Interlude: Legends V

“One: first, do good.”

-“Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

The wards shuddered.

The great battering rams of the dead were cracking them apart blow by blow, the beleaguered defenders conceding one barricade after another to the horde. Swarms of undead birds flew so thick above them all that it seemed as if night had fallen, the creatures snatching up any soldier that left the protection of the sorcery and tearing them apart so that limbs rained down. How many more layers were left the wards? Cordelia was not certain, but it could not be more than a handful. Inch by inch they had given ground to the Enemy, the Dead King’s tireless teeth devouring them one soldier at a time. They might just, she thought, run out of men before they ran out of ground.

She’d begun with almost two thousand, but that longer had long dwindled into the hundreds.

The princess sat with her back to the all-too-thin palisade that Hannoven men had raised with calm competence, now standing behind it with halberds and hammers as the horde continued to hammer at the wards. What a small thing this length of wood was, in the face of the monsters that awaited. What would it do a against a rampaging beorn or the venom of a wyrm? It might as well be parchment. And still she sat there, among the crowd of grim-faced soldiers calmly awaiting the death coming for them one bite at a time. Cordelia’s gauntleted hand brushed back her mud-streaked hair, careful to avoid the cuts on her face.

She’d been offered healing, but she would not die from torn cheeks and every wasted speck of Light was a soldier the priests could not send back into the fight. Standing by her, Simon de Gorgeault looked over the top of the palisade and let out a thoughtful hum.

“Goods news, Simon?” she drily asked.

“It appears that the Dead King is a fine diplomat indeed, Your Grace,” the lay brother easily replied. “I do believe I am spying the High Lady of Kahtan fighting side by side with the Prince of Orense.”

It took Cordelia a moment to recall that both of them were dead, though she would have been clued in by the raucous laughter from the Hannoven soldiers anyhow. It was exactly the kind of black humour they loved. A shade lighter than what Bremenites preferred, but then most Lycaonese agreed that they only laughed because they’d never learned how to cry.

“It figures,” the once-First Prince mourned, “that they would only start getting along after I abdicated.”

Laughter again, and though exhausted Cordelia forced herself to rise to her feet. Over the palisade she found what Simon had, a contingent of Praesi dead in colourful armour methodically levelling the broken palisades the dead had already taken so that the horsemen died in Rodrigo Trastanes’ honourable last charge would be able to ride through the smoking grounds. What a small thing a palisade was, she thought again. So easily done away with, for all that it was the only wall standing between them and death. A remembrance brushed against her mind, then, and to her surprise Cordelia found herself thinking of her mother with a faint smile.

“Good news, Your Grace?” Simon lightly echoed.

She shook her head.

“I was merely thinking,” Cordelia said, “that sometimes the story you hear is not the one you are being told.”

“I don’t follow, I’m afraid,” the lay brother said.

“When I was a girl, my mother once told me the tale of the Three Cousins,” the fair-haired princess said. “Do you know of it?”

It was an old story known among all Lycaonese and even some of the northern Alamans, though the tale changed with the telling.

“I do not,” Simon admitted.

It was simple, as the most beloved stories tend to be, and Cordelia remembered her mother telling it with characteristic brusqueness. It’d been her way, the choppy burst of emotions. Anger and laughter, come then gone in a moment like Hannoven’s capricious summer rains.

“I can tell it, if you would like,” she lightly offered.

What else was there to do, as they waited for the rams to break the wards? There were no more tricks, no more walls, no more desperate gambles. Only the brutal trade of time for lives and ground. The white-haired man laughed.

“As good a time as any, I would think,” he cheerfully agreed.

There were, she thought, worst men to face the end of the world with than Simon de Gorgeault.

“An old king,” Cordelia said, “died without sons and daughters. His line died with him and another rose to take the seat, but laws are laws.”

The lay brother rested his elbows on the edge of the palisade, resting his chin on his palm as he listened with bright eyes.

“His wealth of iron was split in three parts,” Cordelia told him, “and given over to his last three kinsmen: three cousins, who went north to seek their fortunes as men do. They journeyed long, longer than men ever had before them, but in time they found a rich, green land by the banks of a great river. They decided to settle there and raise their halls.”

A broad-shouldered redhead in plate down the palisade, her solid matron’s face split by a smile, hummed out the first few notes of O Blessed Hannoven – that sardonic hymn boasting of every horror plaguing the land as if each were a blessing to thank Above for, be it spring floods or the armies of the dead. Cordelia had also picked up on the resemblance, as a child. Hannoven bordered lakes and rivers, and though far north counted some of the finest farmland in Lycaonese hands.

“Only,” Cordelia said, “as they began to build, they learned too late that the river was the Last River and that on the other side of it dwelled Death.”

She shrugged.

“But they no longer knew the way back, so they raised their halls anyway.”

“Stubborn folk,” Brother Simon said, the fond twist of his lips making it a compliment.

“The first cousin, the oldest, was a lord bold and brave,” the princess said. “He built his hall in stone and fashioned his iron into a gate that none could break, raising a tall banner over it.”

Cordelia has thought him the wisest when she was first told the story.

“The second cousin, the youngest, was a hunter clever and sly. He raised his hall atop a tree in the woods, hidden in leaves, and fashioned his iron into arrowheads aplenty.”

There was no disdain in her tone, but it was there to be found in the faces of some who listened. Her people were a pragmatic sort, they’d had to be to survive, but they believed in honour still. There was little honour to be found in hiding in the woods as your kin perished around you, clever or not.

“The last cousin, neither young nor old, was a warrior neither bold nor clever,” Cordelia smiled. “He raised his hall from wood, fashioning his iron into a sword and helm. And for a long summer and winter the three ruled over their halls, until spring came and Death with it.”

In the distance the boom of the rams against the wards sounded, followed by a loud crack. The first fault line. It was only a matter of time now.

“The spirits of the dead came charging out of Below,” she said, “a great army that laid siege to the bold cousin’s stone hall. And though they were many and furious, the iron gate did not break.”

But this was not a southern tale. Victories did not keep on shining like stars in the sky. They passed, as all things did.

“Yet the siege did not end,” Cordelia said, “and as the moon turned the oldest of the three cousins grew hungry. Behind his strong gate he remained a prisoner, until his hunger slew him behind stone walls and he rose anew to unbar his gate of iron for Death.”

Simon looked stricken, but there were grunts of approval from the soldiers around them. Most of them would know the story already, but even those that did not would approve of the lesson her mother had tried to teach her: no walls were ever strong enough to keep death out forever.

“Onwards the spirits of the dead marched, into the woods where the youngest cousin had raised his hall,” she told the lay brother. “And the clever cousin laughed, for the spirits stumbled about as he remained hidden in the leaves and slew them with his arrows of iron.”

There were few tricksters, in her people’s stories, and she thought for good reason. Tricks meant little against the Chain of Hunger, and it was a rare trickster indeed that could get the better of the King of Death. More often, the sly got a lot of people killed trying to prove their cleverness.

“Only the dead are endless,” Cordelia shrugged, “and though they could not find him they devoured the forest tree by tree. The youngest cousin killed many, but arrows always run out.”

The end had been writ from the start.

“The tree was toppled, his hall with it, and he was swallowed whole.”

Simon de Gorgeault’s face had slowly changed from engrossed to grim. Lycaonese tales, she mused, did tend to have that effect on southerners.

“And the last?” he asked.

“The last cousin, the warrior, had no tall walls or hiding place,” Cordelia said. “His hall was wood and easily torn down by a hundred hungry hands, but as they did her strode out wearing his helm and bearing his sword.”

“And he fought,” the lay brother quietly said.

“And he fought, neither winning nor losing, until spring turned to summer and the dead returned to Below,” the blue-eyed princess said.

“So he was victorious,” Simon said, sounding surprised.

He was startled by the hard laughter from the soldiers around them, but Cordelia was not.

“As the dead left, he set down his sword and helm to raise against his wooden hall,” she told him. “And as he sat in it, the warmth of summer reaching his face, the last cousin knew this: Death would return with spring.”

That had been the lesson her mother was trying to teach her, she’d thought as a child. You couldn’t ever really beat Evil, not like in the pretty stories ending with a wedding and an endless summer’s peace. You fought, until you died and someone else took your place. It was a fate that couldn’t be turned back by a strong gate, couldn’t be hidden from in the leaves. Either you faced Evil down or it devoured you whole.

In the distance, the wards cracked.

“A hard lesson,” Simon de Gorgeault finally said, frowning as he gazed upon the dead. “Perhaps the Principate would not be facing ruin, had more of its people learned it.”

She smiled.

“Years later,” she told him, “I learned that it was only the way the tale was told in Hannoven.”

In Rhenia, the story was about the halls. The first cousin was lazy, made a large iron crown and built a hall of river’s mud. The second was clever, made an axe and a smaller crown then built his hall from the forest’s wood. The third built only a pickaxe, spending all summer and winter to make his hall out of mountain stone. All fell but the last, the third cousin then using the remains of their broken halls to mend the wounds in his own. Pride is worth nothing, the story taught. Survival belongs to those who labour for it. In Neustria the cousins forged either a sword, a shield or armour out of their iron. The armoured cousin took up the arms from his fallen kin to survive.

In Bremen the story went the same as in Neustria, save that the dead did not retreat with summer and all three cousins died. But when Death took the fallen cousins Below to celebrate, the iron got stuck in the passageway and blocked off the dead until the got the iron was chewed through, come next spring.

“Is it so different elsewhere?” Simon asked.

“Not so much,” Cordelia admitted. “But I remembered, then when it was my mother told me the tale. I was young, you see, and had just wept that she was never home.”

And so Mother, brusque and blunt but never quite able to admit when she was sorry, had tried to explain why she was always out there leading solders. Evil had to be fought on the field, she’d been trying to say, else it would reach their gates. She was trying to keep Cordelia safe, to buy them another spring. It hadn’t been a lesson at all, just her mother giving the closest thing to an apology as she had it in her to give.

“Sometimes the story you hear,” Cordelia softly repeated, “is not the one you are being told.”

It’d been the failing palisades that had hooked the thought, the wrongly learned lesson that walls always failed in the face of Death, but now she wondered. Time was running out. The last word she’d had of the fighting inside Keter had been that the inner city was breached, but since then there’d been no word and the Grand Alliance camp was being overrun. Had been overrun, she admitted to herself. Most of it was in the hands of the dead now, the few remaining pockets in the hands of the living either forts built around supplies or the heavily warded Praesi grounds where hodgepodge survivors had fled to as the rest of the camp collapsed.

Cordelia Hasenbach had sworn that she would wait until the very last moment but that moment was approaching, step by step. Inevitable as the coming of spring.

