Chapter 68: Hallow; Hollow

“And though her schemes lay broken around her, the Intercessor only laughed and said: ‘When one defeats the inevitable, the word for it is not victory but delay.’”

– Extract from the ‘Parables of the Lost and Found’, disputed Firstborn religious text

Yara of Nowhere sat on the Dead King’s throne with legs crossed, smiling as I Saw from atop the spire the way the stories fell into place.

The Dead King’s last act of spite threatening to swallow us all, the desperate fighting below us to keep the drakon from waking. And intertwined with it, the story Yara of Nowhere wanted to cut out throats with: Cordelia and her ealamal. I couldn’t See Cordelia herself, she wasn’t Named, but everything happening around her was a strong enough trajectory I could just barely make her out – like tracing someone out of shadows. It’d be the same for the Bard, I figured. How fucked would we be, if Cordelia had taken up a Name that night in Salia and Yara had gotten an open invitation to be in her head? We might well already be dead if not for the Augur.

The stories raced, threading with each other into what I already knew was meant to be our noose. We got our miracles, the Barrow Sword and the Blessed Artificer and the Gigantes, but we’d gotten them too early. And though I could See the drakon’s end in the course of the Witch of the Woods – at a cost that had my heart clenching in pain for Hanno – it would be too late. The defence of the ealamal would first collapse, the shadow of Cordelia Hasenbach moving and then… light, blinding Light until there was nothing at all. A hint of Hanno living through it, but it would be as the Intercessor had said. He’d be one of half a hundred across all of Calernia, a continent slowly gasping out its death rattle.

 A quarter-hour, I realized, would be all it took for the Intercessor to slaughter Calernia with: the span between the fall of the ealamal’s defences and Antigone saving us all. How small a thing to kill a continent with.

Then the both of us went still, because the current shifted. One last hidden string, a single grain of sand left in the midst of the machinations of the Intercessor. The Augur, I realized. She’d left something of herself behind, something small. Couldn’t be more than a sentence else it would be too much, too large. The Intercessor would have seen it, and perhaps I as well. Only neither of us had, because the Augur had died and given the last of herself into the hand of a woman without a Name. Like an arrow loosed in a dead angle, the words had flown unseen until they hit and now it was too late.  The Light-to-be went dark.

From beyond the grave, Agnes Hasenbach took us all for a ride one last time.

And just like that, I thought, we’d won. I did not know if Cordelia was alive or anyone with her, but the ealamal was out of play. I saw no story where Named hands lit the bonfire meant to swallow us all. I breathed out shakily as below us the Witch of the Woods’ last march began, watching the way the Intercessor’s face tightened.

“You always did see a little too far for your own good,” she said, “didn’t you, Agnes?”

“Catherine?”

Hanno’s voice was tinted with worry, but I did not turn. The Intercessor was still here and I did not dare look away from her sitting form. Not yet, even though she was beaten.

“We live,” I said. “The ealamal sleeps. And I’m sorry, Hanno, but-”

“I know,” the White Knight quietly cut through. “I can’t get there in time to Save her.”

“You get to keep Kreios,” the Intercessor shrugged, “though there’s nothing much left there. Your own doing, Catherine: you’ve leaned so hard into the changing of the age all the relics are getting buried with its turn.”

I breathed in, pulling on Night, but the Bard did not seem worried. She brushed back long fair hair, pawing at her side until she found her silver flask. Knowing that striking at her now would achieve nothing save giving her a way out, I instead wove myself eyes. The moment I saw through them I looked at Masego, who was kneeling by Akua’s side. She was prone and her breathing heavy, but the calm on Hierophant’s face brought out the same in me. He liked her enough that if she was at risk of dying from her wounds he’d be showing worry. And wounded she was, I found now that I took the time for a second look.

I could see where the Dead King’s spell had hit her. It wasn’t as obvious a killing stroke some of the others he’d used, but the edges of her right hand were warped and there was something about the skin… It was dead, I realized. Her entire arm was a cadaver’s, every part of it dead. It hid beneath her armour, but I saw the faint stiffness creeping up the side neck. How much of her had been killed with that single stroke: half, a third? My fingers clenched. I was not sure even Light would be able to heal that, but at least she was still living. And the yellow strands of sorcery around Masego’s hands seemed to be easing her breathing.

“Hierophant?” I called out, my sole flesh eye still on the Bard.

“There is no danger of death,” he said. “She should be able to speak again soon.”

I breathed in sharply. I’d not even realized she couldn’t, so I took a third look even as other eyes saw Hanno walk up to my side with a grim face. Only my gaze strayed from Akua, as though I was worried there was something else I’d just Seen.

“You are forming a godhead,” I evenly said.

He smiled.

“I have not yet digested all I gained from the Dead King,” Hierophant said, “but when I have I expect my perspective will be… broadened.”

And that’d be enough, we both knew. The godhead was just a trick of perspective, he’d once said, and even an old monster like the Intercessor agreed. He’d have the power and the understanding, and that’d be enough.

“So that’s why you’re still here,” I softly said, matching the Bard’s gaze.

She drank deep of her flask, grimacing after her first swallow. Something reeking of strong liquor and oranges reached my nostrils.

“It would have been cleaner if you let me do it through Cordelia,” Yara of Nowhere said, voice rough from the drink. “One stroke, nobody suffers. But I’ve already told you: if you demand the hard way, it’s what you’ll get.”

And I believed her, or at least believed she believed it, only I could see an angle she might use for – a whisper spread across the world, the first use of Guide I’d ever caught her in. And in that moment that followed, I saw as she cleared her failed story off the board and dragged in another.

“It is already finished, Bard,” the White Knight calmly told her. “Spite can only-”

I raised my hand to silence him, and though he looked somewhat annoyed he stopped talking.

“Say nothing without choosing your words carefully,” I said, voice echoing across the Dead King’s hall. “We are now a single wrong sentence away from dying.”

Yara smiled, Hanno stiffened and my fingers closed to tightly around my staff that the knuckles turned white. I could See the story she was going to ride now. I should have realized from the start that it was fucking arrogance to think we’d gotten her. The Augur had broken her plan, sure, but the Intercessor wasn’t a blood-drunk villain on her first rampage. She’d laid foundations for this and none of them were gone.

