“Alas, though your jest was cutting this axe is even sharper.”
– Dread Emperor Vindictive
The Lord of Silent Steps was in a pensive mood.
That was only right, as Ivah’idimas’iyanya’ajolig had found much to ponder of late. Being cast out of the Zapohar and forced to seek salvation in the Burning Lands had been meant as humiliation piled onto death, not mercy, and yet… here it was. Still alive, though months had passed. It was a strange thing to outlive one’s despair, and stranger still to pass beyond it. Such a matter required contemplation, the guidance of the whispers in the Night, but now when Ivah sought those murmurs known to all of the Firstborn it found only laughter. Full-throated and loud in the complete silence that surrounded it, a clarion call of mockery. And so Ivah of the Losara Sigil knew itself then to be damned, bound forever to the endless white plain it saw when it closed its eyes. It was all it dreamed of, now. Treading a boundless field of snow under a night that knew no moon or stars, leaving neither footstep nor sound as it marched on nowhere. Never tiring, never ceasing. Chasing a cold void forever out of reach.
It was terrifying – and yet it also soothed, like nothing it had ever known.
Clarity was required, and so clarity was sought. Losara Queen was beyond granting such a boon unto the likes of Ivah, for the queen was more akin to a deluge than a person – sweeping all it came cross, drowning them in the depths of itself. One could not bargain with the tides, only obey or perish. Yet there were others, slayers of Mighty that followed in the wake of the flood, and first among them stood the Mighty Archer. It did not claim to be rylleh, yet acted every inch of it regardless. It was presumptuous for the likes of Ivah to approach a superior unbid, though it did regardless as there was great need. It was sprawled against broken pillars, feet propped up close to the flames of a fire as it roasted cuts of silin meat over the flames. The sight of it made Ivah uncomfortable, for it was very unnatural. Humans, it was well known, ate only herbs and stones – as a learned Mighty, Ivah knew the stones were eaten not for sustenance but to help digestion – and became struck with terror when away from the light of the sun. The Mighty Archer must have blood from another race, for there could be no other explanation.
The Firstborn knelt facing the Mighty, arms and hands angled so that it could be seen it held no weapons. The human’s strange coloured eyes flicked to it, curious.
“Great Mighty,” Ivah said. “I would have guidance in matters of damnation.”
“Oh boy,” Mighty Archer sighed. “I am nowhere drunk enough for this.”
Boy. This was cattle-term, yes? Was the Mighty implying such worries as he had expressed were only fit for cattle? Ah, it was reminding Ivah of the ancient text ‘Seven Husks of the Moon’, which stated that the pursuit of Night was holy act and therefore no ill could come of it. The Lord of Silent Steps slowly nodded. Mighty Archer was truly learned, to know of this.
“Yet in estrangement from the Night, do we not lose our purpose?” Ivah asked.
“Where’s fucking Hakram when you need him?” Mighty Archer said. “Look, Ivah, you’ve got the wrong woman for this kind of talk. Purpose isn’t really my thing.”
“Should purpose not be sought?” it asked.
“Take it from me, sweetling, the big picture stuff is better left to the worriers of this outfit,” Mighty Archer said. “You and me, we’re sword arms. It doesn’t have to be complicated for us.”
The Lord cocked its head to the side.
“Then our purpose is the purpose of Losara Queen,” it said. “For it can see what we cannot.”
“Now you’re getting it,” Mighty Archer encouraged. “Sure we’ve got our rough edges, but this is a pretty good band as these things go. We’ve even done proper villain stuff, which should tickle your Evil pickle. Abducted a princess the once, and we even stole the sun a while back.”
The Firstborn choked.
“Mighty Archer, I would have understanding,” Ivah said. “By speaking the sun, do you mean light?”
“Nah, it was the actual sun,” the Mighty replied, scratching its chin. “Thief swiped it from that princess we kidnapped. Although we couldn’t find a way to pawn the damned thing and Summer ended up stealing it back, so I guess that one should be called a wash. We did ego-murder the two highest entities of fae royalty not long after, though, so all in all we came out ahead.”
The Lord of Silent Steps swallowed, mouth gone dry.
“Is it not the power of the Splendid that we wield?” it asked.
“That kind of shit doesn’t just lie around, Ivah,” Mighty Archer chided. “We had to murder, like, at least five royals to steal it. And the one duke, but I think that was just Cat making a point. Good times.”
