“Peace is death, stagnation of the soul. Peace is a child closing their eyes to the truth of the world: the great will partake of the small, until they falter and they too are partaken of. Strife is life and death, and there can be no more evil in embracing it than in the act of breathing.”– Extract from the ‘Tenets of Night’, ancient Firstborn religious text
Rumena waited, patient.
Many of the Mighty were growing restless, eager to seek excellence through strife as the… cattle around them did, but the once-and-again general knew better. The Enemy had sent hordes to batter the walls and the gates, but the Pale Crown was not one to seek triumph through brute strength. The killing knives had yet to be bared. The Mighty studied another of its kind, Mighty Borislava, as it sat on the bares stone of the street with its eyes closed. Night pulsed from it in weak waves, a feat of control considering the strength of the Secret being used. Borislava suddenly breathed out, its silver-pierced face twisting into a smile.
“They are found,” Mighty Borislava rasped out. “The tunnels expand too quickly to be dug by hand or pick. The Enemy has brought acid-worms.”
Rumena nodded, expressing no displeasure. That worms were not unexpected, though this marked the first instance they were used on any front but Serolen or the Pass. This cattle-city of Hainaut was as jaws of steel, the general had come to suspect, a trap laid for any unwary foot willing to step into it. Soon enough they would begin to feel the bite of those teeth,
“How many breaches?” Rumena asked.
“I have found seven, General,” Borislava said. “Five of these along the western shore of the basin.”
Reluctantly, it added that it might have missed a few tunnels whilst looking. Good, Rumena would not need to discipline it again. Borislava usually required such a firm hand only every half century or so, and had earned that raspy voice the first time it had allowed its pride to delude it into thinking it might replace Rumena as sigil-holder, but its usefulness in the southern expedition was feeding the pride again. Perhaps the old Firstborn would not need to end it before they reached their fourth century together.
“Zarkan,” the general called out, without turning
The rylleh had been still and silent, knowing that even though bearing the title it was the weakest of its rank among the Rumena and should be wary of giving offence. Wise, though lacking in audacity. The mark of one who was to be slain and harvested before it could reach any significant measure of power. Night rewarded the knife that struck, not the knife that waited for the opening.
“Whisper into the Night,” Rumena ordered its messenger. “Tell Mighty Jindrich that it is to begin attac-”
The wave rage that roared through the Night staggered them all for a heartbeat. Sve Noc were furious, their earthly forms in the sky above cawing in pain and anger. The general knelt, mastering the feelings not its own, and sent its humble regards above. Its goddesses deigned to answer, sending a flicker of thought: the First Under the Night. face ripped apart by an unnatural arrow. Near dead, though not quite. Already Sve Noc had sent had servant to see to the matter, moving with swift and silent steps, and the Eldest went with it. It was the Youngest, who had ever favoured Rumena and commanded its own affections in return, that bade the old drow to turns its eyes to the sky. Where sorcery made the firmament creak and groan, opening three great gates above the city.
Strike, Komena ordered.
The old drow breathed out, and Night flooded its veins. It filled it to the brim, seeping into the flesh and the organs as Rumena drew on a power it had not deemed worth using in seven hundred years. The Secret of Tolling Wrath was but a mimicry of something the Firstborn had been able to craft at will, ancient engines of destruction that the general had once turned on the unbreakable ranks of the nerezim as their relentless advance broke one city after another, but in the old nights it had taken a company of sorcerers and a Sage to guide them for the ritual-engine to be used. The Tomb-Maker could now do the same with but an exertion of will and power, as if a company of one. The Night vanished from it without warning, as the Secret took its final shape, and Rumena shivered.
It would not be able to call on the Secret twice tonight, it decided. Once had already set its bones to aching.
In the sky above, water had begun to pour from the gates. The Youngest cared not to suffer this affront, so see the wiles of her First Under the Night turned against a city under its protection, and so it had struck as well. The great crow had was growing, turning from a small blot of darkness in the sky to a great nightmare blotting out the stars themselves. It was, Rumena thought, beautiful to behold. And at last the Secret of Tolling Wrath finished shuddering its way through the air, striking the side of one of the gates with a sound like a bell. Power tore at power, tearing at the edge of the sorcerous gate, and it was with amusement that Rumena saw a long beam of Hateful Light spear upwards from somewhere in the city, cutting at the edge of another gate. The Peregrine was a reliable foe even as an ally.
