thousands of them, of all shapes and sizes, each interlocked and forever writhing as they remained frozen in place by the unbroken will of Trismegistus King. Or so it had been. Now the Hierarch had come, the Republic’s howling anger made into a man, and the spell had broken. The devils had broken into courts, some huddling around fires and others assembling into mobs as other stood above them and gave speeches in the dark tongue.

Some of them, I gathered from a closer look, were attempting to organize elections.

The others pulled closer to me as we approached, save for Ranger – whose pride lay in indifference. There were humans in the throng, I eventually saw. There were so few of them compared to the devils that I had not noticed. They sat with the Hell’s first inhabitants, speaking animatedly as they shared fires. No mobs were howling for blood, but I knew why already: we’d walked past a forest turned into gallows as we approached, humans and devils swinging from branches. The anger of the people had been sated, at least for now. I could feel the song of the Hierarch’s madness turned into an aspect, the low and deep thrum that slithered down your veins. It would wake again in time, hungry for further ropes and necks.

None sat with the Hierarch or stood in our way as we approached him. We got a few curious looks from devils, those that had eyes anyhow, but our presence seemed of little interest to the throng. We weren’t even worth curiosity. As I limped over broken marble, the light of the fire flickering ahead of me, I paused to glance at the rest.

“I’ll handle him,” I said.

Ranger and the Huntress both looked as if they wanted to argue, but I turned my back before they could. Neither dared to cross me by following anyway. I slipped past the shattered throne, fingers trailing what had once been beautiful white marble and was now jagged remains, and reached the fire’s warmth. The Hierarch’s eyes rose to me, the man looking neither surprised nor unsurprised. Should I wait for his invitation I would still be standing come Last Dusk, so I found a jutting shard of the broken dais and sat, staff leaning against my shoulder as I warmed my hands against the fire. The Hierarch’s madness battered away at my mind like a tide. Rolling in, rolling out.

“Catherine Foundling,” Anaxares the Diplomat greeted me.

He did not name me a queen. I had not expected him to.

“Hierarch,” I replied. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Tyranny Knows No Borders, For They Are False Inventions,” the Hierarch informed me. “May Any Who Would Constrain The People Be Devoured By Bees.”

“That’d take a lot of bees,” I noted.

Those had mouths, I figured. Probably. It seemed like the kind of thing they would have, though I had never made a deep study of the creatures.

“Or a lot of time,” the Bellerophan thinly smiled, “and it comes easier than bees.”

I snorted, feeling his aspect filling the air. With every breath I felt as if I were drinking it in, the heady brew of revolt and rebellion. The thrown torch and the howl, the snap of broken chains and the flinch of the tyrant. There was a reason I’d never quite managed to hate the Hierarch, for all that he was ruin on near all he touched. Some part of me had never been convinced he was wrong.

“Yet we never seem to have enough of it,” I shrugged.

I glanced at the slab of meat he was over-roasting. Sheep, by the looks of it.

“You going to share?” I asked.

“Are you yet a tyrant?” he replied.

“I’ll abdicate before the year is out,” I informed him. “Or die.”

“Either is an acceptable outcome,” the Hierarch conceded.

And yet he did not, I could not help but notice, offer me a piece. Republicans, I amusedly thought. I was still wearing a crown, after all. Why would he offer me anything at all?

“Thought you’d still be having words with Judgement,” I idly said. “Are you done with the Seraphim?”

He frowned.

“They have escaped their sentencing for now,” the Hierarch told me. “The peddler leant a hand.”

My eye narrowed.

“The Wandering Bard,” I said.

He shrugged.

“It has many names, all but one a lie,” the Hierarch said. “I care not for the masks it wears – all that’s left true is the duty.”

“To keep the Game of the Gods going,” I frowned.

“To keep the animals in the cage,” Anaxares said, baring his teeth. “To rattle the cage when we get rowdy, until we remember how to kneel.”

“She’s doing a lot more than that, these days,” I told him. “There’s a war outside, Hierarch. One the League is fighting in, even your Republic. I don’t know what it is she wants, but it’s not for us to win again Keter.”

“There’s only one war, Catherine Foundling,” the Bellerophan replied. “The lash and the back. Everything else is noise.”

I leaned forward, smoke licking at my face.

“And which is she?”

“A queen’s question,” Anaxares the Diplomat scorned. “You think those wielding the lash are freer because they deal out the suffering. That’s the trap, Catherine Foundling. The promise that you get to hold the whip instead of feel it, that there is no fairness but you can be on the right side of the unfair.”

Grey eyes met mine, unblinking.

“But it’s slavery too, to spend your live lashing backs,” the Hierarch said. “Just a different kind, and you can’t escape it any more than they can.”

My fingers clenched, the unclenched. What would it be like, I wondered, to be the Intercessor for a hundred years? To never be quite for Above or Below, to always be sent to put your finger on the scale whenever a great Good or a great Evil was to be born. I forced myself to think of that, and then turn a hundred years into a thousand. Two, three, ten. What would it do to someone, to hold that Role? When I’d been young, barely the Squire, I had fought in the ranks at the Battle of Three Hills. I’d gone through Helikean mercenaries that day as if I were a sickle reaping wheat, until the killing didn’t even feel like killing anymore. It had just been motion, a limbs moving to accomplish a chore. So what would it be like, to lash backs for ten thousand years?

It wouldn’t be anything anymore, I thought. Not a lash, not backs, not people or pain. All that would be left was motion and the tiredness of the hand.

Still warming my hands by the fire, I shivered. A long silence stretched out, the Bellerophan disinclined to break it.

“That war outside,” I said, “they could use you. You’re still Hierarch of the Free Cities, they haven’t tried to take it. You could go to them.”

And if he did, his mere presence would tip the war. It wouldn’t be as powerful on Creation as in here, his aspect, but oh it would still be something to be feared. Bones dropping dead for the second time, Binds revolting against the chains. And Revenants I could only guess, but it was the kind of guessing that brought a wolfish smile to my face.

“I did not choose it,” Anaxares the Diplomat said.

They chose you,” I retorted.

Elected, even. That was something even he was bound to respect.

“I thought that, one,” the Hierarch faintly smiled. “That I had been forced into the prison, that I was forced to hold the lash even if fought never to wield it.”

“But?”

“It is only a word,” Anaxares the Diplomat softly said. “In the end, for all that men call it a title and a Name it is only a word.”

Gold dripping into the grass, the thin man took the broken scepter out of the flame and the slab of lamb with it, blowing on the roasted meant before he took a bite out of it. The juicy fat streamed down his chin in rivulets as he chewed, swallowing and only then offering me a hard smile.

“They can call me Hierarch all they want,” he said, “but I will make of it what I want, and that path does not lead be back to the League of Free Cities.”

I leaned back from the fire, the warmth on my hands having turned scalding.

“So where does it lead you?” I asked.

He laughed in my face.

“There is only one war, Catherine Foundling,” Anaxares the Diplomat said. “And I will fight it wherever it is to be found. Here, there, everywhere.”

He leaned in, the grey smoke the very same shade as his eyes. As if he were it, or it him.

We are all of us free, or none. I will suffer no compromise in this.”

