“All serve, by whip or by writ.”
– Inscription carved above the entrance to Stygia’s Magisterium
The game made no sense, and I definitely wasn’t saying that just because I was losing. I fanned my face with my cards, trading hard stares with Indrani and Akua. Sadly, though the former was already drunk she was also drunk enough she misremembered her cards half the time. That made trying to read her an exercise in pointlessness. I’d already lost two laundry chores to her because she’d been under the impression that a set of four cards in the same suit was actually a bad hand. My eyes narrowed as I studied her stupidly grinning face. Unless that was what she wanted me to think. Was she faking being drunker than she was?
“Your values will not grow from staring at Archer,” Diabolist mildly said.
I scoffed at her. The wily ass had just tricked me out of two firewood chores after letting Indrani raise the bid through the roof when she had the most horrible hand we’d seen all night. I was beginning to suspect I was being had by the both of them complicitly.
“This is a stupid game,” I said. “No wonder it’s from the Wasteland.”
“Oooh, she’s got no trumps then,” Indrani drawled. “She only gets that ornery when she knows she’s going to lose the round.”
I raised my chin haughtily, above the petty squabbles of the lesser folk around me. I would win or lose as a dignified Queen of Callow. Probably lose, I admitted to myself, since I had two Knaves but no same-suit card to match them, making them worth a pittance of ten points even paired. The Three of Cups stared back back at my face mockingly, promising I would be washing the dishes of these traitorous wenches until the end of days.
“No draw,” I said, eager to get my beating over with instead of worsening the costs. “Settle.”
“Shit,” Indrani said, and slapped her five cards down onto the stone.
Two from the suit of Swords, but only a four and six, and no matches which meant I’d so far managed to pull a surprise upset. Diabolist gracefully added her own to the pile. The Knaves of Cups and Coins, with… shit, equivalent values for the rest. This was going to get ugly. I hastily slapped down my own hand then withdrew by half an inch.
“Succession,” I said, and tried to slap my fingers back on the pile of cards before anyone else could.
Akua’s fingers almost slid under mine in time, but at the last moment she stopped and a wondrous wonderland of no longer having to traipse around this fucking godforsaken countryside for dead wood presented itself to my eyes. Then Indrani’s knife went through my hand, technically touching the cards first and winning succession. There was a heartbeat of silence.
“Archer,” I said patiently. “Is there a knife through my hand?”
She mused over that, then met my eyes.
“No,” she told me. “’tis but an illusion.”
Naturally, I decked her in the face. Not full strength, but hard enough she went flying with a deeply satisfying yelp. Sighing, I drew the knife out of my hand and allowed Winter to knit the flesh back together. Holding it by the tip I pointed it accusingly at Diabolist.
“You could have said something,” I complained.
“I debated saying ‘watch out, she has a knife’,” Akua acknowledged. “But really, that could apply to any of us.”
I kind of missed the days when the shade of my hated enemy had stuck to creepy intimate endearments instead of outright sassing me. Horrifying as the thought was, the Woe might have been a bad influence on Diabolist.
“That’s going to bruise, you know,” Archer called out.
“Be grateful I didn’t aim for the spire, you wanton savage,” I yelled back.
We’d crossed the Chalice, that quiet lake to the northeast of Keter, and yesterday arrived near what could be considered the outskirts of the Everdark. The tall snow-capped peaks shared their name with the realm of the drow, though in truth their kind occupied only parts of it and all of those underground. This was one of the few parts of Calernia where digging too deep wouldn’t unleash a sea of angry dwarves, though drow could hardly be considered a better outcome. There were not gates into the Everdark anymore, Indrani had told me. Millennia ago there had been, massive always-open panes of bronze that led into a hollowed out mountain at the heart of drow holdings, but those were long abandoned and Ranger had allegedly found the inside of the mountain collapsed when she’d tried her luck there. We’d have to try our hand with the Warrens instead. A pretty name, that, for what was a much less glorious reality: the Warrens were no great structure, only a sprawling mess of dank tunnels leading underground. Many were collapsed or leading to dead ends, and there were no surface markers indicating their presence. The only people who knew their locations for sure were the drow who still used them, sending roving bands of raiders and slavers to the surface.
