“Traitorous’s Law: while redemption is the greatest victory one can achieve over a villain, to function it does require the villain to have at least a single redeemable quality.
Addendum: Yes, even if a Choir is involved.”
– Extract from ‘The Axiom Appendix’, multiple contributors
Some days I wondered what it said about me that I much preferred holding court down in the Everdark than back in Laure. Sure, odds were good that every single member of my Peerage – even Ivah – would turn on me in a heartbeat if their oaths allowed for it, but for all that there was a simplicity to the proceedings that I enjoyed. Callow’s royalty was known for a certain lack of pageantry compared to its much wealthier neighbours to the east and the west, but even that relative lack of ceremony could feel stifling at times. I’d spent most of my times prior to the crowning on one campaign or another, and while it was true that the Legions were strictly regulated I’d had the benefit of being a Named in a Praesi institution. Which had meant, more or less, that rules had only ever applied to me if someone higher in the Empire’s pecking order had decreed that they did. Considering Black had been the very definition of hands off and Malicia had largely considered me his problem early on, I’d been allowed to run free.
It might have been for the better if I hadn’t. I’d learned a lot from my teacher but in many ways my apprenticeship felt only half-finished. Though I had long disdained the kind of aristocratic someone like Akua brought to the table, I’d since felt the costs of lacking that kind of education. Dealing with Wastelanders and Procerans I’d often been on the backfoot while they turned etiquette and custom into armaments. Much as I hated to admit it, treating with Cordelia Hasenbach without Diabolist whispering in my ear all the while would have seen the First Prince playing me like a fiddle. She’d called me a warlord, in one of our little talks, and she had a point. On the surface that was a stone around my neck, but down here? It was the wind in my sail. I was dealing with other warlords, and even before I’d stolen Crepuscular from Akua’s mind I’d known how to speak the language of these people. Seated comfortably on a stone bench perched atop an inclined that less-than-subtly set my Peerage below me, I struck a match against my sleeve and lit my pipe.
My wakeleaf stash was running low, so I’d had to ration the vice, but there was no point in letting the herbs go to waste. I puffed at the sculpted dragonbone shaft, inhaling the smoke and letting it stream out of my nostrils with a pleased sigh. It was gladdening that Winter had not stripped me of all my petty pleasures.
“Evening,” I drawled. “I see none of you are missing, so I’ll take it that negotiations didn’t go too badly.”
My court of murderers offered up polite amusement at the admittedly weak jest. The Peerage now numbered eleven Mighty, every single one titled by Winter. Most of those had come from Great Lotow, reluctantly bending the knee after wandering around the outskirts of Arcadia for a while and finding no way out save the one I’d offered. Slaus and Sagas had been the first to fold, remaining where I’d left them and taking the oaths after a single day. The others trickled into my service over the following week as my sigil settled our other affairs in the city. Nodoi and Vasyl had held out for three and five days, respectively, finding no trouble living off the land but no way back to the Everdark either. By then I’d already bullied Losle and Zarkan into oath-taking after a few demonstrations of how dangerous living in places with only one entrance and exit could be when that space could be closed off by gate. Kanya and Soln had refused the longest, the full seven days, and they’d only changed their minds after Mighty Orelik vanished without a trace. Sooner or later, those treading the domain of the fae were found by them. Including Ivah, I’d left Great Lotow with nine titled lords. The last two we’d picked up on our way to Great Strycht, the sigil-holders of the Lovre and the Vadimyr.
Practically speaking, those sigils had been roving bandits and raiders living off whatever they could take from the weakest nearby territory. They’d had almost no supplies to throw into the pot, which had been something of an issue, but the sigils were also the most battle-hardened I had at my disposal. They’d had as many dzulu as nisi in their ranks, and according to Akua they were the tribes finding it easiest to live under my rules. It made sense to me: with low numbers, they simply hadn’t been able to afford the casual cruelties of larger and more established sigils. The other sigil-holders we’d come across on our way to Strycht had been less inclined to bend the knee when presented with overwhelming numbers, so they’d ended up feeding my nascent Peerage instead of joining it. Their lesser Mighty and dzulu had not been so obstinate, so they’d been folded into my own Losara Sigil where Ivah could keep an eye on them. It’d had the added benefit of swelling what could be considered my personal tribe larger than any of the others, always a good card to have in hand when dealing with other warlords.
“Reports, then,” I said. “Lord Soln?”