It was her duty to do what must be done. The responsibility she must bear for the weight of her sins, the niggling questions of whether any of this would have happened at all, if she had not called the Tenth Crusade. If she had not made mortal wars into the affair of Above and Below, raised her hall on the shore of the Last River. And still she could not help but wonder: was it really the sword and helm she had chosen? The fight, to hold dawn in her hands and not fail it? It felt like an invincible gate, the certainty that she could end it all at any moment. It felt like a bowstring pulled back among the leaves, the fading mirage of victory. Was the story she was telling herself really the one she was living in?

She reached for the slip of parchment under her breastplate, fingers closing.

The wards shuddered one last time and then they broke.

“It’s not a dragon,” Sapan firmly said.

“It’s got scales and wings,” Arthur Foundling replied, “and it breathes fire. Sort of.”

It was transparent, not like any fire he’d ever seen, and instead of burning seemed to simply disappear everything it touched. Not ideal, given that it narrowed down the Knight Errant’s options in facing the beast from the already sparse ‘shield’ and ‘dodge’ to merely ‘dodge’. Which, given that the dragon kept growing, was becoming more difficult by the moment. It was a most inconsiderate sort of beast.

“It has commonalities with a dragon,” Mage reluctantly conceded. “But so do a seagull and a wyvern.”

“Don’t those have tails with stingers?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“A seagull,” Sapan slowly said, as if addressing a complete idiot. “Have you really never seen one before?”

There was a moment of stillness between them, then they both broke out laughing until they were out of breath.

“Had me going there for a moment,” Arthur admitted, still wheezing.

“It’ll be a few years until I can be match Lord Hierophant,” she told him, sounding admiring. “He can say anything with a straight face, it baffles even the Warden.”

The levity had released something in the both of them, but not even her clutching at happier memories was enough to make up for the horror before them. Their breather was at an end and they would be returning to the nightmare, leaving their hiding place behind a broken pillar tall as a tower. His limbs fighting him, something like fear pulling the other way, the Knight Errant peeked out around the rough stone edge. The ‘drakon’, that breed of Evil dragon, was cruelly enjoying itself at the expense of the brave men that died failing to give it pause.

The fourth charge faltered of the hour as the armsmen in Hainaut livery broke, either fleeing or breaking ranks to try to drag back Princess Beatrice. The beast had killed her horse under her, tossing her down with broken legs, and was now popping the heads of those who came to help her with hateful glee. It left her crawling, only plucking out the lives of the most loyal as it ignored another volley from the Praesi scorpions. Packs of goblins had dragged in the engines only to find the bolts sinking into the flesh to no effect, made part of its body. Even unravellers did nothing, and though copperstone munitions had burned bright on its hide the bite had not been deep.

Useless as anything but a distraction.

Arthur’s jaw clenched as he watched another soldier being pressed into the ground by a massive finger as Beatrice Volignac screamed in anguish. From the corner of his eye he saw light-footed Levantines move in with ropes and hooked swords, Tartessos slayers, but he held little hope. A flicker of movement among the ruins caught his attention, the Affable Burglar smoothly advancing through broken stone. Towards Princess Beatrice?

“Gods help you,” the Knight Errant whispered, and he meant both kinds.

They needed all the help.

“Arthur,” Sapan called out.

He took it as a reminder not to stay out in the open too long and ducked back behind the stone, resting his too-warm forehead against the fallen pillar. This room, as great as the heart of the Alban Cathedral itself, felt like a boiling cauldron. It was hot and humid, in a way that licked disgustingly at your skin. The longer they stayed in here, the harder it was to think. Sapan’s hand on his arm jolted him out of his thoughts. It’d not been a reminder, after all, but to call his attention to something. A young man in legionary’s armour, Liessen blond hair peeking through the helm, had come to fetch them. A sergeant, by the single red stripe on his shoulder.

“Lady Antigone wants you,” the sergeant told them.

They nodded back tiredly, the other man not waiting to escort them. He’d only been a messenger. The Witch of the Woods was not far, huddled with the Concocter over what looked like a makeshift alchemist’s kit. Or a brewer’s, really. Two small barrels, tubes of glass bubbling over an open flame and a hermetic vase. Lady Antigone had fought with the first two charges, helping them with her great spells, but after they broke retreated here to consort with the silver-haired Concocter. Arthur knew little of what they were up to, save that it was meant to destroy the elder dragon, but Sapan had been told of it in greater detail.

If they had assumed he was unlikely to understand the technicalities of alchemy and magic, they’d been entirely correct.

“We are nearly done,” the masked Witch flatly told them.

“Almost,” the Concocter murmured, laying a palm against the hermetic vase. “It’s begun to sublimate properly.”

Arthur sent a helpless glance at Sapan, who sighed.

“Lady Concocter stole a sliver of the drakon’s body while it was still contained in the corpse where the Dead King imprisoned it,” she told him.

“I knew that,” the Knight Errant grunted. “But it’s not in that body anymore so why would it help?”

“Because that thing is eating away at everything it touches, even us,” the Concocter said, turning to meet his eye. “Except it didn’t eat at the corpse it began within in the slightest.”

He slowly nodded.

“So we are stealing the Dead King’s work,” he tried.

“I might be able to slay the drakon,” the Witch plainly said, “if an artefact imbued with the property is sunk into its body.”

Because otherwise it would simply be eaten, presumably, Arthur followed.

“Good news,” he said, meaning it. “How are we to help?”

“I kept back the Affable Burglar because she’s our only thief,” the Witch said. “She will bring the artefact in the drakon. From you, Knight Errant, I need a wound.”

He breathed in sharply.

“You want me to break its skin,” he realized, “so that you might have an opening to push the artefact through.”

A mute nod.

“It may well kill you,” the Concocter frankly admitted.

“I’ll do it,” Arthur Foundling replied without missing a beat.

Fear tried to make his lips stiff, take back the words, but he had moved quicker. The Concocter’s eerie orange eyes blinked in surprise.

“I have sent for help,” the Witch of the Woods told him. “But I know not if they will come. You are our last chance.”

It was either him or the Stained Sister, now that the Myrmidon guts were strewn across the gallery above their heads, and the Sister was protecting their only Named healer. Twice already the elder dragon had shattered a hall where the Stalwart Apostle plied her powers, only quick escape saving her life when a stream of transparent fire came for it.

“I am a knight of Callow, Lady Antigone,” Arthur Foundling replied. “Our causes are always lost.”

He shrugged.

“And still we prevail.”

At his hip the Peregrine burned, and it felt like a smile.

A wave of undead hammered into the palisade, toppling it like a sandcastle failing in the face of the tide.

Cordelia kicked the skeletal hand that slipped through two stakes, shattering its wrist, then backed away hastily when a spear jutted out. She hacked at the wooden shaft but her angle was wrong and her sword got stuck, she and the dead on the other side pulling at each other to get free. The princess set a boot against the palisade to put her back into it, the sword suddenly ripped clear as she stumbled backwards. She went back to pressing against the stakes a heartbeat later as arrows began to fall in a ragged rain, taking a step back only when a bearded man in Reitzenberg colours raised his shields above their head. He was chewing at the inside of his cheek, eyes calm, and peeked over the palisade’s edge.

“We’re about to go down, I’d say,” he told her in Reitz. “We move back to the next, let the mages torch everything.”

Cordelia’s eyes sought Simon, but he was further down helping up a soldier with an arrow sticking out of her shoulder. The lay brother could take care of himself, she decided.

“Let us go,” the fair-haired princess agreed.

A heartbeat later she was blind, thrown off her feet as wooden shards exploded and one bit deep into her brow. Gritting her teeth, she scrabbled for the sword she’d dropped as the massive undead boar that’d smashed through the palisade shook off a few soldiers, carving through with its tusks. The soldier that’d shielded her was on a bed of ash and dirt, his spine bent at a straight angle. Fingers shaking, Cordelia worked off the straps of his shield and snatched it up. Undead were pouring through the breach, ghouls running on four legs and leaping at soldiers, but the thunder of hooves approaching told her who was to come. The Prince of Orense’s horsemen now served the Enemy, and a way had been opened for them.

“Simon,” she shouted, eyes searching. “We must-”

The older man, she saw, was on the ground. Wrestling with a ghoul, the soldier he’d been helping running away. Cordelia ran, and though she knew she should be following the other it was to the lay brother she went. With a wild scream she hacked into the back of the ghoul’s head, parting flesh and bone. It took two blows before the creature scrabbled away, crawling on its belly as it twitched, and Brother Simon – his throat scratched raw and his scalp scarred – took its head with a swing right through the neck.

“Come on,” Cordelia croaked, voice raw.

She offered him the pommel of her sword to drag him up, his chest brushing against the dead man’s shield she now bore, and though the warmth of having kept at least one person she cared for breathing was yet in her belly when they turned it was to the sight of doom. The boar collapsed, a Hannoven spear through the brain even as the soldier who’d leapt on its back was dragged up screaming into the sky by vultures, but a beorn’s great head leered over the broke palisade as it climbed over it. It was close, too close for them to be able to run in time and- and an armoured silhouette landed on the abomination’s back, splitting its head open with a single blow. They leapt down even as the beorn collapsed on the palisade, landing smoothly and flicking their sword free of gore.

“Honour to the Blood,” the Barrow Sword drily said, offering her a salute.

Cordelia recovered from her surprise first, blessed by extensive diplomatic experience in pretending nothing ever took her aback.

“Lord Ishaq,” she greeted him. “My thanks. If I may request that you escort us to-”

He raised a hand to interrupt her, which was highly rude but she’d allow to pass without comment given the present circumstances.

“There is cavalry coming, Barrow Sword,” Brother Simon bluntly said.

“Give it about three more heartbeats and,” the villain began, then trailed off.

He was off one heartbeat, Cordelia pettily noted even as the sky lit up. A great pillar of burning Light tore through the clouds, smashing into the ground so powerfully it shook. A wind laden with the smell of burned flesh and molten metal washed over them, poisonously warm.

“There was cavalry coming, priest,” Ishaq Deathless grinned through his beard.

He had, Cordelia thought, never more looked like one of the Damned. She mastered her discomfort.

“That was the work of the Blessed Artificer, I take it?” she calmly asked.

The Barrow Sword nodded.

“The Hierophant got to blow up a maze, the way we hear it, so I believe she’s getting a mite competitive,” he said.

Even with the relief that the column of Light had earned them the dead were continuing to pour through breaches and more than half the palisade was now on the ground, being trampled over. Soldiers were already retreating to the safety of the next layer of wards, the thin last shells, and by unspoken accord the three of them began a retreat that way as well.

