“Note: though ‘fell down the stairs’ is common fate for Praesi highborn, further study demonstrate this is not nearly as lethal as the records would imply. It took, on average, five repeats to reliably kill someone in this manner. The tiger pit remains most practical.”
– Dread Emperor Malignant II, the Particularly Petty
I honestly wasn’t sure this was Arcadia.
It didn’t make sense for us to have ended up elsewhere, since it wasn’t like a fae mantle was a key to the infinity of dimensions in existence, but this didn’t look like Arcadia in the slightest. Or at least no part of it I’d ever seen. There was a sky, though grey and with no obvious source of light hanging, and ground to walk on. Which was where it got unusual, because it wasn’t earth our feet were on. Or even stone. It was some sort of hard black material that felt like softer obsidian. I could handle that much, truth be told, but the shifting shapes of the same material around us were where I drew the line.
“Go into Arcadia, she said,” I mused. “It’ll be a shortcut, she said.”
“I never actually said that,” Thief muttered back.
Without us ever moving an inch what had been the sky above our heads now seemed perpendicular to where we stood, like we’d moved from the ground to standing glued on the side of a house looking upwards. I closed my eyes and opened them, which got me situated again but also had me gritting my teeth. Because I could have sworn I was now standing on the ground, but the sky was to my left and what had been the ground before was now a massive wall. One that was slowly disassembling into smaller blocks, shifting into staggeringly large structures.
“Creational laws run particularly thin here,” Hierophant noted, standing at my side like nothing was wrong. “Arcadia always did have the tendency to work on say-so, but gravity here seems purely a matter of perspective.”
“A geometry trap,” I complained. “That’s just great.”
My tutors had said I’d regret not taking those lessons more seriously.
“Shall we proceed?” Masego suggested.
“You’re sure this is Arcadia?” I asked.
“I have valid reasons to believe so,” he replied. “Do you not feel the nascent gate at the end?”
“I do,” I said. “It’s far on the other side of the… ground. Wall. You know what I mean.”
“Clutter,” Vivienne helpfully contributed, pointing there.
Clutter was about right. There were stairs, not all of them making sense at the angle I currently stood on, but also a myriad other structures: columns and bridges, towers and plateaus and things I’d never seen before. Not too far away I could see a spiral of blocks that only made sense if you went up with a certain perspective and down with another.
“I’m guessing that’s the way, through,” I sighed. “Let’s get a move on.”
We began our walk through insanity, taking a diagonal bridge across nothingness that put us on… top? Top seemed about right, of things. I leapt down at what was the foundation of a tower going the wrong way, landing smoothly. Vivienne followed a heartbeat later.
“I hesitate to ask,” she said. “But what exactly ensures that we don’t fall off, Masego?”
He managed a crouch landing, but would have tripped if I didn’t catch him by the shoulder.
“Strictly speaking,” he said, “nothing.”
I would not get vertigo on solid ground, I told myself. Gods, I would not get vertigo on solid ground.
“Reality could be said to function by the fiat of the Gods, in large part,” Hierophant continued. “This particular place seems to extend that privilege to anyone within it.”
“I should have stolen more grappling hooks,” Vivienne muttered under her breath.
We moved on to a vaguely sinister promenade of black columns, which went some way in quieting the instincts in the back of my head screaming I was about to fall and die, but then we took stairs that went down through the ground and the shift of perspective had me under the impression I was hanging from the basement of this nightmare through only my feet.
“Remember when the worst we had to worry about was William stabbing things with an angel feather?” I said. “And Vivienne hilariously failing to knife Hakram.”
“Not all of us took so well to killing as you,” Thief replied defensively.
I wondered what it said about us as a group that we frequently ragged on Vivienne failing to murder my closest friend in the world. Even Akua got it on it, these days, and for an unrepentant monster she had a scathing way with sarcasm. Masego patted Thief’s shoulder.
“It’s all right, Vivienne,” he consoled her. “No one thinks less of you for it. You’re very good at other crimes.”
“I – you – thank you, Masego,” she finally got out, soundly defeated.