The Lord of Shallow Graves smiled, which was promising. I’d been careful not to play favourites with my Peerage, but I would privately admit that Soln was the Mighty who’d most grown on me. It had taken to its title better than any drow save Ivah, and its continued knack for producing results was a very large feather in its metaphorical cap.
“Talks with the Jindrich have been fruitful, Losara Queen,” it announced. “Mighty Jindrich is willing to take the oaths, in exchange for certain considerations.”
I puffed at my pipe, impressed but trying not to show it. The Jindrich weren’t top dog back in Strycht, but they were widely considered the runner-up to the sigil that was. In large part because Jindrich itself was apparently a fucking terrifying savage that went berserk when fighting other Mighty and sunk entire chunks of island in the throes of uncontrollable rage. I’d expected them to be holdouts, not in the first batch of collaborators. Letting out a stream of acrid smoke, I let out a pleased hum.
“Considerations?” I prompted.
“Jindrich territory holds the largest cisterns of Great Strycht,” Lord Soln elaborated. “This is well-known. They would outlast all others when thirst takes the city, and so cabal was forged among lesser sigils to take the water from them by force. Mighty Jindrich requests assistance in scattering the scavengers before oaths are taken.”
Ah, these charming drow. You could always count on them to turn on each other even when the enemy was at the gate.
“And Jindrich will fight at our side, when the time comes?” I asked.
“That is so, Losara Queen,” Lord Soln replied.
“Then the bargain is struck,” I said. “Centon?”
Akua’s secretary had been standing in my shadow all the while, stone tablet and chalk in hand, and approached when bid.
“My queen,” it murmured.
“Add five auction seats to the due of the Soln,” I ordered.
The auction system had not lasted long before needing revision, though we’d never expected it would. Considering we now had almost forty thousand drow on the march, allowing everyone to bid would have been difficult. The simple logistical difficulties of fitting that many people in a single cavern aside, I’d needed a carrot to keep my growing army happy. Oaths bound them regardless of preference, but willing soldiers tended to be a lot more useful than conscripts. The right to attend the auction of Night-filled corpses was now restricted to a smaller number of people, currently four hundred. My own Losara Sigil owned a quarter of that, most of it attributed by lottery so more than dzulu and Mighty might rise, but I’d given every sigil under my banner a certain number of seats and kept the last hundred as rewards to parcel out. Lord Soln would have the right to grant those seats to whoever it wished, both reinforcing its authority over its sigil and giving a reminder that the power’s ultimate source was the Queen of Lost and Found.
Diabolist might be a bloody viper but there was no denying how godsdamned useful she was.
“Honour was given,” Lord Soln said, inclining its head.
“The worthy rise,” I replied, the cadenced sentence in Crepuscular rolling off the tongue.
My gaze swept over the rest of the Peerage, and I could almost taste the anger and envy some displayed. But not directed at me, I thought. Not for now, anyway. It was an ugly little bit of irony that some of the Praesi practices I despised the most worked so well with the drow. Keeping the blades of my subordinates pointed at each other was an old Wasteland game I was beginning to be a fair hand at. But they will not fight each other, I reminded myself. The oaths have seen to that. The violence would be turned outwards, and put to my purposes.
“I await other fair news,” I said. “Lord Vadimyr?”
The most recent addition to the Peerage shook its head. Vadimyr had actually answered a few questions I had about drow and the nature of the titles I was handing out without meaning to. The Lord of Fading Echoes was, well, the owner of a womb. It had risen to prominence late, and birthed a child when it was nisi. I did not choose the titles I gave out when empowering my lords – Winter provided them – so it’d been interesting to learn that my mantle would likely never hand out a title of Lady to a drow. A matter of perception by the beholden, Akua had theorized, and in Masego’s absence I had no reason to gainsay her.
“Mighty Karmel founded a cabal with three others to share their water,” Lord Vadimyr said. “Together they may well last until the great cabals of the inner ring come to war against us, and so will not consider the taking of oaths.”
“Lord Slaus?” I tried.
“The fortune of Mighty Soln was my own curse,” the drow ruefully admitted. “For the Hushu are of the cabal besieging the Jindrich, and so have undertaken salvation by strife. They deny any other ending.”
