“There is no such thing as an unusable army, only armies that are not properly used.”– Aretha the Raven, Nicaean general
We did not come as an army, not the kind I’d raised and led and fought against. The Firstborn followed in my wake like a trail of colourful armed gangs, advancing without formation and answering to no single general. Ten thousand of the Firstborn had come raiding with me, the eerie grace of their stride belying the disorder of their advance. Few of their sigils resembled each other, be it in looks or composition. My old servant Lord Soln now led hardened elites in steel and obsidian, its circular sigil of grey and red painted over faces and mail, while the numerous sigil of Mighty Kuresnik eschewed armour entirely in favour of long barbed spears and dyed green hair like their sigil-holder.
Through the winding hills of the Twilight Ways they followed me in silence, my dead mount’s gallop keeping me ahead of even the quickest among them. Of the sigils that had answered my call, the greatest Mighty were Soln – once a lord in my short-lived Peerage, and still instinctively deferential to me even when it preferred otherwise – and Sudone, who back during the Iserran campaign had once challenged me and since been taught better. Three days stripped of all Night had humbled it, but though fear had given way to insolence it loved me not. No matter. When it came to commanding loyalty among the drow, fear was more than enough. They would both serve as my captains when the time came.
And it would come soon, for our departure had been swift. It had left all the work that inevitably followed the end of a battle in the hands of General Hune and the Blood, but that’d not been a choice born of shirking but of a pragmatic consideration: so long as we took the Twilight Ways, we’d reach the enemy’s camp before the Revenants could return. Stripped of their vulture mounts by Archer and Huntress doing, they’d have to make their way back on foot and stuck on Creation. Less than an hour had since been spent treading the paths of Twilight, but already I could feel we were reaching the end of our journey. Just a few more hills and we’d be there, which meant it was time to appoint my captains.
I stroked Zombie’s mane, silently instructing her to slow her gait, and shortly closed my eyes. In a twist of will I pulled at Lord Soln and Mighty Sudone through the Night, as if tugging a bridle, and before long tendrils of shadow trailed Zombie’s hooves along the ground. The Mighty smoothly leapt of the darkness, each landing at a full run and never breaking stride. But a heartbeat later we were atop a hill overlooking a small vale where I could sense our crossing awaited, so bade Zombie to halt and the drow smoothly mirrored her. With them no longer moving, I got a better look at the pair I’d summoned.
Soln’s sigil, a ring of swords with an open mouth at the centre, had been enameled into the side of a helmet of clear Proceran make. It hid its eyes from sight, if not the long pale hair that went down its back. Beneath that affectation it wore ornate ringmail under its obsidian cuirass, going down into knee-length mail skirt ending in obsidian greaves covering leather boots. Soln had a martial look to it and bore both sword and spear, two of the three traditional arms of the Firstborn. Like most of those who had once been in my Peerage, my once Lord of Shallow Graves had thrived in the war against Keter: taking Night and loot from the dead had allowed it to slowly turn its sigil into a hardened and finely equipped warband. Its sigil-oath, I’d been told, related to the sharing and obtaining of such equipment: even dzulu were promised mail and steel weapons. It was not a grand oath like Rumena had made, but it had made the Soln an attractive sigil for many in this time of war.
Sudone’s appearance was rather more lavish. Its sigil was woven into many tresses as small coloured stones that made the wavelike blue and green patterns look like they were following some eldritch tide, almost hypnotic to look at. Its ‘armour’ was a decorative breastplate of dyed leather so heavily encrusted with lapis lazuli as to be useless even if it didn’t inexplicably have a neckline. Beneath it were only long gauzy robes in shades of blue and green, though there were enough layers its body could not really be made up beneath – but the different colours made it look as if it were rippling, likely the intent.
It was impressive and unique, as had often been the way with sigil-holders in the Everdark.