Truly, of all the terrible sorceries at Hierophant’s command the most dangerous was his occasional bouts of disarming sincerity. Aside from headaches and the occasional existential crisis, this little detour into the worst of wonderlands did not prove to be a major hindrance. Slowed us down some, but less than I would have expected. The shifting structures were fairly accommodating. It was maybe half an hour before we got in sight of where I knew the still unformed exit gate to be awaiting us. Atop a massive cube of blocks, which meant I had to leap onto the side and think very hard about why I wouldn’t slide off the way common sense dictated I would. Masego had absolutely no trouble with it, the fucker. He’d taken to this place like a fish to water. I got off my knees, having learned from our earlier travels to shield my face so it wouldn’t stack straight into the new ‘ground’.
“Straight across, then we shift plane again,” Hierophant said. “This was quite the interesting interlude. Would it be incriminating to thank the Dead King for widening my horizons, do you think?”
“Yes,” I replied immediately.
“Very,” Vivienne added.
“That’s a shame,” the one-eyed mage murmured. “Perhaps just a gift, then. I would not want to be an ingrate.”
“He’s the immemorial undead overlord of a hellscape and a half, Zeze,” I said. “I don’t think fresh apple bread and decent wine are ever really in order with him.”
“Maybe the soul of a minor irritant, bound to an ironically chosen household object,” he mused. “I still have a book on Imperial court etiquette somewhere, there are customs to things like this.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” I lied. “For now, let’s-“
The ground opened up beneath us. No, it parted. Like waves, hollowing out the thick of what had been a cube and forming an eggshell ceiling above us from the blocks. The broad ramp that emerged led straight to where I could feel the portal awaiting to be born. With the small hitch of there being man sitting on a throne to the right of it, legs crossed.
“And it was going so well,” Vivienne said.
“We’ve had talks about saying things like that, Thief,” I said.
“Well, he’s already there,” she said. “How could it-“
I covered her mouth with my hand.
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence,” I growled. “Hierophant, assume hostile.”
“I always do when you’re there,” he cheerfully replied.
That’d been perhaps a little too honest for comfort,t but I couldn’t deny the general accuracy of the assessment. I released Vivienne and took point, hand on the pommel of my sword. Thief to the side, Hierophant in the back with room to manoeuver. Fae eyes meant I did not have to wait for anything as pedestrian as actually being closer before having a better look at the stranger. It was not human. Pale and thin and angular, like it’d been cut out of marble to look like a human with a too-large chisel. Whether it was a man or a woman I could not tell, or even if the label would apply. It wore a long sleeved-shirt of white satin, trousers of the same and had not bothered with boots. Its eyes were narrow and dark, and I found nothing but scorn within when they met my own. It was the ears that gave it away: long and sharp. Almost triangular at the tip.
“Elf,” I quietly said.
Vivienne inhaled sharply. Masego did not waste his breath on an answer, immediately beginning to layer protective spells around himself. Was it a Revenant? I had no heartbeat I could hear, but that might be normal with elves for all I knew. If it was this deep in Keter, even through Arcadia, then I’d assume it was undead until proven otherwise. The elf did not move even as we approached. Was negotiation an option?
“Good morning,” I said.
It stared at us, completely still. I kind of hoped deep down that it was just an intimidating corpse and we’d have a good chuckle about it afterwards, but I doubted my luck was that good. I could see no weapon in its hand or anywhere near. Close quarters fighter?
“Don’t mean to interrupt,” I said with a winning smile. “But we’re lost, and I was hoping to ask for directions.”
The elf rose to its feet, still silent. Its hand snapped out, and before I could get so much as a get word out there was a rip. For a heartbeat I thought it was tearing away at the fabric of this half-world but it wasn’t that, not exactly. Like it was ripping away an invisible screen, it tore out the gate I had yet to make. Dropping it on the ground afterwards, it eyed us patiently. I could no longer feel the way out of this place.
Not to be overly dramatic, but that was something of a problem.
“I take it that’s a no,” I said. “We’ll, uh, just be on our way then.”
