“My husband thought himself a cynic for believing that men so often race towards the bottom of the barrel. I found it charmingly idealistic that he believed there was a bottom at all.”
-Queen Yolanda of Callow, the Wicked (known as ‘the Stern’ in contemporary histories)
Leaving the gate open wasn’t an option, not really. The more my opposition saw that trick in action, the higher the chances they’d figure out how to counter it. Rubies to piglets there was some Night equivalent to the Pilgrim’s miraculous beam o’death, and I could not afford to be knocked out of the battle literally moments into it. I’d adjusted my tactics accordingly, and so after five heartbeats I closed the opening. Gravity and mass turned the water into a massive hammer blow coming down on the Rumena, but I wasn’t dealing with amateurs: of the three ‘officers’, two immediately fled in shadow form and the third was swallowed by a hulking shape of Night moments before the impact. Neither would have been a bad answer, if water was all I’d brought to the table. Instead I strung Winter and loosed it again, turning the entire ploughing mass into ice just as if fell on the drow. There’d been two hundred of them, when I’d opened the gate. The vast majority of that had been dzulu, and those died instantly when the water hit. The lesser Mighty were crushed by the ice, and the two officers who’d fled in shadow form found themselves stuck in it.
The last, though, I knew to be untouched. The Night construct had taken the impact without flinching, and was now tearing its way out. It’d been too much to hope for to take out the enemy commanders with the first blow even if it’d been a sneak attack. Didn’t mean I was going to make it easy on them, though. Even as my sigil flowed around me, heading into the fray without a single battle cry, I seized the reins of the ice I’d crafted and slapped my palms together. The entire construct contracted around the Night-shrouded drow at the centre and I felt its defense flinch. My lips stretched into a grim smile when I realized I’d forced the other two officers back into drow-form as a side effect, bloodying them in the process. There was another pulse of power and the Night-construct began pushing back. I could make this a slugging match, I thought, but that would be missing the point. I didn’t want to annihilate the Rumena, I wanted to drive them back to the central district after weakening them. Their sigil was, after all, a part of the force I intended to put between myself and the Longstride Cabal.
Another exertion of will had the ice collapsing into mist, a thick fog that would blind them for a while. Good enough that I could move on, I decided.
A quick glance told me that the Losara Sigil had added a fresh current to the mess in the Flowing Gardens but hardly affected the entire lay of the battle. At our angle of entry, we were taking the pressure off one of the coalition sigils – making a semi-stable line of battle on the northwestern side. I didn’t intend to meddle there, since Ivah had been ordered to return and drive away any Mighty that were too much for them to handle. No, I’d go make friends of my own. The half-dozen islets in the middle were so chaotic a melee I couldn’t even tell exactly who was fighting, but to the northeast a Rumena detachment was tearing through a mix of sigils both ‘neutral’ and allied. A good place to start. Wings of shining light burst out of my back and I took flight, rising above the mess to hurry things along. I went high to avoid distractions, but even then I still had to dive out of the way of a javelin roiling with Night some Mighty tossed in my direction. I could have batted it away, but why take the risk with a trick I didn’t know? My brow rose, however, when after arcing a dozen feet above me the javelin finished the curve and flew in my pursuit. Someone had it out for me, huh.
Evidently I’d made an impression.
I was quicker than the projectile, so I was less than worried, but I slowed my flight to allow it to catch up. Not close enough to hit, or even explode if that was how that was supposed to end, but close enough the Mighty controlling it might think it had a chance to clip me. I angled my flight downwards after reaching the battlegrounds I’d picked out, javelin howling behind me, and landed in a crouch. The two Mighty in front of me, who’d been hacking at each other with obsidian blades, paused and turned towards me.
“Surprise,” I said, and turned into mist.
