“No, see, you’ll profit as well. All you need is to convince five others of contributing coin and when they do you’ll get a part of their own contribution. It’ll all work out, I promise.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant, the Oddly Successful, convincing High Lords to invest in the construction of ritual pyramid outside Ater
Even after having done arguably worse things, I’d never warmed to torture. I’d once had an interesting conversation with Black about it, where he’d been somewhat equivocal but overall inclined to agree with me. Torture, he’d noted, tended to be unreliable. Some people folded the moment you pulled out their fingernails, sure, but those with a little more staying power would need a great deal of violence before they started talking. And at that point, how could you tell whether they were saying something because they thought you wanted to hear it or because it was actually true? Some heroes side-stepped the whole issue by having truth-telling abilities, but that was bullshit divine intervention – you couldn’t reproduce those results with spells, not with any degree of reliability. I tended to get by on my increased senses, since fae eyes and fae ears were much harder to trick than their human equivalent, as I now suspected the Lone Swordsman once had. William hadn’t gotten a pat on the back from Above and glaring lights appearing whenever someone fibbed at him, he’d had to rely on Name senses to read the opposition. He’d been quite good at it, in retrospective.
I’d had to mutilate my own soul to get better at that trick than he was, so for once good ol’ Willy had me beat from the grave.
I stared down at the drow kneeling in front me, frowning. There’d been three who’d stiffened when Indrani had spoken in Chantant, and we’d separated those from the rest of the prisoners immediately. I’d then shaped Winter into a thick spire of ice hollow on the inside and ordered the first prisoner brought in. Akua was at my side, as she likely had more experience at this kind of thing than any of us. Indrani had been curious but I wanted someone keeping an eye on the rest of the drow. A flick of the wrist shaped a rough bench of frost and I sat down, eyes never leaving the still-silent prisoner. Diabolist had stripped it of its helmet, revealing bone-white hair cut so short I could almost see the skin beneath. I would have preferred the obsidian armour off as well, but there were no obvious clasps to it: I suspected it was like a mail shirt, put on with another person’s help.
“We know you understand us,” I said.
The drow did not react. Denial? Possibly. Or resignation.
“Akua, raise its head,” I ordered.
Diabolist knelt by the prisoner’s side, forcing the chin upwards so the drow would have to meet my eyes. It resisted, but only half-heartedly. The eyes were not as silvery as I’d thought. The sclera was white as a human’s would be, though noticeably larger, but it was the iris that caught my attention. It was not entirely silver: there were strands of the colour to be found, more visible than the rest, but the base was a dull brown. Some sort of sorcerous blowback? The black pupil at the centre was uncomfortably shaped, more oval than circle, and I’d yet to see a single drow blink. In a way, it was more troubling to look at their kind than a fae – the fairies were inhuman, with only the barest varnish of similarity, but the drow was close enough to human that the discomfort was felt more steeply.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
Silence. There was fear in the air now. I drummed my fingers against my leg, then sighed.
“Answer me,” I Spoke.
The prisoner’s face twitched into a pained rictus. It was fighting the command, proving to have stronger will than most. It was not enough.
“No one,” it hissed, voice dim. “Nothing.”
Diabolist rose to her feet and the drow stubbornly went back to looking down.
“Blind it,” Akua suggested evenly. “Rip out the eyes and toss it back out bleeding in sight of the others.”
“There’s no need for that,” I said.
This one looked unwilling to provide useful answers even when its arm was being twisted, so we’d try the others before seeing if it was necessary to resume the proceedings a little more sharply. Diabolist wasn’t wrong that a dollop of fear would be useful, but she was also proving that even as a shade she had that horrid Wasteland disregard for people. I would not resort to knives without exhausting every other possibility first. I’d gotten an idea of the drow’s voice, from that unwilling reply, enough for glamour. Illusions did not come naturally to me, as even now they required more focus than I was typically able to spare when in a fight, but I had the time to weave it properly tonight. A small sphere of shining light formed over my open palm and the drow breathed in sharply when a decent approximation of its voice began screaming hoarsely into the night. I kept the glamour going for thirty heartbeats, then ended it with a harsh snap. Akua’s scarlet eyes followed me as I dismissed the sphere and spun glamour again, resting a hand atop the drow’s head: a heartbeat later half its face appeared brutally scorched to the naked eye, nose cut off and one eye left a bloody empty socket.
“Sleep,” I ordered, and forced a sliver of Winter into its shaken mind.
It dropped without a sound.
“Drag it outside,” I ordered Diabolist. “In sight of the others. Then get me another.”
“By your will,” the shade said, and smoothly bowed.
