“A battle is, in my experience, a handful of hours where one of two generals proceeds to destroy his own army while the other simply happens to be there.”
– Prince Fernando of Salamans
For anyone to come up with the underlying principles of the Threefold Reflection and to then decide someone should live in there required an impressive amount of dementia, so in a sense it made sense that Neshamah had built the damned thing. I’d seen drawing of the pyramids that could be found in northern Praes – Wolof, in particular, was known for them – but this one was of a decidedly different bent. Stone instead of mud, for a start, but where the Soninke works tended to be broad and gently sloped this one was tall and unpleasantly angular. I suspected if the monuments were going to have anything in common, it was the amount of bodies buried beneath them. Akua had been vague about the rituals that still took place by the city she’d once been in line to inherit, but Masego had been disturbingly informative about the most infamous atrocities associated with the place. It took a particular kind of people to decide it was a going idea to sacrifice a few thousand people to make something called a ‘plague cauldron’. The only reason I was pretty sure Diabolist had never been taken down there to murder puppies as a kid was that after the whole ‘murder your childhood friend’ party it’d feel like a bit of a let-down.
I pulled the Mantle of Woe closer around my shoulders after running a metaphysical finger down the chain binding Akua. Still pulled taut. Wherever she was, it wasn’t anywhere close. After Hakram informed us we were meant to split the group in two to take different doors – the western gate for Masego and I, while it was the southern one for him – we’d wasted no time dawdling around. A trail of smoke going up into the sky of Keter made it plain that our work there had not been discreet, which I assumed to be the point. Hierophant was not in a chatty mood as we passed through the colonnades surrounding the pyramid proper at a brisk pace. Whether it was our piecemeal fiasco of a plan or the loss of an eye that had him in a tiff I didn’t know, but either way I couldn’t blame him. There was much I despised about what I’d become through Winter, but I would feel… naked without the eldritch senses of my constructed body. I’d come to take what they told me for granted: tasting heat and fear, hearing beyond that even of a Named. That muted sense I had of the intents of others, which straddled the line between sorcerous boon and a flood of details put together I would never have noticed without Winter. All that, and I was only a bastard child of Arcadia.
No wonder the fae had reputation for exquisite machinations, if they had all these senses and more: it was like being the only person in a pitch-black room that could see in the dark.
“Our gate,” Hierophant said, breaking our stretch of silence.
I nodded slowly. It’d been too much to hope, I supposed, that it would be wide open for us. Instead the two slabs of sun-drenched stone remained tightly shut, which was admittedly something of a problem.
“I’m guessing hammering through isn’t an option,” I half-guessed.
“We have no hammer,” Masego reminded me gently. “And even should we employ sorcery, it would be loud and difficult to open this through force.”
Figured. It wasn’t like the Dead King bothered to build on anything but titanic scale.
“Maybe there’s a magic word,” I suggested.
The dark-skinned man inclined his head in concession.
“Neshamah,” he tried.
Nothing. Yeah, I supposed it would be a little like a Callowan wizard using ‘revenge’ as the key to a magic door. There probably had been at least one that embarrassingly lame in the past, but it wasn’t common practice.
“Could you-“ I began, but he raised his hand.
“Quiet,” he murmured.
His brow creased, and after a moment he traced a rune against his temple. A dot of light came out, and in a streak came before the both of us. It changed into an illusionary card, the Eight of Wands, and on the projection a few words in Old Miezan were written. I winced. I’d never paid as close attention as I should to those lessons – I’d had a deal with another girl where I traded her translations for my history essays – and I was horribly rusty besides.
“Translation?” I asked.
“Sparrow,” Masego said. “And I am instructing myself to remove the third rune from your artefact.”
“That’s skipping one,” I noted. “Last time was the first.”
“It occurs to me,” Hierophant, “that the confusion here might be the purpose instead of a mistake.”
Yeah, I’d come to that conclusion myself a while back. I wouldn’t work off anything this messy and complex if I had a feasible alternative, which once more took me back to the soothsaying Revenant awaiting us inside: the Skein. I was starting to get the impression we were not playing shatranj with the oracle so much as tossing handfuls of pebbles at the board and hoping one ended up tipping over the king.
