“Hubris and wearing a helmet are not mutually exclusive. Here, allow me to demonstrate.”
– Dread Emperor Abominable, the Thrice-Struck
“I’ll be honest,” I said. “I kind of expected to get to the bottom of memory lane before we ran into each other. You, uh, took me by surprise.”
Andronike – Sve Noc’s slightly less unreasonable half, or at least that was the hope – did not lean into the feeble attempt at defusing the tension. Fine, I thought, be that way. We can be all grim about this, and not even mention that right now in a very real sense I’m inside your sister. There was room for an even filthier joke in there, and really where was Indrani when you needed her?
“I expected you to move from shadow to shadow until you reached Tvarigu,” the entity mildly replied. “Not to raise an army of slaves and declare war upon my entire race. This has been, one might say, a year for surprises.”
I was really taking a verbal beating on the whole slave thing tonight, huh. Was this what if felt like to be the Akua of a situation?
“Subtle has never been my strength,” I admitted. “It was a bad habit even before Winter filled my veins with pure ‘walk off dismemberment’ juice. Not sure I can shake it at this point.”
Or even that I should, to be honest. I’d run into one dead end after another since I started trying to play queenly games with my opponents. It wasn’t that I was awful at those – with the Woe at my back, I’d made sport of my opposition within Callow – so much that my enemies were just outright better at them. It was no excuse to cease learning, but on the other hand had it not been a kind of arrogance to believe that with so little schooling I could stand on equal footing with the likes of Hasenbach or Malicia when it came to their preferred methods? My own were brutish and clumsy things, but in the end I’d accomplished more with bastard ways than proper ones.
“It seems like tonight it is your flaw that will be doing the shaking, then,” Andronike indifferently commented.
“Night’s not over yet,” I said.
“Fascinating,” Sve Noc said, though she didn’t sound fascinated in the slightest. “Even knowing that my sister pursues you, you would still waste your time on idle banter. You are quite peculiar.”
My fingers clenched.
“You’re not stopping her,” I realized. “Or stopping mind-time, whatever the Hells this is. She’s still coming.”
“And will annihilate you the moment she finds you,” Andronike agreed. “It is inevitable. Even if you flee, eventually there will be nowhere left to run.”
“Could you not, uh,” I eloquently said, gesturing vaguely.
Silver eyes flicked at me, unamused.
“Why should I?” she replied.
The memory was still unfolding in front of us, the two sisters speaking conspiracy in hushed whispers, but that wasn’t the fire I needed to be paying attention to at the moment.
“I want to make a deal,” I said.
“So I assumed,” Andronike said. “That is usually the way, when one is staring defeat in the eye. What I wonder is why you’d presume I would be willing to indulge you.”
“This isn’t going to go like you think it is,” I said. “If she eats Winter-”
“The sum of your knowledge on this matter is animal instinct and second hand crumbs of understanding from the heir to over a millennium of abject failure,” Sve Noc cut in. “While your fumbling attempts to sow discord in ignorance might amuse another, I am not fond of such crude forms of humour.”
I grit my teeth.
“First off, Hierophant is a fucking treasure,” I said. “Sure he’s not perfect, but he’s kind and smart as a whip and he tries his best. Don’t shit talk my friends, it’s rude.”
Andronike simply stared at me, then shrugged.
“The hourglass is emptying,” she reminded me.
“I’ll be expecting an apology later,” I said, equally unmoved. “As for the other thing, it’s no secret I’m not the most learned in things sorcery. But you know what I do have a knack for? Stories. And we’re treading one right now, Andronike. You want to guess how it ends for the two of you?”
“This is puerile,” Sve Noc noted. “You are the one who sought me out for conversation.”
“It’s been a long my whole life,” I grunted. “Humour me.”
She did not reply. I sighed and was I about to prod the conversation forward when I felt the reason she’d not spoken up: a tremor shivering across the ground. The other half was catching up.
“We’ll finish this later,” I told her. “I need to strategically manoeuver out of here.”