I took solid form again half a dozen feet to the side, just in time to see the javelin strike them. It did not, to my surprise, explode. In the heartbeat where it hung in the air between them, tendrils of Night came boiling out and wrapped around to the Mighty. Almost instantly they were dragged into the projectile, leaving behind only half-finished screams. No trace of a corpse. Whoever had tossed that, I thought, wasn’t fucking around. I checked if there was another flying towards me just in case, but there was nothing coming so I pressed on. It wasn’t difficult to find the Rumena: I just had to follow the screaming and the runners. A crew of four stood in a loose diamond formation, steadily advancing through the opposition. I ran through the melee, drow parting around me cautiously, and leapt on the one at the front. Even as I swung my sword towards its throat I saw it begin to turn, surprise passing in its silver eyes, and I could tell exactly when it realized it wouldn’t be able to raise its own sword in time. And yet there was no fear to be found. I learned why a moment later, when the strike that should have carved through its throat instead shattered my blade. It’d been like throwing an egg at a wall, I thought.
It countered smoothly, blade coming down to hack between my shoulder and throat, but I kicked at its side and used the momentum to throw myself backwards. The tip of the iron blade came within an inch of my nose as I landed on my feet, and immediately I pushed forward. I couldn’t allow the four of them to strike in formation, it was bound to get messy. Shifting its footing skillfully the drow began a backswing. Unfortunately for it, I slid down between its leg and grabbed its left ankle as I did. Hoisting it up was easy as lifting a feather, and I rose even as the other three Rumena watched me with visible surprise.
“Look,” I said. “It’s just really hard finding a weapon that won’t break. Bear with it.”
“You-” the Mighty at the back started, Night blooming around its wrists, but it was interrupted.
I took my angrily flailing mace and smashed it into another drow. Bones crunched, though they snapped back into place with a hiss – jawor, then, since they had more than a single good trick – and the drow went flying. The other flanking Rumena tried to slide around and ram my back with a spear, but I caught my drow-weapon by the throat and used it as a loudly protesting shield. The spear pinged off like it’d hit steel, just in time for me to sidestep two hissing whips of Night wielded by the fourth. They snaked back around towards me, but I batted away their tips with my drow after releasing its throat. My mace screamed in pain as the Night punctured its flesh, dropping its sword. In a show of good drow sportsmanship, my disruption of the Rumena advance was followed by an opportunistic attack from other sigils. The left side of their force was swarmed by an angry sigil so thin on Mighty it must have taken a brutal beating before I arrived. Sadly, drow opportunism applied to everyone. An arrow flew at my back, the head of it glinting with shadow, and I had to pivot so my mace could take it in my place after I seized it by the crook of the neck. Heat licked at my fingers as the arrow failed to pierce through but dark flames charred the Mighty’s skin.
I was kind of impressed it hadn’t passed out yet.
My drow weapon was beginning to try wrestling my wrist into loosening, so our love affair had sadly come to an end. I crouched low and spread out my stance, heaving it in the same direction the arrow had come from. Halfway through it flicked into shadow-shape, but to my amusement our friend with the bow shot it and it fell to the ground with a scream. Well, no longer my problem for now. The Rumena had identified me as the person whose head needed to be on a pike before they got their footing back in this section, so I found myself swimming in Mighty soon enough. We played for a while, my frown deepening as we did. They were outclassed against me, but the longer I got them striking at each other by weaving into their midst the more I realized these were bottom feeders as far as Mighty went. Maybe there were a few jawor in there, but not a single rylleh. Most of those were ispe, the lowest kind of Mighty, with maybe a few pravnat – practically speaking those were just ispe showing promise, but drow were touchy about titles – thrown into the mix. But they’d been wrecking the opposition, and I could see why. My own sigil had ispe, and the Rumena Sigil’s made them look like bumbling amateurs. The fact that I’d yet to fight dzulu here was telling, too. I’d been told that the Rumena made up almost a third of Strycht on their own, but I hadn’t though they had quite that many Mighty to spare.
The quality of the opposition was going to be a problem, if these were their third-stringers.
