Chapter 65: Monster

“When it passed that King Angelika of Rhenia was slain on the Hocheben Heights by the Prince of Bones, the Dead King sent an envoy to return her sword to the heir Prince Emil. ‘But it is only a loan, prince,’ the envoy told him, ‘for in time she will come to retrieve it.’”

– Extract from ‘Crowned In Iron’, a compendium of Lycaonese histories assembled by Prince Alexandre of Lyonis

Ears ringing, I watched as great claws of bone – each tall as a man – caught the edge of the well. The creature within, a hulking shape wreathed in shadows that my hundred eyes could not pierce, began to drag itself out of the pit even as the sitting Titans rose to their feet. Above our heads the ceiling of the cavern began to crack, the beast’s roar having been enough to shatter the stone.

Well, I mused, this had all taken an unfortunate turn.

“Say, Ranger,” I muttered. “I don’t suppose you’d happen to know what that thing is?”

“Pray I do not, Warden,” Hye Su quietly replied.

In other circumstances that undead had been made of not one but two Titans would have been the main source of my alarm, but because this was Keter the fact that I saw them moving from the corner of my eye ranked only rising concern. Outright alarm was reserved for the thing emerging from the well, claws gouging the stone as if it were mud. The sharp lengths of bones led into what I thought to be tendrils of some sort, until I realized they were large chords of sinew. They wove themselves into long, squirming limbs as the behemoth rose from the pit, revealing to my eye a head twisted draconic head that flowed into a mane-like length of sinews going down its neck.

It eyes were as a mass of burning coals hidden beneath the writhing tendons, burning in the light yet casting no shadow.

“That felt like a yes,” I noted. “So what am I looking at? Because I’ve seen dragons, and I’m no draconologist but I’m willing to firmly state this isn’t one.”

“This is one of the drakoi, the ancient foes of the Gigantes,” Ranger grimly said. “They are to dragons what we are to insects.”

That was less than promising, I mentally noted. Even a glory hound monster-fighting lunatic like Hye Su didn’t sound eager to fight one of those creatures, a sure sign they were nothing to trifle with. This was, after all, the same woman who’d picked a fight with a Queen of Summer in her own territory. On the other hand, even if apparently Neshamah had decided that now was as good a moment to start throwing dead gods – and how I missed the days where I didn’t have to deal with even the singular of that, much less the plural – at his problems I could tell with a look that this was a necromantic construct.

It was made of bone and tendons, and though some sort of eldritch power coursed through it like veins it was most definitely dead. Which meant someone had already killed this thing once already, that it wasn’t impossible. Just almost impossible, and that was the kind of wiggle room I’d been betting my life on for years now.

Mind you, I’d died a few times.

“Time for a tactical withdrawal,” I decided.

“Agreed,” Ranger said.

As one we turned clean pairs of heels to the enemy, though of course it wasn’t that easy. The drakon hit the ceiling as it rose to what I was pretty sure wasn’t even its full height, the cracks from earlier widening and stones began to fall. Wasn’t as much of problem as the two dead Titans having gotten a move on, though. The power that screamed against the air was sorcery, but like none I’d ever felt before. Where other spells felt like they stole the reins from Creation, imposed a will on it, this was… It felt barbed, cutting, like it hurt all around it just by existing. Whatever the Hells it was, it sunk into the slope of stone we were running up and seize it whole. A heartbeat later the rocked turned liquid, Ranger cursing as she leapt and I pulled on Night.

I wove tendrils around me and hooked them at the ceiling, forced to further crack it and dangerously vulnerable as I made sure I wouldn’t be swept by the tide the stone had turned into. Ranger went about it another way. She had a sword in hand, and with a grunt of effort she cut at the liquid. Wind billowed as the strength of the cut opened a path through the liquid stone and she landed on dry ground. Reluctantly impressed, I took half a heartbeat to appreciate how quickly she’d managed that before my attention moved back behind us. Where the drakon was halfway out of the well and filling the cavern with its hulking, writhing shape but also something… subtler. The air in the cavern felt different now.

Tainted somehow.

The second Titan had just finished their spell, a sphere of burning sunlight forming in front of them, and I wasn’t even going to try to protect that – I wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but there was enough power wafting from it that the air was warping. And since the bloody ceiling was falling anyway… I exerted my will, the tendrils of Night hooked into the stone above me spreading like roots before I seized the chord holding me up with my hand and pulled. The ceiling came down behind me, tons of rock falling like rain as Ranger cut her way through the tide again.

I landed with a pained grunt from the ache in my bad leg, brushing off liquid stone from the edge of my cloak before following Ranger into her race out of the room.

I didn’t look back but I still felt sizzling winds blowing at my back and a horrid keening sound as stone was vaporized, discarding hopes this had so much as scuffed one of the monsters. Getting out of the cavern alive would have to be enough. Ranger got onto the stairs first, her stride swift without looking hurried, and I was but a dozen steps behind. I risked a glance back as I turned the corner and felt a swell of dread when I saw that the drakon was digging through the broken ceiling. Going straight up towards the room with the ward anchors. Fuck. All the more reason to hurry, but that moment of dallying had cost me.

The wall I’d ducked behind was ripped off by an unseen hand, the power of the dead Titans screaming in my ears, and I threw myself to the ground just a little too slow – three rays of sunlight had shot out like burning lances, and the third caught my shoulder. It went through the Mantle of Woe where so may magics had failed, melting part of my pauldron into worthless slag. I cursed and pulled on Night to cool the molten metal before it got to my flesh, crawling out of the way even as the wall that’d been ripped out was thrown back in pieces. Right at me. I was pulling on Night even as a small voice in the back of my mind reminded that staying still was death, that the next rays of light would kill me, but what else could I do? The stones would kill me just the same. Only a hand grabbed me by the collar and Ranger dragged me up, just in time for me to toss a veil of darkness over us as we ran. A wave of pure sunlight incinerated where we had been standing a heartbeat earlier, but we’d gotten out in time.

We legged it up the stairs, back to the ward room, and I calmed my breath even as I felt the floor shake beneath our feet. Cracks were spreading all over, enchanted tiles breaking like mud left out too long in the sun. Puffs of magic came out with ever break, filling the air with aimless power.