“You said,” Hanno murmured, “that the ealamal sleeps.”

“And Cordelia Hasenbach won’t wake it, if she lives,” I said, sliding a glance Yara’s way.

She tossed an affable smile my way, but no answers. It was a halfway good sign she hadn’t taken the opportunity to gloat, but it might just be she wanted to keep her cards close to the chest.

“But the Seraphim are still silenced,” I said, “and the ealamal still filled to the brim with Light. She doesn’t need Cordelia, she just needs anyone at all to light the fire.”

“No one will,” the White Knight confidently said.

Far below our feet the drakon died, as if the Heavens themselves were echoing the word of their favourite son. The Bard looked untroubled, which had Hanno on edge. As it should be, because with the drakon gone, devouring every dead it had come to reign over in its death throes – though that sovereignty had not spread far beyond Keter, and the rest of the dead still stood – the battle on the ground was won. There was no reason for someone to use the ealamal, as Hanno had so confidently asserted. However horrendous the costs, we had won.

By the mortal way of looking at it, anyway.

“Not a hero or a villain,” I quietly agreed. “But she’s not me, Hanno. She works with more than just Named.”

“The Seraphim,” he softly said. “You believe… no, it doesn’t matter. We need the Hierophant to-”

Two sounds from behind us. First Masego’s soft gasp as he rose to his feet, then Akua’s rasping cough as she gained back her voice. I watched as Hierophant took a few stumbling steps, then went still as sorcery coiled around him in tight rings. Hanno drew his sword, but I laid my hand on his arm. It wasn’t an attack, it was his own magic. He’d finished eating the Dead King and so his perspective was undergoing an adjustment. He’d be out of the rest of this conversation, as much because of the terrible efforts as because providence would ensure he was not there. He couldn’t be, because he was part of the story as the opposite of the Seraphim.

“Do nothing,” I said. “The path it goes down if we interrupt him is… unpleasant.”

Enlightenment stopped halfway through was just madness, and that was a dangerous thing to afflict a man was powerful as Masego with.

“What is he doing?” Hanno bluntly asked.

“He is forging a godhead of his own,” Akua rasped out as she rose to her feet, “as one of Below’s. An Evil god. What will your Seraphim say to that, White Knight?”

“They’ll aim to kill it,” the White Knight said. “Before it can darken Creation. But they cannot reach out in such a way. They are yet silenced.”

“No, not anymore,” I told him. “Just gone quiet for a while more, thanks to our friend.”

“That’s me,” Yara helpfully told him.

She was, I realized, starting to have fun.

“Then they should still be unable to-” Hanno began, then his jaw clenched. “The ealamal. Gods forgive us, it is a Seraphim’s corpse.”

“And filled to the brim with enough Light to scour half of Calernia,” I flatly said. “She just needs to draw their eye there so they can throw their genocidal tantrum.”

I expect he would have argued with that characterization of the Choir of Judgement – fair enough, it wasn’t the most flattering interpretation – but Akua interrupted. She’d moved stiffly as she approached my side, her right leg likely affected by the spell even if it’d not been entirely killed, but she was breathing fine and both her eyes seemed to be working. A knot I’d not known was in my belly began to loosen.

“Yet she has not,” the golden-eyed sorceress said. “As demonstrated by the fact that Catherine and I still breathed. She still needs something from us.”

Yara toasted her.

“If you’d been half that clever a girl,” the Intercessor smiled, “you might have had a chance at knowing what real love feels like before you die.”

I’d known Akua for years. As an enemy, a prisoner, a companion and one more thing since. I’d made a study of her, and so though her face changed little I could see how that little sentence slid right between her ribs. It had stung, and so she retaliated.

“Babble however you wish, Intercessor,” she coldly replied, “but you are running out of luck.”

Shit, I thought, getting what would happen just before it did. Yara of Nowhere grinned at us, blue eyes bright in the dim light of the Dead King’s hall.

“I am luck, girl,” the Intercessor said. “Providence made flesh. This isn’t a fight, it’s a game – and we’ll play as many times as it takes before I win.”

Akua had been baited. ‘I am providence’, that was Yara’s story. Not a Named, not an enemy, just a force of nature. We could no more be her foe than we could be the enemy of a river or a mountain. And Akua had given her the opportunity to get it out there and get it out first, without even restoring to something like a monologue. But my eye narrowed, because this wasn’t the sort of game where you steal an advance without giving something in return. As many times as it takes, Yara had said. Which meant she had more strings to her bow than Masego’s apotheosis. Figuring what those were, I thought, would let me steal a step of my own.

But first I needed to get our own story out.

I went rifling through my tattered cloak, getting out the long dragonbone pipe that Masego had given me when we were barely more than children. I got out a packet of wakeleaf as Akua sighed and Hanno shot me an incredulous look, stuffing the bowl before I pulled on Night. Fire bloomed, lighting the leaf, but it also shivered across the ground. Slithering over the corpse of the Mirror Knight, finding what I was looking for. I breathed in deep of the wakeleaf, savouring the burn in my lungs as I stole back the Fetter that Christophe had carried. The Intercessor smiled.

“What is it that the three of you always say?” she mused. “Ah, right – mistake.”

She cocked her head to the side, drumming her fingers against the silver flask.

“I can see why you all do it, it’s strangely satisfying,” Yara of Nowhere told me. “Shall I explain your fuckup, Catherine? It feels like the courteous thing.”

“I made them equal,” I said. “Is that what you’re going to say?”

She hid her surprise, but not quite well enough. Yeah, I’d figured it would work like that. See, the reason we weren’t currently all dead was because the Intercessor needed a story behind her to get the Seraphim to pitch a fit and immolate Keter, if not all of Calernia. She was manoeuvring to get that through our conversation here, though I wasn’t sure exactly what she needed out of us. That was her story, her play. By going for the Fetters I’d made them our story, our equivalent, and that was where she though I’d made a mistake. Creation ran on symmetry: a Black Knight for every White Knight, an aspect of Protect for every aspect of Destroy.

Yara’s path to victory needed a story, so by making the Fetters ours I’d made it so they would need a story behind them to work on her.

