“Own what you are, no matter how ugly the face of it. No lies are ever more dangerous to a villain than those they tell themselves.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent
“So this is going to be the big one, I hear,” Indrani said.
It would have been inaccurate to call… this a habit. It didn’t happen regularly enough for that, given the demands on our time. But once in a while, when the silent clamour of a thousand duties and foes became too much, I found there was a fire in a nook tucked away from my army and that Archer was waiting there, feet propped up and bottle in hand. Ironic in a way, that a woman who’d been raised in a place called Refuge had become so apt at providing the same. Like all of Indrani’s kindnesses, the seemingly careless granting of them belied the keen perception behind their nature. I tended to think of Akua as the most skilled manipulator among us, capable of spinning exquisite lies at the merest prompt, but some days I wondered. Diabolist was known to get her way, by hook or crook, but I’d had different lessons from her. The most useful talent is that which no one knows you have, Black had once told me. Archer drank like a fish, was largely led by her whims and professed indifference as to much of what went on around her. The very last person, in a way, that you’d expect to nudge events the way she wanted them.
I forced the thought away. Suspicion, once entertained, was like a drop of ink in water. No matter how thinned, it would always cloud the brew. I did not have so many friends left that I could afford to start ascribing them hidden motives. The colder part of me noted that willing blindness led to dark surprises and that the duties of queenship demanded vigilance regardless of costs to myself, but for once I turned deaf ear to it. Trust had seen me through the storms so far, and though it had brought me some disappointments it had brought me wonders as well. In this, at least, I will indulge sentiment, I thought.
“The Battle of Great Strycht,” I agreed. “It will decide the campaign, if not the outcome of our entire stroll through the Everdark.”
“Sve Noc, huh,” Indrani mused. “She’s allowed us our fun so far, but that won’t last. It’s one thing to throw a rabid hound scraps when there’s a bear coming, another when the hound takes a hand.”
“We’ve observed the rules of her game,” I said. “What we wield, we took.”
“And that’ll matter why? This entire place reeks of Below, Cat,” she said, and raised a hand when I began to object. “I’m not talking about dusty shrines or red-slick altars. Not even about prayer, really. It’s the way this place was made. Kill and rise, kill and fall: every single drow spends their time either clawing for power or slowly dying.”
I studied her in the flickering light of the flames, the shadow cast by the twisted rock around us dancing across her face. Halfway between tattoos and feathers, I thought.
“You’re saying it doesn’t matter if they pray,” I frowned. “They pay the dues regardless.”
“I’m saying this entire place is a prayer,” Indrani quietly said. “And we both know whose it is.”
The Priestess of Night. Sve Noc. We’d not crossed paths since that last probing look at each other, but I knew she was everywhere down here. In every custom, every ritual. Maybe even every drow.
“That sounds,” I murmured, “like a recipe for apotheosis.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d considered that, truth be told. After crossing the Gloom and realizing the Everdark was a kingdom turned towards itself, ever only sending dregs to the surface, I’d wondered as to the purpose of that. An entire civilization whose foundations had been ripped away and replaced with codified murder and infighting – what sane person would want that? It might have made sense if the entire purpose was to cultivate demigods and send them out. I’d not forgotten my fight with Mighty Urulan, how what could only be considered a second-stringer by drow standards had batted me around and come close to killing me more than once. Me. I could, without too much arrogance, claim that among the Named of Calernia’s surface I ranked in the ten most dangerous. If the likes of Urulan had been sent to rampage across Procer or Callow, it would have been bloody mayhem. If a cohort of Mighty that powerful had gone? Half the heroes on the continent would have needed to mobilize to end them, and there’d be casualties. I could not deny that Sve Noc’s orchard of killers had grown some particularly murderous peaches. But they’d never been used, had they?
Night could be grown from harvesting other peoples, but when had real raiding parties last troubled Calernia? Long enough ago the Everdark was just a footnote in the histories of nations, either a pointed lesson in the dangers of following Below or the subject of casual contempt from more ‘successful’ villains. Which was madness, because if I’d led the army I currently commanded against Diabolist at Second Liesse we would have ripped her to shreds. Hells, unless the Lone Swordsman had a very good story at his back Urulan would have torn through the poor fucker in an hour’s work and gone for a drink afterwards. But Sve Noc had never sent her apostles out of her realm, and there had to be a reason for that. At first I’d wondered if it was as simple as where the Everdark was. Surrounded on three sides by the Golden Bloom, the Chain of Hunger and the Kingdom of the Dead. The ratlings were arguably the weakest of those powers, but even Triumphant at her peak hadn’t managed to exterminate them wholesale. And if there’s one thing out there I’d bet on against Mighty, it would be Horned Lords, I thought. Had the Gloom and the Night been raised as a moat and garrison?
