Chapter 66: The Empty Grave

“Needing a second blow to take a head is an unforgivable sin for two professions: butcher and king.”

– Dread Emperor Terribilis II

It was a sad song that Yara of Nowhere sang us. Slow and meandering, like a stroll in a graveyard. The words should have been happy, but they dripped of grief.

“O Tiferet, raised where the river sings

You of gardens merry and nights so bright.”

It was a fitting tune for the sight sprawled out beneath us, I thought. Our feet had devoured an empty hallway until we turned a corner and were faced with a decision: hurry on towards the gates or take a narrow set of stairs up into the galleries. We’d gone up, after brief hesitation, and now I hid in the shadows and leaned against the balustrade as I watched a battle unfold. The halls beyond the great one we’d escaped were lesser but numerous, a maze of roofless rooms overlooked by great galleries that hugged the ceiling – one of which I stood on. The small halls were fed into by the corridors leading to the spire’s great gates, and as Named and soldiers spilled into the labyrinth I finally understood why the Dead King had made this place.

It was a slaughterhouse.

Every inch of it was trapped. I watched a company of bright-clothed fantassins blunder into a room whose sides were a pit trap covered by an illusion, gathering in the middle in time for holes to open in the walls and undead wedged inside them to begin unloading crossbows into the thick formation. Doors exploded, tar-covered floors were set aflame and swarms of poisonous insects poured out of hidden panels. I saw a doorknob turn into a leering devil that bit off the hand of the legionary that’d tried to open it, fangs crunching through steel, and even as she began screaming clouds of acid were blown into the room through small holes in the floor. All the while bows were fired into the labyrinth from the gallery above, arrows falling like rain. Death everywhere, and that wasn’t even the worst of it.

I had wondered why so few Revenants had fought us when we fought our way out of the Hall of the Dead, and now I had my answer: they were here. Dozensof then, maybe as much as a hundred. They tore into the troops like wild animals, armoured battering rams and storms of sorcery that went through even heavy companies like butter. As the loud melees took place lighter Revenants, soft-footed and quiet, slunk atop the tall roofless walls and snatched the lives of officers to sow chaos in the ranks. Named fought them where they could – I glimpsed the Valiant Champion decapitating a tall Revenant in white plate and the Skinchanger ripping out a lich’s throat – but the maze was working against them. It forced them to split up, take different paths and run into traps.

Meanwhile, the Revenants moved according to the orders of their all-seeing eye in the sky: the Dead King himself, wielding his creations with fatal precision. He wasn’t here, but then he didn’t have to be. All it’d take was one Revenant up in the gallery to serve as his eyes.

“The city that forever blooms in spring,

Beloved of singers and delight.”

“The Scourges are here,” Indrani quietly said.

There was no sign of them, but she was right and we both knew it. The chord was there for me to pull on, and it was not slack but taut – tense, ready to snap. The Scourges would come out soon, and I knew exactly why it was that Neshamah was holding them back. His bloody work below told me the answer to that, with the way he was so carefully splitting up Named and trying to overwhelm them with lesser Revenants.

“He’s trying to figure out what band of five he’ll be facing,” I agreed. “The moment he does, the full strength of the Scourge will fall on whoever he decides is the most important part of it.”

It was what I’d do, in his place. Set up the meat grinder below us to kill off Named weak or not yet matured, throwing traps and disposables as he most powerful of our lot until he had a decent idea of what our strengths and weaknesses were. And then, when he’d figured out who was supposed to kill him, he’d break that band before it ever formed. It was his favourited tactic, always had been. He didn’t want to face the Severance or the Crown before having broken the band behind them.

“No sight of Hanno or the Mirror Knight,” I frowned, “but Akua shouldn’t be far behind. We’ll need to cover her and the Autumn Crown when they arrive.”

Indrani shuffled and my stomach dropped. Ranger was not meeting my eye.

“What happened?” I said.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault,” she said. “We got ambushed.”

No, I furiously thought. No, she could not possibly have fucked this up. I’d trusted her, trusted the both of them. I grabbed her by the scarf, pushing her back, and she only grimaced.

What happened?” I coldly hissed.

“Catherine,” Masego said from behind me.

His tone was a warning and I forced myself to heed it. I released Indrani, taking a step back and mastering my fury. It had yet to wane.

“The Seelie cut the crown in two,” Ranger admitted.

It was like a punch in the stomach. I staggered back, eye closing as I struggled to find another angle. Another way out of this mess. If we had no way to deal with the Dead King except destruction, then he had nothing left to lose. No need to think in the long term. No reason to hold back whatever horrifying surprise I knew bone-deep he would have stored away to make the consequences of destroying him unthinkable. And now I knew for sure why the Intercessor had nudged the Hierarch into appearing in the Serenity. Neshamah’s back was up against the wall, with no way to retreat.

It was do or die, for the Dead King, and he was the kind of person that’d kill all of Creation to earn a single breath more.

“What does she want?” I moaned out loud, fingers rubbing the bridge of my nose. “What can she possibly get from things going to shit for us? With Hierarch back the ealamal’s back on Judgement, which is not great but shouldn’t-”

“It is not,” Hierophant interrupted me.

My eye flow open, meeting his own.

“Explain,” I evenly said.

“I noticed when we crossed into the Serenity,” he told me, “that the Choir of Judgement appears to have been silenced by the effort of freeing itself from the Hierarch.”

My jaw tightened.

“So what the Hells does the ealamal do if Judgement doesn’t guide it?” I ask. “Is it a dud?”

“It would express only inherent properties, like the tabula rasa effect,” Hierophant said, “unless otherwise guided. Which-”

“- which the Bard can,” I finished in a whisper, blood going cold.

So that was the game. Corner the Dead King so that he became the nastiest of animals, emptying his vault of all horrors on our armies, and then when it all went bad on us then Cordelia would fire up the ealamal and the Intercessor would get to decide what happened. What would it do, I wondered? Answers came to me by the dozens. She could rid herself of the Dead King and then kill everyone who knew about her, I thought, allowing herself to start building anew all the bridges she’d burned with our generation. Or she could kill all of us here, a warning as to what happened when she wasn’t listened to. She could even make it do nothing at all, let us die and try to win the war with the rest of Calernia on the back of that weight.

There were so many ways for her to get back in the game, to snatch back her crown, and yet all I could think of was the conversation I’d had over a fire in the ruins of a palace once proud. But it’s slavery too, to spend your live lashing backs, the Hierarch had said, grey eyes burning. Just a different kind, and you can’t escape it any more than they can. And so the thought occurred to me, perhaps the most terrifying of them all, that I should be asking myself a different question.

Was Yara of Nowhere still trying to win at all?

“It’s not finished, Cat,” Indrani stiffly told me. “Akua, she forged something out of the crown.”

That earned back my full attention. It was on the tip of my tongue to dismiss the possibility, the absurdity that someone could just forge something out of a broken crown of the fae in the middle of battle, but it never passed my lips.

If anyone could, it was Akua Sahelian.

“What did she make?”

“Shackles,” Ranger said. “The kind that bind power both ways.”

A crude thing, I thought, made on the bedrock of Masego’s work. Yet it was as much a miracle as Hierophant’s labour that she had been able to do even this much. I studied Indrani closer, eye narrowing.

“There’s more,” I said, and it was not a question.

Indrani grimaced again.

“She didn’t say it, but I’m sure it’s not the kind of shackles you get to take off after they’re put on,” she told me.

I closed my eye. Of course they wouldn’t. They’d been made from the Autumn Crown, which we’d not intended Neshamah to ever take off. Whoever held back the Dead King would never be relieved from that vigil. Yet someone would have to, before this was over, and that left a burning question: who. I had meant Akua to take up that role as queen over the Twilight Ways, when this all began, but the Ways were broken and now the Autumn Crown as well. Were we going to have to bet it all on the Severance? No, I decided, the shackles could work. They should be able to strip the Dead King of his mastery over undead, or close enough. We hadn’t lost yet, it was just that instead of offering a gift that could not be refused we’d have to beat the Hidden Horror to shackle him.

And someone was going to have to be shackled to him.

“Fuck,” I swore.

Should it be me? I wasn’t sure that was feasible, not if it was to be the Warden and one of the rulers of Cardinal. I couldn’t afford to be either gone or powerless. Who else, though? Akua might have served as the queen of a broken throne, but she’d made these shackles. I was not sure she could also wear them, that the story would flow. It would be a heroine’s sacrifice, and though I was more than half in love with her she was not a heroine. Not even now.

“Warden.”

Alexis’ voice brought me out of my thoughts again, a reminder that all around us people were dying and I didn’t have the time to spare to figure it all out in my head. The Silver Huntress was pointing something out for me over the balustrade and I leaned over to see. Fresh waves of warriors were entering the slaughterhouse, at their forefront warbands of heavily armoured orcs. At their head a towering man in scorched plate brandished a greatsword, the Warlord roaring as they entered the fray. Hakram had arrived.

“Appreciated,” I told Alexis, “but he can take care of him-”

I caught sight of the killing arrow as it passed me, eyes widening as I reached for Night, but Indrani was faster. Her bow was already strung and her hands blurred as she moved, nocking and releasing her own arrow. It ended up being a close thing. I watched with a thumping heart, relieved for a moment when I saw Hakram had not been the one aimed at – only for the relief to fade when I realized soldiers of the Army of Callow had arrived with the fresh wave, and Vivienne was leading them. Ranger’s arrow caught the Hawk’s less than a foot away from Vivienne, the two of them hitting a legionary in the shoulder instead. She let out a shout of alarm and ducked, although too late.

The cold voice in the back of my mind, the part that wasn’t frozen fear and rage at how close Princess had just come to dying, wondered why the Dead King would believe Vivienne Dartwick crucial to his defeat. Worth committing the Scourges for. I realized, in the heartbeat that followed, that she wasn’t. But she was one of the Woe, and we’d come out swinging for her – taking out into the open people he was genuinely wary of. It was a simple and straightforward ploy, a kind villains had been using on their opponents for millennia. And they’d kept using it because it fucking worked, I grimly though.

“Ranger,” I said.

“Yeah, I’ve got the Hawk,” Indrani said with deceptive mildness.

Were I a better woman I might have spared some pity for what lay ahead of the Scourge.

“Hierophant with me,” I said, then turned to the remaining two. “As for you-”

“I want to get the piece of the drakon to the Witch of the Woods,” Cocky interrupted me. “And I will need an escort for that.”

I mulled that, then nodded.

“If you can’t reach her,” I said, “then find the Riddle-Maker.”

