“In trying to beat a fool at her own game, I have only made another.”
– Theodosius the Unconquered, after the Maddened Fields (apocryphal)
“Not to nitpick,” I said. “But being carried this way is doing great injury to the inherent dignity of a woman of my station.”
Mighty Rumena had, after sundry misadventures, hoisted me over its shoulder and was now lugging me around like a sack of cabbage. I got the distinct impression the old bastard was having a lot of fun with this.
“If I allow you to lean against me instead,” Rumena said. “Will you cease attempting to strangle me?”
The drow was a tyrant, truly. It was my Gods-given right as a Callowan to rebel against foreign powers regardless of context or feasibility.
“Yes,” I lied.
Mighty Rumena fluidly leapt over a canal, landing on the other side with barely a sound. It jostled my body enough I had to bite down on a scream.
“So,” I got out. “We doing this or what?”
“No,” the Mighty said. “I merely wanted to see if you would lie.”
That prick. I’d gotten my hopes up, thinking of looking for something sharp to stab it with instead of having another fruitless go at strangulation – my fingers were too shaky to have the requisite strength, and to be honest I wasn’t sure it actually needed to breathe.
“Fine,” I said. “Obviously you’re a man – drow, I mean – of deep cunning and perception. I’ll level with you, Rumena. I was going to try to murder you again.”
“I am aghast at this unexpected turn,” Mighty Rumena said.
Oh, so Crepuscular could do sarcasm. This was a day for revelations.
“Since murder doesn’t seem to be working out for me, I’ll try bribery,” I continued. “Betray… who is it you’re working for at the moment?”
I probably should have inquired as much before beginning the process, I mentally conceded. Hindsight was a harsh mistress, as the effective evisceration of my soul and mantle had made clear.
“Arguably my kind,” Rumena said. “Practically speaking, the youngest sister.”
“That the murderous one, or the one that’s basically suffered a few millennia of torture by Night?” I squinted.
“The former,” the Mighty replied.
“That’s fine then,” I mused. “So, betray her drow ass and I’ll give you half of Procer.”
“I know of no such place,” Rumena said.
“Right, it’s pretty recent as far as nations go,” I muttered. “Think the central chunk of western Calernia.”
“And you currently rule these lands?” the drow asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I mean, in a manner of speaking.”
Lies were, technically, one of those.
“Fertile fields?” the Mighty asked. “Peaceful neighbours?”
Well, half of that was true. There was that unfortunate thing about the Kingdom of the Dead and the Chain of Hunger bordering it, but nowhere was perfect.
“Absolutely,” I answered without missing a beat.
“You are a surprisingly terrible liar,” Mighty Rumena said, sounding impressed in the worst way. “How have you managed to survive this long?”
“Good officers, luck and the ability to walk off lost limbs,” I replied, more honestly than I’d meant to.
Of course, in a sense I hadn’t. Survived, that was. I’d died at First Liesse and then kind of again at the Doom. The whole Winter-eats-your-soul thing had felt in the general wheelhouse of dying, anyway.
“Luck always runs out,” Rumena said.
“What a deep philosopher you are,” I sighed. “Any more profound truths you’d like to share?”
“You warred against an entity older than the civilization that birthed you,” the Mighty said. “Wielding weapons in which it holds superior mastery, following a plan laughably straightforward and fielding armies which owed you no true loyalty. All this, and somehow you believed you would win.”
“Ouch,” I said, not particularly offended.
I’d already lost, what was there left to be offended about?
“We going somewhere with this?” I asked after a heartbeat of silence.
“Nowhere, evidently,” Mighty Rumena said.
The Secret of Scathing Retorts was unfathomably deadly, I mused. The half-blind pieces of meat that were now my eyes took in our surroundings as well as they could as the drow carried me through the ruins of Great Strycht – and there could be no word for it but ruins. Winter had blown through mercilessly, upending temples and halls like children’s toys. We must have still been in the central district when it found me, because our surroundings were vaguely familiar. They lay of the canals, at least, since the city looked like it’d been smashed to pieces by an irritated god. In a sense, it had been. It wasn’t hard to find the dead, though it certainly was to tell which side they’d belonged to. Frozen silhouettes of drow, many seized halfway through a motion, were scattered all over the district. Some had tried to run, I saw. It hadn’t done them any good.
“Is everyone in the city dead save the two of us?” I asked.
“You were not so powerful as that,” Mighty Rumena said. “Many of those who fought under your banner remained, before they were made to kneel. And Sve Noc preserved her own when the heart of you was ripped out.”
