“With great madness comes great possibility.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent I, the Unhallowed
It took three hours before the first envoy showed up, requesting the name of the sigil that had displaced the Urulan and politely inquiring as to its intentions. Some poor dzulu bastard who’d obviously been sent because it was expendable. It wasn’t allowed entrance into the Crossroads, not that it was eager, and I sent Ivah to meet it halfway through one of the bridges instead. Our diplomatic approach, if it could be called that, was rather simple: I wanted a meeting with the nine remaining sigil-holders in Great Lotow. In exchange I would provide information about a great common threat approaching, which Ivah had been instructed to make sound properly dire while remaining light on the details. Given the scope of the dwarven invasion, that was hardly difficult. Decapitating Mighty Urulan had earned me the attention of the city’s power-brokers, but I hadn’t made enough of an impression I could simply browbeat them into following me. To get an audience, I needed a gift.
A warning about the dwarves invading ought to do the trick.
The sigil that first approached us was the Slaus, who held the territory directly below the Crossroads. They’d been on decent terms with the Urulan, who usually had higher priorities than raiding their downstairs neighbours, but their envoy made it clear they weren’t all that broken up about a replacement having taken up residence. A stronger cork atop the bottle that was Great Lotow was a good thing, in their eyes, since weak Crossroads meant an open door for raids into their own territory. The dzulu provided names along a bare – and probably highly biased – lay of the land to my Lord of Silent Steps even as Akua and I settled the auction. The report I was given afterwards was illuminating, though I’d already known some parts of it from earlier interrogations. Aside from my own sigil, there were nine others in Lotow. The Slaus Sigil, my new ‘friends’, were fighting to rule the upper levels against the Kanya and Losle. Along with the Urulan, those three sigils had made up the ‘weaker’ tribes forced closer to the top of the city and denied the room and resources of better districts.
There were two sigils at the very bottom, the Orelik and the Vasyl, who were the largest of the city and had tacitly been allowed to monopolize the larger farms and lakes so long as they kept trading with the others: the balance there was a delicate one, where other sigils kept them weak enough they couldn’t refuse but didn’t want to damage them so badly the food would stop coming. That left four sigils to squabble over what had once been the core districts of Great Lotow: Sagas, Nodoi, Soln and Zarkan. From what I understood they’d been at war for the better part of a millennium and played out enough heroic alliances and wicked betrayals to fill a dozen epics, taking and losing territory to each other with every passing year. All four raided other sigils, but usually only to strengthen themselves against their adversaries in the centre. The rest of the city enabled the centuries-old feuds cheerfully, well aware that if one ever became strong enough to devour the others the remainder of Lotow would follow in short order.
Mighty Soln was a name I’d heard before, actually. It was the same drow who’d famously beaten the now-dead Kodrog so bad it had fled into the outer ring, where it’d had the misfortune of running into the dwarves and then myself. Soln was the most promising of the city’s Mighty, in my eyes, as it had a reputation for fair dealings. Which mostly meant it formally broke alliances before turning on its former allies, but that was already a cut above the rest. Willingness to make bargains in the first place was what I needed the most.
“I believe a cabal is the way to unite these Mighty under your banner, my queen,” Ivah said. “Outright subjugation would be long and costly enterprise, given our current strength.”
It had changed again, I thought. There was no trace of the original green or the grown silver in its deep blue eyes, but that was the least of the changes. My Lord of Silent Steps was still tall and blade-thin, but there was a sense of strength to its frame that’d previously been absent. Fae could be skinny as a goblin and still be strong enough to wrestle down an ox, and the bestowal of the title had brought that power to Ivah. That unspoken impression that its body was a disguise, that physical abilities were estranged from its flesh. It walked upon Creation like something not born of it, a transient guest. Its presence had bloomed to my senses, though I’d expected nothing less when I’d offered it the harvesting of Mighty Urulan. I had need of a strong right hand among the drow, and it had proved useful enough to deserve the reward. There were risks to that, but benefits as well.