The issue with that was the dwarves. It didn’t take a genius to guess that effectively surrendering the entire underground to a rival and highly expansionist power before wrecking your own capacity to wage war except through Name-imitations would have long term consequences. Sve Noc, assuming she really was behind all of this, had to have known the moment she put out the Gloom and Night the hourglass was flipped. The Kingdom Under would keep growing, keep expanding, and eventually they’d find a way through. At that point, well, it was only a matter of time until the drow were done. Even if they were beaten back the first time, the dwarves would keep coming with better methods and larger armies every time. Even just putting all the nisi they encountered to the sword would allow the dwarves to send their enemies into a downwards spiral while they swallowed their own losses with a shrug. Evidently Sve Noc’s game had worked for a few centuries, but she’d had to know it was a delaying measure and not a solution.
But it’d make sense, wouldn’t it? If the Gloom had been exactly that, a delay, and the Night was the actual solution. Centuries of willing sacrifice, swelling the invisible altar as the Priestess of Night remained cloistered in her temple and shaped her own ascension. It was one thing to fight a Named, but a god? Neshamah had called himself that, and he had broken enough crusades the claim couldn’t be summarily dismissed. If I was right, if Archer was right, then there was only one question left to ask. Was she ready? Had the dwarves come too early, while she was still gathering her might? Or was this entire invasion a trap, the prelude to her ascension? There was no way to know, and I was not too proud to admit that scared me.
“We have no stories, down here,” I finally sighed. “I am not used to missing that.”
“I’m not so sure,” Indrani said. “We’ve had our share of coincidences, haven’t we?”
I cocked an eyebrow at her in silent invitation. Archer glanced at my now-empty cup and I willing offered it for filling. Drow liquor, this, called senna. Made from some sort of giant mushrooms and used to induce lucid dreaming when drunk in small quantities before sleep. It kicked like a mule and taste kind of like mud, but we were running out of surface booze so this was no time to get picky. The good stuff we’d want for celebration, assuming we live through this. I grimaced after knocking back half my cup. This was going to take some getting used to.
“Right, so coincidences,” she said. “We ran into Ivah pretty early. Good guide, former bigwig from an inner ring sigil, full of information. That’s one.”
I almost objected that we’d come fairly close to killing it during our introductory skirmish, but held my tongue. Almost was the domain of coincidence, I wouldn’t deny that.
“Then we snuck through between the dwarven vanguard and the main army,” Indrani continued. “If we’d been ahead of the vanguard, we would have run into entrenched drow before we had their measure. If we’d trailed behind the army, there would have been no one to take. That’s two.”
In the first instance we also wouldn’t have had the spectre of dwarven invasion to hold up as a banner when bringing in Mighty, which would have massively complicated the process. Much as I disliked what I was hearing, she had a point.
“And then when we run into the vanguard,” she said. “Which happens to be run by Named dwarf who can strike a deal with you in his people’s name. Three.”
“For all we know that’s common practice in dwarven armies,” I pointed out.
She clucked her tongue.
“Fine, I’ll withdraw that one,” she conceded. “And replace it by ‘we came into the Everdark specifically when the Kingdom Under was invading’.”
I winced. Yeah, that was a little harder to argue about.
“We can get lucky too,” I said.
“Sure we can,” Indrani said. “Once. Twice gets suspicious. Three times is a nudge.”
“We wouldn’t even be down here if we’d had alternatives,” I said. “Hasenbach wasn’t willing to deal, Keter got turned on us and the fae would have been… costly. More than we can afford.”
“Good timing, isn’t it?” Archer mildly said. “Stripped from all palatable options save for the Everdark, then thrown here when shit comes to a head.”
“No, I get what you’re implying,” I said. “We got nudged into this. I disagree because there were just too many moving parts, but even assuming you’re right I don’t see is what Below gains from this. If Sve Noc’s getting her god on, we’re the fly in the ointment. They lose a discount Dead King to what, improve my military situation? And you know where I want to settle the drow long-term, Indrani, it’d fuck up a good thing for them.”
“You’re still thinking with your crown, sweetcheeks,” Indrani said. “Lady Ranger used to limit how many her pupils could follow her on a hunt, did you know? Not because more of us would have been a problem, most of the time we were pretty decorative.”
“She made it a prize,” I frowned.
“And so we fought for it,” she agreed. “Kept us sharp, because there was a lot to gain from trailing her on those and nobody wanted to be left behind. Hells, Cat, you got your start in pit fights didn’t you? You should be able to feel when the audience is placing bets.”