“Soul,” I corrected mildly. “The soul of me, Rumena. Come on, it’s not that complicated a concept.”
I was mildly surprised having that ripped open hadn’t killed me, but then maybe I shouldn’t be. Akua had walked around without hers for years before our little heart-to-hand. She’d also been soulless in another way entirely long before that, but that was a different story.
“Not complicated,” the Mighty slowly repeated. “Are you chiding me for considering the process of apotheosis a complex matter, Losara?”
“I mean, Praesi know about it,” I said. “How complex can it really be?”
“I will cherish the memory of our little talks, after your throat is slit,” Rumena said. “I believe you might be the single most aggressively ignorant creature I’ve ever encountered.”
I spat out a ball of phlegm and bile, aiming for its leg and missing narrowly. So, interesting information there. I was being carried to a sacrificial altar, which I’d already kind of suspected but hadn’t known for sure. Added to the bit about my former forces being ‘made to keel’, I now considered it a safe bet that Ol’ Sve herself had come down for a bit of ceremonial knifework. Strange she hadn’t killed them outright, though. Was it because she couldn’t, or because she had a better use for them? It’d be a splendid little bit of irony if she ended up using the framework of oaths I’d built as the model for the army she’d be taking to the surface.
“I’m flattered, really, but I’m not in the market for a nemesis,” I replied. “There’s probably a line and it’d be unfair to all those angry heroes for you to just skip ahead.”
“It is admirable that you refuse to compromise your principles even moments away from your unmaking,” the Mighty said.
“I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic right now,” I said. “And I think my hearing might be going, because there’s this weird screaming sound that-”
I paused, then swallowed. Oh, so my hearing wasn’t going. Nice to know. Slightly less nice was the patchwork of rippling Winter I was looking at. Ribbons of shimmering blue storming about uncontrolled, eating away at an obsidian tower like the King of Winter had suddenly said ‘fuck this building in particular’. My vision dimmed and I looked away blinking. It stayed dim, like a shadow had been cast over everything I saw.
“You could have told me I’d go blind looking at it,” I screamed through the ruckus.
Rumena made me wait until we’d left the immediate area before answering.
“Did you?” the drow curiously asked. “Interesting. It should have driven you mad as well, then, and you sound no less coherent than usual.”
“I think we hit the bottom of that barrel a few years back, buddy,” I said.
That had been a knot of pure Winter, I thought, and it had been running wild. The power had never done that while I held the mantle. The – I avoided thinking of the word, knowing it would send me into another episode – nothing above our heads was the same as my domain’s, so I’d assumed that Sve had devoured the whole thing. Or at least bound it somehow. But this was an interesting twist, wasn’t it? Even if was in her belly, it looked like she was having some issued with digestion.
“So, how strong is your boss’ stomach?” I casually asked.
“As strong as it takes,” Mighty Rumena soberly replied.
“Gods, is that what I sound like when I talk that way?” I asked. “Someone could have told me it made me sound like an asshole. I’d have stopped.”
“I assure you, there is no need to rely on specific sentences for that effect to be achieved,” the drow smoothly replied.
“So much sass, Rumena,” I grinned. “But was that uncertainty I detected? Someone’s worried Sve bit off more than she can chew.”
“A passing thing,” the Mighty said. “In a sense, much like you.”
Ah, and there it was. The reason it hadn’t just nonchalantly torn off my head back when it’d first found me choking on my death in the middle of a broken wreck. I was still of use somehow. A sacrifice to cement Sve Noc’s hold on my domain? I’d earned the mantle through murder, back in the old days of about two years ago. It might be that proper succession required the same deed by her hand.
“So, are we there yet?” I asked.
Rumena sighed, and I took perverse pride in the way I was managing to get under the skin of a creature a few millennia my senior. Unfortunately it then shook me on its shoulder, letting me slip back a little, and the fresh pull on my abdomen had me howling. The throbbing pain brought unwilling tears to my eyes, and to add insult to injury my throat began heaving. The droplet that tipped the cup was that even as I began spewing out clear water and bile the Mantle of Woe fell down over my face, smothering it all over my face. The Mighty left me like that for quite a while, until my stomach felt empty once more, and only drew me back up when left the district. The vomit-strewn cloak remained draped all over my face.
“That was genuinely cruel,” I rasped out.
“Possibly why I enjoyed it so much,” Mighty Rumena noted.