Those enterprising souls were not known for having a lot of success in those depredations. Ages ago, before the Golden Bloom had been seized by the elves, the now-broken kingdom of the Deoraithe had occasionally been troubled by them. Now, though? The surface paths led them into three dead ends: the Kingdom of the Dead, the Golden Bloom and the Chain of Hunger. None of these were known to be welcoming locales to outsiders. Once every few decades it was said a cunning and careful warband managed to slip through dwarven tunnels or other secret paths to reach northern Procer – or much more rarely, northern Callow – but even fewer of those who made it there succeeding at returning home. What little was known of the Everdark these days was learned through exiles, which were rare and tended to settle in Mercantis exclusively. Diabolist had hired a few of them as mercenaries, when she’d gone on her mass-murdering spree, and told me since she’d been rather unimpressed by the quality of their soldiery. Regardless, this was now the second day we were on the hunt for any path into the Warrens and we had nothing to show for it. Indrani had been told of a way down by Lady Ranger, and we’d begun there yesterday, but unsurprisingly it’d been brought down.
It was also marked with blood-red runes, that from what Akua could piece together were a warning about ‘the Destroyer’ having hunted there. Ranger had evidently proved as charming as one would expect. Dusting herself off, Indrani rose to her feet and shook away the bits of stone stuck everywhere in her clothes. She strolled back to the fire easily, maintaining the pretence nothing had happened with an admirable amount of conceit. She plopped herself back down and stretched like a lazing cat.
“Next round, then,” she said. “I believe I won the succession, so Cat didn’t get shit. Hand me my knife, would you?”
I eyed her sceptically.
“Do you promise not to stab me again?” I said.
“And I as well,” Akua smoothly tacked on.
We both ignored her.
“I mean,” Indrani hedged. “Define stab.”
“Archer,” I firmly said.
“It’s not like it doesn’t grow back,” she quibbled. “Also, I know you got all pissy last time, but you know I’m right about the mystery stew. Technically, since anything we cut would grow back, if we used it-“
“We’re not going to cut off my fingers and put them into the stew so you don’t have to hunt rabbits anymore, Archer,” I hissed. “It’s not happening.”
“Ironic,” Akua mused, “that cannibalism only became matter of debate after the Adjutant departed.”
“A good queen would be willing to bleed for her people,” Indrani solemnly said. “I’m disappointed in you, Catherine.”
“I know you’re doing this just to rile me up,” I said, eyes narrowing. “You know what? Fine. I bet you wouldn’t even do it. If I cut off my thumb right now, ‘Drani, you going to eat it?”
There was a beat of silence.
“Two firewood chores she doesn’t,” Diabolist announced.
Those were mine. That utter wretch.
“I’m a little full right now,” Archer said.
I let out a mocking humph.
“So let’s go with a little finger instead,” she finished.
I spun her knife around, catching it by the hilt.
“You wouldn’t,” I said.
“Hey, use your own,” she protested. “I don’t want to get fae stuff all over it.”
“You just stabbed me, you ass,” I yelled.
“I mean, you can’t prove that,” Indrani mused. “Akua’s more or less dead, so in Callow she can’t be a witness in a trial. It’s your word against mine.”
“I’m going to break your knife,” I told her bluntly.
“Don’t, it has great sentimental value,” she objected. “I think I killed a guy for it.”
“To clarify,” Diabolist said. “Did you kill him because you wanted the knife, or did you kill him and then want the knife?”
Indrani stroked her chin thoughtfully.
“Yes,” she replied.
I laid a delicate finger on the tip of the blade, still holding the hilt, and made eye contact with my rebellious minion.
“I will send you back to Laure in chunks,” Indrani seriously promised.
“At least they won’t be used in stew,” I replied just as seriously.
I caught her wrist when she tried to wrestle me down, but she half-leapt at me and we went tumbling into the rocks. I dropped the knife to free my hand, but she slammed her arse into my belly before I could push down her shoulder. I flipped us around, and tumbling towards a slope we went. In between having a faceful of Indrani’s clothes in my face, I glimpsed Akua discreetly pawing through the deck of cards. I repressed a sigh. She was stacking it, wasn’t she? A hard bump against the ground jostled me out of my despair, and I wiggled so Indrani wouldn’t manage to tie my wrists together with her scarf. She was a fair hand at brawling, but then so was I did have the advantage of being able to lift her with a single hand if I needed to. I tugged at her leg and elbowed her in the stomach, climbing on top and forcing her into a bed of pebbles. Rustle, rustle. No footsteps, but grass parting under feet.
“Oh, I get it,” Indrani smirked. “Give me a moment.”
She tugged down the neckline of her shirt and thrust out her admittedly shapely tits.
“I’m ready,” Indrani announced theatrically. “Ravish me, Black Queen. I am powerless before your might.”
“Archer, now is-“ I began.
“I get it,” she winked. “Hey, Shady Business! Go for a walk or something. My legendary charms have finally overwhelmed her.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, almost as irritated by the pun as the interruption.