A ring of golden flames formed around the elf’s hands and burned with blinding brightness until they… solidified. Formed into a long single-edge sword of what I might have thought to be simple bronze, had I not seen its making.
“Spellblade,” I grimaced. “That was a little more literal than I’d expected.”
“You may kill yourself now,” the Revenant told us in a voice utterly devoid of inflection. “It will spare me the filth.”
All heart, this one.
“Would you consider us to ‘proper fucked’ at the moment?” Thief asked lightly.
“Well, if you want to get all technical about it,” I muttered back.
She passed behind me, and after moving my hand pressed what felt like a card into it. There was a thin covering of ice over it, and a sliver of will was all it took to shatter it. Another exertion had three reflective pieces of ice growing on my armour at the proper angles, and I took a look at what was written on it without ever taking my eyes fully off the Spellblade. On the Queen of Wands two bundles of writing awaited.
Not the most pressing danger at the moment, but whatever.
Don’t. If Hakram is there, Swan. If not, Dove.
Fucking Hells, how many plans did we have?
That was more like it. Past Catherine better astound me with her wisdom and foresight.
If Masego is there, Buzzard. If not, good luck.
I was officially not astounded by Past Catherine’s wisdom and foresight. I flipped the card and found nothing on the back, so I crushed it.
“What was the trigger for that?” I asked Vivienne.
“Your handwriting, ‘when proper fucked’,” she replied. “Note it was not if.”
“Buzzard,” I replied. “Zeze?”
“A kind of bird,” he kindly supplied. “Although…”
His fingers twitched and the word appeared in red letters in front of him.
The elf swung and in that exact same moment I lost an arm.
It’d been instinct that had me putting my arm in front of Hierophant. A vague sense of danger. The red letters vanished like smoke, four layers of wards on Masego broke like glass and he was violently thrown back even as my sword arm dropped to the ground. I’d formed another blade out of ice before my arm was done reforming and immediately made for the enemy. Thief had disappeared, thank the Gods. She wasn’t cut out for brawls like this.
“You should have obeyed,” the Revenant said tonelessly. “Irritating.”
They swung again, almost casually, and when the instinct flared I ducked down without hesitation. The slope broke behind me even as my body bent forward while I ran down. Fuck, how had the Revenant done that? There’d been no flare or sorcery or anything, it’d felt like a perfectly normal swing of the sword. It stepped to the side, and impossibly that took it right to my left. Distance warping, maybe? It couldn’t be teleportation, the sheer amount of power those spells required was insane. The first swing down towards my torso I followed. My footing shifted, I spun to the side and it was just out of the trajectory. Then the elf moved again, a lateral cut, and that one even my eyes failed to see. I had just enough time to guess at where the hit would land and cover myself in ice before I was blown away by a hundred horses kicking me together. The elf was behind me even while I sailed through the air, having simply stepped there, and I was entirely done with this. Winter howled.
A dozen spears of ice shot out of my back, avoided and parried without fail, but I twisted around and my feet landed on the platform I’d woven. I filled the space beneath me with ice and leapt down into it, passing through it like mist. I felt the edges shatter beneath a blow as I did and wove glamour even as I rolled out of the way. Two doppelganger spun out of me and I left another behind in a crouch as I mimicked the stance of the others. The elf ripped through the last of the ice with a single hand, then simply struck the illusion left behind. Golden flames ate at my mail and I was smashed into the ground, biting my lip so I wouldn’t scream. It was above me again a moment later, the entire glamour broken, and with a fluid shift of grip it came down towards the still burning wound on my chest point first.
“Fine,” I grunted. “Be like that.”
It wasn’t like my organs actually mattered anymore. The sword went right through me, puncturing the blocks beneath. My hand clasped the burning spell blade, reforming my fingers as quickly as they turned to ashes, and I opened the floodgates. Ice and shade ate at the bronze-like material, spreading across it lightning-quick, and the elf abandoned the blade. A step had it withdrawing where it had first begun, silver light forming in rings around its hand. Change of weapon, huh? I wasn’t allowing that so easily. Ice crept across the ground, encasing my feet, but all it took was a thought and it was dragging me along faster than I could have moved on my own. Two heartbeats and I was on him, just as the light turned into a blade.
