Featured

Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

For twenty years the Dread Empress has ruled over the lands that were once the Kingdom of Callow, but behind the scenes of this dawning golden age threats to the crown are rising. The nobles of the Wasteland, denied the power they crave, weave their plots behind pleasant smiles. In the north the Forever King eyes the ever-expanding borders of the Empire and ponders war. The greatest danger lies to the west, where the First Prince of Procer has finally claimed her throne: her people sundered, she wonders if a crusade might not be the way to secure her reign. Yet none of this matters, for in the heart of the conquered lands the most dangerous man alive sat across an orphan girl and offered her a knife.

Her name is Catherine Foundling, and she has a plan.


A Practical Guide to Evil is a YA fantasy novel about a young girl named Catherine Foundling making her way through the world – though, in a departure from the norm, not on the side of the heroes. Is there such a thing as doing bad things for good reasons, or is she just rationalizing her desire for control? Good and Evil are tricky concepts, and the more power you get the blurrier the lines between them become.

Updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

Advertisements

Chapter 60: Profiteers

“In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is lynched.”
– Praesi saying

Since my crowning I’d found it necessary to occasionally entertain ‘people of import’. It wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed, but a shared meal and a bottle of wine was a decent way to take a good look at what influential individuals of Callow were up to. Most of the time it’d been members of the Queen’s Council or envoys from my governors, more rarely emissaries from the northern baronies. Those dinners tended to be calm affairs, where more importance was placed on the conversation than the food. I rather preferred the dwarven take on it, all things told. After nibbling at rations for weeks, a slab of ribs lathered in sauce with a goblet of some kind of pitch-black liquor that smelled like berries and kicked like a mule were a delightful change of pace. The Herald had made a point out of being the one to offer them, even if another dwarf brought the plates, which I guessed to be some point of dwarven etiquette. The table was granite and low even by my standards, though it’d clearly been crafted with burlier types in mind: Akua and I didn’t even come close to filling our side of it.

The Herald and his interpreter – not that he needed one, as it turned out – had dug into their own plates without any mannerly pretences. I followed suit, rather enjoying the meat even though I did not recognize it. The liquor was a treat though, I’d own to that much. Diabolist was more interested in the fine make of the cutlery we were using than the meal, though she made sure to eat and drink enough no insult would be taken. The dwarves polished off their plates at admirable speed, knocking back the liquor all the while, and it was not long before all were finished. There’d been no attempt at conversation while the plates were on the table, not from their side anyway. I’d followed suit, in no great hurry, and Akua had followed my example. Soldiers took away the plates when we were done, bringing bowls of tepid water to the table where the dwarves soaked their fingers clean before wiping on cloths. My brows rose. They were a strangely clean people, for a race that dwelled in dirt. Still, I imitated them and saw with mild disappointment that our cups and bottle were taken away.

“Diplomacy cannot be had over such mild drinks, Queen Catherine,” Balasi told me amusedly, having noticed my look. “It would be unseemly.”

“Your people have an enlightened sense of etiquette, Seeker,” I replied. “The liquor, may I ask what it is called?”

“Black kasi,” the dwarf said. “I will part with a bottle as gift, should these talks be fruitful.”

It’d been a long time since a bribe that baldly offered had tempted me even a little, I mused.

“The stakes have been raised,” I drily replied.

Soldiers returned with four small wooden bowls and set them down before each of us. I studied mine curiously: oak, if I was not mistaken. Old and rough, never varnished or sculpted. A heavy glass bottle was brought, and the dwarven soldier bearing it very carefully poured maybe half a cup’s worth of liquid into each bowl. It looked like wine, I thought, but vapour wafted off the surface and it was very clearly near boiling. I glanced at Balasi and found him staring at his own bowl reverently.

“It must be allowed to seep,” he told me. “These bowls have never seen other purpose than the cradling of sudra, and so the taste of old toasts mixes with the new.”

“I’m honoured,” I said, inclining my head.

“As it should be,” the Herald said. “No such bottle has ever left the Kingdom Under. I doubt more than a dozen of your kind ever tasted sudra, much less properly served.”

It was utterly wasted on me, considering my tastes in drink had moved from ‘decent table wine’ to ‘nearly flammable’ since I’d taken up my mantle. It might be undiplomatic to say as much, though, and I was curious about the taste. I inclined my head again, a little deeper this time. The Herald of the Deeps responded in kind.

“You were introduced as Queen of Callow,” the green-eyed dwarf said. “Yet your second name is Foundling, not Fairfax.”

“There are no more Fairfaxes,” I said. “They were slain to the last, when the Dread Empire of Praes conquered Callow. I am first and only of my line.”

“A worthy purpose, that will have earned no small burden,” Balasi said approvingly.

The Herald turned amused eyes on him, then back to me.

“You will have to forgive my old friend,” he said. “He is quite the radical, even for a seeker of deeds.”

“No offence was taken,” I said. “There was none to be found, in my eyes.”

“I have told you before, delein,” the deed-seeker snorted. “The ways of their kind may be chaotic, but they are not without merit.”

“To each thing born, purpose and burden,” the Herald chided. “What you seek as correction is mere revelation. Our truth is absolute.”

I was missing too much context to be able to truly follow that exchange, but some guesses could be hazarded. Purpose and burden, huh. There was a weight to that, one familiar to me. Name and Role. Indrani had said that the deed-seeker were trying to win something other dwarves thought they weren’t supposed to have. Considering their way of going about it was to hunt the most dangerous creatures around, their behaviour might just be an attempt to raise their ‘purpose’ by first raising their ‘burden’. Interesting, and worth keeping in mind, but not ultimately why I was seated here with them.

“From your question I take it you’re not too familiar with surface affairs,” I said.

“They are neither my charge nor concern,” the Herald said. “Balasi is more knowledgeable of such affairs, though it has been some time since he last journeyed upwards.”

“Last I heard, Praes was trying to invade your people and getting smacked around for the presumption,” the deed-seeker said. “Queen Moirin was ruling, I believe.”

Queen Moiren, he likely meant. The grandmother of Good King Robert, the Fairfax who’d died on the Fields of Streges failing to turn back the Conquest. Anything they knew of the surface dated back at least a hundred years, then.

“Callow was conquered, and under my aegis was made independent again,” I said. “We are now at war with most the great powers of the surface, three of which have declared a crusade on Praes and would break my homeland on their march to the Tower.”

“And so you come to the Everdark in your hour of need,” Balasi said. “You must truly be desperate, to seek anything but corpses from the kraksun.”

“I’ve knocked at every other door,” I said. “The Dead King is on the march, now, and there are no limits to his hunger. This is no time to be squeamish about one’s allies.”

“The kraksun will flee, or perish,” the Herald of the Deeps said, and he spoke it not as promise or prophecy but as mere fact.

As if there could be no doubt. Gods, maybe there wasn’t. What little I knew of these people was enough to have me very, very wary – and they were just the vanguard.

“Such an outcome may very well be inevitable,” Akua said. “Yet the path by which it is reached remains shadowed, does it not? There is little purpose in entertaining us otherwise.”

Balasi cast a look at me.

“You allow your spirit a great deal of freedom,” he said.

“She has her uses,” I mildly replied. “And considering the costs of her service, she will be worked until she breaks.”

Diabolist bowed her head at me, without the slightest hint of displeasure on her face. It could be true, I thought. The right of the victor, she’d called it. It could also be a lie, and I would never know until the end. My very own viper, always dangerous no matter how tight the leash.

“How much do you know of this ruin of a realm, Queen Catherine?” the Herald asked.

I hesitated. Admitting ignorance here might see me hoodwinked. Dwarves were infamously disinclined to fair bargains. On the other hand, pretending to be an expert where I was not was just as dangerous in its own way. These were not people to trifle with.

“Little in most matters, yet I have glimpsed deep in some,” I finally said. “My power is both kin and foe to the Priestess of Night’s, in some eldritch way.”

The green-eyed dwarf nodded slowly.

“I have long studied their kind,” he said. “Seven wars we fought against them, two of them lost. Yet we won the last three, and the lands of their ancient colonies were swallowed in the Ninth Expansion. The echo of the last defeat saw them collapse, hiding behind the Gloom and turning their knives on each other. They are a pale imitation of what they once were.”

“A ruin of a realm,” I softly agreed. “And the spider at the centre of the web lies waiting in Tvarigu.”

“She is more monster than woman now,” Balasi said. “She devoured the Twilight Sages, it is said, and made them into the first of the Night. She has only grown since: her hand is on every knife, her lips wet with every red bite.”

“A creature without purpose,” the Herald said, and there was hatred in his voice. “A burden on all her kind. You surface people quibble over devils and books, but the Sve Noc is breathing blasphemy. Voices were raised, when we warred against the goblins, and Ishti’s Bargain extended as mercy. Yet there was only silence in the Deep Places, when call was made for war on the Everdark.”

“I have known little but war since I was sixteen,” I quietly said. “And so I know this: annihilation is a costly enterprise. To break an enemy is one thing, to destroy it wholesale another.”

“Yet annihilation is the only path, so long as the Sve Noc draws breath,” Balasi said. “Many will die, for this purpose. It will take decades to scatter the greatest of the Mighty and lay siege to Tvarigu itself, perhaps as long as a century. We will not have that.”

“The King of Death has turned his eyes to the wars of the surface,” the Herald said. “Yet we have seen this before. It never lasts. The dead will return to the depths soon enough.”

The green-eyed dwarf leaned in.

“The Gloom must fall,” the Herald of the Deeps said. “You fled forward, I think, without seeing our host. It is not only that, Queen of Callow. We have brought artisans and tenders, masons and runescribes. Families as well as soldiers.”

My fingers clenched under the table.

“You intend to settle the outer rings,” Akua said in my stead. “To raise fortress-cities from which you can fight the war against the drow even after the Dead King returns.”

“A long and bleak exile, for hundreds of thousands,” Balasi said. “None who felt this to be their purpose expect to see their kin for many years. The Fourteenth Expansion will be a treacherous one.”

“Yet if someone killed the Priestess of Night,” I said. “The Gloom would end. No exile, no hard decades of war severed from home.”

“Slayers have been sent before,” the Herald said. “As far as we known, none lived to reach the inner ring.”

“Yet you have taken kraksun prisoner,” Balasi said. “Used them. A dwarf would be attacked on sight. A human, of sufficient power? That would be different matter.”

I took a moment to let the implications of that sink in. Not that they wanted me to traipse through the Everdark and murder yet another demigod for their advantage – that much I’d expected – but the sheer scope of what they were undertaking. Hundreds of thousands, Seeker Balasi had said. That was all of eastern Callow, I thought. All those people sent marching across some sorcerous barrier not out of fear or desperation, but because the empire of the dwarves had deemed it strategic necessity to destroy the drow. What kind of empire could do that? The sum whole of the Tenth Crusade, which had three great nations joined, could barely muster two hundred thousand soldiers. I’d read as a child that the Kingdom Under likely spanned two thirds of Calernia underground: that to the east it reached the heartlands of Praes, to the south it touched the upper half of the Dominion. To the west a gate was rumoured to exist in the coastal principality of Brus, though one scarcely used, and the Kingdom of the Dead had long been thought to be the northern border of the dwarven kingdom. I was no longer certain that was the case, to be honest.

I’d read the words stating all that, ink on parchment, but never really understood them until now. Black had once called the Kingdom Under the only Calernian nation that could be considered more than a regional power. I’d not disbelieved him, I’d had no reason to, but neither had I truly taken the words to heart. Mighty as the dwarves were, they were barely Calernian in the end. Their presence was lightly felt, more an adjacent existence one must avoid provoking than a nation we shared borders with. I supposed that was true, in a way – could an ant really have a border with a giant? And while the great nations of the surface had been tearing each other to shreds for yards of land or points of principles, the Kingdom Under had grown so great it could afford to send a few hundred thousand soldiers and settlers into the dark for a mere gamble. A possibly century-long roll of the dice that would shatter a people’s spine over the knee of the King Under the Mountain if it worked. I wasn’t a nobody, I knew. I’d done things that would be remembered in histories. In sheer power, there were only a handful of people on the continent that could be called my equal and even fewer my superior.

All of that was dust in the eyes of the people I was speaking with. It was worth remembering that much, before I tried to strike a pact.

“I supposed most queens would find it beneath their dignity to play the assassin for a foreign power,” I finally said. “Fortunately, I have no such qualms. You need the Sve Nocte removed and the Gloom lifted. I believe I can deliver this.”

“Then we now speak of terms,” the Herald said. “You will want payment, for this service.”

“I will,” I said. “Before that is discussed, forgive my ignorance but I am uncertain of what your title means. Does it carry the authority to make such a deal?”

Balasi’s face turned stormy and he pulled at his beard, but the Herald quelled him with a look.

“I am the Herald of the Deeps,” the green-eyed dwarf said, and his voice rang with power. “Promises I make will be observed by all who call themselves dwarves.”

I could taste the power in the air, the sharp tang of it. My eyes narrowed. Named, I thought. That man is Named. Until now there had not been so much as a mote of spillover, which was worth noting. I hadn’t seen that kind of control since Black. The dwarf was either a religious or cultural figure of some sort, from the sounds of it. Some kind of priest? Curious as I was, it was not necessary to delve too deep in the ways of the dwarves to make a deal. Asking questions now would only distract from that.

“Understood,” I simply said. “Shade?”

Akua leaned in over the table. She knew what I needed, right now, and would be better at bargaining for it. Soldiers were the most direly needed. Drow would have made for useful shock troops but if I could field a few thousand dwarves instead? It was a clearly superior outcome. There was precedent for their kind warring on the surface, though only as mercenaries. After that, my desires were split between diplomatic pressure and gold. An infusion of gold would get Callow through the worst of the current troubles, at least in some respects. Trade with the League of Free Cities had not ceased, and Mercantis never closed its shores to anyone: what my kingdom lacked and could not make could be bought, if we had the coin. On the other hand, a quiet word from the Kingdom Under to any of the powers might solve a lot of my troubles. Even something as simple as declaring the Kingdom of Callow under protection for two years would free my hands to do so much. If I could actually rebuild in peace instead of sinking all the treasury into the army… No doubt the Empress would continue striking through deniable means, but Thief was becoming better hand at the shadow games with every passing month. Breathing room would be godsent, and I could ask for starker price than that.

“Her Majesty came to the Everdark to obtain an army,” Diabolist said. “As the days of the kraksun seem numbered, we will need to secure another source of soldiery.”

Seeker Balasi smiled.

“You can have right of recruitment among them,” he said. “Any you can take into your service will be spared, so long as they depart.”

That was a broad promise, I thought. If I managed to sway even a third of the drow, were they really willing to let them go? I supposed it made sense, from their perspective. So long as they left the Everdark, they were no longer a dwarven problem.

“A right we possess, strictly speaking,” Akua politely replied. “As you made it clear you have no intention of pursuit beyond the span of the Fourteenth Expansion. Dwarves have served as mercenaries before, this would not be significantly different.”

“It is against decree to war on the surface when the Kingdom Under seeks expansion,” the Herald said replied. “You will find no purchase here.”

The deed-seeker frowned, then spoke to his fellow dwarf in their tongue. They traded a few sentences, then Balasi cleared his throat.

“While not in official capacity, I could speak to a few of my fellows,” he offered. “Should you deliver, we could seek deeds in your wars.”

“And how many of your fellows could we count on, Seeker?” Akua asked.

“Two, three hundred,” Balasi said.

“Not a significant enough force, I take it,” the shade asked me in Mtethwa.

“I already have enough monsters up my sleeves,” I honestly replied. “What I need is solid foot to give the vultures pause. Three hundred wouldn’t make Hasenbach or the Dead King think twice.”

“Their deaths could be leveraged into greater dwarven involvement,” she suggested.

“We’d also have to answer for that,” I grunted. “Pass.”

“Then we return to recruiting from the drow,” Akua said. “Shall I press coin or influence?”

“Coin first,” I decided. “Best we stand on our own, if we can have that that. But try to get protection if you can. Doesn’t matter if it’s short so long as we can call in the favour when we need it.”

It would have been polite to call diplomacy what followed, but I knew haggling when I saw it. That Akua was arguing the murder of a lesser god was not cheap instead of loudly exclaiming fresh fish for silver was highway robbery did not make the substance of what took place any different. It was a delicate line to walk for Diabolist. We were useful to the dwarves, but not necessary – there was only so far she could push. I’d learned to put a leash on my temper, over the years, but I was still glad she was the one doing the talking. Balasi was near-openly trying to screw us, first suggesting a loan to the Kingdom of Callow instead of outright payment. As was always the way with these things, what was hammered out was a compromise no one was truly happy with. The treasury in Laure would be getting enough coin that Juniper should be able to raise the Army of Callow as she saw fit without picking clean every last copper, though after the expenses of feeding the southern refugees through the winter I suspected we’d have a rather tight belt when spring came around.

