“I don’t care if they’ve been training, it’s only been two months. What could they possibly have learned that would threaten me?”
– Dread Empress Sinistra IV, the Erroneous
“The Mighty Berelun is willing to allow passage, but only for a tithe,” Ivah translated.
The Mighty Berelun was full of shit, I decided. That it had accepted an envoy instead of sending a warband the moment we entered its territory had been an auspicious start, especially when it’d proposed one of the large caverns of the region as a meeting place. The Mighty, I had learned, preferred to lay their ambushes in small passages where they could best leverage their superior speed and reflexes without the risk of being swarmed by ‘lesser’ drow. Sadly, it looked like this was going to be a repeat of our aborted talks with the Purka Sigil. The cavern surrounding us might have been broad and high-ceilinged, but there were discreet little paths on an upper level where I could hear drow scuttling around like rats. Berelun had been smart enough to listen to the rumours already making their way through the outer ring but not quite smart enough to decide picking a fight wouldn’t be in its favour. I was almost insulted by how few it had mobilized for the ambush: by the sounds of it, there couldn’t be more than twenty.
Most of those would be ispe, the lowest rung of the Mighty. In practice, those were fighters with a handful of interesting tricks but none of the dangerous Secrets out there. As dangerous in melee as your average fae soldier, if much less mobile for the lack of wings. They were the kind of enterprising souls that joined up with a sigil as much for the protection as because the quickest way for them to grow in power was to slay and harvest other ispe – either those of an enemy sigil or that of their own. Mighty Berelun itself had prudently shown up with an escort, a pair of rylleh. Ivah’s old rank, and one I’d begun to understand was higher up the ladder than my guide had previously implied. Rylleh were the drow just beneath whatever drow the sigil was named after, called the sigil-holder, and considered the most likely contenders to eventually run through their leader and take the clan for themselves. They were also usually the heavy hitters in a sigil apart from the chief, which meant Berelun was taking us seriously. It would not have brought both its most dangerous rivals and strongest fighters to meet with us on the ground floor otherwise.
That had seemed promising, until I’d heard the ambush setting up.
“What kind of tithe?” I asked.
I had no intention of paying anything of the sort, but stringing this out a little longer would allow for a cleaner resolution. As if prompted by my thought, my ears caught the sound of a blade slicing open a throat. There was a muted gurgle and a body was quietly lowered to the ground. One down. Ivah addressed the Mighty in Crepuscular and I kept my eyes on its own. Deep, perfect silver set in a dark grey face that looked like it’d been carved with a knife. Berelun was larger than most drow I’d seen, broad-shouldered and heavily muscled. The obsidian blade strapped to its back could not be called anything but a greatsword.
“One in ten of your sigil, my queen,” Ivah said. “With no fewer than six ispe among them.”
My sigil, huh. That was one way to call the gathering throng of the desperate and the ambitious Akua was keeping an eye on. Two thousand, by now, though we were still thin on Mighty. Few of those were willing to take my bargain when it was extended. I’d already made my peace with the fact that we’d have to grow our own pack through harvest, and truth be told that might make them slightly more reliable in the long term. Another gurgle above, another drop. Berelun had dispersed its ambushers to make sure they’d be able to fire from all angles, looked like. It would have been decent tactics if I hadn’t seen it coming. But I had, and their isolation meant they were easy prey for my own hunter on the prowl.
“Ivah,” I said. “Ask the Mighty Berelun if it heard what took place between us and the Purka.”
My guide’s deep blue eyes crinkled in amusement, but it nodded. The exchange of words was swift, but not so swift that I did not hear another two throats cut.
“The Mighty knows of the destruction that was delivered unto the Purka,” Ivah said. “It cautions you not to believe the Berelun to be weak or lacking in cunning. It says tithe will be paid, one way or another, and that pretending otherwise is foolish.”
“So it thinks I’m speaking a threat,” I mused. “When I was, in fact, delivering a warning. They might have been sloppier about their ambush, but the plan was quite similar.”
Fifth death, then a pause. The sixth and seventh were nearly simultaneous. She was having fun with it, if she was getting that fancy.
“Is there to be fighting then, my queen?” Ivah asked, sounding less than worried.
“Eventually,” I agreed. “Let’s keep stringing them along for a bit longer. Quibble over the numbers, make it look like I’m considering the offer.”
“By your will,” the drow agreed, head inclining in deference.
By my final count, there were eighteen ispe who’d been hiding upstairs. My eyes remained on Berelun all the while, and I saw it getting increasingly impatient as moments passed. Not because of the negotiations, I thought. We both knew those were going nowhere. Most likely it was awaiting a signal before attacking and growing restless because it wasn’t coming. After thirty heartbeats passed without another throat being cut, I elected to call down the curtains on the farce. Ivah was in the middle of a sentence, but paused when I raised my hand.