Sudone’s only weapon was a long obsidian-tipped glaive and like many traditionalists it disdained the ‘new ways’ learned in the Burning Lands, mocking armour and ‘dressing up dzulu’ as being some kind of perverted fixation for Mighty grown feeble in the head. The Sudone and other traditionalist sigils often took harder losses in battle, but the old-fashioned way they distributed Night also tended to mean they had more powerful Mighty. Those two were, in a way, emblematic of the currents that were beginning to pull Firstborn society two very different ways.
Mind you, the traditionalist here did not have the better reputation of the two. Sudone was taller than Soln in body, and perhaps stronger in the Night, but it was also what the drow called radhular. It translated roughly to ‘glad-joiner’, and was an insult some Firstborn used for Mighty who preferred to act through cabals and alliances instead of picking an honest fight. The connotation was that drow like Sudone only fought when the odds were on their side, something most Firstborn would be quite offended to be told. The essence of the Tenets of Night, after all, was to rise in power by taking it from others.
I’d been silent for too long, I realized, lost in my thoughts as I’d been. Both were looking at me without hiding their wariness.
“Watch closely,” I said, “as neither of you were with the host when we took Lauzon’s Hollow last summer.”
Lightly tapping the dewy grass of the hill, I let Night ripple out and shaped it as the broad strokes of what the location we’d be raiding would look like. Julienne’s Highway, going from south to north, would furrow between steep-sloped and tightly nestled hills.
“The Silver Huntress and her cabal tell us that the entrance has been fortified by the enemy,” I said.
My staff traced ditches and walls not only in the furrow between the hills, but also in a broad half-circle in front of them. Keter had not spared work in preparing for us, though these defences were not yet finished.
“Deeper in, we approach the Hollow proper,” I continued.
Night continued to slowly ripple forward, depicting the way the furrow would continue into the hills until it reached a bowl-like valley, its surrounding slopes so eroded by rain as to be nearly vertical walls.
“There was once a village there, Lauzon, for which the hollow was named,” I said. “Some structures should still stand, and the enemy is likely to be using them as warehouses. There will be many undead here, and perhaps even Revenants.”
In fact the village was named for a folk heroine named Lauzon who’d supposedly beaten back a great army of bandits here and then founded a village when the prince gave her the land as a reward, but I saw no need to needlessly confuse the matter. Night continued to crawl, shaping the latter end of the pass: a wavy, hilly road with several large alcoves that eventually led back to open grounds.
“There will be enemies on the road,” I continued, “but the larger part of the enemy’s camp is out in the open beyond the pass.”
There just wasn’t enough room to cram a hundred thousand people in the pass itself, even if Keteran armies didn’t have to deal with the usual disease outbreaks that came from cramming soldiers tightly together for long times. The two Mighty were watching closely, and not only because I’d ordered. There were no sigil-holders alive who were not practiced raiders, aware of the importance of knowing the lay of the land.
“We will split our force in three,” I said. “So that we might make the most of this night.”
“Wise,” Mighty Sudone muttered. “We will not find a soft belly twice.”
I nodded, then turned my gaze to the other sigi-holder.
“Lord Soln,” I said, and watched the title ripple through its frame. “You will take to a third of our force and strike at the enemy’s fortifications.”
The bottom of my staff tapped the entrance of the pass, in particular the walls and ditches nestled between the hills. Pickler’s engines would be able to reduce fortifications out in the open, but further in it’d get tricky. Best take care of that potential bottleneck now, as no one did attrition warfare like Keter.
“Leave no wall standing and sweep all in your way,” I ordered.
“It will be as you say, Losara Queen,” the drow that had once been my Lord of Shallow Graves replied, pressing hand over heart. “The dead will die once more.”
My gaze moved to Sudone, whose silver-blue eyes watched me unblinkingly.
“You will lead one third of our force as well, Mighty Sudone,” I said, and tapped the northern edge of the pass.
Near the open grounds where the camp lay, but not too far out.
“Your duty is hunt down the Enemy’s ritual-makers and destroy them,” I bluntly said. “Sow ruin where you may, but it is those skulls above all others I require of you.”