And I Saw it, in that moment, what he was to become. Like a trail of fire, a spirit of fury and revolt that would bloom where chains were tightened until men choked. He would walk and ashes would follow in his wake, but tyrants would fall and even Choirs would flinch in the face of the Hierarch’s indignation. A madman to the end, until a death as bloody as it was inevitable found him. There was, I thought, a terrible kind of beauty to it. To burning yourself at the stake of your own ideals. It was not something I could admire, not truly, but perhaps it was something I could respect. I reached for my staff and rose slowly, leaning against it.

“Good luck, Hierarch,” I told him, and found I meant it.

There was nothing pleasant about a fire sweeping through a forest, but sometimes it was necessary nonetheless.

“All tyrants,” the Hierarch told me, “have their day of reckoning. Even you.”

I smiled.

“But not today,” I said.

“But not today,” he agreed.

It was as much of goodbye as I’d get from him, so I left it at that.

For all the unsettling sight that the Writhing Palace had turned into, leaving it proved almost laughably easy. The gate was unattended, a circle of stone left untouched amidst the ivory pillars, and we barely got any looks thrown our way when Masego woke it up. With no one contesting our connection to the other end in Creation, it was only a matter of stepping through.

And just like that, I stood in the Hall of the Dead.

The same great gall where the Dead King had hosted me for meals and talks when we negotiated before the beginning of our war. There was no sight of the elaborate decorations of that day in the great hall, every part of it having been stripped bare. It was no longer a throne room now, instead serving as a gateway and nothing else for all that in many ways it was the heart of the Dead King’s power. Once we had all crossed and the five of us stood alone in the cavernous hall, the Hellgate quieted and Hierophant’s eyes turned to it.

“Will it work?” I asked.

“Father proved that it could,” Masego replied.

We couldn’t close the Hellgate. Only an angel’s fury could do that, the tabula rasa effect undoing the cut in Creation that was a Greater Breach, but there were other ways. Akua had once opened a Greater Breach in the heartlands of Callow, and it wasn’t an angel that’d fixed the mess. It had been the Warlock, who had redirected the gate from the inside: instead of leading from a Hell to Creation, he had warped it so instead it would lead from a Hell to another Hell. When I’d asked of Hierophant a way to cut the Dead King off from the Serenity, he’d offered me a solution based on the same principles as his father’s work.

We all gave him a wide breath as he began to cast, beginning with words but quickly slipping into the traced runes of High Arcana. Even Ranger looked spellbound as she watched him work. See, as best as I understood it Wekesa the Warlock had been able to pull some truly ridiculous shit because he had an aspect that allowed him to sift through the Hells to find whatever he might need. It was the kind of trick that would allow a mage to, say, link two Hells by sorcery without the use of an artefact. Masego did not have that. What did have, though, was the convergence of three things.

First he had spent about a year of his life ruling over a severed shard of Arcadia made into a pocket realm. Second, he had Witnessed the Grey Pilgrim miraculously bring down a star on Hainaut in a way that defied Creational laws about how distance worked. And third, this very day he had brought us into the Serenity from a broken place at the junctions of Creation, the shattered Twilight Ways and the Hells. So as Masego’s voice rose, speaking words in the mage tongue, he proved one more to be one of the greatest mages of the age by threading all three of those things together.

The Hellgate into the Serenity still led there. The Dead King himself had added a step to the crossing by linking it to several exit gates, though, and Hierophant modified that step. Instead of a simple nothing, the step was made into a place: the very same nothing we had used to cross into the Serenity. Which also happened to be an endless void, unless you’d made something to stand on. Which you couldn’t in the moment before crossing the gate and being in that void. It was a dead end which wasn’t technically a dead end, a nasty trick played on one of the Hidden Horror’s greatest works.

And by the satisfied on Masego’s smile as he finished the last syllable of the spell, this was just the beginning of him getting even with the Dead King.

The spire would be where it all ended.

We’d returned to Creation through the gate in the Hall of the Dead, itself built out of the crypts beneath the towering structure, but it would not be in that throne room we’d find him. Besides, we’d not actually gone through Serenity to take a swing at Neshamah: that was what the crown and the sword were for. Leading a band of five like mine against the Hidden Horror wasn’t going to accomplish anything except corpses – which wouldn’t even have the decency to stay still for long. I had set rather more practical aims for our little venture, deciding instead to go for a different sort of prize.

This entire spire was, after all, the Dead King’s last redoubt. Out there in the inner city, armies and Named would be fighting desperately through streets and palaces to reach this place and deliver the knockout blow to the armies of the dead. Only it wasn’t going to be that easy, because we weren’t really going to win the battle for Keter. I had no doubt in my mind that troops and Named would reach the black spire, but the battle itself? We weren’t even trying to win it, not really. All our offensives had been about getting enough people at the end of the line that we could destroy the Hidden Horror and end this war. In other words, our defeat was certain if the battle went for long enough. It was, in the end, simple mathematics.

We had neither the numbers nor the strength to really pull out a win in Keter. It was always going to be about Neshamah himself. Which he knew, of course, and would have prepared for. From his perspective, all he needed to do to win was survive until everyone else was dead. Which meant the black spire was going to be an unbreachable den of horrors, the kind of pit of despair that even Named despaired in the face of, but that wasn’t even the first hurdle to actually getting to Neshamah.

That would be the wards.

The Dead King had fuck all to win by actually fighting us, after all. Sure, an old monster like him would scythe through Named and men like they were wheat but why take the risk that one of those lucky kids would have that one aspect that’d ruin his day? He was only hours away from winning, but since I’d returned Below’s stories that was one of the single most dangerous places for a villain to be. So his first move wasn’t going to be bringing down the sky on our heads or twisting time so we all died of fever as babies or sending out a demon riding on another demon’s shoulders. It was going to be the most comprehensive set of wards that Creation had ever seen, fired up at their strongest and closed so tight not even a fly could sneak through.

If he could, Neshamah would stay behind a kingdom’s worth of closed gates and magical barriers until there wasn’t a living soul left in Keter. That was the kind of villain the Dead King was, when you cut off all the dross and the pageantry: most terrifyingly practical coward in the history of Calernia.

Now, while we couldn’t sure that throwing enough heroes at these wards would result in way through it was actually a pretty decent bet. No matter how clever Neshamah was, Creation would nudge things so that the fight for the existence of Calernia didn’t end with increasingly desperate knocks on a closed door. The price, though, would be atrocious. Names worked on weight, I had learned over the years, and sometimes that was a double-edged sword. Almost every Named on the continent was united in fighting the Dead King, which while a powerful story also meant that by fate’s unspoken rules the Dead King had equal weight to a continent’s worth of Named.

Overcoming that kind of opponent’s foolproof defence just wouldn’t be done without massive casualties, no matter how heavily providence put its finger to the scale. And the hard truth was that we just couldn’t afford that many deaths when there were sure to be even harsher defences waiting further inside. That meant we needed another way to get those wards down, and that was where my little band came in. We had a way in through the back, and instead of using it on a futile swing at Neshamah’s neck I had decided to spend our surprise on letting everyone else into the spire. We were going to destroy those ward anchors to collapse them, preferably in a way that didn’t end up blowing us up.