“Thanks,” I got out.

“Might still need you,” Ranger frankly replied.

Fair enough, I conceded. The Concocter had left the floor and headed to the bottom of the stairs and the Huntress was still fighting up those, by the sounds of it. Masego was still among the garden of steles, though now he was kneeling by the pool of pure magic at the heart of it all.

“Hierophant, end it,” I shouted. “We need to go.”

“Nearly there,” Masego faintly replied, his flesh eye closed.

I hurried across the cracking floor, feeling massive claws scrape at it from beneath.

“How long?” I asked.

“Would you worry,” Hierophant said, “have anything to do with the half dead god beneath our feet?”

My jaw clenched.

Half dead?” I repeated.

“The body is a necromantic construct,” Hierophant said, “but the entity itself is not. It seems to be a piece of godhead contained in an undead body.”

So that was how he’d done it. Powerful as the Dead King was, the Riddle-Maker had made it pretty clear that at his peak the Titans could have wiped the floor with him and his buddies had supposedly been slapped around by the drakoi. Grave robbing Titans and raising their bones I could buy, but controlling the remains of an elder dragon had been harder to swallow. Only he hadn’t done that, by the sounds of it. He’d poured god’s blood into a corpse he’d made sure he could control and still found the resulting monster hard enough to control it’d been kept sealed in a well beneath Keter.

“It’s a drakon,” I told him.

Masego’s eye flow open. He stared at me for a heartbeat.

“I will hurry,” he conceded, as if doing me some great favour.

“I hope you will, because there’s dead Titans not far behind us,” I grunted.

I left Ranger to keep an eye on the stairs behind us, instead going to the set that’d lead us back above. I told Cocky to run up and tell the Silver Huntress so start clearing our way out, because we needed to get the Hells out of here in a hurry. I still had a knife up my sleeve, one that might bite deep here, but I’d rather keep it back a little longer. If we could get the drakon to rampage around the spire after the wards came down, it’d draw Named like flies. By the time I returned Ranger had her bow out and an arrow nocked, eyes on the threshold of the stairs, and Masego had gone still kneeling besides a stele.

“Hierophant?”

He did not answer, not for a few heartbeats. Then he took his hand off the stele and rose to his feet, smiling. I could already feel the wards fading in the distance. Names that had felt a world away were now at the tip of my fingers. There were, I grimly though, less of those left than I’d thought. The Dead King was having himself a massacre. Zeze cleared his throat.

“I believe that-”

Ranger loosed an arrow, but I didn’t even end up looking at what because the floor broke. A writhing, gaping maw tore through the stone and closed its fangs around steles and the pool of magic.

“Run,” I hissed.

No one argued. The fucking collapsing floor should have held up the Titans but instead a path made itself out of falling stone as we ran for the stairs – Cocky, showing wisdom, was already gone – and the two giants began to cross unhurriedly as the drakon continued guzzling up the room. It’s eating too much, I thought. Even steles that hadn’t been disappeared between the great jaws. Was the Dead King’s leash truly so loose or was there another reason for this? Ranger went in first, taller than me and in better shape than Hierophant, and my effort to slow down the enemy by tossing a spear of blackflame the way of the Titans died without making a dent.

Sunlight blazed in the Titan’s hand and suddenly the Night flames were just gone.

That one, I grimly thought, wasn’t a good match up for me at all. I’d have to pass him on to someone else. We hurried up the cramped, narrow stairs even as they shattered behind us – the Titans were opening a path for themselves – and I found that the Silver Huntress had delivered on the task I’d given her: she was already at the very entrance, holding back the tireless horde with a short spear wreathed in Light. Behind us stone was shattering like glass, but we’d make it in time. The Dead King’s monsters were large and the same protections he’d built to keep people out were now serving to keep his abominations in.

“Hierophant,” I said, “can you help with the dead?”

“I can-”

Masego kept talking, but I did not hear the words. My blood turned to ice, for the herald of misfortunate had made itself known: someone was tuning a lute. I did not see her, was not certain it was my ears I was hearing her through, but I recognized the sounds. Drunken fingers tuning the Intercessor’s lute with surprising deftness, plucking at it until every string was just right.

“-rine, Catherine,” Hierophant called out, sounding irritated. “Are you listening?”

“Can you hear that?” I asked.

My eye turned to Ranger when I found no trace of understanding on Masego’s face, and she slowly nodded.

“Music,” Hye Su said. “Faint, but I hear it.”

Faint? No, that made sense. Ranger was an old and powerful Named on top of the more exotic talents that came with being of elven blood, but it was me who’d effectively ripped out two chunks of the Bard’s aspect and then eaten them. I’d be able to hear her better than anyone else alive.

“The Intercessor’s taking an interest,” I said, “and that’s never good. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

We swept out of the stairs like a whirlwind, Masego dropping half a hundred undead with a spell that went after the one animating them while Ranger and the Silver Huntress charged into the opening. We went down the right corridor, opposite of the one we’d taken last time, since it was the way out of the crypts. The ranks of the dead were thick and reinforcements pouring in like a flood but the momentum was on our side. I let loose blast of black flame to keep the enemy off our back, sometimes, but in truth my mind was barely on the fight. I’d left an eye of Night behind to check on the progress of the Titans and the drakon but nothing came out of the stairs, which I realized with a grimaced made sense.

Instead of having the giants and the fucking horror dragon wreck these too-small corridors pursuing us, they were probably going to keep heading straight up to catch us in one of the large rooms above. I tried to remember as much as I could of the layout from the time I’d come here to negotiate, since I’d seen a little of the spire when I had, but I just couldn’t seem to fucking concentrate. Not when the idle tuning had turned into strumming, and then into the beginning of a slow and sad song. The Bard usually pretended to be a poor musician, for she liked to play the fool, but she hadn’t that night in Ater and it seemed she would not today either.

My head wasn’t in the fight but it hardly mattered: the Dead King hardly threw anything worth a second look our way. Masses of lesser undead and a few Revenants barely worth a second look. With Ranger as our vanguard, it was the equivalent of throwing wheat at a sickle. We smashed our way through the corridors, leaving only broken bodies behind us as we hurried out of the crypts. I vaguely remembered the path from the last time, which served us well enough as we fought our way to the bottom of a set of wide stairs. As the Huntress took off the head of the last Bind there, I glanced back at the receding tide of undead behind us. I threw a few clumps of black flame to make sure we wouldn’t be followed, but in truth they didn’t look eager to.