It was a fantasy for the raid to be able to rid us of Neshamah’s mages, but we could at least hamper is ability to hammer away at us with rituals. It was always Binds who were capable of magic, never the lesser undead we called Bones, so great concentrations of their kind were usually knots of sorcerers – when they served as officers for his armies, the Dead King used them rather more sparingly. Made sense, considering he had a limited stock of Binds and massive hordes of Bones. Just because Keter’s logistics were different than ours didn’t mean its armies were entirely without them.
“You word is that of Sve Noc, First Under the Night,” Sudone replied, mirroring Soln’s own salute. “Their will be done.”
It would do. Sudone was a better match for the mage-hunt, given that Soln was a great deal more prone to… blunt approaches. It was no Jindrich, mind you, but Sudone was a lot less likely to end up overreaching when it hit the edge of the enemy camp.
“I will lead the last third myself,” I said. “You may pick whatever sigils you like to assemble your war party, but I claim three for myself: Brezlej, Randebog and Kuresnik.”
A pair of eyes, a shield and a swift spear. Those three, as much the Mighty as the sigils they had shaped, were at the heart of my plan for my part of the raid. Neither of the three were considered among the greatest Mighty of the host, either, so it wasn’t even like I’d be stepping on the toes of my two captains by claiming them.
“And should we both seek the same sigil?” Sudone asked.
I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth.
“I would expect the matter to be settled in concord between you two,” I said. “I have no patience for foolishness tonight.”
“As you say, First Under the Night,” Mighty Sudone murmured in reply.
Not convinced, that one. It would have preferred a fight. Sudone’s sigil had grown smaller in the years since the giving of sigil-oaths had become a law of the Firstborn, for its rule was particularly brutal to dzulu. Yet those that remained, and those that had since joined, were hard-nosed traditionalists. That lesser Mighty and even dzulu would be willing to become Sudone knowing they’d be treated like expendable things had startled me, but then the Everdark’s traditions were not something easily set aside even when those traditions were at your expense.
“Might this one ask what deeds you will seek tonight?” Lord Soln delicately asked.
Flattery and not genuine deference this time, I gauged. Not that it made any difference.
“Havoc,” I replied, baring my teeth as my staff came to rest on the valley that had given the pass its name. “Havoc is my business tonight, Lord of Shallow Graves.”
While they went about their sabotage, I was going to return to my roots: I’d make enough of a bloody ruckus that Keter would not dare to look elsewhere.
“Is it not always, Losara Queen?” Mighty Sudone laughed.
It bowed to me, allowing the gesture to end its presence as it dissolved into shadow.
“Our deeds will be worthy,” Lord Soln promised me, “of an empire ever dark.”
It followed suit, though not quite as smoothly. As for me, I closed my eyes and let Zombie guide me towards the last of the distance to the needle-hole that would take us out of the Twilight Ways and into the heart of the enemy camp. Letting the Night flow through my veins, I listened through the sea of thoughts and emotions as my two captains picked their sigils. They went swiftly, the unspoken competition having hurried them as I had wished, and when the last of the sigil-holders, a Mighty Finarok, went over to Sudone I leaned forward with a smile. The darkness came eagerly when called.
“You ride with me,” I murmured.
It carried through the Night, like a whisper into the ears of my raiders. Fear and excitement bloomed, along with an undercurrent of hunger. Oh yes, I mused, these would do nicely. The sigil-holders among them I pulled to me as my mount slowed and then stopped before the very stretch of grass where we would cross. First those I had wanted most: wary Brezlej, grizzled Randebog and bold Kuresnik. But the others as well, the whole throng of them, with only the most eye-catching standing distinguished from the rest. One-armed Vudaga bedecked in jewels, Darissim with the bone-white tattoos and its ebony spear, even bloody Ogoviz – smaller than me, almost childlike, and having never worn paint not made of Mighty’s blood.
Even the least of them had been around for a century, and there some here who had been blooding their spears for longer than anyone save elves could live.
“Sudone has been made a hunter of hunters,” I told them. “And Soln will destroy the works of the Enemy. Ours is to be the hour of the sword, Mighty. Bare and bloody.”