If it came to a fight again, it’d be my side that fielded Urulan’s tricks.
“A cabal,” I repeated. “Those are a kind of warrior honour societies, no?”
“It is a nuanced matter,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “In olden days cabals were formed along the twelve purposes and three duties, but this practice has been abandoned by all save the most traditional of my kind. There are cabals that, as you say, are honour and recognition. Only Mighty of renown are invited to them, and their name swells from the joining. Yet this is no longer the accepted custom.”
“Which is?” I prompted.
Ivah hesitated. I’d give it a pass on that, I thought, since I was pretty much asking it to summarize what was beginning to sound like a fairly complex matter simply enough an outsider like me could understand it
“One might say a cabal is a compact of Mighty who share a single desire,” the drow finally said. “This desire can be near anything, my queen. The legendary Red Hunt formed when Mighty undertook the annihilation of the Fagran Sigil. The Hour of Twilight was raised when the strongest of Great Albenrak desired the conquest of Great Telarun – and a hundred cabals were born to sow the seeds of the Hour’s own destruction. The Old Vigil guards the temples and libraries that once belonged to the Sages, while the Wayfarers still keep the northern Hylian ways open for all who would travel them.”
“Mighty but not sigils,” I slowly said. “It’s on an individual basis. If a sigil-holder’s part of a cabal, it doesn’t meant the entire sigil is.”
“A cabal may hold individuals of many different sigils, some at war with each other, and so long as they act in the fulfilling of the compact they will not turn on each other,” the drow said. “It is a separate matter, not to be spoken of.”
Which did explain, at least in part, why the Everdark didn’t currently consist of half a dozen lesser gods sitting in their own city with the rest of the race long gone. If a sigil started pissing off all its neighbours, half the region’s Mighty would form a cabal and put it down together. Gains had to be weighed against the risk of backlash.
“It would not surprise me, for example, if many of Lotow’s Mighty were part of a cabal ensuring the farms of the bottom levels remain unspoiled,” Ivah elaborated.
“So we make our own cabal,” I said. “One that desires evacuation in the face of the dwarves.”
“Mighty are proud creatures,” Ivah said without a hint of irony. “Stating it differently would be more palatable.”
“I suppose calling ourselves the Get Out Ahead Of The Dwarves Cabal wouldn’t be all that impressive,” I said. “We are, let’s say… seeking out Sve Noc for instructions on how to answer the nerezim threat.”
“That would be acceptable,” Ivah noted. “The Sve speaks only when it wishes, but this is a great crisis. Custom can be bent.”
“And you think that’ll be good enough an offer they’ll take it?” I asked.
“The upper sigils, perhaps,” the drow said. “They will know that if a cabal is formed for the defence of Lotow against nerezim encroachment, its first act will be to devour them to strengthen ahead of the battle. I do not believe the others will enter your service.”
“And if I make the taking of oaths a requirement to entering the cabal?”
“None will bend,” the Lord bluntly said. “Exile would be more acceptable an alternative. Cabals to answer the threat can be formed without us, regardless. We will be seen as useful addition yet no requirement.”
Yeah, about what I’d expected. Even with a bearded apocalypse at their doorstep the drow would have issues with my rules. My sigil was just a droplet in the sea of the Everdark, and even in a border city like Great Lotow we weren’t the biggest stallion in the pen.
“We’ll try anyway,” I said.
Ivah’s blue eyes watched me closely.
“And if we fail?” the Lord of Silent Steps asked.
“Then I beat them with a stick,” I said. “And ask again, much less politely.”
It was not an auspicious beginning that I couldn’t even get every sigil-holder in the city to attend. The Losle refused to show if the Nodoi did, and the Zarkan boldly required both a tithe of dzulu from my ranks and an alliance against the Soln if they were to deign attending. Both the bottom sigils suggested in strong terms that the meeting should be held near their territory, at the lowest level of the Column, which essentially everyone else made clear was unacceptable. I chose the Nodoi over the Losle – the latter were angry they kept being raided by the former, which was reasonable, but the Nodoi were stronger and I needed them more – while Archer returned the Zarkan envoy to its sigil by throwing off the bridge in their territory’s direction after it got unruly. Seven out of nine would have to do, and I’d never seriously considered following the suggestion of the bottom sigils. Aside from how unpalatable that’d be to everyone else, it would screw with my contingency. Not make it impossible, no, but it would mean a significant increase in collateral damage if things went south.