Not a good sign, I admitted to myself as we went up.

Last time I’d been here, I’d thought it was a beautiful place. The hall was a dome of arches, grey stone rising to support a gallery above, yet the most striking part of it was the ceiling. It was curved, held up by elegant beams of stone, but everything in between was coloured glass. The pieces shone from the light of a sun that did not truly exist, painting stretches of colour on the tiled grey floor. The five of us stumbled out of the side hall panting, all of us scuffed but none wounded, but there would be no relief: just as I’d predicted, the enemy had arrived ahead of us. The hall’s floor had been ripped open, crushed tiles flying everywhere like feathers falling, and out of the deeps the drakon had come.

It was waiting for us, nesting among the broken stone. A forest of sinewy tendrils sprouting from its back had been folded over the spine like wings and a thick, long tail was curving against the crushed statue of some ancient conqueror. The coal-like eyes did not turn towards us, but the weight of the creature’s attention was as a weight on our shoulders – the Concocter buckled and would have fallen to her knees if not for Alexis catching her arm. My eye narrowed as I took it the shape of it. It felt larger than before, I thought. And more… defined. As if it had somehow grown. More than that, the same subtle power I had felt tainting the air below was back.

It felt humid, like it was pressing against your skin in the most disgusting of ways. Like a droplet of water going down your spine, only deep down you knew it was an insect. The drakon was doing something to its surroundings, I thought. Not even going out of its way to do it: existing was enough. And though I couldn’t quite tell what it was doing yet, I doubted it would be anything we’d enjoy. I cracked my neck, leaning on my staff, and breathed out.

“Well,” I said, “it looks like we’ll be having that fight after all. Hierophant?”

“Catherine?”

“Cast,” I said. “We’ll buy you as long as we can.”

He opened his mouth to answer by unfortunately it seemed that this was as much leeway as the ancient horror was willing to allow us. It began rising on its feet, body writing and sprouting smaller half-aborted limbs before as it did. It swallowed most of them back up into its body, but not all.

“Move,” I hissed, Ranger drawing her sword as I did.

The Concocter stuck with Masego, since in a fight like this she was near useless, but the rest of us spread out. The Silver Huntress shot towards the stairs that’d lead up to the gallery, a good shooting nest, and Ranger unhurriedly stepped into the open grounds of the hall. As for me, I breathed out and pulled deep on the Night. Sve Noc answered with unstinting hand, coolness raging through my veins and overflowing. It raced down my body, weaving shadow through the Mantle of Woe as I pulled down the hood. I breathed out mist, fingers closing around my staff of dead yew, and let the shadows wreath me whole.

Unsheathing my sword, I stepped into the fight.

The Ranger, huntress of gods and monster, was the first to strike. She moved like a ghost across the broken floor, disturbing not so much as a mote of dust, but the drakon struck just as swiftly. It batted away at her, and when she leapt above the blow snapped forward to swallow her whole – only for the Ranger to carve through its head instead, blowing though the tendrils of sinew like a great wind. There were no bones or brains inside, I realized as Ranger’s strike revealed nothing at all. No head to take, and the drakon seemed indifferent to a blow that would have killed most creatures of Creation. It did not even pause in its assault, wings fluttering as it tried to slap down Ranger.

Too slow, for I wove a tendril of shadow to drag her out of the way and the Silver Huntress loosed an arrow of Light from the upper gallery that burned halfway through the limb. Dropping Ranger when she was two dozen feet above the ground – she landed in a smooth crouch – I went on the offensive. Probing its defences, I tossed a few balls of blackflame at is sides. Half were blown out by the wings as the drakon turned towards me, but a few landed and I frowned as I looked through eyes of Night at the results. The black flames were ‘burning’ without actually consuming anything, and soon guttered out without having done much of anything.

That disgusting humid sensation grew stronger, pressing at me from all sides.

Did it get stronger against power it had been attacked with? I couldn’t tell from just this and didn’t have the time to spare for another try: I’d drawn the creature’s attention. It moved like the wind, crossing the floor in moments and disdaining the use of claws for its gaping maw. Teeth formed out of bone as the writhing nothing opened, looming above me, and I released the Night I had gathered around myself. Three other Catherine Foundlings legged it in different directions as I backed away under cover of a veil, but the abomination ignored the illusions. Fuck, I eloquently thought as I reached for my sword.

Instead the side of the drakon’s head was split open by a sword blow, the Ranger attacking from the side even as the Huntress loosed a Light arrow into the head from the other side. They’d not just struck to save my ass, though – I could see from the angle that Alexis had placed her arrow after Ranger struck in an attempt to burn out part of the drakon’s head. I backed away behind the pillars as the writhing, hollowed head withdrew, jaws snapping at nothing, and saw that a handful of cut-through sinew tendrils had dropped down on the stone. Like the other two I kept an eye on the drakon as I moved, grimacing as I saw that the head was full again in moments.

There would be no shaving away at the monster piece by piece, then. Back to regular violence. Hiding in the shade of the pillars I began to weave a curse, wondering if those might not work better than outright destruction, when I saw someone dash out into the open grounds. The Concocter, I realized as I swore and loosed my curse early. The lash of Night hit the drakon’s side, and to my pleasant surprise did exactly what I’d wanted it to: writhing tendrils went still, locked into place. The Dead King, I realized even as the Silver Huntress peppered the drakon’s limbs with arrows so it would not splatter Cocky over the ground. The Dead King’s work is the weak point.

The shard of divinity that gave consciousness to this monster wasn’t something I could snuff out without preparations, but it was stuck in the contained Neshamah had made for it. And that I could affect. The Concocter ran back in cover, though not before I got a look at what she’d been doing: she’d cut out a piece of sinew and shoved it into a bottle. Huh. Whether or not that’d end up useful, the Huntress had caught the drakoi’s attention with that last volley: it roared, forcing a wince out of me as panes of painted glass shattered above us. The colourful shards weren’t just falling, though. As if moved by an invisible hand, they gathered into a ring of hovering glyphs.