It was not far before our magic journey together came to an end, though of course I had no idea. The Mantle of Woe was still covering my face. I was carefully set down on solid ground, propped up against something that felt like stone. My legs didn’t pain me at all, which I took as the opposite of a good sign. I was metaphysically bleeding out. Rumena’s fingers closed around the hem of my cloak and pulled it back, finally revealing my surroundings to me. It was a hill of barren stone, one that must have once been an island. My Mighty friend was at my side, but we had other company: over a hundred drow were scattered around us, weapons in hand. The rest of the Longstrides? Without my otherworldly senses, I had no way to tell them apart from any other drow. Ahead of me lay a broke stele of obsidian, the symbols on it faded and the better part of it laid down as a makeshift altar. All of that paled, though, in comparison to the silhouette standing over it. A perfectly androgynous face larger than my entire body stared down at me, descending into a neck that melded with the robes of pure Night beneath it. Eyes of unbroken silver shone bright, but it was the hair that drew my attention. Long strands of darkness that went up into the nothing above like puppet strings.
“Sve Noc,” I said. “Good of you to finally show up.”
I cleared my throat, spat another bit of bile to the side.
“You may kneel,” I allowed.
There was a heartbeat of silence, and then I was drowning. Thick, cloying terror buried me – the kind I had not known in ages, that screamed so loud it drowned out every thought. It was a primal thing, old as the nights where mankind had first huddled around fires for fear of what prowled outside. It was, I thought, almost religious. I began laughing in delight.
“That’s the stuff,” I grinned, body shivering uncontrollably. “Gods, you wouldn’t believe how long it’s been since I felt this much like a person.”
Did she think this would break me? She had ripped open my soul. There was not a godsdamned thing left to break. The sea around be ebbed, and still the tinkling pleasure of real emotion stayed in my every extremity.
“Alone and lost,” the Priestess of Night said. “As promised, Catherine Foundling.”
“Please,” I said, waving a shaking hand. “Call me ‘Your Majesty’.”
My half-blind eyes drifted around her… well body, was the closest word to it. And the revelations of the day continued, for there were threads in her robes that seemed more solid than others. Whatever she was doing, it wasn’t finished. Considering the altar in front of me, the shape of the conclusion was rather obvious.
“Queen of Nothing,” Sve Noc said. “And so no queen at all.”
“Am I?” I mused. “Then why bring me here at all?”
“Tools wear no crowns,” Sve Noc said.
“Clearly you’ve never met Cordelia,” I said. “From the fact that my throat has yet to be slit, I take it we’ve a little while still before we get to the good stuff?”
“Your doom is writ,” the creature said.
“Yes yes, very ominous,” I snorted. “Rumena, be a dear and find my pipe will you? No point it making this uncivilized.”
The Mighty had moved a few steps away from me while I traded barbs with its goddess, but not entirely left. It glanced at Sve and found no answer there – she seemed a little miffed by my refusal to take this seriously – so in the end it strode forward to rifle through my cloak pockets. I took the opportunity to clasp its ringlet tunic and wipe my face somewhat clear of vomit. You know, for appearances’ sake. Rumena stuffed my pipe half-heartedly and offered it. I clasped it between my teeth and leaned forward.
“A light?” I asked.
The drow’s fingers lit up with black flame and within moments the wakeleaf was burning. Black flame, really? Did every single application of Night have to colour appropriate? There was such a thing as taking an aesthetic too far. I breathed in the smoke with a shiver of pleasure, letting it stream out of my nostrils.
“Oh,” I murmured around the shaft. “So that’s what it used to taste like. I’d almost forgotten.”
To my utter delight, the little moan I let out after made Rumena visibly uncomfortable. I leaned back against my stone.
“I don’t suppose any of you folks have a decent bottle of wine?” I called out at the Longstrides. “It’s been ages since I could properly enjoy one of those.”
There was some confused shuffling, but no answer.
“And they call Callow a backwater,” I sighed. “You all make for terrible hosts.”
“No guest are you,” Sve Noc said. “A bird of misfortune, headed to grim ending.”
“Bold words, coming from a woman visibly fucking up her apotheosis,” I replied. “How’s Winter taste, Sve? A bit too much to swallow?”
It was a true shame Indrani wasn’t there to make a ribald joke out of that, I thought.
“All will be Night,” the Priestess thundered.
“You’re just a pile of disappointments, aren’t you?” I said. “At least Rumena knows its way around a phrase. You’re just yelling threats and platitudes. It’s pretty common with old monsters, you know? You haven’t talked like a person for too long, so you don’t know how anymore. Even Neshamah has touches of that.”
“You think to threaten me with the King of Death?” Sve Noc laughed. “You know nothing.”