It was after the Light faded that the Youngest Night struck, the great crow’s wrath covering the sky as its wingspan streamed with the sea of water she had flown in the way of. Bending under the weight of the water’s strength, the great crow raked her talons against the third gate and there was an immediate eruption of power. Rumena’s crooked fingers tightened as it saw the Youngest Night tumbled downwards, her shape diminishing until she was simply a crow once more and she began circling above the city once more. There had been something in the gate that had hurt its goddess, the general thought. At least all of the gates were now – another one blinked into existence, Rumena’s sharp eyes catching the side where the Peregrine’s Light had cut it.
The same gate, not completely destroyed?
Whatever the truth of it, it began pouring water again and the old drow watched as the torrent fell like sea of stones on the Fourth Army of Callow. The shields made by sorcery were not enough, breaking instantly under the impact. Soldiers died, engines were shattered and the repaired gate shuddered. Before the annihilation could be complete, however, the side cut by Light snapped and the gate exploded in burst of sorcery that lit up the sky.
“Mighty One,” Zarkan quietly said. “Mighty Jindrich has claimed the right of vanguard and begun assault the tunnels. I have word from other sigils of dead erupting from other places within the city.”
“Then whisper this order to all sigils, Mighty Zarkan,” Rumena said. “Strike now at the dead, and hold nothing back.”
“Chno Sve Noc,” Zarkan fervently replied, and others with it.
Rumena the Tomb-Maker did not say more. Instead it walked to a stretch of starlight on stone and softly spoke a word of power, its will reaching for the deepest depths of its shadow where it kept only things it had not meant to see Creation while it still drew breath. Yet it would make an exception, tonight. It would have been arrogance to refrain when its goddesses took the field.
It would put on, one last time, the armaments it had once worn as a general of the Empire Ever Dark.
Ivah of the Losara Sigil, Lord of Silent Steps, moved with purpose.
The Eldest Night had sent it to seek its mistress’ side with all haste, and so it skimmed along the edges of the Pattern to quicken its pace. It was not a fortress or a fight Ivah found when its steps slowed but instead a house. Masses of water falling from the firmament had devastated swaths of the city, including most of this street, but though Ivah saw fighting on the ramparts to the west there seemed to be no immediate threat here. Instead a fire had been lit inside the house, and Night whispered to the Lord of Silent steps that Losara Queen was within. It rapped knuckles against the door, as was the human way, and only then opened it.
This was no great palace or library, simply a hovel of humans, and so within there was only one room. The lit hearth did not catch its attention, not when instead it saw Losara Queen wan and bloodied on a mattress of straw. By her side sat the shade it knew as the Mighty Akua, though no longer did she have the scent of one who could draw on Night. Curious. The shade did not turn and so Ivah took a step forward, closing the door only to then turn to the sensation of a blade resting against its neck.
“Don’t move,” the Mighty Archer said, eyes hard. “There’ll be no vulture’s meal tonight, Ivah.”
The Mighty would strike him down without batting an eye, for though human she was admirably ruthless even with long acquaintances, but Ivah shook his head. The edge bit into the throat of its skin, but only shallowly.
“This is not my purpose,” Ivah said. “I have been sent by Sve Noc.”
The Mighty Akua finally turned towards it, her eyes like golden flames. Its face was not composed as the Lord of Silent Steps had always seen it before. It was… drawn.
“This one’s not looking to wet its beak red, Archer,” the shade said. “It enjoys its place too much.”
The blade moved away slightly and Ivah nodded, pleased to have been properly understood by such a dangerous creature.
“Service to Losara Queen is pleasant and I could not sit her throne,” Ivah told the Mighty Archer, slightly embarrassed as it was rather forward of it to speak so plainly. “I seek not Night in this house.”
“I would hope not,” Mighty Archer smiled. “You wouldn’t live through an attempt at harvesting it.”
