“Fear not defeat, for defeat is the mother of learning. Many a time will you be asked this question: are you worthy? Many a time will you have to deny it, until at last you do not.”– Extract from the Tenets Under the Night, Book of Losara
Mighty Brezlej, I spoke into the Night, begin.
Brezlej Hundred-Eyes was an oddity by Firstborn standards. Most sigil-holders prioritized obtaining fighting Secrets, but Brezlej had instead begun picking up sight-related suites as far back as when it’d been ispe. It had since survived not by being slaying all its rivals but by dint of the unnaturally good timing those Secrets leant it. Its sigil had been shaped in the same image, sharp but fragile and relying heavily on its keen perception. What I wanted from Brezlej was not one its more famous tricks, like the Farsight or the Nine Pridnis Foretelling, but instead one that’d been considered near useless back in the Everdark. The Source-Finder, it was called, and up in the Burning Lands it had found a use at last.
Mighty Brezlej signaled agreement and submission, and I dismissed the matter from my mind. It would reach out to me when it had results and the other two sigil holders I’d hand-picked would hang back until the preliminaries were done. Now, stuck under ward with our backs to the wall, was the time to make asplash.
“SA VREDE?” I asked in a roar.
Are you worthy? The gospel I had first passed on to the Firstborn under twilight glow, long grown into something greater than the sum of my words. It might have been my lips that spoke it then, spoke it now, but the words did not belong to me. They belonged to the grey-skinned silhouettes standing in the dark of Lauzon’s Hollow, those fresh faces bedecked with ancient glories come to wage a war against Death tonight. And they answered, for I’d given them the first half of the prayer but the second was of their making.
The nuances bloomed in the Night: shame, fond amusement, hard-toothed pride and grim determination.
Are you worthy? I had asked them.
Ask tomorrow, they replied.
An oath, a threat, a boast. They were not yet worthy, but the night was young. I did not often like them, these strange and vicious souls that cruel goddesses had placed in my hands, but there were times where I could not help but love them. How could I not, when I had spent my life taking in lost souls and broken things as my own? Perhaps it was that the Crows had seen in me when they stole me back from the brink, that I would not able to use them without coming to care for them. Even the worst of Firstborn was beautiful in its own way, and when time came for another to stand as first under the Night I would not part with the mantle embittered from my years under it.
The drow had screamed their defiance into the starlit sky but it could not answer. The Hidden Horror did, with fury and crawling madness.
With a deafening crack the sides of the hills broke open in showers of stone, horrors crawling out with ear-splitting shrieks. Above us the stars were blotted out by great wings as the wyrms roared, spewing out clouds of poison onto my raiders as the great war engines atop the hills began to ponderously turn towards us. Over the edges tides of undead were unleashed, leaping down into the hollow – ghouls and skeletons and mages lit in ghostly green, spells already aflight. Among them a handful of silhouettes stood tall, Revenants clad in faded things and awaiting to unleash old horrors. The head of Mighty Darissim was thrown into the throng, leering in death, even as the first strike of the drum was heard.
Deep, slow and unrelenting it shivered through the air. Sorcery flared. Doom, the faraway drum promised. Doom. And through the sound fear and fatigue slipped into the ears of all who heard, sorcery just as poisonous as what boiled within the belly of the wyrms. Sve Noc stirred in the distance, ever jealous of the souls of their flock.
“You’ll have to do better than that, King of Death,” I laughed, Night gathering to me like rivers to the sea. “Let me remind you which of us it was, old bones, who once reigned over the night.”
I had no use for subtlety, not when I was making a point, so it was an arrow of screaming Night that shot up towards that insolently-close wyrm above me – it spun as it shot up, siphoning ever more Night from my veins as Komena’s harsh glee howled against my ear, and the abomination screamed when it pierced its belly. The Night did not fade after, staying a solid length rising straight from the tip of my staff to dozens of feet above the dead thing. Poison oozed down the length of the spike as I shifted my footing, grunting with effort even as a second hand came on my staff and Night surged through my limbs.
With a savage whoop, I slammed the dead dragon into one of the western engine turning towards us.