Kreios would likely be better for the fight if we were aiming at a second round with the drakon, but the Witch was a lot more likely to be free. She should have been pounding at the front gate with Hanno, serving as a magical battering ram, and those should be open by now. Still, it had not escaped me I had found no trace of either those two. The battle there might not actually be won yet. Later Catherine’s problem, I decided. She was plucky lass, she could handle it. I caught Masego’s eye and waited for his nod, only then pushing through the butterflies in my belly to take a few steps back. I broke into a run and, using my staff, vaulted myself over the edge of the balustrade.

“O Tiferet, home of my true love

A maiden fairer than the full moon.”

I gathered Night to me as I fell, Mantle of Woe flapping around me, and did not even turn when an arrow was shot at my back. Indrani would take care of it. I wrapped myself in shadows, swallowing whole the volley that fell on me from the galleries above, and wove tendrils below to catch my fall. They caught the edge of a wall, turning the drop into a smooth lowering atop the wall even as the labyrinth came alive around me. I watched, unimpressed, as the undead in that maze of rooms turned towards me as one. Komena laughed in my ear, delighted, and together we raised my hand as Night coalesced between my fingers.

“Take a swing,” I challenged. “See where it gets you.”

A storm answered. Arrows and javelin and spells, swarms of dead insects and clouds of poison. Ghouls scrambled up the wall and skeletons thrust long spears at my feet. It would not be enough. In my hand I held a sphere of darkness, and as I opened my palm it was revealed for a heartbeat – until I closed my fingers to crush it. The air shook, for a moment, and as I grinned the sphere exploded into a shower of black pinpricks. They flew out, growing and swelling into beams as they did. Komena’s eyes told friend from foe where I could not, held back by the limitations of my flesh, and everything else turned to smoke.

Night sliced through stone and steel and dead, the rays of the dark sun I had shattered taking a remorseless bite out of Creation.

The storm died, swallowed whole save for broken remnants that did not even reach my feet, and I let out a misty breath as Night swam thick through my veins. Behind me Hierophant landed atop the wall, his descent wavering like a feather’s. He had lowered his own weight to take the edge of the fall, but within moments it was restored and he stood at my back.

“An ugly place,” Masego mildly said. “I do not like it.”

“Then lighten up, Zeze,” I smiled, “because the two of us are going to burn it down.”

It was an elegant, intricate plan to kill Named and men that Neshamah had crafted here. So instead of trying to defeat him in kind, beat him at his own game, I was going to take a fucking hammer to his clever little schemes.

“You have a plan, then?” Hierophant asked.

He sounded, I thought with a smile, so utterly unconcerned by the sea of enemies around us. I pointed my staff behind us.

“See that?”

“I do,” he drily replied.

“It’s the furthest any of our allies have gotten,” I said. “So anything past it goes.”

“Simple,” he praised.

“That’s me,” I humbly replied, then winced when I realized what I’d just said.

It was too much to hope the Dead King hadn’t heard that, wasn’t it? Goddamnit. Well, time to drown my embarrassment in a copious amount of fire.

“I’ll defend,” I said. “Attack.”

“It is in your hands,” Masego agreed.

In the heartbeat that followed translucent shields bloomed in a bubble around him, arrows pinging off the panels, and he began to speak in the mage tongue. He was out of it for now, so it was time for me to get to work. Now, we were surrounded by undead crawling over walls to come at us as arrows rained from above and Revenants converged on our very visible raised location. We were in hostile territory, which was why tactics dictated that my first move should be to spread that disadvantage around. I loosened my wrist and rolled my shoulder.

“All right,” I muttered. “Let’s see if this time I can make it hot enough it goes straight to bone ash.”

A javelin flew up, shot from the dead angle of my dead eye, but I followed the nudge of my Name and slapped it aside with my staff. Breathing out, I raised the staff of dead yew I had received in the depths of newborn Twilight and stirred the air with it. Slowly, carefully tracing the circle as Night gathered and the air began to heat. The Hawk came for me, but I had Ranger on my side. I didn’t glance at the black arrow before hearing it shot out. And as strings of black flame began to linger in the air in the wake of my staff, I shaped my will. Below me a ghoul clawed its way up the wall, baring its fangs at my boots, and I bared my teeth back.

Run or burn,” I hissed, slamming my staff down.

It did not, I saw, run quickly enough. Like a knot of snakes come loose, ribbons of blackflame erupted from where my staff had struck the top of the wall. They slithered in every direction, leaving behind burning trails as they ate through flesh and slid inside armour to devour the dead inside. I watched through a hundred eyes as the working spread out around me like a blooming flower, black flames consuming everything as they hungrily advanced. It would do, I decided. I’d not destroyed everything in that radius, as much because I was trying to avoid killing Grand Alliance forces as because some of the undead were hard to put down, but it was all on fire. It’d serve as a wall for most everything except Revenants.

“Abyss and firmament. I take the shape of the star and the depth of the pit, borrowing laws high and low.”

“Oh dear,” I muttered, glancing at Masego. “Is that really usable inside?”

It really was quite worrying how often I was the person in my inner circle that most responsibly handled unspeakable eldritch power. Although that was, I supposed, not unlike being the drunk with the smallest bottle. Still, now that I’d rid myself of the chaff it was about time for the real contenders to come out. The first one to pop his head out was a Revenant mage that rose in through a dignified levitation spell, his colourful embroidered robes fluttering in nonexistent wind as he pointed a gnarled staff my way and began an incantation that echoed across the ceiling. Frowning, I pointed a finger and gathered Night in a needle before it shot out. It blew through his skull as I began to look who that’d been a distraction for, finding that tricky little tart the Seelie climbing up the wall to get as Masego’s back.

I tossed a ball of blackflame at her, breaking the illusion, and enjoyed the look on her face when the fire then circled around instead of dispersing and blew her off the wall before she could eviscerate Hierophant. Really, like I wasn’t going to learn when she kept using the same trick? More worrying than the sneak, though, was the way that all the poison clouds across the maze were beginning to gather in a ball under the ceiling. That was the fucking Tumult at work, mark my words, because of course now that I’d set this place on fire and Masego was going to smite it what we needed was a fucking poison storm on top of everything. Much as I would have liked to get rid of that, though, I had more pressing matters at hand.

Like the Mantle turning the wall I was standing on to dust.

I cursed, stepping back as the tall Scourge swung her mace at my retreating form. The parts of the wall that hadn’t crumbled cracked from the blow even as I tossed a curse at the Mantle’s head, which she took head on. Her helm warped, but she pit her power against mine and while if it’d kept up she would have lost I didn’t have the time – through a Night eye I saw the Seelie throwing a knife at Masego’s head, hastily withdrawing my will from the Mantle to form streaks of darkness around Hierophant’s shield. The knife wasn’t where I’d seen it, but I went wide enough I caught it anyway. Only for, you know, the Mantle to finish turning the wall under me to dust. Fuck, I thought as I fell, and I raised my staff to try to slap aside the mace blow but it was going to be tricky and-

And three hundred pounds of orcish fury smashed into the Mantle, Hakram Deadhand snarling as he tackled her through a door so hard splinters went flying. I landed on my knees, leaning against my staff, and let out a sigh of relief. Reinforcements had arrived.

“I have woven curses into hymn, stuffed a heart with straw. That which is hollow I have raised onto the dais, revered as glorious under three skies and revered by nine corners.”

I hadn’t seen the Prince of Bones yet but he was bound to be close, so I couldn’t leave Hakram alone for too long. I couldn’t leave Masego along for long either, though, because the fucking Seelie was around and he wasn’t moving. She’d gotten past my armour like it wasn’t there with that knife of hers, once, so I wouldn’t bet on a spell shield doing better. I wove a tendril to get me back up on the chunk of the wall where he was standing, landing in front of him, but there was no sign of the enemy. I took a few limping steps forward, frowning, then thrust my staff down at the burning room: a gust of wind picked up ash and tossed it everywhere, but still the Seelie remained hidden. Where was she?

My Name nudged me and I heard the sound of steel ripping into flesh, turning to see a throwing knife stuck in the Seelie’s wrist as she flew on translucent red wings to stick Masego from the back. She shattered into pieces but almost immediately reappeared a foot below the broken illusion as another throwing knife thumped into her back, ripping her ballroom gown as she turned with an inhuman snarl. The Princess, sword in hand, flicked her other wrist and palmed a third throwing knife.

“The Varlet did it better,” Vivienne Dartwick told her. “So what would that make you – a quarter rate Named?”

Ah, trash talk. That most hallowed of Callowan traditions.

“Can you cover Masego?” I called out.

“Run along, Black Queen,” my successor smiled. “I’m finding stabbing fae to be satisfying in a very soulful sort of way.”

And who was I to argue with that? The same tendrils that’d raised me up threw me in the direction Hakram had disappeared in, and as Indrani shot out an attempt of the Hawk’s to kill Warlord I found the duelling Named and guided my descent very precisely: my boots landed on the back of the Mantle’s head as she tried to wrestle Hakram’s great sword out of his grasp, my staff following a moment later and sliding in the space between the helm and the plate.

“My turn with the curses,” I grinned even as I unleashed Night.

It’d be hard to cook her from the inside, but I could so something simpler. No matter how much armour and steel there was in there, it was the bones that moved the Mantle. And affecting those was a lot easier that wrecking all that steel. Night sunk into them like poison, and even as the Scourge shook me off and sent me flying into a pile of stone I exerted a twist of will to get the working moving. A heartbeat later her limbs began shaking uncontrollably, and with a roar Warlord smashed her into the ground. He ripped his greatsword out of her grasp even as she twisted on the ground and I rose to my feet. His arm rose to deliver a crippling blow, but before he could the wall to his left burst open in a shower of shards as the Prince of Bones tore through.

“Shit,” I hissed, and slid Night along the ground before the Prince.

I covered the stone with greasy, oily Night but to my unpleasant surprise it did nothing. The fucking Prince must have either enchanted boots or nails under the soles. Hakram took a greastword blow with his own, steel grinding on steel, and I realized with a start that the blades were almost identical. Had Hakram stolen the Prince of Bones’ sword at some point? I loosed a burst of raw Night in the Mantle’s belly as she tried to get up, knocking her back down, but that wouldn’t last. This wasn’t a good place for us to fight, not with limited space and two enemies so heavily armoured.

“We pull back,” I shouted.

“Agreed,” Warlord growled, taking a step back.

Even as we began our retreat, though, the tide turned again.

“Behold,” Hierophant called out, “all ye with eyes, for I have made a god of clay and it is an idol of WRATH.”

I shielded my eyes from the cold, alien light just as it came down. The clamour of the battle went silent as a grave, as if Hierophant’s miracle had killed noised itself. When I took my hand off my eye it was to the sight of both Scourges withdrawing, which after hesitation I allowed. After all, where they were headed I’d find it difficult to pursue: the latter half of the great room that I had pointed out to Masego was now a plain of red, glowing glass.