It was always rewarding for Ivah to see others proclaim such loyalty for Losara Queen. To serve an accomplished sigil-holder was rewarding, for who should the Firstborn learn from save the great?
“Can you help?” the Mighty Akua asked. “Hierophant did what he could and I have further slowed the spread, but we’ve not turned the tide.”
“We sent for healers,” Mighty Archer quietly said, “but she’s in no state to be moved. We can’t do shit but wait, at the moment.”
“I have no such talent,” Ivah of the Losara Sigil said. “This matters not, for I am the tool in the hand of a greater power.”
The blade was sheathed, a tacit permission, and Ivah approached the bedside. It unwove the bandages delicately, revealing the deep wound below, and unexpectedly found its heart clenching. Losara had… done much, for Ivah. Opened its eyes to paths that could be tread, raised it to a position of trust and power. It did not please the Lord of Silent Steps to see the sovereign it had once sworn oaths too so harshly hurt. The left side of Losara Queen’s face had been torn through by an arrow, ripping through her eye and cheek as well as shattering the chin bone. Not a mortal wound, perhaps, save if the arrow were invested with power. It must have been, for someone had clearly tried to heal the wound with sorcery and it had opened anew since.
“Poison,” Mighty Akua said. “It got into the blood. And something more, too. An aspect.”
It nodded, closing its eyes and breathing deep.
“I know nothing,” Ivah murmured in Crepuscular. “I am nothing. I am a vessel, filled with Night.”
Power surged, power beyond Ivah’s understanding. The Lord of Silent Steps felt the house around it shudder as the Sve Noc herself came upon it, flowing through the cracks and forming anew on the drow’s back as a great crow. Her talons dug into its skin, drawing black blood, and it breathed out raggedly.
“Fuck,” Mighty Archer muttered, voice shaken.
The golden-eyed shade stared at the goddess, unmoved.
“Your intentions, godling?” Mighty Akua asked.
“I will see to my chosen,” Sve Noc said, voice like the cawing of crows. “Do not think to interfere in this, shade.”
“We will trust in your intentions,” Mighty Akua smiled, a cold thing. “Trust in ours, Sve Noc, should you overstep.”
Ivah swallowed a gasp as talons sunk deeper into its skin, tearing at flesh as a mind infinitely greater than its own moved its hand to rest against Losara Queen’s forehead. Night flared, moving into the First Under the Night’s body, and knowledge came to the rylleh.
“It is a poison that resist sorcery,” Ivah spoke for its goddess. “And it was empowered, as was the arrow, by an aspect.”
Night slithered down the veins of the unconscious queen, feeling out the transcendent nature of the wound, and Ivah cocked its head to the side.
“Murder,” the Lord of Silent Steps conveyed. “That is the essence of the trouble, the concept that seeks to kill her even now. This ‘Hawk’ was no servant of the Pale Gods when she still drew breath.”
“But you can fix it?” Mighty Archer pressed.
“It can be done,” Ivah agreed, bowing to the pressure in its mind. “But it will not be a panacea. The eye is gone for good, and a scar will remain.”
“Fuck,” Mighty Archer cursed. “Would the Pilgrim do better? He said he couldn’t, when he came to pick up Masego, but if we lean on the Ophanim through him…”
“It will make no difference,” Ivah regretfully said. “An aspect is an aspect. Sve Noc must see to it now, before the wound worsens, and you are given warning that it will be hours before Losara Queen wakes.”
The two humans traded glances, Mighty Archer hesitating.
“Go,” Mighty Akua said. “I will stay.’
“You sure?” Mighty Archer asked.
“Trust me,” the shade replied, wryly smiling.
There was a heartbeat of silence between them, until Mighty Archer nodded.
“I do,” she said, sounding almost surprised. “Take care of her, Akua.”
The shade went still, and somehow looked pained. Mighty Archer offered them all a hard smile.
“Meanwhile, I’m going to go express my displeasure to the Hawk.”
Mighty Jindrich picked up the corpse by the throat, idly tossing it down the tunnel.