“Is she coming our way?” Brother Simon asked, sounding worried. “I understand she was wounded yesterday, and to fight alone through such a horde…”

Cordelia shared his fear but chose to look upon the hope instead. If Adanna of Smyrna joined their defence, a rout may yet be avoided. The faint yellow glow in the air above them told her that the ward keeping the vultures from falling upon them was still mostly standing, but there was precious little else left. The last two palisades had boundary wards that would keep the dead from passing them, but weaker ones than those that had already been cracked. They would collapse before a quarter hour had passed, if the black stone rams were brought to bear against them. Should the Blessed Artificer bring down a wall of Light, however?

Oh, they might yet hold.

“Arrangements were made, priest, worry not,” the Barrow Sword said. “Besides, you do not yet stand alone.”

“Your presence is a relief,” Cordelia assured him.

“As it should be,” Ishaq Deathless laughed, “but it is not me I speak of. Your plight did not go unseen, Cordelia Hasenbach. Help has come.”

And as if summoned by his words – perhaps not ‘if’, should Catherine be believed – a wave of suffocating power washed over them all. The ground shook beneath their feet and Cordelia would have fallen had Simon not gallantly caught her elbow. She steadied and turned in time to see the ground below the broken palisade rise, the earth itself rising into a rough wall. Stunned, she followed the Barrow Sword as he made for the wall cutting through a few remaining ghouls and climbed up the slope, shield hanging limp on her wrist. Up there, standing tall, she saw them coming.

There could not have been more than three hundred of the Gigantes, and yet they marched through a sea of undead as if taking a stroll.

Skeletons raised arms only to find their skulls crumpling, ghouls were turned into wet red smears before they could even leap and even arrows melted in midair. A beorn roared and charged only to begin unraveling, its great clawed paw tumbling forward but never even reaching a Gigantes’ foot. Swarms of birds dropped like rocks, shattering on the head of the dead. When a tall Revenant in yellow robes bearing a long spear pointed it at them, it then twitched jerkily and rammed it seven times into its own eye before collapsing like a stringless puppet.

“Gods,” Cordelia hoarsely whispered.

“That, Your Grace, is every last remaining spellsinger come to make war,” the Barrow Sword quietly said. “Burn the sight your eyes, because Creation will never witness such a thing again.”

They withdrew from the wall, but not far. With this unnatural rampart having risen from nothing, taller and stronger than any barricade might hope to be, soldiers rushed back to defend it. Cordelia went deeper behind the wards to make sure that Simon’s throat would be seen to properly – the bite of some ghouls carried poison – then returned to share the watch. Skeletons and ghouls climbed the wall, needing beating back even under swarm of arrows, but the tusks and beorns that tried their hand at shattering the earth instead broke their own skulls. They could hold, Cordelia thought with renewed vigor, until the Gigantes arrived. It was tense, dangerous work and twice arrows thumped into her shield but she ripped them out and the wall held. The Barrow Sword kept the defence alive, moving like a prowling cat across the rampart and beating back whatever foothold the dead gained.

The Gigantes finished the march with the same air of indifferent inevitability they had begun it with, part of the earthen wall opening as a door for them before they spread out. The fair-haired princess had learned everything there was to know of their people in Proceran archives and bought Levantine secrets at great expense, but even so she could not interpret a single of the ‘words’ that the giants shared with each other. Not one was spoken, subtle shifts in gesture and sorcery expressing all the Gigantes cared to share before they parted ways, nearly of all them spreading out alone along the rampart. Only two remained together, and their approach had Cordelia straightening her back.

She had little experience speaking with Gigantes, and so she was faintly grateful when the Barrow Sword emerged from a band of halberd-wielding Neustrians to join her. The two giants stood more than thirty feet tall, both shaved and one bearded. Though their people’s necks were short and their legs long, it was the face that spoke of their inhumanity to Cordelia. Those large eyes paler than any human’s could be, those strange ridges of cartilage that stood in place of ears. The Gigantes without the beard considered them with milk-white eyes, offering a nod to the Barrow Sword.

“Bahal,” they said, voice rumbling. “You earn your charge.”

“Great Elder, your praise brings me honour,” the Levantine replied, offering a bow.

Those pale eyes moved to her then.

“Princess Hasenbach,” they said. “You are known to us.”

It was tempting to appropriate the villain’s use of ‘Great Elder’, but risky without knowing the context. A safer answer was in order.

“This brings me honour,” Cordelia replied, and Gigantes seemed satisfied.

The bearded one spoke up then.

“We come here at the word of the Living God, the Maker of Riddles, and bring this knowledge: the Young King is cornered.”

Cordelia went still as a stone.

“Though the corpses of gods were profaned and the shadow of the old enemy brought back,” the bearded giant continued, “the Warden and the White Knight storm the spire. Victory is at hand.”

Or defeat, the princess thought, but did not dare speak it. The knowledge that Catherine would do whatever it took to win was reassuring, but Cordelia knew the difference between arrogance and faith. Sometimes there was no victory to be had, no matter how bold or clever or worthy you were. Sometimes all that you could hope for was for the iron of your fight to be hard enough to swallow that the Enemy would have to wait until spring to march again. She would hope, she would have faith, but she would not delude herself.

“We thank you for the knowledge brought,” the Barrow Sword said, tone a little stilted.

He bowed, and Cordelia had been expecting him to so she smoothly imitated the gesture. The Gigantes eyed them for a moment more, then nodded with exaggerated slowness – as if to make sure they would see it – before striding away. No more explanation was given for any of this. The villain sagged when they were out of sight, perhaps the most human gesture she’d ever seen out of him.

“Bahal?” she lightly asked, masking the depth of her curiosity.

“The manner of my Bestowal accidentally made me part of the ancient Gigantes courts of justice,” the Barrow Sword admitted.

His hand rested on the pommel of the bronze sword she had never seen him without, not any more than the bronze scale that seemed to weather ever blow of the dead without breaking. She cocked a brow.

“And what part would that be?” she asked out of honest curiosity.

“The death matches,” Ishaq Deathless grimly said. “I have good reason to be glad that none of the Eighteen Cities still call themselves such.”

Fascinating as that was, and Cordelia had always been intrigued by the old stories of Gigantes living among the humans of the Eighteen Cities as rulers and guides of a sort, sadly they were yet at the end of the world. Fighting to keep from reaching that last fateful fall. Cordelia raised her shield, grip strengthening around her now ragged sword, and had opened her mouth to speak when suddenly she went still. So did the Barrow Sword, and many a soldier, for a ripple had gone through Creation that even the most blind of them could feel. The dead, to the last, went still.

Atop the tall black spire that stood above all of Keter, a sphere of fire winked out.

“Gods,” Cordelia Hasenbach whispered, tears coming to her eyes. “Oh, Merciful Gods. She did it. She killed him.”

The undead began to move again but it was chaos, nothing at all like an army. They broke up into bands around Binds, hacking at each other as much as they tried to climb the walls, and it sunk into the princess’ soul that they had done it. They had destroyed the King of Death and now his armies would – there was another rippled, and Cordelia shivered. It passed over her like a humid wind, tasting her skin, and the Barrow Sword let out a soft curse.

Below them, the dead stirred again.

With feverish hatred, they fell on each other and all they saw. Broken teeth swallowed flesh and metal, tore into walls as if they were parchment and devoured all they reached. What had been an army become something altogether more terrible. Like a river of hunger the horde turned into a great horror that ate all it could touch, all it could reach. Moving like a single massive, writhing abomination Cordelia could not even begin to see the heart of. But she knew, oh she knew with iron certainty that the mind behind it lay deep inside the Crown of the Dead.

“What is this madness?” she asked, revulsion tuning her voice raw.

“They call the Riddle-Maker the Living God,” the Barrow Sword said.

She turned to him, found his tanned face gone pale.

“No one’s sure what he fought, to become the last of the Titans,” Ishaq quietly said, “but if I had to bet I’d say it’s something like this.”

“Then it should be dead,” the princess said.

“This isn’t a city where graves stay filled, Cordelia Hasenbach,” he replied.

And as they stood there, below them a god clawed its way back to life. Slowly, she reached for the parchment pressed against her heart.

The Knight Errant stepped out of the ruined maze, his sword in hand.

The Peregrine burned like a star to his Name, bearing no enchantment save a clarity of purpose. It was to make a better world as the Grey Pilgrim once had, by removing evil from it. By the cutting edge, if needs must. Arthur advanced alone, even though the lack of comrades at his side was fearful, for he knew his Name preferred it. Not for him the comradery of the Woe, not when his every instinct pulled him towards being the lone knight on the bridge, the challenger. The test or the savior, but neither leader nor led.

The hymns on his armour humming, he marched out while the dragon finished tormenting a company of goblin legionaries: it was stepping on whichever was on the edge of either side, making them swerve in panic one way or another as it toyed with them like a cat might with a mouse. Arthur was not sure it was a thinking creature, not like a person, but it was intelligent enough to be cruel. It knew what fear was, and despair. It seemed, he thought, hungry for them. Word from the rearguard was that it seemed to have seized control of the dead there, and though the Kingfisher Prince was holding he was losing ground.

Whether or not the Dead King had been ended, as some hope, they were still running out of time.

He hurried. Ugly as the thought was, the picking apart of the legionaries was covering his approach. Arthur was not so proud that he would refuse being given the first blow on such a foe, even if the price of it was the life of comrades. If he could have done anything to save them he would have, but… The Knight Errant had been raised in a war that taught hard lessons, and one of them was not to waste the chance to save most because you wanted to save all. So he hurried, stride lengthening, as goblins screamed and sweat tricked down his back.

He was half a hundred feet away from the dragon’s back when it suddenly turned.

A leg jutted out of its shoulder, tearing through the glass floor, but the Knight Errant had already moved. Burnt shards trickled against his side and he struck at the twisted limb, the Peregrine humming as it tore into the side of leg. Flesh parted, burning, but there was so much of it and Arthur was almost disarmed when the leg was pulled back into the creature. He’d made a scar, but would it still be there if the leg was spat back out? He was not so sure. The dragon turned its full attention on him, screaming as it swiped and its claws ripped up the ground.

He ran through the trails of death, Sapan’s magic roared to life and hitting the dragon’s head with spikes of light not unlike the one that had turned half the maze to glass. The beast roared in pain and Arthur rolled past a claw that would have torn him in half, feeling it graze his back and leaving him with grateful relief Callowan knights did not wear capes. The elder beast’s side spat out small limbs, human limbs, only made out of writhing metal and stone as tormented faces moaned out and the horror tried to snatch his side. The Knight Errant hacked into the madness, but though the burning scars he left tore screams from the faces they were soon gone, pulled into the monster. He was doing nothing, no matter how fine his sword.