Nothing else was left.

The front half of the labyrinth, having come into Grand Alliance hands through hard fighting while Zeze and I made a spectacle, burst into cheers. The dead there were good as routed, and through our advance was stopped until the glass cooled it was now open grounds to the great stairs at the back of what had once been a maze. The surviving Revenants fled that way, ignoring spells and arrows, and when I glanced up at the ceiling where the poison clouds had been gathering I found with some amusement it had been glassed as well. The heat had dispersed whatever the Tumult was up to, sparing us a spot of trouble on top of all the rest.

“Her smile gentler than the wings of doves,

Her laugh worth a thousand tunes!”

And the Intercessor was still singing, great. Because that was always a good sign. I went shoulder to shoulder with Hakram as we returned – well, shoulder to arm anyways – and bumped my armour against his.

“You got there right in time,” I said.

“One of my better habits,” Warlord smirked.

“I suppose you do need something to make up for all the sleeping around.”

As he spluttered my eye sought the source of the voice and found that Vivienne’s face was cut, but it was just a shallow slice under her eye. Masego, following behind, was entirely unharmed and looked to be in a rather fine mood. I supposed I’d be too, if I had gotten to blow up half the labyrinth of someone I despised.

“You’re being pretty savage today,” I told her. “It’s been great.”

“Well, it is the end of the world,” Princess snorted.

“Speaking of that, Catherine,” Hakram said, “there’s trouble at the gates.”

Wait, hadn’t I figured something out for that? Shit, no I hadn’t. Earlier Catherine had passed me the sharper because she couldn’t be bothered to. Earlier Catherine, what a bitch, I uncharitably thought. She just kept screwing me over.

“Lay it on me,” I sighed.

“The Titans are brawling,” Vivienne bluntly said.

A small sentence that encompassing a large amount of collateral damage, I figured. Anyhow, the mystery of where the dead Titans had disappeared to appeared to be solved. Neshamah must have figured they were worth spending on keeping the Riddle-Maker out of his hair, and I couldn’t fault the decision. The last of the living Titans would have been damned useful when facing down the Hidden Horror. We kept moving deeper into the maze, avoiding corpses and traps as we moved through the crowd of cheering soldiers.

“Is Kreios winning?” I asked with a grimace.

“No one can tell,” Hakram admitted. “It was still going when we broke through.”

“Broke through,” I repeated with a frown. “Explain.”

“We haven’t won the battle for the inner city,” Warlord continued. “The Procerans seized one of the avenues and we’ve been funneling troops into the spire through it, but the palaces are still in enemy hands and we keep losing the plaza.”

Which was why it was such a haphazard mix of Grand Alliance troops that’d spilled into the maze. Whenever a push crested past enemy defences there was another wave of soldiers, but we didn’t actually hold the great plaza. It made a rough sort of sense, I thought. It was where all the great avenues led to, so it would be the easiest place in all of Keter for Neshamah to reinforce.

“It has been some time since we crossed,” Vivienne reminded me. “The battle could have tipped one way or another by now.”

I slowly nodded.

“Do you know where Hanno and the Witch are?”

“Keeping the gates open,” Warlord said.

And the enemy army off our backs, it went unsaid.

“I need a word with them,” I said. “The rest of you should prepare for the offensive.”

I paused.

“Zeze, can you get Indrani down here?” I asked. “I want us with her when we strike.”

“I’ll see to it,” Hierophant promised.

I clapped his shoulder, nodded at the others and went on my way. The hallways that fed into the maze room were relatively straightforward, opulently decorated with few visible defences laid in save for wards. They were grounds the Dead King was prepared to lose, after all: their purpose was to guide invaders in the killing grounds. I passed through knots of soldiers and makeshift infirmaries where priests and mages saw to the wounded – or burned the dead. The Forsworn Healer was there, but I did not stop to speak with him. Soon l I stood before the great open gates of the spire, at the top of wide stairs that have me a wide view of the city, and my stomach clenched at what I saw.

We were losing.

The Grand Alliance’s armies had broken into the inner city, overwhelming the ramparts and seizing two gates, but then they’d been pushed behind those walls like rats sealed in a casket. Our hosts had seized wide swaths of Keter’s centre and dug in, but relentless tides of undead smashed at their defences even as companies desperately charged into the central plaza to make it past the enemy and into the black spire. It was a battle of attrition now, I saw, and one we could only lose. An hour, two at most, and our armies would break. Before half of that passed they’d grow too feeble to keep mounting offensives into the plaza, cutting off the flow of reinforcements.

We’d have to do with the people we had and whoever arrived in the next quarter hour. If we didn’t take our swing at the Dead King soon we were finished. Breathing out shakily, I swept out the gates to find a few makeshift barricades had been raised at the bottom of the stairs and were being manned by hodgepodge mix of soldiers. Legionaries – mine and Nims’ both – side by side with Proceran conscripts and League mercenaries. Two pikes that must belong to Spears of Stygia rose high, a woman in magister’s robes with them, as Levantines painted in the colours of the Brigand’s Blood locked shields with orcs of the Blackspear Clan.

In front of them, swaggering, was the Red Knight. More surprising to me was the presence of the Silver Huntress and the Concocter, who’d evidently made it past the enemy to find the Witch. Still, I saw no sign of either her or Hanno. Or Kreios, for that matter, who should-

To the east a sun lit up the sky, burning through stone houses and towers and hundreds of dead even as air turned so thick and liquid that it seemed as if a curtain had fallen over an entire city bloc. In the heart of it I saw the two robed silhouettes of the dead Titans, bearing livery in Keter’s colours of purple and silver. A sight that seemed to enrage the third giant facing them, who pulled down the sky on their heads and let out a shout that echoed across the Crown of the Dead. I glimpsed the sun expanding and turning red, then exploding white for a heartbeat before it contracted and blackened, swallowing everything up before the magic exploded in strings of raw power.

None of the Titans flinched, magic rearing up again as they continued their terrifying clash.

Well Kreios seemed to, uh, have that in hand? A little hard to tell, like Hakram had said, but if I stuck my finger in there I didn’t think it’d achieve much except losing me a finger. Best to leave them to it. My gaze shied away, looking instead for Hanno and the Witch. They still weren’t with the barricades, but the soldiers there were pointing at something and following that I found them. There’d been a push to retake the plaza that had failed, but through the ranks of the dead a small band was running for the spire gates and the two of them had gone out to meet them. There were five – no, six – people sprinting as the dead howled after them.

 The Witch of the Woods tossed a spell into the horde, a ball of transparent force that crushed all it rolled over, but it wouldn’t be enough. A handful of Revenants had sped ahead of the rest of the undead, the fasted of them an armoured man with a great sword who… My fingers clenched when I realized I was looking at the Blade of Mercy. We hadn’t been fast enough to burn his corpse. Most of our dead Named had been recovered and burned, but sometimes it’d been impossible to retrieve the bodies. The runners were Named as well, I recognized. The Mirror Knight was easy to pick out by his armour, as were the Myrmidon and the Kingfisher Prince. The Grave Binder and Affable Burglar took a second look, but my breath caught when I recognized the person at the back of the pack.

That was Akua’s armour.

Hanno caught the Blade of Mercy’s blow a heartbeat before it struck her back, having sped up massively over his last few steps, and the truth of him was plain to See. The White Knight walked among us again, sword in hand. Hanno’s blade blazed with Light as he drove back the Revenant, parrying a spear thrust from another who’d caught up and holding the rearguard until the Witch struck down with a mass of water than she froze in the heartbeat that followed. A wasteland of ice behind him, the White Knight leisurely retreated while covering the runners the rest of the way. I was down the stairs in moments, on them as they arrived.

“Warden,” Hanno smiled.

“White Knight,” I returned, clasping his arm when he offered it.

He made a face that, on a prettier man, might have been called a pout.

“That eye of yours does take some pleasure out of things,” he complained.

“Not for me,” I snorted.

And I was, after all, a villain. I swept through the others, offering nods and claps where I should until I reached Akua. She looked tired, I thought, but far from resigned. My eye dipped do a pouch at her side and she replied with a nod.

“I still have them,” she said.

“Did you choose a name?” I asked.

Her smile was sharp enough to cut.

“Fetters,” Akua said. “I call them the Fetters.”

“It’ll do,” I said, and gently touched her elbow.

As much to greet her as reassure myself she was there. The Red Knight snorted contemptuously and I addressed her without turning.

“It might do you some good to remember that you don’t, strictly speaking, need your tongue to fight for me,” I mildly said.

I saw the smile in Akua’s eyes she did not allow to touch her face, and when I turned to glance at the Red Knight she looked uncertain. Taken aback by how casually I’d just threatened to rip out her tongue in front of half a dozen heroes. Hanno did look disapproving, but though it was hard to tell with the mask I was pretty the Witch of the Woods was grinning.

“We’ll soon be able to push deeper into the spire,” I said. “The glass will have cooled.”

“The glass?” the Mirror Knight asked, sounding confused.

“Hierophant was in a mood,” I shrugged.

It said a lot about the kind of reputation Masego had grown into that not a single person here misunderstood my meaning after that.

“There won’t be anyone more Named coming,” Prince Frederic told me. “It has been most of an hour since I last spoke with First Princess Rozala, but I believe all we are the last. Everyone else is crippled or dead.”

I kept a wince off my face. I’d not counted how many Named there had been in the maze, but it couldn’t be more than thirty. More than half the people who’d signed the Truce and Terms were now either dead or out of the fight.

“Then we press on with what we have,” I told them. “The Scourges still block our path, but-”

We all went silent. Even the least sensitive of the Named, even those soldiers without a speck of magic to them, felt it. Like a fetid warm wind out of a swamp, licking at our skin. It came from where half the maze still stood. The drakon, I thought. But how? The Emerald Swords should be keeping it contained.

“Either the Emerald Sword are dead,” I grimly said, “or they were tricked.”

Heavy silence followed.

“I think,” the Concocter hesitantly said, “I think that I know what happened.”

My eye went to her, a silent order to keep talking.

“The body it just a corpse,” Cocky said. “It’s the essence of the drakon that matters. So it might be that the elves are still cutting up a regenerating body but that the essence slipped away.”

My breath caught.

“You’re saying it’s building itself another body,” I said. “In there.”

Out of corpses, steel and stone, I thought. I

“The Dead King’s leash on such a thing would be loose,” Antigone flatly said. “This may well be the seed of a drakon reborn.”