I would deny her, but I still remembered the days before I’d become the Squire in full. When, even with Black’s accolade, I’d still been a claimant. We’d fought for a Name bound to Below, and Below had only wanted one person left standing when the dust settled. The similarities were there.
“They still lose out,” I said. “She could get her apotheosis and I could get desperate upstairs without allies. That’d be a win in their books.”
“Would it?” Indrani mused. “How long has she been at this play, Cat? Long enough even the dwarves ran out of other shit to conquer. That doesn’t sound like victory on the horizon to me, it sounds like somewhere somehow she fucked up. And you, well, when’s the last time you had a good kneel in front of the altar?”
“Black didn’t pray,” I said.
“Black toppled a hero-led kingdom and spent decades smothering heroic cribs,” Indrani said. “You, on the other hand? You meddle with the methods, but you’re also making deals with heroes and trying alliances with crusaders. You’re not exactly flag-bearer for the Hellgods.”
“And this gets me under the banner?” I replied, skeptical.
“Look, I’m not going to weep for the Everdark,” she said. “It’s a fucking mess of murder and slavery and if you’d decided to drown the damned place instead I would have clapped your back and called it a good day’s work.”
“But we’re crossing some lines, here,” she said. “This shit with the oaths? It’s the kind of thing the old madmen would have tried if they had the right tools. It’s a little to the north of slavery, I’ll give you that, but it’s in the same kingdom and we’re not exactly intending to make exceptions. They’re all going upstairs, aren’t they? Kids’n all. There’s going to be a lot of dead people for you to get an army, and a lot more when you actually use it.”
“The alternative is the dwarves slaughtering them wholesale,” I flatly replied.
“Sure,” Indrani said. “But that’s not why we’re doing it, is it? We came for an army and we’re doing what it takes to get one. I’ve got no issue with that, Cat, don’t get me wrong.”
She leaned forward, eyes alight with the reflection of fire.
“But let’s not pretend we’re not sending dues downstairs, by doing our do,” she softly said. “That’s the kind of lie that ends up costly down the line when someone calls you out on it.”
I winced and polished off the rest of my glass before extending my hand for a refill. She obliged without a word.
“I tried to make it fair,” I said. “But there had to be a punishment to breaking the terms, or they would never have followed them. I tried…”
The smile that split my lips was rather bitter.
“To make it a good thing,” I finished. “To set down rules that would make them better until they were on their own. But I’m using old arguments, aren’t I? The same every Proceran and Praesi who stole a chunk of Callow used. I’m civilizing the savages.”
Indrani gently nudged me with her elbow.
“They’re pretty fucking savage, no two ways around it,” she said. “But let’s keep this in mind, before we start using that trick elsewhere. I’d get over it, but I’m guessing you’re going to be chewing over this for a while.”
“What does it matter if I mourn it, when I do it anyway?” I muttered.
I might not be bosom friends with Cordelia Hasenbach, but she was right about that much. It meant nothing to weep at what I did if I kept on doing it. You can stop, or you can own it, I thought. Anything else is hypocrisy. But the thought of the drow loose on the surface, without rules to bind them? No, there was no brooking that. And so monster it is, I grimaced. I drank again, the foul brew spectacularly failing to grow on me. I extended my arm across Indrani’s lap for a top-off.
“So it’s a pit fight,” I sighed.
“Where there is coincidence, there is story,” Archer said. “Now, we know what happens if you come out on top.
Veins of Winter spreading into darkness, an entire kingdom oathbound.
“What happens if the ol’ girl does, though?” she mused. “That’s the part worth worrying about.”
“Dog eat dog,” I murmured. “That’s how Below works. If my belly’s full, I can shake the world. But if she’s the one who devours?”
I’d threaded Winter in Night and forced rules through it. It had come easy as breathing to me, even if the oaths themselves had required thought. Because I was the last of a court unmade, the Sovereign of Moonless Nights. I was that court, practically speaking. It’s wasn’t impossible to throw around the kind of workings I’d seen fae royalty employ, it just wasn’t possible without going fucking crazy. For now, anyway. How long before my Peerage grew enough the alienation no longer mattered? But there was a sea of power, somewhere in me, and if Sve Noc got her hands on that? No, apotheosis would not be an issue.
“She’ll make a play in Strycht,” I finally said. “If it’s my pivot, it’s also hers.”
Archer toasted to that, grinning.
“Lies and violence,” she offered.
“I’m not knocking to that,” I sneered.
“If you do, I have a gift,” Indrani tempted.
“Is it booze?” I asked. “Is booze the gift?”
“No,” she proudly announced.
“Then it’s you,” I said. “I’m not falling for that.”
“Please,” she snorted. “I’d ruin you for all others. Besides, I actually went and picked out something for you.”