And the dragon was laughing as it struck, ignoring streaks of fire and lightning from mages as well as Sapan’s strange spikes returned, shaking them off where it had disregarded the rest. Arthur knelt under a great paw the claws closed in on him. He tried to slip in between but they headed him off, closing quicker, leaving him to realize that the drakon could have killed him already. It wanted him to fear, to fall apart. Instead the Knight Errant straightened his back, gritting his teeth and swinging at the coming death. Bone gave and -and the entire limb toppled forward, the cage around him falling with it.

Arthur had a glimpse or a rail-thin silhouette under a cloak and a single-edged sword of wood, a narrow face granting him a nod.

As he watched the elder dragon began to be rent asunder by cuts from every direction, the rest of the Emerald Swords walking the creature’s skin unimpeded to carve through limbs and even its neck. The monster at its own flesh, growing it back, but it was an opening and Arthur took it. Swallowing his fear, he reached for the dragon’s fleshy side and began to climb it. Hands pawed at him, reaching for his belt and his limbs to pull him inside the beast, but he shook them off with Name strength to continue his rise. He would rise, and he would wound the Evil thing as Lady Antigone had asked of him.

Halfway up the flank something ripped under him and he shouted with alarm as a limb exploded out of the flesh where he’d been, a long stretch of bone that bled out a thin membrane looking like an insect wing’s. Desperately clutching at the limb as it drove him sky high, the Knight Errant fought the hands trying to drag him in. He was slashing at the bone but it was doing nothing, only scars, and what were those worth when they disappeared in a moment? Arthur’s frustration mounted, a lifetime of wrongs he’d been forced to just watch laughing at him.

It was like there was a wall, like the Gods had decided he could do good but no further than this line and every effort he’d make past it would come to vain. He’d thought he’d gotten past it in the Tower, when he had chosen right over wrong and all the rest, but here he was again: flailing at the dark, accomplishing nothing. What had Dustin even died for, if Arthur was just going to keep failing to save people who needed him? He refused that repellent, disgusting thought. That were some things, some entities beyond reckoning. That some walls couldn’t be broken.

That there was anything in this world that the Knight Errant could not Wound.

An Emerald Sword cut the wing bone but Arthur pulled himself on it, Name flowing through his veins like fire, and even as it fell ran down the length. It was too quick a fall, too long a length, but still he ran – and even as he came short, just before he began to fall he leapt up with both hands on the Peregrine. Hanging in the air for the barest of moments he struck, the edge of the blade forged from the Grey Pilgrim’s death and named by the Black Queen striking the elder dragon’s flesh. Wound, everything that Arthur Foundling was screamed. And in that moment there was nothing in Creation that was beyond his reckoning, so the drakon’s side was split open as if a titan’s axe had fallen upon it.

And the wound did not close.

Arthur fell down as the drakon screamed, the ground hitting him mercilessly. His head rang and his limbs ached, the breath snatched out of him replaced by fire. He rolled to the side, trying and failing to get up, and saw Emerald Sword cut through the limb that would have turned him to paste. There was more, he saw as he caught a flicker of movement. The Affable Burglar was running across the open grounds, almost impossible to see even as she moved through open grounds. She was clutching something in her hand, though Arthur saw nothing more than a splash of colours The dragon saw more, a forest of limbs erupting at the villainess, but a massive wolf bounded in the way and took the blow for the Burglar. The animal died, body crushed, as the villainess slithered through the promised deaths.

The Knight Errant gasped, spitting out blood as he leaned on the Peregrine to get back on his feet. He could cover the last of the way, he thought, but his limbs would not stop shaking. He only got on his knees. How many feet were left before she reached the wound? A hundred, maybe less. Only before the Burglar could get there the ground under her began to hollow, a tentacle of flesh destroying her footing, and though she ran across the collapsing space it was when the dragon blew its flames. The transparent death filled the air and the Affable Burglar would have been swallowed whole – if someone hadn’t thrown themselves in the way.

The Painted Knife’s mangled body, limbs broken and twisted, rippled for a heartbeat as an aspect lit up.

A heartbeat later the flames were gone and the elder dragon’s head with them, as if it had annihilated itself, while Kallia the Painted Knife collapsed to the ground and the Affable Burglar raced through the last few feet. As her hand rose, at last Arthur saw what it was she held: a painted mask of clay.

The Knight Errant saw it disappeared into the wound, and only then did he let himself pass out.

For the second time that day, Cordelia’s fingers shied away from the last words Agnes had left her.

Not because she thought there may yet be a darker moment, but because her attention was grabbed by a most unexpected sight: a flying fortress was coming to them. One of the great behemoths the Praesi called the Old Mothers, which she’d been told were all grounded. And it did seem that the magical castle had been wounded, for a third of it was missing and the insides were bare. Swarms of vultures were coming at it relentlessly, dying against translucent shields as they ate away at them, but it was slow going and Cordelia parsed out what would happen before it did.

The great fortress crashed before their walls before the shields broke, ground rippling and dead dying in droves.

The Gigantes, though troubled and wary of the sudden turn of the dead, opened a gate for the hundred or so Praesi that ran out of their broken fortress. Most of them seemed to be legionaries, but there were also richly dressed mages and two that stood out from the rest. Alaya of Satus, once the Dread Empress of Praes and now the appointed chancellor of the confederation that’d emerged from that empire’s ashes, would have been noticeable in any crowd. Cordelia was more inclined to men than women and generally inclined to despise this woman in particular, but she would not deny she was one of the most beautiful people she’d ever seen.

The other was not a great beauty, but she was the Barrow Sword’s promised fulfilled: Adanna of Smyrna, the Blessed Artificer, was running along side the once-empress.

It was instinct when Cordelia retreated deeper towards the ealamal, into the tent where she had restlessly sat before taking up the sword. An attempt to reassert control in the face of the unexpected, to hold the rod that commanded the dead angel in her hands. It was Brother Simon who introduced Chancellor Alaya when she arrived, though the Blessed Artificer burst in without waiting for the same.

“Princess Cordelia,” Lady Adanna said. “How is the weapon?”

Cordelia only knew so much about the technicalities of the ealamal, besides the fact that it had been filled to the very brim and remained able to be commanded. She saw no need to admit that, however.

“You may have a look yourself,” she suggested, “so long as you do not attempt to affect it.”

“I wouldn’t, princess,” Lady Adanna assured her, perhaps a tad condescendingly.

Cordelia wondered if the other woman would have dared while she was still First Prince, then set aside the thought as unworthy of either the women it involved. More burning still was Chancellor Alaya’s sympathetic gaze when the Blessed Artificer wandered off to do as suggested. The Soninke did not go as far as saying ‘Named, huh’ as if commonly mourning, but the cocked eyebrow had much the same implication.

“Princess Cordelia,” Chancellor Alaya greeted her instead.

“Chancellor Alaya,” Cordelia politely greeted the woman who’d tried to have her assassinated on twenty-nine separate occasions.

Thirty, if you counted the poison in her favourite fish soup and the lemon water as different attempts.

“May I take a seat?” the other woman smiled. “I’m afraid I will be of little use out there.”

The fair-haired princess conceded with a nod and Alaya claimed a chair with sinuous grace that seemed almost absurd when paired with the rickety wooden furniture. Like a pearl tossed into offal. Simon looked askance at Cordelia, who discreetly shook her head back. The lay brother left the tent.

“I expect you have little more news of the fighting in the city than we do,” Cordelia leadingly said.

“My mages believed the Dead King to have perished,” Chancellor Alaya replied, “but there is some debate as to what seized control of the dead after.”

“Some sort of ancient dragon god, if my sources are to be believed,” she said.

The former empress took that with the unflinching aplomb of someone who’d ruled over the Wasteland for many years.

“Unfortunate,” Chancellor Alaya noted. “Two of my finest mages were looking into a way to undo the Dead King’s mastery over death, however, and though they did not succeed it seems they have learned something that might be of import.”

“And that would be?”

“If Lady Nahiza and her assistant are correct, then this… draconic usurper only commands the dead in Keter for now,” the dark-skinned chancellor told her. “Its mastery grows by the moment, and in time it will command them all, but the Dead King’s reins were as a great kingdom and it yet holds only this very city.”

Cordelia’s fingers tightened around the ivory baton she held in her lap.

“Would you,” she said with forced calm, “have any notion of how quickly that mastery will spread?”

It was a polite, dispassionate way to ask how long the Principate had before some evil god mastered the dead destroying it and ate everything alive. Cordelia did not know whether or not this risen dragon would be as much a terror as the Dead King had been, but in truth it hardly mattered. So long as the dead did not collapse into warband, then Procer was buried and the rest of Calernia with it. Even if the Principate was not made into a great army of undead, the strange powers the dragon god lent to the dead seemed just as fearful. It was still defeat, the end of it all.

“My experts are uncertain,” Chancellor Alaya admitted. “It could be an hour, a day or a week. They cannot tell if the dead in Keter were usurped because of proximity or ease of spread.”

Which tells me nothing, Cordelia thought, even as she felt the wards shiver. She rose to her feet, marching past her guest with lack of manners that sat ill even at the end of the world to peek outside. The golden hue in the air was gone and the vultures were swarming. The wall seemed on the edge of falling, even with the desperate efforts of the soldiers and the Gigantes. Feigning calm, Cordelia returned to her seat across from the woman who had once been called Malicia.

“A ward collapsed,” the chancellor mildly said.

“One of the boundaries,” Cordelia said, then added in a moment of harsh honesty, “and the most important. Now the vultures will begin devouring men.”

“It is a matter of time until the defences break, then,” Chancellor Alaya noted.

Cordelia wondered if the other woman’s calm was as put on as hers. It must be, she thought. Not even Praesi could face their own death and Calernia’s with such blitheness, surely.

“A quarter hour, perhaps as much as half,” she forced herself to reply.

And under the dark-eyed woman’s unblinking gaze, she set down the ivory baton on the table. Malicia – and that name was more honest than the others, for deep down Cordelia still thought of her as that – stared at it for a long moment but did not ask a question. No doubt the Eyes of the Empire had told her exactly what the artefact commanded the ealamal looked like. They matched gazes, neither allowing emotion to reach their faces. To Cordelia’s faint surprise, it was the once-empress that looked away first.

“I do understand, you know,” Alaya quietly said. “The comfort of holding it in your hand.”

Cordelia’s face tightened.

“Holding what?” she asked.

The other woman considered that, for a moment.

“Your fate,” Alaya finally said. “Made simple and savage, perhaps, but still your fate.”

She faintly smiled.

“I knew it was making it all crooked, when I sought the Sahelian gate-maker,” the once-empress confessed. “That I was breaking faith with Amadeus, with the tale we told ourselves of a world where the two of us were enough to win.”

“So why did you?” Cordelia quietly asked.

