“When in doubt, attack. When doubtless, attack as well.”
– Bastien de Hauteville, Proceran general
Great Lotow was nothing like I’d expected.
All I’d seen of the drow so far was raised stones and the occasional clever exploitation of natural features, and so my expectations had been rather low before I took my first look at one of their ‘cities’. I’d believed it would be a few half-ruined structures and perhaps a surviving set of walls, but the Lotow I was looking upon served as a reminder that the Everdark had once been an empire in its own right. I’d thought of the term city in the Callowan sense, a gathering of houses and streets with marketplaces and maybe a decent set of ramparts. But that was a surface way of looking at things, wasn’t it? Up there, cities were built in breadth. Spreading when the population rose. The drow had instead built in depth, in a way that would have been impossible in the land of my birth.
Great Lotow was built in levels, that was the easiest way to describe it. The heart of the city was a massive pit with a spire of stone in the centre, from base to summit large as a small fortress. From that tree radiates branch-like bridges leading to districts carved directly into the rock across the chasm, their sizes variable. Closer to the bottom I could glimpse districts large as Summerholm itself serving as farms and lakes, while closer to the centre the holes in the rock were more like neighbourhoods of carved houses. At its peak, I thought, Lotow must have had several hundred thousand drow living in it. Now, though, most of it was abandoned. Some of the bridges linking the spire to the sides had been broken and though some were replaced by rope bridges made of some kind of pale weed many more had simply been left gaping, the districts they led to now empty ruins.
It was a moving sight, I would admit. The structure of the city alone would have been impressive, but the ancient drow had made of Lotow a work of art. There was hardly a wall or floor that was not filled by a mosaic or bas-relief, stalactites and stalagmites had been carved into painted statues of drow and animals. Entire spans of ceiling had been set with coloured stones and gems to create a sky, and there were tall steles showing spindly sentences in Crepuscular reciting old stories and ballads where my people would have placed street signs instead. Ivah had told me that last detail was an old drow custom: streets had once been known by the never-mentioned titles of the written work on the stele, every drow expected to be well-taught enough to know it at a glance.
Now, though, those old stories were painted over with blood red runes to mark where territories began and ended. Metal and precious stones had been ripped out of statues and mosaics, carvings older than Callow left to erode under the depredations of elements and time. Stone houses that collapsed were not raised anew but covered with skins and leathers as half-tents while ancient temples and mansions lay cracked open, their heavy stones used to make walls of piled rock. And still, after centuries and millennia, Great Lotow endured. Long winding aqueducts rival to any of Miezan make descended along the sides of the pit and provided water to cisterns and fountains, sewers unlike I’d ever seen sent filth towards the lower farms without overflowing or clogging after what must have been centuries of disrepair. There was no city like this in Callow, I thought. Not even in Praes, who had been under Miezan occupation and so benefitted from that empire’s fondness for great civil works. Great Lotow would have been the crown jewel of any surface nation, the envy of the continent.
Down here, it was just one more decaying corpse in the pile. It was a sorrowful sort of awe that I felt. Would we have raised cities like this, if we were not always at war? I wondered. Callow had little to boast of save for cathedrals and fortresses. The bridges linking Summerholm were a wonder, to be sure, but a Miezan one. Sometimes I could see why the rest of Calernia called us backwards peasants. We were so much less than we could have been. Praes too, I thought. There was so much potential in the Empire, if it would just cease devouring itself every other decade. So much knowledge and skill, always turned to acts of self-immolation that took chunks of the continent along with it.
“You’re being quiet,” Indrani said.
“It’s a lot to take in,” I replied.
“Eh,” my friend shrugged. “After Keter the bar’s been raised. Gonna take more than pretty ruins to impress me.”
“We walk through the grave of an empire,” I murmured. “That’s worth a moment of contemplation.”
“Oh, there’s still people down there,” Indrani mused. “For now. I don’t see this lot surviving a firm assault from the dwarves, if we don’t get them moving.”