As if to reinforce the point, I got a lesson in why Mighty Rumena had judged that three officers were enough to take care of this front. Three falling stars impacted the battlefield, less than a breath of delay between them, and as stone and drow went flying the Mighty I’d ambushed earlier made their entrance. Steam drifted off their frames as they rose in unison, unbothered by the fact that most casualties resulting from their landing had been of their own sigil. The Night construct from earlier flared, and I finally got a good look at it. It looked like stylized panther, though one vaguely humanoid and standing on it forelegs, and its eyes were empty socket. I could feel the power coming off of that, and to be frank I did not want to find out what’d happen if I got hit with it. The other two advanced with long tridents of bones held in loose grips, fanning out in a circle. I could fight them, I thought. The collateral damage from it would hurt their sigil more than anyone else’s. But I’d already accomplished what I’d come for, disrupting their success in this sector. There was little to gain from an all-out brawl with these three.
“Well put,” I said, “But if I may retort?”
I opened a gate behind me and retreated through it. The cold breeze of Arcadia scattered my hair as I strode across the waters of what had once been Lake Strycht, ice forming under my feet. I cast a look back to see if they were following, and to my pleasure they were. I quickened my steps as the followed in hot pursuit, one of them stretching out its shadow for the others to walk on as if it were a solid thing. The exit gate beckoned, and I called it open with a thought before leaping through. The one we’d entered through was already closing, so my pursuers wasted no time in following suit.
All four of us started falling, because why would I make the gate lead to the ground when I could fly?
Wings burst out of my back again and I left for greener pastures as they fell impotently back to the floor, landing in the middle of the bloody central melee. None of them would die from it, but they’d be stuck in another fight they had no time for. Another arrow flew towards me, this one without Night woven into it, and I almost struck back blindly where it’d come from. Luckily I glanced first, and found it’d been Archer who’d fired the shot. Frowning, I crafted a platform of shadow under my feet and landed. Indrani was, rather unsurprisingly, surrounded by corpses. It’d take too long to make my way to her, so I closed my eyes and took a shortcut.
The corpse rose, the lingering warmth chased away by Winter coursing through the veins. Archer eyed me skeptically, nocking an arrow.
“Cat?” she asked.
I spat out a glob of blood and phlegm.
“You have my attention,” I croaked out.
“Left corner, three sigils massing,” she said. “Tickled their lookouts, but they’re playing the waiting game even under provocation. Should I start shooting leadership or do we leave them be?”
The dead drow’s neck was horridly stiff, but I forced it to turn with a snap and followed her pointed finger. Couldn’t make it out from here, I wasn’t high up enough, but from up in the sky it’d be no trouble.
“I’ll handle it,” I said. “You should- oh shit!”
Height was no guarantee of safety, in a fight like this, even if my distraction lasted only a few moments. I didn’t see what broke my platform but it vaporized my right foot with it and I began falling again until my wings slowed it to a halt. Which was exactly what my enemies wanted, as it happened. If it’d been the three Rumena from earlier going after me that’d have been fair game, but it wasn’t: four Mighty from a sigil I was pretty sure I was theoretically allied with stood atop long pillars of Night and were forming a globe of the same around me.
“Really?” I said. “Fine. Have it your way.”
I snuffed out my wings, opened a gate under me and fell right through. Arcadian air howled around me and I crashed into the water, ripping open a gate under me. The sudden whirlpool drew me in and I fell along with a mass of water more or less over the sigils Archer had pointed out to me. Streaks of shadow immediately flew up but a flick of the wrist had the water around me turning into a large spike of ice I casually tossed into the midst of the gathering warriors. I landed among screams and fleeing dzulu, brushing off my shoulders. The sigil-holders would be on me soon, but my eyes were drawn to the corpses I’d just made. There was Night in them, though like with all dzulu not much of it, but it was fading. Going away, and I could quite say where. I tugged at the chain binding Diabolist to me, allowing her to see through my eyes. I felt the trace of her presence come, lingering only a few moments before disappearing. She tugged back one, a message received. Had she already known? Quite possible, if this was happening all over the city instead of just here. Then the Mighty were on me, and the time for musings had passed.