“I ask myself that question every day,” Alaya of Satus said, sounding tired. “And the answer changes. I have so many reasons, so many excuses, but in the end I suspect there is a single truth buried beneath them. Like a corpse in a grave.”

The blue-eyed princess did not interrupt, waiting patiently as she watched the other woman’s face.

“I didn’t believe we could win,” Alaya said. “Not truly, not the way he did. I believe we might have gains, that we might manage our defeats, but I never thought that if we took on the world it would end in anything but tears.”

Cordelia, who had spent years and a fortune in silver learning all she could of the Dread Empress of Praes, knew enough about what had brought the dark-skinned beauty to the Tower to feel a sliver of pity. But no more than that, for being handed tragedy was never an excuse for handing it to others. Silence hung above their heads like a waiting sword, growing thicker even as the distant sounds of battle closed in.

“They might win,” Cordelia said. “There are Named and armies yet fighting. They might win and slay this… dragon god.”

“They might,” Alaya agreed, “or the Dead King’s last revenge might yet devour all of Calernia. There is no way to tell.”

The screams and the clash of steel were so close they might have been mere feet away from the tent. It meant, Cordelia knew, that there was only one barricade left. If even that. All else had fallen. She swallowed thickly, fingers so tight around the baton that her bloodless knuckled matched the ivory’s paleness. And it was all coming apart, all coming to an end, and Cordelia just felt so fucking tired.

“Is it too much to ask,” she asked Alaya, “that we be allowed to face the end of the world without a mask on?”

The Soninke beauty looked as if she’d been slapped.

“Sometimes,” Chancellor Alaya said, “the mask is all you have left.”

And Cordelia understood that, she truly did, but then…

“I just want,” she murmured, “to be able to weep honest tears before I die. Only once.”

“We might not die,” Alaya said, then her face tightened. “Well, perhaps not you. I do not believe your ealamal will spare the likes of me.”

“I don’t know if it will spare anyone,” Cordelia admitted. “Or even how far it will reach. It is a blind sword to swing, one that save half the world or kill it. I cannot know before I swing it.”

“And the world,” Alaya smiled, “it’s yours to save?”

“I am a Hasenbach,” Cordelia simply said. “I have a duty.”

And she would not compromise on that, not even in the face of the end times. A scream sounded, then the sound of flesh being ripped into. It must be right outside the tent to be heard so clearly, she knew. There were no lines of defence left. She reached for the ivory rod. It was not a complicated sequence to trigger the ealamal’s release, just one impossible to reach by accident. Cordelia rotated the baton’s sculpted lionhead and extended the length, beginning the works and reaching all but the very last. All it would take, now, was to snap it closed.

“I think it might be the pride of the young to demand hard truths even at the end,” Alaya of Satus said, breaking the silence, “but I strive to be the sort of woman who settles all her debts.”

And there was, they both knew, a kingdom’s worth of corpses due between them.

“So I will tell you this,” the dark-skinned woman murmured, “though I would rather not speak it, or even think it.”

The once-empress smiled, and it was the most heartbreakingly sad thing Cordelia Hasenbach had ever seen.

“I see my death now,” Alaya said, “how I will end, and I regret it.”

Her fingers closed into fists.

“I wish I had trusted him,” Dread Empress Malicia said. “It would have been a better end, the two of us against the world.”

And Cordelia knew what she meant, down to the marrow of her bone. Because she knew trust as well, remembered sitting with a woman she’d once hated in the heart of city that should have been a horror but she had found instead to be a wonder. She remembered looking at Catherine Foundling and seeing underneath the warlord the girl who just wanted to help people who’d helped her. Who wanted to make a fairer, kinder world for orcs and goblins and all the lost that’d carried her to the throne. The realization that she was not facing a plague made woman but a dragon of the old tales, fearsome and vicious in defending her hoard but not genuinely evil.

Cordelia wanted to see the city they might make together and the world around it.

But in the end, she thought, what did want matter? Like the three cousins of the tale, she was fighting Death – whether it wore the Dead King’s face or some other horror’s as a mask mattered little. It was the same spring, the same inevitability. Cordelia had hoped that the sword and helm would be enough to get her through the horror, but now she had to face the truth. They were losing, lost, and moments away from even the ealamal being in the enemy’s hand. Evil had won the last laugh.

The best she could hope was for her iron to stick in the Enemy’s throat.

A ghoul tore into the tent flap, ripping it up and swallowing a chunk, only for a pair of skeleton to burst past it. Chancellor Alaya drew a knife, rising to her feet, but Cordelia’s hands were on the baton. Until she recalled her last gift, and her fingers reached for the parchment against her breast. On the third time they closed, and as the fair-haired princess took up the wisp of parchment she unfolded it to find her cousin’s words. Guidance, she prayed, or a secret to pass through the dark. Her cousin’s death made into one last blade pointed at the enemy. Instead, what she found was a single sentence hastily scrawled.

No matter where, no matter when, Agnes wrote, I will always bet on Cordelia Hasenbach.

She reared back, as if struck, even as dead poured screaming into the tent. Too many to defeat, too many to hold the ealamal against even with Named. But all she could think of was the tears in Agnes’ eyes on that cold day where the soldiers had brought her to Rhenia, after her mother’s death. How lost she’d looked, how she’d burst out weeping when Cordelia pulled her close. A bet, huh. Trust from beyond the grave. And here Cordelia had been, making pride out of something she’d dared to call duty. The shame burned at her. The tent began to fall, pegs falling as the dead charged, and Cordelia Hasenbach took the ivory baton in hand.  Cordelia had wanted to see the world the two of them might make.

But she was, she found, willing to die for it too.

With a scream, Cordelia Hasenbach broke the ivory baton as she made a bet of her own.

The Witch of the Woods stood alone on a plain of glass as the drakon turned and she slowly lowered her hood.

Antigone had never borne a surname, for the only man she might have called a father did not have one. Humans sometimes took a husband’s or a wife’s, she knew, but though she cared for Hanno they had never wed or cared to and so her name remained as it was, both beginning and end. She liked it better that way, in truth, for it was not just a word: it was a gift. She did not remember who she had been before Kreios found her, and so all that she was had begun with the name have gave her. Antigone. After the Titan he’d held higher in his esteem than any other, dead long before mankind’s age began.

She too, her father had once told her, had once stood alone.

The Titans had been given a choice once, after the end of the Long War where they triumphed over the drakoi. The last of them debated whether to seek old glories, the undoing of their losses, or to instead offer a hand to the lesser peoples that had come to be as they fought their great struggle. Seven, she’d been told as a child, had come to decide to clap their lessers – children, they called them – in chains and put them to work until glories of the Gigantes could be restored. Only one had refused, and Antigone instead went west to found eighteen cities that’d outlast all the rest.

Yet when the price of hubris, of trying to unmake the costs paid to Creation for victory, had come calling it was not the seven that perished. Only the Riddle-Maker remained, the last of the Titans, forever shamed that instead of bringing back the lost his great work had instead killed all of them save for him. And even he was broken, lessened. It was why Antigone had never once thought today that she could simply wait out the storm, that if she stood alone long enough her father would make all the trouble go away. Kreios’ divinity had been made fragile, finite.

And he had spent it piece by piece since he came to Keter, matching the Dead King blow for blow. Given himself away to save the lives of the children he had fought to put in chains, putting out a star to keep fireflies alight. He had begun with a great work and hardly ceased since, holding nothing back once the Dead King revealed that he had stolen the corpses of two Titans fallen in the Long War. Fighting two of his old comrades come back undead would bring him to the brink, she knew. However lessened and incomplete they were still Titans.

There would be no god standing at the end, no matter who the victor, and so it was in Antigone’s hands.

She missed the painted clay mask, the first face the kind giants of Hemera had given her as a girl. Yet even without its protection the Witch of the Woods barely even felt the wind against her skin, her body a stranger to itself. It had a price, to slay even the shadow of a drakon. It was the monster of an age long past, meant to be fought by folk that loomed too tall for even the last gasps of the Age of Wonders. But Antigone had stood in great shadows all her life, known only boots too large for her to fill ever since she first heard the song of Creation. Ever since she was a girl she’d fought to be more, to be complete, and fallen short.

She was the Witch of the Woods, belonging neither to the airy spires of the Gigantes or the crowded cities of mankind. Her home was in the in-between, the antechamber of greatness. Even her Name only allowed her to be a shadow of what Titans had once been, of what Gigantes aspired to be. Antigone, eyes blinking into the too-bright light of the hall, looked upon the drakon that screamed out unending rage. Warped Creation around it simply by existing. Only it wasn’t truly a drakon, was it? Not yet, anyway.

“I am a shadow,” Antigone said, “but you are one as well. Shall we see which runs deeper?”

The weight of the awakening god was turned on her, her power rising to fight as the air itself began to eat her, but it didn’t matter. The body was just a shell, eyes to see. She had already put all of herself in her mask, her face, and the Burglar had delivered it onto the beast. It had sunk deep, as deep as it would, and coated in the Dead King’s finest trick it remained whole.

As did Antigone’s soul within it.

Gather,” she whispered.

Only it was not moonlight and the power of the land she called to her this time, but blood and sinew and bone. The red writ of the drakon.

Cradle.”

With open hands she brought all she had gathered into her grasp, giving a reverence unearned. But it came into her embrace, joined with her, as the magics she had learned did. Closed against her she held the wriggling essence of the dead god, trying to slip her grasp.

Sing.”

To be one with the world, to see the manifold paths of consequence: the stone that became the avalanche, the droplet that became the tide. It had been a pure thing, all that Antigone aspired to be. It had let her see what the Gigantes saw, for the barest of moments, and wield the greatest of their works as her own. Only it was not her father’s song she sang today, the lessons she loved. Instead she sang the red and the hunger, the doom-made-intellect that was the drakon. And in that perfect moment she understood it, as perfectly as she was allowed to understand Creation.

And so she was a god, a circle full and complete, the crowned essence of the act to eat.

“It was mine,” Antigone smiled, and closed her eyes.

And even as her body fell apart, she took her first and last act as a god: she ate herself, until nothing was left.

Not even a shadow.

In the ashes of a broken city, Kreios Maker-of-Riddles fell to his knees and wept, for as the last of what he had been passed he had felt his only daughter die.

142 thoughts on “Interlude: Legends V

  1. ruduen

    Wow… Just… Wow. The threats are dealt with, but the world will feel the cost of it all.

    There’s only one threat that’s left. All that’s left is for those last pieces to fall into place. With or without death coming, it’s the end of the tale – and it’s time to see just how well she handles being on that side of the story.

    Liked by 20 people

    1. caoimhinh

      I just now realized why this last group of Interludes is called Legends.
      It’s because the lines between Chosen and Villains have blurred, and they are something else now. They are all here doing good, all making hard choices in the face of death, doom, and despair. They all make their last stand.