The belly burst open, unleashing a tide of steaming poison, and though the thing was not destroyed I had shredded its wings and body with the fall. I let go of the Night, gasping, and watched as pillars of wind turned back the cloud of death that’d come for my raiders. Eagerly, a whirling storm of obsidian and steel met the walking dead. I glimpsed only parts of the maddened melee, the nightmare suddenly turned real. Rylleh and sigil-holders split apart Tusks even as they trampled dzulu with impunity, ispe flickered from shadow to shadow as they danced the blades with sharp-fanged ghouls, javelins ripped through ornate breastplates as sorcery and Night traded deadly volleys.
Night had fallen, but there was light enough one would have been forgiven for believing otherwise.
There would be no gate into Twilight to take me up to the heights above, but then I had other ways. I whistled, with a flick of the wrist unleashing a rolling ball of blackflame that tore a hole through a tightly-packed shieldwall of armoured dead giving trouble to the Vuraga dzulu, and lightened the pain on my leg so that I might leap when Zombie passed by my side at a gallop and took flight again. Settling into the saddle I unsheathed my sword and savoured the ring of well-crafted goblin steel. With my knees alone I led her to take me to the eastern heights, where the Revenant that’d slain Mighty Darissim still stood, and my mount’s long wings flapped as she hoisted us upwards in a spiral. Striking at the wyrm had dispersed my protective illusion, but it was not with surprise that I greeted the enemy’s first volley. I’d been well aware it was coming.
Ghostly green flames flew at me in winding streaks, following even as Zombie dipped and twirled, while javelins and arrows came in swarms. Were I tired, were I spent, these could have been a threat. I was neither, for the night was yet young, and so I crushed them head on. Their dead flame I drowned out with my own, and no arrow was so well-crafted that it would not turn to ash when swallowed by blackflame. We came down on the enemy in a storm of fire, my mount whinnying with glee at the sight of the mayhem, and as her hooves touched the rock a circle of dead-become-ash burned around us.
“Come out, Revenant,” I idly called out. “That won’t have been enough to destroy you.”
The noise was soft, under the roar of flames, but not so soft I did not catch it – eyes flicking to the side, I saw the spinning throwing axe about to bury itself in my chest. Swallowing a curse I leaned back and swatted at it with my staff, narrowly landing the blow. But I was looking the wrong way, as a flicker at the edge of my field of vision told me: the Revenant was coming from the other side. Zombie kicked at the enemy but I saw an axe come down and go straight through her leg. Shit, I thought, throwing myself down so she could flee. The Revenant was quicker than her. I glimpsed a blur of pale plate and then a large two-handed axe as it went down her back, splitting her in two.
“No,” I screamed, Night already at my fingertips.
I lashed out with darts of shadow but the Revenant met my eyes for a heartbeat – a pale brown, somehow sympathetic – and stomped down into the ash. The erupting cloud covered his retreat, leaving me with the horrible slight of Zombie cleaved in half. The pieces fell, after a moment, with sickening lurch. Destroyed beyond repair, whatever light there’d been in her eyes gone from a single stroke. Swallowing the grief I’d not expected to come, I laid a hand on her flesh and dragged the remains into the Night. I could dispose of the flesh properly, at least. There was no time for more, as another muted woosh tipped me off the enemy was after me again.
This time I ducked below the throwing axe, sharpening my senses further so I might hear from where the Revenant would come. Left, I thought, and lashed out with Night. A ghoul went up in black flames, then I caught sound from the right and burned up another. I was being toyed with. It was only luck that let me catch a glimpse of moonlight on steel and realize that, utterly silent, the Revenant had somehow gotten behind my back and was leaping towards me. A working would be too slow, I thought. Night burned in my arm as I twisted around and met that great axe with my sword and staff, being forced back as pain burned white-hot in my bad leg.
The Revenant withdrew his axe and I struck, sword flicking out, but even with Night along the edge the steel found no purchase in the plate. It’d been bait, and when I blocked the following blow with my staff – spell-forged steel or not, the Revenant’s blade bit not a whisper into the dead yew I’d been gifted in the depths of Liesse – I gave under his strength, stuck on the defensive long enough for him to take off a hand and sock me in the stomach. I spat out blood as a rib broke with a sharp snap, giving ground as I fled backward and flicked off the Night on the edge of my sword at the Revenant in the form of black flame. That white plate, though, was not so much as darkened by the heat of it. Dangerously well-crafted.