Her brow rose, a salacious grin splitting her face.
“Good news, Fae Maiden,” she announced. “You’re back in the game. Lose the top first, I’ve been pretty curious.”
“We’re about to have company,” I spoke in Kharsum, offering Indrani a flirtatious smile to keep up the pretence for watching eyes.
“Yeah we are,” Indrani said, wiggling her eyebrows, but the moment I loosened my grip she began reaching for one of the sundry knives always on her.
They were creeping through the stones now. The slope to the left, leading to a narrow ledge skirting the flank of a rock spire. There’d been a stretchof sparse grass beneath it, I remembered. Not much green, though. They have to be more than a few if they made that much noise going sneaking through. I inhaled, yet there was no fear in the wind. I could almost discern heartbeats, but they were too muted to tell apart. Sorcery, or some natural trait? I got up, turning my back to where they were approaching from, and offered a hand to Archer.
“We doing this or what?” she grinned.
“Go easy on me,” I said. “My back’s still aching.”
The sound of a cord being pulled taut was the opening salvo of the dance. I tore away from Archer, blade already half-formed in my hand, and sped forward without missing a beat. I did not need to speak orders to the others. Both Akua and Indrani had been in enough scrapes, either at my side or not, to need no instructions when blades came out. My first drow sighting was little more than a glimpse of silvery eyes set in an angular grey face flanked by strips of obsidian: a heartbeat later the enemy had vanished, pressing itself against the dead angle of the slope. An arrow went flying from above, arced perfectly towards Akua’s silhouette by the fire, but when it went through her chest all that happened was the shattering of ice. She was long gone.
“Archer, handle above,” I called out. “I want prisoners.”
“Spoilsport,” she yelled back, landing in a roll that scattered her beddings as she grabbed her longbow.
I’d keep the ones down here busy, trying to limit the damage. I could hear faint heartbeats down the slope, just out of my sight, and they had quickened. They were waiting for me, to spring attacks in that moment where my eyes would be seeking them out and they would have me right in their sights. If I’d still been the Squire, that might have scored them a wound. Now, though? With a flick of the wrist I formed four monoliths of ice in the air above where they should be lying in wait and allowed them to drop. There were murmured sentences in a language I did not know, but it seemed they had no parry. The working flushed them out, seven of them scrambling away from the falling ice. Warriors, one and all, or at least drow in good shape wearing armour. The sight if it was strange to me, after fighting the soldiery of the west. No steel there, no plate or mail: small strips of obsidian fell down to their knees in a thick layer, kept together by barely visible strips of leather. My eyes were sharp enough to find the discreet runes carved onto the pieces, though I knew not their meaning or purpose. There were few differences among them. None looked terribly older than the others – were they human, I would have believed none older than their late twenties – and I could hardly even tell them apart. The helms, though, had some slight variations. All of them were thin incomplete circles of obsidian closely keeping to the frame of their faces, keeping hair out and going all the way down to the beginning of angular chins. From that dark glass, caps of leather descended towards the back of their necks, set with small round stones, save for one drow. The lower part of that one’s cap had a line of long dark feathers tickling down to its back.
Well, the one with the fancy hat tended to be the one in charge. It would do.
While I’d been sifting through the sight of them, they’d recovered from the surprise. Before the ice even hit the ground one of them tossed an iron-tipped javelin at me, though from the corner of my eye I caught another danger. The archer had come out and fired another arrow. I could hear Archer pulling at her own bow, though, so I instead I focused my attention on the javelin. It was well-thrown, aimed right at the centre of my chest. It was also laughably slow to my senses after the kind of fights I’d picked of late. I snatched it out of the air by the shaft and pivoted, throwing it back at the same drow twice as fast. To my surprise, it did not duck. Instead its entire body flickered, shadows swallowing it whole, and it fell into a pool of darkness that stretched and slithered across the stony ground only to reform a dozen feet to the side into the same person. Well, that was a new trick.
“Surrender,” I called out.
I realized just after that I’d forgotten about the arrow, musing it wouldn’t exactly set the right tone if the moment after demanding surrender I got shot. As it happened, Archer pulled through.
“Trick shot,” she crowed.
Her own arrow tore through the fletching of the one the drow had fired, sending it spinning away from me, and it continued at a sharp angle upwards. The sound of obsidian shattering and a pained grunt followed. The one with the fancy hat spoke something in drow tongue, and they all scattered into the shadows. Literally. Lines of darkness spread out, too many for me to follow them all. They had not, unfortunately for them, accounted for Diabolist. The scent of blooming ice filled the air as she formed a construct right to the side of a fleeing drow, fingers of frost ripping the warrior out of the shadowy tendril by the throat. To my approval, she’d gone for Fancy Hat.