Our plan had had admittedly been somewhat more complicated by the fact that none of us, not even Ranger, had any idea where those ward anchors were. Thankfully, there was a solution for that: wait long enough that the Dead King would be firing up that magic as strongly as he could to keep the pests out of his house. That wouldn’t help any for most people, but we weren’t most people. I had brought Hierophant along and he still had one glass eye that, while most famous for the light of the Summer sun still shining in it, would be of use because of the artefact it’d come from instead: a pair of spectacles that could see magic.

We didn’t need to know where the Dead King’s war anchors were because Masego would just follow the flow of magic back to them.

“Down,” Hierophant told me.

“We’re already in the crypts,” I told him. “There’s nothing beneath this.”

He met my eye squarely.

“Down,” Hierophant firmly repeated.

I sighed and conceded with a nod. That was going to be fun. Unlike the last time I’d come to the Hall of the Dead its antechamber wasn’t filled with an honour guard of Revenants, which were most probably out there killing people instead. Grim as the thought was, I was still thankful that we didn’t need to fight every step out of the way after leaving the throne room. 

“I don’t care how good of a mage the Dead King was,” I said, “war anchors need upkeep and replacement. If they’re under us then there’s bound to be a way to get to them.”

It wasn’t like Neshamah was going to do that kind of drudgework himself, so there was bound to be an access for whatever undead and Revenants ended up tasked with it.

“It’ll go faster if we split to look around,” Ranger said.

“It’s certainly a faster way to get at least one of us killed,” I affably agreed. “Counter-argument: Concocter, I know you’ve gone ruin raiding in the Brocelian at least once. Do you have something to find secret passages?”

“I do,” she warily agreed, “but only the one bottle.”

“Then Masego will need to get us as close to above those anchors as he can,” I said. “It’s our best shot.”

Hierophant nodded absent-mindedly, looking through a wall as he did. He began walking away without a word but we didn’t get far. I’d been pleasantly surprised that the Hall of the Dead and its antechamber had been deserted, but it looked like there’d been a reason for that: the entrance to the antechamber was sealed. The great bronze gates were so heavily enchanted I could feel the weight of the magic in the air.

“I can break the enchantments keeping the gates closed,” Hierophant told me, “but they are tied to what appears to be an alarm ward.”

“Of course they are,” I muttered.

The Silver Huntress cleared her throat, eyeing Masego with that same kindly wonder all of the Refuge kids other than Indrani seemed to treat him with.

“The wall besides it,” she said. “Is it also tied into the wards?”

“Not entirely,” Hierophant replied after a heartbeat. “It is a grid pattern.”

I hummed, realizing what Alexis was getting at and throwing her an approving look.

“Is a square in the grid large enough for a person to crawl through?” I asked.

“With some care, yes,” Masego nodded. “It needed to be so that with the other magics did not saturate the stone.”

The wall was stone and had other wards laid in it, but none that’d trip the alarm should they be punched through. The Silver Huntress handled the first layers by shooting Light into the square that Hierophant traced, breaking the protective enchantments, and the Concocter carefully rid us of the stone itself with careful use of an acid whose ever drop seemed to eat through inches of rock. It wasn’t exactly dignified, but as soon as Cocky gave us the go-ahead we wriggled through the hole like worms and dropped unceremoniously on the other side. The hallway was empty but torches were lit there, which Masego revealed to be a trap the moment he had a look at them.

“Living flesh in the light they cast will turn the flames blue and feed into another enchantment,” he told me.

Which was unfortunate, considering that pretty much the entire corridor was covered by their light. And rubies to piglets the moment one of those turns blue a trap is triggered.

“I can Wrest the magic, but we will have to stay together,” Zeze added.

I nodded and we awkwardly clumped together to walk through the corridor so we’d stay in the light of a single torch at a time: Hierophant could only use his aspect on a single source of power at a time. There weren’t any more torches in either of the corridors the spread out in a fork from here, but there were patrols of undead. Ranger had heard them coming, her hearing being ridiculously sharp even by Named standards.

“This deep there will be no Bones, only Binds,” Hye Su said. “And he likes to use lesser Revenants as captains.”

“We destroy even one of them and he’ll know we’re here instantly,” I grimaced. “He’s not the kind to get arrogant and think his fortress is unbreachable – he’ll be actively looking for the rats that snuck past his walls, not denying they exist.”

“Most illusions do not work on the dead,” Hierophant said. “They do not see in a conventional sense.”

“But you could fool patrols,” I pressed.

He’d hidden us from the sight of undead before.

“I cannot answer as to Revenants, but certainly lesser dead,” he conceded.

“Then we try that,” I ordered.

And when it inevitably went wrong, hopefully we’d have enough of a head start that we got to bring down the wards before we had to fight our way out. Sometimes I wished my silver linings didn’t all have streaks of blood on them, but arguably I was a few grisly murders past the right to complain about that. We ventured deeper into the enemy’s belly, pressing against the wall as patrols passed by us on the way to the unseen place Masego was leading us to. It ended up being a locked and heavily warded room about a quarter hour away from the Hall of the Dead, its door hidden by an illusion that made it looked like the wall continued. I chewed my lip and eyed the apparent patch of stone.

“Magic lock, you said?”

“Enchanted,” Masego specified. “Almost every part of that door and wall are connected to the alarm wards. There are few secondary wards so the density is much higher than the antechamber’s walls.”

“So no crawling through this time,” Ranger said, sounding amused.

I cocked my head to the side.

“A door’s a door,” I said, “but what about the floor?”

“Grid again,” Zeze told me.

“So we make a tunnel,” I said. “Go under the gate. Concocter, would you have enough acid?”

“No, but it is not difficult to make,” she noted. “I have the means, though the variant will let out foul-smelling smoke.”

Undead didn’t usually have a sense of smell, so that wasn’t a deal breaker.

“We try,” I decided.

All things considered, it went well. We had to pick a spot near the wall to begin going through, since otherwise a patrol might walk into the hole even if it was veiled with an illusion, but aside from a tense moment when a dozen undead walked past us and a Revenant in armour lingered we got off fine. Ranger went in through, both because she volunteered and I wouldn’t be all that sorry if she died. I was third, behind the Silver Huntress, and once I finished crawling out of the tight tunnel with aching shoulders I found I was standing in a bare stone room. Cocky came after me and a glance was enough to signify now was her time to shine.

She produced a bottle of what looked like golden powder, she emptied in the air – where it hovered! -before blowing on it. Fascinatingly, the powder dispersed on all sides. It whirled about the room like a scintillating storm before it began to gather in a handful of places. Streaks in the air followed what looked like air currents coming out of the hole we’d dug, which I supposed made sense since the room was otherwise sealed airtight. They also clustered on the ground, though, tracing footsteps leading to the right corner of the room but stopping shy of the corner itself. I grinned even as Masego dragged himself out of the tunnel, moaning all the while.

That’d teach him to be do damn tall, I haughtily thought.

“Looks like a hidden mechanism,” I said. “Ranger?”

“I’ll find it,” she replied with indifferent certainty.

In her honour, after only some moving around she did. There was a faint, oily click and a stone at the junction of the walls dipped into the ground. Gears spun out of sight, the stone floor moving to open a pit going below and an iron ladder going into the dark.

“Catherine,” Hierophant said.

“No, you can’t stay up here,” I absent-mindedly replied. “Alexis, down the hole first?”

“Shit space to use a spear, but I have a knife,” the Silver Huntress conceded.

Catherine,” Masego repeated.

