“Hatred is more reliable than love for even good men may become ingrates but few will renounce a grudge. To make hatred for the sake of being loved is to trade iron for tin.”
– Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)
General Rumena’ivedran’ikole had always hated Great Perun.
It was a pustule of a city, once a hole in the floor but later grown fat off tunnel tolls to Holy Tvarigu. And fattened it had, until spilled out of its first cavern to fill three more. Like a greedy worm it devoured stone and soiled the walls, spilling out ever more murals and poetry and shrines and backstabbing ladar that killed each other over possession of said murals, poetry and shrines. Worst of them all were the Kurosiv, the jaklavar who ruled over the snakes and had since their ancestor had the wisdom to kneel to the Twilight Sages when they began the great work of binding together the Firstborn as one.
Kurosiv fancied himself a warrior, though he had never served in any of the Empire’s armies, and Rumena would admit he was fitter for violence than most the snakes. He was also more poisonous than most if his breed, which made it all the more unpleasant than Rumena needed something of him. Jaklavar Kurosiv had insisted on drinks and a game of inic cin as they spoke, as if they were scholar-swords trading flatteries before trading blood, but that was only to be expected from a vain fool that wore family paint as if it was still the Bleakness. Gold and water-black, painted as carefully as if his face were a shrine to the Veiled Gods.
Rumena slapped down his Crow tile by the dark river, though he had neither the Sister nor the Cadaver to give it worth.
“You play impatiently, General Rumena,” Jalkavar Kurosiv said. “Are you in such a great hurry to pass through Perun?”
The Maw tile was slid down by the Flowers he had placed earlier, a strange choice. Even if Kurosiv won the entire quadrant, the Flowers made it worth only a third of the points.
“I am,” General Rumena plainly said. “As I have told you-”
“You are summoned to Tvarigu, yes,” Kurosiv idly said. “Only the Sages have not called for your army as well, have they?”
“They have,” Rumena lied. “It is to be dissolved and used for parts.”
“I would not blame the Sages for such a decision, after the string of defeats in Lidera,” Kurosiv mused. “The first of the colonies, lost to the nerezim! A hard shame to bear, I am sure.”
“A burden I am eager to put down,” General Rumena curtly replied.
The Waters tile propped up the Crow by the dark river. He drew another, the Stone, and hummed. Lucky, it was the strongest tile that did not change.
“As are the Twilight Sages,” Kurosiv smiled. “I am told they have decided to slay you so a more trustworthy general may be granted your soul and learn from your mistakes. Who interesting, knowing this, that you insist your army must follow you to Holy Tvarigu.”
A pause, the smile widened.
“Even more so that the Sages have sent order that your army should pass the walls of Great Perun under no circumstances,” the jaklavar added.
Rumena tensed, but no soldiers flooded the room. Instead the other drow placed the Fire by the Flowers, another worthless tile. The pattern in the quadrant was almost finished.
“You are not powerful enough to oust the Sages alone,” Jalklavar Kurosiv said. “Who is it you stand under, general?”
Ah, the general thought. A snake to the end, loyal to no one but himself.
“Does it matter?” Rumena replied. “If I cannot pass, I must storm Perun. Even if we do not win, you can only lose.”
The Stone went down under the tip of the dragon’s tail, ending and winning the quadrant.
“I have no interest in losses,” Kurosiv said. “Only gains. And what is it that you and your friends offer for my help, General Rumena?”
“Opportunity,” Rumena said.
The jaklavar waited, but no more came. The general did not trust himself to lie and not be seen through. There would be no more empire, after the Sisters were through in Holy Tavrigu. Rumena would not make promises that would not be kept.
“Interesting,” Kurosiv murmured. “You mean to kill them all, then.”
The general’s shoulders tightened again.
“You may pass,” the jaklavar suddenly said.
His surprise must have shown, for the other drow laughed.
“You would undo the great work,” Kurosiv said amusedly. “Return us to the nights of the Bleakness. So why should I stand in your way?”
The painted jaklavar held a tile in his hands, flipping it between his fingers.
“Great Perun is a mighty city,” he said. “Its territories have wealth and armies and food. It will grow even mightier, when the wars of the Bleakness begin again. It seems I gain from your plans, after all.”
But there was a glint in Kurosiv’s eyes, a glint Rumena recognized from officers that wanted to rise quickly and at any cost. The other spoke of might, but he sought more than that. You think to make yourself emperor, Rumena thought. A conceit, but a useful one.
