“There is more power in blood spilled willingly than unwillingly. The latter is simply a great deal easier to obtain.”
– Dread Emperor Sorcerous
I would have compared it to herding cats, but as far as I knew those didn’t take time in the middle of a rout to backstab allies or enemies, depending on who didn’t watch their back closely enough. Well, maybe Praesi cats. You never knew with Wastelanders. I kept the drow moving even after we’d cleared the area that was being affected by the ‘volcano’ by more or less stomping out any knot of bravery that formed. After the second time Mighty who tried to stand their ground and rally their warriors got a gate opened above their heads the message was received. I was sinking into Winter at a prodigious rate, no to ways around it, but nowadays I had more than just Akua to dump the principle alienation into. Twelve hardened former Mighty on top of Diabolist meant I could keep this up for quite a while without going all monologue-addicted, and if it came down to it I could try to disperse some of it into the drow who’d simply taken oaths. There were shards of Winter in them as well, after all, put there to enforce the terms. It didn’t quite feel like I’d be breaking our bargain if I did that, but somehow I suspected it was close enough I wouldn’t like the ensuing backlash. A desperate measure, if need be, but not to be used before that.
The front we’d named the Pit was effectively finished, the chaos within being poured into the dawning mess at the centre of Great Strycht, but while fighting there I’d taken my eye off the two fronts to the east. There were risks in that, which was I’d put Lord Soln in command of the reserve to hedge my bets. It had authority to intervene as it deemed necessary to keep the wagon on the road. It was about time to see how that’d worked out. I remained with the retreat until we reached the outskirts of the central district before putting Ivah and Archer in charge of the situation and dismissing the glamour and taking flight. The false sky of the cavern was mercifully unburdened by fighting, and the height allowed me to gauge how the situation was unfolding over the entire city. There’d been two battles planned in the east, fronts named Spear and Dice. The former I wasn’t overly worried about, since the Jindrich would be taking the lead there and their sigil-holder was infamously destructive. The latter was a different story, as it involved a cabal of four sigils informally led by the Hushu, which presumably weren’t in on any of the plots coming to a head. If they pushed into the other eastern front, that whole section of the city would become a massive melee I lacked the tools to properly handle.
Considering the ‘plan’ for the Battle of Great Strycht was to drive everyone and their genderless sibling into the centre before the Longstrides arrived, there was a lot riding on Lord Soln’s ability to cope with the situation.
What I took in from above was a mixed bag. The reinforcing Peerage I’d sent to back up the Jindrich had been enough to punch through the delaying force sent by the Rumena on the Spear front, by the looks of it. They were in full retreat, harassed by coalition and Peerage drow as they made for the centre. Considering the amount of Peers I’d sent east I was rather surprised it was harassment and not annihilation I was looking at, but the explanation was not difficult to find. The Hushu and their allies had taken the field and decided to be clever about it. Instead of launching a hard assault that would see my Peerage diverted from the pursuit to deal with the situation, they were marauding around the flanks and striking fast before withdrawing. The Peers and sigil-holders in command were hesitating, reluctant to allow the Rumena to retreat unimpeded when the Hushu attacks were so lukewarm. The three lords I’d assigned to that front had gone with the understanding that containment was their main objective, so they were tacitly allowing it to happen even if it thinned their ranks. Presumably judging that the overall losses would be greater if we fully engaged. The reserve under Lord Soln was closer to the centre, in an incline between two islands-turned-hills, and so hidden from view. There’d been four sigils assigned to the reserve, before hostilities erupted, but only two were still hidden down there: the Soln and the Agus, so at least the overall commander was there to answer my questions.
Instead of staying up there and drawing attention, I landed next to the reserve and dismissed my wings. The drow parted around me, many of them bowing as I passed, and I returned the gesture with a silent nod. The Lord of Shallow Graves awaited me with Lord Agus at its side, gravely listening to dzulu giving reports. The conversation died as I strode in, the two Peers inclining their heads in deference.