There was no open stretch to leap down this time, which complicate things a bit, but the room was splayed before me in full. Including, luckily, the door. I hobbled forward, trying to spare my bad leg, and tugged it open before going into the dark.
“Come on,” I muttered, limping forward. “Give me what I need.”
There was no winning this with power, I knew. The moment I was caught I’d be swatted into oblivion, Andronike watching with mild interest as my soul was obliterated by her incensed sister. Even our thrilling little chase earlier had seen me on the defensive almost the entire time, only Akua’s intervention giving me an opening to strike. Even if I returned to the pit fight, even if I somehow managed to defy the odds and devour her before she devoured me, it would be an empty victory. I’d go right back to being an imitation of myself, only with a second kind of poison running through my veins. I needed to mold the situation so that at least half of Sve Noc wanted me to win, and so far on that front I was swinging at mist. I didn’t have good enough a grasp of what moved the sisters, and it wasn’t like idle chatter was going to get me here. Somehow I doubted the legendary power of stilted small talk would allow me to turn this around. Fortunately, I could skip the middle man and have a direct look at their – hers, maybe, for I was not sure if these were shared or purely Komena’s – memories. I’d been hoping for another pivot, hard decisions taken behind closed doors, but what I got instead was a battle.
The end of one anyway.
Komena was easy enough to pick out from the rest of the soldiers, as her pauldrons were a different set of sculpted obsidian but the rest of her armour had not changed. She was standing among a small band of drow officers, the lot of them idling behind another drow at the edge of a steep promontory overlooking a city. One I did not recognize, it bore saying. The signatures of drow architecture were there, the bridges and complicated segmentations in height, but it wasn’t anywhere I’d been before. This looked like a victory, I thought, yet the mood among the officers was grim. Unlike any other drow city I’d seen this one had walls – four interlocking sets of them, with tall bastions towering over – and beneath those there was a thick carpet of corpses. Many of them drow, but there was no small amount of dwarves to match them. Given that the city still stood and the likely invading dwarven army was nowhere in sight, the Empire Ever Dark was master of the field. Yet below in the winding city streets I could see soldiers retreating in haste, forcing aside panicking civilians to make their way out faster.
“Jakrin, Soliva,” the drow closest to the edge said. “Have your javelineers scatter the crowds of the outer district. The delay is dangerous.”
My eyebrows rose in surprise. I knew that voice. Not so long ago it’d been mocking me mercilessly. Under the helm and ornate armour it was difficult to have a look at the drow, but the voice did not lie: I was looking at a younger Mighty Rumena. Was that what it’d meant, when it had said it knew one of the sisters? Komena had actually served under it during the wars? Rumena’s orders drew no enthusiasm, but two officers peeled off to see to their ugly duty.
“The rest of you, see to your sigils,” Rumena said. “Prepare for the retreat north. Dismissed.”
The drow scattered without a word, all save for Komena. She strode forward instead, coming to stand at Rumena’s side, and I limped forward to flank it on the other side. The three of us looked down at the city eating itself alive, silent for a moment.
“Great General Who Shook The-” Komena began.
“Enough, rylleh,” Rumena tiredly replied. “Today I held command over the single greatest military disaster in the history of the Firstborn. Spare me the titles, they now have the ring of mockery.”
“It is not of your making, this war,” the woman who would become Sve Noc said. “I was there when you protested the deep raids. As were all the others.”
“It might not have been such a disaster, had we kept to the humans,” Rumena mused. “But they were too few, too far. We needed nerezim slaves if the hallowing was to happen in our lifetime.”
I let out a sharp breath. It’d been the drow that started the wars with the Kingdom Under? Deep raids, Komena had said, and all the greatest of Praesi horrors had been forged of human sacrifice. Gods, they were fool enough to attack the dwarves for ritual fodder, I realized.
“We had no idea, did we?” Komena murmured. “What they could bring to bear in their fullness of their wroth.”
Rumena stiffened, though not because of her words. It leaned forward, staring intently at the city, and I followed its gaze. It was gazing at some open-roofed temple. The structure was no great wonder, but its floor was glowing red and orange. No, not glowing. Melting. A massive creature with stone-like skin, horned and clawed, ripped free of the floor. Lava poured out in its wake, erupting like a fountain.