Though Akua pushed hard for a degree of open support from the dwarves, the Herald personally killed the notion. What we got was a little more abstract, though in some ways just as useful: for the next five years, sale of weapons to any nation at war with the Kingdom of Callow would end. I would dearly like to see Cordelia Hasenbach try to raise half the countryside of Procer without a steady supply of cheap dwarven armaments. Unlike Praes, Procer had no large set of forges and smithies directly under the authority of the ruler: her options without the Kingdom Under propping up the war effort were few and rather unpalatable. Our right of recruitment from the drow was confirmed, under condition that they left the Everdark without fighting. It was at least two hours before everything was settled, Diabolist arranging for the payments and announcements being carried out through Mercantis as swiftly as possible. We ended as we began, drinks in hand: at the Herald’s careful instruction we raised the wooden bowls and drank deep of the sudra. It was smooth all the way down, I thought, yet no sweeter for it. There was a faint aftertaste that was almost coppery. Like blood.

A fitting drink for this pact, then.

Chapter 59: Audience

“Note: bottling up the power of friendship cannot be achieved by bottling up friends. Must pursue further trials, perhaps prior liquefaction diluted the substance.”
– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II

So, runic trap. Just what my day had been needing. I ran a palm across the transparent pane of force and found it solid. A sharp rap of the knuckles told me it was probably breakable, if I exerted myself. This wasn’t a ward so much a magical pit trap, although one we’d strolled right into.

“Cat,” Indrani hissed. “Now’s a good time to do the Winter thing.”

Was it, though? The panes didn’t mute sound, so I could hear the dwarves running towards us. It was hard to tell their numbers, with all that armour jostling, but I’d wager at least a hundred. I could most likely shatter the back of the trap and leg it with the others back into the tunnels. Except we’d have a dwarven company hot on our heels, the alarm would spread and there was a non-negligible chance we’d end up in more or less the same situation in half an hour, only with having attempted to escape added to our first impression.

“We’re going to talk to them,” I finally said.

“Or you could open a godsdamned portal and get us out of here,” Indrani said. “Like, now.”

“To where?” I said. “Either we go blind, which seems like a very bad idea underground, or we go back. Where the army is.”

“Or we could stay in Arcadia for a bit, until they’re gone,” she said.

“The gate out would lead us back here,” Diabolist said. “I do not believe it likely they will leave this place unguarded after the traps were triggered.”

“Archer, they’ll be curious enough about our presence they’ll want to interrogate us,” I said. “If it really does go to shit, I’ll grab everyone and leg it into Arcadia. But I want to try to talk to them first, at least.”

I caught movement form the corner of my eye, but it wasn’t dwarves. The drow accompanying us had gone still, when the runes shone, but the conversation between the three of us had gotten their attention. We’d been speaking Lower Miezan, so not even Ivah should be able to understand us, but if they were guessing from the tones that might not matters. One of the drow we’d caught on surface said something in Crepuscular, addressing Ivah, who nodded and then turned silver eyes to me.

“They would like weapons, Queen, since we are to fight,” my guide said in Chantant.

“We won’t be fighting them,” I replied in the same. “I’m going to speak with whoever leads them.”

“Nerezim do not negotiate, Queen,” Ivah flatly said. “They take what they want and kill all in their way.”

“It is,” I told the drow. “I am queen of a kingdom, on the surface, and powerful enough they will not seek my enmity for no reason.”

“This is not true of us,” it said. “We will be slain.”

“You’re my prisoners,” I said “Until release or judgement, you are under my protection.”

“They will not care,” Ivah insisted.

“Ivah, you seem under the impression any you have a voice in this decision,” I said. “You do not. It has been made.”

“They will not accept this,” the drow warily said.

“They are free to contest my judgement, of course,” I said. “Though the consequences of that have already been stated.”

Ivah grimaced and turned to speak, but before it could even do that the Mighty Kodrog – no, Bogdan now – made its move. The drow pushed one of its fellow prisoners away and reached for the longknife at Archer’s hip. Apparently after failing with me, it had come under the impression it would have better luck with my companions. Archer gave him the knife, in a manner of speaking. It was only a lending, though, and she clamly withdrew it from the eye socket with a flick of the wrist. The other drow stepped back. Great, now I was going to meet the dwarves with a fucking corpse on the floor. Although, considering their record so far, that might actually raise their opinion of us.

“Tell them this,” I addressed Ivah. “They can die now, or take a chance on the future. There is no middle ground, and I’ve no more attention to spare on this. Akua, if any of them tries to escape kill it.”

“Any?” Diabolist asked.

I met Ivah’s eyes.

“Any,” I confirmed.

My statement that I had no more attention to dole out had not been theatrics: the dwarves were now close enough I could make out the individual steps. They did not come from deeper inside the cavern. The company of a hundred that spread out in front of the trap had been posted near the outer wall, to the left of the tunnel’s exit. Regulars again, I noted, and since now the dance had come to end I finally spared a moment to study dwarvenkind from up close. I’d pictured them as short, stocky humans but evidently that’d been a failure of imagination. There were basic similarities: eyes, nose, brow, lips. But they were the same more in principle than practice. Their skin was so rough and craggy, enough it looked more like some beast’s rough hide. The old tale that dwarves were born when a dwarf ate stones for a year and then spat out a baby fully-formed came to mind. Their eyes were almost too large for those thick faces, with coloured sclera and no irises. Owl-like, I thought, though they had eyelashes. Their strands of hair were visibly larger and thicker than a human’s, their noses flat and broad. The tallest of the lot stood at five feet, though they were much broader of shoulder than any race I’d come across save orcs. The dwarves spread out facing us, shields and hammers at the ready.

“Good evening,” I smiled.

A few of them spoke in dwarvish, rough accents flowing back and forth quickly, and there was a sparse wave of laughter. One of the dwarves elbowed his way to the front, attired differently from the rest. The armour was much like the one the engineers had worn, back in the other cavern, a cuirass on leather. Said cuirass was covered with runes, though, which I didn’t remember the others being. The dwarf, sporting a thick black beard thrice bound by rings of bronze showing runes of their own, frowned at me and laid a bare palm on the transparent pane. His frown deepened and he barked something in his language at the other dwarves.

“I don’t supposed you speak Lower Miezan,” I said.

His eyes, a ring of deep gold around a pitch-black pupil, moved to my face.

“You,” he said in that very language, though the accent was nearly unintelligible. “Human.”

“Close enough,” I agreed.

He pointed at the drow behind me, finger lingering on the corpse.

Kraksun,” he said. “Why?”

“Prisoners,” I said.

He turned back to the others and spoke again. One of the dwarves spoke loudly and the entire company shook with laughter. I got the impression that what he’d said was complimentary to neither humans nor drow. Another dwarf, this one’s beard russet, raised a baton of stone and silence took hold. He spoke at the one wearing runes, who shrugged and turned back to me.

“You,” he said. “Prisoner.”

“I want to talk with your leader,” I said, enunciating slowly.

A dwarf left the ranks of the others, bearing a bag of woven reeds, and dropped it to the side of my interlocutor. Who promptly opened it, and took out a pair of rune-inscribed shackles. They weren’t linked by chains, I noted.

“Wear,” the black-bearded dwarf said.

“I want to talk with your leader,” I repeated, forcing patience.

The dwarf rolled his eyes, the size of those making it rather eerie to behold, but he spoke to the one with the baton. Who replied with a single word. Yeah, that one needed no translation. I sighed and rolled my shoulders before plunging my hand through the pane of force and ripping out a chunk. The black-bearded dwarf drew back in surprise, the soldiers moved forward and I smiled once more.

“I want to talk with your leader,” I said one last time, looking at the russet-bearded one.

His eyes flicked at the trap I’d casually ripped open, then back to me. He barked something at our interpreter.

“Who you?” the dwarf asked.

“The Queen of Callow,” I said.

The dwarf looked skeptical. He pointed a finger upwards.

“Callow,” he repeated slowly.

“Yes,” I said.

“Angry horse people,” he said, even more skeptically.

Well, that was one way to describe us. His eyes dipped down to note what I assumed to be my current lack of horse. What, did he just expect all Callowans to be mounted at all times?

“Of which I am queen,” I agreed.

He translated at the russet beard who snorted. He gestured a knock against his temple, the meaning of which I felt safe assuming. Then he shrugged and added something else. Blackbeard turned back to me.

“Speak to Herald,” he said. “But.”

He presented the shackles again. I mulled on that, eventually jutting a thumb towards the people behind me.

“Mine,” I said. “Safe. No touch.”

The dwarf spat on the floor.

“No touch,” he agreed. “Herald choose.”

It was a start. I offered my wrists to the shackles, and the dwarf leaned forward to clasp them closed. The runes – nothing like those I knew, sharper and much more complicated – shone and I felt a binding form. Ah, meant to seal sorcery. Or at least have an effect when someone called on them. Were they assuming I was a mage? It was a flip of the coin whether or not Winter would be affected by those. My ability to call on it was uninhibited, so far. I looked back at my companions.

“Negotiations will proceed,” I said. “Cooperate.”

Archer looked quite displeased, but Diabolist simply nodded. She was the first to come forward when the dwarf presented another pair of shackles, sharing a meaningful look with me afterwards. They weren’t affecting her either, then. Good to know. The drow came forward one after another, each of them moving delicately as if they feared the slightest sudden move would get them killed. They might not be wrong about that, I reflected. It had not escaped my notice than when the drow came forward some of the soldiers discretely put up their crossbows. Indrani was the last, and she shot me a glare.

“We could have legged it,” she said in Kharsum.

“We still might,” I replied in the same. “Day’s not over.”

She put forward her wrists, and with that last clasping we were all officially prisoners. Blackbeard drew a circle on the transparent wall then pressed his palm against the rune that formed inside it. It came down without a sound. From the corner of my eye, I’d glimpsed Akua watching him work eagerly. Never one to lose an opportunity, was she? The soldiers swarmed us after that, though at least they put away their weapons first. I was guided forward in a surprisingly gentle manner, though I stopped when I heard Indrani raise her voice.

“No you don’t,” she hissed.

One of the dwarves was tugging at her bow, eyes half-closed. I looked for Blackbeard was he’d melded into the crowd. Another dwarf raised his hammer when Indrani pushed away the one trying to get at her bow, speaking loudly. Every dwarf around us turned.

“Archer,” I called out.

She turned to me.

“Cat, they want to take-”

“I know,” I said. “Let them.”

“You know they keep shit like this,” she said. “And the Lady will kill me if I lose it.”

“I’ll get it back,” I said. “I promise.”

“You’d better,” she growled.

Lips thinning in anger, she took out her bow and shoved it forcefully in the dwarf’s arms. The soldier almost toppled, looking furious, though his companions laughed. Another one was eyeing the sword at my hip, so I smiled blandly and took it out. Hammers rose again, but I presented it by the hilt. The dwarf blinked, but took it anyway. If it’d been goblin steel I might have felt a pang, but this was just a sliver of Winter. I could recall it to my mantle at will, what did I care who held it? We were taken deep into the cavern in a procession, surrounded by soldiers. The vanguard, I saw, had made camp here. Tents of cloth that were charmingly small dotted the place, while makeshift ramparts of piled stones had been raised around siege engines and supply wagons. At the centre of the camp I glimpsed a large dais of stone, a high seat upon it. Anyone important enough to warrant that was worth talking with, I mused. The first hiccup arrived when I was taken toward that dais but the others were not. I stopped, to the displeasure of the dwarf escorting me. I pointed at Akua.

“She comes with me,” I said.

The dwarf made a face, blatantly not understanding a word I’d said and rather displeased I was talking at all. He tugged at my wrist, but it would take more than a pushy dwarf to move if I did not want to be moved. My escort barked out in his language until Blackbeard returned.

“Why you not move,” he asked impatiently.

I pointed at Akua again.

“She’s coming with me,” I said.

He shook his head.

“Prisoner,” he said.

“She’s my handmaiden,” I lied.

The dwarf blinked, looking confused. Didn’t know that word, huh?

“My herald,” I said.

Blackbeard frowned.

“You human,” he pointed out.

Was he implying no human could possibly be important to have a herald? Good to know the High Lords had a superior even in matters of bloody-minded arrogance.

“Human queen,” I reminded him.

He still looked unconvinced, but must have decided arguing wasn’t worth the trouble. An order had Diabolist taken aside from the others and brought to me.

“Your Majesty,” Akua said, bowing to me.

Quick on the uptake, Diabolist. Sometimes in the wrong way, but there was a reason I wanted her with me when speaking with whatever fancy beard was in charge. We were escorted the rest of the way to the dais without any further trouble. The seat was facing the other way, so it was the dais itself that earned a second glance. Roughly hewn stone, and I was pretty sure a single piece. Handhold were carved into the sides. Had they carried this here? Lots of trouble for a seat. We were brought in front of the high chair, where a full two hundred of those heavy soldiers from earlier was waiting in silent stillness. The seat, I could not help but notice, was empty. I glanced at Blackbeard.

“… am I supposed to talk to the chair?” I asked.

Big eyes stared me down without a word.

“That’s a no, then,” I muttered. “I’ll wait.”

Not long after the rows of soldiers parted for a pair of dwarves, which seemed promising to me. The first was the tallest dwarf I’d seen so far, and the first without any armour. He wore cloth, dyed a green so dark it was nearly black, though I didn’t recognize the style or the cut. It was wrapped and knotted in layers over layers, heavy enough it might actually slow an arrow. His beard was dyed as well, in the same colour, and his eyes matched. The hair was black, though, long and braided. The staff in his hand was crooked thing of wood with trinkets of some strange metal hanging off the end, softly chiming as he walked. The other was one of those Archer had called deed-seekers, and his chest was so thickly covered in skulls the armour could not be seen beneath. Some of those were human, I noted, but most too large for that. I even glimpsed dragonbone among the multitude, though that struck me as the result of grave robbing rather than fighting. There were few dragons left on Calernia, and the death of one would have resounded across the continent. Blonde of beard and hair, his face was covered with either an exceedingly thick black tattoo or pristine face paint. The shape was a rat’s head and fangs, though the horns sprouting out made it clear it was not just any ratling. The two of them came to stand before the dais, though they did not touch it, and the deed-seeker cleared his throat.

“Chantant?” he asked in that same language.

I wiggled my palm.

“Lower Miezan?” I tried.

The dwarf nodded.

“You stand before the Herald of the Deeps,” he announced. “Name yourself.”

Akua replied without any need for prompting on my part.

“I introduce Her Majesty Catherine Foundling, Queen of Callow and Sovereign of Moonless Nights,” she said, sketching a bow.

The deed-seeker cocked his head to the side.

“I am Balasi, Seeker of Deeds,” he said. “I will translate for the Herald. You may kneel.”

I smiled amicably.

“I do not kneel,” I said. “My attendant will do so out of respect.”

Akua elegantly did so under the emotionless eyes of the dwarves, rising just as fluidly. Balasi turned a bronze gaze to Blackbeard, who still stood at my side, and spoke in their language. The dwarf replied in length, then paused and quickly tacked on something. The Herald’s lips quirked in amusement, Balasi laughed outright.

“I feel like I’ve heard that one before,” I noted.

The deed-seeker inclined his head.

“Even a lizard can eat a tadpole,” he said.

My brow rose.

“Guess you had to be there,” I said.

Which I had been. I did not smile.

“It loses in the translation,” Balasi said. “The words… even an idiot can bully a dimwit?”

Ah, charming. We were going to get along great, I could just feel it.

“I take it the dimwits are the drow,” I said.

“You have taken some of the kraksun prisoner,” he acknowledged. “A matter of great hilarity to us.”

“I did notice you haven’t bothered, so far,” I said.

The dwarf bared his teeth.

“Only children pet vermin,” he said.

About what I’d expected out of them, though it was still jarring to hear it spoken out loud. The casual dismissal of an entire race as pests. Not that the drow are any better, I thought. There was little difference between cattle and vermin, when it came down to it. The Herald spoke softly, addressing his translator, who then turned to us.

“His Eminence would know why you have come to the Everdark,” he said.

My instinct was to answer, to establish some kind of relationship, but this was diplomacy and not an evening at the tavern. If I fielded all the questions myself, I was implying myself to be on the same level as the Herald’s translator. Which was something I needed to avoid, if I wanted to be considered an interlocutor and not a curiosity. I held my tongue and let Diabolist speak in my stead. It was, after all, why she was here.

“Her Majesty sought to raise an army of drow to war against her enemies on the surface,” Akua said. “We were unaware that the Kingdom Under intended to invade when we began our journey.”

“You are aware now,” Balasi said. “You will be allowed to depart unmolested. Your prisoners will remain, as they may know useful information.”

“A decision perhaps premature,” Akua replied. “It seems our interests may have fallen in alignment.”

The deed-seeker fixed her with a steady look.

“Callow intends to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom Under?” he said, very mildly.

“Callow is willing to pursue its interest so long as they do not contradict those of the King Under the Mountain,” she smoothly replied. “We would consult with you to ensure such an unfortunate turn of events will not come to be.”

“You’re not human,” Balasi thoughtfully said. “Some sort of spirit, bound in service. The kingdom you claim to come from is not known for such pacts.”

“The world ever changes, Seeker Balasi,” Akua smiled. “New eras demand new methods, lest we be left in the dust.”