“I will offer them the same terms I offered the Purka,” I said. “And the Trovod, and the Hilaron. They can kneel and take oaths, be granted power as you have been. Their forces will be folded into mine. Or they can be unmade. There will be no middle ground.”
“They will refuse,” Ivah said.
“I expect they will,” I replied. “So here’s a gift to help them understand the situation – Archer!”
My voice sounded loud and clear in the cavern. A moment later there was a mocking cackle and Indrani kicked down a drow’s corpse from the upper levels. The throat was still bleeding, and after the cadaver landed with a dull thump blood pooled around it. Berelun and its bodyguards stilled, eyes moving back and forth. Ivah spoke to them, slow and cadenced. I’d heard enough Crepuscular I could begin to make out individual words, and knew the meaning of a few, but even spoken so slowly the language was difficult. Unlike any other I’d been taught on the surface. No matter: I’d set Diabolist to learning it, and when she was done I’d rip the knowledge out of her mind.
“The Mighty Berelun refuses your offer,” Ivah said. “And demands your submission. I’ve also been offered admittance as fourth under the Sigil, should I turn on you.”
“Well, it’s a tempting offer,” I drawled. “Have you duly considered it?”
“Alas for the Mighty Berelun,” the drow said, “I much prefer being your Lord of Silent Steps.”
The title rippled in the air, after being spoken, and Ivah no longer seemed to be Ivah at all. I could feel the shard of Winter in its soul, the way it spread through its veins with every breath and intertwined with the Night. It was not fae, but oh how close it had become. And all it’d taken was will and oaths, traded in the dark. Berelun caught on to the fact that negotiations had come to an end, ripping its obsidian greatsword free from leather bindings, and the attending rylleh followed suit. A steel-tipped spear to the left, a long ornate stone knife to the right.
“The usual arrangement stands,” I calmly said. “Anything you kill is yours. The rest goes to auction.”
The curved obsidian sword the Lord of Silent Steps had wrested from the corpse of the Mighty Trovod left its sheath with a pretty little flourish.
“May my hunt be fruitful, then,” Ivah grinned. “I yet hunger.”
Without another word, it vanished. Glamour, which of all the fae arts the drow seemed to take to the easiest. There were ways to use the Night not too dissimilar. I turned my eyes to the Berelun, whose earlier condifence had been shaken by the open use of power they did not recognize. It would be the least of their surprises today, I thought. They opened the dance with what I’d come to call the Hunter’s Triangle. It was a tactic Mighty seemed to favour when facing an entity they suspected to be stronger than themselves but not by too broad a margin. Berelun itself advanced fluidly, greatsword raised above its head, while the other two flickered and dissolved into shadow. They would slither across the ground to flank me on both sides from the back while their chief kept my attention, all going for crippling blows instead of an outright kill. It was a tactic meant to get me slow and bleeding, not take my head. Drow fighting tactics were heavily influenced by the fact that the one amongst them to make the kill had the best claim to the body and Night therein. In single combat they immediately went for the kill, but when in a group they tended to go for the legs or the arms first.
The two rylleh flickered back into silhouettes with admirable timing. It was easy to see the three of them had fought opponents together before: the coordination was impeccable. The spear, knife and greatsword struck within a heartbeat of each other. They passed through mist, dispersing chunks of my body, and only then did I act. I returned to entirely solid form and my hand snatched the extended arm of the spear-wielder. My physical strength might have grown beyond natural boundaries but laws of momentum still applied to my action, which had required an adjustment I was only now beginning to get a handle on. My footing shifted, my torso pivoted and I swung the drow at Berelun’s head. Silver eyes widened in surprise and I merely clenched my fingers before releasing the rylleh’s wrist, crushing the bones in my grip. The last drow had kept its wits, and flickered back into a pool of shadow before I could strike it. Scoffing, I shaped and released a spike of ice that nailed the tendrils and forced the drow to flicker back into a silhouette. Wounded to boot, as the spike had gone through its leg, but Night flowed into the wound and the ice was forced out as the flesh beneath reformed. Neat trick, that one, but I’d seen it before. I backhanded the rylleh and sent it tumbling away, turning in time to see the other two drow extricate themselves and rise to their feet.
“Come now,” I said. “Show me a few Secrets worth stealing.”
Berelun snarled something in Crepuscular, the other grimly nodding. The Night pulsed and a supernatural darkness fell over me.
“Disappointing,” I said. “Hilaron did it right at the start and it was much more effective.”