I swept the sigil-holders with my gaze, holding them there look enough for them to look away.
“We will war in the manner I have arranged,” I said. “Listen close now, for you will bring those words to your sigils.”
Nothing too sophisticated would work with Firstborn. They weren’t trained soldiers, and though by now they were veterans one and all it would be decades before a proper drow war doctrine could be made – just adapting the Legion one to Firstborn peculiarities was bound to fail, and spectacularly. So it was tactics in broad strokes I presented them with. Skirmishers out front, the sigils heavy on them taking the vanguard when we crossed. After the first few exchanges armoured sigils would strike in the thick of the enemy, and those few small sigils that were heavy on Mighty were to hunt constructs and Revenants at the exclusion of all else.
The tactics were not new to them, and I trusted they would be carried out skillfully. The dismissal was swift, save for three I held back. Brezlej, Randebog, Kuresnik. I met their eyes, sensing their unease in the Night.
“I have a particular use for you,” I smiled.
They listened, and when I was certain they’d understood I dismissed them as well. Not a moment too early, either. Our way out was just before us, and the forces of Soln and Sudone were nearing their own ways out. Orders trickling down form sigil-holders to sigil, my third of the forces gracefully repositioned into the rough order of battle I’d outlined and resumed its advance. We would be the first into the fire, to draw the most attention.
Within moments crossed, and the hour of the sword began.
Two hundred of us, Mighty and dzulu, slipped into Creation.
By the time feet had touched solid ground, the first volley had already been thrown. Keter did not field many bowmen – bows required too much upkeep – but that hardly meant the armies of the Dead King were without ranged weapons: iron-tipped javelins came down as a rain. Two dzulu were unlucky enough to take a sharp tip through the chest before they could liquefy into shadows, but they were the only casualties from the first round. Drow skirmishers were damnably hard to kill. I batted aside the sole javelin chucked at me – it would have punched through my shoulder, by the angle – with my staff and took an assessing look around.
I almost let out an impressed whistle as a second wave of drow came into Creation, for Keter had been busy. All around us the dead turned to match the threat. Already a second volley of javelins was in flight even as drow began to emerge from the shadow tendrils closer to the enemy, but the sigil-holder for the Serbanad howled as it unleashed Night and the javelins froze in mid-air, momentum stolen from them. They clattered to the ground a moment later, even as I pulled Night to my eyes and tried to figure out the lay of the enemy’s fresh works. The abandoned village of Lauzon had been rebuilt into fortified stone warehouses, but that wasn’t unexpected.
The surprise was the scaffolding going up the eastern and western sides of the hollow, intricate sets of stairs and even pulley-lifts. In the darkness I glimpsed hulking shapes atop the hills where the scaffolding led, not constructs but instead engines of war. My brow rose, as those were rare – Neshamah usually preferred his horrors, as they could be used in more ways than simple engines. Which meant, I grimly thought, that these were unlikely to be simple engines at all.
We had maybe half an hour to spare before this got too dangerous to continue, so there was no time to waste. My skirmishers were already on their fourth wave through and they’d closed the distance with the dead, going up close with the skeletons in mismatched armour the Dead King had crammed here. More threatening were the warbands of heavy infantry near the entrance to the hollow: tall skeletons in heavy armour, wielding long spears and greatshields. If my vanguard got in close with those it’d be slaughter, so I breathed out and let Night flood through my veins. A few javelins were thrown at me, but two ispe in Volvich paint had stayed as guard dogs and they shredded the projectiles with howling bursts of air.
I struck the ground with my staff, letting Night crawl out in thin tendrils like spiderwebs along the ground. With every heartbeat more of the hollow was covered, until the crisscrossing covered the full grounds. Firstborn stepped on the darkness without consequences, which had been the tricky part, but where the undead made contact they found the working stuck to them like glue. Much less exhausting than a destructive miracle, and almost as effective: given the size of the heavy infantry and their lack of finesse, most of them were caught within moments. Those that weren’t found their fellows served as the wall they were meant to be, only this time to Keter’s detriment.