“Losara Queen,” Lord Soln said. “I heard word of your success to the north.”
“Drew in everyone I could and sent them running into the central melee,” I agreed. “I’m more interested in the situation around here. Have the Hushu and their cabal declared for a side?”
“Their own, presumably,” Lord Agus sighed.
“They attacked the coalition and the Rumena both,” Soln calmly replied. “Though with the retreat of the Rumena, we are now the only blood left to be shed.”
“I take it you’ve something in the works,” I said, glancing around pointedly.
There were, after all, two missing sigils.
“I sent the lords Lovre and Vadimyr to circle around Hushu positions,” Lord Soln agreed.
“That’ll open another front,” I pointed out. “Instead of push them into the centre, which is what we’re actually after.”
“So I said, Losara Queen,” Lord Agus muttered. “So I said.”
“I intend to launch an assault myself as they do, my queen,” Soln explained. “Along the ridges of the southeast.”
I frowned, trying to remember what I’d seen of the battlefield from above. It would make a corner connected to a line that led straight to the centre, more or less, if you counted the forces currently pursuing the Rumena. If I had to guess at the intent, it’d be forcing Hushu and friends to head towards the centre to avoid being assaulted from two sides. If we’d been fielding a disciplined army I would have given it decent odds of working out as Soln wanted, forcing movement through pressure, but as it was we’d be compounding a gamble with another gamble. And even if it works out, we’re wedging the Hushu and their allies in between the Losara Sigil and the rest of our forces, I thought. Considering my sigil had already taken harsh losses at the hands of the Rumena, if the Hushu went all-out against them they might outright collapse. That’d be… bad. Without my own forces out there to stoke the fire, there was a decent chance the ‘neutral’ sigils there would rally and retreat rather than remain participants in the bloody melee. Soln, I thought, had good instincts. But it was trying to fight with an army we didn’t have, and its core mistake was trying to maintain control over a situation that was already too chaotic to handle.
“How long ago did Lovre and Vadimyr set out?” I asked.
“Less than half an hour,” Lord Agus said.
“Right, so we’ve still got time to manoeuvre,” I frowned. “All right, here’s what we’ll do. The entire force holding back the Hushu and their cabal is to collapse immediately and flee towards the centre.”
The two drow stiffened with surprise.
“The casualties-” Lord Soln delicately began.
“Will sting, I know,” I said. “But your way is as likely to lead in a slugging match we can’t afford as it is to drive them to the centre. So instead of forcing them, we’ll bait them. That many sigils in a rout? They’ll come after them with everything they have, eager for the harvest.”
“And we are to simply look upon the situation and wait?” Lord Agus asked, with what I suspected to be a hopeful tone.
Not the fiercest of fighters, this one.
“No,” I said. “You two and the two sigils Lord Soln sent out are to attack them from behind once they’ve committed.”
I paused, meeting the Lord of Shallow Graves’ blue eyes.
“Lord Soln, force them into the centre,” I said. “With everything you have.”
The drow softly laughed.
“And I believed myself to be ruthless,” it said. “It will be as you say, Queen of Lost and Found.”
Lord Agus was a lot less sanguine about essentially throwing both our ‘allies’ and several of our sigils into a boiling broth, but kept its dismay largely off its face.
“Will you be accompanying us in this, Losara Queen?” it asked.
“Sadly, I suspect I’ll be needed elsewhere,” I said.
If only because the last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by my own warriors when the Longstride Cabal showed up.
“Do either of you know where Mighty Jindrich is?” I continued.
“The Rumena angered it enough it grew wroth before they were driven back,” Lord Soln said. “It was last seen heading out in their pursuit, its mind lost to rage.”
“Find the largest concentration of wreckage and corpses, it shall not be far,” Lord Agus noted.
“And Mighty Rumena?” I asked.