      So they are something else. Something greater, and less colored by the politics and tags usually associated with their respective callings.

      Here they are all Damned, fighting in a hell of a war, seizing their own fate in their hands, and putting their own madness against the odds of doing the impossible.

      Here they are all Heroes, fighting and sacrificing themselves to save the world.

      Here they are all Legends.

      Liked by 16 people

  2. Darkening

    Man, the gigantes went all in on this. I doubt the dead broke through to Cordelia without the spellsingers spending all their power and burning themselves out, Kreios spent his godhood to put down the titan corpses and fight off the dead king, and now Antigone is dead. Really putting the coffin nails in for the Age of Wonder. This is about as ruinous a victory as I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what’s left to keep the rats from coming south and eating everyone after this battle, that might be an issue. Kinda wish we’d seen more of the drow, we barely saw them mentioned at all after Rumena broke the gate.

    Liked by 25 people

      1. KiltedBastich

        Yeah, it’s been established that the Drow look at the Ratling invasions as an asset. A free moving buffet of Night to harvest, that returns of its own volition? That attacks nearly mindlessly, with no real tactics, and vast numbers? Just about perfect. They can gleefully get their murder on, and the rest of Calernia will be cheering them on.

        Liked by 20 people

          1. Yeah, plus it was undead so it was actually weaker than one alive, plus out of the five named i think it was the weakest? I know at least 1 that when it was mentioned Cat was really glad it wasn’t the one they were facing

            Liked by 3 people

          2. Someperson

            The *first* horned lord would probably be a tricky match for even the drow’s finest, yes.

            But what a prize of Night, should they win…

            I wouldn’t bet on the *second* horned lord winning.

            Liked by 2 people

  3. Tenthyr

    Arthur learning to refuse the temptation accepting the Pit.

    Cordelia learning to trust in a better world.

    Antigone learning what it means to be named after her namesake, heartbreakingly.

    And what’s even left, for Yara to play? Not much, I would gamble. She thinks she’ll just start again. I suspect she’ll find a Fetter on her wrist.

    Liked by 20 people

    1. Shin_Splinters

      I know we’ve all been theorizing who would wear the other fetter, and we still can’t be quite sure… But there’s only one person in that spire who isn’t named, meaning the Intercessor is half blind to her, and she’s currently down in a narrative sense and holding one of the fetters. So I’d bet on Akua being the one to actually chain Yara, while Cat is holding the other. Not sure if Cat will end up wearing it, but basically all of her friends who came to Keter are still alive, so the narrative may demand a greatwr sacrifice from her.

      Liked by 6 people

    2. I’ve just been waiting for the Chain of Hunger to show up during all of this, ever since the siege started. Somehow lured in to screw everyone over at the last moment. Maybe the Bard will do so, though at this point, I doubt it.

      They’ll more likely be the enemy in whatever comes after Practical Guide to Evil, if it’s in the same setting. I assume that such a sequel will be based in Cardinal, and I am here for it. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Darkening

        Nah, EE already posted the first few chapters of their next project a while back. It’s some underground world with like, renaissance level tech and people making contracts with gods for magic powers and stuff. It looked pretty interesting.

        Liked by 6 people

          1. alexjmscott

            There’s nothing to stop the author coming back to the setting a few projects down the line, even if he’s taking a break from it with the immediately-next one.

            The Chain don’t really strike me as (normally) having much strategic awareness of what’s going on in the rest of Calernia, and/or the inclination/ability to take advantage of the distraction with a major assault. That probably gives whatever remains of the Grand Alliance a few seasons at least to recover and rebuild before they need to face the Rats, more likely years or even decades. And from a writing point of view, that changeover interval gives a good opportunity for a change of viewpoint protagonist, should the author decide that the Warden’s generation have earned their retirement!

            Liked by 2 people

  4. Tristan Dixon

    I have loved every chapter of Book 7, and the Occidental arc in particular. But this chapter has to be my favorite. The contrasts between regret and conviction are breathtaking and amazing to read. First, Alaya’s words about her motivation, the rift with Amadeus, and her final confession; contrasted with Cordelia’s choice to believe she could win, Agnes’ final words, and her ultimate choice to shatter the control device. Then, Antigone’s fulfillment of her potential by using Kreios’ lessons to become a god and then eat herself; contrasted with the too little too late actions of Kreios in the past and his despair at feeling her die. And over everything, the sense that the last few legends that exist on Calernia are being crushed, but that they have to be if the continent is to move forward. And on a personal level, I grinned so hard it hurt the first time Agnes used that line after Cordelia caught Hanno’s coin, and I nearly cackled aloud when I read it again here. Plus, I’ve always loved Arthur, and seeing him really come into his own is always the most awesome of sauce. 😀

    Liked by 14 people

    1. For the curious, Agnes’s original line and context and source:

      > “It does not matter,” the Augur said, “if on the other side stand kings and monsters and all the gods that stride this earth. It does not matter if the odds are paltry and the signs scream of defeat with every silent voice.”

      > Blue eyes and a warm embrace. Of course you’ll live with us now. You are family. You always will be. This, this she would not forget until that final venture beyond where she was meant to go.

      > “I will,” Agnes said, “always, always bet on Cordelia Hasenbach.”

      https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com/2019/09/04/interlude-and-yet-we-stand/

      Liked by 19 people

  5. Mirror Night

    Honestly EE kinda unfair that all Cat’s Friends get to live while all Hanno’s Friends die. All he has got left is the healer at this point that we have actually seen him bond with. I suppose they went out on their own terms but still.

    Sure Hakram is crippled but 1,000,000 gold Orc will be built back even better. But Viv is going to be Queen, Masego got revenge on DK/godhead, Indrani got to be Ranger and what Cat is going to lose Akua. I mean I suppose that might slap for Catkua fans but since I never liked it that has like zero impact on me.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. 'Ladi Williams

      Why are humans never happy until they compare one thing with another?
      What makes Hanno cats equal or rival that you decided to pick and compare him with her?
      Using this logic of yours we can nitpick all we want bcos we can say why did the lordlings survive but Amadeus did not?
      Enjoy the stoey and stop looking for shit to be disappointed about

      Liked by 7 people

          1. Mirror Night

            Not sure how it would be nitpicking.

            All of Hanno’s friend except one appear dead and it really depends on how much of a friend you want to count the Apostle as. All of Cat’s friends appear alive at this point.

            As for why I chose to compare them I would think that would be kinda obvious to anyone reading this story. Though I suppose I don’t need any special reason to compare two characters. I think part of the fun of literary analysis is drawing interesting connections between characters.

            Fair Point Lil, no body no death though I believe dear Champ had taken some significant injuries before she disappeared seems unlikely she walk those off.

            Liked by 5 people

            1. 'Ladi Williams

              I was just coming off twitter when I replied that comment and I guess my anger at some idiots carried over.
              I tend to not want to argue with long term readers bcos it’s obvious you like the story asuch if not much ore than I do to still be here after all these years…long term readers being handles I see regularly in comments and recognise…
              So…sorry? 😂
              But as much as criticism is good for the author and should be encouraged, some just rub me the wrong way.

              Liked by 3 people

                1. 'Ladi Williams

                  I don’t even understand what this means.
                  Also, person I was tendering an apology to has accepted it so I don’t get why you are being salty especially as you don’t even have an horse in this race.
                  Anyways…peace and love. ✌🏾️🥰

                  Like

                  1. It means that “I worked myself into a lather arguing with morons on Twitter” isn’t a valid excuse for being a dick to someone else. Nothing is, really, but being pissed off at something that actually matters (bad day at work, your dog died, you had a fight with your girlfriend, whatever) is at least understandable.

                    When you’re angry due to something self-inflicted (spending your time on Twitter), it’s neither an excuse OR understandable when you’re a dick somewhere else.

                    Like

            2. We’re talking about the gal who couldn’t be hurt by the ghosts because they’re not real while having no problem hitting them back.

              When the intent of the summon was the exact reverse.

              Raphaella and reality are on some very specific terms.

              Liked by 7 people

        1. Damian Lucius Black

          AUTHOR’S EDIT:
          That’s enough. Post the links if you want, there’s no rule about it, but what you’re doing is borderline harassment. Keep doing it and you’ll be getting banned.

          Liked by 2 people

    2. HAHIND

      Maybe it even was an elaborate attempt by Catherine to lose as few of the Woe as possible, since the main engagement was against the Scourges, which are far less dangerous than the DK.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. Ah, yes, Catherine’s friends, famous for still being alive. You have definitely recalled correctly all those chapters where they definitely didn’t die tragically and horribly. And you are certainly not jumping to any conclusions about her friends here when the series isn’t over.

      This is a balanced and reasonable critique based on facts and logic that you have written. Definitely.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. ninegardens

        Oh shit.
        Ohhhh shit.
        I mean… of everyone here, in some sense, Bard’s betrayel of the white knight was the most personal. Sacrificing the other members of his band. Using him.

        …. and she DID just mention that he was one of the hardest people for her to turn aside.
        ….. Is Hanno going to be the one that brings her down. Not for justice, not for judgement, but because he himself truly believes that she is evil.

        That… would feel pretty good.

        Liked by 2 people

    4. ByVectron!

      They aren’t Cats “friends,” they are her party of five, they have been her family for years (if not as long as she’s been Named), and they are The Woe. Hanno has friends and sometime companions (except for Antigone,) but *nothing* compare to the weight of relationship between The Woe.

      Liked by 4 people

  6. badatgames2911

    OH YEAH SURE THE HERO GETS TO BE A GOD BEFORE MESAGO

    jk i loved that and i called that she was gonna b eat the drakon with her gigantes magic. loved the 300 spell singers comin to help at the end of the world.

    AGNES WOOOO get bent bard.

    Ishaq is still my fav non woe villain.

    Arthur and Saipan have a great relationship. good to see Kalia do stuff, i hope she is still alive. Alya and Cordy was agreat scene, i have enjoyed Alya a lot since she became Chancellor. No word on hakram/ vivi is worrying, was thinking Ranger would come out last sec to help finish the drakon but this was great too. I expect to see some stuff from the dwarf and drow side of things, especaially Rumena THE TOMB MAKER and Iva the LoSS. I want to see Iva leading a band of goblins with night powers to win the day. Only race we know of we havent seen at this point is the gods damned gnomes lol.

    Liked by 13 people

    1. dadycoool

      Ishaq is and has always been a delight. He won’t get his name on the roles now, having failed his accepted task, but sometimes the trailblazer doesn’t make it to his destination, overly wearied by the trail he’s blazing. All that really matters is that he left footprints for others to follow.