“That aside,” I said. “Did you engrave a card into your own head?”
“Several,” Masego replied. “It seems wiser than keeping them at hand, where they could be witnessed. Aunt Eudokia always told me that treason is the one thing one should leave no paper trail for.”
That might be true, but it didn’t make him any less of a show-off.
“All right, Zeze,” I said. “Magic fingers it is.”
With a put-upon sigh he rested his palm against the back of my head and-
“The palace isn’t a maze,” Vivienne said, elbows on the table. “Not in the traditional sense. There’s a chamber at the centre with a guiding artefact.”
Akua got it before any of us, which did not strike me as odd. Masego might boast a broader base of sorcerous knowledge, but these kind of traps were as milk and honey to Praesi highborn.
“Three palaces, reflections in overlap,” she said. “The artefact is able to decide which threshold connects to which across the span entire.”
“It looks like three wheels on a stick,” the other Callowan said. “With pieces of twine hanging through, tying places together.”
The look on Masego’s face at the revelation was pure avarice. Godsdamnit. His mild magpie tendencies when it came to artefacts had only increased since we’d technically robbed the Sahelians of their most precious artefact. In our defence, Akua had been in the box and it’d been just lying there. Finders keepers, right?
“You found the room at the centre,” Hakram said, cutting at the heart of the matter.
“More accurately, I was allowed to,” she said.
“You ran into the guarding Revenant,” I guessed.
“He’s called the Skein,” the dark-haired woman said. “And before getting deeper into that, I have a few questions for our foreign experts. What can you tell me about ratlings?”
Indrani set down her cup, looking interested for the first time in a while.
“The species?” she said. “Nothing too deep. Lycaonese call them ‘the Plague’ because they never stop being hungry. Just like a disease, they’ll wipe out everything even if it starves them down the line.”
“Said hunger has been speculated to be caused by their unusual physiology,” Masego added. “They never cease growing. They are birthed as bipedal rodents smaller than humans, and have no theoretical check on how large they can be save for each other. The Chain of Hunger is so named because ratlings will promptly devour each other when there are no other sources of immediate sustenance. Father believes the entire species is a kind of strange Demiurgian phenomenon of unknown purpose.”
My eyes turned to Akua, who’d been standing a little outside of the Woe’s circle this entire time.
“Wolofite records agree with the Lord Warlock,” she said. “There are scrolls dating back to Triumphant’s campaign in the region that speak of a time in the life of their kind called the ‘metamorphosis’, where ratlings will transition from bipedal beings of observed sapience into the animalistic large creatures called the Ancient Ones. The few of those beings that manage to consume enough quickly enough while in that state are speculated to undergo a second metamorphosis into the elusive Horned Lords of lore.”
“Those Horned Lords,” Vivienne said. “Back on two feet, about sixty feet high, antler-like pairs spouting from the head, capable of human speech?”
“That’s how the the Lady described them,” Indrani slowly said. “Save for the antlers.”
“Well,” Vivienne smiled ruefully. “We have something of a problem, then.”
“- Burning Hells,” I exhaled. “Horned Lord, Hierophant. There’s one of those with seer powers sitting pretty in the middle of the pyramid just waiting to fuck with us through a maze-making control artefact.”
“A ratling?” Masego mused. “Unusual. I suppose the Kingdom of the Dead does have a border with their kind. Do you have the magic word for the gates?”
“Apparently that wasn’t judged a high priority,” I said. “What had you reaching for the card, anyway? Any help coming from there?”
“I was instructed not to tell,” Hierophant replied absent-mindedly. “I suppose attempting to jostle the wards open is in order, lacking alternative.”
“That’s feasible?” I asked.
“Quickly?” he said. “No. But a few hours of protracted study should do the trick. It won’t take more than half a day.”
“We’re in a bit of a hurry,” I said. “… I think.”
“This is not the kind of miracle I am proficient with, Catherine,” he replied peevishly.
Bickering would have been a nice way to let off the steam, but a notion reached the surface of my mind, quicksilver-swift.
“Sparrow,” I spoke at the gate.
The heartbeat of silence that followed echoed with unspoken mockery. Ah, well, it’d been worth a try.