“You’re a long way from home, Callowans,” the dwarf said. “Stumbling into matters beyond your understanding. To presume to even speak of them is a dangerous kind of arrogance.”

“You are correct, Seeker,” the shade said. “We are a long way from home. With little love for those who dwell here, and a mind open to fresh opportunities. It would be a sad thing to turn a blind eye to mutual profits without good motive.”

I left her to it, my eyes drawn to the Herald’s staff. The trinkets, in particular. It was a subtle thing, but there was power to them. They were no simple decoration. My eyes narrowed. Not, not the trinkets themselves. Something inside them, bound.

“The shackles do not bind you,” the Herald of the Deeps said in perfect Lower Miezan.

The other two went silent as I met those eldritch green eyes. I called on a sliver of Winter and tore off one of the shackles like it was made of parchment, runes struggling impotently.

“They do not,” I agreed.

“You are not human,” the Herald said.

“I was,” I replied. “Then I murdered a demigod and stole his power.”

“And so you come to the Everdark,” the dwarf said. “Seeking yet more.”

“I have a great many enemies,” I said. “Enough it might be said we share a few.”

The Herald smiled, slow and mean.

“I offer hospitality to you, Queen of Callow,” he said. “Let us eat, drink, and talk of murdering gods.”

Well, now they were speaking my language.

Chapter 58: Quiet

“May the Heavens strike me down if I lie. Again.”
– Dread Emperor Abominable, the Thrice-Struck

No one in living memory had seen a dwarven army take the field, not on the surface anyway. Even with all the dangers swirling around us I’d been looking forward to that part. Since becoming the Squire I’d scrapped either with or to the side of most the famous militaries: the Legions of Terror, the Spears of Stygia, Helikean exiles, both fae Courts. My own people in rebellion, Akua’s host of old breed Praesi. The Tenth Crusade too, though in all fairness I’d seen neither hide nor hair of soldiers that weren’t Proceran in the northern campaign. There was little left to account for. The other cities of the League were hardly known for their soldiery – apparently Bellerophon didn’t even have career officers, which just boggled the mind – and Ashur was primarily a naval power. The Dead King and the Chain of Hunger were the last two contenders, since the elves didn’t really fight wars. I’d be facing the former sooner or later, and the latter was allegedly more horde than host. With the drow having proved to be a pack of squabbling assholes bleeding themselves over the right to be Creation’s ricketiest demigods, the only force of note that remained was the Kingdom Under. Juniper, I thought, would have given her right hand to stand in my shoes right at this moment.

Indrani had led us to the same perch she’d used on earlier trip, and for all that it felt overly exposed it did give us a perfect view of what took place below. She hadn’t been overselling the size of the cavern, I quickly found out. Large as Laure might, if anything, be an understatement. There were a lot more people in Callow’s capital, of course. Maybe half the cavern was taken up by a lake, which to my mild interest revealed itself to be another food source for the locals. There were fish farms, walled in with stones, and what I was pretty sure was crab traps though the creatures writhing inside didn’t look like any crab I’d seen before. Most of the rest was ‘farmland’. Raised stones covered with thick lichen, mushrooms patches and what looked like some strange cousin of potatoes wherever the dirt was thick enough. Most of that was now occupied by the dwarven vanguard. The only drow holdout was the massive stalagmite in the back that Indrani had mentioned, though she hadn’t done the sight of it justice with her short description.

At the base, it was about as thick as fortress. Archer had labelled the path up as a spiral, but the angle was too sharp for the term to really fit. It zig-zagged across the sides of the stalagmite with precision too defined to be anything but manmade, the parts of the path that passed between the stone spire and the wall of the cavern effectively tunnels. There’d been tents there before, but they’d been flattened or taken away by the drow awaiting the assault. Which was coming soon, there were no two ways about it. I could tell as much just by the way the army had been positioned. At the bottom of the stalagmite a force of three thousand was standing patiently, and I’d almost let out a whistle at my first good look. Dwarves were known for their heavy infantry as well as their lethal contraptions, but these soldiers went a step further than I’d expected. It was like looking at walking barrels of steel. It was plate, in the sense that their armour wasn’t mail, but layered so thickly no a spot of dwarf could be seen underneath. Not even the famous beards: the helmets bore face-covering masks that ended in a sculpted steel beard where I assumed their actual beards lay protected. The weight of that should be too heavy for even the famously physically strong dwarves to be able to move in, so while there were no runes to be seen on the surface I assumed some had been inscribed beneath. To a dwarf, they bore long halberds with steel shafts that weighed enough even Hakram would have difficulty swinging one around.

They’re weren’t infantry so much as a company of walking battering rams.

The five thousand remaining dwarves were less heavily armoured, at least. Three divisions of a thousand each wore ornate but otherwise unremarkable plate, with square shields and war hammers. They all had crossbows on their back. I was classifying them as regulars in my mind, though in anyone else’s army they would be heavies. The last thousand was… interesting. The most lightly armoured of the lot, with only steel cuirasses over leather and plumed helmets that left the faces bare. They attended to the three dozen war machines the vanguard had set up in a crescent facing the stalagmite. If Juniper would have given a hand to see the battle, then Pickler would have eaten her firstborn to get a good peek at those. About half the machines looked to be some kind of fat steel ballistas raised on wheeled platforms. Not even the rope was, well, rope. It looked to be some kind of woven metal chord. There were wagons full of spherical projectiles next to them, two per ballista. The remaining half of the engines was hard to classify. The basic shape was like an onager’s, more or less small and portable catapults. What a scorpion was to a ballista, though my sappers would string me up for making so broad a comparison. The similarity ended at the shape, though. The steel base had been nailed to the floor with spikes almost as large as the engine itself, and instead of spheres to throw the already-loaded projectiles looked like elongated battering rams in a metal I did not recognize.

I wasn’t sure what those were meant for, but I doubted the drow would enjoy it.

The last of the dwarves were maybe two hundred, including what I was pretty sure was their command staff. Their armour was closest to that of the regulars, but lined with enough precious stones to steady Callow’s treasury for a good year. Unlike the grunts they were mounted. No horses, though. Best way I could put it was the unholy offspring of a lizard and an insect: the creatures were scaled and their reptilian heads had an impressive set of fangs, but their legs numbered six and were strangely segmented. They had three claws at the end of those, though they looked like they’d been blunted. Those officers were only around four dozen in number, and the remainder was unlike any other troops I’d seen so far. They wore heavy cuirasses and mail beneath them, but no helmet and both hair and beard were almost obsessively braided. Their weapons were not standardized, ranging from greatsword to some kind of chain with spiked weights at the end, but the eye-catching part was the trophies dangling down their bodies. Skulls and claws, stingers and broken weapons. Indrani caught me looking and leaned closer.

“Deed-seekers,” she whispered. “Met of few in Refuge. They’re after things they’re not supposed to get according to other dwarves, so they’re trying to earn enough glory that they become worthy of getting them. Some came up to hunt in the Waning Woods. Heard others go through the gate in Levant to have a tussle with the stuff in the woods there.”

“They any good?” I whispered back.

“Ran across one who broke his hammer on a manticore’s horns so he beat it to death with his bare hands,” she said. “And I’m not talking a juvenile, the thing was fully grown. They’re pretty hardcore. Polite for dwarves, though. Those I met knew surface tongues and they were willing to pay for guides.”

“So crazy of the dangerous kind,” I grunted. “Just what we needed.”

The conversation ended there and for good reason: the dwarves were on the move. There was no horn, no trumpet or warning. The ballistas just shot their first volley and the battle began. The projectiles, round orbs of steel, smacked into the upper reaches of the stalagmite. They’d been denied a better target: the drow were holing up out of sight. Rock shattered under steel and the whole spire shook. My brow rose at the sight. Those hit a lot harder than anything my goblins had ever cooked up.

“Flushing out the drow, you think?” Indrani said.

“If that stalagmite is solid rock, it’ll take them a while to make a dent even with strong engines,” I said.

Twenty heartbeats later the second volley hit, hitting the same places with impressive accuracy. The drow remained in hiding, which I honestly couldn’t fault them for. Between the crossbows and the siege if they made a stand anywhere in the open they’d get slaughtered. Their best shot was to make the dwarves come to them and hold a narrow passage hidden away from the engines. Alas for the locals, it was not to be. Three volleys later the entire stalagmite cracked. I could see the fracture going through the side, jagged and large enough to be easily visible even from where Indrani and I were laying on the floor. The entire top third of the spire had been cracked, at least on the side facing the dwarves. Had the thing been hollow? Maybe. Still, crack or not the weight of that upper third was keeping it in place. My eyes moved to the second kind of engines, anticipating there would be answer to that. My instincts had been correct. The almost-onagers were being seen to, long steel chains being attached to the back of the ram-like projectiles. The chains led to matching cranked wheels, already nailed into the ground.

“They’re going to pull the damned thing down,” I murmured. “Gods.”

How? Even if they put dwarves to work the crank, they shouldn’t be strong enough to apply sufficient pressure. The rams flew and sunk into the stone like a knife through butter, shivering after coming to a rest. There’d been sorcery at work, I thought. Blades unfolding inside to give greater grip? Impossible to tell. Anyhow, my first question got an answer moments later. Only a single dwarf attended to each crank, but the moment they laid hands on them the wheels lit up with runes. Not even thirty heartbeats later, the whole upper third of the spire came toppling down. They’d angled it to it fell into the water instead of on their own troops, though the great splash wet a few of them anyway. My eyes narrowed as I returned my attention to the stalagmite. It was hollow. The drow inside were swarming like a hive that’d just gotten kicked. The angle of steel ballistas was adjusted, projectiles from the second wagons loaded, and the volley arced up moments later. The spheres were stone this time, not steel. I did not wait long to learn why: at the summit of their arc, just above the hollow, they burst. Burning rain fell down, reaping a harvest of screams and death.

“Lava,” I quietly said. “That was fucking lava.”

“I mean, it’s not like they’re ever going to run out,” Indrani mused. “I can see the logic behind it.”

“Don’t you try to make it sound like it’s reasonable to shoot magic lava stones at people, Archer,” I hissed. “Who even does that?”

“The dwarves, evidently,” she said.

Sadly, throttling her might have given away our position so it would have to wait. Our time to move was fast approaching, though. The moment the dwarven infantry engaged we’d be trying our luck at sneaking through. Our exit tunnel had already been picked out, and we had a route across that wouldn’t take us too close to the fighting. The drow had been on the defensive so far, but since it’d become clear that the dwarves had no intention to climb up and the alternative was remaining inside a hole that’d slowly get filled with molten rock they were finally coming out. It was the first time I was having a look at a drow force that wasn’t already a pile of corpses, so they earned my full attention. This is not a professional army, was my first thought. Even Proceran levies had officers and an order of battle, but the drow? This was a tribe of warriors, with not a single soldiers among it. I could make out the hierarchy by the way they were equipped. No steel to be found on any of them, but there were tiers of a sort. The lowest of the low wore skins and leathers, armed with spears and blades. I winced when I noticed some of those blades were bone. That wouldn’t even scratch the dwarven armour.

Higher up the ladder, and fewer in number, there were drow in obsidian and stone. The equipment was not uniform, some of them having what I’d consider decent armour while others wore essentially the same as the first batch only with dangling bits of stronger material over it. Their weapons were mostly iron, of passable make. They’d at least manage to leave a mark on the enemy before being slaughtered. The last and rarest were those I assumed to be Mighty. Only a dozen of them, but they stood out starkly from the rest. Garbed in long flowing robes of Night with shifting plaques of iron in it, they moved swift as arrows through the charging crowd. Spears were the only armament they seemed to wield, with what I was pretty sure were sharpened ruby heads. Wasn’t sure how that would measure up to steel, though I did remember rubies were supposed to be one of the harder gemstones. The whole muster of the sigil was maybe two thousand. They’d get brutalized when they got to the bottom of the spire and engaged the dwarven heavy infantry, but the dwarves seemed disinclined to allow even that.

One of the mounted officers brought a horn to his lips, the first signal of the battle, and the deep call got the regulars moving. The square shields were set down to cover their bodies, crossbows taken out and the proverbial fish in the barrel got that same proverbial end. It was a relief to see that their firing rate was lesser than that of my legionaries. The range, though, was at least double. I would not want to fight those on an open field. The bolts scythed through the drow as they kept charging down the ramp, though only for the lesser warriors. The rest melded into the shadow-state when they saw the volleys approach. The ballistas had never ceased firing, slowly emptying the wagons of projectiles. Lava kept raining down into the hollow spire. The screams hadn’t ended either, and I was fairly sure the only warriors in the cavern were the ones charging to their doom. It would have been interesting to see how Mighty fared against dwarven infantry, but I didn’t intend to stick around until the final clean up. Their attention should be on the drow, for now, and that was our way out. I elbowed Archer and gestured towards our back. She nodded and we crawled out of sight before rising. The others were a short ways back, Akua keeping an eye on them.

They’d been waiting on us, and there was little need for conversation when time finally came to move. The plan was fairly simple. Indrani had the rope and hook to allow us to climb down to the floor of the cavern below, and the drow should have no issue managing it. The only thing up in the air was whether or not our friends would pick up on my use of Winter, and there was no real way to know that without trying it. Glamour shouldn’t draw as much attention as more direct uses, so it was as calculated a risk as we could take. I returned back to the edge, and with a deep breath allowed Winter to slither through my veins. I kept it simple, erasing our presence to the senses – I wasn’t sure whether the dwarven mounts could smell us at a distance, but I wasn’t about to take the risk. The working wasn’t too complicated, but it would take concentration to keep it going. The moment it settled, I glanced down at the battle. The dwarves had not stirred, which was promising. I gestured for the others to begin climbing down.

It was a tense half-hour before everyone made it to the cavern floor, shimmying down before Archer tugged back her rope. I’d not been certain whether or not I could keep the glamour going while having to focus on going down the rope, so an alternative solution had been required. The working should take care of the sound, and that was the important part. I glanced down and shrugged. Only thirty feet or so. I’d fallen down worse before. I leapt. Wings would make this much easier, admittedly, but they would require drawing deeper on my mantle. Besides, I mused even as the ground came ever closer, I’d been meaning to find out something. If I could turn myself into outright mist, finer manipulations should be possible as well. I landed on the stone in a crouch, having meddled with my legs, and found mixed results. Strengthening my knees had succeeded at making sure they wouldn’t break, which had been my main objective. Sadly, it’d also torn up whatever smoke and mirrors passed for my leg muscles these days. Half a win, I decided, adjusting my cloak where the fall had put it in disarray. The muscles were already reforming. Next time I’d have to see if I could make the entire legs solid without rupturing my insides above them.

The others clustered around me without a word. I’d made it clear that the closest to me they stood, the easiest it was to keep up the glamour. Our way through was still open, thank the Gods. Dwarven forces had been placed to prevent the drow in the spire from escaping, not occupy the whole cavern, which was too large for that regardless. It meant that if we kept close to the wall on the left side, we avoided coming close to the battle. In a strange and silent pilgrimage we tread through moss and mushrooms until we were hugging the wall and began our way through. My control was not fine enough to erase our footsteps, I’d warned them. It took longer to go through while avoiding leaving visible marks on the ground, but there was no other option. I’d never kept a working going this long before, and now I knew why I’d unconsciously avoided it: the longer I did the more I could feel Winter’s influence creeping into my mind,  even if I was drawing no deeper on my power. Fortunately, Akua was there for me to shunt the influence into. It was almost tenser to stalk through unseen than take part in the fighting, I thought. Battle I knew well, but this? It wasn’t my wheelhouse. It took us most an hour to get across, and by then there was not a single living drow left.

I’d not had a good look at the last of the fighting, but the dwarven heavy infantry hadn’t been shaken by the doomed charge of the Mighty in the slightest. The regulars had gone up the slope afterwards, into the hollow part, and soon after the screams had gone silent. There’d never been a chance the drow would win this, and the outer rings were supposed to be the weakest part of the Everdark, but if this was a sign of what was to come… Well, I didn’t fancy the chances of the drow as a whole to turn back this invasion. I allowed the thought to fade as we neared our chosen tunnel. Archer hadn’t had a chance to take a look inside, but she’d noted it was the most lightly guarded. Ivah had gone through one close to it, on its way to the Gloom, and assured us that after another large abandoned cavern it led into a mess of small paths. Enough that it would be more or less impossible to keep an eye on all of them. It was a detour, taking us to the northeast when the quicker route would have been straight north, but a few additional days were well worth keeping out of sight. I was an old hand at disaster, by now, so my nerves grew more ragged as we neared the exit. If this was going to fail, it was going to fail now.

There were dwarves near the tunnel, but only a small company. Less than a hundred. It was my first time coming this close to their kind, but I did not slow to take a better look. Distractions were the enemy of this not-fight. I did note they were regulars, however. Those in layered armour might not be too common. More importantly, they were dawdling near the tunnel and not blocking the exit. We passed them by, step by step. I felt a dim spike of fear when a pair began talking loudly in some dwarven tongue, but they began brawling not long after and I let out a relieved breath. My shoulders loosened as we left them behind, allowing myself a strangled laugh. I wasn’t a fool, of course. I wouldn’t drop the glamour until we were much further in. But it looked like – no, I wasn’t going to finish that fucking thought. Never count the chickens, Catherine, even when they’re hatched. The Gods will shove them back in the fucking eggs just to spite you. Being absolutely still in the middle of the metaphorical woods, we pressed on. Archer took the lead, Ivah at her side, and they took us through a handful of short passages in quick succession. It was maybe another quarter hour until we reached the large cavern Ivah had mentioned.