“Has yet to take the field against us,” Soln said. “Though there is word it might have participated in the taking of the central district. It is largely under that sigil’s control by now.”
“So the dance awaits me in the middle,” I mused. “Fitting. Lord Soln, I trust you’ll be able to carry out your orders here?”
“That much I can promise,” the Lord of Shallow Graves smiled.
“Then wade in their blood, my lord,” I said, and translucent wings burst out of my back.
I was thousands of miles away from any orc, but their traditional farewell had hardly ever been more appropriate. I shot back up into the sky and wasted no time before heading out towards the front we’d named the Woods. That district had been the centre of ancient Great Strycht in senses more numerous than the geographical one, even a swift glance made that clear. It was a labyrinth of temples and great halls, each its own little island surrounded by a deep canal and tied to others structures by curved bridges and arches of stone. The sheer vividness of it startled me, for until now I’d seen drow tastes run towards mostly colours grey and dark. Here though, strange and half-faded patterns of blue, red and white covered every surface. Orange and gold served as the colour of the sky in sprawling mosaics where the moon was depicted as a feathered wheel of white-tipped red, the stylized heads of snakes and drow gazing down at the bloodletting from every corner. The depredations of time and abandonment were easy to find, collapsed roofs not since repaired and broken walls serving as makeshift doors, but I was surprised to see some of the paints had been freshly touched up.
Some of those mosaics were splattered with greyish red, though, and that wasn’t paint.
A square tower with colourful turrets on the corners burst open at the base, and just like that I’d found Mighty Jindrich. The drow was massive, the largest of its kind I’d ever seen, and covered from head to toe in a featureless carapace of pure Night. I watched, reluctantly impressed, as its fingers sunk into the sides of the same tower it’d just ripped up and it repeatedly smashed the whole thing down on a pair of Mighty until there was nothing left but bloody paste. Then it tossed the whole thing into a temple and screamed monstrously before leaping into another fight. This was, I thought, my primary ally in this battle. I sure knew how to pick them. I was almost distracted enough that I didn’t see the javelin coming, but not quite. There were fires all over the district and trails of smoke going up into the sky, but as the projectile sailed through a large plume I caught sight of the stir it caused and dipped below with a bat of my wings. I raised a brow when I realized there was no hint of power in the toss, save in how far it’d been thrown, and that even if I’d not moved it would likely have missed me. Had some enterprising dzulu decided to bag queen and glory with the same throw?
I’d be sure to praise their guts, before the messy retaliatory murder.
I flew around the plume of smoke and found where it should have come from, eyes landing on a single drow standing atop one of the tallest towers in the district. That was strike one. Even far as I was I could make out the looks of it. It was, well, old. Its grey skin was deeply creased, its pitch-black veins visible through it and though tall it had grown visibly stooped. It held no weapon, attired in a strange belted tunic of obsidian rings. Almost like mail, I thought. Its hair was long and white, going down almost to its waist. That was strike two. Its dim silver eyes met mine all the way across the distance, as if it could see me just as well, and I could not feel a single speck of power from it. That was strike three, and so the drow might as well have ‘dangerous, take caution’ tattooed glaring red on its forehead. It did not attack a second time, simply waiting. Not an attack, I corrected. A way to grab my attention. My eyes dipped to the large cloth belt it wore, and the Crepuscular I read on that only confirmed what I was already suspecting. Wings narrowing behind me as I dove, I landed smoothly in front of the Mighty Rumena.
Mantle of Woe fluttering as I rose to my full height – which was, rather unfairly I felt, still shorter than the bent old drow – my wings folded behind me. I wasn’t dismissing those before I got a clear idea of what was taking place here. I’d read a lot of faces, in my time. I’d watched humanity slide off my teacher’s true face like water off clay, the utter blankness of fae bereft of stories. Shades of contempt by the dozen, angers both principled and personal, too many flavours of hatred to count. Irritation from creatures considering me an insolent child, pity from the likes of the Grey Pilgrim and even casual dismissal from the Saint of Swords. Mighty Rumena stood out from that multitude, because all there was in its gaze was attention. Pure and unfettered, as if the weight of it left no place for anything else. It was uncomfortable, to have someone take in all of me so deeply. It didn’t feel like scrutiny, and I realized the source of my unease a moment later. I’d seen that look in another pair of eyes: Masego’s, when he’d come into his aspect in Arcadia. When he’d witnessed it all with impossible clarity.