Its armour clattered as it toppled another few skeletons, the lot of them ending up in a writhing pile. Jindrich advanced on two legs, head slightly bent for the height of the tunnel, and fell upon the pack. One strike was enough to plaster a skeleton into the stone of the wall, another was stomped to dust and out of bored disgust the sigil-holder smashed the last two’s heads into each other until both broke.
“Disappointing,” Mighty Jindrich said. “There has not been worthy strife since we slew the worms.”
“We could head back,” Mighty Lasmir said. “Head down another breach, see if there is stiffer resistance there.”
Lasmir was sill growing back the arm it had lost to the acid spit, having not found enough dead flesh to devour for the Secret of Consumption to truly show its worth. There was a reason Jindrich had never bothered to kill Lasmir for it even before the First Under the Night had decreed that Firstborn of the southern expedition could not slay each other.
“No,” the sigil-holder decided. “The Tomb-Maker implied there would be worthy strife, should we push far enough. We will quicken the pace instead.”
The rylleh bowed, passing the order down to the rest of the sigil as it had been meant to. The breach they’d forced had been a pleasant fight, but below the cattle-city the dead had seemingly dug a maze of tunnels. Jindrich found the feeling of treading underground stone once more sweet, yet it had found little opposition aside from a continuous flow of skeletons. Even splitting the sigil down several tunnels had not yielded greater prey, but the sigil-holder was wise to the Enemy’s ways. Once, a very long time ago, Jindrich of Great Strycht had wielded a pick and dug tunnels for souls it had believed to be wise. Sve Noc had shown it a better path, the true path, but it had not forgot. These tunnels were for moving around, but there would be somewhere further below where the broken stone would be dragged so it could be thrown away instead of clog up tunnels.
There, Mighty Jindrich decided, there would be enemies worth destroying.
Its sigil moved swiftly after the order was given. They ran into undead, a larger battalion standing together – forty dead, armoured and armed – which was a good sign and decent entertainment. Mighty Draha was allowed to use the Secret of Impalement to stick them all in a line before they were smashed into the walls until destroyed. Always good for a laugh. Until then the tunnels had been a slope, but after this they were a sheer drop with an iron ladder going down. Promising, Mighty Jindrich decided, and leapt. It landed atop the helm of a skeleton, crushing it with its weight, and let out an approving noise at what it beheld: a great cavern that was a hive of tunnels, swarming with corpses and dead stitched-up monsters. Even a few of the Greater Dead, these who had been Named in life, if its eyes were not being fooled.
The sigil-holder smiled, power thrumming in its flesh as it began to let it loose.
“You will be Night,” Mighty Jindrich promised.
“You trespass on the realm of the dead,” a voice replied. “And so will join them.”
A tall silhouette, in heavy armour and bearing a large morningstar, strode forward.
“You are the one they call Mantle, yes?” Jindrich grinned.
The Greater Dead spoke not a word, but the sudden darkness not even Mighty could see through was answer enough. Mighty Jindrich laughed, letting Night rip through it and rent its body asunder before reforming it with a shell of Night.
Finally, strife worth having.
The lamellar of steel and obsidian still fit as it had when Rumema had been young, tightened at the hip with a belt, and the red-plumed helmet was still comfortable around its long pale hair. The marks of the ancient honours bestowed on it under the Empire Ever Dark, that of Great General Who Shook The World and Victorious Commander of the South, each claimed a shoulder with twisted braids of gold and iron. And at General Rumena’s hip, the long single-edged sword of steel it had once borne into battle rested comfortably. Waiting, eager to be used at last after all this time. Sighing, the old drow straightened its back and heard it crack as if someone were treading on twigs. It popped its shoulders, loosening them, and only then did it lay a hand on the pommel of its sword.
“Mighty Borislava,” the general said.
“I listen, Mighty One,” Borislava cautiously said.
None of Rumena’s sigil had ever seen it wear the armour. It had even the strongest of its rylleh feeling… cautious. A refreshing feeling, it would admit.
“You are to command the sigil in my absence,” Rumena said. “Look for breaches and settle them, ensure the cattle are not overwhelmed.”