“I am told,” Rumena said, sounding darkly amused, “they use the creatures to heat their forges. They are not even soldiers, Komena. They are exterminating our kind with smithing tools.”
Red and orange bloomed over the city, smoke and screams filling the air, and I felt nauseated. Merciless Gods, was this the true face of dwarven warfare? No wonder the drow were still terrified of them after so many centuries. Still, interesting as this was it wasn’t getting me anywhere. Even as the two began discussing how much of their army they’d lose in the evacuation, I stepped forward over the edge of the cliff and embraced the fall.
“Now this is more like it,” I said.
The room was a barely-contained riot of scribbles. Every surface was covered with long equations in numerals I did not recognize and incantations in that near-Crepuscular I’d glimpsed in the first memory. There were piles of some strange string-like parchment scattered over what sparse stone furniture could be found, and Komena was going through one patiently.
“There,” she said, handing it to her sister. “The full transcription.”
Andronike took it absent-mindedly, a brush wet with red paint twirling between her fingers. On the wall in front of her scattered equations had red lines through them, others hasty corrections. The older sister finally glanced at the parchment she’d been given and frowned at what she found.
“It is as you said,” Andronike sighed. “It cannot be sacrifices. It would only worsen the gap.”
“It has to be the molten earth currents,” Komena said. “When we campaigned against the forest humans, they used the very land against us without relying on their own sorcery. The underlying principles should be the same. If the nerezim can master-”
“We are not the nerezim, ‘Mina,” her sister replied, sounding irritated. “In theory you are correct but it would take decades if not centuries of deep study before we could even begin to imitate their mastery.”
“We can’t wait forever, ‘Nike,” the other drow reminded her. “If you’re right, the tipping point was reached last year. The moment inertia ceases carrying us…”
“I know,” Andronike sighed. “I know.”
The second instance had been whispered and on the wings of it all semblance of vitality left the Sage. She looked afraid, tired, and so terribly young. I could sympathize.
“They’re still settling our former colonies,” Komena said quietly. “But it won’t be long before they start advancing again. They’re refused the latest peace offerings.”
“We have greater worries than that,” Andronike murmured.
Her sister’s eyes narrowed.
“You said we should still have five years, before we start dying,” she said.
“And that has not changed,” the older sister replied. “But the Sages are terrified, ‘Mina. They know the consequences of so many lost lives, and they have found no remedy in our lore.”
“Then there is none to be found anywhere,” Komena said. “Who else is there?”
Her sister looked away.
“‘Nike,” Komena repeated slowly. “Who else is there?”
“They have,” the other drow said quietly, “sought the advice of the King in Keter.”
“Shrouded Gods,” Komena snarled. “Have they gone mad? That thing destroyed an entire human realm.”
“And survived,” Andronike said. “Conclusion was reached that our kind as a whole can no longer be preserved. Yet the eldest of the Sages believe that is no reason for them in particular to perish.”
“How many times can a single band of fools damn an entire race?” her sister cursed. “They have to die, heart of my heart. I know you hesitate but we can no longer mass support in the dark. We must strike before they do.”
“If we kill them before we have our remedy, we have slain the Firstborn through them,” Andronike said.
“Gods take them all,” Komena said, passing a hand through her long hair. “As if they hadn’t done enough damage already.”
Her sister paused. After a long moment, she put the parchment back onto the stone table and refreshed her brush with red paint from a pot. Striding forward under Komena’s bemused gaze, she slashed through another few equations and then from that drew lines leading towards a rare empty spot on the wall. On it she wrote a single word in ancient Crepuscular, and this one I knew well: Night.
“We had never considered it before then,” Andronike said. “Neither of us were all that pious, and the Shrouded Gods have even been a capricious lot.”
I didn’t freeze this time. I’d expected her to show up from the moment I’d realized this particular memory would actually be of use to me. She seemed fond, I noted, of standing at my side. As if we were companions, the two of us watching some play unfold together.