“Sparrow,” Masego said as well, only in Ashkaran.
Without a sound, the stone slabs withdrew into the threshold.
“I would have thought of that eventually,” I said, not the defensive in the slightest.
“I note you did not give a precise time limit for that statement,” the one-eyed mage said.
If I stepped on his foot going into the Threefold Reflection, well, no one could prove it wasn’t an accident.
I’d considered it a safe assumption that the creepy dimensionally layered murder pyramid would look like a dusty crypt inside, but apparently I’d done the Dead King disservice: it was actually pretty pleasant in here. Sunlight, fresh air, and the decorations were both tasteful and welcoming. The unfortunate part was that ‘here’ was becoming a vaguer term every time we turned a corner of passed a door.
“Left,” Hierophant decided.
“We literally just took a right,” I said.
“In another palace, yes,” Masego agreed. “This is… not that one.”
After spending a solid sixty heartbeats in awe of the fact that it was natural sunlight and not torches or magelights that lit up the entrance hall of the Threefold Reflection – I’d checked out for most of the ensuing mutterings about ‘fixed temporal sliver’ and ‘redistribution arrays’ – he’d gotten his shit together and begun to serve as my personal navigator. Since the entire place was a madman’s nightmare of wards and thresholds, it was possible for him to follow along the metaphorical dotted lines of the wards and get a bare bones idea of the layout of the palace. Took him a little bit and required concentration, but it was reliable. Unfortunately, it was also useless: the image he got from that trick was only a single layer of the reflection, which meant the moment we left that layer we were lost again. And he couldn’t see the whole pyramid with that trick, either, which had bitten us in the ass swiftly. We were probably past the outer reaches of the palace, but the gates we’d come in through were nowhere in sight. Which went some way in explaining why it’d been so easy to get in, I supposed.
It was inside the palace that the Skein would find us easiest to contain. So why had we wandered in blindly? This was Hakram’s plan we were following, and as far as I could see it could only end in failure. More than that, we were wasting precious time. Malicia and her minions might already be out of the pyramid for all I knew.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” I said, then winced at the accidental pun.
I looked up at the ceiling.
“Skein, right?” I said. “I’m assuming you’re listening, because let’s be honest – if I were in your place, I’d want a good look at the people I was screwing with. Don’t suppose we could cut out the whole maze thing and have a civilized conversation instead?”
“Cat,” Masego said quietly.
He was gesturing towards a door we’d passed earlier, and my brow rose. The room behind that threshold – a cosy little antechamber with fainting couches – had gone dark. An invitation? Only one way to find out. I made sure Hierophant was right next to me when I passed the threshold, as I had this entire time. The last thing I wanted was to get separated from my erstwhile navigator. My reflexes were quick, but not quite quick enough not to fall. Winter came eagerly when called and a platform of ice formed beneath my feet, though I almost slid off it when I had to bend over to catch Masego by the scruff of the neck.
“Impressive workmanship,” Hierophant noted, lone eye looking down through his own body.
I glanced as well, and forced myself to count up to ten in silence. A spike pit. And actual fucking pit filled with sharp metal spikes. There were even faded skeletons at the bottom, which was really the spine in the wine as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t like they hadn’t had literal centuries to clean that up, I just knew they’d left them there as a statement.
“A simple no would have sufficed,” I complained, looking upwards.
There was solid ground on the other side of the pit, and with a careful flex of my legs I leapt up here. No threshold there, at least. Jumping from pit to pit would have been a bit much even by fucking Keteran standards. I dropped Masego back on his feet fairly awkwardly, given that I was holding him by the neck and he had a few feet on me.
“Quiet bubble,” I ordered.
The ward went up, and we tried to position ourselves in a way that would make it difficult to read our lips. Changed to speaking Kharsum as well, it wasn’t nearly as well known as Lower Miezan or the other Imperial languages.
“This isn’t working,” I told Hierophant. “We need a change of tactics. Your source that you can’t talk about, can they be any help?”
“I assume they already would have intervened if they could,” Masego said.
