“Chaos is a ladder, Chancellor. It never goes quite where you need it to, and the rise is always more graceful than the descent.”
– Dread Emperor Perfidious
Like proper villains, we put a magic gate between ourselves and the consequences of our actions before silently agreeing to pretend none of it had taken place. The Woe had taken to that part of villainy better than any other, truth be told. Probably didn’t help that I was the closest thing Archer had to an authority figure in her life that wasn’t Ranger, or that Hierophant had been raised to believe that repercussions were a thing that happened to people who didn’t have family dinners involving the full roster of the Calamities. Seriously. I would be dishonest not to acknowledge that having Black cleaning up behind me for year hadn’t, uh, encouraged me to display a perhaps disproportional amount of recklessness in my actions. But even at my worst there’d been an amount of calculation involved in those risks. In contrast, Thief had at some point robbed a Legion pay convoy and somehow expected to get away with it, while Diabolist had gone out of her way to personally piss off every single living villain with a higher body count than her. Well, before Liesse anyway. She’d murdered her way to the top of that list quick enough. It was telling that the closest thing we had to a steady hand around was Adjutant, and he’d rather famously gotten into a slugging match with a demon.
Gods, was Juniper the voice of sanity? She ate people, for fuck’s sake. Well, corpses anyway, and she hadn’t done it in a while that I knew of, but still.
“I have so many questions,” I told Akua the moment the gate closed.
“Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing,” she replied without missing a beat.
“What?” I managed.
“I noticed you’ve been misusing the latter,” Diabolist said with a beaming smile. “The word is actually derived from the Old Miezan verb inflammare, which means ‘to set on fire’.”
Masego let out a noise of approval, the filthy traitor. Of course of all the Woe’s habits the one Akua had to pick up was giving me lip in the middle of delicate life-and-death situations. ‘Closing ranks in front of outsiders’ had been too much to hope for, I supposed, but Merciless Gods I would have settled for ‘prone to collateral damage we can’t afford to pay for’. It wasn’t like she didn’t have a history. I made the decision that choking my only current source of insight on what was happening was unwise, which I thought was very queenly of me.
“Where are we?” I patiently asked.
“Before the gate to the central chamber,” Akua said, inviting me to look behind her with an elegant gesture.
If you’d one sinister rune-engraved stone gate, you’d seen them all. This one was ridiculously large, but given the alleged size of the Skein that wasn’t a surprise. Besides, this one didn’t even have a terrifying face-shaped demon bound inside. Strictly small time compared to the Tower, that somehow-standing pile of horrors. I considered my next question carefully.
“How?” I finally said. “Just…”
I gestured to encompass Creation.
“As a part of your mantle, she can draw on Winter to an extent if so allowed,” Masego said.
“Yes, yes, we all knew that,” I lied. “Not need to state the obvious, Masego. But here precisely?”
“The chain,” Akua simply said.
Which bound her to me, or more accurately the Mantle of Woe, and to an extent Winter itself. That explained how she’d been able to open a gate towards my location, anyway. How had she even gotten here in the first place? The whole point of the Threefold Reflection was that it could be turned into an unsolvable maze at the drop of a hat.
“You used Winter, to make your gates,” the shade reminded me. “Your works were known to me.”
Setting aside the headache-inducing implications of that for later, I frowned. So she’d seen where I was planning to get out of Arcadia and gone there. Which told me why she was here, but not how she’d gotten there in the first place. I eyed her warily, since the question had been implied, but she did not speak again. More secrets. Exactly what we needed, at the moment.
“My eye, if you would,” Masego stiffly asked.
Akua sketched a bow and produced the glass orb with a flourish of the wrist. My frown deepened.
“You’ve been running the ritual this whole time,” I said. “He could see through his eye, you through his, and you sent him instructions through it.”
“Cards,” she agreed. “As I was instructed, though I did not always know the reasons why.”
I passed a hand through my hair. Which, as I immediately remembered, had been formed out of Winter smoke and mirrors mere moments ago. There was no sweat matting the strands even after my extortions, which I was almost thankful for. The inhumanity of that was almost comforting, compared to the reminder that any sweat I’d feel would be a lie I told myself and my will enforced.