“You needed a miracle,” I said. “And the hour had grown too late to quibble as to the source of it.”
Sve Noc blinked in surprise.
“An apt summation,” she conceded. “We did not grasp the full consequences of the bargain, then. We still believed it was a cure we would wrangle.”
“But what you got was a stay of execution,” I said. “The Night keeps them alive only so long as you keep feeding it fresh sacrifices.”
“As a young girl the notion would have disgusted me,” Andronike said. “But we’d both lived through the wars by then. Still, it amuses me in retrospective that it was her who balked at the terms when they were given. She cared for our kind in a way I never truly understood.”
“Why tell me this?” I frowned.
She’d not exactly been forthcoming with details so far.
“You do not understand the scale on which we operate, Catherine Foundling,” Sve Noc chided me. “How intentions fade in the face of eternity. The unmaking is in the details, you see. Allow me an example. I was of the Sages, and so unlike other drow allowed to learn of their history. They were once a great boon to my kind.”
“The same crowd who doomed you once and then tried to have another go at it,” I skeptically replied.
“They were necromancers, at their inception,” Andronike faintly smiled. “Not for conquest, but for peace and learning. They called on the wisdom of our ancestors, allowing the spirits to speak through them. Death, in their eyes, was the only sin – for it robbed the living of the wisdom of those departed.”
I’d seen the later meaning of those words with my own eyes and it had little to do with that gentle sentiment. Justifications only matter to the just, I mockingly thought. Sometimes you looked back and wondered what kind of madness had moved your lips.
“You wonder why I burden you with such tedious history, no doubt,” Sve Noc said. “I lead to a question – you held great power for years, Catherine. What did you build with it?”
Silver eyes studied me.
“What shape will your creations take, after your passing?” she said.
My lips thinned. Legacy. She was speaking of legacy. And what would mine be? Some things transient, other less so. I had changed the face of rule in Callow, left the old nobility to lie in the grave Black had dug for it, but there was no guarantee it would remain there in the decades to come. Tradition had a stubborn pull on my people. The Army of Callow had learned the Wasteland ways of war, but that was Juniper’s work more than mine and without a War College of our own to keep the torch lit the reforms would die with our generation. I’d fought wars, and liked to think most had been worthy of being fought. But that was to preserve, was it not? It was standing still, not advancing. I’d tried to bind more than humans to the Kingdom of Callow, more than born Callowans as well, but the numbers were few. A single goblin tribe, a few legions’ worth of foreign soldiers and officers. Not enough, I suspected, to truly change the threads the Callowan tapestry was woven from. Unpleasant as the thought was, perhaps the most consequential change I had brought to my home was receiving the oaths of the Wild Hunt. And that will die with me. Andronike, I thought, had been inviting me to ponder how what I’d created would twist and turn with time.
Instead I’d found I had created little and less.
But there was one thing, I thought, that I would count as legacy if I could – though it was so very far from done. One dream I was trying to bring into the world.
“I imagine the Accords will grow warped, in time,” I said. “And yet I have faith that even in their worst incarnation they will be better than the current face of Calernia.”
“Faith,” half of Sve Noc said, “is ever a costly affair.”
“Is that how you live with this?” I asked. “You tell yourself you were had, you were beaten, and that’s all there is to it?”
“You should choose your words more carefully,” Andronike coldly said.
Ah, was that emotion peeking through? Finally we were getting somewhere.
“You seem under the impression I’m afraid of you,” I said. “Best discard that, it’ll make this easier on both of us.”
“Do you believe your little shade will save you?” Sve Noc said. “It has hidden well, but not flawlessly. Whatever her scheme it will end, and there will be no salvation through her bloody hands. Not half as clever as she thought herself to be, in the end.”
“Now, there’s a lot of harsh stuff to say about Akua Sahelian,” I said. “Believe me, I’ve covered a lot of that ground and I’m still discovering fresh pastures. But I’ll say one thing for her: even at her very worst, at least she wasn’t a spineless sack of whining like you.”