“Slayers, begin,” I called out in Crepuscular.
Acknowledged bloomed in the Night as the last of my skirmishers hurried through and armoured drow began sidling into Creation. All around me the hollow had become a nightmare made melee, deft drow dancing around clumsy corpses – many stuck to my miracle – and reaping death as they moved with fluid grace, slipping into shadows and striking with unnatural strength. I waited until two sigil-holders I’d decided on earlier came through, then finally set out.
“Krakovich, Prosij, with me,” I ordered.
I limped towards the old village of Lauzon, the two of them trailing behind me without a thought to disobedience.
“Mighty Krakovich, I am told you know the Secret of Great Gales?”
“It is so, mighty one,” the sigil-holder acknowledged.
“And you, Prosij, are reputed to hold the full suite of the Secrets of Ruin,” I noted.
“A feat long in the making, Losara Queen,” it proudly replied
Good. The Ruin Secrets were on the subtle side, compared to most Secrets, but I’d found them very useful – the trick that’d killed the Saint of Swords was derived from the Secret of Marching Ruin – against most conventional defences. There just wasn’t a lot of sorcery using similar means, so most wards and enchantments didn’t account for them.
“Good,” I smiled. “Mighty Prosij, I want you to use the Secret of Ruinous Downfall on those stone houses.”
I pointed at the warehouses Keter had raised from the old village, sidestepping a skeleton swinging a sword as I did and leaving Krakovich to absent-mindedly slap its head off. Its fingers trailed down the bare spine after, and there was a soft touch of power as Night was stolen from the corpse and added to its own. Prosij looked pained, as if it wanted to contradict me but did not dare.
“There are too many, Losara Queen, and the sum is too large,” Prosij finally hazarded. “It will not be a success.”
“It’s not meant to,” I grunted. “Krakovich, be ready to call on the Gales soon.”
Mighty Prosij, either reassured or wary of arguing further, heeded my command. Biting deep into its own thumb it drew intricate patterns on its bare arm, the Night shivering in them, and only then did it begin to call on the Secret – a stabilizer, the patterns, as the Ruinous Downfall was particularly difficult to maintain. It was based on the principle of entropy, like most Secrets of Ruin, but this particular one had a vicious bent: it went for the weakest part of what it meant to unmake and poured the curse there. In people, that usually meant bursting eyes or the brain, but anyone with Night could fight the curse off so it was usually used on artefacts or structures instead.
When it got unleashed on a dozen stone warehouses instead, it proved thin. Weakened. Which didn’t matter because I’d never meant for the Secret to actually break the stone: what it did, what I’d wanted it to do, was find the weak parts of the buildings and then attack them. Sorcery immediately flared as the defensive wards laid into the stonework by Keteran mages protected the structure, neatly informing me of both the strength of the enemy’s defences and where the weak points were. Masego much admired the Dead King’s wardwork, as it was reactive instead of uniform – it concentrated power where the strike was made instead of leaving it spread out.
This once, though, for someone who could smell out the sorcery it was like shining a light on the weaknesses.
“Keep it going,” I ordered, and let loose the Night.
Veins writhing with power, I grit my teeth and went about it methodically. Shaping a great spike of Night, angrily roiling power, I rammed the strike straight into the weakness of the ward. The warehouse blew as if struck by the hand of an angry god, clouds of a disgusting green miasma erupting as a plume.
“Krakovich,” I snarled, already shaping a second spike.
The Secret of Great Gales were meant to shred entire warbands approaching through tunnels, but it wasn’t the force I’d been after when I’d chosen someone who could use it – it was the size. Correctly divining my intent, Mighty Krakovich drew the cloud of poison that would have spread across the hollow and guided it up into the sky where it could not massacre my entire raiding force. The Dead King did like his poisons, and he would have made sure to keep those both close to the front and under a roof, where the containers would not be damaged by the elements. We went about it in good order, smashing one warehouse after another.