“It is said the eldest of the Splendid are as gods made into flesh,” Ivah said.
The Mighty leaned forward and speared a cut of meat with its knife, bringing it to its lip and biting with relish. It chewed and swallowed, only then answering.
“So you wonder how we’re still alive,” Mighty Archer mused. “You’re not wrong to ask. The Queen of Summer could have splattered us all over the ground without even sweating. But only if we’d fought her dumb, Ivah. If we’d gone brawling. So we didn’t.”
The knife was pointed at the Firstborn, steel glinting under the fire’s light.
“It’s why your Sve Noc is screwed,” the Mighty continued. “Your entire people, really. If some of you were solemn Above-fellators you might have a shot, but this is a villain scrap. You won’t get a story for armour or a last moment save from some meddling Choir. This is about who’s willing to do the darkest shit to win.”
“I do not understand,” Ivah admitted.
“It means our enemies down here are trying to fight fire with oil,” the monster grinned, baring teeth. “Hells, I’m no gentle flower but the other two? We’ve got the Doom of Liesse and the woman that put her down on our roster. I pity the fuckers who try to escalate against that.”
Ivah saw it then: flickering red, embers and flame. On the steel, on the eyes, on the ivory teeth. Scarlet like blood and ruin, a glimmer of what was to come.
“So don’t you worry about damnation, Ivah,” the Mighty Archer said. “Because there’s a lot worse than that coming for the people in our way.”
She bit into the meat with sharp teeth, juice flowing down her chin, and Ivah prostrated itself before leaving as quickly as it possibly could. It had found answers, and become all the more troubled for them. The Lord of Silent Steps dreamt again, that night, but it was not of the endless white plain. It remembered terrible oaths spoken as it knelt in blood, drowning in an ocean of frost as its veins turned to ice and terrifying stillness claimed the world. And power, too, sister to that which it knew and yet so different. So hungry, a beast that could devour all of Creation and still covet more. Clarity still eluded it when it woke. And so Ivah sought the other creature that strode in the wake of the flood, the shade with scarlet eyes that burned so cold. It never slept, and in the early hours before most the sigil woke the Lord of Silent Steps found it waiting in the depths of the Crossroads. Beneath them Great Lotow was quiet, cowed.
Still quaking in the aftermath of the hour where the greatest sigil-holders of the city had been taken away without a trace.
The Mighty Shade was as a silhouette glimpsed in mist: transient, ephemeral and always treacherous. It sang of death to Ivah’s senses, something ripped from the embrace of the grave and made to serve beyond it. Looking upon it was… difficult, now. Before it had been a shade of the dead given power and purpose, but since Ivah had taken oaths it sometimes saw beyond the façade. There were moments where it did not see scarlet eyes and scarlet robes but a corpse with rotting dark skin, a bloody wound where its heart should be. The urge to kneel in its presence was overwhelming, battering away at the Firstborn’s mind. Ivah might be Mighty, but it was mightier still. The Lord of Silent Steps waited in silence, standing besides it.
“You may approach, Ivah,” the Mighty Shade said.
It did so, and knelt with the appropriate demonstration of weakness.
“Great Mighty,” Ivah said. “I would have guidance in matters of damnation.”
It laughed, as if delighted, and the Lord of Silent Steps shivered. The sound was a caress on its soul, the fingers trailing having nails like knives.
“My very trade, once upon a time,” the Mighty Shade mused. “This ought to prove amusing. Do continue.”
“I stand estranged from the Night,” Ivah said. “Without purpose understood. This perplexes me.”
The shade smiled, for a flicker a corpse’s ugly rictus before it became smooth flesh again.
“It is natural to feel adrift after finding a new mistress,” the Mighty Shade said. “It is Ivah that fears what it does not understand. You are no longer that person. Accepting this will grant you clarity.”
The Firstborn was no fool, and so did not ask who it was now instead. Such questions had power, in both asking and answering, and it would not so easily grant it to the smiling death thing.
“Clever little drow,” the Mighty Shade murmured. “She does have an eye for talent, doesn’t she? You’ll do quite nicely.”
“Great Mighty,” Ivah said. “I have sworn oaths and given service, but these things are not purpose. Fetters without sentence are senseless.”