The working was anchored around my neck, not a veil of darkness but a bubble meant entirely to blind me. It required flesh to be anchored to, however. I stepped back, feeling myself… slip. Grow vague and muted. The mist thickened back into myself one step removed from the now-pointless bubble, revealing the sight of the two of them slithering along the floor in shadow-form. Irritated, I smashed my boot down. The ground shook, stone splintered and the two of them were thrown out in drow-shape. I saw fear in the rylleh’s silvery eyes as it realized what its chief had not. This was not a fight, not for me. It was a spar through which I was mastering the use my mantle. This entire cursed ruin of an empire was. The last drow had already gotten back on its feet, but it had other troubles. The Lord of Silent Steps had cut through the muscles on the back of its knee, and was now weaving one glamour after another to keep it striking at illusions while it methodically ruined its arms and legs.
The Night, it had once told me, felt deeper when taken with an enemy’s last breath.
Berelun snarled once more and I rolled my eyes. It had yet to impress me. Six tendrils of shadow rose from its back, each forming a few fingers at the end that took obsidian knives to wield, and with its sword raised high it came for me again. The other drow actually bothered to be interesting, flickering into shadow-form but remaining a silhouette. That was a new one, and worth exploring. I formed a blade of ice and set out against the rylleh, ignoring Berelun. The shadowed drow shot forward, and only then did I notice the shadow had extended to its spear as well. Promising. I ducked under the tip of the spear and scythed through its ankles, but parted only shadow that reformed anew the moment my blade passed. It spun and smashed the butt of its spear against my armour, hitting above where my spine was. An exertion of will had frost keeping it stuck and when I turned the weapon was snatched out of its grasp. Curious, I plunged my sword through its throat and left it there. The drow panicked, wrenching it out, and my brow rose. Behind me I heard Berelun howl in pain when Archer’s arrow took him in the back of the knee. Simply because she hadn’t deigned to come down did not mean she was not keeping an eye on the proceedings.
I caught the rylleh’s left shoulder but the shadows wriggled out of my grasp and it kicked me in the stomach. My plate took the blow without trouble and I frowned, punching it in the face. It rocked back, though with no visible damage. Shadows are constantly moving and distributing any impact or cutting force across the entire body, so anything that doesn’t last is ineffective, I thought. On the flipside anything that lasted would do a lot more damage than it should. Too flawed a trick to be worth replicating, I assessed. The ice blade still in its hand turned to mist and formed again as a collar around its neck, tightening with but a thought. I left it to choke, returning my attention to Berelun. The Mighty was bound to have a few Secrets it’d yet to pull out. Archer’s arrow had gone straight through the knee, steel tip coming out bloody, and it appeared that pain was enough to get rid of the shadow tendrils it’s been wielding earlier. No great loss there. I could already do the same thing, more or less.
“So,” I meaningfully said. “Bleeding and desperate. Now’s about time to pull out the fancy tricks, don’t you think?”
It replied in Crepuscular.
“I don’t speak that,” I said, and shot a spear of ice at it to hurry things along.
It dodged effortlessly. Drow with that much Night swimming around their bodies had reflexes far beyond anything a human could muster even on their best day – even the Watch. I closed the distance, noting it’d ceased retreating and learning why a heartbeat later. Shadows roiled across its entire body and sprouted in seemingly solid spikes.
“Seen it before,” I sighed.
I hardened my hand to be solid as stone and struck at the spikes, shattering them and sending the drow reeling back. Berelun’s face was the picture of pained surprise, but it gathered its bearings long enough for one more trick. Night dripped down its body in thick rivulets, then shot out like arrows. One would have gone through my chest, but that was seen to with a half-step to the side. Yet the Night was hovering in the air all around us, I saw, forming some kind of spotty dome. Berelun smirked and stabbed its sword into the closest spot of Night. To my surprise, it came out behind me and carved into my plate. I moved forward, ensuring it wouldn’t bite too deep, but that’d been rather unexpected. I felt it safe to assume a blow could come out of any chunk of Night, which left him quite a few angles to attack from. Interesting. I wove glamour over myself, leaving my illusion weaving around blows even as I left the makeshift dome myself, and reached for Winter. Perfectly reproducing this was probably beyond my ability. Maybe by using my domain I could do something similar, assuming the Night really was Sve Noc’s own domain manifest, but it would require too much concentration to be worth it. If I was to wield my domain in combat there were better alternatives.
Using purely Winter, thought? This was a trick worth stealing.
I went about it methodically, since it was my first time. I formed frost at regular intervals around it on the ground in a loose circle, slight marks I could strengthen with barely a thought. Making frost marks that hung in the air proved trickier, until I started weaving them the same way I did platforms. Not trying to hang them up on something that did not exist, but interposing them between layers of Creation. Even then, I saw with mild irritation that the moment I tried using one of the hovering marks again it fell. The sound of frost breaking on stone caught Berelun’s attention, and its eyes widened in fear and surprise when it saw the other marks. Time to wrap this up, then. I let Winter loose, shunting off the alienation into the others who drew on the stuff of my mantle – Diabolist, as always, but now Ivah as well. Spears of pure ice shot out from over thirty directions, puncturing Mighty Berelun’s body like a rag doll. I withdrew them with a flick of the wrist, forcing them back into the initial marks, and the drow dropped to the floor listlessly.