I’d known it would have that cost from the start, though, and it was worth it. Akua had made the Fetters without being Named, even if Named had helped. It meant, and Bard had admitted it herself, that she didn’t actually know how they worked or what they did. She’d called them shackles not as a potshot but because she didn’t know they were called the Fetters or what exactly they would do to her. We might not know exactly what the Intercessor wanted out of us here up here, but she was also in the dark about Akua’s creation. That was worth the price of attaching a story to them.

“She’s delaying,” Hanno evenly said. “Waiting it out until the Hierophant finishes apotheosis.”

“Was it worth it?” Yara asked him curiously. “You’ve gotta realize that even two days ago you would have been able to end this in a moment.”

She snapped her fingers, smiled.

“But you just had to go your own way, leave the Seraphim behind,” the Intercessor said. “So now the ties are cut and you can’t guide them. So I ask again – was it worth it, the sense of satisfaction that carried you up this spire?”

Hanno took half a step back, looking like he’d been slapped. Had she planned that, I wondered? That if he became the White Knight again it would be without a tie to Judgement. Our struggle in the Arsenal had been years ago and I still kept unearthing deeper layers to her schemes even now. I pulled at my pipe, closing my eye, and found my first opening. She’d gone after both Akua and Hanno personally, but it was only Hanno who was being treated as a threat. Yara had tried to hurt Akua, but Hanno was being disgraced. He’s the only one of two she sees as a threat, I realized. Because of his Name? No, shouldn’t be. The Fetters would need a story but not a Name.

It was about the story. Which meant she thought Hanno had a story that might allow him to hold one of the Fetters but not Akua. Why? I studied the golden-eyed sorceress through eyes of Night, Seeing no nascent Name in her. She was wounded but not at risk of dying and her beauty was barely marred so… Ah, I thought. There it is. You don’t think Akua can take up a Fetter unless she’s dying. And the damning thing was that she was most likely right. It wasn’t even about character, at least not in the moral sense. Akua’s journey had been one of fighting free from prisons within and without. She would not enter another cage, not after refusing the Tower’s.

Even if she forced herself, the story would be weak. It might not work.

It looked bad, I thought, but once more by pressing forward Yara had given me something. She was attacking us but not trying to establish a story of her own. That told me more than she’d meant it to. I opened my eye.

“Hanno’s right,” I calmly said. “You’re waiting us out. You don’t actually need anything from us, do you Yara? Hierophant’s already undergoing apotheosis, and that’s all you needed to get the Seraphim there. You just can’t get them to move before he’s actually a god.”

They’d refuse, I decided, and she couldn’t force them. There were still a lot of heroes in Keter, enough that as long as there was even the possibility of Masego being stopped the Seraphim wouldn’t just burn the city to cinders. The moment he came through on the other side, though, the calculations changed. It was no longer the possibility of Hierophant forging a godhead against the destruction of the Grand Alliance, it was a risen god sworn to Below against the destruction of a handful of Named and earthly armies. To a Choir, it would be choice that basically made itself. She was attacking us for the same reason she’d boasted that she was providence: she had nothing to defend.

Yara reached behind the Dead King’s throne, fishing out her ragged old lute, and set it across her lap. Then she gave me the most vicious grin.

“I guess you’re right,” she mused. “If one of you killed Zeze, it’d sure stop my evil plan.”

My pipe clattered against the stone, spilling ash and smoke. I didn’t remember sheathing my sword, but it was out in my hand in a heartbeat. Part of me was ready to apologize if I was wrong, but I wasn’t. Hanno’s eyes were calm as he held the Severance, taking a single step forward. Akua brushed against my side, a comforting presence I dimly realized I’d expected. Not even for me but because she cared for Masego herself. She’d called it a nudge, righting a wrong left to fester, and she’d not lied. But it’d been more than that too.

“Hanno,” I said, “this is exactly what she wants.”

“I am aware,” the White Knight evenly replied. “But you have confirmed yourself, Catherine, that should the Hierophant finish his apotheosis it will bring about mass slaughter.”

“We don’t beat her like this,” I hissed. “Not if we let her-”

“Kill me after, if it makes you feel better,” Hanno of Arwad tiredly said. “Two lives for hundreds of thousands? That is not a choice, it is a duty.”

“Or you could die in the attempt,” Akua said. “Stripping us of your strength, just as the Intercessor wishes.”

The White Knight considered us for a long moment, then shook his head.

“I probably will,” he said. “But he’ll die too. A fair bargain.”

I had nothing to threaten him with, I realized. He’d already decided he had a duty and he was dead. I’d once given Tariq pause by threatening to murder the Grand Alliance and wield its remains against Keter should it cross me, but that wouldn’t work here. The cause was spent, the battle ended, and I had given too much of myself to Calernia for Hanno to believe me if I swore calamity over this. He knew me too well.

He was, in some ways, my friend.

“I wish it could be otherwise,” the White Knight told me, and I believed him. “But it is Catherine Foundling who would fight me over this, not the Warden.”

The echo of Akua’s words returned to haunt me, the wants of the woman and the needs of the queen. The tall hero straightened, blade rising.

“We’ll all lose friends today,” Hanno said. “I’m sorry it had to be by my hand, Catherine.”

And was that to be it? I’d kill him or he killed Masego and maybe I’d lose both anyway. The Intercessor had grabbed me by the hair and dragged me back on the Tower’s steps, my bloody knife in hand. What life was I to take this time, how many was I to bury?

“You’ll have to hold him back,” Akua murmured, “before I can land a curse. I believe I have something that can hold him down, though I know not all the strings to his bow.”

And I breathed in sharply, because I had my way out. The Intercessor herself had given it to me earlier.

“It won’t work,” I said, and Hanno stilled.

His eyes were on me, his gaze steady as he looked for the lie.

“She has other stories lying in wait,” I said. “Killing Hierophant only makes her change to them.”

“Other stories,” the White Knight slowly said. “Such as?”

And I’d not known then, but it seemed so obvious now that I’d felt out her schemes. No matter how skilled her hand, Yara wouldn’t have been able to be sure that Masego would forge a godhead. Her story, though, was that of the Choir of Judgement striking down an Evil god. And it so happened there was one of these certain to be at hand.

“It’s Sve Noc,” I said. “We mended Night, made it better, and raised them anew. They’re more dangerous now and they won’t burn out. Judgement will want to end them and they can try it through me.”