I shivered at that, I wasn’t too proud to admit it. I wasn’t alone in that either. Few of the people here knew what a drakon even was and yet dread hung heavy in the air. Had the Dead King’s monster gotten free? I concentrated, dipped into the darkness of See, and the story was there to be found. Strong, the riverbed of it deep and wide. It had been near a certainty from the moment Below’s stories returned and the monster was revealed. Which means he knew it would happen, I thought. It was Neshamah, he’d seen that story play out a thousand times before. Which meant it was part of his plan, and when I stopped to consider what a drakon reborn might mean I understood exactly what it was.

He was raising another Evil we needed to stop. We couldn’t just fucking ignore this and pass it by as we went to take his head, we’d need to deal with it else Calernia was just as fucked as before: we might not be in a state to stop it after we dealt with the Dead King. The one person who did have a story to lean into against the creature was already busy, stuck in the grooves a story just as strong: the last Titan putting to rest the stolen corpses of his old comrades. Fuck, I thought again. We were getting played, had gotten played, and it was skillful enough that even if I knew there was no other choice than to pay up on the price.

“Concocter, you still have that piece of the drakon?” I asked.

“I do,” she agreed.

“Then you and the Witch need to figure out a way to put it down,” I frankly said. “Take whoever you need to get it done. The rest of us go for the Dead King.”

“I will finish it,” the Witch of the Woods promised me.

“There might not be a way,” the Mirror Knight cautioned her.

“Then I will make one,” she replied without hesitation. “Whatever the cost.”

I nodded, comforted by her determination if nothing else.

“Make your picks quickly,” I ordered her. “We’re running out of time.”

“O Tiferet, ruled by lords fair and just

Your sages celebrated far and wide.”

It was a horror.

I had seen dark and ugly things over my years as a villain, but not even the worst of the madness to be found in the Wasteland rivaled the seed of a drakon taking root. Out of the glass it had grown, swallowing up corpses and stone and armour like a tar pit, until a twisted abomination took shape. It had a dragon’s long neck and body, but the wings were ragged and full of holes – their patterns hurting the eye – and while a spiked tailed slithered down there were no feet beneath. Only writhing tentacles of corpse-flesh and eerie, insect-like scuttling legs. It was the mouth that had me nauseous, though. The jaw split four ways, revealing dripping jowls and a sea of teeth that were as glistening knives. Every part of it writhed, moved, faces and armour and limbs looking as if they were trying to wriggle out of the abomination.

To stand in its presence was to feel it biting away at you, eating everything that you were piece by piece. It was not something humans were meant to face, and yet we must. There was no other choice, for it was rampaging all over remains of the maze. With a cruel intelligence it had lacked earlier it snatched up soldiers and trampled banners, leaving some half dead and bleeding out so they might scream out their suffering as they died. The only relief to be had here was that there was not a single Scourge here: the Dead King would not risk them when he was losing control of his monster.

“Go,” the Witch of the Woods shouted. “I will draw its attention.”

As her sorcery roared, we ran for it. The Woe came to me as we ran through the maze, avoiding swipes of the drakon’s limbs that shattered rooms while the Witch struck at it with great icy winds. It was fewer Named than I would have liked who would come with us. The Kingfisher Prince would hold the rearguard with the soldiers and the Red Knight was to stay with him, one meant for leading men and the other killing foes. Then the Witch had taken the Mage – Apprentice had transitioned, fancy that, and she wasn’t even done if I saw that right – the Knight Errant, the Myrmidon, the Painted Knife and the Affable Burglar. The Stalwart Apostle was to stay back and heal, with the Stained Sister to keep her alive. And the Concocter, of course.

Hanno and I would get the rest. The Woe, of course. Then the Valiant Champion, the Mirror Knight, the Forsworn Healer, the Daring Pyromancer, the Silver Huntress, the Vagrant Spear, the Page, the Skinchanger and the Grave Binder. Akua as well, of course, though she was not properly named. Sixteen of us to end the King of Death.

It felt like too few, but there was no other choice.

The kept running, squeezing through the smoking halls, and the cloying humidity pressed ever stronger as we approached the drakon’s side. It noticed us, even through the winds, and would have swiped if not for the madwoman who leapt on its back and began tearing out its back.

Honour to the Blood,” the Painted Knife shouted.

A heartbeat later she was sent flying, the drakon screaming in irritation, as I heard bones break. Kallia, I realized, might well just have died. But she’d bought us a moment. We reached the open grounds of glass, marred by the abomination that’d emerged from them, and though it turned its back on the maze to chase us the Witch of the Woods ripped out a chunk of the ceiling and collapsed it on the monster’s head. It wouldn’t hurt it, we all knew that, but it won us the rest of the way to the stairs. Across smooth black glass we ran, until our feet reached stone and the drakon’s fury sounded behind us.

“Don’t stop,” I shouted. “Keep going. We lose if we slow.”

We couldn’t know where in the spire the Dead King waited, but it didn’t matter. We had enough heroes assembled that providence would lead us there in time and even though we’d played most of the cards we had to play so had Neshamah. He didn’t have a lot of defences or defenders left that could stop the crew of sixteen we’d assembled. Only the one, really, and he didn’t make us wait long for it. We stumbled out of the stairs into a cavernous great hall, a forest of tall pillars under a curved ceiling so tall I could barely make it out. There were no torches here, no magelights, and yet a dim green light hung about the hall. Our boots found wet tiles as we entered, shallow waters covering swaths of the hall as they looked like emerald mirrors.

Among the pillars at the heart of the room, the Prince of Bones stood waiting.

“They’re here,” I quietly said. “All of them.”

“Then we strike hard from the start,” Hanno said.

I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. No, that too was a trap. Sixteen against five with the strong Named we had, we were certain to beat them. But the story would be diluted. Too many of us moving in different directions. What would win out was the simplest one of all: ‘the Scourges can kill Named’. We’d win, but our losses would be catastrophic. Like the Maddened Fields, it would be a victory that lost us the war.

“No,” I said. “The rest of you go on ahead. This if for the Woe to handle.”

The White Knight turned to me, startled, but I raised a hand.

“Don’t argue,” I ordered. “We don’t have the time. We’ll engage them, take the opening and go.”

He was unhappy, I could see it writ plain on that plain face. But he would not turn his back on the decision we had made at the heart of the tower, when I had devoured the first of the Intercessor’s eyes: I was the Warden and so he would obey.

“I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the line, Catherine,” Hanno of Arwad finally said.

“We began the Truce and Terms together,” I smiled. “We’ll end them together as well, Hanno.”

A curt nod, and he moved. Named followed in his wake, headed to the side of the room and I found golden eyes looking for mine. There was something like grief on Akua’s face, and she seemed startled with the intensity of it. Enough that she looked awat.

The Woe gathered around me and I let out a long breath, eye falling on the waiting Prince of Bones.

“By their golden wisdom without rust,

A hundred times did you earn your pride!”

So that was it, then. The last dance of the Woe. We’d go different ways after the war, should there be an after the war, but we sill had today before it came to an end.

“Quite the fight you’ve picked us,” Princess drawled.

“Eh, that’s always been the way,” Ranger said. “We always find the meanest fucker in the room and throw a drink in his face, it’s kind of our thing at this point.”

“We have grudges to settle, besides,” Warlord grunted. “They’ve gotten away too many times already.”

I rolled my shoulder, limbering it, and slowly unsheathed my sword.

“Let’s buy them passage to the Dead King, then,” I said.

I took a limping step forward, but Masego suddenly cleared his throat. I stalled and looked back, finding him staring at me disapprovingly.

“You haven’t said the words,” he complained.

I blinked.

“What words?”

“Our motto,” he slowly said, as if addressing a dimwit.

Indrani got it first, letting out a hyena’s cackle, and I got what he meant a moment latter in utter disbelief.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” I warned. “Not a single one of you.”

“Together,” Hierophant enthusiastically said, raising his hand.

Filthy traitors that they were, the others all joined in.

“LIES AND VIOLENCE!”

A moment of silence passed as the Prince of Bones slowly cocked his head to the side. Yeah, that really happened, I commiserated.

“I hate you all,” I said, meaning every word but one.

This time when I stepped forward, they followed.

My gait was lazy, unhurried, because I could feel it one more. The same sensation that had come upon me in Dormer, when the five of us had been the first into the last breach. Like a rhythm, a second heartbeat that had always been there but never heard.

Ranger, as always, opened the dance.

The unraveller flew, a killing stroke for any Revenant’s flesh it found. The Prince of Bones did not move, the Hawk’s black arrow shattering the artefact in flight, but the song was in our ears and our feet followed. Hakram tore forward, a roar in his throat as he raised the greatsword, and the water beneath our feet stirred as the Tumult’s sorcery woke.

“No,” Hierophant mildly said, and Wrested the spell.

With perfect coordination the magic was shaped into frost and tossed onto the pillar to Hakram’s side, catching the Seelie’s side as she flickered into existence. I hummed, Night thrumming in my veins as I sunk tendrils into the stone and pulled the pillar down on her head. A curse shivered past the spine of the pillar as it fell, the Mantle’s armoured form wading out of deep water. Vivienne’s half-step to the side, light-footed as when she had been the Thief, took her out of the path just long enough for her to ram her sword through the Seelie’s throat.

She exploded into a storm of fading flower petals and the Princess frowned. Something inside of her grew, sharpened. Not quite there yet, but soon.

Indrani shot the Hawk’s arrow before it could take the Vagrant Spear in the eye on the very same heartbeat where Warlord’s sword met the Prince of Bones’. Steel rang against steel, both monstrous blades scrapping the other’s edge, but Hakram would lose out in strength. It didn’t matter, because as I slowly limped forward I had been spreading Night in the water. I thumped the butt of my staff against the stone and tendrils of water rose, tugging at the Prince’s feet. He was too heavy to fall that easily, but the Mantle had to throw a curse at the water and to free him and that gave Vivienne an opportunity to disappear in the dark between the pillars. Princess or not, she remained a sneak at heart. Ranger shot the Mantle in the back of the head, the Hawk’s arrow just a shade too slow to catch it, but it slid against the metal. The angle had been a little off.

On the other side of the room I saw the last of them, the Grave Binder, get onto the stairs. They were through, and now we could get serious.

I breathed out, forming eyes of Night all around me. One, a dozen, a hundred – a thousand. After all, I knew exactly what was coming. A heartbeat later the Mantle called down darkness over the heart of the hall, where she and Hakram and the Prince were fighting. Through my dead eye I gauged the distances, gathering Nigh tot my hand, and let loose a spear of Night. It streaked forward into the dark, clipping the side of the Mantle’s shoulder and disrupting her hold on the curse. All was revealed, just in time for me to see Warlord being forced a step back by the Prince, sword slammed into the ground as the armoured behemoth slammed their heads.

