“‘lo and behold, I have brought peace to the Empire.”
– Dread Empress Massacre, after ordering the Burning of Okoro
Three things happened in swift succession.
The first was that I formed a handhold of ice to hoist myself up. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I stayed standing in the middle of a blanket of Night, but it was unlikely to be pleasant. The second was that, even as my fingers closed around the handhold, it began vibrating and exploded with a scream. The third thing, unfortunately, was that I fell back into that same blanket of Night spread over the roof. Feet first, which turned out to be a stroke of luck. The moment they made contact with the Night they… dissolved, like they’d been dropped in acid. I dimmed my mind, turning into mist, and slithered away towards the edge of the roof. It was difficult to think, in that state, and my situational awareness was shit – as was made clear by the fact that I neither saw nor heard coming the spear of Night that caught me in the side. Or as close to a side as I could have, while made of mist. The second unpleasant surprise of the day – night? – unfolded as the spear forced me back into solid form where it struck and sent my human-like silhouette to go tumbling over the side. Into a pack of dzulu, though that didn’t prove to be much of a problem.
Night spread over the street with a soft whisper and they dissolved screaming even as I fell.
I formed a spike of ice jutting out of a house’s sidewall and landed on it for exactly a heartbeat before it broke with a scream, but it’d been enough to allow me to situate myself. A pair of translucent blue wings ripped out of my back and I flew upwards, finally getting a look at the drow that’d ambushed me. There were three, all holding so much Night within their thin frames they darkened their surroundings just by being there: the air around them looked like near-invisible wisps of smoke was spreading through it. The two on the sides looked like they could have been twins, their deep grey skin and whip-like faces identical save for the crescent scars they had on opposite cheeks. Their eyes were pure silver, save for the black pupils. Long curved blades in hand, they watched me rise with identical bored expressions. If those two were strong, holding enough Night to fill a pond, then the drow between them was a lake. Taller than either of them, its faces was covered with thick burned flesh in a horrid mask that denied even the appearance of lips. There was no trace of anything but silver in its eyes, the pupils merely a darker shade of it.
“Urulan?” I called out.
“Cattle,” it mildly replied in Crepuscular.
Well, that took care of the introductions. I’d go out on a limb and say the flankers were rylleh, because with that much power they could hardly be anything else. Mighty Urulan wielded a long staff of glass, and without bothered with any more banter pointed it at me. Droplets of Night formed around me in a ring-like pattern, rippling with power, and I definitely wasn’t sticking around to find out what that did. I’d already noticed that the flesh dissolved by the earlier blanket had taken longer than usual to reform after I’d returned to physical form, and that’d been the opening volley. It could be it’d opened with its strongest trick, true. But when had I ever been that lucky? The wings folded against my back and I dropped like a stone, which didn’t help nearly as much as I’d wished. The Night droplets rippled, and every single one of them lanced out with a beam of the same stuff downwards. The firing angle had been well-judged: I’d be falling right into the thickest knot of beams if I didn’t act. My wings spread again, but I held back a curse when they both began vibrating and broke a heartbeat later. Neither the rylleh had moved, but their silver eyes shone brighter. Time to improvise, then. Mist-form wasn’t getting me out of this, so the time for delicate works was over.
I formed a large cube of ice under me, feeling Winter’s influence begin to creep and promptly shunting it off, and even as the beams of Night tore into the frost I parted it around my falling form to go straight through. A whisper came to my ears, the sound of another Night blanket forming below me, and the cube began to vibrate. Distraction first, I thought. I ripped out a chunk of ice from the bottom of the cube with an exertion will, transmuted it into mist and sent it slithering to the left. The ice ceased vibrating a pair of Night spears shot out, and there was my opening. I fell under the itself-falling cube as the beams of Night shot through it, muscles tightening as I caught it with a grunt and tossed the entire thing at the drow. I couldn’t spare the time to look if I’d made impact, instead forming wings again and plunging into a somewhat-controlled descent that had me landing in front of the three drow. And, most importantly, away from the Night blanket. They’d already shown me it did not discriminate in its effect, they shouldn’t be able to use it when I closed distance.