Yeah, there were two sides to that coin. For every cornered sigil they’d be twice as many sigils cornering it, and those would be less than inclined to make a pact with an interloper like me. I suspected that if I allowed the internal skirmishes to play out I’d get a willing accomplice out of every major defeat, but I had constraints of my own to consider. My own camp might be fine when it came to water – I did have a lake to parcel out – but food was another story. I had over forty thousand drow to keep fed nowadays, and no supply train to speak of. Considering I’d refused foraging raids in favour of assimilating the same sigils we’d be pillaging, the state of our food reserves was essentially a downwards slope with the occasional uptick when we brought in a sigil. Of course that same sigil also brought additional bellies to fill, so the relief was short-lived and followed by even sharper descent. We had maybe another two weeks left in us before emergency rationing started, and after that maybe a third before the stores ran empty.
There’d been cattle in Great Lotow, great lizards and some sort of giant moles whose milk Indrani assured me was utterly disgusting, but Lotow was an outskirts city. The wealthy sigils with full stores were further in, and meanwhile we’d already butchered most of the lizards for meat. Several times, actually. The younger ones were smaller but they grew back body parts over several days as long as they didn’t lose too much flesh and die from the effort, which had strung out their use some. Strictly speaking I could afford a week of sitting on my thumbs before matters became urgent but it would be risky. We’d have to take Strycht and its entire stores immediately afterwards or risk circling the drain of our personal reserves while hammering down the last pockets of resistance. Archer had half-seriously noted that since corpses were currently our most common form of loot perhaps grey meat should be put on the table, but cannibalism was a little too far for me. Akua had noted that it was strictly taboo in drow culture regardless, as eating their own kind’s flesh was believed to cause rot in the soul and cause Night to seep out.
No, in my eyes were needed to take Great Strycht within the next few days. It’d give us enough of a margin that we’d keep our head above the water while resuming our march into the inner ring, racing ever more harshly against the bottom as we went. It wasn’t sustainable, but then it didn’t have to be: this was an exodus, not a conquest. Unfortunately that meant attacking soon, and that would be risky business without allies on the inside. Which proved to be in rather short supply, I discovered as the Peerage continued giving me their reports. There were a few offers to help against other sigils but not take oaths, in exchange for water, but the lords who’d held those talks admitted betrayal was more than likely the moment water was supplied. Lord Zarkan, who’d yet to bother hiding how much it despise my very existence, brought a second success with a minor sigil that’d apparently been evicted of its territory by a cabal and was now furious enough to turn its cloak. Five auction seats went to the Zarkan for the success, though that one did not thank me for them afterwards. Lord Nodoi had failed in talks with the Strycht sigil it’d approached but found another settled near the western sluice gate that was desperate enough to take the full oaths in exchange for survival. They were already on their way, and for that the Nodoi earned six seats.
It was Ivah’s own report that turned the mood grim, for it’d been sent not to bargain but to gain information.
“Over the last two days I took five Mighty from varying sigils,” the Lord of Silent Steps informed me. “As of an hour ago interrogation of four of them has been carried out. From this, two matters of import were discovered. The first is that we have drawn the attention of the Longstride Cabal.”
The drow were always eerily well-behaved, at least when I was present, so there was no ripple of murmurs as there would have been with humans. But several of the lords visibly stiffened, which for their kind was a glaring warning sign.
“This is certain?” Lord Vasyl pressed.
“Mighty Leslaw is of the Swooping Bat Cabal, of which a lesser member of the Longstride is also part,” Ivah said. “It is my understanding that is the path by which word of our arrival spread. When the cabals of Great Strycht put out the call to war, interest developed.”
“You’ll have to fill me in on the particulars of this Longstride Cabal,” I said.
“Hunters of hunters, my queen,” the Lord of Silent Steps said. “A great and ancient cabal.”
Lord Soln nodded, catching my eye.
“They fight only for the glory of the Night,” it added. “Only the sharpest blades are invited into the fold. They hold no territory, protect no temple: their only purpose is the death of those they deem worthy.”
So not so much dwarven deed-seekers as a bunch of Night-powered Ranger equivalents. That was just lovely.
“How many?” I asked.
“Two hundred,” Ivah said. “Never more nor less. One invited must take another’s place.”
By which it meant murder their predecessor. So I wasn’t just dealing with thrill-killers, I was dealing with a full cohort of hardened Mighty who’d either been dangerous enough to kill one of the old monsters or remained sharp enough to kill the young ones.
“How long before they’re mobilized?” I asked. “If they’re this picky about members, they have to be widely spread out.”
“It is hard to say, Losara Queen,” Lord Lovre told me. “For while they range far and wide, there are those among them who know the Secret of shadow-striding. That is the source of their name.”
“Shadow-striding,” I slowly repeated. “Is that what I think it is?”