Three sigil-holders, each with a pair of rylleh backing them. Difficult to deal with, if I’d intended on fighting them. Instead I tossed a few spears of ice at them to get them riled up and began a retreat. They followed, and our merry chase began. I could have called the Flowing Gardens the stuff fairy dreams were made of, but I’d had fairy dreams – and this was much more surreal. We danced through canals where vines had grown thick and sprouted thorns and hooks, bursting through faded poems carved into stone. Tortured sculptures of bronze and obsidian sang dissonantly as shards of Night were tossed, stirred by the wind in their wake, and towering trees whose only produce were leaves red like blood shook as Mighty rode shadows in my pursuit. A sluice gate of oily metal was torn open like parchment as I leapt over it on translucent wings, the sigil-holder who’d done it looking like a creature of nightmare in the light of the glowing flowers and ferns it’d torn through in its haste. And everywhere we went, drow fought and ambushed and bled on stone and water. There were Hells, I thought, not even half as grim as this. I stoked their anger with darting strikes followed by vanishing into mist, clipping a few with ice spears to little more effect that mounting frustration on their part.
They didn’t realize what I was doing until we’d barrelled into the central melee, and by then it was too late.
It was such a mess down here that another few Mighty in the crowds hardly made a difference, the fight ebbing for a moment before forming anew around them, and just like that my job was done. The Rumena were losing here now, though the situation was slowly turning around as the warriors from the section I’d flipped earlier joined up with their fellows. It must have gone quite badly there after I’d left for them to outright abandon the fight. Good. The cauldron was near the boiling point, a little more and they’d be ready. In my absence, the Losara Sigil had pushed deep. Moving as a cordon along with our allies, it was moving slowly but surely towards this mess. Seeing my sigil’s symbol as war paint and adornment was surprisingly moving, but it ended up costly. By now, my identity was no mystery to the people I’d tangled with. And if they couldn’t pin me down themselves, then there was one way they could force a fight.
Three falling stars hit my sigil, and in the span of a single heartbeat I lost at least two hundred warriors.
Gone, in a shred of flesh and bone and stone dust. People it had taken me months to bind and empower, dead in the snap of a finger. I clenched my fingers, pushing down my fury. War could not be waged without losses. I rose in the sky and dived for them, deciding that gating close to them was too much of a risk. In the time it took me to arrive, I lost another hundred drow. The Rumena officers slaughtered them with contemptuous ease, be they dzulu or Mighty, and only ceased when I landed at their back. I rolled my shoulder, weaving a glamour without missing a beat.
“All right,” my illusion said. “You got me here. Now what?”
“The worthy take,” one of them said. “The worthy rise, Losara Queen.”
I circled around them, footsteps muted, but one of them must have had a trick to see through that because the two with bone tridents ignored my glamour and turned towards me. The Night construct erupted for a third time tonight, the blind panther roaring out, and they charged. There was, of course, one thing they hadn’t accounted for. The leftmost drow ducked under an arrow, batting it aside, but there’d been a second shot hidden in the curve of the first and that one took it in the throat. It gurgled, unsurprisingly still alive, but then its throat began burning green. Indrani had spent quite a while with Robber and his miscreants, hadn’t she? She’d been due a few new tricks. That one I immediately discounted as dead, flesh reknitting or not, and that left me two to deal with. Or it would have, if Ivah hadn’t cut into the dance. My Lord of Silent Steps moved with unnatural agility, waiting until the bone trident had struck out before… moving. The description failed to convey what had taken place, though. One moment it’d been standing in the way of the weapon, the next it’d been behind the Mighty and striking with its own glass staff. Afterimages followed a heartbeat later, revealing how it had moved and the whole affair reeked of Winter.
It’d skimmed the edge of Arcadia, I realized with a start.
