Dorokath was amazed he was alive. The decision to summon the World Eater had been a desperation play. He knew that because Tonel hadn’t warned them about it beyond a simple statement of “we have contingencies in place in case you are unable to capture our enemies.”
The World Eaters were not “contingencies”. Elder Tonel might think of them as such but all that proved is that Elder Tonel hadn’t spent enough time in the field in the last few years. Or the last decade. Or ever in his life.
Despite the mission-bearers, the Assassins and the Warriors and the Scouts and the Field Researchers, being hailed as the best and most important within the hierarchy of the Shadowfolk society, it was surprisingly rare how often the most experienced and decorated mission-bearers were named as Elders.
Dorokath had no illusions that he was worthy of being considered a senior mission bearer, much less aspiring to the role of Elder. He’d achieved no great glory, and had been issued no challenging orders until the mission that landed him in the belly of a World Eater. He judged himself to be an ordinary warrior, destined for a life of service while he was young and hail enough to serve, followed by life of child rearing and work as a training instructor once he was too old to trust with dangerous assignments.
He didn’t object to that destiny. It was the life his parents had led, the life his squadmates were destined for and it didn’t require the agony that seemed to come with greatness.
Elder Tonel took that quiet acceptance as approval, and Dorokath’s willingness to undertake whatever menial tasks came his direction as proof that Dorokath was a true believer in Tonel’s cause.
Dorokath, for his part, was willing to mouth the words of support that Tonel needed to hear in exchange for the Tonel not asking for anything extraordinary of him. No perilous ventures into the deep shadow worlds for Tonel’s elite – at least not while he was building up their numbers. No lengthy scouting excursions either because Tonel wanted his troops always close at hand.
Dorokath suspected that Tonel was blissfully unaware of the mocking names ‘his troops’ gave him. They were careful to only speak them in private – no one wanted to court the Elder’s wrath without need – but there was a fundamental need in them all to find some expression for the lack of respect they had for ‘their liege’.
Despite possessing the “wisdom of an Elder”, Tonel wished to believe he had mindlessly loyal followers and so that’s what he saw. What he never looked for though were the expressions of support or adoration those followers would have been making if they did love him as he imagined.
In some senses though, Tonel had the last laugh, at least on Dorokath.
Dorokath had believed he was just following along, getting better than he gave. When the time came though, when Tonel had finally given a desperate order that sent Dorokath into extreme peril, Dorokath had gone to do Tonel’s bidding.
The assault on the seers wasn’t supposed to have been quite as perilous as it was of course. Initial reports suggested that no Pact Knights had arrived with them, and seers were not typically adept at personal combat.
In theory the mission should have concluded less than a second after it began. A quick bit of stealthing into the tent, a well timed opening strike that rendered their opponents unconscious and then a rapid trip to the edge of the abyss that would be handled by troops more familiar with long distance shadow walking.
Tonel’s description of the mission included no mention of the Titan-class resistance they encountered from the two Pact Knights who were mysteriously present, nor had the Elder informed them that he had forces luring a World Eater to the sunlit world.
That in and of itself told Dorokath how desperate Tonel saw the situation to be. World Eaters did not venture anywhere near the sunlight world. The substance of the gods’ true and final creation was anathema to them. Luring one up to the surface like that had required sacrifices. Many sacrifices. Dorokath hoped they weren’t people he knew, but didn’t believe that Tonel’s forces were large enough for that to be true.
The genius of using the World Eater was that its destruction of the seer’s camp was complete enough that even the best trackers wouldn’t find any traces of the Shadowfolk there. It would call into question the whole idea of their being present too as it was the first time in history, as far as Dorokath knew, that the strategy had been attempted. The Shadowfolk moved along small subtle pathways, striking with as little disturbance to the world around them as possible. The sheer scale of destruction the World Eater had caused would be the most compelling proof possible that the Shadowfolk had nothing to do with the attack on the seers, and by extension with anything else that was going on.
Instead of suspect the Shadowfolk, blame would turn on the other creatures that possessed the power to motivate the World Eaters. There were a variety of the, and even ones with malice towards the sunlit realms. In truth none made plausible villains for the events that had occurred though. They were sealed behind various barriers, and none were likely to waste a World Eater on such a pointless endeavor, but the sunlight folk wouldn’t be able to know that for sure.
The idiocy of Tonel’s plan was that they would probably try to find out.
In Dorokath’s view, the sunlight people avoided the Shadow Worlds for the very good reason that there was nothing in the Shadow Worlds for them. Travel was difficult there, the resources were sparse and more easily obtained in their own lands and unfamiliar dangers lurked in nearly every corner. A few brave souls would still trespass outside the light but there was little reward to encourage them to make a habit of it.
