“I am ever amused to hear men speak of senseless violence. What is violence, if not the failure of reason? One might as well bemoan the wetness of water.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
“So what are we doing with the spares?” Indrani asked.
It was bluntly put, as was her wont, but she wasn’t wrong to ask the question. Ivah, after being further questioned, had been pretty clear: the only way for someone to pass through the Gloom was with the obsidian ‘feathers’ the drow were wearing. We’d had a corpse already, so one of us was covered. Two more prisoners had to be stripped of their armour to make sure we’d pass without trouble, though, and that left the issue of what we’d now be doing with them.
“We can’t take them into the Gloom,” I said. “Ivah was vague – I think it doesn’t actually know a lot on the subject – but the implication was that we’d just ‘lose’ them the way Ranger got lost.”
It was still night, though now dawn was a great deal closer. While Akua saw to the wounded, I’d told Indrani she should catch a nap. We’d be moving out as soon as she was rested, since I saw no point in idling around the surface any longer now that we had a guide. I softly inhaled the lingering scent coming from the cup of tea in my hand. Actually drinking it was nothing to write home about, but the smell was strangely pleasant. I’d though nothing of it, at first, but now that it’d become a habit I was realizing I’d seen something like this before. The fae in Skade had taken delight in small, ephemeral things too. A lot more than in the physical pleasures I’d once preferred.
“So that’d be releasing them, pretty much,” Indrani mused. “I take it we have some issues with that.”
“They came to the surface to slave and kill,” I said. “It’d be irresponsible to simply let them loose after capturing them.”
My friend shrugged, hazelnut eyes tinted with indifference. She’d yet to slip on her leather coat, or even her mail, wearing instead thick grey cloth cut close to her form. The only touch of panache to the drab attire was the dark linen scarf hanging from her neck, some kind of weave allegedly particular to Mercantis. It was certainly finer than anything I’d seen come out of Callowan weaver shops, and I knew it could be used to breathe through noxious fumes if she needed it to. It was one of the few possessions I’d ever seen Indrani care for, save for her bow. I’d gathered from idle talk that both were gifts from Ranger.
“So kill them,” she said. “We never flinched at that before. Crucified a bunch of Praesi after Second Liesse, didn’t you? Those you didn’t make into your most expendable soldiers.”
“They were all complicit in mass slaughter,” I told her. “And it was the mages I had crucified, those who had a direct hand in the killing of innocents. This is different.”
Killing Malicia’s minion who’d tried to surrender came much closer to the line, in my eyes, but it’d been a trick played on an enemy. It felt like a step closer to becoming someone I cared little for to have played it in the first place, but I could swallow my discomfort.
“They’re slavers, Cat,” Indrani mildly said. “Kill them all, let the Gods sort it out.”
“Their entire civilization practices slavery, as I understand it,” I reminded her. “Should I murder my way through the whole lot?”
“Their entire civilization didn’t pull blades on us,” she said. “They did.”
“Then we’re killing them for pulling blades, not being slavers,” I pointed out.
“Sure,” Indrani said. “Let’s kill them for that, then. I’ll do it myself, if you’re feeling contrary.”
“My point was that we don’t do that,” I said.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she muttered. “Cat, what else can we do? You don’t want to release them and we can’t keep them. There’s not a lot left, is there?”
No, I grimly thought. There wasn’t.
“Let them settle it the drow way, then,” Indrani suddenly said. “You’re being all lawful, so let them follow their own damned laws.”
“They don’t have laws, Archer,” I replied in a low voice. “They seem to murder each other at the drop of a hat.”
She met my eyes, the deep tan of her skin seeming even deeper under cover of dark.
“You need to make a decision,” Indrani said, “about why we’re going into the Everdark. Because if you’re going down there to murder bigwigs until their people are terrified into playing nice, I’m on board. They have it coming, let them choke on it. But if you’re just going down there for an army, Catherine, there’s going to be darker lines to cross than this.”
I grimaced, then looked away. Once more, she was not wrong. I’d known going in that this would be ugly business. My conversation with Ivah had only lent weight to the notion. It was an odd thing to hear a person seeming otherwise perfectly reasonable to dismiss the rest of the continent as cattle and preach the virtues of cold-blooded murder without a hint of irony. Even the Praesi kept a veil over that, twisting the act into some kind of wicked art. The drow had spoke of killing without reason as if there was no need for pretext or justification, and I suspected it had not been one of the stronger Mighty. Those at the top of the pyramid would have swum through a sea of blood to get there, and it was them I’d need to make pacts with. Them and the Priestess of Night, who was the very architect of this bloody misery.