      Arthus and Saipan follow in the groove Amadeus and Weseka carved and Cat and Masego live in, the magic user and knight becoming acquainted because their parents/teachers were such close friends and forging an equal friendship on their own.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Mirror Night

        I would say they are more the new Saint and Peregrine though will have to see what they plan to do long term. Its not clear the Mage is going to spend her time questing.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. Snappy270

          How ? The Mage doesn’t seem to be much of a peregrine. She may have trained as a healer but she has transcended that and now cares about magic as a whole. Seems alot more like wekesa and mesago.

          Arthur maybe good with swords but seems to care about doing an ideal like callow or saving someone. Saint only cared about fighting evil at all times, not because she was trying to achieve something only cause its evil.

          Plus it’s the mentoring. Black to cat to Arthur. Wekesa to mesago to saipan.

          Liked by 5 people

      2. KiltedBastich

        Er, Ishaq killed the Wolfhound, one of the Scourges, which means he very much did accomplish the required feat to be added to the Rolls, with a little bit of help from Sve Noc. It was a whole thing with him gaining Night. Did you miss it?

        Liked by 18 people

        1. 'Ladi Williams

          I think the slew of awesome chapters since then has mostly made a lot of people forget the tiny stuff…but yeah he did get his deed and that’s when he was offered and gleefully accepted night.

          Liked by 6 people

        2. dadycoool

          I was under the impression that they told him to kill the Dead King himself, not just a Scourge. I remember how big a deal it was that Cat’s chosen successor in the T&T was getting the Night powerup.

          Like

          1. That’s what they wanted to set it to initially. However, that was deemed by the leaders Levant to be too high a bar and a bad precedent of difficulty to set. It was scaled back to him getting one of the Scourges.

            Liked by 4 people

              1. dadycoool

                Okay. I remember Cat offering to negotiate down and Ishaq declined, saying something about how, as the first one, his Deed should be greatest. I could very well be misremembering or didn’t catch the entire thing.

                Like

                1. Cpt. Obvious

                  You are correct about Cat wanting to negotiate for a easier goal, but that was after they had already been convinced to back it down to killing a scourge.

                  The thing is that in order to be added to the Rolls you have to perform a noteworthy deed. For a long time only Heroes had their names added, and just about any heroic deed was accepted. When they were forced to accept that any named could apply to have their name added even if they were villains the immediate reaction was to require a deed so hard it was most likely impossible. However when they were told that if that was the new standard then there would probably never be any more names added to the Rolls they went with killing a scourge.

                  Cat argued that this was also a ridiculously high risk deed. Not only were they hard to destroy, but there was also a very limited number of them.

                  Ishaq on the other hand thought it was a good choice. It would set the bar higher for everyone to come. No longer would getting a Hero name be enough to have your name added to the Rolls but you would have to back it up with a deed that is truly noteworthy. This would also increase the honor that having having your name added meant. Now just having your name in the Rolls weren’t enough. There would also be a question if it was added after or before Ishaq. And if it was before just what was the deed that got the name added. If it was after Ishaq then it would be a given that the deed was something truly special. So not only would he be the first Villain to be added for a very long time (Some of the founders didn’t really seem all that Heroic…) but he’s name would be known for raising the standard. And that would satisfy his villainous need to get one up on the keepers of the Rolls.

                  Liked by 2 people

      3. beleester

        I think the knight and wizard being friends is pretty common because of the “adventuring party” setup that most bands fall into – we’ve seen it in multiple places, like the Lone Swordsman’s original band. But Hierophant seems to have started a tradition of the wizard being a master of deadpan humor.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Cpt. Obvious

          Earlier in the story I wrote a comment about how the then Squire and Apprentice seemed to eco a theme. We know that Amadeus and Wekesa first met and became friends when they were Squire and Apprentice respectively. Then Cat, under tutelage of Amadeus, met and befriended Masego, foster son to Wekesa. And again it was as Squire and Apprentice.

          Just to make it even more interesting Amadeus and Wekesa had fostered friendships with several other villains forming a group of five that lasted for many years. Something that was generally considered almost impossible. And to this core group of named they also tied several non named friends who were sworn to the Gods below. They got so well known the group got named as the Calamities.

          Cat and Masego echoed that, and even got named as the Woe.

          So will Arthur and Sapan copy their “parents” and form a group that echo the Calamities and the Woe?

          After the 6’th book I thought so, but now I’m not sure. Is the Errant part of Arthur’s name going to keep him from being a part of a fixed group? If his name drives him to be the lone defender it might take some work to get a group of five to work well.

          Liked by 4 people

  7. dadycoool

    Wow. EE continues to show us how adept they are at plucking at our heartstrings like Yara with her lute. Most stories have characters that only really exist as characters, but EE has given life to the individuals in this world. It’s easy to see Named and Stories as nothing but Tropes, but they’re so much more than that and chapters like this really highlight that. Well done, you made my heart break for someone whose Extra Chapter I haven’t even read yet.

    Liked by 9 people

  8. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    left the wards? > left of the wards?
    that longer had > that number had
    horsemen died > horsemen who died
    her strode > he strode
    the got the > the
    Myrmidon guts > Myrmidon’s guts
    straight angle (strange angle?)
    broke palisade > broken palisade
    allow to > allow it to
    those that had > those had
    sight your > sight into your
    under swarm > under swarms
    another rippled > another ripple
    comradery > camaraderie
    some hope > some hoped
    roared to life > roaring to life
    spikes returned > spikes
    paw the > paw, but the
    glimpse or > glimpse of
    monster at (monster ate? monster tore at?)
    saw Emerald > saw an Emerald
    open grounds (repeated)
    colours The > colours. The
    disappeared into > disappear into
    a no and > a nod and
    warband, > warbands,
    that save > that might save
    until glories > until the glories

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Mirror Night

    I think things would have flowed better if we had this occur before the final fight against DK so we could go direct from DK to Bard. Maybe add more doubt to what is going on with the Undead so its unclear if they won or not. But this chapter kinda kills the flow even if it is on its own well written.

    I also think a lot of these characters needed more characterization before hand. Cause like all the Hanno, Antigone, Krieos and Gigantes stuff is in like Extra Chapters. Arthur kinda disappeared after the Praes arc and his connection to Tariq was never that strong. Painted Knife had a cool band plot in the Free Cities and got taunted by Cat some? And as for the Burglar not sure we even knew her gender beforehand so kinda weird she is playing a major role here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 'Ladi Williams

      It can’t have happened before the dk fight bcos the Young King had to hand off his kingdom to the drakoi.
      How else was the drakoi going to get its greedy hands on the reins of death without undermining the Young King?

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Mirror Night

        Yes that is why I said make it a bit more unclear on if DK is actually dead in this chapter and then you can switch order. Have the story go Legends V, DK Final Fight, and Bard Resolution.

        Because IMO, this chapter while good and poignant and tragic is kinda a momentum killer. With my other issue being some of these characters are a bit light on the characterization front for this final deaths and stands to hit as hard as possible.

        Like

        1. Snappy270

          But this is fighting the bard. This is one of her last plays before finally confronting cat for the last time. But agnes comes in the right moment to stop that story.

          Plus alot of stories go like this the main villan is dead but a last plan to destroy everything gets set off. In terms of momentum this is in keeping with most stories.

          There just an extra act know the end where the hidden boss gets a go. Like many stories.

          Liked by 7 people

            1. ninegardens

              I mean… maybe.
              The Ealamalelelmalm was kind of the last card we saw up Yara’s sleve. She MIGHT have something, but there just aren’t many remaining plot threads for her to pull on.

              I’ll admit, I am a little confused/worried by the fact that she was up in the tower talking to Cat and co when she could have been down on the ground, screwing over Antigone, or pushing Cordelia harder. Which… honestly really should have worked if Yara had put her focus on it.

              Like, that convo with Alaya could easily have been interupted.
              Which ummmm….
              does lead to the disturbing possiblitity that there is something MORE damaging she can be doing in the tower? But I’m not sure what. Mostly I’m confused.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

                She was trying to get Cat to become her successor at the last second, which could potentially have negated the need to annihilate Calernia. I guess? Who knows, honestly.

                Like

      1. Mirror Night

        Cordelia: Sure I don’t think EE is going to kill her likes her too much.
        Kallia: One of the most esoteric Aspects around no idea how it works but yeah she seems alive.
        Raphaela: Well no body is in her favor she wasn’t in the best of shape when she activated her Domain. Could go either way.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. Agent J

        Kallia better not be dead. We lost Vagrant Spear and Silver Huntress. Give me Kallia, EE, you miserly death merchant. You even slew the Wolf Mother!

        I won’t complain about Antigone though. She went out with fireworks, I loved it. Pulled a Warlock and killed herself with Divinity. Except, because she’s better than the Warlock in every way, instead of Dooming a City, she Saved a Continent.
        Yes. Fucking. Queen.

        Liked by 10 people

          1. caoimhinh

            If I recall correctly, the last time the issue of whether Hanno and Antigone had something was discussed, it was from Hanno’s POV in one of the Winter Extra Chapters, when Repentant Magister teases him saying someone should tell Antigone that all she has to do is ask to get in bed with Hanno, to which Hanno mentally responds that it wasn’t the first time others had talked about it, but that he and Antigone don’t have anything going on. He even confidently states this because the body sign language that they often communicate in is a language without lies.

            I always found that funny, because my first reaction was “Just because she is not telling you something doesn’t mean that she is lying”, and turns out I was right, Antigone cared for Hanno, but apparently never confessed her feelings.

            That, or they got together afterward. I do seem to recall that Hanno seemed to be sharing a house with Antigone back when they went to Salia the first time…

            Liked by 3 people

            1. alexjmscott

              Hanno and Antigone did share a bed at one point, according to the bonus chapter “Stranger”, and may have done so since, but they appear to have decided mutually that their closeness and affection did not need that distraction on any ongoing basis.

              Liked by 4 people

            2. No, he doesn’t say “he and Antigone don’t have anything going on”. He says “he and Antigone know EXACTLY what they have going on” and goes on for an entire paragraph about how definite that is.

              Hanno had a crush on Antigone that he kept down because she’s ace, and Antigone was just thinking of him as her qp partner in the meantime. I love them.

              Like

  10. bellacohl

    “One: first, do good.”

    Not Good.

    Do good. Do right by others, not by the Heaven’s writ. Because it is the right thing to do.

    Arthur’s choice at the Tower, Hanno’s at Keter. Cordelia.

    God I love this series.

    Liked by 13 people

    1. mavant

      I interpreted this as a pointed contrast to the Hippocratic Oath rather than about good versus Good. A statement on the value of active good works versus merely avoiding bad ones.