I wasn’t sure if they’d win, but it wouldn’t matter. The struggle would kill the people the Bard wanted dead anyway and that was the whole point. I watched Hanno game it through, wonder if everyone could be Saved by killing me as well, but even if he could do it there was no guarantee the Intercessor didn’t have a third string lying in wait. It would be just like her, I thought as my eye went to the woman still sprawled on the Dead King’s throne, to get us to kill each other until no one was left and victory landed bloody in her lap.

“You’re right,” the White Knight finally said.

And it was a load off my shoulders.

“We can’t win by beating her here,” I said. “She can’t die and even if we drive her away she’ll keep at this. Find a way to sow ruin while we try to recover after the war, push us over the edge.”

“She has to be bound,” Akua softly said.

And I held both Fetters in my hands, the rings of copper and bronze that would be put on once and never taken off. The Intercessor idly strummed her lute, still tuned from her song earlier, and smiled at me.

“Ah, and now we get to the good part,” she said. “Are you coming to be bind me, Catherine?”

“You’re the last relic left, Yara,” I told her, stepping forward. “It’s time for you to be buried with the rest.”

A flash of rage distorted that pretty tanned face, turning it ugly, but it was gone in an instant. I waked past corpses fresh and old, past broken stone and the Dead King’s remains.

“And that’s for you to decide?” she asked.

“I am the Warden,” I simply replied, and Creation echoed of the word.

She only smiled.

“Not the right kind,” she told me. “We made sure of that.”

Silence,” I ordered, stepping forward.

And then the Intercessor laughed.

“Try the other one, your third,” she told me. “The one we made sure you’d come into before this moment. See what happens.”

And dread seized me, because in that moment I understood what she’d done. I had my three aspects, one formed to bring about the end of the Dead King himself. My Role was settled, seared into Creation as loudly as triumphantly as a Role ever had been. And it was not the Role of a jailer, for all that my Name could hold the meaning.

“Yeah,” Yara gently said, “you lost before you even started.”

I’d fallen for the oldest trap: you put two choices in front of someone and forced them to choose so that they might never realize there was a third. If I’d had an aspect to spare, if there had still been room for my Role to settle… Instead I’d chosen between Guide and Sentence, as it’d never occurred to me I could refuse to choose at all. No, that’s arrogance, I told myself. We wouldn’t have killed the Dead King without my last aspect. If I’d chosen nothing we would have lost, and the Bard gotten her way again.

“I win,” Yara of Nowhere smiled, “or I win, or I win. That’s the only kind of game worth playing, Catherine.”

If I used the Fetters on her, they wouldn’t work. I knew that with sudden, ironclad certainty. I didn’t have the right weight behind me. It couldn’t be me, and I’d not made much of a case for Hanno. He could and would offer, I knew that, but in the end he was below me. My subordinate. It was an ill-fitting match, and I could try to fit it in the story of an unkillable Evil being imprisoned by a hero through worthy sacrifice, but Yara had headed me off there already. I am providence made flesh, she’d claimed, and I had not contested it.

I was at a loss.

Wind brushed past me and a streak of darkness hit the Bard’s arm as she let out a yelp of pain, burrowing through the stained leather and sinking into the flesh. I glanced back to see Akua approaching, a cold look on her face, and Hanno looking at her with disapproval. It was easy to see why, since one of Yara’s arms had withered dry. It looked like a mummified husk, though the Intercessor looked more amused than anything.

“Well, you made sure not to kill me,” she drawled. “Feeling better, oh mighty Sahelian?”

Akua brushed past me, armour whispering against mine, and cocked her head to the side.

“Slightly,” she said. “But I am not finished.”

“Enough,” Hanno said, drawing my eye to him. “Torture will accomplish nothing and is unworthy of-”

There was no longer a sheath at his hip, I idly noticed. He must have lost it at some point in the fighting, though it hardly mattered since the Severance would not have fit it. It cut too deeply to… I clenched my fingers then unclenched them. The Saint of Swords and once cut my aspect domain, using Sever. The same aspect we’d made into the blade. So it still should be capable of that, with the right guidance. The first time I’d reached for my third aspect, Masego was forced to cut it out of me. The second time it mixed with Winter, became a domain that was not entirely mine. I had a precedent, a pattern forming, and most of all a story to ride.

I had never been above mutilating myself to win.

“Hanno,” I said, cutting through whatever he’d been saying. “I need you to do something for me.”

“Catherine?” he asked.

I paused a moment, choosing my words so I could ask him to cut my third aspect out of me in a way he would not refuse. It was the mutilation of my soul, but it was also a way out of the trap I had fallen into. Like the fox in the trap, I would eat through my leg rather than perish. Without Sentence, my Name was once more incomplete. It’d be damaged, my legitimacy in my Role diminished. I’d be misaligned. And though I would make myself into a bastard thing, it would be a bastard thing that might just be able to fetter the Intercessor. That was how you killed a god, wasn’t it? By making another.

And I would destroy who I was until I became what was needed to win.

My mouth opened to speak, but Akua interrupted me with a sigh.

“You’re bleeding yourself again, aren’t you?” she asked.

I refused to meet her eyes, the accusing gold.

“I used to admire that in you, darling, did you know?” Akua told me. “Your willingness to destroy yourself to win.”

“It’s not pretty,” I said, “but it works.”

I forced myself to look at her then, truly look at her. We were no longer the girls we’d been at seventeen, worn down by war and grief and the scars of the lessons we’d learned, but I could look at Akua Sahelian today and see in her the shade of the girl I’d first glimpsed sitting across my father in a tent. The same tall hourglass figure, sharp aristocratic cheekbones and deep golden eyes. Changed by time, all of them, but the roots were unchanged. I’d thought her stunning before I learned to hate her, and I still though it now that I’d learned not to. She was in armour, her face touched with grime and the lingering stiffness of the Dead King’s curse, and yet I could still understand why as a girl I’d thought her the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.

“I have learned,” Akua Sahelian gently smiled, “not to settle for that.”

And the circlet of copper and bronze she had stolen from me sunk into her wrist, the first of the Fetters bound. An exclamation of dismay ripped itself free of my throat, scraping it raw. I reached for her but she shook me off, and the words I was chewing on were drowned out by the Intercessor’s mocking laughter.