“I can’t fix an entire empire,” I admitted tiredly. “I can barely even handle Callow, and that’s with a second born for the work.”
“Then we don’t pretend,” Indrani said calmly. “We don’t go in half-baked, posturing like we’re liberators. Because that’s how we lose, Catherine – by straying from what we’re actually after. Don’t swing for the toes if you want to cut a throat.”
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“Even letting them settle it by their laws,” I said quietly. “It’s just posturing, isn’t it? Foisting the dirty work onto them. The blood would still be on my hands, only with cowardice added to it.”
“Responsibility’s a bed of thorns,” Indrani said. “You keep lying down and then getting surprised at the bleeding. It’s not on you to save every stranger you meet. Especially if they don’t want to be saved.”
“Is it really too much to ask,” I murmured, “that we get to behave like decent souls, for once?”
“There’s a lot of those, at the feet of Above,” my friend said. “They don’t tend to stick around long down here.”
Maybe I was a coward, because when I gave the order it was for drow to settle it among themselves. The fought, until two were dead. The most heavily wounded, though they might have survived if they’d not been slain. Their Night was harvested by their killers as I watched in silence.
But we put on the dead men’s armour, and went into deeps.
I’d not been sure what to expect when we entered the Warrens. The Everdark was supposed to be a wreck, nowadays, its people fighting over faded glories they no longer knew how to restore. On the other hand, a lot of those tunnels should date back to when the drow had been more than a pack of backstabbers living in ruins of their own making. There wasn’t a lot known about the days when the drow had been a power to reckon with: what records dated to when the era was theorized to have taken place were sparse and didn’t tend to extend much further than whatever nascent city they’d been written in. In the echo Masego and I had eavesdropped on, the Wandering Bard had mentioned something called the Twilight Sages. That they’d ‘considered death the only sin’. That didn’t exactly sound like pacifism, but it was a long way from the drow encountered now. The territory of the Everdark on the surface was smaller than Callow’s, and nearly all of it mountainous, but then that didn’t mean much: they were a subterranean people, like the dwarves and once upon a time the goblins. Their holdings would have been measured in depth more than in length or breadth.
The Warrens ended up being tunnels. Just that. Not particularly well-maintained ones, damp and cold and occasionally half-collapsed, but they weren’t strewn with bones or filled with packs of monsters. I kept pace with Ivah, at the head of our little band, and the drow led us forward unerringly from tunnel to tunnel. It’d already been a few hours and I could honestly see no difference between the paths we’d taken at the occasional crossroads and those we had not. We were going deeper, that much I’d felt. But there were no markers, no signs our guide could be drawing on.
“How long before we enter the Gloom?” I asked.
Ivah flicked a silver glance at me.
“We already have,” it replied.
My brow rose. I’d not felt so much as a speck of power. I was particularly sensitive to wards, nowadays, so the passing of a threshold should have been noticeable.
“I can see no difference between when we first entered and now,” I admitted.
“Nor will you, Queen,” it said. “We bear feathers. There is no Gloom for us.”
“So if we didn’t have the feathers,” I said. “We… wouldn’t have seen the tunnels?”
“We would see others,” Ivah said. “Leading nowhere.”
That didn’t sound like a ward. More like a domain, honestly, though it was a terrifying thought there could be an entity out there powerful enough to keep a domain going for centuries.
“It seems too easy to cross,” I said.
“The nerezim have pierced through before,” Ivah said. “Never for long. They rip ore from the stone and leave, do not linger.”
“You mean the dwarves,” I said.
“That is so,” Ivah agreed. “They have slain Mighty with great machines of steel. They are not cattle.”
“Because they killed drow,” I frowned.
My guide shook its head, rueful smile baring sharp white canines.
“Because to them, it is us who are cattle,” Ivah said. “One does not fight nerezim. One survives them, hiding until their purpose is fulfilled and they leave once more.”
Well, it was almost heartening to know the Kingdom Under had everyone as terrified underground as they did on the surface. I’d begun to suspect that the Gloom had been placed to make sure the madness of the Everdark remained contained, but now another candidate had emerged: it might just be a sorcerous moat to keep the dwarves at bay. The Kingdom Under was not known to tolerate rivals underground, as the ancient exodus of the goblins tribes to the surface had made abundantly clear. I let the conversation lapse after that, though boredom saw me speak again when the journey through the tunnels continued to stretch on.
“You said you used to be a rylleh,” I said. “What is that, exactly?”