Abandoned was something of a misnomer, as it was currently full of dwarves. Slightly more problematic was the way my glamour was ripped apart before we even entered. Runes shone on the tunell walls, panes of force fell down around us and dwarven yells sounded in the distance. I looked up angrily.

“Can I really not have a single chicken?” I complained. “You tight-fisted assholes.”

Chapter 57: Betwixt

“Come now, my lords, you started this war knowing what I’m about.”
– Dread Empress Massacre the First

It was too large for a pond but much too small for a lake. A reservoir? Nah, I was pretty sure that implied spadework, which this clearly didn’t have. Pool, maybe. Regardless, it was a source of unsullied freshwater and it’d been almost a day since we’d run into one of those. Tactically redeploying in the opposite direction of an incoming army was thirsty work and the drow weren’t nearly as enduring as the rest of us, so it was probably time for a break. We’d need a bit to refill the skins, anyway, and if there was some kind of edible creature in there it’d be a nice change of pace from our increasingly stale rations. Indrani had taken to pouring brandy on hers, though in all honesty I wasn’t sure whether the taste was the actual reason for that.

“Half hour,” I called out, withdrawing the finger’s I’d been dipping into the waters. “Ivah, tell your fellows they’re responsible for rationing their water as well as filling the skins. They’re not dipping in ours a second time no matter how thirsty they get.”

I could make ice and let it melt into drinking water, sure, but at the moment we were keeping a low profile. I wasn’t sure whether the dwarves had some sort of device that would allow them to sense sorcery, but if they did I was pretty sure using Winter to any great extent would be like lighting a brightstick in a dark room. My mantle could do subtle, theoretically speaking, but it’d never been a specialty of mine and I wasn’t willing to gamble our remaining hidden on it. My guide nodded and addressed the rest of its kind in an even tone. Ever since the former Mighty Kodrog had been disciplined and I’d declined to let anyone harvest its Night and serve as a replacement guide, Ivah had gotten much more self-assured.

Akua had voiced opinion that since it’d functioned as a lieutenant to a violent and unpredictable entity for decades, it was falling back on those habits now that it was under my protection. Bogdan wasn’t too happy about that, but I’d ordered Diabolist to get the broken bones patched up and nothing more. The message had been received, from the way it was now behaving much more carefully. I got up from my crouch and sighed. Our pace was being slowed down by the drow more than I’d like, but there was little I could do about it and leaving them behind wasn’t on the table. If they weren’t in my custody, they’d be in that of the dwarves. Indrani was at my side a heartbeat later, footsteps so soft I’d barely heard them.

“They’re getting near the end of their rope,” she observed. “Might want to give them a full hour instead, stretch out the last gasps.”

“We’re already crawling at a snail’s pace,” I grunted back. “You’ve said it yourself, we’re probably a little more than a day ahead of the dwarven army.”

“Guesswork,” Indrani reminded me.

“Guesswork based on the messengers you’ve seen going back and forth,” I replied. “We’re not swinging in the dark here.”

She opened her mouth, but I raised my hand.

“If what passes your lips is a pun, Archer, I will drown you myself,” I threatened.

There was a pause.

“Fill my skins,” she offered, sounding very casual. “I’ll take a look ahead, see if I can rustle up anything.”

“Ivah says we’re nearing the edge of the outer rings,” I told her. “If the vanguard is going to dig in and wait for reinforcements, it’ll be soon. The odds of running into the army have significantly increased.”

“If they dig in, it’s our opportunity to go around them,” Indrani countered. “Best we know as soon as possible and plan accordingly.”

I mulled over that. She had a point. Half the reason she wanted to go for a wander was likely that she was starting to feel like she had a leash around her neck – I’d asked her to cut back how far she went on her exploratory trips – but she was right on the nose about the vanguard digging in. My bet, at the moment, was that when they got close to the first strong drow position they’d set up and wait for proper assault troops. If we went around them while their eyes were on the local sigil, there were decent odds we could make it through without getting noticed.

“Do it,” I finally said, taking the mostly empty water skin in her hands. “As usual-”

“Tread lightly, steel stays in the sheath,” she finished, rolling her eyes. “At this rate you’re going to get that tattooed on my arse.”

“I assumed something deeply tasteless was already taking up the space,” I replied without missing a beat.

“Hey, my arse is extremely tasteful,” she protested.

“You’re confusing words again,” I airily said. “What you’re looking for is tawdry.”

She flipped me off, I mimed drowning her in the pool and with the traditional rites complete we parted ways. I watched her saunter away, though with the leather coat on there wasn’t much to look at, and absent-mindedly tossed up the skin before snatching it out of the air. The drow were going about their business visibly exhausted, and to my quiet amusement Mighty Bogdan seemed to have no earthly idea how to fill up a skin. I was too entertained by its struggles to seriously consider offering help. Akua was kneeling by the pool as well, though her skin – which she didn’t need, or use – was full. She was staring at the far wall, unmoving. A few steps took me to her side, and in a blatant abused of my queenly prerogatives I threw Archer’s skin at her shoulder.

“There,” I said. “Since you seem in need of something to keep your hands busy.”

The shade picked up the leathery folds between two fingers, somehow managing a full monologue’s worth of disdain without speaking a word.

“It smells like aragh,” she said.

“So does Archer, half the time,” I shrugged. “What deep thoughts did I take you away from, Diabolist?”

“I was pondering,” she said, “the nature of this invasion.”

“The term is usually pretty self-explanatory,” I noted, only half-serious.

“Context, Catherine,” she chided. “This was a significant investment of resources, even for the Kingdom Under. The kind that would have to be prepared over the span of decades, requiring specialized labour otherwise in high demand and significant preparations of logistics.”

“And you’re wondering why they’d bother, given that the Everdark is a mess of collapsing tunnels filled with violent lunatics,” I said. “I mean, there’s the obvious answer. Drow don’t mine much, as far as we can tell. Lots of wealth to claim once they take over the place.”

“Over time, the investment made could be recovered tenfold,” Akua agreed. “Yet we both know that kind of long term planning in the highest reaches of a nation is a rarity. The expense would have to be justified in the face of more immediate uses for that coin giving more obvious benefit.”

“It’s rare on the surface,” I said. “Where sinking that much of your treasury into anything makes you weak elsewhere and your rivals will take advantage of it. What rivals do they have left, down here? They can afford to take the long view. Hells, they live longer than humans too. This could just be the life’s work of some highly influential dwarf.”

How long dwarves actually lived remained a matter of bitter and divisive scholarly debate, a matter not helped by the fact that their kind lied profusely about the matter whenever they ventured to the surface. Theories ranged from a few hundred years to a couple thousand, though most scholars agreed it was under five hundred. Considering people weren’t even sure how dwarves reproduced, lifespan uncertainty was no surprise.

“And yet the invasion only takes place now,” Diabolist said.

I could have replied that there was precedent for the Kingdom Under evicting other underground nations to the surface largely out of principle – the goblins were testament to that – but that would rather be missing the point, wouldn’t it? Dates for the goblin exodus were vague, since the Tribes rarely gave straight answers to anything unless there was a blade at their throat, but it was a fact it preceded the Miezan occupation of Praes. Which meant at least a millennium and a half ago. If the entire point of this was to remove a rival power, however comparatively weak that rival was, then they’d taken quite a while to get around to finishing the work.

“Might be it was just that one tedious chore they never got around to doing,” I mused. “They polished off the rest of the list over the centuries, now they’re out of excuses not to massacre the neighbours.”

“Overdue spring cleaning,” Akua mildly said. “This is your theory for what drives the fate of two nations?”

“You got anything better?” I said.

“Let us assume,” the shade said, “that the Everdark’s continued sovereignty is the result of dwarven incapacity instead of unwillingness.”

“Which is a wild guess on your part,” I said.

“One that aligns with other facts,” Diabolist said. “Regardless, it is fact that there was a dwarven contingent on the surface during the Liesse Rebellion.”

“Mercenaries,” I said. “That’s not exactly unheard of. They also took the first bribe offered to leave.”

“Because their purpose was not to make war, but to assess the situation,” Akua suggested.

“They already do that through Mercantis, supposedly,” I said. “Everyone sells information about everyone else in exchange for crumbs about what’s happening down here. Why send soldiers?”

“A host of dwarven infantry would represent a significant force,” she said. “One which would be worthy of courting by surface powers, as the Carrion Lord did. As the Callowan rebels did, and the First Prince behind them.”

My eyes narrowed.

“So you think the point was to gauge how invested all the players were in the rebellion and the wars that would follow it,” I said. “They shouldn’t need to go that far, Akua. Who the Hells would be stupid enough to pick a fight with the Kingdom Under? They’ll be selling cheap weapons to at least half the nations involved in any scuffle. There’s a reason the Principate can throw massed levies at us without going bankrupt.”

“Dread Empress Triumphant, may she never return-”

“Forced them to pay tribute, sure,” I interrupted, rolling my eyes. “Once, after she flooded a few of their tunnels with demons. Didn’t stop them from funding and arming a continent’s worth of rebellions against her a few years later, did it? They just threw gold at her so she’d fuck off and then paid for other humans to actually put her down. Let’s not pretend it was more than a headache for them.”

“That is still precedent for a surface power proving troublesome to dwarven interests,” Akua insisted. “A cautious assessment of the situation was therefore made, yielding the answer that the largest surface powers were preparing for large scale and long term warfare.”

“After which they did nothing,” I said. “That was years ago, and they’re only moving now. I doubt it would take them that long to mobilize.”

“Indeed,” the shade agreed in a murmur. “They acted only after a much more recent development.”

It wasn’t the Tenth Crusade. There had, after all, been nine predecessors to it. But if her argument was about a power on the move that usually remained put…

“How would they know about the Dead King?” I frowned. “It’s not like he sent them a letter. We don’t even known how he’ll go about participating in the war, and we were guests in Keter not that long ago.”

“The Kingdom Under has borders with the Kingdom of the Dead,” Akua said.

“Which are, famously, tunnels they drowned in lava and molten metal until there was nothing left moving,” I said.

“Your argument is that the preeminent power on Calernia has no way to observe the going-ons at its most dangerous border,” Akua mildly said.

I grimaced. Yeah, fair point.

“So they see him pull back his undead for a push on the surface,” I mused, following the thread. “And take that as an open invitation to march on the Everdark. Why? That’s still thin, Akua. If they’re that worried about the Dead King, why take the risk at all? It’s not like the drow are a threat to them.”

“So I wondered,” Diabolist admitted. “If neither wealth nor pride are the reason, then why? It cannot be room for expansion, they could simply layer deeper. Such a large undertaking could hardly be made without sanction from the highest powerbrokers of dwarven authority. That implies, to me, a strategic motive.”

“Hard to guess at those when no one knows their exact borders,” I said.

She nodded in agreement. I narrowed my eyes at her.

“But you have a theory anyway,” I said.

“After your distant kin settled in what is now the Duchy of Daoine,” she said, “the largest threat to them was greenskin raids. Yet they did not strike directly at the clans, instead raising the Wall. Why?”

Because only an idiot would try to take the Steppes. The Miezans had done it, sure, but they’d had a whole arsenal of advantages no one on Calernia could boast of having and there’d actually been orc cities to target back then. Which wa no longer the case: even after the Reforms, the Clans had remained nomadic. Rulers of Daoine could and had cleared out belligerent clans near the Greenskin Marches but there’d never been a serious effort to conquer the Steppes. The orcs would just retreat deeper in and the Deoraithe armies would have to settle in for winter in hip-deep snow with nothing to live off of and a lot of angry orcs on the prowl. Which, I thought, is Akua’s point.

“Containment,” I slowly said. “Ratlings don’t lair deep, so they’d have a free hand under the Chain of Hunger. You think they know they can’t take the Dead King, so they’re trying to bottle him up instead. And for the encirclement to be complete the drow need to go.”

“Should any significant drow presence remain in the region, the fortresses maintaining that encirclement would suffer sporadic assault,” Akua said. “To make the sealing easily sustainable-”

“They need the drow gone,” I quietly said. “Dead or far, far away.”

We filled our skins in silence, after that. It was a fragile house of cards that she’d built one sentence at a time, and all it’d take for it to crumple was a single assumption proved false. But it sounded like a distinct possibility. That was always the problem, with Akua. She was a skilled speaker, one that could spin a decent story out of nearly anything given long enough. But if she’s right… Either the drow drove back the dwarves – and reckless as I was, I wouldn’t t put gold on that – or there’d be a an entire race of vagrants needing greener pastures to move to.

That, I thought, sounded like an opportunity to me.

Archer had returned without any fanfare, before the hour of rest she’d talked me into was even over. We stood to the side of the others, speaking quietly in tongues they would not know.

“This place is about to be a war zone, Cat.” Indrani said.

“You found the dwarven vanguard, then,” I guessed.

She brushed back her hair, lashes fluttering over hazelnut eyes as she did. Her longcoat was open, revealing the silvery mail beneath, but she wore the metal as nonchalantly as if it were cloth.

“Part of it, anyway,” she confirmed. “If there used to be three forces of five thousand like you guessed, that’s no longer the case. There were at least eight thousand preparing to give battle.”

“That’s too large a force of a single cavern,” I said.

“Not if it’s a huge godsdamned cavern,” Indrani snorted. “It’s at least the size of Laure. There were a bunch of lichen and mushroom farms down there, I think it might have been some kind of food centre. Water too, the largest body we’ve come across so far.”

“I was under the impression we were still a few days away from the closest city,” I said.

“”Dunno about a city, but there were a pack of drow there for sure,” she said. “Cavern’s a drop from our current height – the dwarves found another way down, I must have missed it – and near the back there’s some sort of massive stalagmite melding into the wall that the locals carved into.”

“Walls?” I asked.

“Nah, nothing like that,” Indrani replied, shaking her head. “It’s like some sort of spiral ramp going up. Pretty sure it’s flat at the top, but my vantage points was sloppy. The whole thing might be hollow, for all I know. There were tents going all the way to the top.”

“That’s defensible against even heavy infantry,” I said. “If the ramps are narrow enough.”

“Our short friends were setting up a bunch of weird siege engines,” she said. “Infantry’s not all the drow are up against.”

Eight thousand, huh. That was more than half of what I currently believed the dwarven vanguard to number, which was promising but still meant seven thousand should be traipsing around the tunnels unaccounted for. Fighting underground like this would be different from the kind of wars I was familiar with. With tunnels it would be much easier to defend than attack, as a rule, particularly if the defender had powerful champions capable of holding a narrow area against superior numbers. On the other hand, without an open field flanking operations became a very different kind of enterprise. No plains down here, no way to see an enemy detachment until they were right on top of you. If I were the dwarves, I’d station hardened troops on the flanks to keep an eye out while I was moving against a fortified drow position. Assuming high-ranking Mighty were as dangerous as even just green Named bent towards combat, a single one slipping through defensive lines was enough to make a costly mess. I chewed on my lip thoughtfully.

“I don’t suppose you took a look at the adjacent tunnels?” I asked.

“Not in depth,” Indrani said. “Glanced down a few, though, and I got the impression most of them curve towards the large cavern.”

A chokepoint? It’d explain while the dwarves were willing to slow their advance to take it. Ivah’s knowledge of the region was sadly limited, as it’d only crossed it the once and under the understanding it was to move towards the Gloom as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kingdom Under had maps, though, and good ones. It was tempting to try to get my hands on one even with the risks inherent to crossing dwarvenkind.

“They’re going to have the flanking tunnels under guard,” I finally said. “So far they’ve been careful to allow no runners. They’ll have the entire place sealed up.”

“That’s my guess,” Indrani agreed. “So what’s the plan, Your Queenlyness? We trying to shimmy through while they’re busy under a touch of the ol’ glamour?”

“We still don’t know if they can pick up on my using Winter,” I said.

“We do know they have eyes, Cat,” she replied. “I’m not fancying our chances of sneaking through a dwarven blockade without a little fae juice to help things along, and you know we can’t wait this out. The real army’s not far behind.”

I hummed, not disagreeing or agreeing.

“So we have to place a bet,” I said. “If you were a dwarf and you had devices that could pick up on sneaks – a pretty basic precaution, given who you’re invading – where would you put them? With the main force, or the flankers?”

“If I were a dwarf, I’d be massively rich and drunk all the time with a city’s worth of naked servants catering to my every twisted need,” Indrani mused.

“If you were a dwarf, but not a complete waste of a person,” I tried. “I know you don’t have a lot of experience with that, but use your imagination.”

She half-heartedly gestured for me to go hang myself.

“Would make sense for the shortstacks to keep the trinkets on the sides,” she finally said. “The stalagmite’s pretty fucking surrounded. But that’s assuming they don’t have enough devices to have them everywhere. And that they have those at all.”