You?” she guffawed. “Come on, Doom of Liesse. My dearest folly. You think taking the fall for Catherine because you love her will be enough? Love’s never enough, child.”

She leaned forward in her throne, blue eyes burning.

“Stop wasting our time,” Yara of Nowhere said. “You still keep to Below, and just because you’ve learned that other people are people doesn’t make you redeemed.”

A wide, nasty smile greeted Akua’s unflinching approach. She held, I saw, the second Fetter in her hand. I jerked forward, a spasm of the heart, but before I could finish the step Hanno’s hand caught my arm. His eyes were kind, but they were also firm. I turned away, chewing on my lip.

“You’re not dying either, I made sure of that,” the Intercessor said. “It’s not a way out for you, you don’t get anything out of it.”

“You are,” Akua Sahelian idly said, “a liar.”

Yara blinked.

“I assure you, you’re not dy-”

“You called yourself luck,” Akua said, “but that is a lie, Intercessor. You are not a blind roll of the dice. You take sides.”

“I’ve helped both sides of the Game,” the Intercessor dismissed, “I-”

“You help Good,” Akua said. “When you have the choice, that is the truth of you. Providence made flesh is the truth of you, Yara of Nowhere, because you are the golden luck of heroes.”

“You’re quibbling,” Yara snorted. “You’d bind me with a complaint?”

“Not to you,” Akua Sahelian smiled. “To your masters, for all that you know so do they. And through you I give grievance, for your game is unfair. How can it be a true wager, when your own Intercessor favours a side?”

The Intercessor went very, very still.

“You don’t know what you’re doing, girl,” she hoarsely whispered. “If you had any idea-”

And we felt it all, then. The weight. The attention. Akua Sahelian had called on the Gods, and the Gods listened.

“Fortune and misfortune,” she said. “Providence and calamity. It takes two to make it even.”

She leaned forward and the Intercessor scrabbled back on the throne, lute dropping on the ground and snapping a string as the silver flask toppled over the edge and began spilling liquor all over the floor. Dark red, like blood. But there was nowhere to run, and the Fetter slid around her wrist.

Its lettering burned bright, for the barest of moments, and then it sank beneath her skin.

“No,” Yara shouted. “NO. You can’t-”

Akua struck her across the mouth, shattering teeth as the Intercessor fell on the tiles. She spasmed there, crawling and going away.

“I simply cannot abide screaming,” Akua told her. “You will have to learn that if we are to be colleagues.”

Yara kept crawling away, bleeding from the mouth, and as Hanno finally released my arm I rushed forward. Gods but my leg hurt. Akua only half-turned towards me, but it was enough. I swept her in my arms, her armour rough against mine, and though I had to dip her backwards I found her mouth. It should have been hard and wanting, after too many years of denial, but it wasn’t. It was… soft. And yet the yearning would not leave me, or her, and it felt unbearable to part even when I had to suck in a trembling breath.

“Ah,” Akua faintly said. “So that’s what it feels like.”

“I was,” I began, but then choked on the words. “I couldn’t…”

“I know,” she murmured against my cheek. “I know. We are who we are.”

“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” I admitted.

“I wouldn’t have, if you did,” Akua said. “It’s my choice, Catherine. I saw what I could be, and though it is not a penance…”

She half-smiled.

“I have learned lessons,” she said. “And instead of letting them join me in the grave made of Liesse, I would teach them with the villains that will follow in my wake.”

My heart clenched.

“She might not let you,” I whispered. “Neither of you can nudge if the other doesn’t allow it.”

“So we will have to bargain,” Akua softly laughed. “Else we will be nothing at all.”

From the corner of my eye I saw Hanno kneeling by Yara’s side, Light glowing around his hand, and I realized that he was healing her. She’d just tried to kill us all, to kill all of Calernia, and yet Hanno of Arwad knelt besides the woman in pain and tried to help her.

It was, I thought, the essence of the man.

Akua drew away and though I resisted I did not force her to stay.  She took a step back, watching my face, and something like grief flicked across her face.

“Finish it,” she quietly asked.

Cold dread filled my stomach.

“You can’t really be asking me that,” I said.

“We will only know for certain it has worked after,” Akua said.

“That’s not what I meant,” I replied.

“I know,” she smiled. “But for our parting, my love, perhaps it is my turn to be allowed to wield the cruelty.”

I could have argued. I could have screamed and railed and refused, but all it would have done was mar this. A moment neither of us would get back. So instead I paid my dues, my long price, and drew the knife that’d killed my father.

“I love you,” I said.

It had never admitted it to her before. I likely never would again.

“And I you, my heart,” Akua said, eyes golden like the sun. “Farewell.”

And I killed her, like she’d asked me. Plunged the knife into her heart, parting flesh, until she leaned forward to gently kiss me and let out a soft gasp against my lips. She died, and in the instant she did she was gone. So was the Intercessor, the other side of that now forever spinning coin. Hanno rose to his feet, face solemn, as behind us Masego let out a loud gasp. Sorcery billowed out, light filling the hall and rising through the tower like a shining star as the Hierophant finished forging his godhead. It was over, I thought, touching my cheek and finding tears there. I closed my eye and leaned against my staff, feeling the last of my strength leave me.

We’d won.

We’d lost.

So began the Age of Order.

207 thoughts on “Chapter 68: Hallow; Hollow

  1. Mary Gentle

    First things first: thanks, ErraticErrata, for doing some truly remarkable things on the journey through these books. I joined in #3, and the story episodes gripped me thereafter.

    I don’t know how to feel about the climax.

    It doesn’t feel like a victory, as someone else remarked. I’ve read it through twice, and read the comments, hoping to find an understanding why it feels like such a disappointment to me.

    It’s not just the lack of some of the people we’ve loved, but it’s partly that. Though I understand it would be difficult to orchestrate Hakram, Vivian, Rumena, and Anaraxes (to pick some) to be on the same spot for the climax. But… They were a loss I felt.

    After thinking a lot, it comes down to this for me, and I don’t particularly expect anyone else to agree with the viewpoint:

    If Akua Sahelian was going to be the one to end the Age of Wonders — why the hell have we been following this Catherine-somebody around?