There were still drow, it was true. A mere pittance compared to what Lotow must have kept in olden days, but our new acquisitions form the departed Delen Sigil had estimated twenty thousand people here and I believed that was a conservative number. The larger sigils reigned close to the bottom, where the old farms could be kept going and so allow for more nisi to be held, but that didn’t necessarily mean the deeper sigils were the most powerful. Mighty Delen and its tribe had been intending to have a go at claiming territory on the outskirts of Lotow within the decade, and so interrogation had wielded more information than I’d expected. The central spire – called an overly-long word meaning ‘column’ in Crepuscular – wasn’t the territory of any single sigil, as whoever held it would have a massive advantage over rivals, but the rest of the inhabited city had been carved up between the ten sigils that inhabited it. The weakest, and the one we’d go after first, was the Urulan Sigil. They’d once ruled a few of the central districts, but after being evicted by a stronger sigil they’d moved upwards and devoured the sigil that had previously ruled the part of Lotow called the Crossroads.
If the city was a cylinder from which districts sprouted, then the Crossroads was the circle atop that cylinder, connected through the central Column by four broad bridges. Nearly every tunnel in the region led to the Crossroads, including the one where we currently stood, though the Hallian ways that had once been the highways of the drow empire were linked to Lotow’s bottom level instead. Which was unfortunate, since I intended to go through those. The Crossroads were arguably the city’s second most important strategic point, but highly unpopular territory for a sigil to hold: since near every tunnel led to them, any ambitious sigil trying to get into the Lotow scrap would begin by taking a swing at whoever held them. Word was that a sigil holding them could expect slow and steady decline through constant conflict until either a sigil of the outer ring managed to mount a strong enough assault or a sigil on the losing side of a conflict deeper down moved up and evicted the latest occupants – much as the Urulan themselves had done.
Sadly, the Urulan Sigil had been force to migrate less than twenty years ago. They might be a wreck compared to any of the deeper sigils, but they would have maintained enough strength they’d make any of the fights I’d picked in the Everdark so far look like child’s play.
“The city will be tricky to assault,” I finally said.
“Gotta take the Crossroads before we go at it seriously,” Indrani noted, squinting down. “That’ll be ugly fighting, mark my words.”
I did not disagree. Though that section of the city was a single ring going around the edges of the pit holding the Column, it wasn’t flat grounds. Large rectangular halls were tightly clustered, with small streets and broader avenues between them. Easy to defend, to force the attacker in a bottleneck.
“We’ll have to split our force in two,” I said. “Sweep the ring from both sides. I’ll need you to lead one of the assaults.”
She shot me a curious look.
“Who am I getting as a lieutenant, Diabolist or Ivah?”
“You get Akua,” I grunted. “I imagine I’ll need a translator more than you.”
“Sure,” she snorted. “Let’s pretend that’s true. We certain we want no one keeping an eye on the bridges?”
That was the large risk here, I thought. The odds that a deeper sigil would be willing to send its Mighty against an attacker it hadn’t properly looked over were low – sigils prone to taking those kinds of gambles didn’t tend to last long. They weren’t non-existent, however, and it might change the situation if they learned that it was a human leading the charge. Still, I couldn’t afford to let the Urulan run or concentrate their forces. But can I afford to be flanked halfway through? Not really, no. After Archer had ‘acquired’ the Delen Sigil and we’d gathered the people from both them and the Berelun, our numbers had doubled: a little over four thousand drow were now under my banner. Of those, I counted three hundred and change dzulu and twenty-three Mighty of varying ranks. It wasn’t a small force, by the standards of the outer ring, but all the real players down here were either in a city or the inner ring. We wouldn’t be fighting dregs, this time. If we ended up going against two real sigils at the same time…
“Fair point,” I said. “Change of plans. I want you to sweep a quarter of the ring, then stop in front of the bridge and keep an eye on what’s happening.”
“To put arrows in the curious and the runners, if there happen to be any,” Indrani sighed. “Ugh, I always get the shit jobs.”
“You’d get bored scything through dzulu,” I countered. “Besides, feel free to take shot from your perch at anything getting in my way.”
“Slightly better,” she conceded.
The two of us remained standing there for a while, strangers in this broken land looking down at a once-great city. I would have called the moment solemn, if not for the fact that Indrani was pulling at a flask of liquor. She sighed in satisfaction, then rolled her shoulders.