I pulled at my pipe, eyes almost rolling into the back of my head at the pleasant sensation. I’d become so much less, but what I had left was so much more alive. Something as simple as the burn of smoke in my throat felt like the finest of wines.
“I know some things,” I retorted mildly, spewing out the smoke. “Like, for example, that Winter is a hard stallion to break in. It’s not really meant to give, you get me? It’s not flexible the way a Name is. Now, if I had to guess, you’re too far gone into whatever the fuck you actually are to worry about something as paltry as alienation. So the issue would be that you’re just as… static as the power you’re trying to eat. You can’t change to match it, like I did, so you can’t align either. You have to bludgeon it into obedience, and that’s proving a little trickier than you’d like.”
“Crawling, wretched thing,” Sve Noc said. “Still trying to escape your fate even now. Stripped of every ounce of stolen power, tumbling through death’s door.”
“Oh, Sve,” I said gently, a grin tugging at my lips. “You poor thing. It’s already too late. You see, this was all part of my plan.”
In the absence of an actual scheme, it seemed like I was going to have to bluff a living goddess. Odds were I was going to bite it regardless, but if I was going to die I was at least going to shit talk the opposition on my way out.
“Your deception is feeble,” the Priestess said. “Your plans are known to me.”
“Convenient, isn’t it?” I mused. “That you knew them all. That you crushed me so easily. Almost like I let you.”
“Mad and desperate,” Sve Noc said. “You resort to flimsy lies.”
I inhaled the smoke, closing my eyes, and let it out. The acrid tang stung my nose, beautifully so.
“Why so many warriors, Sve?” I asked, opening my eyes. “Witnesses, honour guard? Nah, this is best left quiet. Not the kind of knowledge you want floating out there. I think it’s a statement of power. A reminder of hopelessness, to break me down. But if that’s the case, why these warriors?”
I croaked out a laugh.
“If you really wanted to stick it to me,” I said, “you wouldn’t have used people you already owned body and soul. You would have had my own army standing in submissive silence. But you don’t.”
I met eyes of blinding silver and smiled.
“I wonder why that is?”
“They have knelt,” Sve Noc said.
“I think you broke them,” I said. “I think you hurt them. But that you don’t own them, not yet. Because this is still my soul, even splattered over the countryside, and you need a little something to take you over the top. Queen’s blood, queen’s death. A passing of the torch.”
“How does it feel, to fall short even after millennia of scheming?” I asked. “It stings, I bet.”
Gods forgive me, but I had missed this. Teetering at the brink of annihilation, knowing if I was struck down I would not rise again. Dancing with death bereft of anything but wits and lies, knowing the first mistake would also be the last. It was terrible and treacherous, the kind of recklessness that had left a trail of ruins in my wake, but Merciless Gods I had missed this. I’d grown dull, under the sway of my mantle, and now I felt sharp again. Maybe I was drunk on the feeling of my own mortality, on the truth that there was nothing left to lose, but I felt like myself again. Finally, just as life left my body.
“And all you fine Mighty,” I called out. “Will you just stand there like silent statues as your fates are thrown like dice? Do you not have a stake in this?”
“Be silent, Losara,” Mighty Rumena hissed.
“Come on, be someone,” I grinned. “Act. Sure, I would have made you servants. For the span of a cosmic breath and no more, but I’ll own to that. I never thought much of it, since that thing in front of me has already made slaves of you.”
“We are Mighty,” one of the Longstrides replied. “Your words are empty.”
“That might be true right now,” I said. “But will you still be, when she’s done eating Winter? Hells, I would have required service for a decade or two but her? She’ll own you wholesale until the Last Dusk.”
Rumena struck me across the face, and the only thing I could think was that it’d just made a mistake. If it’d let me keep talking unworried that would have been one thing, but trying to silence me? That gave my words weight. And theirs was a path of betrayal, wasn’t it? They watched for the knife in everyone’s hand. Even their own goddess. I couldn’t make out what happened, but a moment later Rumena was thrown back and two silhouettes stood between it and me.
“Speak your piece, Losara,” one of them ordered.
They screamed, the two drow, and fell as Night ripped its way out of their bodies like smoke. The same happened all around me, every Longstride messily collapsing. The tall shape of Sve Noc drifted forward, tendrils of darkness wrapping around my body and dragging me to the altar. She was looming over me in a way that was not physical, her… presence enveloping me whole. As if I was being devoured.
“Trickery is no match for real power,” Sve Noc said.
“Then fear me, drow,” Akua Sahelian announced, “for I wield the power of friendship.”
I turned right in time for the shade, grinning gloriously with half her body emerging from my cloak, to bury her arm into my torso up to the elbow.