The drow sharply grinned.
“Wherever there is shadow, their strides may take them,” Lord Lovre agreed. “It is a gift from the very hands of Sve Noc.”
“And this is instantaneous,” I said, disbelieving.
That sounded like teleportation through shadows, which was a bit much even if the Priestess of Night had her fingers in it. Even the Miezans had to sacrifice a city’s worth of captives to move their armies like that. Masego couldn’t fucking teleport, and I’d seen him order a Princess of Summer to go sit in the corner like a petulant child.
“Not so,” Lord Soln said. “It is a lengthening of stride. Not unlike the stories Mighty Archer speaks of your journeys in the Garden of the Splendid.”
So cutting corners, not snap-your-fingers-and-it’s-done. If the Gloom and the Night were really part of Sve Noc’s domain, as I’d come to suspect they were, shadow-striding might just be taking a shortcut through the original domain from which all the rest spawned. Or it might just be an improvement on the shadow-tendril trick almost every drow with Night could use, only with a difficult relationship with its father and something to prove. Regardless, that meant we were about to be up in our neck in veteran old guard killers.
“A week?” I tried.
“Less,” Ivah said. “My captive had no precise day, yet believed they would arrive before assault was made on Great Strycht.”
“They don’t know when we’re going to assault,” I pointed out.
“Speculation abounds,” my Lord of Silent Steps drily said. “Most common is the belief that within five days there will be battle.”
“So four days,” I frowned. “Give or take.”
This was starting to take shape, slowly but surely. This would be fought in waves. My army had to strike within a few days. The Longstride Cabal would arrive within four to hunt us for sport. The earliest reinforcements from the inner ring cabals would start arriving within a week. If I took Great Strycht before the Longstride arrived, I could lay an ambush for them. Which would pay off massively, if I could title even a few of those drow. The shadow-striding trick would allow us to spread exponentially fast, and we’d be able to eat up the reinforcements as they arrived. That would be a tipping point for this campaign, I thought. If I had a Peerage that large and powerful? We’d trample everything in our way towards Sve Noc, swelling with recruits as we did. On the other hand, if we botched the invasion of Strycht we were fucked for good. We’d lose strength in the attempt, and then we’d get hit by the Longstride and the reinforcements in quick succession. It had downwards spiral written all over it. Bold strokes would either win this or end this, depending on how it all fell out. Waiting was essentially giving up the game, and so not even worth considering.
“There is a second matter of import, Losara Queen,” Ivah reminded me.
I rolled my shoulder, reluctantly emerging from my line of thought.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“One of the prisoners I obtained was a jawor of the Rumena Sigil,” my Lord of Silent Steps said. “Privy to intent of Mighty Rumena itself.”
My brow rose. If the Jindrich were the runner-ups, then the Rumena were the local hegemons. Their sigil was twice the size of anybody else’s, their rylleh were said to be a pain to even sigil-holders and Mighty Rumena itself was rumoured to have died once, gotten rather angry about it and promptly gotten up with a severed spine to smash in the head of the offending Mighty. The only drow in Strycht it was even remotely wary of was Jindrich, and there was cabal essentially every other sigil-holder was part of whose entire purpose was making sure the Rumena didn’t eat everyone else. If it was making a move, it would have major consequences on how this battle unfolded.
“And?” I said.
“The many sigils of Great Strycht are turning on each other,” Ivah said. “Cabals have split, or been reforged to address more pressing concerns. There is opportunity in this.”
“It’s preparing to take a swing at claiming all of Strycht,” I said.
“Malcontent rylleh were approached, I am told,” Ivah smiled. “And the jawor I took was looking for weaknesses in the defences other sigils.”
I closed my eyes. This… It might work. If they struck hard and quick while other sigils were already fighting. If they kept the fighting out of sight until they’d harvested enough Night, they could just retreat for a day and let their Mighty digest what they took – after that they’d have enough power to bring to bear that even allied opposition wouldn’t matter. That was an additional beat to the dance ahead, and one I could use. If I had eyes in the right place. If I was careful and fast and lucky. I opened my eyes and brought the pipe back to my lips. The fire had gone out, since I’d put talking above smoking, but there was still some wakeleaf not entirely gone to ash. I took a match out of my cloak and struck it on my arm, puffing at the pipe until it lit up again. Waste not, want less. Meeting the eyes of my Peerage, I spat out a mouthful of smoke and let it curl around my face.
“Are any of you,” I smiled, “familiar with Irritant’s Law?”