“We’re on Buzzard, I take it,” I said.
She nodded. I eyed the stone door.
“So now?” I probed.
“We enter,” Diabolist said. “After the sixth rune in your head is disabled.”
Skipping a few there, huh. That aside, Vivienne’s card had given me the eloquent instructions of ‘don’t’ when it came to the Skein, so it was worth asking her if-
“And Thief is gone,” I said. “Please tell me someone else saw her get out of Arcadia.”
Masego finished putting back his eye in the appropriate burnt-out socket, yet another reason to be thankful eating was now optional for me, and straightened up.
“I did as well,” he said. “Though she disappeared within moments.”
“And you didn’t think that was worth mentioning?” I asked.
“I assumed there was a reason,” he replied.
Yeah, that was today in a sentence wasn’t it? Could hardly rake him over coals for that.
“Romance my brain, Zeze,” I ordered with a sigh. “Let’s get this cart back on the road before it catches fire. Again.”
His hand rose, and immediate-
“He reads stories,” Vivienne said.
“We can as well,” Masego pointed out.
I intervened before that could turn into a proper bicker.
“So we come at him with a plan, he’ll have seen it from beginning to end,” I said.
“Essentially,” she said, after flicking an irritated glance at the blind mage. “Though the interesting implication is that he can only ‘read’ a single story at a time. It is possible to fool him.”
“Multiple schemes will be required,” Akua mused. “With a degree of bridging between them. It would be ideal to begin on a scheme and move into another before the Skein can arrange for a point of failure.”
“That means someone has to know enough of them to lead us to change tacks at critical moment,” I noted. “Considering you can’t really fight, Diabolist, it’ll have to be you.”
“She’ll need to be fooled as well,” Hakram spoke up. “Given more plans than we’ll actually use and kept in the dark about which few options are really on the table.”
“Go random,” Indrani advised. “That always fucks with oracles.”
Akua nodded in agreement.
“The rest of you will need to be kept ignorant of large swaths of what is planned,” she added after. “Lest the moment you begin a plan the enemy be made aware of it.”
“Masego, you can do memory blocks right?” I asked.
“An easy enough enchantment for all save you and Diabolist,” he said. “Conditional triggers can be woven in, though no more than one per ‘block’. Too high a degree of sophistication risks permanence, the human mind is a complex device.”
“I don’t like how complicated this is getting,” I admitted. “But once you’re wet, there’s no reason not to swim.”
“I don’t follow,” Masego said, brow creasing.
“We don’t leave him to guess between a handful of plans,” I said grimly. “We drown him in them.”
“So this is a stupid plan, but it’s stupid on purpose,” I said, rubbing my forehead. “That’s comforting. You know, except for the part where we fail and die horribly.”
“I was hoping we would avoid that,” Hierophant gravely said.
“Yeah, well, you know what the Dead King put up on the gates into this place,” I replied. “Fine, it’s too late to run anyway. Akua, you got anything to add?”
She bowed smoothly.
“I was ordered,” she said, “to fight as an extension of you, should it come to swords.”
“Well, it’s not like today has been a cornucopia of good decisions so far,” I mused. “So what the Hells, let’s give it a whirl. Zeze, get the door would you?”
With a deep grinding sound, the stone slabs parted.
“This is the part where I praise his efficiency,” Akua announced. “Because misunderstandings and incompetent assessments are humorous.”
Was it wrong that the one of the most horrifying things about the mass-murdering maddened shade of my former rival was that she was trying to develop a functional sense of humour? If so, Black had shown a lot more foresight than I’d thought back in that alley.
“In we go,” I said, warily eyeing the darkness within. “Before I start debating whether it’d have been more reassuring to blow our way through.”
Robber was, inarguably, a horrible influence. The ground wasn’t stone, I knew that just from the feel of it under my boots. It wasn’t even flat. It crunched. Didn’t even need to glance down, the sound was easy enough to recognize: bones. Charming. The inside was pitch black save for a single well of light illuminating the artefact Thief had spoken of: three layered wooden wheels on a stick, with pieces of string joining them haphazardly. She’d not mentioned, however, that every wheel was about as broad as I was tall. Hierophant followed behind me, and the grinding sound told me that-
“Yeah, so that’s not happening,” I noted.