By the time my bare feet hit the ground – my boots were sadly gone for the foreseeable future, again – all that was left of the ice I’d thrown was a rain of mist and shards. I’d not even seen how they’d gotten rid of it. With me in the open, the earlier distraction had come to an end: all three drow had their eyes on me. The rylleh first, I thought. Urulan would be less dangerous without the backup. I darted towards the left one, body centre low, and made it three feet forward before they unleashed their arsenal. Darkness fell like a curtain, robbing me of my sight, but my ears still worked just fine. It was the only reason I heard the low whistling sound of Night on the move, dropping to the floor and feeling something scythe just above my body. I rolled forward just in time to avoid the spike of Night that came down in the other working’s wake, letting out a sharp breath. If they’d timed that just a little better, I would have taken it right in the spine. Another step saw me coming out of the curtain of darkness, which was no comfort as I saw my foes for only a heartbeat before a whisper sounded and a globe of Night began forming around me.
If that was the acid trick again…
I realized, dimly, that if this went through entirely I might actually die. I’d treated the Everdark like a training exercise, sometimes almost a game, but I’d been swimming in the shallows of this sea. There were monsters in the deeps that would make these look like imps. I close my eyes and let Winter loose. Frost formed all over my body, rapidly thickening and then shooting out. They had a globe of Night, I had a globe of ice. In a pissing contest of raw power, I’d bet on me every time. The Night ate into the ice but I kept pouring out Winter, its delighted laughter sounding softly in my ears. At first it devoured quicker than I made, but I dug in my heels and truly let loose. It became even, and I felt my blood turn cold as I dug even deeper. Like skin bursting for being filled too much, the globe of Night came apart under the pressure of the ice and I launched out through the opening I’d made. For a moment I hung in the air, seeing two curved swords rising to point at me and Urulan itself leisurely leaning on its staff. I shaped an ice javelin and threw it at the sigil-holder, just quick enough to loose it before shackles of Night formed around my wrists and ankles. I turned to mist, or at least tried to. The Night shackles thickened and nothing happened. Urulan gently tapped its staff against the ground and the javelin shattered into mist, the rylleh moving as it did.
Their stances were perfect, muscles coiling as they simultaneously thrust their blades into my sides. They went through the plate, bit into flesh, and then I felt my organs began to vibrate. I grit my teeth and hardened my insides, but that actually made it worse: it was like a sharper full of metal scraps went off in there. Everything was shredded, and chunks of my ribs and flesh splattered the floor as they withdrew their swords. Urulan pointed its staff at me, and tissue already knitting itself back together stopped. Stupid, I thought. Stupid, stupid. I’d already known there were drow who could heal themselves like I did, but I’d never entered my mind that the Mighty could have tricks that would inhibit my own ability. They just needed to keep taking me apart, and sooner or later they’d get me into a state I wouldn’t walk away from.
Then an arrow went through my left wrist, breaking the shackle holding it on the way, and I promised myself I was going to kiss Indrani next time I saw her.
“My turn,” I growled.
My mangled wrist flicked, forming a blade of ice, and I carved through my other shackled wrist before offering my ankles the same courtesy. The rylleh wreathed their blades with Night and stabbed into my open torso, pinning me down with what felt like a similar trick, but they really should have gone for the arms. I caught the flat of one sword and ice crept up it, shattering three fingers before the rylleh dropped it and retreated. There was a whisper and another globe of Night began forming around me, which given my current lack of feet was something of an issue. So I took care of it, forming feet out of ice and throwing myself out of the jaws of death. The second rylleh was not so lucky, and died screaming as it dissolved inside. I picked its blade out of my ribs, dropping it down, and finally my torso began putting itself back together. I stomped down and mist billowed out, covering all three of us, though not before I noticed the rylleh who’d lost fingers had already regrown them. Still, I’d learned another weakness to the Night-acid trick. When it began forming, it could not be stopped. Urulan would not have lost one of its lieutenants otherwise.