This, I reflected, was not my finest attempt at diplomacy. Well, too late to take it back so I might as well roll with it.
“Are you truly so arrogant as to believe I cannot destroy you here?” Andronike said.
“That’s beyond my control,” I shrugged. “You’re pretty much a goddess at this point, you could snuff me out like a candle at any point and there’s nothing I can do about it. But hey, not even an hour ago I lied down to die in the snow. As far as I’m concerned every moment from now on is an unexpected turnout, so if I’m about to be sent Below I might as well speak my mind first. You’re getting on my nerves, y’see, because behind all the bluster you’re a coward.”
“Your opinion is less than dust,” Sve Noc frigidly replied.
“So you got screwed by your deal with the Gods Below,” I said. “Surprise, who could possibly have seen that coming except literally anyone who ever read a history book not written by the violently mad. Still, I’m in no position to cast stones for bad bargains, given my record, so there you get a pass. Where you don’t is that over a thousand years have passed and the Everdark is still a murderous clusterfuck. If anything it’s gotten worse with the years.”
“It is as it must be to maintain the Night,” Andronike said. “Every grim beat of it.”
“And you’re proud of that?” I said. “Of maintaining this? It’s one thing to make a desperate mistake, but you’ve kept it going ever since.”
“Until today,” Sve Noc harshly replied. “Until you delivered yourself into our hands.”
“Can you not learn?” I hissed. “The Gods Below helped you into this mess in the first place and you’re still doing what they want.”
She rocked back in surprise.
“How do you think this goes for you, Andronike?” I pressed. “They throw two bears into pit, you come out with your teeth red and it’s all over? You do this, you give them the victory they want, and they own you all twice over. There’s no slipping a noose you tightened yourself.”
“The debt-” she began.
“- isn’t even the point,” I interrupted heatedly. “You think Winter is going to make things better? Its fae were almost as bad as devils, Andronike. Devils. Let that sink in for a moment. They’ll still have their hand up your ass, only this time it’s permanent instead of a ritual and you will never, ever be rid of it.”
“And being made into your pets is better?” she snarled. “An army of slaves to die for your cause, then sent away in some remote corner to rot when the usefulness has passed.”
“You’re right,” I said.
For the second time tonight, I took her by surprise.
“You’re absolutely right,” I admitted. “If I still bore my mantle I might be ranting about how it’s the lesser evil and at least with a leash on you’d be doing some good, but that’s honestly disgusting. So is what you made of your people, but it doesn’t excuse what I planned to do in the slightest. I was wrong, and it might mean dust to you but I apologize. I treated you like rabid animals in need of shackles instead of a people brutalized by circumstance and I can only be ashamed of it.”
“You are mad,” Andronike said.
There was an undertone of awe to the statement.
“I am angry,” I correcting, baring a grin that was all teeth and defiance. “Truth is, Andronike, I’ve been angry all my life. At the Praesi for owning my people, at my people for being owned. At my father, for being so much less than he could be. At my friends, for even needing someone like me. At myself for the trail of smoking ruins I’ve left in my wake. At my enemies, for just refusing to listen. I’ve been angry for so long that without the anger there’d be nothing left of me. It’s who I am.”
I bitterly laughed.
“And most of all, I’m angry I never left the fucking Pit,” I told her. “Because you and I, we’re not saviours or monsters or anything half as grand – we’re the entertainment, Sve Noc. We take out our pain on each other and their tally moves with the groaning weight of the dead.”
“There is nothing else,” Andronike said.
“There is,” I quietly replied. “We don’t claw at each other like animals. We help each other out of the pit instead.”
Eyes met, silver to brown.
“They can’t play shatranj if the pieces don’t listen,” I told her. “So I could say I want to make a deal, but that’s the wrong way isn’t it? This isn’t a competition, it’s not about winning. There doesn’t need to be a loser.”
I offered her a hand.
“You have my help, if you want it,” I said. “And there are hardly words for how very badly I need yours.”
Slowly, her arm rose. Then she struck like snake and seized me by the throat.
Damnit Akua, I thought, you broke the power of friendship.