I watched, open-mouthed, as the same wards that Hierophant had killed below came back to life around the drakon.

So that was why it’d eaten so many of the ward anchors, I realized. It didn’t just get stronger against things that had attacked it, it got strong from what it ate. Which was, if I understood correctly the disgusting humid feeling still pressing tight around the Night veiling me, anything around it for long enough. The longer we fought the drakon, the harder it would be for us to harm it. Given long enough, even the strongest workings of Night would barely rate a scratch. It was an absurd thing to contemplate, something like that. Invisibility in the making, if used by even a halfway clever soul. Which is why the Dead King used only a shard of you, imprisoned in a body he controls. Neshamah would keeping it stupid enough it wouldn’t be able to break free of its binding, and even then it was a fucking nightmare to deal with.

We couldn’t beat this thing, I admitted to myself. Not right now, not with the tools at hand. And stubbornly continuing to fight it would make it harder to put down when we did have the right people there. We need to retreat the moment Masego lands his spell, I thought, looking through an eye at Hierophant. He was still murmuring, one eye closed and the other burning. The Concocter was close by, hidden behind a pillar as she rifled through her bags for something and stared at the piece of the drakon she’d snatched. There was no telling when he’d be done incanting, I thought, but it had to be soon. Best I prepare for it.

As the drakon began to methodically ravage the upper gallery, tearing through it with a cat’s cruel laziness, I stepped out in the open and levelled my staff at the abomination.

“We’re going to retreat,” I called out, “the moment the spell is done.”

That was when it all went wrong. Was it intelligent enough to understand words? I’d not thought so, but immediately the drakon stopped trying to flush out the Huntress and instead turned towards where Masego still stood. I swore and shaped a pair of curses before tossing them at the creature. The first was a mixed bag, the sinewy tendrils I’d meant to knot up instead melding together and reforming, but the second was an outright loss: the limb I’d meant to freeze was barely slowed. It was adapting to Night tricks. I broke into a run even as the drakon slithered towards Hierophant.

“Cover,” I screamed. “Cover him, Merciless Gods!”

The Huntress leapt off the edge of the gallery, spear lighting up like a falling star as she cleaved through the drakon’s wing, but a leg burst out of the abomination’s side and caught her in the belly. The sound of metal crumpling was heard and she went flying. I cursed again, drawing on my Name to quicken my stride. My leg was throbbing but I grit my teeth and let the pain pass through, getting there about the same time as Ranger did. The Concocter popped out to throw a vial of some liquid that turned to flame on impact but the drakon hardly noticed, smashing the pillar she’d been hiding behind and breaking her arm. As well as revealing Masego.

I stood between death and Hierophant, screaming as I called on Night with my sword raised, and Ranger’s blade cut through the beast’s neck – though it formed back anew past the cut. I unleashed torrents of black flame into the drakon’s face, aiming for those buried red eyes, and though I calcinated tendrils I could feel the resistance growing ever stronger until suddenly sorcery bloomed behind me. Through the Night I saw Hierophant’s eye open and his lips mouth a single word.

“Rot.”

The drakon shuddered, maw opening, and began to scream. The dead flesh it was made of began to decay and come apart in clumps, and though the abomination grew them back it was writhing in pain as the rot refused to leave its body. Masego slumped, half falling to his knees, and I sheathed my sword to hold him up. The drakon was distracted for now, so we needed to get the Hells out. Only we couldn’t, not quickly. The Concocter was trying to get up, cradling her broken bones, and the Huntress was still on the other side of the hall. There were cracks on the pillar where she’d landed and she was splayed below, either dead or unconscious. I’d need Ranger to-

I found Hye Su already looking at me, face a blank mask, and my stomach clenched. She’d been looking at the same things I did, and had come to the same conclusions. Only she wasn’t me, so the decision that followed was different.

“It is a battle lost,” Ranger said, shaking her head. “Survive if you can: I am still owed.”

And without another word, she turned her back on us. She was going to leave, to get out while the spell held. I had to push down the urge to set her on fire as she made to leave – it wouldn’t help – and held up Masego as I saw the way the rot was slowing in the abomination’s body. It was getting used to the spell, we didn’t have long left.

“Get the Concocter out,” I ordered Hierophant. “I’ll pick up the Huntress.”

Only the drakon roared again, and as I covered my ears the rotting parts of it were shed to the ground. Ember-red eyes turned towards us and my stomach clenched as I reached for the Night. I wouldn’t be able to get everyone out. It struck and I-

“That’s a lot more tentacles than anyone should be comfortable with.”

And I felt my shoulder loosen as the limb that should have swept through all three of us was instead split in half, Indrani sliding down its length and landing on her feet. She took a few steps back, looking almost drunk, then spat to the side as the drakon put itself back together.

“You’re late,” I said.

Indrani snorted.

“Had to take the long way around,” she replied. “Shiny Boots was already knocking at the front doors.”

Another roar shook the hall, the drakon furious at the continued interruptions.

“I’ll forgive you this time,” I conceded.

She hummed, twirling her longknives thoughtfully.

“The Lady bailed on you, yeah?”

“Just about,” I grunted back.

We’d bargained for her to lead us into Keter by the secret way, not fight by our side, so in truth she hadn’t broken our agreement. But she’d abandoned us nonetheless.

“Isn’t that something,” Indrani murmured.

I could See it, through my dead eye. The way the weight shifted, the story moved. Two claims had been competing, and while one had been stronger than the other it was also not there – and the story still wanted a Role to be played.

“It was mine to have anyway,” Indrani decided. “My friends to keep alive. My family to protect.”

And with that last step in the journey, it all fell into place perfectly. The Ranger fought monsters, but the Ranger had fled and monsters were still being fought.

“If she throws away the fight, then it’s mine to pick up,” Indrani said. “So how does the line go again? Ah, yes.”

She straightened, meeting the drakon’s burning ember eyes.

“I am the Ranger,” she said, and made it true. “I hunt those worth hunting. Tremble, for you qualify.”