I shed off the last of my ice-forged feet and padded softly on the stone, feeling the drow through their warmth where my eyes found no purchase. The sigil-holder had only barely moved – it’d retreated a bit, nothing more – but the rylleh was circling around me. Could they sense Winter, as I could sense the Night? The powers were not so different. No, I decided. They would already have struck otherwise. Their senses might be sharper than those of other drow, though, so I’d have to be careful. I’d begin with Urulan’s last helper. I crept forward quietly, circling it as it believed it was circling me, and only struck when facing its back. I could use mist, I had learned, if it was of my own making. It was just another facet of my mantle. And so I condensed it into ice over the rylleh’s body, spooking it enough it dropped down into a puddle of shadow – and that was when I struck. A spear of ice forced it back into drow-form, and by then I was upon it. That transient moment where it stopped being shadow and started being a drow again? They were nearly blind during that, having to reorient all their senses. I didn’t give it the time: my blade went through its throat, severed the spine, and I ripped off the head afterwards just to make sure it wouldn’t heal. Amusingly enough, it did. Both separate parts closed up with fresh skin, though it remained quite dead.
Urulan spoke a single word in Crepuscular, and just like that I was back in the deep end.
I’d wondered why it was being so prudent, after being so aggressive since the start. Because it was preparing a major working, as it turned out. The mist had robbed my enemies of their sight, but it had also given the drow materials to work with – something I only realized was a very bad idea when my own mist began burning at my flesh. It’d turned the whole fucking thing into acid, hadn’t it? My eyes were the first thing to go, but I could feel the mist eating at me all over. Worst, I couldn’t just reform my way through it: the Night slowed that down, and the acid was eating at me quicker than I healed. This was worse than fighting Praesi mages, I thought. Those might be able to make wards, but they weren’t nearly this quick or vicious. Considering Urulan had likely been at this for centuries it only made sense, but that absent-minded consideration did nothing to help me out of my current predicament. Hardening my flesh, which was difficult when not contained to smaller body parts, did little to stop the problem. Slowed it some, but not enough to turn the tide. Gritting my teeth, I turned into mist myself but was forced back into human-form not even a heartbeat later. With fresh acid burns all over to show for it.
Fuck. Right, if I couldn’t flee it then I had to move it. I’d lost all of my plate by now, which was infuriating but not as much as the fact that most my face muscles were bare and falling apart. I was melting like snow in summer sun. I formed of ice a large windmill and set it to spinning, which drew back the mist closest to me and bought me a moment until Urulan clapped down its staff and broke it without a word. Still, thinned was good enough for what I’d intended. Wings ripped out of my back for the third time today and I rose out of the mist. The problem, now, was that I was literally flying blind with someone waiting to take a shot at me. I couldn’t just keep rising, that’d be painting a target on my back, so I zig-zagged erratically as my face slowly grew back. Even if I got hit, I thought, by the time I got back on my feet I’d be ready to fight again. Unfortunately, Urulan agreed. The sound of mist billowing forward came to my ears, and I realized it was pursuing me with the cloud. All right, desperate measures then. I flipped directions and went crashing straight towards the ground, hoping to… ah, there it was, a rooftop. My blood and flesh made a mess on the tiles, but I punched my way through and landed in a sprawl below.
Screams, people running away. Nisi? They hadn’t tried to fight anyway. I wildly sprayed ice where I’d crashed through and crouched close to the floor. I just needed to wait this out, I thought, though every passing moment where the mist hadn’t caught up was ratcheting up the tension in my frame. My eyes finally formed again, and I let out a relieved sigh. I’d made it. Through the ice-patched hole in the roof I could see the acid mist was surrounding the building, which was my first warning sign. Urulan wouldn’t have bothered unless it intended to flush me out. Night flared above me, a beacon to my eldritch senses, and I cursed under my breath. It wasn’t just going to flush me out, it was going to shattered the damned thing and drown me in acid again. I wouldn’t be able to dodge that. I had to convince it to strike elsewhere instead. I wove glamour, two separate workings. I sent an image of myself through the ice, wreathed in a blue halo that would serve as cheap explanation why she wasn’t melting. Too cheap, too obvious. A look to the side revealed there was an open door to my left, with five corpses where the nisi had tried to flee and been caught by the mist instead. Through there I sent another illusion of me, this one discreet and melding with the shadows. Almost invisible. She ran for the other on the other side of the street.
