“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.
“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.