And in a blur of movement she was gone. I nudged Masego towards the Concocter – he could set the bone and heal it – and went to circle around the broken hall as Indrani fought toe to toe with a horror out of legend. She moved like the wind, never where the drakon struck as it tore through the hall in growing frustration. The Ranger carved through sinew and bone, shattered claws and laughed as the drakon roared its impotent wrath. Like a bull trying to swat a hornet, it missed again and again as she stung from every direction.

I reached the Silver Huntress and found to my relief that she was not dead. Unconscious and her skull had been rattled, but it took more than that to kill a Named. I dragged her back into consciousness and stopped the bleeding out of her forehead wound but her eyes were still unfocused as she got on her feet. To get her back fighting fit we’d need a priest, much as I hated to admit it. My eye went back to Indrani, who was impossibly holding her own against the abomination. A Name’s never stronger than when it comes into being, I reminded myself.

I watched as she laughed and toyed with a dead god, knowing that it was beautiful but it could not last. That first burst of strength would fade, and when it did the situation would turn against us. We needed to get out while we still could, I thought as I guided Alexis across the room. Towards the same threshold that Hye Su had left through. As if to crown my worries, the drakon finally landed a blow on Indrani. She’d blocked it, so it snapped one of her blades instead of her bones. It still tossed her back, sliding along the ground until she stood near where Masego and Cocky had gotten to.

“Indrani,” I shouted, “we need to leave. Move the fight elsewhere.”

She didn’t look happy, but she didn’t argue. I could See how her Name was pulling at her to finish the fight, to pursue the moment it had coalesced through to the end, but she was a stubborn soul and she knew her limits. She’d fight off the influence. And now that she and Hye Su had played out their parts of the story that left only…

“I’ll handle the rearguard,” the Ranger shouted. “You go on-”

The drakon went still. A heartbeat later, its wings slid to the floor. I almost laughed at the absurdity of the sight.

Go,” I shouted back. “It’s handled.”

She spat angrily to the side, but did not refuse the order. She dragged Masego and Cocky along, heading for the door. I pushed on the Silver Huntress as well, who while still dazed was still fast on her feet, and within moments I was the only human left in the hall. The drakon’s gaze slowly swept the hall, coming to rest on me, and when the full weight of its attention solidified I had to let out a breath. My knees were shaking.

Then the drakon’s head rolled on the floor.

It decated to nothing as another grew back, but now before the towering monster a lone silhouette stood. It was tall and thin, holding in its hand a sword of made of wood. The drakon reared up, roar filling the air, and then its head rolled on the floor again. And its limbs, and its tail. They sprouted back, the abomination’s entire body writhing angrily, but it looked taken aback. As suddenly as a match lit nine of the Emerald Swords surrounded it in a loose ring, silent as the grave. The disgusting miasma in the air slid off them like water off a duck’s back.

“It won’t work,” I croaked out. “You can’t kill it for good with swords.”

Then someone was standing next to me, the elf’s eyes contemptuous.

“We are,” they said, “the Emerald Swords.”

It was said like a simple truth, like a sentence passed.

“If it cannot be slain for good,” the elf told me, “then we will keep slaying it until the Last Dusk.”

The words were said without so much as a speck of doubt. In the distance, the drakon’s head and limbs dropped again.

“Leave, Warden,” the elf said. “Our debt must be repaid.”

I hesitated for a moment, wondering if perhaps the monster could be put down for good, but then I recognized that for the vanity it was. Wounded pride my plans had not been enough to stop the Dead King’s own. So instead I inclined my head, as much in thanks as acknowledgement, and broke into a run to catch up with the others. Named were dying ahead of us, my own had told me. The fight to end all this awaited.

And as I passed the threshold, the Intercessor began to sing.

123 thoughts on “Chapter 65: Monster

        1. dadycoool

          Ah, but there’s different levels of bullshit. It’s one thing to have every stick on the playground be a lethal sword the moment you pick it up, but it’s significantly worse to have a sword proof forcefield or a deathray or declare yourself immune to swords.

          Liked by 12 people

        1. jamesc9

          These elves can’t go that way until they’re able to have children, which is related to getting their forest to forgive them for the circumstances in which they occupy it.

          Like

    1. Due to the quality of EE’s writing I have had the pleasure to read, I’d suggest EE has as many or more pages of notes, errata, and timelines than what’s been published so far on WordPress.
      If that is not the case my admiration would be greater, and there are few compelling writers of EE’s caliber I have enjoyed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. shikkarasu

        EE foreshadows too often, and books in advance, to be doing most of this on the fly. I am 100% certain that the bones of all 7 books were in place before the first chapter went up, even if it was a 5 book plan at the time.

        Like

      1. Par

        He was a guest on a fiction podcast at one point where he confirmed he goes by he/him pronouns
        I don’t remember the podcast off the top of my head but it was on reddit iirc

        Like

  1. Earl of Purple

    Well, shit all the fuck. The good news is, if they destroy Neshamah’s working, it’ll no longer be bound. The bad news is, if that happens it resurrects itself unless a Titan kills it, and there’s only one of those left.

    Indrani’s Ranger, yay! That’s a bright point, and she deserves it. Wonder how it feels for Hye Su now, if she’s able to make it out without her Name and Aspects. Chances are she keeps the skill they granted her, I think, but not the continual improvement.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. caoimhinh

      Imagine Hye running away from that fight, and then midstride she suddenly feels hollowed out, no longer having as much strength, as much agility and power, and her steps falter.
      And then she feels it, like a slap in the face calling her “coward”, her Name has left her. She is the Ranger no more.

      Liked by 25 people

    2. Miles

      This is probably an opportunity in disguise for Hye. She’s an old hand to the point that she was rarely running into new tricks to learn, perfect, and transcend. Another Name would give her some abilities that she can actually use more than once every few years and she kept her skills.

      Liked by 9 people

    1. RoflCat

      Probably ‘forever’ until Indrani come back to finish the fight.

      This Drakon is basically THE monster for her Name now. She got the claim with a fight against it, her Name will likely fully form (3rd aspect?) when she finishes it.

      Until then, Story weight demands the elves will hold, but whether they’ll all just die when she set off for the hunt or she’ll come to tip the scale and save some (0 chance of all the Swords making it out)

      Of course if DK make his move to release the Monster then that’s another issue entirely.