“It will be done, Mighty One,” the other drow replied. “If this one may enquire, what is it the Mighty One intends?”
Rumena’s fingers tightened around its sword, and slowly it unsheathed the blade.
“Do you know why they call me the Tomb-Maker, child?” the general said.
“The tale is well-known, Mighty One,” the Mighty said. “You slew many a sigil, in your pursuit of Mighty Kurosiv’s end.”
“The truth is older than that,” Rumena chuckled. “Ysengral, I am told, meant it as a compliment.”
And it flicked the blade downward, not to cut but as the focus of its will as it called on the Secret of Stone. The stone below its feet parted like a receding tide, and General Rumena walked into the earth. It closed behind its footsteps, a sealed tomb, and with a hunter’s smile the Tomb-Maker burrowed deep into the earth. It felt the first tunnel within moments, moving to emerge into it and stumbling into a heated strife between dzulu and corpses. Rumena wasted no time, heading to the fore and closing the tunnel behind it with a glance. Slapping the head off the nearest skeleton, it walked back into the earth after closing the rest of the visible tunnel on the dead with a flick of its sword. The dead had dug beneath the city like ants, and now were crawling like them.
Rumena was not above stepping on the likes of them.
It wove between tunnels, closing them and burying the dead wherever it passed, until it reached a tunnel where some enchanted spikes digging into the earth resisted its will and kept it from moving the nearby stone. Unimpressed, Rumena seized the stone at the edge of the sorcery’s range and moved the spikes close to the surface by indirect pressure before collapsing the tunnel. It took the time to clear the western side of the shore before moving further down, finding sheer drops leading into a large cavern where a sigil had already arrived. The fighting was heavy and the general recognized the enraged roars, having shared a city with Mighty Jindrich for some years once upon a time. It was far gone, to be this loud.
Rumena landed softly on the floor, knees creaking, and eyes the deep darkness around it with irritation. Some Greater Dead was playing a trick. The Mantle, yes? Losara had spoken of her. This war would be well rid of her continued presence. The general sped forward, knowing the darkness would be fixed in range, yet it died before the old drow even reached the edge. Unimpressed, it leapt over Jindrich – now the size of a house, half an insect and killing even its own sigil when it strayed too close – and swept a wave of blackflame through the throng of corpses on the upper floors where javelineers were massing. They went up like dried leaves, though the use of Night caught Jindrich’s attention. It struck out with a long, articulated leg but Rumena only sighed and caught the end of it. It shifted its footing, tossing the other Mighty deeper into the enemy ranks.
That ought to keep it busy for a while.
Streaks of black smoke snaked along the ground towards the general, leading back to an armoured silhouette it decided must be the Mantle. Some middling thing with a helmet looking like a hound charged at it as well, a sword and shield in hand. Disinclined to play, Rumena sunk into the stone instead of moving out of the way. Cursed spike went into the floor not long after, but it was already moving and too deep below besides. The cavern seemed to a major outpost for the dead, the source feeding all the breaches to the west of the city’s great basin. Clearing it out in a single stroke ought to end the better part of that offensive in its tracks. Slowing its heartbeat the old general sunk deep into the Night and let the Secret of Stone settle at the heart of its soul.
Slowly, carefully, it began to sink Night into the bedrock beneath this city of Hainaut. As it did, extending fingers outwards, a greater force reached out and clasped its hand. The Youngest Night, talons puncturing skin even when the touch was meant to be tender, touched the general’s soul. She was wroth, and her anger was cold ruin inflicted unto the world: her hands guided its own, her eyes seeing beyond the reach of what any mortal might, and together they made for the Enemy an answer. Tunnels moved, closing and then weaving themselves anew as an intricate web leading to the five great caverns dug far beneath the city. And then, one by one, the two of them bound the ends of the web to the bottom of le Bassin Gris, the great water basin at the heart of Hainaut.
Water began to pour, and with panting breath Rumena leaned against stone as it felt Komena begin to withdraw from it. Begin and then stop. No, the Tomb-Maker realized with dread, not stop.
Ivah of the Losara Sigil went still, as two goddesses screamed and the city shook.