“Mighty Rumena,” I said. “Your invitation was received.”
“Losara Queen,” my foe simply greeted me.
It had a calm voice, I thought. Unruffled, unhurried. Like nothing could really affect it. It was old and powerful enough it might not even be wrong about that. It glanced down at the messy fighting below, the screams and blood and fire swallowing up the district.
“I remember this city,” Rumena said. “From when it was at its height. The jewel of the south, second only to Tvarigu in beauty. It brings me no pleasure to layer ruin over ruin.”
“And yet,” I said, “here we are.”
“There are only a few of us left, Losara,” the Mighty said. “Those who knew this land before Night fell upon it. In Strycht, Jindrich is the only other – and it was young when we lost the wars. Too young to understand the true depth of the loss.”
“But you weren’t,” I said.
If it wanted to talk while my designs unfolded, I had absolutely no objection to that. If we engaged it was going to be the kind of mess that’d make devils blush, and while my forces below weren’t winning exactly they were carrying out my plan perfectly. It was hard for them not to, when the entire plan was to create chaos and that was the natural state of the Everdark.
“I was a general, honoured twice for victories won in the Burning Lands by the Twilight Sages themselves,” Rumena said. “One of them, I think, against a people whose blood you hold. The look has little changed since those nights.”
My fingers tightened. It was implying it’d fought the Deoraithe, at some point, and there was a little problem with that: neither the Kingdom nor the later Duchy of Daoine had ever come under drow assault in recorded history. There was the Golden Bloom in the way, after all. Which meant I was talking to an entity claiming it’d been alive before the elves arrived on Calernia. Three thousand years old, I thought, at least. Gods. It might be the single oldest thing I’d ever met save for the Dead King.
“And now you’re a sigil-holder in the remnants of the old empire,” I said.
“My army followed me,” the Mighty said. “Already they were rylleh and jawor, though the titles had different meaning then. None of them survived the passing of the years. The Night is not a forgiving sacrament.”
Sacrament, I thought. Not just a domain, some Name’s power manifest. It’d always felt too large, hadn’t it? And I had wondered why no drow seemed to be born a mage. This whole time, had I really been looking at an entire people wielding Below’s equivalent of Light? Miracles of the darkness, purer in nature than even the stuff devils were made of.
“You saw it happen, then,” I said. “What Sve Noc did.”
“I knew one of the sisters,” Rumena said. “And now know her better still. She is in my blood, in my soul.”
Sisters? My eyes narrowed. And it’d called the Sve her. There was something significant about that, I thought. A detail I was missing.
“They broke you,” I said. “Your entire civilization.”
The drow shook its head.
“Not them,” Rumena said. “The Twilight Sages, in their wanton arrogance. How tall stood their pedestal and proud they were of it, until the nerezim cast them down. Only then did they regret the height.”
My blood ran cold. For a creature that old and powerful to call something wanton arrogance, how terrible must it be?
“What did they do?”
“They sought to kill death,” the Mighty said. “But leashed it instead. We were to live forever, you see. As gods. And we did, for a time.”
The old drow’s lips twisted into a bitter smile.
“Then we lost the wars,” Rumena said. “And while we raged and wailed of wealth lost, of glories unmade, the wise Sages knew terror. For the nerezim put entire cities to the sword, and our immortality narrowed. They had borrowed from what would never be. And with every defeat the debt grew closer to that moment where it could no longer be repaid.”