“If they do have them everywhere, we’re screwed anyway,” I noted. “Best we can do is play the odds assuming they don’t.”

“So you want to take a stroll through an active battlefield,” Indrani snorted. “With a pack of unruly drow, a self-absorbed spectre and yours truly. That’s not one of our better plans, Cat, and that should not be a hard hill to climb given how we got into Skade.”

“Worked, didn’t it?” I said. “We played to our strengths-”

“Blatant lies,” she helpfully provided.

“- and their weaknesses,” I finished.

“Expecting sense of us?” she suggested.

“Unorthodox approaches,” I righteously corrected. “It’ll be dangerous, I don’t deny that, but then so is every other option on the table. I think this is the least stupid risk we can take. Unless you happen to have a better idea?”

“Aside from digging our own way through, not really,” Indrani mused. “And we’d need Winter for that anyway. Shovels alone wouldn’t cut it, and since Vivi left we don’t even have those anymore.”

I sighed and passed a hand through my hair.

“Well, let’s get moving then,” I said. “If this was a mistake, best to know it today.”

“Hey, look on the bright side,” she smiled. “If this is a horrible blunder that’s going to get all of us killed, then at least I won’t survive to give you shit about it.”

There was a silver lining, I mused. Shame it was on a cloud raining fire and brimstone, but that was life for you wasn’t it? Sometimes you just had to put on your good boots, bring out your sword and kill your way to the top of the flying fortress before you got to see daylight.

The last few years of my existence would have been a lot more pleasant if that were actually a metaphor.

Chapter 56: Knock Knock

“Best not to think too deeply, lest the dwarves take the thought.”
– Mercantian saying

The Mighty Kodrog had been granted a blanket to wear as a makeshift skirt, because I was a merciful captor, but that failed to detract from the fact that it still looked mostly dead. It’d tried to get up, after waking, but the old Foundling response of unpleasant-smile-and-knife-to-the-throat had put an end to that real quick. Ivah had joined us without even need for summons, and spent the last few moments conversing in Crepuscular with our latest addition.

“It is done, Queen,” the drow said.

Informing it that ‘Lately Queen’ wasn’t actually my title had ended the misunderstanding, though not soon enough Indrani hadn’t made it part of her vocabulary.

“It’s willing to share all it knows?” I asked, not hiding my surprise.

“That was not what we conversed of,” Ivah said, silver eyes blinking. “It is now agreed upon that the Mighty Kodrog is no longer so. It is named Bogdan, ispe of the lowest rung. The Kodrog are no more.”

Wait, had they really been talking about this the entire time? Gods, they quibbled about this stuff even more than Praesi did.

“Ispe,” I repeated slowly. “Is that higher or lower than rylleh?”

“Lowest of the Mighty, Queen,” Ivah said.

Well, the silver in its eyes was full but it was admittedly quite dull. I’d have to remember the terms, or see about getting a more comprehensive list at some point. Feeling my way up the Everdark’s ladder one corpse at a time might take a while.

“Fine,” I said. “Then ask our friend Bogdan about the dwarves. What does he know?”

Ivah spoke to the other in that strange, fluid tongue of theirs. It was hard to read tone in Crepuscular – I suspected even loud imprecations would just roll off the tongue like honey – but Bogdan’s body language was less difficult to get a feel of. It looked wary, but also less than worried. Was it under the impression it could kill us all and escape if it wanted to? My knife was no longer at its throat, but I could bury a few inches of steel into its throat before it blinked. I’d gotten used to my reputation helping things along, I mused, but it didn’t mean much down here.

“Bogdan requires the clothes of another and its pick of weapons before entertaining such exchange,” Ivah finally translated.

I eyed the Mighty Bogdan skeptically. It was kind of impressive it could look this self-assured a full step into the grave, but my patience had limits. I flicked a glance at Ivah.

“Ask it if it enjoys having all ten fingers,” I calmly said. “And remind it doesn’t need any of those to answer my questions.”

The drow slowly nodded, and passed that along. Bodgan’s lips quirked at an angle impossible in a human, as if its cheeks muscles were entirely different from ours. It replied softly.

“Bogdan says all you attempt to inflict to them will be returned tenfold,” Ivah said.

“Will it now?” I mused.

It was quicker than I’d thought. Bogdan had seen me set my knife back into Pickler’s clever little contraption, and it reached directly for the hidden sheath. It was not quite quick enough I didn’t catch its wrist, though, and it was all downhill from there. There was no need for a brawl: I just squeezed and the bones broke. The drow paled in pain and tried to roll away, but I put a thumb on its collarbone and pressed. The sickening crack that followed was almost drowned out by its scream. Almost. I dropped it back onto the ground.

“Ivah,” I mildly said. “Inform Bogdan that if I actually exerted myself, I could punch through its ribcage and spine without so much as scuffing my knuckles. Once that’s been established, tell our friend it has ten heartbeats to give me a reason not to do that. I’ll begin the count the moment you’re done translating.”

My guide flinched and hurriedly spoke.

“One,” I said.

Bogdan, eyes clouded with pain, looked at Ivah and then back to me.

“Two,” I said.

Ah, fear. There was a familiar scent. The drow spoke urgently at my translator.

“Bogdan is now willing to speak,” Ivah drily said.

“Its wisdom truly has no bounds,” I replied just as drily. “Ask about the dwarves.”

Back and forth they went, my guide going through what I presumed from the length to be a comprehensive gauntlet of questions. Ivah suddenly looked surprised, then spat to the side. It turned a trouble look towards me.

“None who were Kodrog remain,” it said. “The nerezim were many, and armed for war. They moved with slaughter for their purpose.”

“How many?” I asked. “Hundreds, thousands?”

“Bogdan knows not the whole number,” Ivah said. “Yet more than five thousand struck those who were Kodrog, and before that ruin came there was word that the Solya and the Mogrel were struck.”

My eyes narrowed.

“In sequence?” I said. “Or simultaneously?”

Ivah questioned the prisoner, receiving one word for answer.

“Same time,” it replied.

“Those two names you said were sigils as well?” I said.

“That is so,” Ivah agreed.

“Stronger or weaker than the Kodrog?”

My translator shrugged.

“Not much weaker or stronger,” it said. “The outer rings do not often spawn greatness.”

Assuming the dwarves had used the same amount of soldiers for each sigil, and that the force that’d hit the Kodrog was not the same as either of the other two, that meant around fifteen thousand dwarves. Shit. Archer was right, that didn’t sound like an expedition gone through the Gloom to empty a few mine shafts of precious metals and gems.

“Does it know why the dwarves came?” I frowned.

“The nerezim do not give reason,” Ivah delicately said. “Snake does not reason with mouse.”

I sighed. Yeah, a monologue neatly informing me of why there was a dwarven army marching into the depths of the Everdark had been a little too much to hope for. Still, they could have dropped a smug yet cryptic hint at least. Was that really too much to ask for?

“Does it know where they were headed, at least?” I said.

Back and forth, one that lasted longer than I’d anticipated. Bogdan might actually be of some real use then.

“Before Mighty Kodrog fled,” Ivah said, “it found that the nerezim were headed north. And while in flight, found tracks of others that did the same.”

“Towards the cities,” I said. “And the inner ring.”

My translator nodded silently. I drummed my fingers against my tigh. It could be what they were after was in a ruined city, or even the inner ring, and that was why they’d come with such a large host. The opposition would be stronger and entrenched, further in. But what could possibly be worth enough that sending at least fifteen thousand soldiers into this mess became warranted? That was too large an army for simple wealth, even if there was an old treasury buried somewhere. Artefacts, maybe? It was an open secret that dwarves stole those, let a few decades pass and traded them back to the surface as ‘wonders of dwarven blacksmithing’ after having slapped a fresh coat of paint over them. Still, fielding an army this side wasn’t cheap. I knew that painfully well. It would have to be a massively useful or precious artefact. Not impossible, and it might even be that the pit of snakes that was drow society had regressed enough it no longer knew how to use said artefact – which would make it even more tempting a prize.

That was worrying. Anything worth sending an army for would be dangerous even in the hands of a bumbler, and the dwarves were hardly that.

“Ivah,” I said. “Do you know of anything important close to the north? Old ruins, or a holy site?”

“The closest city is Great Lotow,” the drow replied. “Beyond it the Hallian ways lead to Great Strycht and Great Mokosh.”

That gave me nothing. I knew one of those names, from – wait, Mokosh?

“Great Mokosh,” I said quietly. “That’s where you got your feathers, isn’t it?”

“That is so,” Ivah said.

“And you mentioned the sigil there was granted by the Sve of Night itself,” I slowly continued. “Is there a passage between it and Holy Tvarigu?”

“It is rumoured,” my guide admitted. “Yet none but the Sukkla know for certain, and they speak not of this.”

I might be going too deep with this one, since I doubted even fifteen thousand dwarves would be able to get to the Priestess of Night, much less killer. But there was a simpler explanation. Ivah had implied, when we’d spoken of it, that dwarven incursions were infrequent and tended to keep to the outskirts. Odds were that the method to pierce through the Gloom either required time to take place, or a non-negligible amount of resources to implement. Maybe it was wasn’t an artefact they were after. How much easier for the Kingdom Under would it be to take regulars bites out of the drow, if they had enough feathers to equip an entire army?

“How many feathers are there in Mokosh?” I said. “Is the number a secret?”

Ivah shook its head.

“It is holy duty, known to all,” it said. “At all times a thousand coats must exist, every one taken to the Burning Lands replaced. Never more or less.”

I frowned. Well, a thousand wasn’t nothing. And they could use them repeatedly, or try to make artefacts of their own that replicated the effect. But my theory had taken a blow there, no two ways about it. It could be a long-term investment, I told myself. Or I could be missing key information.

“Does our friend Bogdan have anything else to say?” I finally asked.

Ivah asked, and there was a quick exchange. My translator came out of it looking conflicted, and smelling slightly of fear.

“Mighty Bogdan offers to serve as your guide in my place, after harvesting the Night from my corpse,” it said.

“How kind of it,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “There’s no need to be afraid, Ivah. We made a deal and I intend to uphold it.”

“Your kindness is great,” it replied, bowing its head.

The fear was not wafting as strong, though it’d not disappeared entirely. Drow had trust issues that would make even Praesi raise an eyebrow. I rose to my feet, dusted off my shoulders. I’d come out of this with more questions than answers, but at least there’d been measurable progress. Hopefully Indrani would find something shedding light on this mess, though I wouldn’t count on it. It seemed likely we’d have to head deeper into the tunnels blind to the designs at play. The dwarves would likely clear the way, which was a mixed blessing. It’d limit the fighting, but I couldn’t ally with corpses. It was starting to look like my best bet was to head to Tvarigu, where the Priestess of Night would be waiting. If I could have stolen an army’s worth of drow without ever shaking hands with that particular devil I would have preferred it, but choices were running even thinner than usual.

“Inform Bogdan it is to behave itself,” I told Ivah. “If not, I have no qualms in doling out discipline as harsh as the situation requires. Diabolist will have a look at the broken bones, but I’m not inclined to offer too much comfort after that little interlude of ours.”

The drow bowed once more, and I left it to speak with the creature that had once been Mighty Kodrog. Gods, so many names and changing too quickly. That was going to be a pain to commit to memory. I’d have to go through Archer’s stuff and see if she had parchment and ink, it might help to make a bloody list. I had the time to kill anyway, we weren’t going anywhere until she returned. Two hour later, she did. To my surprise, she emerged from the same passage that had first led us into this cavern.

The surprises that followed were a lot less pleasant.

Archer looked exhausted, more than I ever remembered seeing her. She claimed a waterskin after dropping down on a vaguely flat stone, another surprising turn. She’d yet to run out of booze, after all. Scarf hanging loosely around her neck, she dropped her sweat-soaked leather coat to the side and fanned herself vigorously enough she could only be making the heat worse.

“Had to run,” she got out.

I blinked in surprise. The tunnels had so far varied between cool and outright cold. It’d take quite a bit to get her this sweaty.

“How long have you been running?” I said.

“At least an hour,” she grunted. “And we’ll need to get a move on too.”

“You found something,” Akua said.

“There’s that famous Sahelian cleverness,” Indrani replied. “Sharp eyes you got there. Or, well, soul bits that look like them. I’m still unclear on the fundamentals of what you are, Wasteland Waste.”

“Even Masego was pretty vague,” I said. “You sound like an hourglass just got flipped, Indrani. What did you find?”

She ceased drinking just long enough to pour the liquid all over head sweat-drenched hair, sighing in pleasure.

“Right,” she said, wiping her eyes clear, “So I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“Let’s start with the good news, for once,” I tried.

“The good news is that there’s only one bit of bad news,” she replied with a winning smile.

Akua closed her eyes, looking physically pained.

“I cannot believe I fell for that,” she muttered.

“What’s the bad news, Archer?” I sighed.

“I went looking for the dwarves ahead,” she said. “Didn’t run into them, but I found clearer tracks in one of the taverns. It’s not hundreds, Cat, I’d say they’re numbering between four and five thousand.”

“Our friend from earlier said as much,” I told her. “And mentioned than another two sigils got hit around the same time. I’m considering them a conservative fifteen, at the moment.”

“Shit,” Indrani said, scattering her wet hair. “Yeah, that makes sense considering what I found. So the thing was, I came across a tunnel going back towards the Gloom and it had a fresh trail on it. Oil spill, still wet.”

“So you followed it,” I said. “You came back same way we came in.”

“That wasn’t where the tunnel led,” she grimly replied. “Went straight through another slaughterhouse, only this one had been cleaned up. Neat piles of dead to the sides. Couldn’t figure out why until I went back all the way to the Gloom.”

“More are crossing,” Diabolist quietly said.

“You might say that,” Indrani grunted. “Interesting aside, if you were wondering how they go through the Gloom? Lamps, ladies. They’re going through in massive caravans carrying hundreds of them, like a giant snake of light. Pretty sure that’s where the oil was from, someone must have spilled some.”

“You got close,” I said, and it wasn’t a question.

“Stone’s throw,” she admitted. “Legged it when they started getting suspicious, but then I came across another crossing.”

My fingers clenched.

“How many?”

“I found six,” Indrani said. “But that was maybe an hour’s length of distance, walking quiet. There could be hundreds for all I know.”

“You think this is an invasion,” I said.

“I think the nice little corpse piles we keep finding were the vanguard’s work,” she said. “And now that a foothold’s been secured, the real army is coming through.”

“And that army’s marching towards us as we speak,” I finished.

Well… fuck seemed to mild a curse, for once. Assuming all three forces I was also assuming were five thousand each had crossed on a single caravan each, just the six Indrani had come across would mean thirty thousand.

“The lamps you saw,” Akua said. “What did the light look like?”

“Not like a candle,” Indrani said. “Sunlight, maybe? Whatever it was it felt warm as the literal Hells and I would know – I’ve visited a few on training trips. Didn’t work every time, though. One of the lamps further in went dark just before I left a place, and what must have been thousands in the distance just… vanished. The dwarves weren’t happy about that.”

I wished I could say I was surprised Ranger had taken her pupils into the Hells just to blood them, but it would have been a lie. She’d done it with Arcadia, after all, and it was about as dangerous a place even when invited.

“A detail of great importance, this,” Diabolist said. “The Gloom seems to have properties related to the night, and so therefore the classical element of the sun would be a natural foe.”

Wait, the godsdamned sun was a – yeah, next time I saw Masego I was definitely asking him for a list.

“This will be the result of an enchantment,” Akua continued. “And if it is meant to last an entire crossing uninterrupted, the materials will have to be symbolically linked to the concept. Brightwood would serve well, but deteriorate too quickly. And is exceedingly rare besides. I would hazard a guess that the frame of the lamps was gold?

“Wow, Akua,” Indrani drawled. “You sure did answer that question no one was asking like a champion. You truly are the bag of uselessness that keeps on giving.”

“No,” I said. “This is actually important, Archer. I know the dwarves are the richest nation on Calernia, but even they have limits on how much gold they can just whip out. You said the other material would deteriorate, Akua. The gold too?”

“More slowly,” she replied. “A few days, if the enchantments were laid very carefully. It should allow for a passage through the Gloom.”

“But not a return trip,” I said.

“Not unless the fuel itself is inherently magical-”

“Which would make this the single most expensive invasion in the history of Calernia,” I noted. “Though it might very well be regardless.”

“-and that would add large costs to an already costly device,” Akua finished, sounding mildly irritated by my interruption. “The lamps would be extremely delicate work, the slightest mistake or corruption making them useless. They would need to be constructed in a specialized workshop, preferably in a magically neutral environment. Neither repairs nor making of fresh replacements should be possible on this side of the Gloom. ”

“Still not seeing why this matters, even if you’re right,” Indrani said, ruffling her scarf.

“Because even lesser artefacts don’t grow on trees,” I said. “Particularly if they need gold to work. They have to have a limited quantity of those to draw from, and you said one of the tunnels went dark anyway. There’s risks of failure too. If it was that easy to mount an invasion they would have done it ages ago. This is a massive investment of resources, probably prepared over decades. They’ll have had to make a choice.”