“Who were you?” I gasped out.
“Adehard Barthen,” the Revenant replied in stilted Chantant, his voice deep and pleasant. “Once the White Knight, now a hound to the Enemy. Run while you still can, Callowan.”
A White Knight using an axe? Hells, an Alamans using an axe? He must have been quite the odd duck.
“Not in the cards,” I rasped.
The hand taken off the great axe reach behind his back. Another throwing axe, I decided, and threw up a quick gale of wind. But there was a flare of sorcery and it was another great axe that was revealed, one in each hand as he sped towards me. I shaped a tendril of Night and sunk it into the ground right before him, then detonated. He leapt up, just in time for my staff to smash his armoured stomach and forced him back to the ground. I swallowed a scream, my broken rib digging deeper into my flesh. I struck out with my sword, looking for a weak point closer to the knee – if I found flesh, I could burn him inside out while avoiding the enchanted plate…
An axe came down to force aside my blade, goblin steel stubbornly matching Keteran spellcraft, and he swiftly pivoted on himself with his axe spinning with him and aimed for my throat. Gods but he was quick for a man his size. I formed a tendril of Night, curling around my own abdomen and had it drag me out of the axe’s swing faster than I could move, then hammered his helmeted head with the tip of my staff: Night blew up in a heated detonation, but while the helm shook from the impact Sve Noc’s power did not bite into the steel as it should have. Fuck me, but this one was a hard nut to crack. I stole the pain out of my rib, as it was getting too much to bear.
Completion sounded a clarion call into the Night: Mighty Brezlej was done. And it had answers for me.
Though I itched to continue the fight with this strange White Knight who’d already cost me too much, I’d not come here for revenge or a pissing match. My staff struck the ground in front of me, smoke billowing out, and even as a great axe went spinning through where I’d been a heartbeat earlier I weaved an illusion around myself. Lesser undead came flooding the edge of the broken hill, as if answering the Revenant’s call, but I was just one limping step ahead. I skipped off the edge, calling Night to myself. Tendrils of darkness rose from the ground, forming into a flat bar I landed on and then stairs I strolled down as the workings of Mighty covered my back from the shots of the undead.
Mighty Brezlej knelt as I approached, so unusually short and stout for one of the Firstborn – I’d not seen many who could be called fat, though Brezlej fell well short of that – and its gaudy golden trinkets dangled on their strings.
“We have found three sources, Losara Queen,” Brezlej said. “I offer these sights to you.”
It offered up its palm, a small sphere of Night atop it. With a nod of thanks I took the sphere in hand and crushed it. My vision wavered as the memories I’d been given settled into my mind. It took me a few heartbeats to place the three ward anchors Mighty Brezlej and its sigil had found. One in the enemy’s camp proper, beyond the pass – I sunk that memory into the Night and passed it to Mighty Sudone, along with the curt order of destroy – and another closer to the front, close to where Lord Soln was fighting. Its raiders were actually in the memory, getting the worse end of a tumble with ghouls and beorns. I passed along an order to break that anchor as well, Soln replying with a sense of acknowledgement.
“You believe the third anchor is the key one,” I noted.
“It is the source of sources,” Mighty Brezlej agreed.
And it was the one closest to me: not far beyond the hollow, into the winding pass and tucked away behind secondary wards obscuring what defended the anchor. It had trap written all over it, but it needed to be sprung anyway. Fortunately, I’d already handpicked –
“No you fucking don’t,” I snarled.
The wyrm I’d downed had been patched together by necromancers just enough to start moving around again, and now instead of massacring anything daring to climb its hilltop it was getting back on its feet and preparing to bound down into the hollow. There its weight alone would kill hundreds if not thousands of my warriors before it was itself ripped apart by the Mighty. Above us the other wyrm made a pass, spewing clouds of poison and tying up Mighty with defending against them. Too many for comfort, every one of those wasn’t handling more mundane javelin volleys killing the dzulu.