“They didn’t make you immortal,” I spoke slowly, piecing together what’d been laid out for me to find. “Did they? They stole years from children not yet born. That would never be, because their parents were slain by the dwarves.”
It was one of the fundamental laws of sorcery, wasn’t it? That you couldn’t make something out of nothing. I had not forgotten that glimpsed conversation between Neshamah and the Bard, where she’d implied the Twilight Sages had been mages.
“And so our end loomed, Losara Queen,” the Mighty said. “The balance dipped closer to irredeemable disaster with every fallen city. Until the two of them took action.”
“The sisters,” I said. “They made the Gloom. They made the Night. Before the point of no return was reached.”
There was a long moment of silence between us, as the sounds of the slaughter below drifted up to our ears.
“Before?” Mighty Rumena smiled. “O Queen of Lost and Found, did you not come here to rob a corpse?”
I shivered. The old creature laughed.
“Dead, every last one of us,” the drow said. “You thought Sve Noc the cause of our ruin, and you were wrong. You thought them the cure to our disease, and you were wrong again. Our most beloved betrayers did not save a single soul. They… delayed.”
“It makes no sense,” I said. “The Gloom yes, but the Night? It incited slaughter. If instead they’d encouraged childbirth, raised your population, you might have gotten out of it. You’ve had centuries to recover since those wars, you could have evened the scales.”
“You do not understand,” the Mighty said. “It was too late, Losara Queen. We were already dying. But those clever sisters, the wicked and the merciful, they struck a bargain.”
And I grasped it, then, what it was that I was being told.
“The Night is the only thing keeping any of you alive,” I whispered hoarsely. “And the slaughter isn’t a mistake or an unforeseen consequence, it’s the entire point. Every kill is a sacrifice. Willing. Eager, even. Merciless Gods, Archer was right – this entire realm is an altar.”
“The greatest in all of Creation,” Rumena said, ruinously proud. “Witness and weep, Losara, the glory of the Firstborn: we alone, of all peoples in the world, have cheated death twice.”
“But it couldn’t last,” I said. “You had to have known that. The dwarves were going to come sooner or later and it was all going to fall apart the moment they did.”
“The Night was not an answer,” the Mighty said. “But it could be understood as a question.”
And another part of the puzzle fell into place.
“Apotheosis,” I said. “Through brute force. Trying every possible application of power through hundreds of thousands of Mighty so that a path out could be found.”
And I had thought myself inelegant, for merely blundering my way into my mantle. The sisters were trying to force the lock by trying every possible key.
“Was it?” I asked. “Did they find a path?”
Pale silver eyes considered me calmly.
“Come now,” Rumena said. “Why would the Shrouded Gods grant such a boon, when our base terror kept their altars slick with blood?”
“So they failed,” I said. “Rumena, there’s another way. I can help with this. We don’t need to fight. Winter-”
I bit my tongue.
“You knew that already,” I finally said. “And you still struck.”
“You are right, Queen of Lost and Found,” the Mighty said. “You can help with this.”
As a sacrifice, one last to finally even the scales. And I’d been a good sport, hadn’t I? The Everdark entire might be an altar, but I’d consecrated Great Strycht with thousands of dead just so Sve Noc could properly open my throat over its ashes. Even as my alarm mounted, part of me could not help but admire the game of the Gods Below. They’d played their hand flawlessly, hadn’t they? It didn’t matter to them whether the drow rose from the dark as the Winter Court reborn in shadow, or if the Priestesses of Night devoured my mantle whole and unleashed madness on Creation as a two-faced goddess. No matter who won, they won as well. That was their way, I was beginning to understand. They didn’t move like Above, trying to force a victory in every fight. They only ever fought when they couldn’t lose.
“Why tell me any of this, if we’re going to fight?” I asked, warily backing away.
“To give them time to surround us,” Mighty Rumena said.
The roof exploded beneath our feet, and the Longstride Cabal entered the fray.