Hakram took a step back, dazed, but Ranger’s arrow hit the Mantle in the articulation of her armour’s wrist. It released Light when snapped – the Blessed Artificer’s work, had to be – which stepped the Scourge cold before she could break Warlord’s neck with her mace. The song quickened, four streaks of lightning forming near the ceiling. A halfway clever way to get around the limitation of Wrest, which could only seize one magical source at a time. Only Hierophant ripped out one of the streaks before it finished forming, striking at the others with it even as I drew on Night and closed the distance with the melee.

The last of the lightning shattered a pillar, guided by Hierophant’s hand, and a heartbeat later there was the sound of someone falling into water. The Hawk, I saw through eyes of Night. Masego had found her, and her ragged cloak splashed as she rose from the puddles. I’d have to leave that to Indrani, since I – in the blind spot of my eye the Seelie flicked into being, aiming at my spine, but I swept wide with my staff. As I struck nothing, I realized with dim surprise that she’d tricked me: this once, the first blow had not been an illusion. I threw myself to the side, already knowing it’d be too slow, but then a sword rammed into the Seelie’s back.

“Eighth-rate,” Princess said, tone cold as she ripped the blade free.

The Scourge crumbled into a bed of flowers, to my anger, but at the sight of it the bundle of power inside her took shape and set. Coming into her aspect, Vivienne Dartwick let out a sharp breath.

“So that’s it,” she murmured. “You’ve just been tricking us.”

A glance at me.

“Catherine, burn.”

I did not question it, turning to drown the flowers in black flame even as behind me the Prince of Bones swung at my head – only to be stopped by Hakram’s parry, blades slamming into the ground as Masego Wrested the Mantle’s cursed and smashed it into the Prince’s side. The flowers lit up like kindling and with hoarse scream gathered back together, turning into the Seelie once more. Oh, I thought. This entire time, the petals had never faded during any of our fights. She’d just used an illusion to make it looked like they did while she put herself back together out of sight. The Scourge screamed, wings erupting out of her back, but I swung with the strength of my Name behind me: the slash opened her throat, cutting into the bone yet but not hard enough to go through. Vivienne, swift as a viper, put a dagger through the Seelie’s eye and dug deep. She knelt, grabbing my sword even as I pivoted to slap away a curse of the Mantle’s with my staff and reply with burst of raw power that she had to block with her mace, and Princess leaned on her own Name strength to finish the cut all the way through.

The Seelie went still, and in the same heartbeat that Vivienne cut off her head the Scourge rammed her dagger into my successor’s throat.

A scream welled up in my throat, too raw to be a word, and then the Princess exploded into a shower of fragrant flowers. She formed back a moment later, on her feet and smiling icily.

“I can Trick people too, you know,” Princess said. “It’s not that hard.”

See through tricks, I glimpsed in her, and mimic them. The learning wouldn’t stay in her long, that was the limitation, but some part of Vivienne Dartwick had decided she would no longer fall for the same trick twice with such utter determination that Creation itself had answered. It was fitting I thought, for of all of us she had had grown into the one most resolute to learn from her mistakes. One down and four to go. The song swelled in agreement, the chorus whispering in my ear as the five of us moved as one. As Vivienne faded into the shadow of the pillars behind me, I turned back to the fight and joined Hakram’s side.

The Prince of Bones and the Mantle towered over us, masses of steel wielding more of the same, but I was not afraid. Hakram Deadhand had stood at my side since the beginning of this, and he’d stand there still when we ended it.

The Prince struck and Warlord met him, muscles tearing at the contest of strength while I slipped behind the giant’s back to avoid the Mantle’s shivering curse. Above us magic warred against itself, the Tumult having lost patience and now trying to overwhelm Hierophant with brute strength and numbers, but across the green-mirrored water Hakram and I danced. The might of the titans broke stone and howled through the air but we were ever one step ahead, wind rustling over the water as we avoided death by a hair’s breadth and struck back. I struck the Mantle’s knee from the back and Hakram took off her hand, the two of us stepping out of the Prince’s blow as Ranger killed the Hawk’s arrow.

The Prince rushed me and I withdrew, leg throbbing, as Hakram smashed the Mantle’s side and my staff trailed along the water. A trail of Night slithered until my back was to a pillar and the Prince of Bones’ hulking shape was mere feet away, not even bothering to use the sword to crush me. Instead I smiled and turned the Night solid, the nooses I’d attached around his feet solidifying around a pillar to his back. He ripped through it with his weight and momentum even though I’d tied it at the base, but I still got what I wanted: he toppled forward even as I took a measured step to the side, helmeted head smashing into the pillar in front of him.

“O Sve Noc,” I prayed as I raised my blade, “I ask you not salvation but grant me spite.”

The Sisters smiled against my neck, talons digging into my shoulders, and the edge of my sword shone black as I carved into the Prince’s neck. Going through layer after layer of steel until my momentum was gone and my sword stuck, I ripped it clean at angle that sliced even deeper. All the way through. A kick sent the Prince of Bones’ head tumbling into the water, but the Scourge still leaned on his sword to get back on his feet. Unmoved.

That was when I heard the scream and the music stalled.

I looked through Night, seeing Vivienne crumple to the ground behind the Hawk as spikes of rim tore through her back. She turned to flowers, but the Hawk turned and shot a black arrow into them. She turned back into her true form, writhing and with an arrow through the stomach. I ran, leaving the Prince to rise behind me, and ducked under the Mantle’s swing as Warlord finally hacked through her arm. The limb and weapon dropped, but she touched his burnt plate and it shrivelled as he let out a roar of pain. I could see Indrani firing at her so I kept running past them, my dead eye watching as an unraveller went right in the stump and the Mantle lit up before dropping like a stringless puppet.

The Hawk nocked another arrow as Vivienne tried to get back on her feet, bleeding badly, and I tossed a ball of hast spear of blackflame at the Scourge. It moved only just enough to get out of the way and I had to close my eye as a burst of lightning fell on my head – only to veer off at the last moment and smash into the Hawk’s side. She dropped twitching in the water as Vivienne ripped the arrow clean and staggered to her feet, leaning against the pillar. Only Hakram screamed behind me, because the Tumult had prepared two spells. A whirlwind of ice and water swallowed him whole, throwing him at the ceiling even as I got to Vivienne a laid my hand on her side. Masego would have to catch him, I was busy.

Night stemmed the bleeding, but I couldn’t heal. I couldn’t get her through this. No poison, though, I realized with a sliver of relief.

“Hide,” I ordered. “And get to Masego.”

She nodded, shivering. Movement at the edge of my vision caught my eye but it wasn’t the Hawk getting out. It was, I realized with horror as a streak of sleekness broke the surface, an arrow. Somehow the Scourge had been able to use a bow from underwater. I froze, seeing how it would punch into my stomach, but knowing that if I moved it would kill Vivienne for sure. That wasn’t even a choice. I pulled on Night, knowing it’d be too slow. It might save my life, if it wasn’t poisoned and- scarf trailing behind her, Ranger’s longknife shone green as she cut through the arrow. If she were still the Archer, I dimly thought, she wouldn’t have made it in time. The arrow shattered and I shaped the Night I’d gathered into raw heat, throwing at the water.

It turned into trails of vapour, revealing a scalded Hawk, and in a heartbeat Indrani was on the Scourge.

At a distance, bow in hand, they were a match for each other. But the Hawk avoided fighting up close for a reason, and Indrani was no longer the Archer. The first blow cut through the bow, the second took three fingers and an eye. The Hawk stepped back, trying to make distance, but Ranger moved smooth as silk: a step turned into a beautiful thrust, the longknife piercing the Scourge’s throat. All the way through. It wriggled, still moving, but with a simple pivot she struck with her second blade and the Hawk’s hooded head went flying. It was a victory, one she had craved for years now, but there was no time to celebrate.

“Get the Tumult,” I ordered.

I let Vivienne stand on her feet, waiting a moment to see whether she’d collapsed before moving away. Hakram was duelling the Prince of Bones again, and their blades were so swift they were a blur to the eye. He should have folded, crumpled under the Scourge’s strength, but I could See it in him. A rising tide of red, the heat and anger he had only learned to taste after he embraced the people he’d never thought of himself as part of. Rage, his soul sang, the aspect bolstering strength and limbs. It would not fail him so long as he remained in the throes of the red, ever rising until it burned itself out. I went for the Prince’s back, gathering Night, when there was a crackle of lightning and Ranger let out a scream. I looked through eye and saw she’d struck at the Tumult only to hit a shield of lightning, a trap already laid.

Masego ripped it down and I focused my Night again, but in that heartbeat of distraction the other fight turned: the Prince’s sword came down and Hakram’s leg was cut clean through. It was steel, though, prosthetic, and even as he fell Warlord lunged for his enemy’s throat. I shouted and dragged back the Scourge’s sword arm with tendrils of Night. Yet even as Hakram began tearing inside the Prince’s armour with his hands, death and steel on death and steel, the other hand picked him up by the neck and smashed him into the floor.

There was a loud, horrifying crack.

His spine. That’d been his spine. Warlord twitched on the ground as the Prince of Bones ripped out his arm, the steel limb and a great boot rose. I unleashed a torrent of Night at its back, beginning to topple it but not nearly quickly enough.

No,” I screamed.

Ruin,” Hierophant hissed, face red with fury.

The aspect he had meant to keep for the Dead King rippled through the air and struck the Scourge like a hammer blow. The giant mass of steel creaked, then metal screamed as it began to crumple like cheap tin. The Prince of Bones fell apart, limb by limb, until the all the layers slid off and all that was left was a pile of naked, twisted bone. It moved feebly, twitching, and the Warlord’s dead hand, the only part of him that was not trembling, closed around his neck. He dragged it close, roaring as the last of his Rage burned and the orc’s fangs tore through the Scourge’s spine. It stopped moving. He did not, still twitching uncontrollably.

I pulled Night to me, the air cold and clear, and watched through an eye as once more Indrani tripped a defensive spell and was thrown back. The Tumult, the sleeves of its robes ripped off and the bones of it fresher than the rest, went still for a moment. Its eyes burned red, then it poured all it had left into a streak of three spells. Masego killed the first, unhesitating. I drowned the second, a rain of ice shards, in a well of darkness. The third was a sharp gust of wind meant to kill Hakram on the ground, and Hierophant flicked his wrist to make a shield in the way. And the wind stopped, but a small dot of darkness went right through. A curse. The Dead King had leant a hand.

I loosed a burst of Night at Hakram to push him out of the way but it only clipped his shoulder. It didn’t move him enough. And none of us were close enough, Indrani’s arrow was too far, and as the dot of darkness hit his scalp it was caught. Half of it, I saw with excruciating precision through eyes of Night, was caught by pale fingers as Vivienne Dartwick threw herself forward. Both of them seized up, but where he went utterly still she burst into a storm of flowers. Blood red, like the song, and they fell all over him. He was, I saw, still breathing. My eyes, all of them, turned to the Tumult and in that moment I Saw the truth of it.