I flicked my wrist and shaped one last glamour. An eye, this one, though since I’d never actually seen a drow eye out of an eye socket I had to improvise to an extent. Akua came back quicker than I’d expected, the fresh prisoner moving gracefully into the room. I was pretty sure I recognized this one. It’d been the one who actually surrendered when things went to shit for their warband. Still, it wouldn’t do to leave the point half-made. I popped the glamoured eye into my mouth and chewed, smiling pleasantly at the new arrival. Its lips thinned, darkening to a deeper bloodless grey.
“That will not be necessary,” the drow said in perfect Chantant.
I swallowed. So did the prisoner.
“Well, this is promising,” I mused. “Diabolist, make our friend a seat.”
Ice bloomed and a block spun into existence. It was, I noted, with mild amusement, closer to the ground than my own seat. Praesi, huh. The drow’s silvery eyes lingered on the sorcery before it took a seat. The silver strands were much deeper, in this one. I could see almost nothing of the original green. They were also… less vivid than those of the previous prisoner. Interesting.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Ivah,” it replied. “Of no sigil.”
“I’m Catherine Foundling,” I said. “Lately Queen of Callow, though I’ve picked up a few other titles over the years.”
“I greet you humbly, Lately Queen,” Ivah said.
I resisted the urge to close my eyes. I was going to let that one go, for the sake of avoiding the awkwardness of a correction this early into the talk.
“Just to make sure I’m addressing you properly,” I said. “Would you happen to be a boy drow or a girl drow?”
Ivah blinked, silver fluttering behind long lashes. Not because it needed to, I suspected. It was a conscious expression of surprise.
“I am no longer Mighty,” it replied.
“That, uh, was not the question,” I said.
“If you were human,” Diabolist said. “Which gender would you consider yourself to be?”
Ivah looked a little uncomfortable.
“Cattle has no gender,” it said, sounding apologetic.
“As a Callowan, I can tell you that’s frankly terrible way to approach animal husbandry,” I noted. “But let’s keep moving. You were… Mighty, is that right?”
“When still named Dimas, I was third under Zapohar and a rylleh in my own right,” Ivah said. “What stands beyond you was toppled and disgraced, harvested of all but a sip of Night and sent to die in the Burning Lands as final mockery.”
My eyes narrowed. I lacked context for most of that, but there was one part I had guesses about. I tapped the side of my eye.
“The silver,” I said. “Yours is dulled. It’s this Night that caused it in the first place?”
“That is so,” Ivah sadly agreed.
“Your people are said to pay obeisance to the Tenets of Night,” Diabolist said, standing at my back. “The matter is linked, I take it.”
“All is one,” Ivah gravely said, touching its lips with two fingers. “All is strife. The worthy will rise.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” I told Akua in Kharsum. “It’s one thing for them to have some sort of cult paying dues to Below, but that silver in its eyes is no illusion.”
“The drow mercenaries I hired were not capable of the shadow flicker,” Akua noted in the same. “Perhaps the power ebbs away from the Everdark?”
“That lot outside is bottom-feeders, Diabolist,” I murmured. “And still they were capable of a trick most Named wouldn’t sneer at. There’s something wrong here. If their lower ranks are this strong there’s no way they’d be a ruin of an empire as they supposedly are.”
“Unless,” Akua said calmly, “that very power is the cause of ruin.”
My brow rose. That was possible, yes. Were they all fighting of this Night so ferociously they’d broken their own realm?
“Ivah,” I said. “The other drow outside, were they also Mighty once?”
The prisoner smiled thinly.
“None of us are drow, Lately Queen,” it said. “Had we returned in glory, perhaps once more, but this is disgrace heaped upon disgrace.”
So that was just going to keep happening, huh. Lovely.
“I thought Mighty was a gender,” I said.
“Mighty are,” Ivah stiffly said. “We are not, no longer. Most of them never were. They fought under no sigils, nor knew the favour of cabals. Meat for harvest.”
“Mighty are people,” Akua suggested in Kharsum. “And so those not Mighty, by definition, are not. Natural nobility, it would seem. Power earned or lost blade in hand.”
“It’s madness, Akua,” I grunted. “If the only way people can ever amount to anything in a society is by killing, that’s all they’ll ever…”
I trailed off. Well. Yeah, I supposed that would collapse an empire. There would be a need to dig deeper into that nightmare of a culture later, but first there were immediate matters to be addressed.
“Do you know a way into the Warrens?” I asked the prisoner.
“The path we took was also meant for our return,” Ivah warily said. “The marks on our feathers allow for passage through the Gloom, twice.”
“Your feathers,” I repeated carefully, then leant forward to flick a finger on one of the strips of obsidian making up its armour. “Those?”
“It is so,” the drow agreed.
“What is the Gloom?” Akua probed.