“All right,” Archer said. “We doing this or what?”
“Don’t get yourself killed,” I reminded her, meeting hazelnut eyes with my own.
“Never have before,” Indrani drawled. “So, you know, if we go purely by precedent it only makes sense that I’m immortal.”
While pushing her over the tunnel’s edge would have been deeply satisfying, we did have a battle to win. I settled for freezing her flask solid instead, grinning at the muttered imprecations that followed.
Steel-clad boots hit the ground, and I slowed long enough to have a look at my warriors – and they were definitely that, not a soldier among them. One hundred dzulu, moving like large hunting cats with their spears and swords in hand, barely a dozen shields among them. Thirteen Mighty, most of them ispe with only a single jawor and a pair of freshly-harvested rylleh to serve as heavy hitters. My Lord of Silent Steps led the pack from the front, and they slowed along with me without a word.
“Ivah,” I said. “Translate. The old terms apply: nisi are not to be touched save in self-defence, surrenders are to be accepted and observed. Anyone they kill, they can take. Corpses of my own making go to auction, and I will personally execute any who reaps their Night.”
Not exactly the most inspirational of speeches, but then with drow I’d found it more important to lay down rules than tug at heartstrings. They had precious few of either, and the latter was beyond my ability to fix. The words were repeated in Crepuscular, and within a heartbeat of the sentence ending the first shot of the battle for Great Lotow was fired. A javelin, thrown from a rooftop maybe half a hundred feet ahead. Aimed towards me, which meant either it was a warning to the drow or they’d already caught on to the fact I was running things. I could have simply stepped aside – it was aimed at my centre of mass, well-thrown but barely any better than a mundane human could have – but sometimes it was necessary to make an impression and… set the tone. I let it arc downwards, and at the last moment caught the shaft. Less than an inch stood between the sharp stone tip and my plate. Casually, I spun the javelin around between my fingers and gripped it correctly. One step, lowering my body, then rising up I threw the javelin back.
It, uh, wasn’t something I was trained in. I had better aim and certainly more body strength than I’d used to, but that didn’t translate to skill. It flew like a damned crossbow bolt, in a straight line, and was easily dodged by the silhouette on the rooftop. Still, at least no other projectile had followed. It was a start. I flicked my wrist, forming a blade of frost, and advanced.
“Forward,” I ordered, Ivah translating a heartbeat afterwards.
Archer would begin her own sweep the moment we engaged the enemy properly, so all I had to worry about was the world in front of me. I went down the slope at a pace, and entered the avenue briskly. Already the Urulan had prepared a reception. A dozen dzulu led by a drow roiling with Night – Mighty, and stronger than ispe – were spread out in a loose crescent with with Mighty at the tip. I’d missed this, I realized. The simplicity of it. Enemies ahead, allies behind. No tricky little shades of morality, no debate over right and necessity. It was like I’d been whisked back to the Pit and its much less complicated time. I felt a savage grin split my lips, and for the first time in ages I could savour the air in my lungs. The glorious burn of it, illusion that it was. I’d keep it going as long as I could. I darted forward, dashing around another javelin and closing the distance in mere heartbeats. The Mighty yelled and Night flared, the sound reverberating, but instead of ducking I plunged into it. My eardrums burst and reformed in the same moment, and the last I saw of that drow was the look of utter surprise on its face when my sword carved through its throat.
The dzulu immediately began retreating, faces gone pale, but I was having none of that. I moved faster than them, and the first I caught before it could even turn to strike me. My hand went through its back and I snapped its spine, withdrawing bloodied fingers. The next struck at me with spear, but I let the stone tip bounce off my plate and slapped its cheek hard enough the neck broke. The third tried to parry my strike, but while the blades were at the right angle the difference in strength made it pointless. Its arm was forced down, and a flick of the wrist had its head rolling on the floor. My own drow joined the fray eagerly, falling on the survivors like wolves on the fold, but I pressed on. I’d not come here to make sport of dzulu. Archer would be going to the right, so my charge was to sweep by the left. Already yells were sounding in the distance, the Urulan gathering for war, but I did not intend to give them the opportunity of mustering a proper resistance. Through halls and houses I strode, ears sharp, and caught my first ambusher. Atop one of those long halls, pressed closely against the roof. Laughing, I struck at the wall and tore through the stone. It rose, alarmed, and I leapt up.
