“Come now, my lords, you started this war knowing what I’m about.”
– Dread Empress Massacre the First
It was too large for a pond but much too small for a lake. A reservoir? Nah, I was pretty sure that implied spadework, which this clearly didn’t have. Pool, maybe. Regardless, it was a source of unsullied freshwater and it’d been almost a day since we’d run into one of those. Tactically redeploying in the opposite direction of an incoming army was thirsty work and the drow weren’t nearly as enduring as the rest of us, so it was probably time for a break. We’d need a bit to refill the skins, anyway, and if there was some kind of edible creature in there it’d be a nice change of pace from our increasingly stale rations. Indrani had taken to pouring brandy on hers, though in all honesty I wasn’t sure whether the taste was the actual reason for that.
“Half hour,” I called out, withdrawing the finger’s I’d been dipping into the waters. “Ivah, tell your fellows they’re responsible for rationing their water as well as filling the skins. They’re not dipping in ours a second time no matter how thirsty they get.”
I could make ice and let it melt into drinking water, sure, but at the moment we were keeping a low profile. I wasn’t sure whether the dwarves had some sort of device that would allow them to sense sorcery, but if they did I was pretty sure using Winter to any great extent would be like lighting a brightstick in a dark room. My mantle could do subtle, theoretically speaking, but it’d never been a specialty of mine and I wasn’t willing to gamble our remaining hidden on it. My guide nodded and addressed the rest of its kind in an even tone. Ever since the former Mighty Kodrog had been disciplined and I’d declined to let anyone harvest its Night and serve as a replacement guide, Ivah had gotten much more self-assured.
Akua had voiced opinion that since it’d functioned as a lieutenant to a violent and unpredictable entity for decades, it was falling back on those habits now that it was under my protection. Bogdan wasn’t too happy about that, but I’d ordered Diabolist to get the broken bones patched up and nothing more. The message had been received, from the way it was now behaving much more carefully. I got up from my crouch and sighed. Our pace was being slowed down by the drow more than I’d like, but there was little I could do about it and leaving them behind wasn’t on the table. If they weren’t in my custody, they’d be in that of the dwarves. Indrani was at my side a heartbeat later, footsteps so soft I’d barely heard them.
“They’re getting near the end of their rope,” she observed. “Might want to give them a full hour instead, stretch out the last gasps.”
“We’re already crawling at a snail’s pace,” I grunted back. “You’ve said it yourself, we’re probably a little more than a day ahead of the dwarven army.”
“Guesswork,” Indrani reminded me.
“Guesswork based on the messengers you’ve seen going back and forth,” I replied. “We’re not swinging in the dark here.”
She opened her mouth, but I raised my hand.
“If what passes your lips is a pun, Archer, I will drown you myself,” I threatened.
There was a pause.
“Fill my skins,” she offered, sounding very casual. “I’ll take a look ahead, see if I can rustle up anything.”
“Ivah says we’re nearing the edge of the outer rings,” I told her. “If the vanguard is going to dig in and wait for reinforcements, it’ll be soon. The odds of running into the army have significantly increased.”
“If they dig in, it’s our opportunity to go around them,” Indrani countered. “Best we know as soon as possible and plan accordingly.”
I mulled over that. She had a point. Half the reason she wanted to go for a wander was likely that she was starting to feel like she had a leash around her neck – I’d asked her to cut back how far she went on her exploratory trips – but she was right on the nose about the vanguard digging in. My bet, at the moment, was that when they got close to the first strong drow position they’d set up and wait for proper assault troops. If we went around them while their eyes were on the local sigil, there were decent odds we could make it through without getting noticed.
“Do it,” I finally said, taking the mostly empty water skin in her hands. “As usual-”
“Tread lightly, steel stays in the sheath,” she finished, rolling her eyes. “At this rate you’re going to get that tattooed on my arse.”
“I assumed something deeply tasteless was already taking up the space,” I replied without missing a beat.
“Hey, my arse is extremely tasteful,” she protested.
“You’re confusing words again,” I airily said. “What you’re looking for is tawdry.”
She flipped me off, I mimed drowning her in the pool and with the traditional rites complete we parted ways. I watched her saunter away, though with the leather coat on there wasn’t much to look at, and absent-mindedly tossed up the skin before snatching it out of the air. The drow were going about their business visibly exhausted, and to my quiet amusement Mighty Bogdan seemed to have no earthly idea how to fill up a skin. I was too entertained by its struggles to seriously consider offering help. Akua was kneeling by the pool as well, though her skin – which she didn’t need, or use – was full. She was staring at the far wall, unmoving. A few steps took me to her side, and in a blatant abused of my queenly prerogatives I threw Archer’s skin at her shoulder.