I turned to him irritated.

“What?”

“The lines of sorcery don’t go deep enough below for this to be the war anchors,” he said.

I froze. Wait, if this wasn’t the place for the ward anchors then… The air suddenly thickened and the door leading out of the room burned around the edges. The hinges, I realized, were fusing with stone.

“Water,” Ranger announced. “Water’s coming up.”

And above us small holes opened in the ceiling, the air shifting as what I guessed to be an invisible gas began to be released into the room. Of course, I grimly thought. Of course the fucking Dead King had made a fake ward anchor room to specifically trick people who could see magic. He’d had literal millennia to indulge every spark of paranoia that ever occurred to him.

“We need to get the Hells out of here,” I growled. “Concocter out first. Yell if you see undead.”

I saw from the corner of my eye that Ranger was just holding her breath, apparently unmoved at the idea of no longer having to breathe, while Masego was weaving a spell around his nose. I did the same with Night, the Silver Huntress instead pulling up cloth from under her armour. I was to be the last out, so I had a look at the trap pit and got hit with a blast of foul odour. Gods, I thought with a small degree of awe. What a prick the Dead King was: not only was this trap meant to drown us in a sealed room if the poison gas didn’t get us first, but to add insult to injury the ancient fucker was using sewage water. It was a degree of assholishness that verged into elegance.

Ranger followed the Concocter through, the Huntress next in line, and I stood by Masego as he stared through the wall with his flesh eye closed.

“I think I’ve found the path to the real anchor,” he murmured. “I thought it was a bleed array, but it does seem to headed downwards in small lines. There would have to be reservoirs elsewhere in the array structure that I have not seen, but…”

“I trust you,” I frankly said. “Where?”

“Close to the Hall of the Dead,” Masego said. “In between the fork of corridors were first found.”

I got the distinct sense that I was just now being let in on a bad joke that the Dead King had been laughing alone at for a few thousand years, which was the best sign we were on the right track I’d had all day.

“Then we double back,” I said.

It wasn’t that easy. I crawled out ahead of the sewage and the poison, but it was to the sight of butchered corpses strewn all over the corridor. Ranger and the Huntress had seen to the patrol handily, but we were most definitely caught. This whole thing was about to head downhill in a hurry.

“Good news,” I said, “we think we know the real path to the anchors.”

“Bad news?” Ranger probed.

It wasn’t her first band of five.

“It’s back near the Hellgate,” I said.

“Which will be swarming with undead by now,” the Silver Huntress grimly said.

“Look on the bright side,” I said.

“Which is?” the Concocter asked.

A moment of awkward silence passed.

“I was,” I admitted, “hoping one of you would have something.”

I let loose a blast of Night that hit the ranks of the skeletons like a trebuchet stone, crushing armour and sending bones flying. Within a heartbeat the corridor was filled up again, the sea of undead pushing forward. They were packed so tight they were actually getting in each other’s way, but for all that apparent stupidity I knew full well that if they ever managed to close the distance we were in a world of trouble. It’d be like standing in front of the whole in a dam.

“Zeze?” I called out. “Tell me you’re getting somewhere.”

I could hear Ranger and the Huntress covering the other corridor, the once-Calamity rather enjoying herself by the sounds of it. I’d yet to see her feel threatened since the beginning of our jaunt into Keter, as if at no point she had believed she was in a mess she could not fight her way out of. Considering she’d broken into the Crown of the Dead alone several times, I wasn’t even sure she was wrong.

“It is a frustrating puzzle,” Masego admitted. “The solution keeps changing.”

I grit my teeth and let loose another blast of Night only to find that a Revenant with a shield took the brunt of the blow. Eye narrowing, I drowned the hallway in black flame. That ought to buy me a but of time.

“So brute force it,” I shouted. “Don’t play the game.”

“We’ve tried, Warden,” the Concocter shouted back. “It started to melt the lock.”

I was really starting to hate this place. I had before, of course, but only in a general principle kind of way. Now it was starting to get personal. I sent a blast of Night through the guttering flames, hitting blindly at the enemy, and risked a few step backs. Masego and Cocky were staring at rows of burning runes that had appeared on stone, a series of which needed to be picked to open the hidden door. What I knew about High Arcana – which this clearly was – would fill just about a parchment, if you wrote small enough, so I didn’t try to tell Masego how to mage. Instead I told him how to be a thug, a subject in which my expertise knew few rivals.

It was a natural talent, humility compelled me to admit.

“We don’t care about the lock,” I said, “we care about the door. We’ll melt the whole fucking thing if you have to. Cocky, use every drop of acid you have left. Or can make.”

It wasn’t like we’d ever need it more than now. I was forced to go blow up the corridor again as they got to it, but before long there were noises of triumph from the Concocter – and a sigh from Masego, who probably figured he could have beat the lock given long enough – and I retreated that way, calling for the other two to do the same. What was revealed was a set of stairs sloping downwards, large enough only for one person to pass at a time. Naturally, I put Ranger in front. Our method to get in there paid off rather quickly, as within moments of the five us beginning to make our way down there was a grind of stone against stone as the broken door behind us tried to close and the walls began to suck out the air.

It didn’t do anything, since we’d blow open a hole behind us, but if this place had been sealed up it would have been lethal.

I’d figured the way down would not be long but I was wrong. After a rather straight way down at first, the stairs turned into a downwards spiral. The Silver Huntress, who held our rearguard, began to loose arrows at the pursuing undead which thankfully were as limited as us by the narrowness of the stairs. Tension would have made it hard to tell how long we made our way down if not for the gift of the Sisters which told me the distance from dawn and dusk and allowed me to tell it was about half an hour. When we reached the bottom of the stairs in a pitch black room Masego tossed up a ball of light, revealing we stood in an antechamber.

Every surface was covered by tiles of bronze that each bore a glyph, sorcery pulsing thick in the air. Yeah, I thought, this is the right place. Gates stood in our way to the room beyond but Masego seemed in a good mood.

“The anchors are on the other side,” he told me. “Not all of them, but the most important ones.”

“And if we break them it’ll bring down the defensive wards?” I pressed.

“The most power-intensive ones,” Hierophant noted. “Others will remain. I will admit that Trismegistus’ defences were made with a thorough eye for redundancy.”

It would have to be good enough. I left the Silver Huntress to handle the stairs and keep the dead off our backs, helping Masego to smash our way through the gates. The time for subtlety was past. Though the Dead King’s defensive wards were impressive and apparently the gates had recently been changed to resist Night, they had a weakness: parts of them relied on active sorcery, and that could be compromised by Wrest. Sweat beaded the back of my neck by the time we were done, but after another quarter hour of exertions the half-melted bronze gates fell down and revealed the greater room beyond.

It was, I immediately thought, like looking at the heart of a Praes flying fortress.

Stones and gems were replaced instead by engraved steles of black stone of different heights that formed a complicated arcane pattern, but the sight of bare stone walls covered in glyphs was most familiar. I should not have been surprised: Trismegistan sorcery came from the works of the very man whose work this was. There was a pool of what might have looked like water at the heart of the room, whose high arched ceilings crackled with shivering power, but there was a luminous sheen to it that betrayed it was no such thing.

“Pure magic,” Hierophant breathed, looking at it too. “I have no notion as to how it was made physically stable.”