“A larger number of troops to get across,” Akua said, completing my thought, “or setting aside lamps to maintain supply lines.”

“Keeping the lines open means leaving soldiers behind to guard them,” I said. “Who need rations too, and the broader the area to guard the more mouths there’d be to feed and the more soldiers taken from the main force. And let’s assume the crossing fails… one time out of ten, which seems on the low end to me. The price escalates the longer they keep at this. It’d be more practical so send one large army through with their own supplies, then let them live off the land until they got what they came for.”

“They sent the vanguard to clear the way, so the larger army can advance without wasting time on petty skirmishes,” Indrani guessed.

“The sigils of the region were exterminated quite thoroughly,” Diabolist noted. “Suppressing word of the invasion was likely an objective as well. It would allow the dwarves to penetrate deep into the Everdark before organized resistance is mounted.”

“This is going to be a shitshow,” Archer grimaced. “Living off the land here? There’s barely enough for the drow to live on. Even if they manage to keep the ranks fed while they fight out there, they’ll have to march back through a place they stripped clean then risk the crossings again.”

“Did you see any of them carrying unlit lamps across?” Akua softly asked.

Indrani’s eyes narrowed. She shook her head. My fingers clenched.

“They don’t intend to leave,” I said, voicing everyone’s thoughts. “The army’s here to destroy whatever causes the Gloom, and then the rest of the Kingdom Under comes through to take the Everdark.”

And there we were, between the vanguard and the army. Well, I’d come here expecting a magical journey and I had certainly gotten one.

Curses were magic too.

Chapter 55: Outskirts

“Over the month I spent in Atalante I witnessed no fewer than two hundred debates take place under the gaze of the pale statues of the Temple of Manifold Truths, for the people of the city delight in such exercises of rhetoric as those of Stygia delight in bloodsport. The subjects varied from the purpose of mankind to the proper shape of apples, though the true wonder of the place was that I do not believe a single speaker left the Temple believing they had been wrong.”
– Extract from ‘Horrors and Wonders’, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran

I’d come across more than my fair share of impressive fortifications, over the years. Summerholm, the river-straddling Gate of the East. Liesse, whose walls had been old and half-abandoned yet still holding sorcery powerful enough to give pause to the full might of the Summer Court. Ater, the Dread Empire’s own capital, with towering walls and massive gates that had held strong under the Tower’s shadow for millennia. Keter, Crown of the Dead, a haunting spire of rock beholden to no laws but the Dead King’s that had turned back crusade after crusade. This, though? This was laughable. There were fortifications in northern Callow, a region that had not known the touch of war for a hundred years before Procer created the passage, that were greater than this. When Ivah had called the ‘fortress’ at the edge of Kodrog territory a ring of stones, I’d thought it half-poetry. Daoine and the eastern stretches of Callow boasted old fortifications called the same thing, ancient broken-down forts used in wars that predated the unification of the kingdom and peace with the Deaoraithe. Many of them had been made into the heart of small towns and villages, the hill-forts used as a guild hall or minor noble’s seat. What I was looking at right now was not that: it was a literal ring of stones.

A few narrow tunnels had led us out of the butcher’s yard and into what had once been the lands of the Kodrog, our first approach into another large cavern almost intimidating. There were no corpses to be found, but thrice we came across trails of blood on the stone where dead drow had been dragged. The way into the great cavern was through an angle slope, narrow as the tunnel that had led us there, and part of me noted that this was a natural chokepoint. Easily defendable with a company of crossbowmen and some half-way decent infantry. The ancient drow apparently agreed, for mere feet beyond the end of the slope the ring of stones stood. The sight of it had me raising an eyebrow in skepticism. It wasn’t indefensible, really. The slabs of granite making a loose circle of upright stones could serve as a curtain wall of sorts. Or they would have been able to, without the large gap in the slabs just to the side. Anyone could just… walk right in. That wasn’t a fortification so much as a decoration. The dwarves had apparently been of the same opinion, because they’d wasted no time filling it with corpses.

I’d had dinner with Baroness Anne Kendal, after ascending to the throne, and over pheasant she’d praised me for how quickly I’d reacted to Akua unleashing devils at First Liesse. Said that most would have been stricken with terror, and that my swift decision to ‘conscript’ everyone in the city had saved dozens of thousands of lives. I’d not quite had the heart to tell her by then I’d bared blades at things scarier than mere devils. When I came knocking at the gates of Liesse with the Fifteenth, even my legionaries no longer flinched in the face of the hosts of Hell. Masego had called it horror fatigue. The way some people beheld so much terror their standards shifted and sights that would have once horrified them grew mundane. It was apparently a common phenomenon among Praesi sorcerers. On occasion it led to diseases of the mind, he’d noted, when mages witnessed so many terrors that it was the mundane matters of the rest of the world that grew eldritch to their eyes. I wondered if I was inching towards that, one slaughtering yard at a time, because the aftermath of brutality no longer stirred any great feeling in me.

Most the corpses in the fort had not been slain there. There were tracks leading to tall piles beneath the stones, and even taller ones inside the circle. If there had been marks of fighting there, they were now buried in death. I heard Archer come towards me as I stood a handful of feet from the piled dead within the embrace of raised stones.

“The trail leads north,” Indrani said.

I nodded.

“Did it betray anything about their numbers?” I asked.

“Hundreds, at least,” she shrugged. “Hard to tell the difference between those and thousands on stone grounds. There’s tracks though, from carts or something else on wheels. Heavy things, I’m pretty sure even the wheels are metal.”

My fingers clenched, then unclenched. It had always helped me think, but there was too little to go on here to make any real deductions. It might be carts to carry whatever they’d come for back to the Kingdom Under. They could be supply wagons. They could be machines of war, as Ivah had said the dwarves sometimes used to slay the Mighty. Hells, it could be all of that. We wouldn’t know for sure unless we took a look with our own eyes, and that struck me as a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. I glanced at Indrani.

“Do we know what’s north?” I said.

“Ivah says it’s the core territories of the Kodrog,” she replied. “We’re still in the outskirts of the outer rings. I’ll be at least a few days of travel before we reach the first ruins.”

Piecing together the lay of the Everdark from what my guide was very willing to share had been difficult, even though Ivah was trying its best. The drow considered too many things to be self-evident to be a proper informant. The outer rings, as far as I could tell, were the drow territories outside the loose web of underground cities that had once made up their empire. Those were the harshest battlegrounds of their people, and a gathering place for the strongest Sigils and cabals. The inner ring, singular, was vaguer in what it covered. From context, it seemed to mean all the territories between the old cities. There the tribes that’d been forced out of the cities fought against each other, murdering their way to enough power to try to get a foot in a city again. The cities were where the strongest of the Mighty gathered, Ivah had said, but the inner ring was where a Sigil could be wiped out in a night. Those that fled that underground sea of carnage eked out a living in the outer rings, but pickings were sparse out here. It was uncommon for a Sigil that bolted to the outskirts to make a comeback, even if they bided their time for a few decades.

Holy Tvarigu was at the centre of the madness, the handful of paths leading to it guarded by powerful Sigils who were said to rival those of the cities. We’d need to gather strength and support, before trying those.

“There’s one last thing,” Indrani said. “I found black blood.”

My eyes narrowed. That meant a Mighty. Ivah had been clear that the more Night a drow held, the deeper the changes to their body. I had no reason to distrust that: after reaping the harvest of the cavern it had visibly changed.

“Show me,” I said.

“Sure,” she said. “It’s not far. Want to grab our favourite scavenger in case there’s a survivor?”

“Might be for the best,” I agreed.

And still she did not move. I cocked an eyebrow.

“Archer?”

Her lips thinned.

“You all right, Cat?” she asked. “You’ve been looking at dead bodies for a while. And not that long ago you were hearing voices.”

“Just the one,” I sighed. “And that was the Priestess of Night, I’m sure of it.”

“I’m sure you believe that,” Indrani delicately said.

“I’m not quite that far gone,” I reassured her. “Anyways, I’m not going morbid on you. I was actually wondering why they’re not burning the bodies. Wouldn’t it make more sense?”

“Not a lot of firewood down here,” she replied. “And you need that or oil to get a good pyre started.”

“I really doubt the dwarves ready to commit mass slaughter without tallying proper supplies,” I said. “If they’re really killing everyone to make sure there can be no harvest, it’d be logical to burn the dead. Can’t claim Night from ashes, I don’t think.”

“If they’re as prepared as you say, they’ll have a reason for it,” Indrani pointed out. “I try not to spend too much time figuring out why dwarves do what dwarves do. You’ll only end up with a headache and an empty purse by trying.”

“We’re missing something,” I told her. “I’m not gonna go digging in corpses to find out – we don’t have the time to spare – but it’s worth asking questions.”

“Somehow I doubt our little band of murderers is going to have a good explanation for you,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Come on, let’s grab our minion. We’re wasting daylight, even if we can’t see it.”

The rest of our company wasn’t far. I’d learned why the drow were so afraid of coming close to the corpses, after a little chat with Ivah. It’d said it wasn’t the death that scared most of them. It was all the Night that waited there to be taken. By beating them down, we’d established ourselves as higher on the pecking order. Drow who eyed Night ripe for harvest when stronger drow were around tended to end up killed just to make sure there’d be no trouble. Diabolist was keeping an eye on the prisoners, but Ivah was visibly itching to have a look at the corpses. It didn’t consider itself strong enough to just harvest the Night no matter what we said, then. Good. As long as it was afraid of us, it’d uphold its part of the bargain with no qualms.

“Ivah,” I called out. “With us. Archer has found a Mighty’s blood trail.”

“I follow, Queen,” the silver-eyed creature smoothly replied.

Its eyes were brighter, now, but that was the least of the changes. Where before it had been stooped by days of travel with limited supplies and little sleep, now its back was ramrod straight and its stride had grown assured. The skin was still pale grey, but now and then from the corner of my eyes I could have sworn I saw small arcane patterns of Night shine on its bare arms. I suspected there’d been other changes less obvious, though it was hard to gauge something like senses and reflexes without actually testing them. The rest of the cavern beyond the ring of stones was a great deal less bloody. There were trails and footsteps on the dust and dirt, but little else. A handful of leather tents and fire pits skirted the edge of the walls, not enough to shelter more than a few hundred drow. There was at least twice that in dead inside the fort, which meant the corpses had likely been gathered from other tunnels and caverns. Three passages out could be found. Two heading north, side-to-side, and one towards the east. It was that last one Indrani led us towards.

Unlike the last stretch of tunnels out of the Gloom, these were not carved or sculpted. Apparently even when the realm of the drow had still been worth such a name, this had been considered the edge of nowhere. We passed through a small cave half-filled by ponds of water, though they’d all been fouled by dirt and blood, and only found what Indrani had mentioned after another stretch of winding tunnel. There was a naked body, which she hadn’t mentioned, but it was easy to see why. It was a ruined wisp of a cadaver: the head had been pulped, but the rest was a ruin without needing wounding. It looked like it’d been exsanguinated, drained of all fluids and insides until all that was left was paper-thin grey skin and hollow bones. In other news, drow did have genitalia no matter how they called themselves: this one had a cock, though it was as much a shrivelled husk as the rest of it. Black blood and brain fluids formed a blasphemous halo around the wreck of the head, but that wasn’t the interesting part. From the body another trail came. There were bits of blood in it, but also some sort of transparent fluid gone dry. A sticky, stinking trail led from the corpse deeper into the passage ahead.

“Another twenty feet of crawling, then whatever came out got on its feet,” Indrani said. “From there it’s just drip. Haven’t touched the body yet, figured you’d want the honours.”

“Kind of you,” I drily said. “Ivah, anything to say?”

“This is not known to me,” the drow admitted. “Though none but Mighty would have blood so dark.”

Less than helpful. I knelt by the body, gingerly raising it. Immediately my eyebrows climbed up. The entire back was messed up, like something had ripped its way out forcefully. Almost no blood, though. At a guess, whatever had left the trail was responsible.

“Looks like our friend here had one last trick up their sleeve,” I said. “Ivah, you mentioned something called the Secret of Many Lives to me once. Would this be what it looks like in action?”

“I have never witnessed this with my own eyes,” the drow said. “Only heard rumours. Yet if this is true, we look upon the body of Mighty Kodrog. Or one who slew them and claimed the whispers.”

“Let’s find out,” I grimly said.

I left the body there. There was no Night in it, and I wasn’t sure I should let Ivah harvest it even if there was. We set out again, though the trip was amusingly short. Maybe sixty feet further, after the trail of dried fluids had ended, another corpse was waiting. Its head had been pulped as well. There was another trail, and we didn’t stop to check the body before following this time. Apparently the dwarves hunting Kodrog has lost patience, because when we found the next body not even twenty feet further around a corner it was thoroughly demolished. No flesh or bone had been left untouched, the remains more smear than corpse. And still a trail crawled away from it. I heard a rasping breath, further ahead. Had the hunters missed the last rebirth?

“There’s something still breathing,” I announced, and pressed on at a pace.

Indrani snorted.

“Yeah, not surprised,” she said. “Look at the fluids, Cat. It didn’t crawl away, it was dragged.”

Honestly the trail looked to me exactly like the others, but she was the tracker and I was the city girl. Regardless, we did not make the survivor wait long. I almost winced at the sight, after we stumbled across it. This particular body was no husk like the others, though it might wish otherwise. The naked drow had been nailed to the tunnels’ wall with iron spikes through the shoulders and calves, limbs flopping listlessly. The drow’s eyes were closed, but I could hear it breathe just fine. It was still rather improbably alive. Ivah breathed in sharply, and earned a curious look for it.

“This is Mighty Kodrog itself,” my guide said. “The wound splitting the lip in half, it is famed. The blade of the Mighty Soln caused it.”

There was a rather nasty scar and chunk of missing flesh parting the drow’s lower lip in half. More interesting were the nigh-invisible patterns of Night covered Kodrog’s face, surrounding the closed eyes like they were some sort of spider web. It looked like a tattoo of arcane symbols I was unfamiliar with, though a very faint one. Apparently the repeated rebirths had weakened the Mighty considerably.

“It’s unconscious,” I said. “Let’s drag it back to camp, see if we can wake it up there.”

“You’re going to have to handle the spikes,” Indrani said. “That’s solid rock they were hammered into. Not sure I could pull them out.”

I grimaced but got to work. The difficult part was doing it carefully enough I wouldn’t rip up Kodrog’s body, not taking them out, and greyish blood began pouring out the moment they were removed. No longer black, huh. Someone had had a rough week. I froze the wounds shut, which was about as much as I knew of healing, and hoisted the drow over my shoulder when it became clear the pain wasn’t enough to wake it up. Ivah was looking at me carrying a Mighty like a bag of potatoes like it didn’t know whether it should be amused or appalled. The walk back was quicker, though I was careful not to jostle the goods. In part because I didn’t want to worsen the bleeding, in part because when strangers dangled their dangly parts against me I preferred fewer gaping wounds being involved. A rustle when through the prisoners when we returned bearing our newest addition, a few whispered words in Crepuscular being traded. Kodrog was the only word I recognized. I lowered said burden to the floor carefully and smiled at Akua, who’d silently approached.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” I cheerfully said.

“Joy,” Diabolist drawled. “More half-dead drow. My favourite. I expect you want me to attend to it?”

“If anyone’s going to know what happened here, it’s that one,” I said. “I need it capable of talking.”

“That much I can promise,” the shade noted. “How long it will remain that way is more chancy a matter.”

“Do what you can,” I said.

“Ugh, does that leave me on guard duty?” Indrani asked. “Because that’s really tedious. You won’t even let me make them fight.”

“I’m sure Ivah can inform them of the consequences of acting out,” I said, casting an eye as said drow.

It nodded slowly.

“Find me in what direction the dwarves went,” I told Archer. “Try to find out numbers, or anything more than we have. If you run into any of them…”

“Stay out of sight, head back immediately,” she said. “I’ve got it. How long you giving me?”

I chewed my lip.

“We’ll need a while for the interrogation,” I said, watching Akua begin to remove the ice I’d shut the wounds with. “We might as well make camp here. A few hours, at least, but careful not to get lost.”

“I never once in my life got lost,” Indrani assured me.

“Last month you told me you’d been sober your whole life,” I noted. “You really should start picking better lies.”

“That sounds like a horrible way to live,” Indrani said.

I rolled my eyes.

“Just don’t get killed,” I said. “Or start another war. Gods know we already have a net surplus of those, and the year’s not even over.”

She waved me away in a less than reassuring gesture, but she adjusted her bow against her shoulder and got moving towards the north-leading passages. She might give me backtalk the way sparrows flew, but I knew I could trust her to pull through when I needed her. I had few worries about her reconnaissance.

“Now would be a good time to inform your fellows we’re camping,” I told Ivah. “They’re free to scavenge tents and necessities, though they are not to touch the Night.”

“As you say, Queen,” the drow nodded.

I watched it walk over to the others, then returned my attention to Akua. I dropped down next to the body in a seat, watching her work Winter into dying flesh. There was Night in this one, though unlike the one in the corpses it was not reaching for me. Neither was it hostile, though. It was just there. A tool in someone’s hand, firmly grasped.