Then an arrow went through the back of its neck, because Archer had a horrid sense of humour.
“That one was mine,” she called out from above.
I gestured obscenely at her, earning only laughter in response. A glance told me that the rylleh I’d left a collar on had choked to death and Ivah was already harvesting the other’s Night, kneeling over the dying body. Indrani came down, leaping from handhold to handhold on the cavern wall like some sort of demented grasshopper before landing in an unnecessarily elaborate roll.
“Diplomacy’s a lot simpler than I used to think, Cat,” Archer noted. “I’m finally getting the hang of it.”
“Keep an eye on the corpses,” I said. “Ivah will stay with you. We’re moving in on the Berelun camp after Akua’s people pick up the bodies for an auction.”
“Sure, sure,” she dismissed. “Look on the bright side, this isn’t the kind of neighbourhood where people will ask questions if they run into us standing over a bunch of corpses.”
I refused to dignify that with a response and left them with dead drow, beginning the trek back to what their kind had taken to calling my sigil. The auction would delay us by an hour or two, but no more. We’d crafted the system with our time constraints in mind.
It’d been Diabolist’s idea. There’d been no issue at first, as the first sigil we’d run into was the Trovod. Ivah, fresh off its title as my first Lord of Winter, had single-handedly slaughtered the sigil’s upper ranks and harvested all of them. It’d later admitted that even the sigil-holder would barely have qualified as a rylleh outside of the outer rings and it’d been more an execution than a battle. The two hundred meat – nisi, in Crepuscular – who’d belonged to the drow of the Trovod had been eager to follow us even before I made clear that the dwarves would be close behind. Nisi that were not under a sigil were fair game for any drow looking to accumulate a bit of Night, and all it would take was a single Mighty coming across them for a massacre to ensue. At best they might end up taken by another sigil and any among them with useful skills harvested. But then we’d run into Purka territory, and those had been tougher meat. Ivah had partaken, but eventually admitted it no longer gained much out of harvesting Night from lower rungs of the Mighty like the ispe. To continue feeding it the corpses would not significantly improve its combat capacity.
That revelation came right on the back of the fact I now had about one thousand nisi who wanted to follow us on our journey, along with a smaller contingent of two hundred dzulu – meaning person, more or less – which was what drow were called when they had enough Night to no longer be meat but not enough to qualify as even the lowest of the Mighty. Most of the dzulu were smart enough to surrender when people still covered with the blood of their overlords strolled into their camp, but they tended to be the ones that chafed under my rules the most. The prohibition on killing each other in particular: now that the old order was gone, they believed it was their chance to rise. I’d been inclined to just cut them loose, but Akua had talked me out of it. She’d pointed out that the nisi were largely incapable of fighting, but that the dzulu usually knew their way around a weapon. If I was to recruit an army in the Everdark, it would not be from the Mighty or the nisi. It’d be from the hungry dzulu, who’d be willing to take oaths in exchange for enough Night to no longer be arrow fodder. They’d spent long enough near the corridors of power to be willing to do quite a bit if the deal allowed them to walk those corridors in their own right.
And so we had created the auction.
We took the corpses of the Mighty and allowed any and all to bid for the right to harvest their Night. Akua had been inclined to limit bidding rights to the dzulu so that a warrior class would be created quickly, but I’d been of a different opinion. The nisi were, in my eyes, the closest thing to sane people that could be found among the drow. Most of them had spent their lives being slaves in all but name and while they paid lip service to the ways of the Everdark their hearts weren’t really in it. It was hard to love customs that saw you used a tools and beasts of burdens, killed at a whim. I’d rather have slightly less effective soldiers that weren’t ardent partisans of methaphysical cannibalism. What would be bid, however, had never been in doubt. Coin would be useful, if I could bring it back to Callow, but drow society ran on barter and somewhat communal slave labour – nisi were the property of the sigil as a whole, not individuals, but what they made was distributed at the discretion of the sigil-holder. There were precious few easy riches to be had, down here, and unlike the dwarves I didn’t have a legion of workers to mine every shaft full of metals and precious stones we came across. I’d not come to the Everdark for wealth anyway. I’d come here for an army, and so the bidding was done with oaths. Years in my service, enforced by blood and Winter. I was willing to empower the drow if it was on my terms. Two more sigils, I thought as I made my way through the tunnels, only two more sigils and we’d have enough numbers.
Then we’d hit the city of Lotow, and the boulder would start rolling down the hill.