“That’s fine, since we need the opposite,” I bluntly said. “Wreck this place, Masego. In a way that won’t kill us.”

“It will take some time,” he said, and sounded almost reluctant.

I supposed to someone who loved sorcery as much as he did this was much like a lover of horses butchering a herd of Liessen purebreds. Still, he nodded and I left him to it. He’d call for me if he had a need of Night. Instead I wandered about the room carefully, wary of hidden defences, and found that while Concocter stuck close to Masego I was not alone in my explorations. Ranger was doing the same, circling the broadly circular room from the other way. The dome above us ended in a thin well leading upwards, but that wasn’t what drew my eye or hers. There was another set of stairs on the other side of the room.

“Shit,” I muttered. “That can’t be good. Ranger, with me.”

I called out to Masego that we were headed down, getting only a half-hearted wave in answer, and went down into the dark. These stairs were not like the ones we’d taken down: they were much broader, and the corridor they fed into had almost as high a ceiling as the ward anchor room. Ranger, whose eyes lingered on the ceiling, frowned.

“Something scraped against those,” she said. “Metal or bone, I can’t tell.”

My stomach clenched. That ceiling was taller than most Gigantes. The stairs we took curved smoothly and led towards a room that was beneath the one holding the anchors. There were no gates leading into it, only a tall arch of stone, and when we crossed the threshold with wary steps it was to the sight of a gentle slope going down. Like a hill of bare stone the room slid downwards into what looked like a massive cavern, most of which was taken up by an equally massive well. I couldn’t tell how deep it went from where we stood, but as the two of us slid down the slope my eye found something else to stare at. There were two shapes seated on each side of the wall, sitting cross-legged, and both wore an armour of painted ceramic tiles in purple and silver.

They were also massive, each large as a tower, and through the open faces of their helmets I saw no flesh: only leering skulls, with green flame burning where there should be eyes. Neither of them reacted to our approach, still staring down in the well.

“Those aren’t Gigantes,” I quietly said. “They’re too large.”

For the first time today, I saw Ranger tense.

“Titans,” Hye Su murmured. “These are the corpses of Titans.”

And yet they hadn’t been fighting all this time, I thought. We’d seen no sign of them throughout the siege, when even the animated remains of such entities were sure to wield fearsome power. And, most worryingly of all, even as we left the slope and approached the well they did not so much as twitch. They just kept looking down into the depths, unmoving, and the closer we got the more I felt the eldrith power permeating the room. It wasn’t anything as simple as magic either. I was not sure Masego’s eye would be able to see it.

We were but a dozen steps away from the rim of the well when one of the dead Titans moved. Only its head twitched, turning towards me, and it offered a leering grin.

“Mistake,” the Dead King said in Ashkaran.

A strong sensation of release washed over me, the dead Titans releasing whatever it was they had been holding, and from the depths of the well there was a deep breath followed by a deafening roar. It would have burst my ears, if I’d not reached for Night in time. All I could think of in that heady moment before all the Hells come loose would begin chasing me was of a conversation I’d once had with a man now dead. The ghost the two living people in this pit had in common. When you assault the stronghold of a villain, Amadeus of the Green Stretch had said, there are three things to watch out for: the monster, the trial and the pivot.

By the looks of it, we’d just found the first of the three.

133 thoughts on “Chapter 64: Gehenna

    1. RubberBandMan

      Why? They didn’t fight the last two times they met. They weren’t even hostile then, and always had polite conversation. Hell, name one time Anaxares fought against anyone. He’s a diplomat, not a cudgel swinging Tyrant.

      Liked by 15 people

      1. Frivolous

        Because the Intercessor put Anaxares there in the Serenity.

        I figured she’d want to play a game of mutual destruction among the people she hates: Anaxares, Catherine, Neshamah.

        Liked by 3 people

          1. Miles

            Bard’s really not that subtle any more. Cat took the aspect that let her do complex plots. Hierarch is there for one purpose only – to force the DK to use everything he has to win.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Cpt. Obvious

              And thereby force Cordelia to use the WMD she had the remains of an angel of Justice.

              The whole idea that the Wandering Bard hates the Dead King so much she’s willing to sacrifice large parts of Calernia doesn’t hold water.

              She might hate him, but I wouldn’t put money on it. Cat on the other hand she hates as she’s repeatedly and deliberately has foiled plans that’s been decades if not centuries in the making.

              At first it was amusing, perhaps even a little charming, the way a kitten is charming when it stealthily attacks your feet only to fall over as it stumbles over its own paws. But when the kitten, who is a tiger cub, grows larger those sneak attacks gets less and less charming.

              By the time the tiger has grown up and you realize it’s the offspring of the sentient tigers that Dread Emperor Sorcerous had created, and it hates the cage it was borne into as well as its jailer. Then having it maneuvering to get behind you inst all that cute and charming anymore.

              And Cat ripped the stories out of her. So yes the Wandering Bard has reasons to hate her.

              But hating Cat is new. The schemes leading up to the war are much older than Cat.

              If the goal was to destroy the Dead King she could have done it ages ago. Even now there would have been so many ways to get rid of him without using a WMD capable of devastating half or more of the continent.

              No she has carefully planned everything with the entire goal being to force them to use the Doomsday device. Anything that might give them hope has to be crushed until despair makes Cordelia pull the trigger.

              Liked by 5 people

      1. Cpt. Obvious

        I wouldn’t go so far as calling her a fan of Ana ares. She can see some merit in his “philosophy”, but can also see the problems that total anarchy or mob rule leads to. So while she don’t dislike him she still knows he will spread a lot of deaths and suffering if allowed to wander the surface of Calernia. And the vast majority of these deaths are going to be people who didn’t deserve it.

        In away he reminds me of Rorschach in Watchmen in the way his personal beliefs were partly admirable, but at the same time so dangerous that they end up threatening the entire world.

        Liked by 4 people

    1. Earl of Purple

      Fortunately, that’s impossible. They resurrected so long as they remained what they were, so the Titans transfigured them first. If he undid the transformation, it would resurrect and no longer be under his control.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Earl of Purple

          Yeah, I have been thinking about it since, and… even if it *isn’t* under Neshamah’s control, I don’t think he’d care so long as it was in a position to hurt everyone else more than him- and he’s had time to prepare everything so he survives. Even got two dead Titans to try and kill it again, if he has to.

          Liked by 6 people

      1. I mean, he’s got two undead Titans on duty sealing it. I’m pretty sure it’s *not* under his control, just something he can be sure will do more damage to his enemy than himself while he’s locked up inside of his super-warded tower.

        Liked by 5 people

      2. pyrohawk21

        To chip in on what others have said… This is Neshamah. He intends to survive and reign forever, and he’s exactly the sort of person that would love the idea of everyone, forever regretting his final death if he was slain.

        Then look at the ingredients we have here. Two Undead Titans and a Monster which is likely to be something that requires a Titan or two to deal with. What is the greatest Monster which Neshamah could create, that he’d then be able to reclaim control if he did survive the circumstances of it’s release, and control it until he wanted it to be released…

        The ancient Drakons are a good candidate thanks to those two Titans he has as they would immediately resurrect if slain so long as they stayed what they were. So the Titans transfigured them into something else, and THEN slew them. Something that the Titans can probably repeat even if undead, despite the Gigantes probably being unable to do so if undead OR living. However he needs to keep it under control until he wants it released as I said, and those Titans released something just before the Monster was let loose.