It was stitched together from the souls of many mages, but one of those souls had been the foundation. It was released at Hainaut but traces of it remained, like sutures for the Scourge, and they were everything. They were how the Dead King had made this creature in the first place. It’d been a necromancer, one, someone that could steal knowledge from the dead and use it. Those aspects were now the beating heart of the Revenant, what allowed it to exist. I raised a hand, gathering Night, and a streak of shadow formed above the Tumult. It was just an aspect, I thought. Gods, I’d been a fool.

Silence,” I harshly said.

And just like that the sutures disappeared. The souls began to pull every which way, the magic that’d been gathering breaking apart, and the Scourge stared blindly as the shadow deepened, expanded. Dread Empress Tenebrous massive leg shot through, crushing the Tumult like an egg with one of the most satisfying sounds I’d ever heard. I slumped to my knees as the leg withdrew, shadows fading behind it, and stayed there panting for a long moment. It was over. We’d won.

The song began to fade, exhaustion replacing it.

Sheathing my sword, I leaned on my staff to get back to my feet. Vivienne had taken human shape again and Masego was healing her, Indrani catching up to me as we limped to their side.

“What was it?” I croaked out. “The curse.”

“I don’t know,” Princess admitted, face pale. “I just knew it’d destroy me if I remained me.”

She was sweating and shivering. Too much blood loss, and despite Masego’s best efforts that arrow wound refused to close completely. The Hawk’s aspect at work, I guessed. The wound was fighting to be lethal. My eye moved to Masego for answers.

“It was a mind-killer,” Hierophant said.

My jaw clenched as I forced myself to look at Hakram. He’d stopped twitching after being hit with the curse and would have looked like he was sleeping, were he not missing two limbs and his face swollen.

“How much of him remains?” I asked, voice choking up.

“I’ve contained the curse,” Hierophant said, “and Vivienne took on half of it. If he wakes, he will have lost some memories but retain his faculties.”

“If?” Indrani asked.

“I cannot promise he will,” Masego admitted. “A healer in Light might do better, but I cannot.”

Then he flicked a look at Vivienne, whose breath was laboured. Sweat poured down her face.

“You need one as well,” he said. “You still have even odds of dying otherwise.”

Ad the healers, we all knew, were behind us. While neither were in a state to move on their own. I clenched my fingers. Now that one song had faded, I heard, another returned in its stead.

“O Tiferet, where have you gone now,

Where went the song the river gave?”

I breathed out, all my eyes but one fading as I looked around us. This ruin of a room where only desperation and use of an aspect we had meant for the Dead King had kept two of the Woe form dying. And they might yet find their doom among these beautiful green mirrors, I knew, if I made the wrong choice. The cold part of me knew what should be done: whatever helped our chances of beating the Dead King. But I wasn’t the girl I’d been at seventeen, savagely ruthless in defence of what I saw as a greater good. Indrani had once told me that in offering the Woe a hearth I had turned wild beats into tamed ones, but that sword cut both ways.

I wasn’t willing to give the order anymore, not the one I should.

“Indrani,” I said.

She looked like I’d slapped her, hazelnut eyes blazing with anger.

“You can’t be serious,” she said, “not when you’re heading into a fight with-”

“It has to be you,” I softly interrupted. “You know that. You’re the one who’ll get her there before she dies.”

“I can’t leave you to fight the Hidden Horror alone,” Indrani pleaded. “What if…”

She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t need to. Masego limped to her side, laying a gentle hand on her wrist.

“She won’t be alone, Indrani,” he said. “I go with her.”

“That’s worse,” she whispered. “I won’t be able to protect either of you.”

She set her jaw then looked away, drawing back from her touch. The look she gave me was unhappy but resigned.

“I swore to myself I wouldn’t get like this,” Indrani said. “I guess I’m not better than that, after all.”

“I wouldn’t be able to keep going if it wasn’t you taking care of them,” I told her.

“Liar,” she ruefully smiled. “That’s once today, Catherine Foundling. Don’t disappoint me again by dying without me.”

She helped up Vivienne and knelt, slinging Hakram’s unconscious body over her shoulder. After one last lingering look she turned her back, heading for the stairs. I took a moment to steady my breath, Masego’s solid presence at my side a comfort as I looked at the emerald grave where we had buried the Scourges.

“O Tiferet, where I gave love my vow,

Why have you become an empty grave?”

We shared a look and I nodded. Nothing more needed to be said: Hierophant and I hurried down the empty hallway, our footsteps echoing as we ran. We would get there in time, I could feel it. We’d be there for the end of the Dead King’s story.

Oh why have you become,” Yara of Nowhere sadly sang, “an empty grave?”

100 thoughts on “Chapter 66: The Empty Grave

    1. Mirror Night

      That rather seems the norm for fantasy writers books and chapters tend to stretch towards the conclusion. I think its because its hard to know how much you have to conclude until you near the end. But you are a writer so you know best. The delays have been well worth it though delayed chapters have been absolute bangers. Keep up the good work and dont burn yourself out.

      Liked by 10 people

    2. Cpt. Obvious

      Can’t be the single longest chapter, can it? I mean it felt like I had hardly started reading before it was over…

      Looking at the clock however tells a different story.

      Thank you for yet another riveting chapter that manages to bend time itself.

      Liked by 14 people

  1. arcanavitae15

    Lies and Violence

    This gave me some much nostalgia this is as Cat said probably the last time the Woe will fight together before they go off and do their own thing. I really love their relationship and how far they have all come. I feel like this is the culmination of story arc of the Woe, and it was a good note to end on. They have all grown so much throughout the story and it was a wonderful journey to read.

    Liked by 12 people

  2. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    stood on. > stood in.
    Dozensof then > Dozens of them
    as he most > at the most
    favourited > favourite
    flow open, > flew open,
    if it was to > if I was to
    Arrows and javelin > Arrows and javelins
    look who > look for who
    get as > get at
    along for > alone for
    fae to most > fae to be most
    could so > could do
    noised > noise
    invaders in > invaders into
    Soon l I > Soon I
    that have me > that gave me
    by hodgepodge > by a hodgepodge
    fasted > faster
    than she > that she
    dipped do > dipped to
    pretty the > pretty sure the
    anyone more > any more
    believe all we > believe we
    Sword are > Swords are
    it just > is just
    grooves a > grooves of a
    The kept > We kept
    This if for > This is for
    awat > away
    it one more > it once more
    and to free > to free
    Nigh tot > Night to
    which stepped > which stopped
    Mantle’s cursed > Mantle’s curse
    with burst > with a burst
    at angle > at an angle
    spikes of rim > spikes of rime
    the Dead King to rise > the Prince of Bones to rise
    of hast spear of > of
    a laid > and laid
    one, someone > once, someone
    Tenebrous > Tenebrous’
    face swollen. > face not swollen.
    Ad the healers > And the healers,
    form dying > from dying
    wild beats > wild beasts

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Lord Haart

      Peak EE and peak Erikson are definitely in the same zone. Bliss to read, and strikes the heart.

      Probably the biggest difference is the perspective – I think first person is just harder to make as riveting so kudos to EE for making that really just not matter. Cat is a great character and I’m going to miss her once the story ends, no matter how it ends. But even already her journey has been incredibly satisfying.

      Like

  3. Mirror Night

    Makes sense DK let the Drakkon off the leash. It works better for him if he is not controlling the boss narrative wise…Drakkon Godshard feels very warhammer to me. Sent two Titans to fight Kreios as well.

    As for Named final role call. Shame not to see the Blessed Artificer. Also I know they started with more Heroes then Villains but it feels they lost a lot more Villains then Named though the battles are still young.

    Last dance of the Woe was epic. Kinda makes sense Viv and Hakram got the worst of it. They are kinda the weakest of the Woe. Nice to see Viv get to shine shame she didnt get to do more earlier though but that is an awesome Aspect, new aspects of late have been pretty darn fun and different. As for Indrani surely she gets to ride a sixth ranger plot now…and she is one the fastest characters in the series. So she should be able to catch up.

    Pretty Epic

    Liked by 11 people

    1. Joe Mama

      I think it’s natural that they lost more villains. Villains tend to burn out quickly by definition, even more so than most Named do, and they’re filling a role here which goes outside their usual parameters (part of a Crusade with all the rules that entails) shunning some of the limited protection of their stories

      Like

  4. BargleNawdleZouss

    So much awesomeness! Worth the wait!

    Open questions:
    1. Status of Ishaq the Barrow Sword? I expected someone named “Deathless” to make it to the end. 🙂
    2. Status of the dwarves?
    3. Status of Rumena? Is it a hidden knife for the end? Likewise for Ivah?

    Liked by 8 people

      1. Jernik

        I think Larat is out of the plot. He’s gone, and the winner for it. If he came back into the story, I think it would be a big step back for his character. His entire motive was to escape the story, escape the threads of plot.

        Liked by 6 people

  5. Frivolous

    I’d be much more depressed and sad for Viv and Hakram if Catherine were not the Warden, and thus able to requisition Named healing on behalf of her friends.

    Plus, you know, Catherine still has an undetermined aspect left.

    Liked by 10 people

      1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

        That’s the payoff of an arc you’re feeling. The dynamics between any two main characters in a story like this might as well be additional characters in their own right. 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

      2. ohJohN

        When she caught the spell, I really thought she was about to lose her hand to save Hakram’s life — a full circle from him sacrificing his own hand for her sake all those years ago 😛

        Liked by 11 people

  6. Daniel E

    DK shows us what happens when a proper old-school Villain takes the ‘Evil Overlord List’ to heart. (look it up, it’s a fantastic read). Also, Kreios vs. Titans; I’m kinda confused. Did one of them create a sun, then the other uses time magic to collapse the star? Wouldn’t a black hole existing for even a nano second be enough to sunder the continent? Regardless, I am psyched beyond words to see DK in his throne room.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. dadycoool

      That’s exactly what happened. I’m guessing Kreios made a magic bubble to localize the whole thing, but a black hole can only have as much gravitational force as the star it was born from, plus anything it eats. If the magic star didn’t have any gravity, then its corpse wouldn’t either. If only the actual light and heat existed, then only the darkness and cold would exist.

      Liked by 10 people

  7. edrey

    Lies and violence, i couldnt stop my laugh, when a read that. a masterpiece.
    the memory problem is nasty, but the good news is that hakram and viv still have aspects yet to form, that can help
    also, i was expecting the aspects that cat had collected from named and revenats, she should have lots of them. now is the time to use them.
    so counting, there are three points, cordelia and the ealamal, the drakon and the titans, and the death king battle. the wait is too much for me.