By the last one Krakovich was panting heavily and Prosij looked about to pass out, but we’d left only rubble and poisoned sky where Keter’s poisonous munitions had been held. That alone would make the raid worth it.
“Well done,” I said. “Retreat to your sigils. This is about to get a great deal more unpleasant.”
How many dead had there been in the hollow when we’d first come? A thousand, I figured, maybe two. Not as much as could have been placed here, even though it was a significant amount. By now most the last waves of my raiders were almost done coming through and we’d effectively taken the hollow, though of course trying to keep it would have been madness. We were a cork on a river, not a dam, and Firstborn were not good defensive fighters. The last few holdouts of the dead were heavies, pockets of a few dozens being taken apart by lesser Mighty and drained of Night, but I knew better than to think this a victory. There had been no constructs here, no Revenants. We’d not been contested, and though the poison had been a loss for Keter it wasn’t a major one – if they truly had a Crab close, then not only would they have replacements but they could likely make more. It’d been bait.
Lauzon’s Hollow was defending itself too poorly. Mighty Soln would be hitting the positions ahead of us by now and Mighty Sudone be sowing chaos near the enemy camp, but that wasn’t enough to excuse the poor performance of Keter tonight. It’d all make sense if we had taken them by surprise, but they had to have known a retaliatory strike by the Firstborn after dusk was a possibility. Were this the first year of the war, I might have been on the enemy miscalculating and believing that Ivah’s ten thousand out in the lowlands were all the drow there were on our side. I knew better by now, though.
When Neshamah made mistakes – and he did, like everybody else, for brilliance was not omniscience – it didn’t look like this. This was a trap. One I’d caught in advance and entered willingly, with an eye to the escape, but it would have been a dangerous delusion to believe we actually had the upper hand right now. Making my way back towards the heart of the hollow, where Julienne’s Highway passed, I idly flicked a hand over my shoulder. The western scaffolding went up in black flames, and with a sharp twist of will I subjected the eastern to the same. Petty vandalism, but sometimes it was the little things that made life sufferable.
“Spread out,” I called out. “Prepare for assaults from the front and back.”
Skirmishers took the front on both sides, heavier sigils setting up behind them, but I did not supervise – with Firstborn, doing so was often more harmful than helpful. I pulled at Mighty Ogoviz and Darissim through the Night, called them to me. I did not waste time with courtesies when they rose from shadow.
“There are engines of war up on the hills to the east and the west,” I said. “Go there, and learn of them. Destroy the Enemy’s work if you can.”
I dismissed them curtly, and in silence they melded back into the shadows. I doubted the Dead King would leave those as unprotected as they looked, but it was worth a try. And if it went bad, as I suspected it might, those two sigils were known as being rather quick on their feet. Unlike with humans, the drow conception of honour in no way precluded running away when the opposition was stronger than expected. Safely at the heart of the milling sigils, I wove myself a few protective workings in Night – an illusion, a sharpening of my senses and a trip ward – and straightened my back. It wouldn’t be long now, I figured.
Above, on the hills, the two sigils I’d sent ran into what sounded like entrenched defences. There was fire and light, sorcery as well as clash of arms. And still I waited, almost with baited breath. Ogoviz retreated from the western heights, going down the heights as shadow strands with most of the force it had taken up there, when finally Keter closed its trap. With a bone-shaking hum, wards went up over all of us. Idly, already knowing the outcome, I tried to open a gate into the Twilight Ways and found a lock had been placed over the area.
“The first part,” I mildly said. “Now for the second, King of Death.”
As if called forth by my words, two hulking shapes rose from where they had been lying among the hills. With horrid roars, the great undead dragon creatures we called wyrms spread their wings as their eyes glowed with eerie power. There was a great clamour as the drow who had gone up to the other heights fled in disarray, a tall silhouette in armour standing over the edge and bringing up a bloody head. Mighty Darissim, I recognized. Revenant. I cracked my neck to the side and grinned. Good, Keter had finally played its hand.
Now the fun could begin.