The poison will win, in the long term, the cold voice in the back of my head assessed as Night raced through my veins. The gales were not dispersing the clouds, just pushing them higher. Already a dome of death was beginning to form above the hollow. The thoughts had flickered as my will shaped Night, weaving it into a cable stronger than steel. Without asking I snatched a javelin from Brezlej’s back and bound the working to it before sheathing my sword and leaving my staff to stand unnaturally still. The downed wyrm was not a difficult target, so strength without skill was enough to have the barbed javelin sink into its side.
The cable went from before me to the wyrm, protruding from a rippling sphere of Night, but I wasn’t intending for a repeat of the last time. I ripped out the other end of the cable from the sphere, spinning it out and adding a hook to the end. The downed wyrm leapt, after having batted ineffectually at the cable and found it would bend but not break, but I was swifter still: the other wyrm was making it pass and the hook clipped its belly. Both wyrms roared with dismay as the cable pulled taut, forcing the flying dragon into a fall and snatching the leaping one before it could land atop my warriors.
They both fell on hillsides out of sight, writhing angrily, and without batting an eye I wove a fresh cable and tied if halfway through their shared binding. The other side of that fresh cable I tied to a javelin – offered up solemnly by Brezlej – and with a snap threw it at the hulking shape of Keter’s untouched siege engine on the eastern heights. A hard smile stretched my lips as I felt the steel bite into something solid and the Night sink roots, just in time for the wyrms to try to peel away: one went back up in the air, the other circled west to return to the hollow. Both pulled at the second circle with massive strength. With a thunderous crack the engine was pulled up, and it was with pleased chuckle I saw that the base of the platform had been fused into the rock. The wyrms cracked the hill open like an egg, undead falling below as part of a rain of rock.
That ought to slow the enemy down some.
A tide of dust washed over us and I pulled my hood down, calling Mighty Randebog and Mighty Kuresnik to my side. In the distance I felt an anchor break. Mighty Sudone’s work, and not its only doing by the rising columns of smoke in the distance. The ward cutting us off from the Ways thinned, especially around where the anchor had been, but it did not break. Most likely it wouldn’t until the main anchor lay shattered.
“Brezlej,” I mildly said. “You have tactical command until I return. Aim the Mighty to keep back the poison-cloud and make the wyrms trash everything you can.”
“Chno Sve Noc,” Mighty Brezlej fervently swore.
Randebog was a stately one, wearing a black cloth mask going down to its lips. The yellow cape on its back somehow accentuated the tall silhouette bedecked in boiled leather painted black, and it bore a long curved sword at its hip. Kuresnik was the opposite, if anything: though just as tall, save for its dyed green hair it wore not a thing above the waist. It’d similarly eschewed boots and wore only a skirt of long metal-tipped leather strips as clothing. It had a wild look to it and its vivid green sigil was tattooed on its face, mixing with intricate tattoos of the same hue covering most of its grey-skinned body.
“Open your minds,” I ordered.
With restraint but not gently, I pushed into them the sight Brezlej had shared with me: the main anchor, nestled in the pass and awaiting our destruction. Both drow shivered as the sensation, as the Night that I wielded came straight from Sve Noc and apparently felt… purer that most. Raw.
“Kuresnik?” I asked.
It clenched its jaw, as if straining.
“I can take us close, Losara Queen,” Mighty Kuresnik eventually agreed. “But not there directly. There is a boundary.”
Around us their sigils had been gathering, still fresh and eager from having been kept in reserve all this time. Maybe seven hundred in total, most of them Kuresnik – their sigil was one of the most numerous in my army – though their lot was admittedly thinner on Mighty. The Randebog had never been many and their chosen specialty had not leant itself well to thriving in the war, but their core of twenty one Mighty were what I’d been after all along.
“Do it,” I bluntly ordered.
Mighty Kuresnik slammed the butt its long barbed spear into the ground, Night rippling out, and a heartbeat later its sigil followed suit. Kuresnik, that bold soul, had taken to the new ways with great relish: it was the first of my sigil-holders to have ever taken a Secret it owned and taught it to its own, spreading it around until its entire sigil could use the Secret of Long Strides. Not all Kuresnik were able to use it properly, but enough minds had pondered the matter that while trying to make the Secret easier to use they’d ended up making another entirely. The Secret of the Shadow Road, as they called it, was more or less a communal version of the Long Strides – one that could, with sufficient numbers, be extended to cover people who did not know either Secret.