Ice bloomed in the way of the closing stone doors, shattering for the first few inches but eventually forcing them to a halt as I kept pouring power into the working. I was already standing inside a massive dark cavern filled with bones, there was no way I was letting the Skein keep us stuck inside. Speaking of, there was no sign of the Revenant.
“At least he’s not waiting on a throne,” I mused. “Those fights never seem to go well for us.”
There were tall curved rib bones from something definitely not human serving as a sort of antechamber leading to the wheels, but that screamed ‘trap’ even more than the rest of this room.
“Hierophant?” I prompted.
“We can use them,” Masego replied. “I can already glimpse them. Deep, but simple.”
Good to know. Still didn’t tell me where the Hells the undead rat was.
“Oh what a stroke of luck,” I loudly said. “The Skein isn’t here. I guess we’ll just walk towards those wheels and-“
Sword clearing the scabbard in a heartbeat, I stabbed the bones beneath my feet and poured the howling might of Winter into the mess. Frost crept through the mass of bones, and my eyebrow rose when I realized how deep it actually went under us. At least sixty, seventy feet. Not trace of the Skein though.
“Catherine,” Akua said.
“He’s above us, isn’t he?” I said.
The answer wasn’t so much laughter as it was the quiet rumbling of the storm. A massive shape leapt down and bones were sent flying in every direction while I smoothly rose and fell into a guard. Hierophant, prudently, came to stand behind me. Diabolist was at my shoulder know, and all I felt from her was a hunter’s patience. Furred body bending over the wheels and cutting through the light, the Skein watched us with a leering grin. He was large as Thief had said, but her short description had not done the Revenant justice. Thick dark fur covered a body that was almost humanoid, save for the long wormlike tail that came from its lower back, but it was the head that was discomforting to look at. We call their kind ratlings, but looking at that rotting leather it was a snake I thought of. The pale golden eyes with deep red gouges under them only deepened the impression. The two pairs of bone-like antlers ripping through the top of its head were wickedly sharp, even after what must have been centuries. A Horned Lord. Even Ranger considered the likes of that difficult to deal with, and when we’d come across that woman in Arcadia I’d felt like she could murder the lot of us in the span of a single breath. Not an opponent I should take lightly. Not an opponent I should fight at all, if I could help it. Sadly, my mouth disagreed.
“So can we knock off the theatrics?” I asked. “Because, let’s be honest here, Akua’s probably more Evil than you are and if I told her to fetch my slippers she’d do it.”
The creature’s dry red tongue licked at fangs half the size of me.
“Take the wheel, lead the Empress to the orc,” the Skein said, then cocked his head to the side. “Or. The Empress escapes, yet dies to a blade of stolen moonlight. Two paths.”
“Well, I’m glad someone knows the plan,” I mused. “Would you care to monologue about how we’re going to fail?”
The Revenant laughed.
“Then you strike,” he said. “Or. She strikes with you. Or. You flee. Tricky little things, skittering around, but you entered the maze. You did. Surrendered too many paths. No end remaining is fortunate.”
I reached for the last card inside my cloak and my fingers came away wet. My hand rose.
“Just give me a moment,” I asked.
The ancient abomination stilled. I got the sense he was somewhat taken aback. Last card, huh. I slipped it out and angled it so the light well the Revenant was across would make it clearer. The Queen of Swords.
You have an invisible crossbow.
Written diagonally, across the whole thing. I flipped it. Nothing on the other side. Seriously, Past Catherine? That was the entire message? She might as well have just drawn herself flipping me the bird. What an asshole.
“Catherine?” Masego probed.
“If you were hoping for a solution,” I said. “That was not it.”
“It was pointless,” the Skein said. “Seventeen stories? Pretty little tales, but you always end up here. No matter the path, the destination is the same.”
Seventeen. Gods. There wasn’t enough alcohol in all of Keter to justify that, and even worse I was pretty sure we’d planned this sober.
“Look,” I said. “I’m with you on this one. This whole thing has been a debacle from start to finish, and the person responsible should be buried alive. We’re on the same side, here.”