The shade’s gaze burned scarlet, until it became sunken gold on desiccated skin. Ivah hid its disgust.
“So they are,” the Mighty Shade said. “I will tell you, little drow, a story about two deaths.”
The Lord of Silent Steps almost flinched.
“There was once a land of many kings and queens,” the dead thing said. “They were proud and powerful, ruling over river, rock and sand. Many were their wonders, for they knew terrible secrets and flinched not at the cost of great works. For many years they warred, on each other and great realms abroad, and iron did sharpen iron.”
The shade smiled dreamily.
“Then a storm shook the sea, and blew a single broken ship to their shores,” the Mighty Shade said. “On it were strange and foolish men, lost and mad with thirst. These creatures were treated as curiosities, taught the tongues of the kingdoms and made to tell tales of their faraway home. They could have been snuffed out, my dear Ivah, as easy as snapping one’s fingers.”
The dead thing snapped its own, then laughed.
“They were spared, for they spoke of trade and wealth and fresh wonders brought to the kings and queens,” the shade revealed. “And so another ship was built in a city of corals, and sent back.”
The Mighty Shade fell silent.
“They returned, in time,” the Mighty eventually said. “With many ships. Many men. And though they did bring wonders, they were wonders of war and great slaughter did come of it.”
The dead thing leaned forward.
“And yet they could have been shattered like clay, Ivah,” the shade whispered. “Had the kings and queens put aside their hatreds and seen what was to come. Instead they warred on each other still, thinking to use the strangers to settle their grudges. Cities fell, one after another, and when finally the doom was understood it was too late. The strange men clapped irons onto those once-proud rulers, for theirs was a war of chains.”
The Mighty Shade shook itself, as if waking from a dream.
“This they called empire,” the dead thing said. “They made a wasteland and called it peace, knowing not what they wrought. It would be many years, before the irons were broken. And even now their weight is felt, for inheritance is a manner of remembrance.”
The Mighty looked upon Ivah, calm and depthless.
“Do you understand the meaning of this story, little drow?” it asked.
“The worthy take,” the Lord of Silent Steps softly said. “The worthy rise.”
“You reach the threshold of understanding,” the Mighty Shade said. “Kind soul that I am, I will guide you across. The first death is in the story told. The second is in the story grasped. Purpose will follow.”
“Many kingdoms died, in your words,” Ivah said.
“One death,” the shade said, “in many parts. There is reflection.”
When understanding finally came, it was not gentle.
“Our ship came,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “Bearing three strangers.”
“It’s too late now, you poor creature,” the dead thing murmured. “You invited us in. You would have purpose? It has already been granted to you.”
Its smile was cold.
“Ours is the business of empire,” the shade said. “And what a peace we will make, dearest Ivah. Oh, I think they will remember this one for a very long time.”
“I am not estranged from the Night,” the Firstborn croaked. “I make war against it.”
“Tremble, ye Mighty, for a new age is upon you,” the death thing laughed. “I was a slow learner in this, little drow, but I have learned. Iron is brittle. It breaks, no matter how sharp. So let us make something new instead, yes?”
Ivah’s shoulder shook.
“Rise, Lord of Silent Steps,” the shade ordered. “Our queen grows impatient. Today we take Lotow, and you have a role to play.”
Night was beyond Ivah’s reach, but the hunger was not.
The bridge was broken.
It was an old break, unlike that which he had earlier passed. The bridges linking the Crossroads to the Column had shattered when the eldritch gate had devoured part of it, yet the lay of them could be tread if one was careful. Ivah had been, leaping across chasms with a lightness beyond mortal ken and landing without a sound. An entire floor of Great Lotow’s heart had been whisked away, leaving the Column above it to fall. It had partly shattered under the impact, and remained angled. Apt to tumble down if force was exerted. No doubt the sigils at the bottom were living in terror of this happening, shivering in their holes as they hid from the precarious balance above. Ivah cared little, having passed like a ghost through the wreck before descending to heights untouched by the wreck. Down into the centre of the city, where the most powerful of the sigils dwelled. Three of them were without their sigil-holder, but one had refused to the call for council. Mighty Zarkan had demanded tithe and alliance against a rival for price of attendance, and been duly refused: the Queen of Lost and Found did not brook such bargains.