“Then I take my leave,” General Rumena said. “There is a long march ahead. Shall we end the game here?”
“It is already over,” Kurosiv smiled.
He placed down a tile between the Maw and the Fire, still by the Flowers, and Rumena frowned. The Izmej? It was a middle tile, no worth much outside of some obscure pairings and tripartites.
“It the rule in Perun that the Izmej, when touched by Fire and Flowers, makes the dark river worth no points,” Kurosiv said. “It appears there are no longer enough tiles for you to be able to win, general.”
“I know the of half the cities in the empire,” Rumena said, “and never have I seen this one before.”
Kurosiv smiled at the Izmej tiled, then at the general.
“Why would I care,” he asked, “to play by anyone else’s rules?”
After the Night fell, madness spread across the Ever Dark.
The Gloom kept the nerezim out but all that meant was that the Firstborn were trapped with themselves. Angry, afraid, lost. And as the word spread that Night could be taken from others, that killing allowed one to rise, drow turned on drow. This Sve Noc – who all saw in their dreams, knew to be the deities of the nightmare – did not intervene against. It was the… ambitious they sent their captains against, Rumena among them.
When Cedna tried to devour all the people of Great Ilisiv, Rumena was sent to wade through the rivers of blood and put her down. The fools were not grateful for it. Mighty Cedna, they wept for her. She whose might would have saved us all. When they threw rocks General Rumena ignored it, but when knives came out there was no choice. A fresh river of blood flowed, and Night flowed into him. Sometimes he saw himself reflected on water and was surprised.
In Arov he slew three kings and their queen, ending in the cradle the empire they claimed they would raise. In Jenen he buried three hundred who had once been mages and now called themselves priests of the Veiled Gods, claiming Sve Noc to be nothing but devils. Their followers were few, but rabid. In Taslawa he smashed the Victorious Honoured Northern Army, whose general he had once called a friend. She had emptied too many cities to be forgiven. And with every victory General Rumena grew, swelled with Night even as the army turned to dust.
Soldiers grew old and died in their armour, snuffed out by time between victories, but Rumena did not age. They stayed the same.
Komena spoke in their dreams, and on they went. To follow the plan, to ensure the survival of the Firstborn. To keep the bargain with the Veiled Gods. It was twenty years and nine, until they saw Kurosiv again. Mighty Kurosiv, they were now called, for all the mighty of the Bleakness come again wore their might as the greatest of all titles. King of Perun and Korodor, but to reach for Ratia as well had been too much greed. Rumena caught their army in the back before it could rout the Ratians and drove it into Ratian spears without mercy. Slaughter to the last, to end the kingdom, until the last was Kurosiv themselves.
They lay broken on the ground, their kingdom broken around them, and rasped out breaths. They wore jewelry of emeralds and gold, so much and so thick it was almost armour of its own. Silver eyes fluttered open as Rumena approached.
“Ah, the Youngest Night’s favourite,” Kurosiv laughed. “An honour, that she would send you after me.”
“You overstepped,” Rumena said, shaking their head.
“Because some petty witches say I did?” Kurosiv scorned. “They are not gods of mine.”
“Yet you use their Night,” the general said.
“Not theirs,” Kurosiv said. “This, of all things, I know. Their secrets are not as guarded as they think.”
Komena murmured anger. Death, but first an example. Rumena did not disagree. It had been a fierce battle, fierce enough that their army might not ever recover. They reached for the crown, for the necklaces and rings and jewels, and Night flared. Gold dripped on Kurosiv and they screamed, screamed as the paint they had worn long before the customs of the Bleakness returned was painted anew in molten gold. Only when it had begun to cool did Rumena’s blade rise.
“They’ll use you until you break, you pathetic fool,” Kurosiv rasped.
“What worth are the words of the dead?” Rumena shrugged.
“I won’t die,” Mighty Kurosiv laughed. “I am the izmej the heart of the tiles, general. I am not so easy to end.”
“You are an eight year snake,” General Rumena replied. “And if you return, I will slay you until you stay dead.”
It was a hundred years before Rumena saw Kurosiv again.
It had learned patience and with it discretion, but none could escape the gazes of Sve Noc. Neither were the same when they met again. Rumena was general no longer: a sigil was not an army, even if it kept the old ranks like children playing. And Kurosiv was no king, no jaklavar. It was a scavenger, a carrion thing, and its sigil little better. They skulked through the Outer Rings, devouring weak sigils and killing each other when none were there to fight. Rumena did not question the orders of Sve Noc, but it had not understood why it had been sent to slay Kurosiv until it saw the Secret.