    Which is another way of saying: If the Age of Wonders was going to be ended, as it’s been woven into the story since the beginning, then Cat has to do it.

    Whether by self-mutitation or some other device, it ought to have been Catherine Foundling. The Story says that.

    Yes, I follow the logic of the narrative as it’s on the page. The problem for me is, I don’t believe it.

    I don’t mind if Akua becomes the Practical Guide, but I do mind that it’s her act that is the decisive one. I mind that Catherine Foundling stands there like a spare prick at a wedding as the Age of Order is ushered in. Yes, she was about to do something. But she didn’t.

    Maybe my expectations were too big. I suppose I was expecting something like the end of Book 5, with Kairos, but turned up to the max. (Though, has Kairos’s last chapter been edited since it was first put into the Guide? Something seems different about it.)

    I guess there are two episode chapters to come, so the fat lady hasn’t quite sung. Possibly there’s something there that will make me see this differently.

    Like

    1. ninegardens

      I can see what you’re getting at. Mostly I think… Akua has been Cat’s project for the last 4 books. In some sense I’d say that in some sense Cat has brought about the end of the age of wonders, (and the creation of the age of order) because she managed to talk everyone else into it.

      She CONVINCED the White night and first prince to work with villians. She didn’t make the final decision, they did, but she convinced them.
      She CONVINCED Akua Sahelian, the most recent scion of “age of Wonders” villiany to reject the teachings she was brought up with, and embrace the age of wonders. It was Akua’s final choice, but the point is Cat was the one that led her there.

      In a similar bent, Hanno and Tariq are responsible for Mirror knights development. The sacrifices he made, and his key part in defeating the Dead King are his own, but a big part of this story is about the importance of *investing* in people. This is something Cat does. Something Hanno does. Something Amadeus does…. and something Yara and Nessie were incapable of.
      Something Akua Sahelian *was* incapable of. Some Malicia failed at.

      I’m not particularly keen on the Catkua ship and all, but like… for me it makes sense that Cat’s final defining “act” isn’t her inteligence, isn’t her habit of self mutilation, and isn’t pragmatism. It’s the trust she has invested in people, over and over and over again. Still feels a bit weird, I agree, but it does feel on theme.

      Liked by 18 people

      1. ninegardens

        *and embrace the age of ORDER.

        God damn typos. Wish I could edit these things. Blehk.

        In other news, now that all is said and done, what do people think of Kairos? Was he a monster and a villian (okay, yes, yes he was), or was he one of the heroes of the age, one of the few to outmanuever WB and DK? (although… given Yara’s bullshittery here, it doesn’t really seem like Kairos’ gambit ever ACTUALLY troubled her. Hmmmmmmmm… 😦

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

          Re: the ending: I think you hit the nail on the head.

          Re: Kairos: he is my terrible, metaphorical-bastard* son and I love him. I’d call him a goblin, but this story has those. However, I have forgotten many details of his interactions with DK in particular. Not sure about WB.

          *That is, a son who is metaphorically bastardous as opposed to an illegitimate son. Obviously he isn’t literally my son.

          Liked by 5 people

      1. fp

        That’s part of what feels a bit off in this ending to me. I feel like Akua was clearly in love with Cat, but with Cat it always seemed more she just thought Akua was hot (and thought it a lot).

        Other thing with this ending is I also agree that it seems a bit weird for Akua to take the “Practical Guide” roll, where it doesn’t seem like she’d have all that much to offer other than “If you’re thinking of killing an entire city, maybe don’t” and maybe something of a Villain Therapist eventually? Whereas Cat would clearly be equipped to give tons of name lore tips, and try to set people up to work together and be successful, and I could see her really enjoying that.

        Overall still enjoyed it though.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. D

          I think we’re supposed to read Cat as an unreliable narrator when it comes to how she feels about Akua. She’s been presenting her thoughts as “yeah, she’s just hot” but so insistently so that it could be read as her being in denial about having caught feelings.

          Liked by 6 people

        2. caoimhinh

          Yeah, the switch of Catherine’s view from “Wow, she’s damn hot” to “OMG she is the love of my life” seems very very weird. Because besides Akua being hot and showing signs of Catherine’s plan of rehabilitation/redemption working, it didn’t seem like something that should have awakened such deep feelings of love in Catherine.

          Also, Catherine inner monologue acts as if this was her plan all along, but that’s a complete lie, given that the Dead King didn’t invade until Book 5, and the plan of using the Crown of Autumn couldn’t exist until after the Dead King started invading, yet Catherine already had Akua out of the Mantle of Woe by that time, and only further on into Book 6 did they get to prove Masego’s theory of Quartered Seasons.
          So the redemption story for Akua was something Cat came up with later on.

          Outwardly pretending it was her plan all along, like whenever she talked to Vivienne about it, is fine, but having that inside her own mind is weird.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. tynam

            Catherine has been called out before, most notably by Killian, for lying to herself (and thus in her internal narrative, to us) about her feelings for Akua. The unreliable narrator should not be a surprise; Catherine’s internal thoughts about Akua were over-emphasised and unconvincing in exactly the same way as when Catherine lies flagrantly to avoid embarrassing herself but admitting she cares about the Woe.

            I certainly read it as a love story since before the ‘betrayal’ before After; it’s the only reading that made sense to me.

            And, no, it’s not a complete lie that this was the plan all along. Sure, Catherine didn’t know about Quartered Seasons way back in the everdark, but she is genre savvy enough to have known there’d be _something_ like that waiting at the end.

            Liked by 4 people

          2. Lord Haart

            It’s not a Redemption Story. Akua is aligned to Below, even more strongly than at Liesse.

            It’s just that she isn’t trying to win the game with the same old rules, instead setting new ones.

            I think Akua being the pivot here made perfect sense and narratively differentiates PTGE from being “standard fantasy protagonist is the chosen one snoozefest” material.

            It was an ending that made perfect sense but which I didn’t quite see either – I thought Akua would be a jailor, which is more Cat’s role, but her being a guide makes much more sense to me. Cat is a more experienced mentor, but didn’t have quite the rage against Above and fondness for Below that Akua does.

            Like

    2. Rynjin

      Cat’s entire character arc since the Underdark has been about becoming a leader, more than a doer. Manipulating all the pieces and putting them in the right place…and moreover, trusting them all to play their part because of who they are.