Envoys went back and forth for most of a day until the cats were finally herded. It might not have taken as long if the spurned sigils hadn’t started ambushing them, but Mighty Soln seized the central levels of the Column for a few hours and guaranteed safe passage. I sent a polite message of thanks, it replied with a hint that the courtesy could be returned more materially and so I sent it back a single word: nerezim. I was not above playing favourites in the slightest if it any of them were willing to behave halfway-decently. It was about an hour before the meeting that Ivah came to me with a problem that hadn’t thought was one. If you are to stand among them as sigil-holder, my queen, you must have a sigil, it informed me. Though some of my drow had taken to calling our band a sigil, it was true I’d never really considered it that. I wasn’t a drow myself, and had no intention of remaining their equivalent of a noble when we left the Everdark. But Ivah insisted, saying it would be disrespectful to arrive without the proper apparel and would lower my prestige in the eyes of the others. I gave in, not willing to dig in my heels over something this minor.
There was a slight issue, in the sense that a sigil’s, well, sigil was usually the name of the sigil-holder in stylized Crepuscular with the colour of the cloth it was on denoting a creed. Black for the seeking of Night, red for ambition, different shades of blue for those espousing specific virtues and Ivah might have gone on describing for an hour if I hadn’t interrupted. The closest equivalent to ‘Catherine’ in Crepuscular was apparently Katarin, the symbols making it up possible to accentuate to mean either ‘elegant snake’ or ‘delicate dark pearl’. I was rather glad Archer wasn’t around to hear the second one, though Akua got rather smirky regardless. ‘Foundling’ had no real equivalent, though after conversing for a while like two deaf people shouting across the language divide I got the sounds and meaning of it in Lower Miezan understood. Losara, Ivah finally said. The characters of it meaning ‘lost and found’, and when drawn on the dirt resembling a tree with twin incomplete circles under the branches. Painted in silver over purple cloth, which symbolized seeking a higher purpose.
The irony amused me. Upwards was where I meant for them to go, after all.
A nisi with some aptitude for painting that hadn’t been slain for the talent was rustled up and a sigil produced, barely dry by the time I set out alone. I had need of Diabolist and Archer elsewhere, and given the nature of my plans bringing a retinue would be a waste. Besides, the agreement was for a meeting between only myself and the sigil-holders. A solid third of the debate through envoys had been settling on a language for the conversation, which had ended up being Chantant. It got stuck in my throat that odds were good people had been killed so all the sigil-holders would be fluent in the Proceran tongue when they arrived, but Indrani’s words had stayed with me. I’d not come here to save the drow from themselves. I wasn’t sure if I could. Or even if I should. I came to the Mighty of Great Lotow without my cloak, draped instead in the cloth of my sigil over my clothes. The glamour I wore had been anchored in a stone I’d made myself swallow, carefully crafted over hours to be flawless. There was no room for mistakes today.
The meeting was to be held in the Column, my first venture into the dead heart of this ruined city. The structure itself was a broad pentagon, every side measuring exactly sixty-five feet and seven inches. Given the Column’s ridiculous height – it had to make up most of a mile – simply stacking stones wouldn’t have been enough for it to hold up. The ancient drow hadn’t done that, anyway: masonry was a different business when you lived underground. The Column itself was the remains of what had once been solid ground before a pit was excavated around it, further reinforced by five spines of some red metal going all the way up and a plethora of bridges linking it to the surrounding districts. I’d actually thought the metal was just rust steel, when I first took a look at it, but it was oily to the touch and perfectly preserved. If not for my suspicions it was the main thing holding up the structure, I would have ripped out a few chunks to bring back home to Callow: I’d never seen an alloy like it, and if it could survive a few centuries without regular touch-ups it was heads and shoulders above anything my people had ever used.