It had found the waterside, returning to its sigil after the Eldest Night had ended her use of its body for the mending of Losara Queen, but the once-still waters were now as a sea taken by a violent storm. And the ground shaking had not ceased, as if some titan was hammering at the city from below with desperate strength. It turned to the terrified drow looking at it for answers, knowing it had none save for the furious howling of the goddesses in its mind.
“Disperse,” Ivah ordered the sigil. “Survive.”
They scattered to the winds. The Lord of Silent Steps could afford to spare them no more thought, for now the attention of its goddess was once more hammering at its mind. The rylleh stumbled forward, ending up on its knees by the shore of the basin. The waters were not only roiling, it realized with distant horror, but lowering. As if emptying. Before the revelation could sink in, talons punctured Ivah’s shoulders once more and the Eldest Night screeched in its ears. The wrath that bled into its mind made the world go white and brought it to the brink of unconsciousness, until those sharp talons brought it back with sharp pain. Service is required of you, Ivah of the Losara, a voice whispered into its soul. And though the talons were sharp, the voice was… cool. Soothing. A companion that Ivah had kept all its life without ever knowing it.
“We are born under Night,” Ivah murmured. “We die under the Night. All that I am belongs to it.”
The answer pleased the goddess. The pain of talons was fading, replaced with a pleasant coolness instead. Power intertwined with Ivah’s own, like a sea pouring into a lake. And the binding was deep, so deep that the Lord of Silent Steps… glimpsed. There was another crow, trapped deep below in a cage of curses and spells. Bound to the Tomb-Maker, the Youngest Night was striking at her surroundings with impotent fury. And though the plateau shook, it did not shatter. And looking closer, Ivah saw… hooks. Someone was binding the crow, containing it. Its mind was wrenched away from the sight forcefully, made to look upon the power being poured into its frame. Veiled Gods, so much Night. More than a hundred lifetimes would have let it win.
“Why?” Ivah croaked out. “It is… it is too much.”
Footsteps sounded behind it, but it was too exhausted to move. It felt as if eve twitching a finger would be enough to kill it, and still the Night would not cease pouring into it. A shape formed before it, a drow with silver eyes and ornate robes. It – no, she – bore a silver mask at her hip.
“You come at an inauspicious time,” Andronike said. “Return when we are less occupied.”
“One of you was caught.”
The voice of an old man. The Peregrine.
“It will be dealt with,” the Eldest Night said.
“Then why are you cramming your godhead into this one?”
A younger voice, calm but curious. The Hierophant. The Eldest Night did not answer.
“The Dead King is usurping the Night,” the Peregrine said. “Of that, the Ophanim are certain. You are losing.”
“If our First Under the Night was awake, it would not be so,” the Eldest Night furiously replied.
“Your weakness exists regardless of Catherine,” the Hierophant evenly said. “Do not blame others for your shortcomings.”
Ivah felt a sudden surge of mind-shattering pain, the Night’s flow into its body flowing, and it let out a hoarse scream. It was… Night was being pulled at from another side, through the other crow.
“He has his hooks in you,” the Peregrine harshly said. “This can no longer be allowed. If he devours your power whole, it means our annihilation.”
“We are,” the Eldest Night said, sounding pained, “still fighting. The strife has not yet come to an end.”
“We cannot allow him to devour you,” the Peregrine said, voice gone eerily calm. “You know this. Better to end Night than that.”
“You would kill them all,” Andronike hissed.
“No,” the Hierophant said. “There is another way. One that leaves enough they will live, if only as mortals. And with what you have put aside in this one, you will still be goddesses as well.”
“Paltry things,” the Eldest Night said. “Remnants.”
“Time,” the Peregrine softly said, “is running out.”
There was a long silence, and in its soul Ivah of the Losara felt goddesses speak words only they could understand. Eyes closed, it saw the truth of things: a crown of obsidian, skeletal fingers wrapping around it.
“Do it,” Sve Noc spoke as one, and offered up a hand.
A dark-skinned finger was laid against it.
“Ruin,” the Hierophant said, and Creation obeyed.
Night broke, and the city broke with it.