        Sure, that could be a control spell or something so he could control the undead Drakon and prevent it from resurrecting into a living Drakon until he wanted it to. But what he could also have done is undo the transfiguration on the Drakon, only to immediately impose an ACTIVE transfiguration on it again and slay it yet again. What’s the difference?

        The previous transfiguration is likely to have been a Passive one, which means once it’s been done, the effect needs to be broken or undone, rather than ended or run out of power to be reversed. Whereas an Active Transfiguration would end as soon as the spellcasters maintaining the spell stop supporting it. Such as say, releasing the spell?

        Something which is quite possibly a result of anyone breaking his control over the undead by slaying him or just exiling him from Creation and preventing him exerting any influence over it. At which point, the transfiguration ends, the Drakon returns to being a Drakon corpse and promptly resurrects. At which point everyone else regrets everything forever in short order.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. BobbinRobbin

        Is that not why the two undead titans were there? To keep it transfigured until Nessie needs to throw the biggest of big old murder tantrums?

        Like

      1. Earl of Purple

        Witch of the Woods extra chapter, not a Patreon one. Kreios tells her of the Titan’s empire and their war with the things, which wiped them out and left just a handful of Titans left, who tried time-magic to undo it. Except the time magic went wrong and killed four, leaving just Kreios behind.

        Liked by 4 people

  1. Mirror Night

    That doesn’t make any sense to me? Did they lose Titans fighting Dragons? Otherwise the way it was explained to us, I thought all the other Titans got flat deleted from reality. There should be no way for DK to ever recover those Titan corpses. Especially since the events that lost those Titans is so far in the past that no one should know about it. Hanno’s Akashic Record doesn’t got that far back. Titans vs Dragons should also predate Bard but she does have a direct line to the Gods….did DK figure this out when he used Masego to look at something….maybe it wasn’t Bard.

    So yeah I think it has to be Titans that fell fighting the True Dragons. The ones that survived that war should have been flat deleted….though really you think the last Titan would have destroyed the Bodies….maybe Titan Bodies work Like Angels.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Earl of Purple

      It was a war. Both sides had losses. The Titans were powerful mages without compare, but the Drakoi were all ur-Named who resurrected from their own legend so long as they were close enough to said legend for it to stick. The Titans would have struggled before they figured out how to keep one dead.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. BobbinRobbin

      In a world built with story logic, it’s damned hard to keep anything permanently gone. We’re talking about a land with enough ruins filled with ancient dodads to achieve whatever exciting narrative arc is required.
      PGtE is set in a world obviously inspired by the likes of LotR, D&D and Warhammer (Fantasy) and all these settings have ancient apocalyptic horrors, divine leftovers and endless depths of eldrich doom kinda just littering the countryside and nestled under every other town.
      Couple that with the fact that there’s an entire chunk of the population whose lives are governed by narratives, you’re stuck accepting that any Checkov’s Gun you see can and, someday will, be pulled.

      There’s such thing as an artifact with a demon bound to it? That thing’s gonna get released. Some Named’s emotionally salient figure was lost in a fatal situation? Odds are, alive or dead, they’re capable of popping back for a chat, fight or at least a pep talk somewhere down the line. You bring up two races of titanic, godlike, apocalyptic creatures that were all wiped out? Somehow, someway, there’s gonna be a Name which stumbles into a Mere Fragment Of Their Former Glory or a spirit or a time loop or whatever. If they existed, Nessie’s had time to find some, somewhere, because he’s the big bad and that’s what he’s allowed to do.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sir Nil

    I said this before but Anaxares really is closer to a Demon than a Named, given his tendency to affect everything nearby just by existing. He even has a posse of devils to work with him now.

    Liked by 17 people

          1. Abrakadabra

            You invited it, really. Like an ornery wife whose husband finds the only thing that makes her angry, and makes it his hobby… You two are cute together. ❤

            Like

  3. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    committed a crown > committed a crime
    I came to > I’d come to
    going rifling > rifling
    after she handed it to me when I took out the cork > when I took out the cork after she handed it to me
    with occasional > with the occasional
    need to reach > needed to reach
    imprisoning with > imprisoned with
    anyone one > anyone on
    could to against > could do against
    the unclenched > then unclenched
    a limbs > limbs
    that, one,” > that, once,”
    roasted meant > roasted meat
    lead be back > lead me back
    of goodbye > of a goodbye
    great gall > great hall
    we negotiated > we’d negotiated
    wide breath > wide berth
    What did have > What he did have
    proved one more > proved once more
    the satisfied > the satisfied look
    pageantry: most > pageantry: the most
    couldn’t sure > couldn’t be sure
    in way > in a way
    had had > had
    that with the > that the
    ever drop > every drop
    corridors the > corridors that
    went in through > went in first
    to be do > to be so
    corridors were > corridors we
    the whole in > the hole in
    a but of > a bit of
    five us > five of us
    blow open > blown open
    eldrith > eldritch

    Liked by 4 people

          1. Miles

            Also those years she spent using fae magic on instinct, learning from Killian, then Masego, and then a tag team of MasegoxUbua, and then managing the creation of Creation’s foremost magical academy.

            She’s been studying quite hard all things considered (And there hasn’t even been a test yet).

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Cicero

    Oh Dead King… don’t you know enough about villain stories to know that luring the hero invading your lair into a trap with a monster and then taunting him with “Mistake” is sure to get you a dead monster?

    You aren’t really counting on that not applying because Cat is a Villain are you? Haven’t you figured out she’s a Hero piece that Amadeus stole and dressed in Villain clothing. Even her Names ought to give it away, never a true Villain name, always a name that could swing either way. Squire and Warden.

    Liked by 13 people

    1. beleester

      “Mistake” seems to be the one word that villains can use without horrible consequences, actually. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone say that and be incorrect.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. shikkarasu

        It’s not about being incorrect, I’d say. “Just as planned” isn’t wrong, just hubris. When a villain says “mistake” it’s like saying “check” in chess. Sure, the opponent did something that allowed you what looks like a good move, and they probably don’t like their situation right now, but that doesn’t mean the game is over by a long shot.

        There are plenty of games where one side says “check” every other move up until they ultimately lose. Just like Maddie said “mistake” every other exchange with Hanno, but still failed to kill him in their fights.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. edrey

    Ranger and masego was great and the hierarch is a charmer as always, lets hope the realm would crash with arcadia and he meet with the ex king of winter.
    The titans were holding a drakoi, lets see if ranger can hunt it. Also, Nessi really wanted said mistake, he failed with Hakram last time.
    And the best is Amadeus reference, there should be more extra chapters of him, maybe stigia?

    Liked by 9 people

  6. badatgames2911

    1. GOD DAMN I LOVE ANAREXES. one of my favorite chars ez. ALL OF US ARE FREE, OR NONE OF US. WE SUFFER NO COMPROMISE IN THIS.

    2. “We ask,” I chided, “before we take.” – no Cat, you usually just TAKE shit with a pithy one liner afterwards.

    3. Ha everyone shitting on Hye Sue is funny

    4. Hierophants revenge will be sweet.

    5. i dont want to know about anything that takes TWO being roughly as powerfull as the guy who called Neshahma the “YOUNG KING” holding it back.