The inside was surprisingly elaborate. Most everything that could be pried or hammered off had been, including entire spans of mosaics and anything even remotely shiny but every single floor was a book in Crepuscular, beautiful curved characters spreading out in rows and swirls. Historical chronicles and stories, songs and poems and every written thing that made up the lifeblood of a culture. It was a stark contrast to the stumps left behind by stolen statues, the dusty holes of ripped out mosaics and the spider webs woven into the complicated arrays of dead magelights and absent mirrors that must have once cast light all over the Column floors. The structure had not been the administrative centre of Great Lotow, or its religious one – temples and palaces were in the middle districts – but it had been the heart of the old city. I walked through empty marketplaces and riots of now-dry fountains, gardens of dust and the wrecked stands of what must have once been a public playhouse. It was the grave of an ancient people, still haunted by the last remnants of it. I allowed myself awe, but not too much. Past glories were a little thing in the face of breathing dangers.
Having Masego along for the calculations would have been preferable, but admittedly Diabolist was no slouch when it came to numbers. She’d counted the bridges, figured out the weight and given me the correct floor. I hoped, anyway. There would be no second chance if she was wrong. Ten floors deep, that was the sweet spot, but I’d had to compromise and go to the eleventh. Most levels of the Column had multiple access points aside from the two sets of spiraling stairs every single one boasted, but the eleventh floor had once served as a court where lesser offences were settled. There were no bridges leading to it, and the heart of the floor was a large courtroom whose only point of entrance and exit was a set of massive stone doors. Given the temptation of ambushing this large a concentration of Mighty in one place, this floor had been judged the most fitting place for a meeting. Time was fluid in the Everdark, not in the way that it was in Arcadia but because there were so few devices that measured it. No bells, down here, and so I was not overly surprised I’d been the last to arrive. I’d taken my time to ensure as much, after all.
The doors were slightly ajar, just enough a single person could pass through, and seven Mighty seated on high thrones beyond them. For all that power swam around them like currents, I could not help but think they looked like children. There were nineteen seats set against the walls, and the sight of the sigil-holder failing to claim even half of them made it seem like they were just kids wearing the regalia of adults. Playacting at empire in a pile of ruins. None rose when I entered, remaining seated on the thrones of stones where they had draped their sigil’s banner. Without a word I leaned forward and clasped the red metal rings set into the stone doors, closing them shut behind me with a clap as my bones creaked under the weight. Seven pairs of eyes studied me in silence as I wiped my now dust-coated hands on my pants and strolled forward. I didn’t overthinking my sitting position, simply claiming the throne to the left of the doors and putting my banner over it.
“Losara,” one of the Mighty said. “And so we finally have a name.”
The Chantant it had spoken in was a strange mixture of Crepuscular pronunciation and an ancient Alamans way of speaking, but still perfectly understandable for all that. I eyed the banner behind the speaker, having memorized the names going with the symbols. Orelik, I thought, recognizing the swirly fish-like pattern. One of the two bottom sigils, those that held the farms. It was the first fat drow I’d ever seen and the sight was jarring. The loose hide tunic failed to hide the folds of grey skin, though its pure silver eyes served as reminder that fat or not it was accomplished in the art of killing.
“Mighty Losara, you bloated old slug,” another drow replied. “Urulan would speak to that truth, if it still spoke.”
Its symbol looked like eyes over three fangs: Slaus, my downstairs neighbours. That sigil had the most skin in this game, as they were both sharing a border with me and the next in line if an outside threat came muscling in. I settled into my throne, comfortable allowing the byplay to go on without me. Which it did, hissed sentences in Crepuscular starting to go back and forth as the Mighty began what sounded like an old and bitter argument. They were interrupted by the sound of stone shattering. The Mighty who’d struck its throne and powdered a chunk of it rose to its feet, face twisted in irritation. The sigil behind it was one I easily identified, as I’d paid particular attention to it: a ring of swords, with an open mouth in the centre.