It evaporated a moment after she entered in a burst of Night that shook the entire Crossroads and collapsed the wall of the house I was really in.
The glamour had been dispersed by the hit, and I dispersed the one above as well. Crouching low behind loose stones, I wove one last glamour: my own skeleton, slowly growing back its flesh. Spikes of Night fell down around it in a circle and there was a swell of power. Biting my lip, I slowed the regeneration to a crawl in the glamour. I wasn’t sure if that had been what the trick was intended for, but I’d have to guess. Urulan approached slowly, its glass staff pointed at my fake body and quietly I formed a sword. I waited until it was standing over my illusion, staff raised, before I attacked. Had it been its senses or a discrepancy in effect that tipped it off? I might never know, but when I was a mere ten feet away the sigil-holder turned and cast a silvery gaze towards me. We were done with the posturing, and so I struck. Step forward, feint low to the left and then a spin – its staff my sword and I smiled. It went away quickly, when the staff did not break and its arm did not lower. I was, I could feel, slightly stronger. But not enough to hammer it back, and then the staff rippled. My sword blew up, shredding a few fingers with it, and the tip of the staff hit me in the stomach.
I rocked back and it struck upwards smoothly, breaking my chin before whipping back down and going for a thrust into my throat. I spun on myself, feeling the staff pass a hair’s breadth from my neck, and formed another blade to swing at its extended shoulder. It spun with me, as if the two of us were dancing, and fluidly stepped away when my strike at reached the apex of its arc. The tip of the staff lightly touched the sword, and just like that it fucking blew up again. The fingers I’d just bloody grew back were shredded again, to my mounting irritation. I made a third blade along with what was clearly more than my third set of fingers of the fight. Irksome as this was, it was likely better than what would happen if Urulan pulled the same trick on my actual body. The drow spoke something in a language other than Crepuscular, sounding amused, but I didn’t recognize the language. It sounded close to Reitz, but the vowels were even more of a debacle. Some older form, maybe? Some Secrets floating around the Night were much older than the current Calernia. Most of them, actually.
“Didn’t catch that,” I said, and attacked.
I didn’t start with a feint, this time. It was clearly a better fighter than I was, the only way I’d win was by cheating. I angled my sword for its throat and swung with brute force and speed. It withdrew just out of reach, bending backwards, and then bent forward. One hand came off the staff to tap my side and I had to bite back the scream. It’d found a vein, and was pouring the Night-acid in it. I did the only reasonable thing, and froze my own blood so stop it from spreading. It caught the wrist of my sword hand and forced it to continue the arc as it drew back the staff to better bring it down.
“Mistake,” I calmly said.
I turned the wrist it held to mist, and wrenched it out. The wisp of wrist moved under my will, slithering up its nostril and sinking into the brains behind them. All it took after that was a twist of will, and I shredded what lay inside its skull. Mighty Urulan dropped the ground, and I stood panting. I’d didn’t bother recover the flesh I’d turned into mist, making another hand instead. Didn’t want the old one back, after where it’d been. My flank still felt like it’d been lit on fire, but I carved out the infection and breathed a sigh of relief. It was only then, covered in blood both my own and that of my enemies, that I realized I’d been naked ever since the acid mist trick. I’d just been too angry to notice, and it wasn’t like I felt the cold anyways. I looked down at the drow’s corpse and shrugged. Might as well steal its clothes before I cut its head off, then.
Throwing Mighty Urulan’s severed head in the middle of its own warriors ought to have a slight effect on enemy morale.