A handful of Kurosiv had been caught in a tunnel, brought to camp, and when they told all they knew they were slain. Only not all of the Night stayed to be harvested. A portion… disappeared. Like a bird flying home. Kurosiv had branded its sigil with a Secret, given them power, but when they perished that power returned to it and more.
“Leech,” Rumena accused when it caught up to the Kurosiv Sigil, cornered them near Loklava. “You are nothing but a leech.”
“I am the inheritor of the Empire Ever Dark,” Kurosiv the Leech laughed, fighting better than it ever had as its sigil was slaughtered around it.
But not good enough. Once more Rumena stood over a broken body, the two of them surrounded by corpses, and it raised a blade.
“How many tombs will you make me, Rumena?” Kurosiv asked, sounding nothing more than bored.
“As many as it takes,” Rumena replied, and the sword came down.
A century and a half passed, somehow in the blink of an eye.
The nights, the years, they no longer mattered. Rumena could hardly remember the names of its sigil, most of the time. They came and went so quickly. Only those who lasted for decades were worth the efforts. The Rumena Sigil was a bitter thing for it, but a pale shadow of the army it had once commanded. But there were no more armies in the Ever Dark. Not enough food, not enough forges – some madman was trying to kill all smiths to hoard the Secret – not enough trust. It was rare that one of the rylleh tried to kill it, but it had happened.
Rumena yet remembered a time where the title had been a rank, where to raise a hand at a superior officer would have seen you drowned in tar.
Yet it still marched, for it had sworn and though this was the work of the damned Sve Noc were a salvation, however harsh. Better the remnant of a remnant than nothing at all – and one day, they would know enough to end it. To slip the noose the Veiled Gods had slid around their necks, naming it a favour. Until that day had come, Rumena would not rest. The familiar faces that remained were few and most of them enemies, but there was a strange comfort in that. Rumena was almost pleased, when Kurosiv emerged again.
Its army was little more than rabble of nisi, but it was a great rabble. Thousands died against the walls of Great Perun, routing and returning to the slaughter in waves, but the city held. The Leech would not care, Rumena knew. It grew from every defeat, swelled from the blood whoever’s it might be. Perun’s sigils buckled under the numbers – and treachery, for the cabal made in defence of the city was rent with hatreds – but Rumena thought it might not fallen even if it had not come. For the second time, Rumena’s warriors caught Kurosiv’s army from behind and broke them on another force.
The Leech was waiting, and the fight closer than the last. Rumena’s ring mail would have to be knitted anew and it had been forced to grow back an arm. Still, in the end Kurosiv lay broken on the ground surrounded by corpses and shattered hopes.
“I had not thought you would return here,” Rumena said.
“Call it sentimentality,” Kurosiv croaked out, for it was missing half its lungs. “If I was to take a prize, why not where it all began?”
“You will be hunted wherever you go,” Rumena said, “until you renounce the Secret you hold.”
“Secrets have kept me alive,” the Leech said. “Despite the will of your broken idols. I will survive them.”
“No,” Rumena replied, “you won’t.”
And the sword came down.
The fourth time Kurosiv’s sigil had grown large enough to take a city in the Outer Rings, Great Veroky.
The Kurosiv had destroyed or suborned all other sigils for days around the city, then seeded traps all over the tunnels that led to it. Rumena led its sigil through, fighting constant ambushes from the rear and sides while losing dozens a day to traps of the like it had not seen in centuries. Several times rylleh tried to kill it in its sleep to end the campaign, for the sigil was not glad of the fight. There was little Night to gain, and too many had died already.
Fighting to take great Veroky was even harsher. Entire swaths of the city were burned or collapsed to thin out Rumena’s sigil, Kurosiv spending nisi and dzulu like a spendthrift to make corpses. The Mighty awaiting in the inner sanctum were more powerful than expected, especially the rylleh, and Rumena had to settle the fight itself before facing Kurosiv alone. The Leech had waited on a throne, amused, as it all happened. It only rose when Rumena approached.
“You have learned,” the once-general said.
“That is the greatness of Night,” the Leech said. “One can learn anything at all. And I will learn it all, Rumena, however long it might take.”
They fought. They had gained in Secrets since their last conflict, and Rumena learned the Secret of Stone. If it had not, it may well have lost. Kurosiv still had little skill that was not borrowed, but it had gained in strength. Great Veroky shattered around them, but in the end once more Kurosiv lay broken among a sea of corpses.
“Do you not tire of this?” Kurosiv rasped.