“Three truths do I now reveal,” Hierophant said.
The elf flicked the blade backwards and I ducked, feeling something powerful scythe through where my upper body had been. I extended forward, every muscle bending, and the pommel of my sword struck its chest. There was a sound like a crack of thunder, but it remained unmoved.
“First, that which I see is the mask worn by void,” Hierophant said.
The elf kneed me in the belly, but I caught it with my free hand and ate the vicious impact with a grunt. It kicked me upwards into the air, blade already swinging, but I formed a handhold of ice and used it to kick its smug fucking face. It barely even noticed, until ice spikes grew beneath my foot. It angled its head back, just out of range, but with a twist of will I had them shoot out. While it ducked beneath I wove more ice out of the handhold and made it hammer my back so I’d smash into the Revenant. The silver blade flicked towards me, tearing through the ice I set in its path effortlessly, and with gritted teeth I formed a tentacle out of the ice trail behind me and had it drag me out of the way. The elf straightened up even as I landed.
“Second, in a world that is nothing there can be no partition,” Hierophant said.
Change of tactics. Slugging it up close wasn’t going my way. I stomped down and thick mist billowed forward in a tide. No doubt it could see through that, but so far it hadn’t used more than one trick at a time. That should allow me to make a dent, if executed well. If felt the elf move through my working, and in that moment I struck. I opened a gate, right through its torso. If felt its skin shiver, but it was still whole. Countered, but now I’ve got you. I grasped the mist, sucked into into a spike, and hammered at the silver blade with it. It felt like… light. No, more than that. I felt fury well up in me, unbidden. Moonlight. Mist turned to shade and ate away at the blade like a drop of ink in water. It was trying to burn me out, but I had the fucking power to spare. I brute forced it, Winter coursing through my veins, until the blade shattered.
“Third, if all is one then to master a grain of sand is to master all of Creation,” Hierophant said.
“Enough,” the elf said.
“Agreed,” I smiled, and filled its goddamn mouth with ice.
It stiffened for a moment, and before it could finish cheating its way out of that I was on the Revenant. My sword carved into its side, shattering its way through the spine. There was a shiver of power, and if I’d been half a second slower I’d be dead. I stumbled back onto the ice, unseeing. The forward half of my body was just… gone. Winter was sluggish to react, as if shocked by the depth of what it had to reform. My eyes came back just in time to see a silver blade about to punch right through my forehead.
“Mine,” Thief said, and snatched death and moonlight both.
She was gone the moment the word was finished. The elf grabbed me by the throat, but my mind was elsewhere. If half my body could just be formed out of Winter, what was I really? Lies and mirrors and the stubborn belief I was still a person. Maybe it was time to leave that delusion behind. I was a construct, and what had been made could be unmade. My flesh turned to mist around its fingers and I slipped out of its grasp before it could crush my windpipe. I heard Masego begin to speak and backed away.
“And so I act,” Hierophant spoke conversationally, “wielding a blade of absence for higher purpose.”
The ground shifted. Blocks collided against the Revenant, ripped out of the floor, and within that ever-growing cage it was forced into the air. There was another shiver, the shell disappearing as if by writ of some ancient god, but more filled the gap. That was as good an opening as I’d get. My instinct was to strike, but I’d not come here for a brawl. This was just a distraction. I remembered where the gate had first been ripped out, and with a steady exhaled made another one.
It opened into nothing.
“This is not great,” I admitted.
I closed it with a flick of the wrist. Masego made his way to my side, panting, as the elf kept wrecking his ritual above us. That wasn’t going to last much longer, it was going through blocks quicker than they gathered now that most the surface was gone.
“I think I lost the thread,” I told Masego. “What can you do?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “We’ve never-“
The gate opened again. Thief appeared at my side.
“Catherine?” she asked, sounding surprised.
“That wasn’t me,” I said.
A head popped through the opening.
“Do hurry,” Akua Sahelian said with a pleasant smile.