“Dimas was rylleh,” Ivah replied. “What you look upon never was.”
“And what did it mean, when Dimas was rylleh?” I asked.
“To earn this honour, one must know twelve Secrets and slay another rylleh,” Ivah said. “Even then, it is worthier to hold than to claim. Many do not last long.”
“And Dimas?” I probed. “How long did they last?”
“A hundred years and three,” Ivah proudly said. “Many tried to claim its Secrets, for Dimas knew the three glorious arts of killing.”
My eyes narrowed. First at the revelation that my guide was over a century old. Scholars argued about how long drow could physically live, but most ascribed them a lifespan no longer than a human’s. Apparently that was incorrect. More importantly, there’d been an implication to what Ivah said.
“Dimas knew these arts,” I slowly said. “Ivah does not?”
The drow eyed me with surprise.
“Night was taken from Dimas, save the last sip,” it said. “Tiarom knew no Secrets, and so none were learned from the harvest.”
“You make it sound like there is more to the Night than the shadow tricks,” I said.
“That is so,” Ivah said, then touched its lips. “Shapeless and shaped, encompassing all. The worthy take. The worthy rise.”
It’s knowledge too, I realized.
“Those three glorious arts of killing, what are they?” I asked.
“Spear and blade and bow,” Ivah said. “Dimas harvested many, to learn them whole. It was great accomplishment.”
I breathed in sharply. So by killing someone who knew one of those Secrets they could just become a master swordsman instantly? That was insane. You couldn’t just create knowledge out of nothing, that wasn’t the way Creation worked. Unless it’s the same knowledge, I thought. Passed from killer to killer, since times immemorial. Were they just passing around the same few learnings, one corpse at a time?
“Ivah,” I quietly said. “Can someone add to the Night?”
“That is poor choice,” the drow amusedly said. “What worth is there in empowering Mighty by one’s death?”
“If a drow learned to make steel,” I said. “And someone killed and harvested them. Would they know how to make steel?”
“Weapon-making is a powerful Secret,” Ivah acknowledged. “The Ysengral hoard it mercilessly, and Ysengral itself hunts for the finest whispers.”
So anytime someone learned anything useful they were murdered for it. Gods. No wonder they lived in ruins. If someone tried to restore them they’d probably get stabbed for the knowledge of how they wanted to do it.
“Is Ysengral a sigil or a Mighty?” I asked, slightly confused.
“A sigil is a Mighty,” Ivah told me, tone implying I was a little slow.
“So Dimas’ old sigil, Zapohar…” I prodded.
“Zapohar is Mighty, of great influence in the cabal of the Silent Song,” the drow said. “Though forced out of Great Perun, the Zapohar are first of the inner ring. Many fear them.”
“And was that how Dimas ended?” I asked. “Fighting for the Zapohar?”
“Dimas grew fat and lazy,” Ivah bitterly said. “Forgot that many coveted its Secrets. That which broke it was worthier to hold them, and now stands second under Zapohar.”
So backstabbed by an ambitious colleague, not beaten by an outsider. And still it seemed to feel some sort of pride for the Zapohar, instead of hatred towards the sigil that had seen it laid low. That smacked of Wasteland morals to me, the way Praesi highborn claimed that hatred and enmity were unrelated matters. It seemed a touchy subject, regardless, so I didn’t press any further. There’d been something else I was curious about, anyway.
“Tell me about the Kodrog,” I said. “We’re heading into their territory, right?”
“They lurk near the Gloom, unfit for the strife of the inner ring,” Ivah said with open disdain. “Kodrog’s Night was thinned by the Mighty Soln, three hundred years past. It fled to the outer rings and has not returned.”
“Soln didn’t kill it?” I asked.
“Kodrog is said to know whispers from the Secret of Many Lives,” the drow informed me. “A single death was not enough, though it lost much Night in defeat.”
“I thought you said the Kodrog were strong,” I pointed out.
“To meat,” Ivah said. “To drow. To the least of the Mighty. Not to great sigils. It will crush you like an insect, Queen, but that is different matter.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” I mildly said. “Is it the Kodrog that gave you all your feathers?”
The drow shook its head.
“I journeyed to Great Mokosh under brand of disgrace, to be granted this last chance,” Ivah said. “There the Sukkla discharge holy duty, having been granted sigil from the Sve of Night itself. Any can claim feathers, if they know the tongues of the Burning Lands and despair enough to try striding them.”
“So it’s a holy duty, to try the Burning Lands,” I said. “Why?”
Ivah touched its lips once more.