“There,” I said. “Since you seem in need of something to keep your hands busy.”
The shade picked up the leathery folds between two fingers, somehow managing a full monologue’s worth of disdain without speaking a word.
“It smells like aragh,” she said.
“So does Archer, half the time,” I shrugged. “What deep thoughts did I take you away from, Diabolist?”
“I was pondering,” she said, “the nature of this invasion.”
“The term is usually pretty self-explanatory,” I noted, only half-serious.
“Context, Catherine,” she chided. “This was a significant investment of resources, even for the Kingdom Under. The kind that would have to be prepared over the span of decades, requiring specialized labour otherwise in high demand and significant preparations of logistics.”
“And you’re wondering why they’d bother, given that the Everdark is a mess of collapsing tunnels filled with violent lunatics,” I said. “I mean, there’s the obvious answer. Drow don’t mine much, as far as we can tell. Lots of wealth to claim once they take over the place.”
“Over time, the investment made could be recovered tenfold,” Akua agreed. “Yet we both know that kind of long term planning in the highest reaches of a nation is a rarity. The expense would have to be justified in the face of more immediate uses for that coin giving more obvious benefit.”
“It’s rare on the surface,” I said. “Where sinking that much of your treasury into anything makes you weak elsewhere and your rivals will take advantage of it. What rivals do they have left, down here? They can afford to take the long view. Hells, they live longer than humans too. This could just be the life’s work of some highly influential dwarf.”
How long dwarves actually lived remained a matter of bitter and divisive scholarly debate, a matter not helped by the fact that their kind lied profusely about the matter whenever they ventured to the surface. Theories ranged from a few hundred years to a couple thousand, though most scholars agreed it was under five hundred. Considering people weren’t even sure how dwarves reproduced, lifespan uncertainty was no surprise.
“And yet the invasion only takes place now,” Diabolist said.
I could have replied that there was precedent for the Kingdom Under evicting other underground nations to the surface largely out of principle – the goblins were testament to that – but that would rather be missing the point, wouldn’t it? Dates for the goblin exodus were vague, since the Tribes rarely gave straight answers to anything unless there was a blade at their throat, but it was a fact it preceded the Miezan occupation of Praes. Which meant at least a millennium and a half ago. If the entire point of this was to remove a rival power, however comparatively weak that rival was, then they’d taken quite a while to get around to finishing the work.
“Might be it was just that one tedious chore they never got around to doing,” I mused. “They polished off the rest of the list over the centuries, now they’re out of excuses not to massacre the neighbours.”
“Overdue spring cleaning,” Akua mildly said. “This is your theory for what drives the fate of two nations?”
“You got anything better?” I said.
“Let us assume,” the shade said, “that the Everdark’s continued sovereignty is the result of dwarven incapacity instead of unwillingness.”
“Which is a wild guess on your part,” I said.
“One that aligns with other facts,” Diabolist said. “Regardless, it is fact that there was a dwarven contingent on the surface during the Liesse Rebellion.”
“Mercenaries,” I said. “That’s not exactly unheard of. They also took the first bribe offered to leave.”
“Because their purpose was not to make war, but to assess the situation,” Akua suggested.
“They already do that through Mercantis, supposedly,” I said. “Everyone sells information about everyone else in exchange for crumbs about what’s happening down here. Why send soldiers?”
“A host of dwarven infantry would represent a significant force,” she said. “One which would be worthy of courting by surface powers, as the Carrion Lord did. As the Callowan rebels did, and the First Prince behind them.”
My eyes narrowed.
“So you think the point was to gauge how invested all the players were in the rebellion and the wars that would follow it,” I said. “They shouldn’t need to go that far, Akua. Who the Hells would be stupid enough to pick a fight with the Kingdom Under? They’ll be selling cheap weapons to at least half the nations involved in any scuffle. There’s a reason the Principate can throw massed levies at us without going bankrupt.”
“Dread Empress Triumphant, may she never return-”
“Forced them to pay tribute, sure,” I interrupted, rolling my eyes. “Once, after she flooded a few of their tunnels with demons. Didn’t stop them from funding and arming a continent’s worth of rebellions against her a few years later, did it? They just threw gold at her so she’d fuck off and then paid for other humans to actually put her down. Let’s not pretend it was more than a headache for them.”
“That is still precedent for a surface power proving troublesome to dwarven interests,” Akua insisted. “A cautious assessment of the situation was therefore made, yielding the answer that the largest surface powers were preparing for large scale and long term warfare.”