“How’s it looking?” I asked.

“More than halfway into the grave,” Diabolist said. “Which eases my work a great deal.”

I didn’t need to ask her why. What instincts my mantle had granted me made me aware that Winter held dominion over death and decay, among other things. I’d dabbled in necromancy as the Squire, but I remained an amateur at the art. When Akua had ridden my body, she’d raised an army of dead Procerans without even using a ritual.

“It’s a recurring pattern, with you,” the shade said. “That you use and demand others use powers in way that seem ill-suited to them.”

“Power’s a tool,” I said, repeating someone else’s words. “The only limit to its use is your own cleverness.”

“Spare me the Carrion Lord’s lessons, if you would,” Akua said. “I have heard them before. My point stands. Even as the Squire your use of your limited necromantic abilities was admittedly inspired. Never before had I seen someone kill their own flesh to better wield it.”

“Desperation is a sharp teacher,” I grunted.

“So it is,” Diabolist mildly said. “Still, you extend this philosophy beyond the boundaries I expected.”

I scoffed.

“How’s that?”

“This entire enterprise, dearest,” Akua said. “To be frank, I am still somewhat at a loss as to why we now tread the passages of the Everdark.”

“You were there when the decision was made,” I reminded her. “I –”

“Need an army, yes,” she interrupted. “Surely that is not all of it? I surmised this to be the excuse you gave to mask deeper purpose.”

“I don’t lie when holding council with the Woe, Akua,” I said. “Even when you’re there.”

Scarlet eyes considered me skeptically.

“Then you truly came to gather a host of drow?” she said. “That seems ill-advised.”

I frowned at the casual dismissal. Still, I’d let her out of the box for a reason. She had a better grasp on the corridors of power than any of the Woe, and if she had something to say it was worth hearing. Not necessarily heeding, but at the very least listening to.

“You’re aware of our military situation,” I said.

“I am, to an extent,” she agreed. “The Battle of the Camps thinned the ranks overmuch, which led you to seek the Dead King in the first place. There was need for the hosts of Procer to be sent elsewhere and bled. This has already been achieved, Catherine, by the Empress’ own pact.”

“Look deeper,” I said. “What’s the thing that keeps Callow afloat?”

“Farming,” she replied without missing a beat. “I do not disagree with you on the implication, my dear. Your kingdom has weathered a large-scale rebellion, the invasion of the Courts and my own works. If the Army of Callow recruits as heavily as it must to be more than a border garrison, there will be lack of field hands come harvest. Which would have consequences more disastrous in Callow than most realms, admittedly, as it boasts little but fertile fields.”

My own works, she’d said. Almost nonchalantly. Three words for over a hundred thousand souls. The urge was there to simply tear her in half. Pop her head with a squeeze of my fingers, have Winter itself devour her from the inside. I pulsed with the need of it. And you feared I might grow attached, Vivienne, I thought. That I might come to see her as more than the useful devil on my shoulder. I mastered myself, kept the flare of rage away from my face. Not even a slight cooling of the air betrayed it. I’d learned the ways of my mantle well. It would not do to punish her for this, no. Best she keep speaking those words, those barbed reminders of who it was I had murdered into my service.

“Then you know why I need another force on the field,” I said. “One that can take the losses I can’t afford.”

“There are others you might have sought,” Akua noted. “Lord Black still fields legions, and his fondness for you is well-known.”

“Black’s running a game in Procer,” I said. “I don’t know what it is yet, because I don’t know what he’s really after. If he intended to depose Malicia, his opening was just after Second Liesse. He went to the Vales instead, prepared for the crusade. He had most of a year, Diabolist. To plan and plot. It’s not happenstance that the Vales were collapsed and he’s wandering the heartlands of the Principate. He’s trying to accomplish something. The Gods only know what it is, if even that. I’m not getting in the middle of that mess without a very good reason.”

“You have ties to the sole Court of Arcadia,” Diabolist noted. “Bargain might have been struck there.”

“You think that’s better than the drow?” I snorted. “Last time I went for a spin with the King of Winter, I got taken for a ride. I doubt I’ve learned enough in the last year to turn that around, and you can be sure that any pact made with Arcadia will result in the fae having a permanent foothold on Creation. I might as well start calling on fucking demons – those are easier to put away after you let them loose.”

“The Dread Empire-”

“Was a possibility I considered,” I interrupted flatly. “Of course, to get my hands on any of its armies I’d need to climb the Tower and make it stick. Which means I’ll likely have to assault a few of the most heavily fortified cities on the continent with my already mangled forces. Possibly fight Malicia’s loyalist Legions as well. Losses are certain, and even if I win I inherit a mess. Ashur’s still sacking the coasts, Akua. I can’t call myself Empress and just… leave them to it. Not to mention the dangers inherent to killing the person that let the Dead King out. Could mean he has to retreat, which would fuck over a now even more wounded Callow. We’d have to go back and negotiate, assuming he’s even willing. Or it could mean he’s loose with absolutely no leash on him.”

“I believe you underestimate the amount of support a bid for the Tower would find in the Wasteland,” Diabolist said. “There are promises that could see many flock to your banner.”

“Oh, I know all about those kinds of promises,” I murmured. “There are some prices even I balk at paying. I will not wade into a snake pit just to try turning the snakes on my foes, Akua. I have no intention of ever ruling Praes.”

“You may not have a choice,” Diabolist mildly said. “Though I shall let the matter lie. It will come to your door without any need for my advocacy.”

“You should hope not,” I replied. “If Praes is made my problem, I will not be gentle in how I solve it. Should we go over our other options? The League won’t talk with me if the Hierarch won’t, and the man is both mad and stubborn as a mule. The Chain of Hunger cannot be treated with to any real degree, the elves would shoot any envoy of mine on sight and the closest thing the Gigantes have to an ally – Levant – is currently at war with me. You think I’m stalking these fucking tunnels because I want to? I need the men and there is no one else.”

The last sentence came out in a hiss, almost like a wound lanced of pus.

“I understand,” Akua said.

“No, you don’t,” I replied. “I drew a line in the sand, after my coronation. That if all I could accomplish was make a ruin out of Callow, I would melt the godsdamned crown and go into exile. Or walk to the gallows, if that was what it took. The crusade was always going to come, there was nothing I could do about that. But now, Diabolist, even if my armies win the coming battles the kingdom is fucked. We were already a bad summer away from widespread food shortages, when I left. How do you think it will go if the fields are empty at harvest? Either this works, or I’m done. I capitulate, do whatever is necessary for Hasenbach to offer terms that aren’t complete subjugation and kill as many problems as I can before I die.”

“You are what keeps this together, Catherine,” Akua warned me. “If you abdicate, the kingdom collapses into anarchy. Malicia will likely invade and even the League might be swayed by such a tempting feast. Do you think Callow can weather the Dead King without you?”

“The question isn’t ‘will it bad?’,” I said. “Of course it’ll be awful. Even if I clean up every loose end I can before going, it’ll be a shitshow. The question that needs to be asked is ‘will it be worse if I’m wearing the crown?’.”

“The only reason Callow was more than a waypoint on Cordelia’s way to Ater is that your power gave the Principate pause,” Diabolist said. “This is… navel-gazing in the worst of ways. Do you think you are responsible for every disaster to plague your homeland?”

“They happened on my watch,” I said. “I had a responsibility. If I’d fucking bled you like a pig at Liesse, no matter the consequences to me, a hundred thousand people would be alive today. Winter went after Marchford because it was my demesne. Summer torched a third of the south to match Winter. And the Liesse Rebellion… well, you weren’t the only person I should have killed then and let’s leave it at that.”

“It is absurd to pretend to you did not mitigate the damage inflicted,” Akua flatly said. “You dispersed the Courts yourself. To clarify, you drove back forces as older than the First Dawn at the mere cost of a few leagues of burned land. Who else could have brought the invasions to an end at even twice that cost? And let us not pretend to you were the only possible pawn for Winter’s king. The Courts did not emerge in Praes, where bargains would have been eagerly taken, or fractious Procer or the squabbling lands of the Dominion. Why, I wonder? It is almost as if Callow was easiest prey, the most vulnerable locale. You ended the Liesse Rebellion on lenient terms, your mere existence enough to soften the stances of both the Carrion Lord and the Empress against those who raised banner against the Tower. Not a matter in which either would otherwise have been prone to so mild a response. Had you not been on the field at Second Liesse, I would very likely have slain your teacher and triumphed. You seem under the misapprehension that the rest of the continent fights over Callow because you bear the crown. That is disingenuous. Callow suffers because it is weak. Because greater powers can afford to make it a tool to expunge their own troubles. The Principate, the Empire, half the heroes that flocked to the Tenth Crusade. Do you truly believe your kingdom, even under a villainous queen, is greater threat to Good and Calernia than the Kingdom of the Dead? Than the Chain of Hunger?”

“There’s a balance of power,” I said. “The Grey Pilgrim admitted as much.”

“Indeed,” Akua sneered. “The Principate cannot afford too many powers sworn to Evil at its borders, is it? Yet you could have been made friend, through the right treaties. Can the same be said of the Hidden Horror? Yet is is Callow that was marched upon, and Praes beyond it. Because if the First Prince had called for a crusade against Keter, none would have answered. Because against the Kingdom of the Dead the Principate did not believe it could win, and Callow was weaker.”

“You stated the very reason,” I grimly smiled. “Against Keter, she did not believe she could win. And so the strategic reality was that a villainous queen in Callow was unacceptable. You’re also dismissing the fact that it was your own fucking doomsday fortress, built on a massacre of my countrymen it is worth remembering, that served as the rallying cry for this mess.”

“I will not defend what I did,” Akua said. “There is nothing defensible about failure, and my means were abhorrent to you. Yet I will remind you that Procer loomed at the gate long before my works took place. I served as an excuse, it is true. And for my sins judge me as you will, for that is your right and privilege as victor. Yet even had you slain me long before, excuse would have been found sooner or later – Praes ruling Callow was no more acceptable than your bearing a crown, after all. You are a justification, Catherine. You are not a motive. At best, you were ancillary to the reasons forces went into motion.”

“I could have gone the other way,” I said. “I was made an offer, in Liesse. If I’d signed up with the Heavens-”

“You would have been slain, fallen upon by the full roster of the Calamities and your own allies,” she said. “The Black Knight, deeming your existence a failed experiment, would have set to ensuring Callow was incapable of rising in rebellion when Procer came calling. I need not remind you of the manner of methodical butchery your teacher is capable of.”

“So that’s your fine wisdom?” I mocked. “Thousands died under your watch but it’s all right, because thousands would have died either way?”

“Yourself and the Woe, the Fifteenth you assembled painstakingly,” Akua said. “All of these are the only reason anyone of import on this continent considers Callow worth treating with. Gods Below, Catherine, do you think without your casting a long shadow the Empress would have waited this long to act? That the Carrion Lord would not have excised treason out of your kingdom? The First Prince may claim to despise all you stand for, yet she stills speaks with you. Because you wield power, warrant fear, and this means the land you rule over are more than a subject to squabble over after someone wins the war. Without the might you have assembled, the only Callow that exists is that which other powers allow to exist. Is this the sorrow you mull over late into the night? That your acts, though bloody, have made your homeland actor instead of spoils?”

“You don’t know that,” I said. “If I’d never taken Callow in hand, heroes could have risen. They have before, with reliability that borders on law.”

“The same heroes the Empire repeatedly smothered in the crib for decades before your birth?” Diabolist gently said. “Or perhaps foreign heroes, from the same nations now marching on you.”

“It’s better to be Proceran vassals than a wasteland, Akua,” I tiredly replied. “And despite my best efforts we seem to be headed that way.”

“I know few things about your people, and much I thought known has been proven false,” the shade said. “Yet how many of them would agree with what you just spoke?”

“A crowd has only one voice, and no wisdom to utter,” I quoted. “My people aren’t always right, especially when pride is on the line.”

“And so now your argument is that you know better,” Akua said. “That you should make the choices for them. Yet you deplore having done that very thing. With some defeats to show for it, yet also admirable successes. What brave soul do you happen to use for comparison, then? I am curious what world-shaking sage would have steered Callow unfailingly, had you not been at the helm.”

“Asking for whoever would have risen not to have lost the second largest city in Callow is hardly unfair,” I barked back.

“You turn blind eye to the realities of the time,” Akua noted. “Another Named would not have benefitted from your relationship to the highest tiers of Praesi power. They would have been forced to rebel while under hunt of the Calamities, raising essentially the same army that was crushed by your teacher with perhaps a few additions. Likely, they would have needed to rely on help from the Principate to stay afloat, which would have begun the Tenth Crusade with Callow the midst of a bloody civil war instead of when its borders were garrisoned. It would have been a nonentity at the peace table afterwards. Perhaps I would have been slain by such a replacement, perhaps not. It is arguable at best if the resulting body count would not have been superior, and beyond debate that the destruction would have been more widespread. The Courts of the Fair Folk would then have found that deeply divided and damaged land much easier to make sport of than it was under your aegis, however flawed.”

“You don’t know any of that,” I said. “It’s speculation.”

“Which does not seem to be of import, when you castigate yourself,” the shade said. “Your usual hypocrisies leave a better taste in the mouth. You are not even alone in those, truth be told. The First Prince calls you a warlord, though she herself rose through war to the throne through the same means. Levant was warring against the Principate not even two years ago, and Ashur was happily trading with the Wasteland but months before the Tenth Crusade was declared. I am indifferent to the moralities of this, admittedly, but they seem to matter to you and it rather beggars belief that all these rivals must now be considered righteous merely because they march against you.”

“I’m not saying they deserve to win any of this,” I got out through gritted teeth. “I’m saying it’s self-defeating to fight them for the kingdom’s sake if the price of that fight is to break the fucking kingdom.”

“The Kingdom of Callow is already broken,” Akua frankly said. “You’ve succeeded at keeping it from falling apart entirely after evicting Praes, which is already impressive. Catherine, four years ago there was no kingdom. There were only the provinces, ruled by the edicts of the Carrion Lord. In that span, your pried your homeland out of the Empress’ grip with minimal destruction and forced a semblance of order onto a realm that was under occupation for several decades. All the while fending off repeated interventions from the two largest nations on the surface of Calernia. This strange expectation you have that anyone, including you, taking up the crown would lead to miracles is rather naïve. Nation-building is not the stuff of months, my dear, which is more or less what you managed to wrest away from more powerful and experienced rulers trying to deny you even that.”

“So I’m the lesser evil,” I bitterly smiled. “There’s a familiar tune. Been a while since it last managed to lull me to pleasant sleep.”

“It is most easy to fall short of a paragon of victory existing only in your thoughts,” Diabolist said. “You speak as if you believe you somehow hoodwinked an entire kingdom into following you.”

“I didn’t exactly ask for opinions before the coronation,” I said.

“And yet Callow did not rebel,” Akua mused. “The remaining highborn and your officials obey your orders. You have brought every Named of note in the kingdom into your service and called the guilds, even those calling themselves dark, to heel. Your army, which is now for the most part made of your countrymen, followed you into war willingly. You are not a Fairfax, it is true. Also largely irrelevant, as they are all dead. Considering the founder of that dynasty was a mere knight, a Named with a distinguished military record can hardly be considered lesser origin.”

“Eleanor Fairfax ascended to the throne by popular acclaim,” I flatly denied.

“She was a skilled and charismatic warlord with the power to make a claim on the throne and popular backing to press it,” she meaningfully said.

“Also the blessing of the Heavens,” I drily said. “I seem to be missing that part.”

“Now we argue theology,” Akua said. “Can no crown be worthy without affirmation from Above? I’ve yet to hear of Cordelia Hasenbach receiving this accolade. Strange that it would be required of you alone.”

“You’re ignoring the part where I’m a villain,” I said.

“You have devoured your own Name and taken Winter in its place,” she said. “You share foes with Below, perhaps sympathies with some who strive against Above. I have yet to hear you offer a single prayer to my Gods, Catherine. Even if it were so, the hypocrisy here would be a deep one indeed. Where is this outrage when a Tyrant rises in Helike? Stygia pays dues only in brimstone, and Bellerophon is a maddened altar of a city. And yet no crusade darkens their doorstep. A standard upheld only when convenient is no such thing: it is merely a tool.”

“It’s a pretty song you sing me,” I admitted. “That I am not always right, but just enough. That my enemies are no better.”

“And yet,” Diabolist said, “you believe not a word of it. Why?”

I thinly smiled.

“Because it was what I wanted to hear,” I said. “And you’re Akua Sahelian.”

It was two hours before Mighty Kodrog woke, and we spent every moment of them in silence.

Chapter 54: Scavenger

“One hundred and ninety-three: should your nemesis offer you a wager, a truce or delay for the first time always accept it. Villains with a fated heroic match have reached the peak of their power, whereas you and your companions can only grow.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

“That’s a lot of dead bodies,” Indrani noted. “Like, battlefield a lot, not ‘the Woe has a bad day’ a lot.”