“It serves the purpose of the Night,” it said.
Oh, that did not sound all that pleasant.
“Killing cattle,” I said. “Taking it. What does it do for you?”
“The Night grows,” Ivah smiled. “To do such sacred act would redeem any disgrace.”
“I want to be perfectly clear, here,” I said. “If you kill humans, or any other race. It grows the Night?”
“That is so,” the drow reverently said. “All is one. All is strife. The worthy rise.”
I sucked at my lip.
“Killing undead,” I said. “Would it also grow the Night?”
The drow paled.
“Speak not of the Hidden Horror,” Ivah whispered. “For its crown is dawn, and that pale light is the end of all things. Only the mad would enter the eye of the Host of Death.”
“It does, doesn’t it,” I said. “The necromancy that keeps its army walking, you can claim it for the Night.”
“I say no more,” Ivah insisted. “It sees all. It hears all.”
Well, Neshamah had clearly paid these people a visit at some point after his ritual. The drow were a murderous bunch, they shouldn’t be so scared unless the Dead King had spanked them roughly after being provoked. I honestly wasn’t sure to root for there. Still, I was pleased to have learned that. If the undead had been of no worth to the drow’s societal murder pyramid it would have been much, much harder to gain any ground there. Ivah had been pretty high up the ladder at some point, by the sound of it, but he’d still been someone’s minion. The people on the notch above might be less terrified at the idea of a fight with Keter, if they were offered the right incentives. I had a few notions about what those mighty be, though the offer I knew would be most tempting was one I very much wanted to avoid.
“Let’s talk about the Kodrog, then,” I said. “I’m looking for practical information. Number of Mighty, which is known for what. How many fighters to they have, what are their defences like?”
I’d come with the intent to negotiate, but I might have actually found a place where my propensity to stab before making an offer would be considered reasonable. If I could get through without killing, I would. But if blades came out, well, it wouldn’t be the first time I walked over a few corpses to get where I needed to be. Ivah had unfortunately little to share, since it’d been ushered through Kodrog territory into the Gloom after copious mockery and a few beatings, but little was better than nothing. By the sounds of it, there were a few thousand drow scattered across several large caverns but only a small part of those were considered fit to fight. Even fewer of those would be Mighty, which I’d mentally put in the same league as half a company of Watch. Dangerous, if you took them lightly, but rather killable. If Archer hung at the back taking care of those with fancy Secrets, Diabolist and I could handle the brawlers. Unlike on the surface, I didn’t intend to take prisoners here. Wouldn’t run down anyone fleeing either, but if they became an obstacle capture wouldn’t be the objective.
It took us three days to leave the Gloom. Over the last stretch of the journey the tunnels changed from rough bare stone to something more ornate. Base-relief was carved on every surface, even the floor and ceiling, though the sculptures under our feet were covered by moss and dirt. It was my first look at anything the drow had made, and to my utter lack of surprise pretty much everything depicted was their kind sallying out to the surface and winning glorious battles before returning to the Everdark covered in glory, riches and slaves. There were also depictions of single combat between drow champions, though oddly enough they did not seem to be to the death. The loser was made servant of the winner, carrying their spear and quiver. Honour duels? Those were supposed to be common in Levant. The Northern Steppes as well, though orcs didn’t stop until one of the fighters was dead and dinner. The last step was a threshold carved into the tunnel, though one without gates, and there we found fresh signs of life. Symbols had been painted in blood over them, which Ivah informed me promised sundry torments to all venturing in the holdings of Mighty Kodrog.
“We now reach the realm of the Mighty, Queen,” our guide told us.
“Bargain was struck,” I said evenly. “We part ways now, if you wish, with no enmity or further demands.”
The drow hesitated.
“I walk with you a little longer,” it said. “Until we reach the ring of stones.”
The Kodrog apparently held the remains of an old border fortress, which barred the entrance to their territory proper. It was probably as deep as Ivah could go without being openly associated with us.
“Follow behind, then,” I said. “Archer, Diabolist – look sharp.”
“Oh Gods, finally,” Indrani whined.
I took the lead through the threshold, tough my advanced faltered after a single step. The others trailed in after me as I stood there in silence, ignoring the words they spoke. Well, we’d found the Kodrog. The cavern I’d entered was twice as large as the throne room in Laure, its uneven ceiling a natural dome. It could have fit at least a thousand comfortably, which I knew for a fact because it currently did.
The floor was covered with dead drow, thick as a carpet.
“Shit,” I finally cursed. “I’d better not get blamed for this.”