“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?”