“The gate into the realm of the Mighty,” Ivah said. “Only those marked may leave, or enter.”
“Indrani told us that when Ranger tried to get into the Everdark she got stuck in the tunnels,” I told Akua in Kharsum. “Some kind of warded labyrinth, sounds like.”
“We’ve enough at hand to salvage keys for ourselves,” Diabolist said. “Though I would suggest we keep one guide to learn how to use it.”
“I’m not going to just execute prisoners, Akua,” I peevishly said.
“Those unable to speak Chantant are useless to us,” she pointed out.
“It’s not a question of usefulness,” I said. “We don’t execute prisoners.”
“Dearest, I understand that mercy is a useful tool,” she assured me. “I do not dismiss it. Yet for it to have worth in the eyes of the enemy, there need be a cultural value assigned to it. There is no indication it is so with the drow.”
“This isn’t about the drow, Akua,” I said. “It’s about us not putting holes in people who’ve surrendered. I’ve got no issue with killing on the field, and I’ve made my peace with assassinations when there’s no other way to avoid making a mess. This is different. They’re no real threat to us.”
“They are blades we must then keep an eye on,” Diabolist said. “Perhaps you and I are proof to such slights, but Archer is not. Nothing we have seen leads me to believe they will honour their surrender the moment the threat of death is lifted.”
“If they break that understanding, after being made aware it exists, then they can be killed,” I patiently told her. “That’s how keeping prisoners of war works, Akua.”
“The warband sought to slay or enslave us, and gave no warning before striking,” the shade reminded me. “They have not earned such treatment. This is an unnecessary risk.”
“It’d be easier to kill everyone, Diabolist,” I said steadily. “It always is. But when you behave like that, you end up living in the fucking Wasteland. Is this the simplest way to do things? No. But it’s how we do it, because if we don’t act civilized then people don’t act civilized with us.”
Scarlet eyes flicked to the prisoner facing me. Ivah’s eyes were watching us carefully, unable to understand the words but not beyond following the tones.
“Will they?” she wondered. “Act civilized, even if we offer them such civility.”
“It was always one of your worst habits,” I coldly said, “to burn bridges without ever trying to cross them. It may not work. We’ll never know unless we try.”
Diabolist languidly shrugged.
“I offer only perspective,” she said. “The decision was always yours.”
“It’s been made,” I flatly said.
I turned away from the shade, and cleared my throat.
“Ivah,” I said. “I want you to guide us through the Warrens.”
The drow’s face fell.
“The passage leads to the holdings of the Kodrog,” it said carefully. “The Mighty of that sigil are said to be among the strongest of the outer rings.”
“Stronger than the sigil you used to fight under?” I asked.
“The Zapohar once ruled a whole district of Great Parun,” Ivah proudly said. “Our Mighty claimed seats on no less than five cabals. The Kodrog would have been broken in an hour’s passing, facing our wroth.”
“Their wroth, now,” the prisoner corrected sadly.
“Parun was one of the great cities of the drow, before their empire broke apart,” Akua told me in Kharsum. “Though not the capital, which I recall to be named Tvarigu.”
“I’d guess the more powerful tribes – sigils, I suppose – live in the old cities,” I replied. “Not sure what the cabals are, though. Some sort of alliance? Their Mighty seem to be able to belong to both at the same time.”
“Warrior lodges, perhaps,” the shade mused. “Or an association of influential aristocrats. It is hardly unprecedented.”
I’d ask our songbird later.
“We can handle the Kodrog,” I told Ivah. “I’d rather avoid a fight if I can, but if I can’t I assure you they’re not going to stop us. We’re looking to speak to, uh, your most powerful sigils. The people that make the real decisions for the Everdark.”
“You speak of the entire realm of the Mighty,” Ivah said questioningly.
“There is no such thing, Lately Queen,” Ivah told me. “No cabal has ever claimed to influence more than two cities, and the Hour of Twilight was massacred by its rivals a century past.”
“All right, let me put it another way,” I said. “Is there anyone at all that if they speak, everyone in the Everdark will listen?”
“Sve of Night,” the drow said in a hushed whisper, touching its lips again.
“The Priestess of Night,” Akua said, chancing a guess at the unfamiliar Crepuscular term.
“That is cattle-term,” Ivah reproachfully said. “The Sve is Mighty.”
Ah. That shed light, in a manner of speaking. So a Mighty was not male or female or anything else, they were just Mighty. Priestess was a female term, in Chantant, so the implication would be insulting to the drow. I’d keep that in mind for future reference. No need to give insult to the people I’d come to bargain with.
“And if the Sve gives an order, the Mighty will obey?” I pressed.