    Liked by 8 people

          1. ohJohN

            That’s a strategically disastrous solution: the Fetters only impose the restriction that either party’s exercise of power requires the consent of the other party, and the Bard has been very clear that she wants DK to eat the baby.

            Maybe he’d block her from all fuckery out of (justifiably) paranoid self-preservation, but it sure seems like she’d be happy to rubber-stamp any and all atrocities he might want to unleash. It only works if whoever is chained to DK would never, ever, EVER let him do anything, like Akua or Cat.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Bard has been very clear that she wants DK to go ahead and take a swing, that doesn’t mean she wants him to succeed. Assuming they’re strategic allies because one has been goading the other does not sound anything remotely like right to me.

              Liked by 2 people

              1. Crash

                This is true, but it does mean that she is willing to let him act if and when that could be useful for her end goals. Namely, preserving the status quo. Or possibly, setting him up to take the fall. Whichever it is, plan is still somehow unclear.

                Random younglings trying to shake out the system and bury the Age of Wonders? DK, please eat the baby.

                Need a villain to get a band of heroes going? Alright, you’re allowed some necromancy as a treat.

                Setting up a plot that will take centuries to come to fruition? Yo, Neshamah are you up for a spot of murder this weekend?

                While the Bard does not seem to want DK to win, she also doesn’t quite want him to lose. Not in this way, anyway. She would likely be willing to loosen his leash every once in a while under the correct conditions.

                Liked by 2 people

                  1. Sinead

                    Even without Yara’s will, it could be that they use her Role to bind her to not let out the Dead King. Basically she has gone rogue based on a technicality, but the Fetters cut out her loopholes, so she is left with being an anchor on the Dead King.

                    Liked by 1 person

                  2. shikkarasu

                    I do, too, but I have to agree with the point that she might let him have some slack.

                    I think she opposes him and, as a result, they are already fettering each other after a fashion. DK even went on to call Cat the third of his kind, implying that Bard is his equal and opposite. I also think she feels like the the knot between them is a noose, and is willing to go to unconscionable extremes to get out of it.

                    Let me be very clear: I sympathise with the Bard, but that doesn’t mean she is a good candidate for stewardship. She can’t take any more and, frankly, doesn’t deserve to. I think Cat will wear the Fetter as Warden of the Dead and name Akua head of Cardinal, but I hope she finds another way so she can have a proper retirement from all this crap.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. I don’t think Cat is a good candidate. It’s not her story.

                      I’ve been enamored with the Cordelia option. She has/wants NO powers and is about as incorruptible as it gets.

                      Like

              2. ohJohN

                Sure, she’s an excellent liar and her goals are still fairly opaque; it could easily all be a plot to kill DK, or something else entirely. I don’t think they’re particularly strategically aligned, or that she’d definitely hit the “OKAY, I’LL LET YOU EAT THE BABY” button on the Fetters, just that:

                1) Why take that risk, on the off chance she actually is cool with DK killing everybody? Why would you ever give that button to someone unless you’re *extremely sure* they will never hit it?

                2) *Especially* if they’ve already hit a previous “EAT THE BABY” button?? It’s very plausible that her original baby-eating speech was just 5D chess, but — on principle — I personally would keep anyone who has endorsed baby-eating far, far away from any & all decisions regarding babies.

                3) At the very least, that she encouraged DK to take a swing in the first place — even if she never actually wanted him to win the war — shows that her goals can be *very* orthogonal to the GA’s, and that she doesn’t balk at using mass death to achieve them.

                It would be neat to kill both birds with that stone. But if everybody’s lives depend on someone holding a button and NOT pressing it, there are just so many candidates more trustworthy than the ancient inscrutable monster who stopped valuing the lives of others millennia ago (and has said + done some troubling button-related things in the recent past).

                Liked by 1 person

              3. ohJohN

                tl;dr: there are like 2 people on the continent who have expressed pro-baby-eating sentiments; even if one of them might not be super serious about it, maybe literally anybody else should hold the key to the babies

                Liked by 1 person

    1. The limbss ripped off this fight were already prosthetics so hes not getting anymore progress to being a magitech cyborg unless he gets some head tech to help him with the curse after effects or extra bits from replacing the lost prosthetics i guess.

      Like

  8. dadycoool

    The Final Dance of the Woe was everything it could’ve been. The entire story of the Woe was leading to this moment and, while not everything went right, it was definitely a successful culmination of their individual, mutual, and collective Stories. Trying to analyze it would probably take all day, but first there’s Masego setting aside his well-thought-out plan for someone else’s sake, Hakram embracing his heritage, understanding that it wouldn’t ostracize him from his friends, Vivienne diving in front of danger for him, Cat making a choice for the lesser good and sending away what might be her most powerful weapon so Indrani can get the two to safety, and Indrani letting herself be soft, fully abandoning the former Ranger’s teachings. We can go a lot deeper than that and there’s far more to analyze, but I’m gonna stop there.

    “You’re really doing this inside?” That was great, that the girl who shot off fireworks just to see what would catch fire grew up to be the most reasonable user of eldritch powers out of her friend group.

    “Where’d the Titan go? It’s not like we can simply LOSE the single tallest living individual on the planet. Oh, there he is…I have no idea how he’s doing, so I’m gonna ignore him.”

    Liked by 12 people

  9. badatgames2911

    Viv you have a good track against other sneaks but you gotta stay away from folk who throw magic around girl its just not working.

    Hakram my guy you gotta stop getting injured like that. I was reading this and my thoughts went “no please don’t die like Nauk did. Don’t rip out the throat then bite it man pleaaaaase.

    Good work Zeze unfort on the aspect but solid still.

    Idrani you did good too but i gotta say your track record of running at magical barriers protecting mages controled by the young king is kinda sloppy.

    Good show cat solid all around.

    Liked by 8 people

  10. I haven’t finished yet but i have to ask where was the last time (or even first) that the motto was mentioned or even discussed? The fact i forgot the motto made me realize just how long is been since the band has been really together.

    Also am I the only weird one that when reading about the Titans brawling imagined Kreios suplexing the other 2? Or something out of Kinnikuman?

    Also I didn’t like the witch saying whatever the cost, she should just said “i will stop it” and leave it at that, now fate is almost certain to kill her and gods know what else it will cost for certain…….unless the Herald surfaces with some of his nw little friends xD

    Liked by 6 people

    1. ruduen

      First time I could find: Chapter 31, Book 3
      https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/chapter-31-high-noon/

      “So we’re going to stab a god,” I said. “I mean, we’ve done it before. But this one is a few places higher in the pecking order of things not to trifle with.”

      Archer snorted.

      “But we’ll win because we stand for something greater than ourselves?” I gallantly attempted.

      “We do?” Apprentice asked, surprise. “What?”

      “Violence,” Archer suggested.

      “Peace, order and the Imperial way,” Hakram offered, the filthy traitor.

      “We lie a lot,” Masego mused. “It could be lies.”

      “Lies and violence,” Archer proudly called out, raising a fist.

      Apprentice did the same, apparently under the impression this qualified as a battle cry. I refused to grace the mutiny with a response.

      “Just don’t get yourselves killed,” I sighed. “I don’t want to have to train up replacements.”

      Liked by 18 people

      1. CGundlach

        Interestingly Cat brought this unto herself in the intro narration of that chapter:

        >Now, in my experience planning the ending of a lesser god required three necessary steps. The first of them was, naturally, lies. […] The second step was a certain proficiency for violence, […]

        Liked by 7 people

      1. Jason Ipswitch

        It wasn’t until I read your post that I realized Witch of the Woods abbreviates the same way Wizard of the West would. A name that has existed in the past, but we’ve never seen in the “present” of the Guide. I wonder if Antigone has occupied the role traditionally filled by the Wizard, which is why we haven’t seen one emerge?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Darkening

          The wizard was a callowan name, tied to the callowan tradition of sorcery. The name hasn’t popped up because black did a remarkably thorough job eradicating callow’s traditions and making new mages learn the imperial way, in a specific effort to kill the name. Given Vivienne’s likely to revive at least some of old callow’s traditions in an effort to rebuild their individual identity separate from the empire, it’s entirely possible one will crop up as the queen of callow’s magical advisor. Masego being the go to mage for both cat and Vivienne presents another stumbling block for the Name I suppose, since he fills a lot of the role for callow’s royalty that the WotW typically would.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. ruduen

    Wow, there’s a whole lot to process. Quite a chapter!

    There are a few silver linings and unused shots waiting to fire, so as rough as it is, there are still paths to the end. The Witch of the Woods is probably the best remaining shot against the drakon – “Student finishes a mentor’s unfinished task” is a strong story, though it’s likely diluted by Kreios still being alive and the drakon only being revealed so recently. The Woe were bound to have some luck – “Holding off the enemy so others can get the job done” is a strong hand to play. They had their moment early, so the Dead King has disarmed the Woe coming together one more time for the final battle, but since they didn’t all dramatically die in their task, that means that the remaining ones who advance should make it in time for one more dramatic contribution. Hanno still hasn’t actually fired off his last aspect, and Cat still has one undeclared aspect waiting for the climax. Both ‘weapons’ to use on the Dead King are still in play. And since the Augur left a note for Cordelia, there’s at least one more reveal waiting in the wings.

    There are few notable ‘challenges’ remaining, though since it’s the final pieces, there’s a good chance a few more surprises will await everyone. It’s now a matter of if they can be overcome, and if the remaining threads can be tied together to form an end. After all, the Dead King still remains for the final boss, and the Wandering Bard is still around to be the secret boss, and neither are the type to make it easy.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Xinci

    The Drakon is an extremely interesting case of observing Demon-like qualities held by a Creational entity. Gives definitive implications for the history of the argument when coupled with its probable “descendants” in drakes, wyverns, 9 year snakes, possibly those spirits of fire underground, nameless eidolons, and dragons. I wonder if this Drakon could eventually spawn further subgroups if exposed to the right series of bindings and restricting stimuli.

    Vivienne getting Trick, definitely feels like the “Fox Queen” route that Catherine was sort of going on is getting reinforced. Helps that she was trying to make sure her Callowan successors would be narratively canny too, and what better way than to be able to observe and iterate on your enemy’s tricks?

    It looks like Yara may be getting a rather amusing inversion of Cat’s plan for the Dead King. He sought immortality, but to her those Fetters may be a way to attain death, or at least rest. Creation is as ever a viciously ironic place.