“You spend the time of your betters frivolously,” Mighty Soln said. “Be silent.”
Both the other drow looked furious, but they did not argue. I cleared my throat.
“If we’re quite done,” I said, eyebrow rising, and none gainsaid me. “You came here because I promised information. As it pertains to the conversation I wish to have afterwards, I’ll begin by laying it out in full.”
Silver eyes all turned to me, and I shifted in my throne. The fucking thing had been carved for someone Hakram’s height, not mine, and so my legs were dangling off of it like I was a kid in her father’s seat. It was adding insult to injury that I knew for a fact I fit in dwarven seats just fine.
“As of two months ago,” I said, “the nerezim have begun an invasion of the Everdark.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed.
“Allow me to be perfectly clear,” I said. “I did not misspeak. This is not an expedition, it is an invasion. At least a hundred thousand soldiers came through the Gloom, their vanguard led by a Named. They bring with them civilians because they intend to stay. Even as we speak most of the outer ring has fallen into their hands. They aim for nothing less than the extermination of your kind.”
One of the Mighty scoffed. It sigil looked like a wall broken through. Sagas, I thought, one of the strong sigils in the centre.
“Burning words,” Mighty Sagas said. “Yet what proof do you bring?”
“I have witnesses, if my word is not sufficient,” I said. “They saw the vanguard with their own eyes. Saw it slaughter an entire sigil of the outer ring.”
“I doubt not the word,” Mighty Orelik said. “It has been delivered. You have done service, human, and may now leave.”
“That won’t be happening,” I mildly said.
“Do you think aping our ways gives you seat here?” the drow hissed. “You are interloper, not guest. Know your-”
“Be silent, Orelik,” Mighty Soln said softly. “If I must ask you a third time, there will not be a fourth.”
The first Mighty opened its mouth, but Soln rose from its seat and the lips closed. I nodded in appreciation, though got only indifference in response.
“I came here today to propose the founding of a cabal,” I said. “Not to defend Great Lotow, for it is already lost. It was the moment the nerezim crossed the Gloom in force. But to seek out Sve Noc and ask instruction.”
One of the Mighty snorted. Nodoi, I saw, the last of the central sigils in attendance. I needed those the most, if I was to make any progress at all.
“The Sve speaks when it wishes,” Mighty Nodoi said. “That is custom. To request words is to beg for a curse.”
Mighty Slaus sneered.
“Are we inner ring darkskins, to prattle of tradition?” it replied. “Mighty Losara speaks sense. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.”
I would have been more moved by the support if I hadn’t known it sprang from the fact that the Slaus would be on the chopping block the moment the central sigils decided to band together to defend the city. It was less belief in my solution that bade it to speak than the urge of self-preservation.
“Do we know when the nerezim will strike?” one of the Mighty said, staring at me.
Vasyl, the symbol said. The other bottom sigil, and noticeably less hostile than the Orelik so far.
“At least two weeks,” I said. “Perhaps more, if they spread their forces to completely clear out the outer rings.”
“Then this is no time for quibbling,” Mighty Vasyl grimly said. “Defences must be seen to, or the city abandoned. There is no middle path.”
“I’ll be frank,” I said. “You can’t hold Lotow. They’ll bring down the city on your heads and drown the districts in molten stone without ever engaging. They have the engines for it. This is not a war like those you know. They will not harvest or take prisoners: their intent is to claim the Everdark without any of you in it.”
“You know nothing, child,” Mighty Orelik sneered. “We have fought wars, turned back the Hylian Dogs when they tested our borders. You-”
“- have commanded armies larger in number than this entire city,” I flatly replied. “I’ve slain heroes and tricked fae, walked the streets of Keter as a guest and pried life out of the hands of the Hashmallim. You’re just a rat in a hole, Orelik, and if you try my patience once more I swear on all the Gods I will feed you your own fucking limbs.”
It flinched, and murmurs spread across the room. They might not know much about fae or heroes, down here, but the mention of the Dead King’s capital had made an impact. Him they remembered.