      Liked by 10 people

  2. Mary Gentle

    Damn, that’s terrifying.

    I know many people expected Indrani to become the Ranger, and what pleases me is that it’s under circumstances where she deserves it.

    Hy Sue only got them into the city to pay off a debt, and then turned her back on a monster fight when she was supposed to be so hot. Indrani is willing to face that monster, and protect those she loves. Hence — Ranger.

    It terrifies me there’s still something that can damage or eradicate Cat and the Mantle of Woe. And for a minute I really thought we were going to lose Masego. ☹ ☹

    Our guys are severely outclassed. By story logic, this is where they should be at their most fortunate. But the Intercessor is singing. Cat should have crunched her like a bug, last time around.

    Also by story logic, this is where we should start losing people that it’s painful to lose.

    I don’t want to see heroic self-sacrifice; I want our guys to remember that villains succeed and live to fight another day!

    Liked by 20 people

    1. dadycoool

      Well, it already started with Rogue Sorcerer. But you’re right. Even if the entire Woe is immune to actual death, they probably won’t survive fully intact and anyone close to them is fair game. I anticipate something like Freddy and Otto dying together.

      Liked by 6 people

    2. ninegardens

      See, thing with Bard singing is…. The music sets the tone year.

      Anyone ever seen a glorious come back happen right as the lute strums tragic?
      I thought not!

      😦

      Like

  3. Kennedy John

    I am absolutely stealing “I hunt those worth hunting. Tremble, for you qualify.” for a high level DND villain someday. For a coward who ran from the fight the previous Ranger’s got some good lines. Speaking of good lines I wonder what song the Intercessor is going to be singing, for a Bard I don’t think she’s done much of it.

    Also I love the elf bullshit in this universe just inserting themselves into the story where they see fit, I was actually just wondering before I got to that point in the chapter if this was the fight the elves would be using to repay Cat since the drakoi’s story bullshit is even bigger than the elves.

    Liked by 15 people

    1. caoimhinh

      Now I’m wondering if the reason why the two undead Titans mysteriously disappeared and seemed like Cat even forgot about them is that the Emerald Swords got to them before they went upstairs to take care of the Drakon.

      Liked by 12 people

  4. Daniel E

    I sincerely hope that Indrani finds time to abuse her newfound authority in the future. Like at a campfire with Cat, and she’s like ‘I hunt those worth hunting’ before stealing Cat’s sandwich and eating it, claiming victory for the greater good.

    Liked by 22 people

  5. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    a head twisted > a twisted
    It eyes > Its eyes
    widening and > widening, and
    of problem > of a problem
    and seize > and seized
    rocked turned > rock turned
    protect that > protect against that
    ever break > every break
    you worry > your worry
    him and his > him, and his
    poured god’s > poured the god’s
    eye flow > eye flowed
    Huntress so > Huntress to
    hadn’t been disappeared (missing word)
    misfortunate > misfortune
    reinforcements pouring > reinforcements were pouring
    loose blast > loose blasts
    grimaced made > grimace made
    worth a second look (appears twice)
    by unfortunately > but unfortunately
    writing > writhing
    before as > as
    the contained > the container
    Invisibility in > Invincibility in
    would keeping > would have been keeping
    decated > decayed
    Wounded pride my > Wounded pride. My

    Liked by 5 people

  6. bellacohl

    God I’m so happy Hye is no longer the ranger (I assume).

    I hope someone gets her now, though I guess it’s too much to ask.

    Also, Elder Dragons are terrifying.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. dadycoool

      Since she’s half-elf, she won’t die naturally, but since Indrani earned Ranger Hye is most likely just a highly skilled warrior. She probably doesn’t even really benefit from any Named buffs.

      Liked by 8 people

      1. Crash

        Officially designated laughing stock by Creation itself.

        A Ranger who ran away from an once in a lifetime fight, leaving the last of her disciples, the nephew of her dead lover and her self-declared enemy to fend for themselves.

        Only to lose the name of Ranger to a student whiling to take that fight AND have the Emerald Swords who chase her everywhere step in right after.

        What a great day.

        Liked by 11 people

    1. 'Ladi Williams

      Let’s be factual. She kept to her word. Even rescued cat one or two times.
      The deal was to show them a way into keter. Which she kept to….she never bargained to fight for them…you could argue she doesn’t have a stick in this fire.
      I still don’t like her though

      Liked by 4 people

      1. She didn’t have an easy out before the moment the Rot spell hit. Titans and Dragon of Dragons was there and probably wouldn’t have let her run like that. And before that the wards weren’t down so there was no getting out. She didn’t do extra. She fought till the very moment fighting was no longer required for her survival and bailed.

        Liked by 1 person

            1. 'Ladi Williams

              She didn’t “break” her name. If Indrani had a better claim to it and took it doesn’t mean Hye Su broke her name.
              Ranger means different tho gs to different people

              Like

              1. MoreBeer

                Ranger’s role has been to hunt the worthy. She didn’t violate the name, she broke the role.

                When the Ranger makes a promise and fails to see the spirit through, and a candidate steps up to both fulfill the promise and the role, well, we know what happens.

                Like

          1. She did everything she promised to do and not a single step more, is my implication. She had no way to leave the place until the ward was taken down and by that point the super deadly super dragon was out, making retreating a non-viable option.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. jworks17

    I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth saying it again- how are Erratica’s first drafts this smooth? It’s exceptional.

    Then again maybe these aren’t first drafts, I’m just guessing they are because of the occasional spelling errors and such.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Cpt. Obvious

      I’m guessing lots and lots of notes meticulously kept current and pretty detailed plan for the story.

      I really would love to see a few iterations of the notes. Such as what they looked like before he wrote the first book. How it had changed for say book 4, and finally what had changed for book 7.

      Whenever I try to write anything longer than a few pages at least one of my character will take the bit in the teeth and just go wild. And suddenly I haven’t a clue where the story is going.

      It’s both frustrating and oddly entertaining, but so far I’ve never been able to reign them in enough to write a story worth reading. No matter what I do they just keep talking all over the story, never shutting up.