“We have your leader,” I called out. “Drop your weapons or she’ll snap his neck.”
Fancy Hat tried to flicker away again, but I wasn’t having any of that. I flicked my wrist and a band of shadow tightened around its throat, keeping him in Akua’s tender embrace as the flicker… failed, for lack of a better word. A javelin punched through the warrior’s chest a heartbeat later, tearing at Diabolist’s construct behind it. Right, drow. Infamously not the most loyal of companions. If that’d been the only one that could speak Lower Miezan, I was going to be pissed.
“All right, the hard way it is,” I grunted.
The kickback from my running start shattered the ground beneath it, and a heartbeat later I was in the midst of them. One pooled into shadows, but an arrow nailed it and it flickered back into drow form with a leg pierced through, hissing in pain. I handled the rest as gently as I could. Spikes of shadow nailed one to the ground, another was sent to think about what he’d done in a bubble of ice and I shaped my sword into a spear for the third, throwing it straight through its foot when it tried to flicker away. There’d been eight in whole, and with one dead and two clipped by Archer that left… two. One was legging it back towards the grass. I let it run – might learn the way into the Warrens from it, assuming that was how they’d all come to the surface. The last stared at me with wide eyes and dropped its curved obsidian blade, slowly kneeling and putting its hands behind its neck.
“Diabolist, containment,” I ordered.
An exertion of will had wings coming out of my back and I rose up, following behind the runner. It saw me, and flickered. Clicking my tongue disapprovingly against the roof of my mouth, I went down into a dive. No more running, then. Too much a risk of losing it if it stuck to that form. I wasn’t even halfway caught up when the drow emerged from the dark tendril, grey skin gone pale, and began to run away on foot. So it’s exhausting to remain like that, I thought. I wasn’t surprised. There was no such thing as power without a cost. I swooped down like a hawk, boots landing on its shoulders, and it folded without a fight. A bit too much, actually. Its head hit a stone at a bad angle, and with a sharp breath I knelt by its side to check if it was still alive. My fingers went to the jugular, but there was no heartbeat to found there. Drow were only so similar to humans, then. I formed a flat piece of ice and put it before its mouth, tension leaving my shoulders when the surface fogged. Its forehead was bleeding and its eyes closed, but it wasn’t dead yet. I swung the body over my shoulder and walked back to the skirmish field, finding the others had gathered the drow together in my absence. Most were bleeding, though we’d avoided outright lethal wounds. Even a lesser one could kill if you bled long enough, though, so the offer of wounds tended might be leverage we could use. I dropped the unconscious drow to the side of the others.
“All accounted for,” Diabolist said.
I nodded. Archer rested her elbow on my shoulder, eyeing our prisoners with a deeply unimpressed look on her face.
“Was that trick really all they had?” she said. “I’m feeling a little shafted, not gonna lie.”
“You can’t use the kind of opponents we’ve had recently as measuring stick,” I said. “We’ve been scrapping with some of the scariest people on the continent.”
“They could have brought a mage, at least,” she complained.
“Night’s young,” I replied, shrugging her elbow off me. “There could be others.”
None of the drow were speaking, or even meeting my eyes. They remained kneeling and looking down, what little I could see of their faces resigned. They think we’re going to kill or enslave them, I realized.
“Do any of you understand this language?” I asked in Lower Miezan.
“Do you speak Mtethwa?” I tried in the eponymous tongue.
“Why would anyone want to speak that if they didn’t have to?” Indrani mused.
I glanced at Diabolist.
“You wouldn’t happen to…”
“Speak Crepuscular?” she finished. “I do not. For much the same reason I do not speak cockroach.”
“I’m disappointed in your tutors, Akua,” I informed her.
“Indeed,” Diabolist drily replied. “How dare they fail to teach me a language spoken only by a race that has not been seen in the Empire for centuries, whose influence in the broader continent is so insignificant some scholars do not mention them in the latest histories at all.”
“Yes,” I agreed without missing a beat. “It was very inconsiderate of all of you.”
“Hey, disappointments,” Indrani called out in passable Chantant. “Do any of you understand me enough to be shamed by my scorn?”
Three of them stiffened. I grinned, and not pleasantly.
“Would you look at that,” I murmured in the same language. “It’s finally paid off. All of you who understand me, get up. We’re going to have a nice, civilized chat.”
Indrani choked on her tongue at that, which did not reassure them in the slightest.