Just about the worst thing Tonel could do, in Dorokath’s mind, was to present the sunlit dwellers with a threat from the Shadow Worlds. That changed the equation immensely. The sunlit dwellers had almost wiped out his people and Dorokath firmly believed it was because of nothing more than a perceived danger. Once the sunlit dwellers saw not only what the Shadowfolk could do but also would do, war between the two became an inevitability.
Tonel had seemed terribly desperate when he ordered Dorokath’s troops into battle, his eyes ablaze with fear and unwon victory. He needed to fix what had gone wrong and any sense of restraint in accomplishing that had been well and truly abandoned.
Dorokath was frightened by that notion, but it was a distant fear, outweighed by the more immediate concern regarding how badly his mission had gone off track.
There were punishments for failure. Demotions being the least severe. Tonel’s work was easy but it also came with few advancements since Tonel valued his troops just slightly less than a case of toe fungus. Dorokath hadn’t cared about gaining rank quickly, but the prospect of losing what little headway he made was daunting.
What he needed, he knew, was to conclude the mission successfully. Bobbling the execution of a mission didn’t win you any favors, but as long as the mission givers got what they wanted punishments were few and far between.
On that front, Dorokath blessed all the shadows that sheltered him.
Waking up had come as a wonderful surprise. Death had seemed certain and in his rapidly fading memory he could feel the pain of being routinely battered into unconsciousness for what seemed like an exceptionally long time.
Even better than waking up had been discovering that the people they sought were already captured.
Dorokath knew that Semsblaine had to have been one of the other survivors. The knots on the captives should the sort of thoroughness that only Semsblaine brought to that job.
When the human woman woke up and started talking, Dorokath found himself breaking more rules.
Assassin’s and warriors were not supposed to speak with their targets. Ever. After as bad and stressful day as he’d had though, Dorokath felt a little need to gloat.
He was careful not to reveal anything to important to the captives, even though ultimately nothing he said would matter because none of his enemies would he even existed.
“Why doing this at all though?” Glyra asked. “You don’t have anything to gain from it!”
It was a question Dorokath had asked himself since he first heard of the plan to kill the Gallagrin Princess and frame a noble family for it. There had to be easier methods of accomplishing any goal Tonel had in mind.
“We must have our revenge,” Dorokath said, spouting the official explanation Tonel provided them with.
“On who?” Glyra asked. “The last person why warred against you is dead. He was killed by the queen who’s peace you’re trying to threaten.”
“She carries his blood in her veins. She is his heir. His debts fall to her.”
Dorokath didn’t like following that line of thought to far. He always came to the question of whether that meant he was responsible for the sins of the people who came before him. He couldn’t be of course, it was ridiculous to even think that he should pay for the wrongdoing committed by people who lived before he was even born. Making the queen pay for her family’s sins though was somehow different.
“If that’s true then why did you target Princess Iana? No blood from the Butcher King flows in her veins.”
“She is part of the queen’s family, Whatever her blood was, it’s Gallagrin blood now.”
That was a simple part of Shadowfolk philosophy. Family was created through acceptance. Dorokath couldn’t imagine getting in trouble for speaking of that. It was just so obvious a thing.
“So are you just going to leave us out here?” Glyra asked.
“Not those of you who survive,” Dorokath said.
“How are you going to get us back home?: Glyra asked.
“We live here, this is our home,” Dorokath said. “We know the paths that lead between the worlds.”
He was going to explain more, going to say how once they were erased, leading them would be trivial since they would walk wherever they were instructed rather than fighting back subconsciously. Walking through Shadows was as much a matter of intent as anything else and marching a prisoner who’d first desire was to escape up through the world was a receipe for disaster. Or more disaster under the present circumstances.
Dorokath was going to explain that, but his explanation was cut off by the several figures decloaking from the shadows followed a loud whump which signalled the distance they’d traveled to arrive at the edge of the Abyss.
Seeing Princess Iana being led forward by a pair of guards didn’t surprise Dorokath. It should have, but his day had been so unbelievable that one more element that was out of place almost felt reassuring.
What was less reassuring was the figure who brought up the rear of the assembly.
Elder Tonel was with the captives. The man who had never served on a dangerous field mission in his life had come to one of the most perilous places in all of the Shadow Worlds to personally overseer the events that were unfolding.
“What is this?” Tonel asked. “I thought the mission against the seers was a total failure?”
“No my lord,” Dorokath said, “We succeeded in capturing our targets. I was waiting for the others to return before we sent a runner to inform you of our victory.”
“You and what others are responsible for this feat?” Tonel asked.
“Semsblaine and at least one other sir,” Dorokath said. “I’m not certain who else survived the belly of the World Eater. I was unconscious when we landed.”
“I wasn’t a part of this. I jumped away early as instructed,” Semsblaine said, stepping out from the crowd of guard who surrounded Tonel.
Dorokath felt a chill run down him. If Semsblaine hadn’t tied up the captives that well, then who had?