Move along the boundary between it and Creation, steps silent and sudden until struck. Merciless Gods, I couldn’t do that. Was it the true face of its title? Or was it just better at using power, after its centuries as a rylleh? It’d didn’t matter, I thought, at least not right now. Its opponent was far from dead, even after taking the blow, and I still had one to contend with. The shaped Night pounced, carrying the drow within as if it were lodged in the belly, and if I’d not batted wings to hurry my retreat it would have hit me. As it was, the panther’s claws tore through the stone beneath us and it turned to face with as its tail swung. As suspected, I did not want to get touched by any part of this. The thing was, I couldn’t really afford a slugging match with a rylleh when I was supposed to be getting this cookpot off the fire. Not even an obviously powerful one. There was a part of me that found it only natural to get down in the mud and brawl, but I couldn’t afford to fight that way anymore. Not with the kind of opponents I had, these days.
I’d done it at the Battle of the Camps, and what had that gotten me? Nothing I’d done there had actually mattered until the gate had been opened, and the Saint of Swords had batted me around until I fled. Keter had been more of the same, struggling through one messy gambit after another while a dead elf and a Horned Lord made sport of my best efforts. All this had happened while the fucking Dead King as good as named me a peer, while he’d be able to handle those matters easy as picking apples. Not because he was more powerful, because terrifying as Neshamah was Winter’s abyss ran just as deep. But because he knew how to use that power, while I muddled along using only the barest portion of mine. Akua was better at using these powers than I was, and she didn’t even have a title. So what did I have that neither of them did? Because that was the question, wasn’t it? If I was going to sit at the same table as Sve Noc and the King of Death, then I needed to prove I had the qualifications to claim a seat. Catherine Foundling, the woman who brawled with rylleh and lost limbs by the dozens before finally putting it down, did not have those qualifications.
I looked at the Night construct, watched its legs bend as it prepared to pounced, and I shaped it in my mind. I’d never done it simultaneously before, but why couldn’t I? Maybe I wouldn’t have been able as the Squire, but the Squire was dead. Devoured by a harsher mantle. How many of my limitations, I thought, are self-inflicted? I could be mist or hard as steel, I could grow wings and walk away from the loss of half my body. Lies and mirrors, and what was this but a different kind of lie? The panther skimmed across the ground, unnaturally swift, and I let Winter flow into me. Fill my veins and my lungs, steal away my breath. I embraced it, as I had in Liesse, and formed what I had shaped in my mind’s eye. The first gate opened in front of the Night construct, and it slowed by a fraction as it prepared to leap over it. That was enough. Another two, caging it in a triangle. Another two, above and below. All of them leading to the bottom of the Fields of Wend, that depthless glacier lake at the very heart of Winter. How many miles of water were there in it? I didn’t know, not for sure. But water came out from all sides, and in a heartbeat Night and drow were crushed like a bug by the gargantuan pressure. I breathed out and the gates closed as one, leaving behind only water and flesh made into paste.
No, Catherine Foundling had no place at that table. But maybe the Black Queen did.
I looked back, found the battle had gone on uncaring of what’d just taken place. Just another current in the sea. It was time to get them moving, I thought. Soon enough the Rumena would have taken the central district, and the madness in Great Strycht needed to be brought to its climax. I couldn’t get all these drow moving with my own power, it was true. It’d take hours to go around killing every sigil-holder and asserting command, assuming it was even possible at all. But I’d been taught by a man who had been an artist in the ways or ruling through fear, and his lessons had not all gone to waste.
“Retreat,” I called out to my sigil. “As planned.”
I left them to the grisly business of disengaging from a furious melee while I reached for my power one last time. Terribilis the Second had once said that a threat was useless unless you’d previously committed the level of violence you were threatening to use. I didn’t agree, though, not exactly. It was useless if the level of violence you were threatening wasn’t believable, I’d say instead. And I’d stolen a lake in front of these people, used it as a weapon and bribe both. They would believe quite a bit, coming from me. Even as my sigil began fleeing towards the heart of Great Strycht, to the surprise of their foes, I wove a glamour. A gate facing upwards, and through it came a deafening rumble. Illusory molten stone flew out, landing on the muddy lakebed and the edge of the Flowing Gardens, smoke and lava following as the glamoured volcano erupted in full.
The Losara Sigil fled, and every godsdamned drow in the north followed close behind.