    6. OH FUCK OH SHIT OH FUCK.

    7. its Triumphant isnt it? No, Its triumphant, being doted on by Irritant and Tratorious.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

      Hot new fan theory: Traitorous *is* Triumphant after she got bored of being a warrior and re-spec’d into rogue. Had a nice holiday in the Serenity ’til the heat died down beforehand, then made use of a flesh puppet to begin her second reign. Later she’ll pop out, crowned in dread and all that, and say a one-liner about her return.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. shikkarasu

        NGL I was expecting the final boss fight of this series to be Triumphant with an entire Hell’s worth of devils lead by a core of hardened veterans from the Legions that died with her.

        DK is a better direction to take things, but I was so ready for She to Return for the first 4 books or so.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Someperson

          Hey don’t speak too soon, Dread Empress Triumphant (May She Never Return) could still come back before the story ends.

          (I agree though the way the Dead King was slowly introduced as a sort of background villain at first who you only just heard occasional references to in histories or magical theory discussions about Keter’s due, and then the very gradual building up of Neshamah as The Existential Threat Of The Continent has been really well pulled off)

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Reader in The Night

    >”Besides, we’d not actually gone through Serenity to take a swing at Neshamah: that was what the crown and the sword were for.””not only was this trap meant to drown us in a sealed room if the poison gas didn’t get us first, but to add insult to injury the ancient fucker was using sewage water. It was a degree of assholishness that verged into elegance.”<
    The kicker here? Keter is a city of dead inhabitants, it has no need for waste drainage. Nessie actually *imported* sewage just to be a dick.

    Liked by 14 people

    1. Reader in The Night

      I absolutely hate WordPress’ comment section.

      >”Besides, we’d not actually gone through Serenity to take a swing at Neshamah: that was what the crown and the sword were for.”<
      What I meant to say here was that the two weapons against the Dead King are the Crown and the Sword, just like in Cat's banner. True to the metaphor, the Crown even broke first.

      Liked by 12 people

  8. Cat+Anaxares deliver as always. A shame the interaction was so brief tbh, there’s potential for a lot more fun drama there. Still, ❤ ❤ ❤

    Hye getting startled by Catherine's resemblance to Amadeus, uh huh, uh huh, I see :3

    Bless the "overthinking" door lock trap. Really made for those mages who can't walk past a shiny puzzle ❤ ❤ ❤

    Liked by 10 people

    1. dadycoool

      Cat’s relationship with the League and its leadership has always resembled friendship, iirc, and it’s nice.

      I bet Hye got whacked in the face with deja vu when Cat said that, same tone, inflections, etc. as her father.

      Liked by 4 people

        1. Someperson

          The most painful thing would be to inform Hye that the reason she was certain that Catherine would take her deal for a duel to the death in ten years only because it is something that Amadeus would have agreed to in a heartbeat for such vital help.

          It sure as heck isn’t because the Ranger knows Cat well.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. ninegardens

    So, A detail I’m a touch confused on:

    Cat in the Serenity “Oh fuck, Wandering Bard dropped Anaraxes here so Nessie would have nowhere to retreat too and freak out”

    Cat having just stepped out of the Serenity “Zeze- please mash up this helldoor so that Nessie can’t go back to the Serenity, and has nowhere to retreat to”.

    …. ummm..
    wut?

    Did I miss something.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. SuitorShooter

      I think the difference is that Anaxeres is actively destroying the Serenity, while Cat only trapped the front door. The Hellgate is usable, but if DK uses that Hellgate without noticing the change he’ll be stuck inside an infinite void.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Cpt. Obvious

        It also traps Anaxares if he gets bored and tries to leave Serenity. He is after all as dangerous as a lot of demons. So even if Cat happens to have a soft spot for him she can’t risk having him stroll freely through Calernia. The death toll would be horrendous.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. shikkarasu

          15 Denarii says he Receives a vision of what Masego did and finds a way to Mend the portal. Of course, he won’t leave Serenity until it is liberated. That would be compromise.

          Huh. I only just now realised the parallels between the two.

          Hierophant: Witness, Ruin, Wrest
          Hierarch: Receive, Mend, Indict

          Remarkably equal and opposite.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. Someperson

            Both of them have also said something remarkably similar about reality being a cage set up by the gods

            But their responses are very different, Hierophant intends to become a god in his own right and presumably live forever, Hierarch aims to spend his life as rapidly as possible to shake the foundations

            Also both of their Names start with “Hiero” 😛

            Yeah they have enough parallels and equal and opposite behaviors that they could probably establish a pattern of three between them if they wanted to (which they likely do not)

            Liked by 2 people

  10. Mary Gentle

    All truly, truly lovely stuff, but —

    “The devils had broken into courts, some huddling around fires and others assembling into mobs as other stood above them and gave speeches in the dark tongue.
    Some of them, I gathered from a closer look, were attempting to organize elections.”

    AH HOO AH HA AH HAH! AH HAH HAH HAH OOOOH THUD!
    (collapses on floor in giggles)

    Oh lord, I want to see the devilish election. 😊 😊 😊

    I love Anaraxes with a Deep, True, And Respectful Passion. ♥

    Perhaps someone could remind the Hierach of the way bees kill gigantic hornets. (A Suitable Analogy For A Tyrant.) When the hornet invades the hive, a mass of bees pin it down and vibrate their wings, sending the temperature under them soaring.

    May All The Enemies Of The People Be Boiled To Death By Bees.

    There, isn’t that much nicer?

    And please put me down as one who’d love to see Triumphant (May She Ever Return) together with Traitorous and Irritant. We’ve had sufficient foreshadowing, bring ’em on!

    Liked by 9 people

    1. dadycoool

      Considering the Drow hold their elections via Rap Battles, there really isn’t a limit to the method and that’s hilarious and terrifying.

      Bees are cool. Other yellow-and-black things tend to be monstrous assholes, but bees are golden friends that provide sweetness and facilitate fruit and flowers.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. edrey

      And after the serenity where would the Hierarch go? the void was arcadia so he could Mend it, or the Dk would throw it to creation or the elfs.
      that fire will only get bigger and bigger.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. BargleNawdleZouss

    1. I am surprised that Cat did not (visibly) connect the dots about the Hierarch’s presence and how that might alter the effects of the ealamal if it is fired.

    2. For those making comments about past Dread Empresses/Emperors showing up: if the team makes it past the upcoming monster, then the next step, as Cat just noted, will be a trial. I imagine the judges will be Triumphant, Sorcerous, and Revenant (fka Malignant III), due to their ties to Trismegistus &/or his theories. Although it will be hilarious if Traitorous and/or Irritant are part of the trial as well. 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Darkening

      I imagine it’s a trial as in a test or challenge, not a courtroom. Like when she had to get through the fourfold crossing when she was attacking akua’s lair in liesse.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. ninegardens

      >>1. I am surprised that Cat did not (visibly) connect the dots about the Hierarch’s presence and how that might alter the effects of the ealamal if it is fired

      I feel like Cat is mainly running on the assumption that it won’t get fired, because that is her plan, and clearly her plan will be carried out without interuption.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. alexjmscott

      We the readers know that the Seraphim are out of action for a day as a result of releasing the Hierarch, because we were privy to the Bard’s little chat with them. But would anyone in Catherine’s party know that? Even if anyone elsewhere in Creation knows about the loophole, would they have known to tell her about it?