“After which they did nothing,” I said. “That was years ago, and they’re only moving now. I doubt it would take them that long to mobilize.”
“Indeed,” the shade agreed in a murmur. “They acted only after a much more recent development.”
It wasn’t the Tenth Crusade. There had, after all, been nine predecessors to it. But if her argument was about a power on the move that usually remained put…
“How would they know about the Dead King?” I frowned. “It’s not like he sent them a letter. We don’t even known how he’ll go about participating in the war, and we were guests in Keter not that long ago.”
“The Kingdom Under has borders with the Kingdom of the Dead,” Akua said.
“Which are, famously, tunnels they drowned in lava and molten metal until there was nothing left moving,” I said.
“Your argument is that the preeminent power on Calernia has no way to observe the going-ons at its most dangerous border,” Akua mildly said.
I grimaced. Yeah, fair point.
“So they see him pull back his undead for a push on the surface,” I mused, following the thread. “And take that as an open invitation to march on the Everdark. Why? That’s still thin, Akua. If they’re that worried about the Dead King, why take the risk at all? It’s not like the drow are a threat to them.”
“So I wondered,” Diabolist admitted. “If neither wealth nor pride are the reason, then why? It cannot be room for expansion, they could simply layer deeper. Such a large undertaking could hardly be made without sanction from the highest powerbrokers of dwarven authority. That implies, to me, a strategic motive.”
“Hard to guess at those when no one knows their exact borders,” I said.
She nodded in agreement. I narrowed my eyes at her.
“But you have a theory anyway,” I said.
“After your distant kin settled in what is now the Duchy of Daoine,” she said, “the largest threat to them was greenskin raids. Yet they did not strike directly at the clans, instead raising the Wall. Why?”
Because only an idiot would try to take the Steppes. The Miezans had done it, sure, but they’d had a whole arsenal of advantages no one on Calernia could boast of having and there’d actually been orc cities to target back then. Which wa no longer the case: even after the Reforms, the Clans had remained nomadic. Rulers of Daoine could and had cleared out belligerent clans near the Greenskin Marches but there’d never been a serious effort to conquer the Steppes. The orcs would just retreat deeper in and the Deoraithe armies would have to settle in for winter in hip-deep snow with nothing to live off of and a lot of angry orcs on the prowl. Which, I thought, is Akua’s point.
“Containment,” I slowly said. “Ratlings don’t lair deep, so they’d have a free hand under the Chain of Hunger. You think they know they can’t take the Dead King, so they’re trying to bottle him up instead. And for the encirclement to be complete the drow need to go.”
“Should any significant drow presence remain in the region, the fortresses maintaining that encirclement would suffer sporadic assault,” Akua said. “To make the sealing easily sustainable-”
“They need the drow gone,” I quietly said. “Dead or far, far away.”
We filled our skins in silence, after that. It was a fragile house of cards that she’d built one sentence at a time, and all it’d take for it to crumple was a single assumption proved false. But it sounded like a distinct possibility. That was always the problem, with Akua. She was a skilled speaker, one that could spin a decent story out of nearly anything given long enough. But if she’s right… Either the drow drove back the dwarves – and reckless as I was, I wouldn’t t put gold on that – or there’d be a an entire race of vagrants needing greener pastures to move to.
That, I thought, sounded like an opportunity to me.
Archer had returned without any fanfare, before the hour of rest she’d talked me into was even over. We stood to the side of the others, speaking quietly in tongues they would not know.
“This place is about to be a war zone, Cat.” Indrani said.
“You found the dwarven vanguard, then,” I guessed.
She brushed back her hair, lashes fluttering over hazelnut eyes as she did. Her longcoat was open, revealing the silvery mail beneath, but she wore the metal as nonchalantly as if it were cloth.
“Part of it, anyway,” she confirmed. “If there used to be three forces of five thousand like you guessed, that’s no longer the case. There were at least eight thousand preparing to give battle.”
“That’s too large a force of a single cavern,” I said.
“Not if it’s a huge godsdamned cavern,” Indrani snorted. “It’s at least the size of Laure. There were a bunch of lichen and mushroom farms down there, I think it might have been some kind of food centre. Water too, the largest body we’ve come across so far.”
“I was under the impression we were still a few days away from the closest city,” I said.
“”Dunno about a city, but there were a pack of drow there for sure,” she said. “Cavern’s a drop from our current height – the dwarves found another way down, I must have missed it – and near the back there’s some sort of massive stalagmite melding into the wall that the locals carved into.”
“Walls?” I asked.