      It’s like a demented version of Seinfeld, and I can’t stand that show anh have never watched more than half an episode before rage-quitting…

      So I admire anyone with the discipline to keep this many characters somewhat in line.
      I imagine it’s very much like herding cats.

      Liked by 6 people

          1. Cpt. Obvious

            I’ve tried that. Writing a raving mad lunatic is incredibly hard. If keeping ordinary people in line is like hearding cats then adding a character like that to the mix turns the mostly peaceful heard of cats into a wet paperbag full of whet cats.

            Now if you really want a challenge the write a main character who has no morality of any kind. A character to whom a living human and a dead have the same value, zero unless they can serve a purpose. I won’t call that character evil as in its world view there’s no such things as good or evil.

            Tried it once. It wasn’t long before I gave up. Getting into the mind of that character was scary AF.

            Like

  8. dadycoool

    Magnificent. Indrani has come into her own and now the Dead King must face a new Ranger, one without a single Aspect to her Name.
    We now have the Hierophant, the Warlord, the Warden, and now the Ranger. Four of the five Woe have completed their metamorphosis into their final Names, only the Princess lagging behind probably due to how recently she came into that Name and the fact that Cat’s still queen.
    It actually makes sense that this is where the Emerald Swords would end up, chained to one spot, killing a god over and over again forever.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Mirror Night

      I am curious how her Aspects evolve. I suppose Indrani and Hanno getting Aspects at the last second is great (not so much from the training prospective) but moreso from DK cannot prep for Aspects he doesn’t know about.

      I have no idea how Viv factors into the Last Dance of the Woe. I can barely tell if she is named, we haven’t seen any Aspects, and she hasn’t really done much since getting Princess. So who knows how she contribute. Hakram and Viv kinda seem to drag down the power level lol. Still the Woe is strong core as long as Cat stays out of Melee Range and stops pretending she is still Squire. And Viv can contribute something.

      Liked by 8 people

        1. Mirror Night

          Yeah not seeing how being a good thief without a Name is in anyway useful against DK. Viv is going to end up like Cocky hiding behind Masego at this rate when the Power Level is that high

          Liked by 2 people

      1. burnsy

        My theory is that Viv is going to get an aspect that combines her stealing with her new status: Liberate.

        What will this aspect do? Among other things, she could Liberate the dead from the Dead Kings control.

        I’m also hopeful, since she has such a strong association with the sun of summer, that she gets a variant on Shine too.

        Liked by 6 people

      2. dadycoool

        Hakram has always been the Barbarian tank of the group. While Cat and Masego have to keep their distance, Hakram is the blender at the front, especially as Warlord where he gives a group bonus to melee attack.
        I don’t think Princess has actually established any of her Aspects yet, which makes her highly dangerous, even as an administrator. And she’s always had a Strange Support role, see stealing a bunch of barges and using them as a barricade, then proceeding to SNATCH THE SUN FROM THE SKY, which I still can’t get over. Also, she’s already had her “Where’s my place here” crisis and Hakram chopped his other hand off to resolve it.

        Liked by 5 people

    2. Crash

      Actually, the lack of Aspects is especially dangerous. See Hanno’s new absolutely ridiculous set.

      Getting your Aspects in the middle of The Final Fight is the best time for highly powerful bullshit to appear.

      Under different circumstances Indrani would be likely to get something like Hunt as an equaliser like Struggle was, something that allows her to do her job as Ranger no matter what she faces. Instead, she just straight up got her Name by establishing herself as someone who would fight and laugh at a Drakon to protect her friends. Powerful Aspects are coming.

      Liked by 9 people

      1. dadycoool

        I was saying the lack of Aspects is a good thing, for the reasons you just described. A Named is no more dangerous than when their full potential is available and nebulous.

        And yeah, laughing at a monster that could slaughter Titans and scared her predecessor is a very powerful way to establish herself.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Mirror Night

    I am kinda confused as to why everyone and their grandma seems to know what Drakkon are when the Titans vs Drakkon predates Humans. I am not sure it predates Elves I suppose since they come from another continent.

    Also it seems kinda weird to me Elves can do all this BS and yet not escape a room with some hellfire such that they needed Cat to save them. I think EE might be a Tolkien fan really feels like some Light of Two Trees Noldor Elf BS lol.

    I suppose Hanno can detect the Drakkon? Since he was already at the door…

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Tenthyr

      The ancient conflict of the Titans and Drakoi are mythical, their story has saturated into people’s cultures and histories. Since the Gigantes enslaved humans for a good while, the story of their Gods war probably passed to humanity that way.

      Liked by 12 people

    2. ninegardens

      >>”I am kinda confused as to why everyone and their grandma seems to know what Drakkon are when the Titans vs Drakkon predates Humans. I am not sure it predates Elves I suppose since they come from another continent.”

      I mean… lets put it this way….
      What percentage of people you know know about T-rex?
      Drakkon are *significantly* bigger than Trex, and significantly more recent.
      People know about them because they are freakin’ epic.

      Liked by 11 people

    3. Abnaxis

      Pretty sure Hierophant and Hye Su were the only ones who knew what a drakon is. Hye had to tell Cat because Cat had never heard of them (“they are to dragons what we are to insects”) and I don’t think anyone else knew what it is other than a big freaking monster.

      Liked by 9 people

    4. megaprr

      Hardly everyone and their grandma. Hye knew because her whole thing is hunting monsters and she’s surely heard about it in her quest to seek out strong opponents. Masego knows because he’s one of if not the most well-educated person on Calernia. Not to mention that Drakoi are gods, which are his specialty and the focus of his Name.

      None of the others seemed to know what they are. And this is (I think) the first time we’ve heard of them outside the extra chapters.

      Liked by 8 people

      1. Crash

        Hye’s whole thing WAS hunting monster. Now she’s a professional runner lmao

        Imagine being the Ranger for centuries and then losing the Name as you run away from a fight.

        Had Indrani spat on her face, it would probably deal less damage to her psyche.

        Liked by 7 people

    5. Goblinfire is demon juice. Cat could work around it when elves couldn’t because of the dismensional passage abilities, which are the one thing the elves don’t have.

      Of course, DK made sure that that one specific thing would be useless here, so elves are back to the top of the food chaiin.