“It is said you make even Mighty take oaths,” Mighty Soln said, voice cutting through the whispers.
“I have rules,” I said. “They bring power as well as bindings. Many have thought this a worthy trade.”
“And these rules,” Soln said. “Will you seek to impose them on any that join this nameless cabal of yours?”
I rose to my feet, hand going through through my clothes and taking out a parchment scroll. I tossed it at the Mighty Soln, who easily snatched it out of the air.
“I will,” I said. “These are the oaths, written in Crepuscular, though they will have to be sworn in my own native tongue.”
The drow unfolded it, silver eyes studying the contents, and didn’t even get halfway through before it snorted and tossed the scroll at Mighty Vasyl.
“This is subjugation, not alliance,” Mighty Soln said
“They are standards of behaviour,” I replied calmly, “enforced by my mantle.”
That did nothing to move it, so I moved on to the larger audience when I kept speaking.
“Are none of you tempted by the thought of an alliance that you know will hold?” I said. “That will lead to no betrayal, for going back on the oaths means death. How much could you actually accomplish, if you were not always watching your back for knives?”
“A cabal is a worthy idea,” Mighty Soln said. “Yet this is not a cabal, Losara. It is… queenship, your kind call it.”
“It would make me warlord,” I said. “Until the war is over. An extraordinary measure for an extraordinary crisis.”
Mighty Vasyl had passed the scroll to Mighty Nodoi, who outright laughed.
“You give terms like a victor,” it said. “You are not. This is overreach. To obey your orders without fail? Madness. Arrogant madness.”
“You’ve overplayed your strength, child,” Mighty Orelik said.
This time no one chided it.
“I’m sad to hear you believe that,” I said. “Should I consider this to be a refusal for all of you?”
“Obedience is not our way,” Mighty Slaus said. “The terms must be changed.”
Mighty Soln laughed.
“Look into its eyes, Slaus,” it said. “Do you see compromise there? No, this was not request. It was an order.”
Slowly, I sat back down on my throne.
“Is there nothing,” I asked, “that I can do to change your minds?”
“If you seek the terms of a victor,” Mighty Soln said, “prove yourself one.”
The challenge rang loud and clear in the room. There was only agreement on the faces of the others, and so I tugged at the chains that bound Akua to me. Our signal.
“I considered that,” I admitted. “But what would be the point? I’ve no need of corpses and chaos. It’s you I want. The whole lot of you.”
The Column shivered under our feet and every single Mighty had left their throne within a heartbeat.
“Ambush,” Mighty Orelik said. “Your last mistake, human.”
“I’m not going to fight you,” I calmly said. “That would be wasteful, and I was taught better than that. This is a… counterargument.”
The sound of stone shattering sounded in the distance, and half the Mighty began boiling with Night. It was pointless. The moment the shiver had been felt the gate had opened. Akua and I were not without cleverness, and so we’d planned to have it unfold right under the ceiling of the floor below. Unfelt until it cut through the walls, and by then it’d be too late. The bridges had snapped under the weight, and the Mighty that would have fought me found their footing failing as we began to impossibly fall. The conclusion was appropriately impressive: our chunk of the Column hit the ground with a massive impact, and the gate sliced right under the ceiling above us as it closed. I fell from my throne, ankle bone snapping from the bad angle, but forced myself to rise.
Midday sun shone down on us, bring a cold breeze with it.
“What have you done?” Mighty Nodoi howled.
“Welcome,” I calmly said, “to Arcadia.”
“This is not the Everdark,” Mighty Soln said, tone confounded.
“No,” I smiled. “And if you ever want to return there, well, you have the scroll. All it’ll take is a few oaths.”
“You will not survive this,” Mighty Orelik screamed.
“I will return tomorrow,” I said, ignoring it, “to see if any of you have reconsidered. Try not to die.”
Without bothering with goodbyes, I abandoned the glamoured drow corpse I’d been controlling and left them to stand alone in the outskirts of Winter.