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Clay

    Well, I finally caught up. I’m both very excited to have done so before the end and also a little sad because now I have to wait for updates. Just wanna say EE, this story is incredible, and I think it might genuinely be my favorite piece of fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. dadycoool

    Ooh, Titans? Something generally greater than Giants? That sounds interesting, but I wonder what ever happened to the living ones.
    Wow, Nessy really is an asshole. Not enough to drown your enemies, you have to drown them in raw sewage? Damn.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Earl of Purple

      They wiped themselves out fighting proto-dragons, and then the last handful tried to rewind time to undo the deaths, but it failed. Catastrophically so; four died or stopped existing, and only Kreios was left. He’s here, as it happens, the gigantes’ god.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cpt. Obvious

        Wasn’t it seven that died?

        I think it was mentioned that this was the origin of the “seven and one” story element.

        There were eight Titans left. Seven of them played Gods for the Gigantes while the one, whose name I don’t remember, went her own way.

        Eventually one of the seven finished his research on time magic and had created a ritual that would turn back time to before their people were all but wiped out in the war on the Drakon. But it would take all eight remaining Titans to safely work this riyual.

        The one would at first not have anything to do with it, but when all the seven were going to attempt it without her she gave in and participated.

        The ritual didn’t work. The continent (or was this the entire world?) was ravaged by earthquakes. Mountain ranges rose and mountain ranges fell. Land rose out of the sea bot more was swallowed by it. And Titans died.

        Left behind was only Keiros, the Riddle Maker, the Titan who had thought he would be able to turn back time, only to break the world and kill all remaining Titans, including the one, she who had told him that he was a fool for believing he could stand against time and fate and win their people back. The one who he loved.

        Well I hope I remembered that at least somewhat correctly.

        Liked by 2 people

  14. Two dozen snakes

    Anaxares the Diplomat, bringing democracy to the hells XD

    Also if i understand it correctly, the way out of the Serenity now leads to the void, so how’s he getting out?

    Lastly: yeah, pretty safe bet the monster in question is one of those ancient super dragons. And given the dead titans were keeping it chained, it’s likely not undead and not under Nessie’s control. So, uh. Could Nessie have just moved himself out of Creation, or be ready to move out of creation now that the thing is free? Seems like the best way for him to win. Free the monster and let it wreak his enemies while he stands outside of either’s reach and waits until they’re both no longer a threat…

    Cat’s coming into her final aspect to bring this thing down, calling it

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Xinci

    With Hierarch’s comment about a Name, I do wonder if at this point he actually counts as a god or not. He was more or less serving as a conduit for years of sacrifice before following Judgement into the heavens, so not like he couldn’t be one. Regardless, looks like Hiearch will be contained for a while with his influence probably escaping if people of the Serenity do or through devils summoned from places he has infected. Fitting reuse to allow him to infect the Hells themselves though, I must admit. So he’s an issue for the Accords in the long term and quite probably the malignancy that shall eventually overtake the world enough to burn it all to cinders. A proper antithesis for Cat when it comes down to it, as his conception of peace is at a baseline antithetical to hers. There will be no allowance of regulation or half-steps, no false peace, only the complete one of the world when the ashes settle and nothing else can burn. It’s not an immediate thing but the memetic spread of what he desires will be there in the end, its shown capability to affect Light too, so who knows how endemic Hierarchy will be by that point. Regardless when the Accords are more vice than safeguard he will be there to burn it all down to the ground.

    Also, great to know the Dead King can actually fuse bones, that was a weird sticking point on how alive the bones had to be for that sorta thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. nick012000

    Also, is it just me, or does the Hierarch come across as more of a Hero than a Villain, now? He’s not driven by a desire to change the world, he’s driven by a point of moral ideology. Was everyone who thought he was a Villain wrong all along, thinking that he was a Villain because he was a Named from a city in service to Below and he hung out with Kairos?

    Like

    1. Mary Gentle

      I always thought that Anaraxes came across as heroic, if not capital-H Heroic, from the start. At the beginning, he was both bonkers and heroic — or perhaps heroic because his city’s form of government was absolutely mental.

      By the time we got to the trial… That was a Heroic act, both challenging and stopping a Choir from acting. Anaraxes might still have been a little mental, but you could see he was on the right side.

      Now he’s bringing democracy to Hell . . . you know what, that’s still bonkers and heroic. 😊 Just at a much, much higher level than before.

      I don’t think we’ve seen the final apotheosis of the Hierarch.

      If he could thwack a Choir into obedience, I wonder what he could do to the Dead King? Partners in chains? Because Anaraxes is a man who wouldn’t agree to DK doing ANYTHING.

      Just saying. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Earl of Purple

        Unfortunately, he’s not a hero. He’s not interested in the people’s wellbeing; he’s not throwing down tyrants because they are tyrants. He’s throwing down tyrants to spread his ideology and he doesn’t care how tyrannical the tyrants he throws down are. You could be the Good King, ruler of a happy and prosperous realm where everyone’s literate and there’s plenty of food and no discontent and taxes on the wealthy and not the poor, and Anaxares doesn’t care. The Good King wasn’t elected, therefore he’s a tyrant who should be cast down, along with the nobility and everyone else who disagrees with him.

        Like

        1. Mary Gentle

          I suppose that depends how wedded one is to the idea of “Good Kings.”

          Constitutional monarchs, now, they’re fine. (If not ideal.) I’d hope Anaraxes wouldn’t have a problem with those, because they usually come accompanied by an elected body or parliament of some kind.

          But single leaders with all the power? That tends not to work well. They can change any time, like the weather, and then your Good King and his or her prosperous realm are off to war, because the Good King wanrs it that way.

          In all honesty, the only thing that has restrained kings (in the real world) has tended to be their subjects. Not the ones who are ploughing the ground and making the things people need to live — the noble ones who have bucketloads of money from owning all that land, and who also don’t want to see the King rule over them. European feudalism is far more complex than it sounds, but it usually amounts to a triangle — Ruler, People, and (dare I say it) Home-Grown Oligarchs.

          I wouldn’t cry if the Hierarch introduced a bit of Early Modern government into the continent. They’ve been through blood and fire, isn’t it about time somebody asked the average bod what they want?

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Isi Arnott-Campbell

      I know what you mean, but “driven by a point of moral ideology” is a subcategory of “driven by a desire to change the world,” not an alternative to it. And let’s bear in mind that Good and Evil are theological/political/metaphysical alignments, and neither maps perfectly onto their lower-case synonyms. Take the fae as an example: their alignments inform everything BUT their morality, if indeed any part of their behavior could be considered equivalent to a moral code. That’s what people are like when they are solely defined by Heroic or Villainous attitudes. The existence of actual moral choices in-universe is a feature designed to keep everything off-kilter enough that it doesn’t get boring to watch.

      I hate to harp on this, but it’s kind of the core premise of the story?

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Miles

    “The five of us were standing in a village, which would have had me rather curious if it weren’t currently abandoned and on fire.”

    Cat! Did you set the fire?

    “Once you’d seen one burning village you’d seen all of them, really.”

    Cat!

    Liked by 3 people

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