The Revenant stilled again. Evidently, this was not unfolding as expected.
“You did this,” he tried.
“That can’t be, I don’t remember it,” I immediately denied.
I’d fought enough Praesi to know that sufficiently high station and blatant lies could get you out of nearly anything, if you played your cards right.
“We should look into it together,” I told him. “Have you considered we might be getting framed? I’m just saying, this is a horrible plan. I could do better. It just doesn’t add up.”
“Does this actually ever work?” I heard Akua ask Masego in a whisper.
There was a beat.
“It got us into Skade,” he eventually conceded.
“Are you trying to lie to an oracle?” the Skein said, by the sound of it genuinely offended.
“I would never dare lie to you,” I lied. “You’re obviously a… rat-person of highly discerning judgement. If you just get Malicia in here, I’m sure we can straighten all of this out.”
“It’s like watching a demon get loose,” Akua murmured. “You know you should run, but you just have to look.”
“You want me to bring the Empress here,” the Revenant said. “The Empress that you are trying to kill.”
“That’s completely unrelated,” I said, proceeding forward with greatly unwarranted assurance. “And hearsay besides. I’m as loyal to the Tower as any Praesi.”
Assuming said Praesi was highborn, anyway.
“Did you truly expect this to succeed?” the Skein eventually asked.
“I’ve rolled the dice on worse odds,” I admitted, perhaps a little too honestly.
While that was not a high point by any definition of the term, it definitely went downhill from there.
I’d learned several things today. First, elves were bullshit even when they were dead. I wasn’t unaware that I didn’t have a lot of room to talk when it came to recovering from wounds, but who the Hells just decided they were all right and had Creation agree like a drunker singer? Second, when the Lady of the Lake called a breed of foe ‘hard fuckers’ she meant ‘how would someone even kill that thing if it wasn’t already dead?’. I was now on my eighth sword, and beginning to appreciate why heroes always got handed some nifty legendary blade before they were sent into the meat grinder. I might as well have been trying to breach a wall swinging at it with a salmon. And, not, I grimly thought, even a large one. That was, sadly, not even in the top ten of my current problems. The Skein’s jaw hung unhinged, gaping wide, and it closed only when the last of the darkness had been swallowed into it. There went my domain.
Which he had eaten, because that was a thing that could be done.
“It comes,” Akua whispered into my ear.
Thank you, helpful collar fairy, I acidly thought. If I’d wanted a running fucking commentary, I’d have asked Black for a talking sword. I leapt onto a platform even as the Skein’s bare fist collided with the bones beneath where I’d stood, immediately leaping onto another before the swing of his tail could catch me. I’d learned the hard way that I couldn’t take a hit from the Revenant without spending precious moments rebuilding whatever passed for my spine these days.
“Burn,” Hierophant said.
Ribbons of golden flame streaked across the dark cavern, folding around one of the Skein’s limbs, but he turned and casually sucked the fire into his open maw. The breath that spread was putrid, like something left to rot for so long the rot was all that was left. The Horned Lord flicked at glance at Masego, who stood atop a ring of bones surrounded by a pale globe of light, and without warning moved. Fuck. I took a running leap off my platform, then as the fall quickened my momentum called on my domain again. The brushstrokes of night came but twice before the Revenant lazily struck down right through them. The darkness dispersed like smoke and then the backlash hit. My eyes froze in their sockets, then shattered, and with a hoarse scream I dropped out of my controlled fall into a pile of bones.
“Move,” Akua said.
I rolled to the side without thinking, and a massive impact close to me had me spinning back in the air. I reached for my face – was that a rib going through my cheek? – and forced the eyes to form quicker. Vision returned just in time to see the massive handful of claws headed my way. Flick of the wrist and ice sprouted on them, forming a long staff I caught by the side, and then the tail smashed me into the wall of this accursed place. There went my spine again. There really was not getting used to that, was there? I heard Masego bark out something in the mage tongue and dropped listlessly to the ground. Diabolist was there, red eyes and pleasant smile, helping me up.
“There was mention of fighting together,” I said after spitting out a few of my teeth.
Akua Sahelian offered me her hand.
“Shall we?” she said.
Gods help me, but I took it.