      She was never going to be the one to bind the final evil. The sacrifice, for once, was not hers to make. Instead, she has the responsibility and penance of living in the world she’s created.

      Liked by 6 people

    3. Jkyoulost

      But Akua isn’t the Practical Guide. She’s Calamity to WB Providence. Cat is still the one left on the mortal plane in Cardinal, set to guide the course of Named for the Age if Order, while Wandering Akua are trapped bickering back and forth for the rest of time.

      Liked by 3 people

    4. Vortex

      I actually like that the story did not end with Cat cleaning everything up again. She has literally done that dozens of times, abusing herself and sacrificing herself to take the final win.

      To give up control and let someone else take action feels like a much stronger character defining moment than jamming her dogged determination down everyone’s throat yet again.

      There were some awesome moments in Cat’s defiance of the previous books, but in this final instance I think entrusting the final defiance to others is a mark of how far she has come as a leader and how much she has grown as a character. I am quite happy with it.

      Liked by 5 people

    5. Xavius Night

      I think it is as the chapter for Eudokia played out: all of this is about Catherine bending the rules of the story, over and over again, because she’s following the rules in the meanest way possible. Just as Scribe slew a school of assassins with its own hands, Catherine wrote the story of the next age to bear a different person as the focal point of its birth from the death of the old.
      And in the end, she did teach Akua the lesson of Callow: for the small slight of defeating her over and over again, she gave the long price of an ever-broken heart to Catherine.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Crash

    Well, the past few chapters have been a constant feeling of being kicked while you’re down. It makes sense it’d come to this, then.

    It has been a great journey. Joined in kinda late, around the time Kairos was working up to his death. Left and came back again often as life got in the way of things, but for this last stretch I’ve been caught up and it’s been a blast. It really hits different waiting out the days and reading on launch.

    I’ll be looking forward to the epilogues, Pale Lights and whatever you write next EE, this has been amazing. Thank you.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Hoo boy, that was a really solid ending. Not sure why folks are complaining about someone else taking the spotlight at the end. Nobody complains about Gollum walking the ring the last two steps, after all.

    Looking forward to what you write next because gosh darn was this an amazing series.

    Liked by 12 people

    1. Mary Gentle

      😊 You’d be surprised how many people complain about Gollum doing just that.

      There’s a thematic thing Tolkein has going that makes it work (for him), because his universe functions on Divine Providence. It’s important that nobody be able to resist the Ring, because otherwise, perhaps anybody could have. And then maybe you start wondering if Boromir was right after all. But if Frodo fails, and Gollum — by Providence — falls into a volcano, that’s supposed to solve the moral difficulty. It doesn’t, for me, but I can see that, in-story, it does.

      I don’t get that feeling here. There isn’t, for me, a thematic link between Akua and the current arrangemend of Good and Evil. Not the way there has been for Catherine, ever since Amadeus chose her.

      But I’m still hoping that something from the epilogues will put it into focus for me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. AnRighteouS

        Really liked the ending since imo it derives from akua spending the entire series coming to terms with no matter how good she is her past acts will never be truly forgiven. She then becomes the evil counterpart to the WB, an undesirable role.
        In other words, she will forever be evil and this is her eternal attempt to atone for her actions. She shows to some degree how one can be Evil yet good.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. Lord Haart

        I hear you but Akua is the final thesis of Age of Wonders Villainy. And if Above, too, because Above world never let Villains succeed without a narrative Damocles Sword above their heads.

        Akua’s pivot here is one she is more for to make than Cat. Cat is really practical neutral in many ways, she wants peace even if it means blunting Villainous aspirations. She did not like Wekesa and if she hadn’t been Masego’s friend for so long, wouldn’t have approved of another diety for Below. I think Akua is much more Below-aligned, but just as practical now after the events of the series. She won’t sabotage Villains from the start – but she WILL demand they do better.

        Like

  4. Thanatoss

    Great Ending!

    The only small tidbit I would complain about is that there WAS a story about:
    1. Cat being parallel to Triumphant.
    2. Cat defying gods many times and forging a story that she can defy them.
    3. Probably something I did forget..
    Hmmm

    Anyways absolute perfect ending! Beautiful! I MUST see the aftermath before I die, XD

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lord Haart

      Yes true – Cat had made a habit of bending angels to her will.

      But Judgement was much warier of her and would have been a gamble to have pit herself against Bard there.

      It also wouldn’t have solved that Yara would just do the same in a few decades or centuries.

      Like

  5. Velrix

    Thanks for this story, damn I’m tearing up.

    I’m loving the end of the chapter, but I feel the middle a little lackluster. It feel a little bad compared to your habitual masterwork.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks so much EE! Really excellent! Love the whole chapter! What a relief that the tension has finally been released. Looking forward to the cleanup. Climax between Cat and Akua was great and emotional and beautifully tense. Glad that Akua stopped Cat from making that self mutilation hat trick. The world would not have had half the chance it should have in the aftermath of it all if The Warden had disappeared into the Nothing with Yara.

    It had to be Akua. But damn that’s bittersweet. What bargains will Akua and Yara make? Will they be competing to see who can guide hero’s or villains the best? Will they learn to work together? Will they sit in a pit of mutual hatred forever? Will Akua’s spell casting abilities + the wisdom she has learned be enough to face off against the Bards machinations? Will Akua bargain for an annual reunion with Cat?

    These are the questions that will keep me up tonight.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Tristan

    Do you know what I would find a very satisfying second epilogue?

    Cat, having lived a long life as the Warden, ushering in the new Era, uses her story-fu to arrange a meeting between her, Yara and Akua. There, she voluntarily steps into (some evolution of) Yara’s role and takes over her fetter, finally allowing Yara to move on and die, and leaving Cat and Akua chained together guiding future Villains and Heoroes towards a brighter future. While making sweet love in the Between.

    (As for the objection that both Cat and Akua are Villains, I don’t think that’s really is a problem. Akua, with her redemption arch were poised for a Heroic name, while Yara, having started out as a Hero, was more or less a Villain in the end with her plot to end the world. Cat has a fairly neutral Role as the Warden and I think the Gods might accept Cat and Akua as a sort of a third power that can mitigate the excesses of both Good and Evil.)