“I no longer tire, Kurosiv,” Rumena admitted. “I am simply tired.”
How could one tire without having been rested? It had been a long time since Rumena knew rest.
“One day we will share a tomb, I think,” Kurosiv mused.
“We already do,” Rumena replied. “What is the Everdark, if not that?”
And the sword came down.
It was only fifty years before the Kurosiv returned, and only then did Rumena understand the trap it had fallen for in Great Veroky.
Its sigil had been gutted taking the city, almost broken, but the Leech did not need years to assemble a sigil again. It only needed a mob to empower and spend. The Rumena Sigil was too weak and too few, so Rumena attacked another sigil and slew the sigil holder to claim it. The Mighty that had knelt were treacherous and unruly, however, and when Kurosiv’s sigil appeared in Great Iskal the battle went bad. Some fled, others turned traitor, and in the end Rumena had to tear through the sigil along after its own ended. And at the end of that harrowing battle Kurosiv waited, smiling.
Rumena lost an arm and a leg, but these could be grown again. The sword that Kurosiv shattered with its own would not. They both fell, bodies broken and bloodied, but Rumena made itself crawl. Kurosiv could not, all its limbs having been ripped off by hand.
“Four times you have slain me, general,” Kurosiv said. “Are you not yet tired of trying? It won’t be enough.”
“You are right,” Rumena replied. “Four times was not nearly enough.”
A fist went through the Leech’s throat, and it was five.
The sixth time they fought, drow no longer called Kurosiv ‘the Leech’.
The All-Knowing, they now praised it, for it knew Secrets other Firstborn had not even dreamed of. Rumena had taken its time, assembled a sigil that was not cobbled together like the last, but it was not enough. Kurosiv gained power too quickly, grew too fast and deep to be checked. The fight was lost, faster and more starkly than last time. Rumena was forced to use the Secret of Stone to bury the Kurosiv Sigil and half of Great Zorwan with it. Kurosiv came out to fight with a Secret of its own, but Rumena had been waiting for it.
It collapsed the entire cavern atop Kurosiv and Great Zorwan, then sealed it deep.
It was dead again, Rumena stayed long enough to make sure, but this time a city of the Ever Dark had been lost.
There might not be a seventh time.
The seventh time it was Kurosiv All-Knowing and its sigil that came for it, not the other way around.
Rumena’s sigil numbered four hundred and eleven, which it decided to spend a few decades to train to fight Kurosiv as a single force before expanding the sigil into a strike force. Kurosiv brought a mob that it threw at the Rumena Sigils in waves until they had all drowned. All them were dead before an hour passed.
“Did you know,” Kurosiv said after, “that they’ve taken to calling you the Tomb-Maker, since Great Zorwan?”
“It does not matter,” Rumena said.
“It does,” Kurosiv smiled. “You killed a city, Rumena. Even those sigils that were not fighting you. Now all these Mighty shiver to think they share the same fate. There are many ways to cheat fire and poison, general, but burial? Oh, all of them fear that.”
The once-general saw the trap that it had, once more, fallen into.
“You founded a cabal against me,” Rumena said.
“All will hunt you, if you remain in the Inner Ring,” Kurosiv laughed. “There is only death and exile ahead.”
“It will not save you,” Rumena said. “Not here, not today.”
“Try me,” Kurosiv the All-Knowing said.
It lasted a day, the fight. Three hours in they were the only Firstborn alive in the cavern, but neither slowed. Rumena spent every Secret it had learned since the Fall of Night, even those it had kept for moments of despair, but it was not enough. Kurosiv had learned too many tricks, too many outs. So Rumena did the only thing it still could. It pulled down the cavern on the both of them, Kurosiv triumphantly laughing all the while.
“There,” the Leech happily said. “Have your seventh tomb, Rumena. There will not be another.”
Perhaps not, Rumena thought. For now a cabal that spanned the most dangerous of the Inner Ring would begin hunting it. It could not afford another such fight with Kurosiv, for even if it won the other Mighty would slay it in the aftermath.
“You are still only a snake, Kurosiv,” the Tomb-Maker replied, shaking its head. “And when I have my eight, you will not rise from it.”
Darkness swallowed them both, the cavern falling.
The day after, Rumena began to walk towards the Outer Rings as hunters hurried in is trail. Great Strycht, it recalled, had once been a jewel of the empire. Perhaps it was time to see if any of the beauty yet remained and the Tomb-Maker might, at last, know some measure of rest.
Until Sve Noc called again.