Was that implying the conversation went only one way, or was I reading too much into it? That was the pain in this plan – well, one of them – I never could be sure whether I was supposed to try to figure out something or not. I shifted on my feet, though not because of what he’d said. His silence ward wasn’t the same he’d used when we were inside the Silent Palace, it had no physical component to it. Not that it had helped in the slightest against the Thief of Stars that we knew of. It wasn’t a sound so much as a moving of air that I caught, a difference in pressure. My hand snapped out and I caught a wriggling form by throat as I smoothly unsheathed my sword.
“Morning, Catherine,” Vivienne said, snapping into sight.
I dropped her with a sigh.
“I could have stabbed you, Thief,” I said.
“My aspect is the only reason we managed to run into each other,” she said. “He shunts me off at will otherwise. If I remain hidden in his vision of the future, he cannot predict where I am. It is no absolute. The rest of the gambit was presuming you’d irritate the Skein enough for him to send you here eventually.”
I raised an eyebrow at both things being implied – first, that Hide could ward her from whatever means the Skein used to see us. Second, that she’d expected us to end up here.
“This was planned,” I said.
“Sparrow,” she replied in Kharsum. “Owl done, we on my tack now.”
Her hold on the language was bare bones, but Hakram had taught her enough we could have a functional conversation. My eyes narrowed. The second card had the word Lark written on the back, without an explanation. I’d taken it to mean an adventure or a bit of fun, because Past Catherine had a terrible sense of humour, but it was also a kind of bird wasn’t it? Owl didn’t ring a bell in the slightest, but it might be there were at least three plans unfolding. And Vivienne had told us we were now on ‘her tack’. Skein. Prophecy by spun thread. One set of eyes. Were we… Gods, that would mean building at least three interconnected towers. The sheer complexity of that – we did have Akua, though. Who was still missing. And the first rune-bound memory had me considering the need for a touchstone, which might very well be her. It was a good thing I almost never got headaches these days, I decided.
“Where do we go from here?” I asked. “Your aspect can’t cover all three of us.”
“Not need to,” Vivienne smiled thinly. “We hunted Malicia presently. Now by, the Skein have her on way out here.”
“By now,” I corrected.
She rolled her eyes.
“He can still move us between the layers so we never run into her,” I said.
“Before answer. Object limits has,” she said. “Can not bridge same layer. Can not go nowhere.”
“How do you know this?” Masego asked.
“Skein,” she said. “Flaw. Single speaker, must. Memory back.”
Monologue, I thought. She’d met the ratling before, that much I’d already suspected, but this explained quite a bit. He must have been a villain while alive. Which still begged the question of why the Dead King had put someone in charge of the Threefold Reflection he had to know would give us a solution to the riddle if pressed. He could have put a hero instead, and they might not have been as skilled at using the artefact but they wouldn’t have talked either. It felt like he was willingly giving us an opportunity to kill Malicia if we were sharp enough, and while that fit with my suspicions this was a test it also had me wary. Guessing at the Hidden Horror’s motives was a dangerous game at the best of times, which these were most definitely not.
“That’s useful and all, but how do we find Malicia through the shunts?” I asked.
“No go layer,” she smiled. “Centre artefact. I saw.”
She tapped Masego’s belly.
“Extract,” she said.
And she tapped mine.
“Gate,” she continued. “No inside. Cold iron protect. Close.”
“Then why didn’t we gate directly from the Silent Palace?” I asked.
“You can’t thread through different pieces of fabric,” Masego said. “I would presume that chamber to be removed from Creation. This layer, however, is directly connected.”
Then why hadn’t we done that the moment we entered the pyramid? Why leave a necessary piece of information, the location of the central chamber, solely in the hand of – I winced at the sudden spike of pain from my forehead.
“Second rune is flaring,” Hierophant murmured.
So we hadn’t. Masego and I had just never thought of it, and Vivienne being here was a contingency. She must have entered through a place that guaranteed she’d be here to wait for us – evidently she’d found it the first time she came here, she must have moved the exact same way. What if the Skein had never sent us here and we’d never thought of it? Mhm. There might be other contingencies, then. Hakram was now unaccounted for as well as the other two. And I still had a card encased. Fine, then, maybe we’d been surprisingly cautious in our recklessness. I clenched my fingers and reached for Winter.
Time to pay the Skein a visit.