No doubt the Mighty had puffed with arrogance upon learning of the council’s outcome, praising itself for its foresight in avoiding doom. Had. For another gate had been wrought this morning, and it had been a sharp lesson. The Zarkan Sigil held three districts, Ivah had been told, that had once been the residences of the wealthy and powerful of Great Lotow. These districts would have been raised with wells and gardens, making them worthy prizes to take and hold. Ivah now stood before the largest of the three, and looked upon the wreckage with calm eye. The traces of Losara Queen’s working could still be seen in the deep gouges around the mouth of the district were the edges of the gate had cut. The territory of Mighty Zarkan had been sealed shut for exactly the quarter of an hour. From the outside, anyway. The gate had spewed out a flood of icy waters that tore through the district mercilessly, drowning or crushing the slow and smashing houses and temples alike as if they were kindling. Corpses could still be seen among the rubble on the other side of the broken bridge, left to waft Night without harvesting.
The Zarkan were too terrified of a repeat to risk coming out of the highest places of their territory.
Ivah waited, standing in the open. They would see it, and come to bargain. It was not long before Mighty Zarkan made its way to the other half of the bridge, and the Firstborn studied it curiously. It was tall and proud, strong in Night and little marked by the killings that would have seen it rise. In the air, Ivah tasted fear. It wondered if it should feel kinship for this one, some sense of belonging that would stand against the oaths and purpose it had taken. And yet all it found was contempt. What a petty creature Zarkan was, shrouded in terror even as it painted courage over its face. Blind, lost, humbled by forces beyond its understanding. Did it regret now the demands it had made? No, Ivah thought, it would not. That was not the way of the Mighty. The worthy took, the worthy rose. The only sin was death, for death was failure, and Zarkan still lived. What was there to regret? And when finally the doom was understood, it was too late. The Firstborn would squabble themselves into nothingness. The nerezim would slaughter them with wonders of war, or they would be broken into Losara Queen’s service. Grief was due, it thought, but it did not come. Ivah had slain many in its time, harvested their worth and made it its own. It had not grieved then, had it?
“And now we do the same,” the Lord of Silent Steps murmured, “to the Everdark itself.”
Mighty Zarkan struck the foot of its spear against stone, demanding attention as soon as it arrived.
“Mighty Ivah,” the sigil-holder said. “Rylleh to cattle. Speak your fill.”
Ivah hummed, cocked its head to the side.
“Lord,” it corrected, feeling out the foreign word. “Lord Ivah.”
The other Firstborn spat into the deeps.
“You wear meaningless words for your sigil,” Zarkan said. “Shame on you.”
“What would happen,” the Lord of Silent Steps said, “if the gate was kept for a full hours?”
Mighty Zarkan stilled.
“Would you drown, Zarkan?” Ivah smiled. “No matter. When the gate finally closes, you will stand utterly alone. A sigil of one. What a sight that would be.”
“Losara is weak,” the Mighty said. “It could barely slay Urulan.”
“Is the first among your rylleh in this district?” Ivah asked.
“Are you threatening me?” Zarkan hissed.
“No, then,” Ivah mused. “Good, it will simplify matters.”
Without another word, it turned and began to walk away.
“Wait,” Mighty Zarkan called out. “What do you want?”
Ivah turned. Fear was beginning to peek out from under the mask. How easily people came undone.
“Everything, Zarkan,” it said. “We want everything. And you will give it to us, because otherwise you will die.”
“I won’t take oaths,” the Mighty insisted.
“Then you will die,” Ivah barked, fury taking hold of it. “Eldest Night, do you not see? We have nothing to bargain with. You can tell yourself this is only a single city, that the further cabals will break the thrust, but you are missing the point. This is not war, it never was. It is grave robbing and we lost before they ever set foot here. You think Sve Noc will raise a finger to end this? They are following our rules. Giving us what we want, every step of the way.”
He laughed and the sound of it was brittle.
“I care not if you take the oaths, Zarkan,” Ivah said. “It changes nothing. Someone filled with your Night will do so in your stead after you are slain. They cannot lose, because there are no stakes for them. They can only gain.”
The Firstborn shook its head.
“We can only gain,” Ivah corrected softly. “For if the only sin is death, mine is the business of empire.”
“You speak madness,” Mighty Zarkan said, face gone pale.
“Peace,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “I speak of peace, Zarkan.”