“The Sve has already given order,” Ivah. “It is the truth of us, embraced.”
“If the Sve says the drow are going to war,” I patiently tried. “Would people listen?”
Ivah’s face creased, folds in the skin appearing that no human could mimic.
“It may be so,” the prisoner said. “The Sve does not speak, yet if the silence was broken all would hear of it.”
“Then that’s where we’re headed,” I said. “To have a chat with the Sve.”
The drow shivered.
“Holy Tvarigu is forbidden,” it told us. “Ancient and powerful sigils guard the paths to it.”
“I can be convincing. I’m known as a diplomat of great skill, on the surface,” I lied.
Akua was too self-controlled to snort, but the way she folded her arms together told me everything she thought about that mild reframing of that slight exaggeration.
“It would be better to be slain,” Ivah softly said. “There are things worse than death.”
Well, I hadn’t expected the locals to be friendly from the start. Gods, when had anyone ever been?
“Tell you what,” I said. “Get us into the realm of the Mighty, past the Gloom, and when we’re there we’ll change guides for the next stretch of the journey. You’ll be free to go.”
The drow’s strange eyes narrowed.
“You would speak oath to this?” it asked.
“I would,” I said. “And there are forces beyond your understanding that make me keep to those, when I care to give them.”
“I would be slain, even free,” it admitted. “I return bereft of Night, failing the terms of my exile.”
Diabolist leaned forward.
“Tell me, Ivah,” she said. “You spoke of the Night being harvested. From the living, as was done to you, but can this also be done to the dead?”
“That is so,” the drow said.
“We have a corpse,” she told me in Kharsum.
The one she’d held, who’d been killed by his own warriors. An easy enough concession.
“Do you need to have killed the person yourself to do the harvest?” I asked.
Ivah shook its head.
“Due can be bestowed,” the drow said. “It is rare, yet not unknown.”
“There was a warrior with feathers on their helmet,” I said. “If you harvested them, would that fix your problem?”
“Tiarom was first in power among the warband,” Ivah said, sounding rather eager. “There would be enough to no longer walk as meat, though it would leave me well short of Mighty.”
“That sounds like a yes,” I said.
I offered my hand.
“Ivah of no sigil,” I said. “Should you take us past the Gloom and into the Everdark, I swear to return your freedom to you. We will part ways there without enmity or demand.”
The drow looked at my hand curiously, then back at my eyes.
“You’re supposed to clasp it,” I informed it.
“Strange ways,” the drow murmured, but without further fumbling we shook on it.
I rose to my feet, stretching out.
“All right, let’s get this done,” I said. “Akua, see to the rest of the warband.”
“Healing is no power of Winter,” she reminded me.
“You’re telling me tending wounds wasn’t something your tutors went over?” I replied, eyebrow raised.
“I will do what I can, if that is your wish,” she conceded. “Though I promise no miracles.”
“Never considered those to be in your wheelhouse,” I drily replied. “Come, Ivah. I’m getting curious as to this harvest of yours.”
The silver-eyed warrior followed without a word. Indrani was carving away at a peace of wood, when I came out, sitting on a stone and watching the others.
“Fruitful talks?” she called out.
“You might say that,” I replied. “Wanna see something I assume will be highly gruesome?”
“Do I ever,” she enthusiastically replied.
“Come with me, then,” I said. “Where’d you leave the corpse?”
“Was I supposed to pick that up?” she asked.
“Where it died, then,” I snorted.
It was a short stroll down the slope to where Fancy Hat – Tiarom, apparently – had found himself on the bad end of drow politics. The body was drenched with half-melted ice from Akua’s construct, but otherwise untouched.
“Are we corpse-robbing?” Inrdani mused. “I thought we had, like, moral objections to that.”
“I’m putting this under religious exemption,” I told her. “Ivah, it’s all yours.”
“Many thanks, Lately Queen,” the drow murmured, bowing.
It dragged the body further away from the wetness even as I felt Archer stiffen.
“Did they just-“
“Don’t you say a fucking word,” I hissed.
“Oh, that’s making it into my next chat with Hakram for sure,” Indrani crowed.
I valiantly ignored her, instead putting the full weight of my attention on Ivah and its ‘harvest’. Kneeling at the dead body’s side, the drow closed the corpse’s eyes before leaning over. I could barely make out whispers in Crepuscular, low and rhythmic. Then the dead drow… shivered. Liquid tendrils of darkness ripped out of the body, leaving bloody holes behind, and they slithered up Ivah’s arm beneath the armour. The living drow exhaled. You are what you take, a woman’s voice whispered in my ear, in no tongue I knew.
Ivah’s eyes shone deep silver before dimming again, and I learned that this magical adventure was going to be a little more complicated than I’d like.