      Liked by 5 people

  11. ninegardens

    >>No matter where, no matter when, Agnes wrote, I will always bet on Cordelia Hasenbach.

    I called it! I fucking called it.
    Agnes Hasenbach, you glorious moonloop. You are without a doubt, the greatest seer.
    And once again, you have saved us all.

    Also: I kind of love Witch of the Wilds being the one to end the Drakon. They’ve been hyping up her power level for like… 5 books now, but she’s always been the hero of another story and… feels like she’s got to do that again now. Feels appropriate.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. badatgames2911

      Some times i still think of her as Wich of the Wilds too. I also think Wayward Bard sometimes bc they called her that when she was in Lone Swordsmans band. I like it when Named are called other things, makes me think its like a cool alternate skinn. Literally for Wayward Bard!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

        I think of her as the Witch of the Wilds because I used to play a lot of Dragon Age: Origins, which has some people called that in it.

        Like

  12. I actually find what Antigone did a contrast to what Warlock did in his final moment.

    “He reached out for it then, what they’d shown him. The barest glimpse of the godhead, but oh so gloriously full.

    “Reflect,” he whispered.

    For a moment, for an eternity, Wekesa was unto a god.

    He snapped his fingers and the world broke.”

    Liked by 9 people

      1. Mirror Night

        I mean he did it to save Masego. I am not sure you can describe what he did as Selfish. I suppose you can in the sense that he was doing it to save a single person versus the world. But I don’t think its fair to describe Weseka doing that as being selfish.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. dadycoool

          I’m realizing that I really should go back and actually reread everything. I’m dreading the month it’ll take, but clearly I haven’t gotten everything I should out of it and parts of it, big parts, are fading from my memory.

          Liked by 3 people

  13. Asterix

    EE’s SO must be smug as heck:.when EE says “here comes the climax”, he really, really means it.

    Also:

    “No matter where, no matter when I will always bet on Cordelia Hasenbach.

    P.S. Get bent, Yara of Nowhere. I hope you live forever.

    Sincerely,

    Agnes Hasenbach”

    Checkov’s Armory FTW

    Liked by 7 people

  14. Mary Gentle

    When they tell that story of the Cousins here, their name is the Three Little Pigs, and the Death’s name is Wolf . . .

    (Sorry? Me? I’m not sorry!)

    And — no Angel? No Angel! ☹

    I’ve been waiting whole books for Chekov’s Angel to be fired, and now you do this to us. Grump.

    It took me a while to warm to the Barrow Sword, but now I just love him.

    And yes, Alaya, you utter moron, you should have trusted Amadeus. Honestly, has it taken until the (near) end of the world for you to work that out?

    Kind of a bitty chapter, which mostly leaves me grumbling. Because, no Angel. Dammit, I wanted to know what would happen when the Angel is fired off, and now we’ll never know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Spencer

      Don’t we know pretty well what the Angel does? It kills everyone that doesn’t pass judgement. Which under the Bard would be everyone on the continent except 40 heros.

      The angel was still a pretty damn important plot point, even if they avoided actually pulling the trigger.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Mary Gentle

        It seems to me like there ought to be something else still hanging there. Though evidently there isn’t.

        Like it goes: we’ll use the angel — we won’t use the angel — but then the angel [something].

        I have no idea what the [something] would be, but all the build up just to not use it… Poot.

        Besides, Judgement has the day off. Wouldn’t it have been end of the world cool to see what Yara would have done in their stead?

        No?

        Eh, maybe you’re right.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Snappy270

          well they did use the angel several times to defend the Salia. Since Judgement was cut off, it was just a large source of light. With Judgement connected but not active it could be manipulated by the bard, which results in what 7/10ths of calernia dying including the dwarfs ? So …. it goes argue about the angel for a book. Use it cause we have too … Oh no its a doomsday device again but we cant tell anyone, Agnes saves the day.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. MoreBeer

          We know exactly what Yara was planning to do in Judgment’s place. It was spelled out for us. Kill everyone except an arbitrarily small number of people too small to survive for long, so that within a few years everyone dies, leading to the absolute end of all stories and her release from the eternal role of intercessor.

          It was absolutely end of the world. No need to see it; i think that sort of story isn’t the one we’re reading. Just imagining it and seeing it deflected its fine for me!

          Like

    1. BargleNawdleZouss

      Edgar was from Laure, IIRC. I just hope he made it off that bridge when Catherine led the assault into the city.

      Still hoping Lt. Inger from The Arsenal made it through…

      Liked by 3 people

    1. ninegardens

      Agnes: *Spends years trying to figure out what to do in the end despite oracle blockers.
      Agnes: Fuckit, I got nothing
      Agnes: Better write and encouraging note and trust my Cuzzy.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. ninegardens

      More seriously though, it might not have been prophecy OR “just an encouraging note”. Agnes might have been leaning hard on the story fu and gone “Fuck it, an encouraging note from a dying oracle at the right time is probably enough story weight to sort this out, even if I have no idea what `this’ is.”

      Liked by 4 people

  15. BargleNawdleZouss

    Hells of a chapter. Again!

    1. Glad Ishaq made it and continuing to kick ass.

    2. Chekhov’s Ealamal…averted!

    3. Arthur got a crowning moment of awesome and his first Aspect as Knight Errant, excellent.

    4. I wondered if Cordelia and Alaya would ever have a face-to-face. Well done!

    5. What’s Malanza’s status?

    6. Next chapter: need updates on what the dwarves and drow are up to! I’m a bit sad that Rumena wasn’t in on the Dead King’s destruction.

    7. If we get a nice long LOTR Return Of The King extended epilogue, I want to see how Sapan the Mage upends the Ashuran tier system, which always rubbed me the wrong way.

    8. Awaiting Ranger Indrani’s timely return to watch Masego’s back while he achieves apotheosis.

    9. Will Neshamah come back one final time?

    10. Assuming #9 is NO, then who will hold the Fetters. I believe it will be for the Wandering Bard, with any of the following holding the leash:
    – Catherine
    – Akua
    – Anaxares the Hierarch

    11. At what point do the Gods of Above & Below stop The Game of the Gods and reboot the playing field?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. SuitorShooter

      The Fetters were built from the Crown of Autumn, an artifact forged specifically for Neshama twice over. Using them on someone else is probably a narrative no-no. Besides, it can’t be Cat, she knows she’s too important as both the Warden and founder of Cardinal to be taken off the board. I feel like Akua passed some kind of pivot where the Fetters *could* have been forced onto her but weren’t, her taking them now doesn’t feel right. And I can’t see Anaxeres ever using the Fetters, ever accepting slavery be it as slave or master.

      Liked by 3 people

  16. Mmmmm i really wonder what the dwarves and their Herald have to be dealing with since they didn’t show up in epic fashion from below the earth, seriously their part seemed to go a little too well compared to everything else.

    Also i think i remember Erra confirmed that the ratlings came to be from the Drakons,s omethign about blood? They confirmed it on discord and its on the WOE doc if i remember well, if so this whole thing witht he drakon really puts in perspective some of what future generations will have to look out for against.

    Also i wonder if the Emerald Swords late arrivals is because the Drakon managed to trick them and they just noticed they weren’t hacking at it xD

    PS:poor Kreios, he needs a hug, no seriosuly he needs one otherwise i think he may just finally snap from grief and become the next BIG terror at some point.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. SuitorShooter

    An interesting Aspect for Arthur to pick up. *Wound*, he can always harm, but not necessarily kill. I wonder if he’d have gotten a different Aspect if they’d told him to kill the Drakon, not just wound it.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. BargleNawdleZouss

    Big Picture question: has there been an explanation, “on-stage” or off, of the win condition for The Game Of The Gods? Whether in one of the chapters, comments section, Reddit, Discord, or elsewhere? Given what Neshamah, Wekesa, and Masego researched, at what point do Above and Below agree that one side has won the current round, and it’s time to wipe the slate clean and start a new Game?

    Please post the appropriate link(s), if available. Thanks in advance!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ninegardens

      So, here’s my question: Do the gods above and below even exist?

      Cause see like… we don’t have any definitive proof. Yes yes, there’s laws of creation, and story fu and all that. But like…. we have living things in our world, and everyone said “Well, it must have been created by the gods”, and then we discovered evolution.

      I mean, okay, I guess we have Yara insisting that “there’s a bunch of people `upstairs’ who are wondering what you are up to to heirarch”, its just….

      You’ve got Amadeus, who was always pretty angry to see “Half the world, turned into a prop for the glory of the other half.” (he also claimed that he would never blame fate, and it was things PEOPLE did that mattered, so… his philosophy might possibly have not been entirely coherent on that point)

      The two biggest villians in the story are those characters who shake their fists at the gods. For letting them be finite. For forcing them to be immortal. Whatever.
      Nessie and Yara are driven by their anger at the gods, their desire to escape them….

      But what if the the gods very existence is nothing but an idea. They aren’t railing against actual beings, they’re destroying the world in their anger against… well nothing. The closest we get to seeing the gods is Kairo’s death, with him seeing a vision of their applause as he dies.
      Which, you know… could have been the hallucination of a dying man seeing precisely what he hoped and expected.

      Maybe the bet just can’t end, for the simple reason that there never was a bet, or potentially even any bettors.
      I think that that’s a bit of a weird reading of the story I’ve got here, but I also think the story so far has done a very good job of never really confirming the POINT of any of it (or even telling you clearly who bet which way.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

        Another point about this: the goblins are monotheistic. They construe Below as a singular, all-encompassing god, the Gobbler, from which all things came and to which all things shall return.

        I personally like to think that the Gods do exist, but that their natures are essentially filtered through any relevant stories, having simply been one or two amorphous masses of divinity before making Arcadia (and if one, then eventually splitting under inadvertent fae influence), and only being refined further by Creation. Perhaps instead of growing bored of the fae’s stagnant nature in the same way that mortals might grow bored, they instead started over because they can only know themselves through their own handiwork and were being stifled by Arcadia’s on-rails nature.

        Liked by 1 person

  19. WuseMajor

    I’m hoping that Masego brings something into play that stops the Bard’s last card from being played. Because, right now, all the cards we know about have been played.

    The Dead King is Dead.

    The Drakon is Dead.

    The Angel’s Baton is broken.

    But Yara of Nowhere is still here, so she must have *something* left. And, I bet Cat could find it….if she knew 100% what Bard’s true endgame was.

    Which the Dead King figured out…but didn’t tell anyone. Except Masego just ate his soul, so, if her true goal is anything other than “just die already,” hopefully Masego will puzzle that out and mention it at the right time.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Someperson

    I’m a tad concerned that that one Revenant who Catherine saw briefly, the confused-looking and unarmored one who the Dead King apparently decided to hold back, *still* hasn’t turned up.

    Like

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