    As a sidenote I am quite curious if Concocter might use the Drakon essence fragment, or at least learned qualities from it to help heal Hakram. Drake blood was noted as incredibly mutagenic but considering the Drakoi and the Drake Knight it seems to be that the healing factor is correlated to that quality. Maybe we can end up avoiding a similar situation to Nauks mental damage.

    Liked by 6 people

  13. Good thing i commented before the big fight, and that i can say that after the Drakon was presented tells us just how OMG this chapter was.

    Vivviene’s Trick made me realize why she really fits Princess so well (apart from the old truth of Nobles being legal thieves): think on just how many Disney plots have to do with Princesses sneaking around, lying and hiding their identity, it suddenly makes so much sense.

    Liked by 8 people

  14. BargleNawdleZouss

    So sad to see the Blade of Mercy as a Revenant! Antoine would have (is?) hated that.

    With that in mind, which of the Grand Alliance’s Named who have fallen against Keter are we likely to see in the DK’s throne room for the showdown before the showdown?

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Mirror Night

        I don’t see why that be interesting at all unless you just hate Hanno.
        Not to mention I don’t even think DK could use any of Hanno’s abilities.
        DK revenants cannot use Light, Recall is unlikely to work, Save would even it apply to DK? I suppose he get mileage out Hanno’s Reality Warp but presumably Hanno would have already used it. So unless it resets DK is not getting anything out of that.

        I mean maybe Barrow Sword and Blessed Artificer they are the Named we have got the most of that are MIA.

        Liked by 3 people

  15. Crash

    So, according to Cat this has to be solved in the next hour.

    How many chapters would that be? We’re very close to the end and I must admit I’m not quite ready for that.

    Anyway, the next chapter should (hopefully) be an Interlude so we can see the others arriving in the throne room and what they did while the Woe fought. Else Cat’s just gonna kick open the door a find a couple bodies on the ground and that’s no fun.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. agumentic

      We’re supposed to hit the ending this month, so in theory, no more than three chapters, since we also supposedly have two epilogue chapters. Still, we will see how that’ll pan out.

      Like

  16. ninegardens

    Welp… The final Scourge fight was everything I had hoped it would be. Zeze just pulling out an aspect and *wrecking* the prince of bones made the Prince feel weaksauce for a second, and then Cat is like “We were saving that for the Deadking. We were *saving* that.” and suddenly it feels right.

    DK spent his band of five, but burned off 3 of the woe, and one of the most dangerous aspects arrayed against him so….not a great trade, but not a terrible one.

    Liked by 4 people

  17. After hundreds of chapters including pitched battles and suspense-filled action sequences, you still manage to keep every single one of them interesting and exciting and usually oh so satisfying without them feeling like a repeat.

    That is mad skill – I usually skip lengthy fight scenes in books. I always look forward to these.

    Liked by 6 people

  18. TheFatOne

    And so we have the true final beat of the pattern of three that is ‘Orcs Cat relies on losing firmness of body and mind to a dire foe’. I thought Hakram’s maiming by the Severance was the third one, but this is much more clear.

    For reference, the other ones are Nauk to Summer flame, a defeat, and Juniper to Praesi treachery, which I’d consider a draw. Here’s hoping Hakram is a win?

    Liked by 4 people

  19. Sykomantis

    I don’t think Princess’s new aspect is Trick, like some others here seem to think it is. My guess is she just got *Adapt*. But it doesn’t help her if she can’t survive the trick the first time it hits her, so maybe the next one will be *Endure* or *Persevere*. But that only leaves a single choice for the third aspect: *Overcome*.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. shikkarasu

      No, it’s is definitely Trick. Adapt is a solid option, but the loses the connotation that she then uses the Trick. As for the rest, she has never been a tanky Named. It isn’t her thing. I expect social Aspects along the lines of whatever Akua had as the Heiress. Sway, Inspire, Discern, things like that. She’s been focused on diplomacy for too long to be a front liner.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. ohJohN

    ∞/10, EE, I genuinely don’t know how you so consistently knock it out of the park.

    [3 pages of excited, unintelligible screaming redacted]

    Anyway, a small nitpick that gave me an excuse to research lore:

    “A healer in Light might do better, but I cannot.”
    […]
    And the healers, we all knew, were behind us.

    But the Forsworn Healer presumably went ahead with Hanno while the Woe fought:

    Hanno and I would get the rest. The Woe, of course. Then the Valiant Champion, the Mirror Knight, the Forsworn Healer…

    I dug around for past references to him and: he’s a hero, can use Light, and Tariq implied he was a stronger healer than the Stalwart Apostle — the only other Named Light-healer confirmed to be at the spire.

    He seems like the best chance to heal Hakram’s spine/brain, and since he’s up ahead Indrani could both escort her friends to a healer AND stick with Cat & Zeze — though I’ll concede it’s probably not a great idea to bring two people on death’s door to The Ultimate Showdown (not least because it’s likely FH will be extremely busy already 😬). On the other hand, I don’t expect the drakon has been slain yet, so heading back to SA carries a lot of those same risks, and it’ll be hard for Indrani to sneak by that fight with 2 passengers to look for a regular priest… Hmmm.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. shikkarasu

      We also know that spine injuries can take weeks/months to heal. (see Baroness Kendal’s botched assassination while Cat was in Arcadia) Not to mention his Prosthetics need to be rebuilt. Vivian is also fighting the Hawk’s killing Aspect and just not a front line fighter at the best of times. Even a Named healer might not get them on their feet in time to keep fighting, so instead that would tie up Forsworn Healer and/or burn an Aspect for no appreciable/reliable gain.

      Keeping Healer focused on the forward crew is the best option in this case. No-one other than Cat and Zeze have an unresolved story with the Dead King, anyway, so it’s just the safest play.

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  21. Darkening

    Man, vivienne really took a level in badass after becoming the princess, eh? I think it was mentioned she was training with her knights but that’s quite the step up in capability. Sad that it looks like she won’t get a chance to Yoink the dead king’s soul or something. Truly that would have been the strongest aspect ever known.

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  22. ohJohN

    But it’s slavery too, to spend your live lashing backs, the Hierarch had said, grey eyes burning. Just a different kind, and you can’t escape it any more than they can. And so the thought occurred to me, perhaps the most terrifying of them all, that I should be asking myself a different question.

    Was Yara of Nowhere still trying to win at all?

    This felt particularly important, possibly the deepest insight Cat has had on Yara’s motivations yet.

    I’ve seen the theory for a while now that maybe WB just wants to die (especially after her post-Arsenal resurrection), but I think this lends it some more weight. And with the ealamal + Cordy + the note still left unresolved, how big a plot point learning that the Bard could guide angelic power was, and her taking Judgment offline the day of the final assault, I think the ealamal has to figure into the resolution of her story.

    What if she’s trying to force them to fire the angel nuke so she can set it to “kill Yara” mode? (Agnes’s note is just, “do it, Cordelia, get her out of your hair” 😂)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. shikkarasu

      Ooooh, and then there is a vacancy for the role of ‘immortal being that keeps the Dead King in check’, lending weight to the Fetters. I actually really like this read.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. badatgames2911

    Harkram, adjunct to catherine foundling, officer if the 15th legion, becomes Hakram Deadhand, the Adjunct, the first orc with a name in centuries. He is both a battlefield asset to the Squire, said to move as an extension of her own body, and also a organizational and overall intelligence asset as well.

    Masego, the Apprentice, son of Weska the Warlock, one of the best practitioners we see in the series, and frankly is one of the most first horrifyingly powerful people we really see unleash.

    Idrani the Archer, student of the Lady of the Lake, and the only one of the Woe who is mayhaps better than Squire at physical violence.

    Vivian Dartwick, the Theif, a heroine in the Lone Swordsman’s band fighting against Squire and the rest of the woe, joins the and becomes the Theif, a villain.

    Catherine Foundling, a fighter in a underground pit, Becomes the Squire, apprentice to the Black Knight Amadeus.

    This is the Woe at the start. A well rounded and powerful group of Named

    Masego is the first if the Woe to transition into his final* Name. The Hierophant, vivisector of miracles and breaker of gods. Masego was already one of the most powerful Named we had seen up unto this point, mayhaps being eclipsed by his father the Warlock, but Hierophant quickly shows that he us one if if not THE most powerful Named mage alive, especially after the death if Weska the Warlock. Even after his magic is taken from him and in a weakened state he is still able to lash out and threaten Sve Noc, proving his power. His ability to remain one of the best practitioners without the ability to use the gift unless he uses and aspect, *WREST*, lends to his ability.

    Vivien Dartwick, formerly the Thief, looses her Name after maturing past her previous mindset and is shown to mature considerably, and become the heiress-designate of Callow. Also is the reason Hakram looses his other hand god damnit vivi.

    Catherine Foundling loses the mantel of Squire, becoming the Duchess of Moonless Nights, he abilities in combat grow considerably, and she is able to regenerate from most attacks, including those made by the Saint of Swords and grey Pilgrim. She later becomes the Sovereign of Moonless Nights after the marriage if the King if Sinter and the Queen of Sumer. Her capabilities expand.

    Catherine then ventures into the Underdark with Archer and they confront the Drow and their goddesses, Sve Noc. While in the Underdark Catherine looses her mantle over Winter in a bargain with Sve Noc and becomes the First Under Night, a priestess of Sve Noc and she uses the Night much as a priest uses the Light.

    Most of the Woe remain the same for a long time here. It is well into the war with the dead king that Vivien becomes the Princess in a battle where she led a cav charge to save soldiers lives, it is notable that the Princes is a heroine once again. She is still the Princess at this point in the story even tho we know it is a transitional
    Name.

    Catherine is the next to come into her new Name, becoming the Warden of the East. Her role lends her to being the conveyer and general boss of the Villainous Named, and as WotE she is meant to have a counterpart, the Warden of the West, the hero in charge if the Heroic Named. Catherine, however, judges the Claiments to WotW to be unworthy, and becomes the Warden, a Name that encompasses both heros and villains. While Cat is still a Villain, it is said that the Name Warden could be either a hero or villain depending on who holds it.

    Hakram Deadhand had been loosing grip on some of bis aspects and his name over all as the Adjunct due to multiple factors, and eventually becomes the Warlord over the orc clans

    Idrani was the last to transition into her new Name, becoming the Ranger in a fight against a Drokon that the previous Ranger Helyr Sue had fled.

    Once again it is suspected that after the war when Catherine abdicates the throne of Callow Vivian will transition into Queen or some other similar Name. Hakram Deadhand has stated that he cannot remain Warlord because the Clans need to learn to function without him.

    This is not a full analysis if the woe bc frankly i wont be typing that out on my phone in the comments but i just wanted to summarize some if the key points and benchmarks to see what we started out as unto now. I know i missed major events and plot points but like i said this is t a full analysis

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