“Stole,” I corrected. “You stole something you are now pawning off on me before you’re caught.”
“Well, Vivi’s not around,” Indrani mused. “So someone’s got to pick up the slack.”
I narrowed my eyes at her, reluctantly curious.
“To absent friends,” I said, meeting her toast.
She pouted but we drank on it. She went ruffling through her cloak afterwards, setting down her cup. It was a cozy little nook she’d found, barely large enough for two people, and so she’d set down a thick blanket in an incline and we’d both settled there close to the fire. It was comfortable, and the combined warmth of a friend and a camp fire was oddly soothing. I eyed her curiously as she kept going through her cloak, leathers pulling close on her frame. They were tight, though sadly not all that revealing. Good armour tended to be that way.
“There,” she exclaimed, and produced a bit of stone before pressing it into my palm.
No, not just stone I realized. It was a sculpture, though not a very elaborate one. I was admittedly not great connoisseur of the arts, but even to me the work seemed rather bare. Skilfully done, though, I conceded. The androgynous face of a long-haired drow occupied one side of it, the hair growing into the locks of the identical face on the other side. The eyes seemed little more than notches at first glance, but I could barely make out the contours of a character in Crepuscular in them. For one side it was ‘all’, for the other ‘night’. The bottom of the little sculpture had clearly been pried off by blade, I noted with mild amusement.
“… thank you?” I tried.
“Dunno if you noticed, but the deeper into the Everdark we go the more often it comes up,” Indrani said. “I asked Soln and apparently it represents Sve Noc.”
My brow rose. A two-faced goddess, huh? The term was considered an insult in both Praes and Callow. In my homeland for the implied accusation of hypocrisy, in the Wasteland for the implied single layer of deception. Probably not down here, though.
“What are you up to, I wonder?” I murmured, looking at the stone face.
“And I was going to say we’ve come so far,” Indrani said. “But there you are, talking at stone.”
“We were already hunting demigods when you joined up,” I replied.
“Sure, but back then we were dealing with everybody’s messes,” she said. “Now we’re everybody’s mess.”
“Truly, you are the great philosopher of our age,” I drily said.
She flipped me the finger.
“I do wonder what the rest are up to,” she admitted.
“We’re not doing that,” I said.
She eyed me with surprise.
“Night before the battle starts, going all reminiscing about the old days and what they might be doing?” I elaborated. “For shame, ‘Drani. You should know better.”
Archer went very quiet, all of a sudden, and her face was unreadable.
“I sometimes forget,” she said, “that you don’t realize it.”
By brow creased.
“That no one thinks like that, Catherine,” she said. “At least not all the time, like you do.”
“Black does,” I said.
“And he is an irredeemable madman,” Indrani murmured. “To think like you do, it takes… something. Stepping out of yourself, of who you are, and making a story of it. Like all the world is a stage. How strange it must be, to always act like there is an audience. I can hardly imagine the weight of it.”
My fingers clenched in my lap.
“You were something else long before the fae made a title of it, weren’t you?” she said. “Mad to the bone.”
“I don’t-” I tried, but what could I say to that?
What could anyone?
“It’s all right, Cat,” Indrani said, and patted my hand. “We’ve always known. Sometimes I just forget.”
Slowly, my fingers unclenched. She scuttled back and rested her head on my shoulder. It would have been easier for me, given I was the one a foot and a beard short of being a dwarf, but I didn’t protest. I leaned back against her, chin atop her head.
“It’s how we survive,” I finally said. “By watching out for it.”
“I know,” Indrani said. “But it’s all right, you know? To leave it at the door once in a while. Just for a few hours.”
“I’m not sure,” I quietly admitted, “that I remember how to do that anymore.”
There was a long pause and she raised her head, eyes meeting mine. It was slow. I could have leaned away and it would have been the end of it. We’d go back to drinking, and not speak of it again.
I did not lean away.
Her lips moved against mine and it was nothing like the kiss in Lotow. No awkward clicking of teeth, no surprise. Only the taste of liquor and smoke and hands so warm, claiming the nape of my neck as she slipped into my lap and dipped me back. My fingers slid under the edge of her leathers, cupping her arse, and if this was all an illusion it was one I was willing to believe. I came to myself flushed and hard of breathing, my hands pinned above my head as she pressed a kiss against the crook of my neck. Smirking, I could feel it against my skin. It was an effort of will to speak.
“‘Drani,” I said, lips bruised. “Masego. I don’t-”
Want to ruin something good, I thought, just because I want this.
She leaned back, hazelnut eyes considering.
“That is that,” she said. “This is this.”
Deft fingers unmade my belt and I guilty leaned into her touch.
“Just for tonight,” she assured me.
“Just for tonight,” I murmured, and gave in.