Just a dzulu, I saw, eyes barely touched with silver. Disappointed, I snatched it by the neck before it could bring up its weapon and tossed it further down the avenue. It hit stone with a loud squelch, head pulped. I leapt back down, noting my forces were beginning to catch up. The first enemies had been too heavily outnumbered to put up a real fight. I took the lead, moving down the avenue. We hadn’t even taken a fifth of the circle yet, but I found the resistance to have been too lukewarm. Someone had sent expendable to probe out strength while they prepared a response. My instincts proved right maybe sixty heartbeats later, when I found the length of the ring had been walled up. Thin walls of hide held by a framework of glue and stone, but they were decent makeshift fortifications to block off the streets and avenues. Atop the roofs drow with bows and javelins were awaiting, while the streets behind the hide blocks slowly filled with reinforcements. The first chokepoint to break, then. They’d made a kill zone at ground level – the hide panels were likely movable to let through their own warriors – so I’d go at it from a different angle.
I leapt back up on the nearest rooftop and broke into a run. Best to soften up this lot before my drow ran into them. Arrows and javelins streaked the air, which bothered me little – they were loud and slow and my body was mist whenever I wished. They might as well have been shooting at a ghost. I closed the distance and then streaks of Night began lashing out towards me, which was more dangerous. I suspected the mist trick would fail against sorcery, and this was as close as drow could get to magic. There were, by the looks of it, seven casters. I could take the hits and barrel through, most likely, but the knowledge that my body was exceedingly difficult to permanently damage nowadays had not whisked away Black’s earliest lessons. Never take a blow unless you have to, much less if you do not know what it will do. A platform served as anchor for the push that sent me to crash into the house beneath which the archers and casters were standing. Momentum alone would not get me through that wall, even in plate, so instead I formed a spike of ice at an angle and caught it with my free hand. A spin had me leaping back upwards, the looks on the faces of the drow when I came of height with them most amusing. Another platform – just in time to avoid a second set of Night streaks – had me landing in a roll among them.
The dzulu, for that was what most of them were, scattered immediately. I didn’t have the time to go through them one at a time, so I dipped into Winter and let loose a working. The rings of sharp ice spears formed around my abdomen, lingering for a moment before shooting out. Blood, screams and shredded flesh followed in their wake. I had to throw myself to the side when looked like a snake made of Night ran through where I’d been a heartbeat earlier, jaws snapping. Another two follow suit, keeping me dancing, and to my distaste a streak of Night clipped me on the shoulder as I landed in a roll. It went straight through the plate, though at an angle that meant it hit air instead of flesh after punching through. Seven casters, I found, the only ones not dead or running. The snakes were coming out of their bellies, coiling and releasing at their will, while the other four drow were shooting shorter bursts to keep me from closing distance. Irritating. If they were Mighty, which was likely, they weren’t far up the ranks. I didn’t have time to waste on these when the real threats were still on the loose.
I sidestepped another streak, ducked under a snake and exerted my will. The drow guiding the snake found its throat filled with ice and began clawing at its skin impotently. I caught another snake-charmer and one of the shooters before being forced to move again. Darting around a snaked extended sharply like an arrow shot I ran forward, rolling under another streak of Night and responding with a collar of ice around the second drow’s neck that tightened and immediately choked it. They’d needed the numbers to keep me busy, they realized too late as I carved through the throat of the last snake-charmer. The remaining two tried to make a run for it but I pursued, shaping my sword into a spear and tossing it in the first’s back. The last survivor leapt down from the roof and I sighed. Its throat filled with ice a moment later and it dropped. The whole of it could not had taken more than seventy heartbeats, and now my own sigil was assaulting the barricades. I casually formed an anvil of ice and dropped it on the nearest hide wall to make an easy point of entry. I supposed I could clear out the dzulu a bit to make it easier on my warriors.
Then the roof under my feet turned into Night, and the Mighty of the Urulan Sigil entered the fray.