“Nah, nothing like that,” Indrani replied, shaking her head. “It’s like some sort of spiral ramp going up. Pretty sure it’s flat at the top, but my vantage points was sloppy. The whole thing might be hollow, for all I know. There were tents going all the way to the top.”
“That’s defensible against even heavy infantry,” I said. “If the ramps are narrow enough.”
“Our short friends were setting up a bunch of weird siege engines,” she said. “Infantry’s not all the drow are up against.”
Eight thousand, huh. That was more than half of what I currently believed the dwarven vanguard to number, which was promising but still meant seven thousand should be traipsing around the tunnels unaccounted for. Fighting underground like this would be different from the kind of wars I was familiar with. With tunnels it would be much easier to defend than attack, as a rule, particularly if the defender had powerful champions capable of holding a narrow area against superior numbers. On the other hand, without an open field flanking operations became a very different kind of enterprise. No plains down here, no way to see an enemy detachment until they were right on top of you. If I were the dwarves, I’d station hardened troops on the flanks to keep an eye out while I was moving against a fortified drow position. Assuming high-ranking Mighty were as dangerous as even just green Named bent towards combat, a single one slipping through defensive lines was enough to make a costly mess. I chewed on my lip thoughtfully.
“I don’t suppose you took a look at the adjacent tunnels?” I asked.
“Not in depth,” Indrani said. “Glanced down a few, though, and I got the impression most of them curve towards the large cavern.”
A chokepoint? It’d explain while the dwarves were willing to slow their advance to take it. Ivah’s knowledge of the region was sadly limited, as it’d only crossed it the once and under the understanding it was to move towards the Gloom as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kingdom Under had maps, though, and good ones. It was tempting to try to get my hands on one even with the risks inherent to crossing dwarvenkind.
“They’re going to have the flanking tunnels under guard,” I finally said. “So far they’ve been careful to allow no runners. They’ll have the entire place sealed up.”
“That’s my guess,” Indrani agreed. “So what’s the plan, Your Queenlyness? We trying to shimmy through while they’re busy under a touch of the ol’ glamour?”
“We still don’t know if they can pick up on my using Winter,” I said.
“We do know they have eyes, Cat,” she replied. “I’m not fancying our chances of sneaking through a dwarven blockade without a little fae juice to help things along, and you know we can’t wait this out. The real army’s not far behind.”
I hummed, not disagreeing or agreeing.
“So we have to place a bet,” I said. “If you were a dwarf and you had devices that could pick up on sneaks – a pretty basic precaution, given who you’re invading – where would you put them? With the main force, or the flankers?”
“If I were a dwarf, I’d be massively rich and drunk all the time with a city’s worth of naked servants catering to my every twisted need,” Indrani mused.
“If you were a dwarf, but not a complete waste of a person,” I tried. “I know you don’t have a lot of experience with that, but use your imagination.”
She half-heartedly gestured for me to go hang myself.
“Would make sense for the shortstacks to keep the trinkets on the sides,” she finally said. “The stalagmite’s pretty fucking surrounded. But that’s assuming they don’t have enough devices to have them everywhere. And that they have those at all.”
“If they do have them everywhere, we’re screwed anyway,” I noted. “Best we can do is play the odds assuming they don’t.”
“So you want to take a stroll through an active battlefield,” Indrani snorted. “With a pack of unruly drow, a self-absorbed spectre and yours truly. That’s not one of our better plans, Cat, and that should not be a hard hill to climb given how we got into Skade.”
“Worked, didn’t it?” I said. “We played to our strengths-”
“Blatant lies,” she helpfully provided.
“- and their weaknesses,” I finished.
“Expecting sense of us?” she suggested.
“Unorthodox approaches,” I righteously corrected. “It’ll be dangerous, I don’t deny that, but then so is every other option on the table. I think this is the least stupid risk we can take. Unless you happen to have a better idea?”
“Aside from digging our own way through, not really,” Indrani mused. “And we’d need Winter for that anyway. Shovels alone wouldn’t cut it, and since Vivi left we don’t even have those anymore.”
I sighed and passed a hand through my hair.
“Well, let’s get moving then,” I said. “If this was a mistake, best to know it today.”
“Hey, look on the bright side,” she smiled. “If this is a horrible blunder that’s going to get all of us killed, then at least I won’t survive to give you shit about it.”
There was a silver lining, I mused. Shame it was on a cloud raining fire and brimstone, but that was life for you wasn’t it? Sometimes you just had to put on your good boots, bring out your sword and kill your way to the top of the flying fortress before you got to see daylight.
The last few years of my existence would have been a lot more pleasant if that were actually a metaphor.