To my eye it looked like a mirror made of darkness was opened in front of me, and after a wary glance I limped through. A tunnel, I thought, one in which I stood alone. The dark silently roiled around me, swallowing up all sound, but I could glimpse a patch of night at the end of the tunnel that was lighter in shade. It felt like I’d walked for an hour when I strode through the waiting dark mirror at the end, but my sixth sense told me that dawn was barely any closer – mere moments had passed. And still I now stood among a throng of drow, mostly Kuresnik, while ghostly fire rained down from above and sorcery crackled angrily in the air.
“Forward,” I bellowed in Crepuscular.
“Cera aine,” they shouted back.
The Dead King had known we were coming, and so made this place into a killing ground. The bend in the pass had been turned into a bastion, eight sets of increasingly tall and thick ramparts with the last reaching the height of the surrounding hills. Ghouls screeched as they leapt into the charging Kuresnik, claws and barbed spears tangling savagely, and knots of Bind mages scorched the air with their eerie flames from behind the safety of skeletons so heavily armoured they boasted more steel than bone. Lizards, rare among constructs, lay on their bellies atop the ramparts and spat gouts of flame and poisonous smoke. It was a tide of death, but it was met with vicious valour.
Shaping Night into a great spike, I hammered at the ramparts even as the Randebog began to emerge from the Shadow Road. The walls shook, but they had been warded up to the gills: I turned undead to ash but did not shatter stone. We’d have to do this the hard way. This was an ambush in more ways than one, of course. My Firstborn had emerged just outside the bend, scything through the few dead on the road and immediately turned against the heavily fortified bastion, but Julienne’s Highway continued towards the enemy camp. Reinforcements poured in so swiftly they couldn’t even be called that.
A wedge of Tusks, those great boar-like abominations with bellies full of stone, took the vanguard but behind them a flood of Binds and Bones was coming at a run. On the heights above, to the east, I caught sight of a silhouette in pale plate. Mounted atop a horse entirely of bone, now, but there was no mistaking that great axe. The Revenant who had once been the White Knight bellowed no war cry as he led his mount to skip off the edge of the hills, lesser undead trailing it his wake.
“You again,” I coldly said.
This might have been trouble, were I a fool. Mighty Randebog answered my summons, having been close and waiting.
“Randebog,” I hissed, “now.”
It nodded, its Mighty gathering around it to lend power.
“I am the curate of forgery,” Mighty Randebog prayed, voice clear and beautiful. “I bear empty sacraments and offer neither rise nor fall, only the bitter deception of the road winding ever round. Hallow me, Sve Noc, and so permit me to share your gloom with all the world.”
The dead knight raised his axe, sensing the power, but it was too late. Before the hooves could touch the ground, darkness billowed out from Mighty Randebog in a great ring. It swallowed whole the Revenant and the tip of the coming reinforcements, before coming at a sudden halt. Within the ring, only my force and the enemy bastion could be seen. No one else would intervene so long as the Secret of the Lesser Gloom held sway over these grounds: round and round our enemies would go, finding nothing but where they had come from. Now, I thought, all that’s left is smashing that fucking bastion to pieces.
I felt triumph in the Night and the wards shivered: Lord Soln had destroyed its own anchor. All on us, then.
Some mageling tossed a fireball at me, curving it past my warriors, and I casually swatted it aside as I took in the sight of the assault unfolding. Normally I’d consider sending light foot into a dug-in position to be throwing away lives stupidly, but the Kuresnik were a different story – nimble as wasps, they flitted from place to place in no way impeded by the heights and the walls. Already they’d swarmed through the first two walls, but looking at the meat grinder that ensued I wondered if that might not be by design: the third rampart was further back than the others, giving a clear line of sight, and the dead took full advantage of that.
With heavies out in the front and some sort of ward stunning the drow when they went up as shadows, they third rampart was proving the cliff to the sea of the Kuresnik. They won footholds, but did not keep them long. How many had died already? A third of the force at least. Lucky for them I’d come along.
“Randebog dzulu, with me,” I shouted.