      Liked by 6 people

  10. edrey

    now that i think about it, the elfs can just throw the drakon to the void with the hellgate.
    i really like the possibility that hierarch meeting that monster. what would happen then?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nick012000

      It would drop dead as the Dead King’s magic broke, then come back to life again, free from the Dead King’s control.

      Then it’d probably get into a pissing match with the Hierarch, because its hunger-based domain seems antithetical to the Hierarch’s anti-authoritarian domain.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Steve

        It would completely destroy Anaraxes (can we take a moment to consider how fun it is for Anaraxes to have a name fundamentally based on some people being above others?)

        It rules over no one. It eats everything around it because everything else is food. There is no competition between them, the Drakoi wins without even noticing.

        If anything, it is the hyper-realization of Anaraxes’ goals, which basically amount to turning people into a meta-organism that just consumes resources and votes a lot. The votes are the Drakoi brain, and the rest is the hunger.

        Like

        1. Abrakadabra

          That is not inaccurate description of our society. Every question is an economical question nowadays. We are the maw that eats everithing.

          Like

  11. Wonder

    Well, I can only be sure that Cat’s third Aspect is going to coalesce when she fucks up the Intercessor for good and into perpetuity..

    Indrani is now The Ranger ,it’s only left with Vivian.
    Frankly throughout this horrifying war ,we have seen nothing of The Shining Princess ,her stolen legion and order.

    All throughout the Battle I couldn’t stop thinking 🤔, maybe this godhead will be valuable to Masego’s apotheosis.

    I can only hope The Riddle-Maker can set the revenant Titans free .. if SveNoc can set The Good King of Callow free ,I wager The King of Titans also can..

    Liked by 3 people

  12. zenanii

    Great chapter, but I started getting really annoyed with the whole “Masego has something important to say, yet because of circumstance he can’t tell Cat.”
    The facts that he keeps getting interrupted I can swallow, but what really bothered my was how Cat literally never picked up on the part that he was trying to tell her something.
    Yes, I get it, it’s a very stressful situation having three dead gods coming after your ass, which is EXACTLY the sort of situation in which you should be listening VERY carefully to what the Hierophant, dissector of gods has to say.
    The very foundation for Cats success has been built upon relying on others, so it just seems increadible out of character for her to now all of a sudden not even give half a thought to the fact the Masego was trying to tell her something.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. ninegardens

          I mean, he is the one character who knows that Judgement is MIA at the moment (due to Heirarch’s return), so that’s pretty important.

          … of course he could have mentioned that while wandering around the Serenity for several house, so…. probably not that:

          Liked by 1 person

          1. 'Ladi Williams

            The band all knows judgment is free…though I am not sure if cat’s figured judgments power is currently free floating but then she’s always known the bard wants to use the doomsday weapon as she (bard) sees fit so no random surprises there

            Liked by 1 person

        2. Snappy270

          What important things ? Masego was when he was explaining things, either the wards being down or how to clear the undead. Not really important things. Very odd nitpick to comment on.

          Like

  13. Zopilote 506

    Great chapter, however it seems like the number of typos has incresed, hey E.E. have you ever considered hirong a proofreader on fiverr or something?

    Like

  14. Noldo

    Are we getting all three Amadeus’ elements covered in quick succession so that the next chapter is Trial followed by Pivot?

    On a separate note, now that Hye is no longer Ranger, and the only thing she lives for is her upcoming fight with Cat, how likely it is that she would pick a new name (Avenger?) concentrating on her pursue of retribution? Although I suspect that in practice the fight between Hye and Cat is outside the scope of this book and largely irrelevant.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. ninegardens

    Okay, new Bet.

    Larat is going to kill Hye Su. Either now (while she is just recently de-powered and her name is kicking her), or later, say… when she is trying to fight/kill Cat in that duel ten years time.

    Hye Su had a habit of cutting Larat’s eye out once per year, just for the lols. Larat exited the stage with a “lol, I’mma do what I want.”
    Hye Su has been hunted by the Emerald blades for years… but in some sense there is no “justice” in them killing her. They do it for Racist reasons.
    None of the Refugees will do it. Their story is about moving on.
    Cat won’t do it. Hye Su just… isn’t important enough to her.

    Larat on the other hand has REASON to hate Hye Su. He has *reason* to want revenge- she earned that.

    If he kills her now, its very much a “You ain’t the ranger now” moment.
    If he waits until the Hye vs Cat duel, its very much a “Oh, hell your majesty, fancy seeing you here? Was this woman bothering you?”
    Hell, he wouldn’t even be punished by the narrative for interrupting the duel, because he has a strong connection to both Hye and Cat, and honestly, he is owed a duel just as much as Cat is. Him gatecrashing someone else’s duel fulfills his role as the trecherous minion- even if he take Cat’s side, its still him showing up to mess up an ongoing story for his own selfish reasons.
    ALL the story beats are on his side here.
    I guess the only catch might be, he might have the story to cripple her, take her eye, but not the story kill her.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. BargleNawdleZouss

      If Larat is still on Calernia, I can see him attempting to take Hye Su’s eye, but not killing her. I believe he’d think it crueler to leave her alive with the memory of her defeat & his revenge.

      Liked by 3 people

  16. Someperson

    Dang I really liked how the Ranger transition went down.

    Like, sure, if Indrani and Hye just straight up fought over the name (again) that could have been neat I guess, but the way it went down really highlights *why* Indrani has the truer claim on the Name.

    And Hye deciding to throw in the towel and ditch the party was completely expected in light of the situation but I did *not* expect Indrani to be there in the right place and the right time to capitalize.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. BargleNawdleZouss

    Random thought: both Hierarch and Hierophant have mentioned “the bars of the cage” that is Creation. It would be interesting to see the two of them team up so as to facilitate Masego’s studies, and possibly getting at The Gods themselves.

    Like

    1. ninegardens

      Now that I think about it… “rage against kings and gods and all the laws of creation” seems like a very Amadeaus kind of move. Maddie went about it by being smart and trying to form a solution. Anarxes just leans in on his own madness to force concessions, but….
      In some sense they are very similar in goal/mindset. Probably part of why Cat was so respectful towards Anaraxes each time they met, even if he was a madman.

      Liked by 1 person

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