    Finally, a big thank you to the author. It’s been an absolute pleasure. I will be buying physical copies of the story as soon as they are available. However the epilogues turn out…

    Liked by 3 people

  8. JoeArchipelago

    My first comment in many years reading this series. I just want to thank you, EE. The story has brought me through a lot. I love the story so far, and I love the last few chapters, this one included. I absolutely love your characters – Akua has been my favourite so far, and her ending does not disappoint.

    I am looking forward to your next work!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thecount

    Thank you for sharing this story Erratic, its beautiful.
    It will always have a place on my shelf, and i will forever recommend it to everyone.
    Hope it was, is and will be something you will look back kindly just as much as i will, for all the years it and you helped me endure the years.
    Again, Thank You, and i hope your next project, whatever it will be, will also bring at least as much joy to people and to you as this story.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Someperson

    Well damn

    Wasn’t really sure where Akua’s story was going and I had a feeling it would bite the bard in the ass but yeah she really does have the story to be the Tragedy that balances out the Bard’s Providence

    In some way, this satisfies Catherine’s whole arc on a deeper level, not of trying to *break* the game of the gods like Amadeus but simply insisting that the game is made fair.

    That was what the Accords and the Age of Order really did, after all. Reforming the rules and reforming fate. The perpetual finger on the scales that is Providence was the last step in that process.

    Man though the Gods in this setting are kind of all jerks

    Liked by 3 people

  11. starflower

    EE… I regret not leaving comments throughout the book. I’ve been with this book since 2017, and I think it’s tied for my favorite work of fiction ever, I adore it and I’ve learned so much from your characters. Every time I got bored with the story, I came back later and got pulled into it again. And this… was a brilliant climax. I worried if things would work, how the *hell*, after all this buildup, it could actually work, but I kept reminding myself that trusting you had worked before and… that worked, and it was beautiful. Cat & Akua, specifically, made me crying. Akua is my favorite and I’m holding back feelings until I read the epilogues and learn how she actually ends up, but… Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, this is a masterpiece, and it means so much to me. Now to the epilogues!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Black Spiral Dancer

    Came late this time… I now know why… I have been postponing this moment… I love endings, yet I hate what comes after. A void. I hate the age of Order, just like I hated it when Tolkien wrote it out. I want no place in it.

    I am as the villain of Yore, more like Dead King than Kairos although I deeply admired him as well for his boldness. My story plays along the same lines as his, with a twist.

    It was during this ling story that I have had my own enlightenment, when I finally saw that our world indeed had a written foundation behind, and inner threads that can be altered if you keep the balance just right.

    Throughout my life, I have tested the ramdomness of our own world, and tried to so subtly end it more than once while leaving a way out, and saw that again and again I would not die as long as I did not tempt that directly (as of course, like in any story, then I would have surely died). It felt like I was here for something out of the ordinary, yet I could not SEE what, for I could see the paths of life and I rejected almost every role in it. Almost, not all. But the one role I did not reject seemed more than unlikely, but borderline impossible.

    Yet the trigger I had been waiting appeared at the precise time I thought it would and it was an unlikely blend by itself, a rare gate that opened at the precise time, something that I had not seen before. And through that trigger I began my first change. I was born half a monster, yet now I had enough time to ponder if I wanted to become a less-than-perfect man or a complete monster, and though that was a choice, it wasn’t really: I was never one to be content with being lesser.

    I have done then, as Catherine did, a leap in the dark, trusting I knew better, and the story came through as I had thought it might… and I knew then, I had my second true glimpse that my life was not random, nor this world was random as I was taught it was.

    Yet my change was yet skin-deep, and although I had now the flesh of the role I accepted, I had not the Story, I had no way to tell my truth because I knew truth not. I could only walk in the maze with closed eyes, knowing not even it was a maze, only having faith that I was not in an endless plain: for a maze, for all its dead ends and turns, does lead somewhere… until I hit the third glimpse, my truth. At the age I was expecting, but exactly when it was almost ending and I had completely forgotten I had been waiting for it. And like a truck had hit me… I was shocked to my core. Twice, for I felt an echo stir exactly 7 days after, at the same time as if to re-assure me it wasn’t chance or randomness. And now I had a Truth, a Story behind me, and a Name.

    And I could hardly believe it but I knew then that this world was as fake as the world of Calernia: we are but shadows of such a greater reality we can merely grasp the edges, yet we go blindly thinking we know all there is. Folly. I could SEE now how my life was carefully laid out, piece by piece, to achieve, to get to the point I was standing, and not by some higher divine being some call a god, but by… me. I knew myself best, I knew what I wanted and how I thought things, and I posted signs where I knew I would look for, and they were always there, they never failed, because it was written.

    I knew then that much of what was thought and said was twisted echoes of the truth, the road was so long abandoned and blocked by thrash that few could ever see or pass.

    For it was believed that spirituality was GOOD and the carnal, the material, was EVIL. Oh, just like Yara did, two choices were offered only to hide there was a third… which turned everything in its axis. For before Time, before the clock and the Age changed, there was Spirit and Flesh and there was not that GOOD which nowadays is praised by most religions. That time is now seen as EVIL, but it was just another path, one which led to shadowed paths beneath the Earth, not to the bright sky, but just like now, that was seen as the only path. Talk about balance…

    We have reached, as Tolkien and ErraticErrata wrote, the End of the Age, and a new future looms closeby. Yet I am not willing to live then, for that future seems too ordered, too clean, too bright, and I like the shadows. So I will take once again that old, old path which was abandoned. And like a dark wind, I will CLEAR the way again and allow choice to bloom. For the world still sleeps, but I am awakening, and though the path goes down infinitely, I have no regrets while I walk it, for I have seen the sky and I found it tedious, the heavens boring and lackluster. From deep I came, and I have chosen again that it is where I belong. I again jump, and with me much of this age will FALL, and we will build a world where the gloom never ends, where the shadows lay and make our imaginations vivid with magic. Lies and Violence, yes, but oh, so much more too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lord Haart

      Be safe man. Age of Order or Wonder, this series is really about forming healthy connections with others, moving through pain to find support, and knowing that the infinite is really no match for the finite.

      Like

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