I ignored the attempt at humour. In someone else I might have attributed it to needing to cover up shock, but Archer didn’t get those kinds of shivers. The benefits of being raised in a part of the world where every day a single misstep could get you killed by a raging monster-hunting lunatic. It was an uncomfortable truth that’d I’d gotten somewhat used to the sight of corpses as well, though not quite to my companion’s extent. The drow who’d scuttled in behind us had gone still as statues, stricken by either terror or awe. I left them behind and waded into the pool of death. I knelt in lukewarm blood and guts, flipping over the nearest body to have a better look at it.

I immediately withdrew my hand.

“Cat?” Indrani probed, catching up to me.

“There’s still Night in those,” I said.

I knew that because I’d felt the eldritch power react to my own. Not an attack or an attempt to meld, but… almost like the darkness had been licking my hand. Like it recognizes something larger and meaner, and tries to make friends. I shivered, and it’d been a long time since any kind of cold had caused me to do that. The dead drow was badly mangled. The face had been smashed in, skull crushed through the eye socket, but it had an earlier wound. A bloody hole in its chest, near the centre. I stuck my fingers in there again, ignoring the feeling the Night eagerly pressing against Winter, and popped open the ribcage to have a closer look. There was an organ in there that looked somewhat similar to a human heart, though it had way too many veins coming out of it and it stood deeper in the body – almost next to the spine, which at least was easily recognizable in shape. It was more grey than white, though, and oddly granular.

“That’s going to be a pain to wash,” Indrani commented, glancing at my now blood-drenched clothes.

“It was a crossbow bolt that did this,” I said. “Look at the indent. It’s similar to what Legion-issue makes on humans. Didn’t go deep enough, so whoever did this had to finish them up close.”

For all her many flaws, Archer had deep knowledge of the ways of murdering at a distance. When she turned her attention to the wound I was indicating her eyes narrowed.

“That’s a much bigger mark than the crossbows Robber’s minions used would have made,” she said. “Bigger bolt, and much stronger impact. Honestly, it looks like it should have gone straight through.”

Which would require much more force, if the head of the bolt was larger. Whoever had done this they had significantly better crossbows than the Legions of Terror fielded – when it came to the power of a shot, at least. Hard to tell the rate of fire from a single corpse.

“That points a damning finger already,” I said.

The Dread Empire was hardly the only nation that fielded crossbowmen, though they did field the largest amount by a significant margin. I could honestly think of no Calernian power that wouldn’t have crossbows in a field army, save for the Chain of Hunger. But Praes used a goblin crank model that was a significant improvement on what the likes of Procer and the old kingdom used. Better rate of fire, better range, better impact. Whoever had done this used a superior model, and I couldn’t think of any power that could boast of one. Not on the surface, anyway. Indrani leaned forward, jostling the corpse from my grasp, and then leaned back with a frown on her face. She was looking at the eye wound, the one that’d broken the skull.

“Yeah, you’re right,” she said. “Look at the angle. Hammer – and it’s absolutely a hammer that did this – came down all wrong for someone of the same height. That’s dwarf work, unless there’s another bunch of murderous little people running around the region.”

I dropped the dead drow entirely, slowly rising to my feet. For a butcher’s yard, this place smelled nothing like rotting flesh and blood. There was that coppery scent wafting around, but aside from that? Another physical oddity for this already strange race. My gaze swept across the slaughter, looking for the lay of it. Some bodies had obviously been dragged and dropped, but others had been left where they fell and from those I could try to piece together the events that had preceded our arrival.

“First volley hit them by surprise,” Indrani said, come up at my side. “Look at the bodies there. Too many of them are face down, they were shot in the back.”

I followed her pointed finger. The corpses were as she’d said, but that was not what drew my attention. The crossbows would have been fired from a passage leading roughly to my current left, but I could see it winding closer to my back. That should lead to either the Gloom itself or a cavern very close to it. Ivah had said that the dwarves sometimes pierced trough the Gloom, sending an expedition through to mine or claim other sources of wealth.

“Then the second volley went straight into the crowd, right there,” Indrani mused, finger moving towards a handful of dead bodies closer to the centre. “That’s interesting. You’ll know what kind of tactics that is even better than me.”

“Panic,” I said. “They were inciting a panic, so the drow would try to flee instead of fight back. Which means…”

Our two gazes swept towards the right side of the cavern, where the other passage out could be seen. It was broader than the other one, would likely allow for twenty through at a time. The corpses near it were piled almost hip-high, not a single one coming closer than twenty feet of the passage.

“There was another force waiting there,” I said. “So they’re numerous enough to afford splitting up at least, assuming there’s a single dwarven expedition at work here.”

“They did it cold and methodical,” Indrani grunted. “I’d guess they let the panic sink in before moving in the second force, so the drow wouldn’t get desperate too early.”

“It was mean to be a massacre since the beginning,” I softly agreed. “They never intended to leave anyone alive.”

“There’s more. Look around. No structures in here, Cat,” she pointed out. “Nowhere to huddle in, not even the beginnings of a camp site. So why were there at least a thousand drow in the middle of fucking nowhere?”

“You think the dwarves slaughtered the entire tribe,” I said. “Sigil, whatever.”

“Whatever they’re up to, it doesn’t involve leaving survivors,” Indrani shrugged. “This lot didn’t give much a fight, by the looks of it. I’d bet they were bottom feeders who fled another battle and got cleaned up before the dwarves moved on.”

“That’s monstrous,” I said, appalled. “I understand hitting those who can fight back, but civilians? Gods, Archer, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found children in the piles should we look for them.”

“There’s a sense to it,” she replied. “Hard sense, mind you, but still sense. Leave a bunch of Night-bearing corpses behind and the survivors will eat that. Possibly make trouble on the way out. No one can harvest if there’s no one left.”

“Fucking Hells,” I said. “Is there a single place on Creation where we’re not going to find atrocities if we scratch the varnish a bit?”

“This whole fucking place is an atrocity, Cat,” Indrani dismissed. “All the dwarves did was heap another ugly day onto the pile.”

My finger clenched. Her utter lack of sympathy for the drow was not without reason. But there was a difference between holding the responsible to account and shrugging off massacres. I’d wrestled with this before, when I had to make choices about the Empire. How many people in Praes could really be called at fault for the many sins of the High Lords? Farmers and shopkeepers did not get a voice in the run of the world, no matter whose banner they lived under. For every drow calling themselves Mighty and heedlessly partaking in the slaughter, how many thousands were just meat?

“Enough,” I said. “We’ve got too many worries for me to be angry with you.”

The other Named shrugged.

“Sure,” she said. “We might consider this a useful turn, if not a good one. We need to get deeper, right? If we follow in the wake of the dwarves I expect we’ll have an easier way of it than on our own.”

“We don’t know why they’re here,” I reminded her. “Or even were they’re headed.”

Indrani gestured down at the slaughter beneath us.

“That’s not the opening move of someone after a few rubies, Cat,” she said. “They’re leaving no one behind, so it follows they’re gonna be in the Everdark long enough they’re worrying someone might raise a banner here before they return.”

I reluctantly nodded. Not because I agreed following the dwarven expedition was our best bet, but to concede she was right about the logistics. The drow were terrified of the Kingdom Under, evidently with good reason, but this brutal a massacre wasn’t something that would go unanswered. Even a rat bared its fangs when cornered. The entire affair reeked of calculated risk.

“This complicates things,” I finally sighed. “It might be easier to find friends here, if the drow are under attack, but the price…”

“We’re not picking a fight with the Kingdom Under,” Indrani flatly said. “Not even the Lady does that. You kill a single dwarf and they won’t send a complaint, they’ll sink cities underground and slaughter everyone remotely involved. Maybe their relatives just to be sure. It doesn’t matter if by some miracle you manage to beat the army they send, Catherine. They’ll keep sending them, just get across the point that you don’t fuck with the dwarves.”

I glanced at her, surprised. I didn’t disagree with what she’d said – odds were that if the Queen of Callow killed a dwarf then Laure would be a ruin before winter arrived – but I was taken aback by how vehement Archer was being about it. She’d always been, well, fearless. Occasionally to the point of foolishness, though that was not unusual for any of the Woe. Including myself. I’d been under the impression few dwarves ever came to Refuge, even though it probably the surface entity with the closest ties to the Kingdom Under. Save maybe Mercantis, but that was famously strictly business as all the relationships of the City of Bought and Sold tended to be.

“You won’t get an argument from me,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “You got more on your plate, anyway.”

“How’s that?” I frowned.

Archer pointed down at the pond of corpses.

“That’s a lot of Night, Cat,” she said. “Even if they were all nobodies, that’s a great many nobodies. You just going to leave that lying there?”

I’d been trying not to think about that, all the while knowing I would have to soon enough. I wasn’t sure if I could devour the Night myself, but I did have Diabolist with me. If there was anyone would could tutor me in the basics of eldritch cannibalism it was Akua Sahelian. That’d still involve eating power from a source I only poorly understood, unaware of the possible long-term consequences. If Ivah had been upfront about what the Night was, then this could represent an extremely useful addition to my arsenal. I’d been running into old monsters more and more, of late. Older heroes, yes, but there was also the fact that the Dead King would be fielding an entire battalion of the most dangerous Named he’d been able to get his hands on. Having a much shallower bag of tricks than the opposition had cost me, in my last few fights, and I didn’t have the time or the kind of opponents available that’d allow me to play catch up. Drawing on the ancestral knowledge of an entire race would, to be frank, be the perfect solution. That was the most obvious reason not to go through with this.

It was too good a solution, too perfect. Like it’d been handpicked for my problems. Mundane coincidence was not unknown to Creation – the Gods were not behind every stroke of fortune or disaster, even for Named – but this crucial a coincidence? No. It wasn’t happenstance. I would go as far as to say I was inclined to believe this was a bid from Below. Look at what you could get, if you start acting like a proper villain. My last talk with the Dead King had involved a warning about the offers that would come knocking at my door. About the kind of stories that would be offered to me. I had not forgot it, even though it had been the least ominous part of what was spoken.

“No,” I finally said. “I can’t. It’s too useful.”

“Tell me you’re not drinking dead drow juice,” Indrani said. “You don’t know where it’s been, Cat, it could be full of diseases.”

“Not me,” I said, glancing back at the rest of our band.

The drow had gathered themselves while the two of us had been examining the massacre. None of them came within even spitting distance of the corpses, though, and from the looks of it one of them had thrown up against the cavern wall. Diabolist was still with them, though her eyes remained on the bodies. She was too well-taught to let her face betray her deepest thoughts, but the blankness of her expression was a hint in and of itself.

“Shit, you feeding them to Dubious Witch?” Indrani muttered. “Vivi’s going to have a fit when she learns.”

I waded back to dry land, boots trailing blood all over the stone. The drow visibly shrunk on themselves while Akua withdrew her gaze from the massacre’s aftermath to meet my eyes.

“Catherine,” she greeted me. “Have your deliberations come to an end?”

“In a manner of speaking,” I said. “Akua Sahelian, I forbid you to partake in Night.”

Diabolist shivered as my order sunk into the heart of her being, words writ into law. She threw me a reproachful glance, after gathering her bearings.

“I would not have so blundered, dear heart,” she said. “Such power would not come without trappings or demands. I am more discerning in my usurpations.”

“Then this shouldn’t be a problem,” I replied flatly.

She could argue all she wanted that she wouldn’t have done it, it was bad form to give an alcoholic the keys to a liquor shop. Even when they told you they didn’t like the bottles on the shelves.

“As you say,” Diabolist murmured, bowing her head.

I turned to the drow. I’d gotten used to them over our journey, well enough I no longer had trouble telling them apart. Ivah was the only one who talked regularly, even among each other. The former guide shifted uneasily when my gaze came to rest on it.

“Ivah,” I said. “Are you still set on us parting ways?”

Silver eyes narrowed.

“I am reconsidering this matter, Queen,” it said.

“Good,” I smiled. “Then I have a bargain for you. I still need a guide to Holy Tvarigu, or at least someone who can take me to the path that leads there. If you’re willing to be that guide, I can offer safety on the way there.”

I paused, then glanced at the corpses behind me.

“There would be other benefits, were you so inclined,” I added.

The drow’s face creased in thought.

“You would grant me right to harvest all of them?” it probed.

“So long as you can do it in a reasonable amount of time,” I said. “I want to get a move on as soon as possible. I don’t suppose it’s possible to take all of the Night at once?”

“There are rites to do this,” Ivah admitted. “Yet I know them not. It could take more than hours to finish this. The act of harvest is tiring.”

“If I may intervene?” Akua asked.

I nodded at her.

“If simply gathering the Night is the issue,” she said. “I believe we can be of assistance.”

“You can drain all those dry?” I said, jutting a thumb at the dead.

“The power itches to be held,” Diabolist said. “It would not fight us in this.”

“And contamination?” I pressed.

I got the impression the shade had to hold back from rolling her eyes.

“I have struck bargains with demons and devils most ancient,” Akua said. “This is ancient work, to be sure, and strong. It is also incredibly simplistic. I am no green warlock, drunk on the success of binding an imp.”

“Gods, you sound like Masego only two parts more Evil,” I muttered. “Fine, I didn’t mean to impugn your talent at short-sightedly endangering the very fabric of Creation to try winning battles you ended up losing anyway on account of being kind of a fuckup.”

I heard Archer choke behind me.

“That was unnecessary,” Diabolist said, sounding genuinely miffed.

“Don’t know about that,” Indrani mused. “I got a laugh out of it.”

Ivah’s eyes were moving from one of us to the other in sequence as we spoke, face visibly split between fear and befuddlement. I suspected the Mighty weren’t keen on banter with their underlings. What little I knew implied they were pretty direct about having their displeasure felt, though in all fairness that made me the pot mouthing off at their kettle.

“The terms stand, with the addition that we’ll help you gather Night at least this once,” I told the drow.

Ivah did not need to mull over it much longer.

“I would accept your bargain, then,” it said.

I nodded, pleased.

“Give me a moment to phrase the oath,” I said.

“That will not be necessary, Queen,” Ivah said.

My brow rose. Trust already? We’d only struck one bargain, and I’d needed it for urgent purpose. The silver-eyed guide smiled thinly, reading my surprise.

“This will make me drow again,” it said. “Drow neither give nor take oaths.”

“That’s rather inconvenient,” I frankly replied.

Would it try to betray us the moment it had a bit of power under the belt? I wasn’t overly worried about it hurting us, Secrets or no Secrets, but it’d be a pain to have to find another guide so soon after empowering the last one. A closer eye needed to be kept on it, then. I gave Diabolist a meaningful glance, getting the slightest of nods in response.

“Let’s get this done,” I said. “Akua, I’m getting the impression that improvising here would be a bad idea.”

“Your discernment remains impeccable,” Diabolist said, without a hint of irony.

I smothered a grin. The diabolism quip had actually gotten under her skin, which was just delightful.

“If I may?” she said, extending her hand towards me.

I nodded and she made contact with the bare skin of my neck. It felt… like when we’d fought together against the Skein, but softer. Access granted but not power. Her thoughts bloomed right under my fingertips, little whispers of knowledge and intent.

“Extend your will,” she murmured.

I closed my eyes. I could feel the Night wriggling in the bodies. She’d been right to say it was itching to be held: it responded eagerly to even the slightest of approaches. My mind covered the whole of the cavern – close to the perception that emerged when others entered my domain, but somehow incomplete. There was no inherent understanding here. I was blindly groping my way.

“Call it,” Akua said.

To me, I ordered. The Night slithered out of the corpses like a tide of snakes, eating through dead flesh. It hesitated, but I lashed it with my will and called it closer. It became easier the more I exerted myself, as if I’d overcome its hesitation. I spun it into a sphere until it grew larger than a person, then told it to contract. When I opened my eyes, there was only a pinprick of darkness hovering in the air before me.

“Ivah,” I said. “Now.”

The drow approached and bowed towards the Night, beginning cadenced whispers, but they fell away from my ears. I was looking into the small piece of darkness, and seeing beyond it. Through it.

I was not the only one looking.

There was a face, but I could only make out the barest contours because of the eyes: deep and perfect silver, they were glaring harshly in otherwise absolute darkness.

Splendid, a woman’s voice spoke into my ear.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Ah, perhaps not. Merely usurper. What an unusual creature you are.

I could feel her mind scuttling across my own, like a spider on glass. Feeling out the shape of it, tasting the power. It went both ways. Her soul, her mantle was no thick bundle of power. It was an impossibly large web of the thinnest possible strings, spread out so far and wide I could scarcely comprehend it.

“You’re not the Night,” I said. “I can feel you too, Named.”

I sensed you tread the Gloom with stolen feathers. Felt you come to me, purpose on your lips.

“Sve of Night,” I whispered. “I seek audience with you.”

So take it, the woman laughed. What stays your hand?

“You’re under attack,” I said.

All is strife. The Tenets will hold, or they will break. Only the worthy rise.

“Then you’re willing to talk,” I tried. “We need to-”

All paths lead to Tvarigu. I await you beyond the reach of dawn.

Silver light shone, blinding, and for a heartbeat I thought I saw her whole. A colossal silhouette, limbs outstretched and shivering in pain. Then I saw only the cavern and the concerned looks of my companions.

“Fuck,” I said feelingly. “This just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?”