36. Θ {target} {action} Θ

Sleet begins to fall as they approach Hill #81 two days later, and the storm brings dusk early. Their hands are cramped and frozen in their gloves, and they can see their horses’ breath as they pick their way over a trackless jumble of bare limestone and thorny brush. Cave air wells up from cracks and fissures every 20 yards or so. It’s almost possible to pick out the heat signature of the steaming plumes against cold stone. Valentine starts to feel his usual pre-combat malaise. He draws into himself, narrows his focus to operational details.

Until now they’ve seen few traces of the recent battle: breastworks and trenches, mostly collapsed from subsequent rain, a scattering of discarded weapons and ammunition. At the foot of Hill #81, however, they stumble on a hollow filled with gray army grave markers: tiny cairns, each supporting an iron stake with a brass or copper dog tag wired to it. Valentine counts 28 markers in a dense grid. He tries to imagine how the troops died and were buried. Nightly? At the end of the battle? Were they buried in place as they fell, or transported and concentrated there? Perhaps a field hospital was located nearby? He realizes that he knows nothing of gray army burial practices. That shames him: Itys’ grave might be nearby.

They find a relatively sheltered area at the foot of the hill, and make a frigid camp. It’s too wet to light a fire, and there’s little protection from the wind. The plan is to camp here and wait for the Drow to approach. As dark falls and Valentine and Valykria burrow down into their bedrolls, the plan seems very shitty indeed. “Try to go into trance if you can,” Valentine advises Valykria. “I’ll keep watch tonight.”

“I can take over at midnight.”

He hesitates, then shakes his head. “I’ll sense them long before you can.”

She considers this, then nods briskly. “What are you looking for?”

“Drow use a simple sign system in the field. If you know what to listen for, you’ll hear them sending targeting and state data at regular intervals. To outsiders, it sounds like a series of whistles and clicks. I’ll rouse when I hear it.”

And so they wait through intermittent drizzle, each absorbed in their own thoughts, on a moonless, starless night. Valykria doesn’t even try to settle into trance. Valentine is almost relieved to hear the clicking and whirring — faint at first, then distinct, arriving from the cardinal points. He finds the sound almost comforting, and is irrationally tempted to answer. After about 30 minutes, when Valentine can tell that the Drow have found them and are closing in, he places his hand on Valykria’s shoulder, scratches in the dirt, “Can you hear them?”

She looks puzzled, shakes her head. It’s several more minutes before she picks up one of the packets of insect-like chatter. Her eyes widen. Once you hear it, it’s overwhelming, like the drone of cicadas in a desert summer. Valentine scratches, “Θ — Inglorion’s clan.”

Valentine has lost some of his adaptation to the dark. As they draw near, he only sees the occasional pale blur. It’s hard to distinguish them from the warm cave vents nearby and, indeed, the Drow use those for camouflage. The chatter is constant now — as they approach, they send out data almost continuously. The horses whicker and shy, yank at their tethers in fear.

The Drow about 30 yards away on all sides, screened only by low scrub, when Valentine stands and calls out in Drow, “I’m Valentine Charon Claudius Shelawn. I’m looking for a half-Drow named Inglorion from the Theates clan. We’re armed, but won’t resist.” He follows up by giving his position and state data in operational Drow, starting and ending with the Xyrec Chi:

X {location} {bearing} {raider} X

All four Drow pause for a moment, puzzled. It’s as if a deer picked up a scope and started studying the hunter. Valentine can see their small, slim frames, their glowing eyes. The leader gives the signal to close:

Θ {target} {action} Θ

Valykria’s hand flies to the hilt of her sword reflexively. “Don’t,” says Valentine. Valentine finds himself standing as a slave would, hands clasped, head down, gaze averted. He calls again to the Drow: “I’m looking for a half-Drow, Inglorion of the Theates clan.”

Valentine has the dreamlike sense that they’re being mobbed by a half-dozen vicious children. The horses are screaming and plunging in terror. The roan yanks its stake clear of the ground, bolts. Valentine hears the captain say coldly in Drow, “Fuck them. They’re gray,” as a rapier hilt smashes against the back of his head, and Valykria stumbles under a blow from the flat of a short sword.

His reason dims, blurs, darkens. He hears sounds of struggle, but can’t see his captors. He’s face-down in the dirt. The last blow is so powerful that he doesn’t feel it — he’s out like a torch plunged hissing into a bucket.

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