Even as I limped to the front of the offensive, drow parting smoothly for me, the enemy began to focus their fire on me. Ghostflame and curses, javelins and arrows and stones. I raised my staff, pointing it forward, and wove Night as a vortex of wind sucking in the deadly rain. Within moments the winds were howling with fire and steel, burning bright, and with a grunt of exertion I shaped the wind into a sphere and smashed it down on the third rampart. Sorcery and hot steel erupted, carving a hole in the enemy’s defences, while I dragged myself up to the first rampart with Night tendrils and the dzulu followed with nimble leaps.
The dark filled with nightmarish visions that came almost too quick for me to react. A ghoul fell on me from above and I unsheathed my sword just in time to carve through it, staff coming forward to send a streak of blackflame into some Bind’s leering skull before it could tighten a curse of decay around my throat. The Kuresnik surged forward in the hole I’d blown from them, one even smashing the wardstone that’d been giving them trouble, just in time for the enemy to toss down great pillars of rock. I would have laughed at the absurd mundanity of that tactic, but Neshamah didn’t do mundane.
To the utter surprise of the Firstborn, Night wavered around the pillars – now shining with runes – and those that tried to escape into shadow instead of dodging were crushed. The third rampart, not even fully taken, became yet another killing floor.
Tentatively I chucked a spear of blackflame at the fifth rampart and found it became unstable just before hitting the enemy javelinmen perched there, though it still torched a few. There were more, then, and direct workings were doomed. I’d have to pull something heavy and risk the vulnerability. I called Mighty Kuresnik itself to me, signifying I was in need of a bodyguard, and let the Night roar inside the back of my head. I’d drawn heavily on my well, tonight, and though it was not empty – could not empty, not when the Sisters smiled on me as they did tonight – I was beginning to near the limit of what my body could tolerate using. It was time to wrap up this raid.
As if sensing my intent, Keter pulled out all the stops. Stones shifted and a terrible screech filled the air, swarms of insects emerging from the sixth rampart like a tide and descending. Distantly, I heard Kuresnik fending off arrows and worse. Swallowing a curse I adjusted the working I’d begun to weave on the fly, forced to adapt as the first ranks of dzulu were devoured alive and the Mighty began to torch swarms and drow alike with black flames of their own. A dark shape, vaguely rectangular, began to shimmer into being above the enemy. Sweat beaded my brow. A headache was already pounding at my temples: Merciless Gods but I hated shoving imperative properties into things.
I only had the barest understanding of them through my patronesses, so pulling on one of them always had that horrid bleed. Back when I’d been smoke and mirrors I was able to shrug that off, but these days I was at a risk of my brain beginning to boil if I trifled too much with things beyond my understanding.
It worked, though. I’d pretty shamelessly stolen a favourite trick of Radhoste the Dreamer, the Sixth General, but with my own twist on it. Rhadoste like to make large miracles with magnetic properties, since it could foresee the enemy’s approach and arm its own forces appropriately, but simple imitation wouldn’t help me with the swarms. So instead of a simple magnet, I’d leaned on the Sisters to allow to ‘understand’ a nameless property. It was, essentially, ‘bodies with Night and bodies without Night’. As my miracle flared, the dead – ghouls, swarms, skeletons – were slammed against their own ramparts as a great force repelling all bodies without Night exerted its strength against them.
“Quick,” I gasped. “Clear the ramparts, I won’t last long.”
It was all butcher’s work after that, killing enemies that mostly couldn’t fight back. The pillars that troubled Night were tossed aside with simple strength and the ways cleared as Mighty took the time to get inventive now that they were no longer being shot at. Acid and fire and curses that turned bone to dust lashed out, clearing one rampart after another as the dzulu advanced. I released my working as soon as we began storming the last bastion, spent and covered in sweat, and though there were a few last nasty surprises one of the Kuresnik eventually shattered the last anchor with a well-placed blow. The invisible weight went off our shoulders and I breathed out in relief. We’d lingered long enough, the swarms and Revenants couldn’t be far by now. Retreat, I spoke into the Night, putting an end to our raid.
Bodies were picked up where we could, and within thirty breaths of my order there was not a living soul left in Lauzon’s Hollow.