“Kings and shepherds fit in the same cook pot.”
– Orc saying
It was a difficult to describe. The power was still mine; it just wasn’t shaped by my own hands. I could still feel it, span the ebb and flow and cuts, but the will behind was Akua Sahelian’s. For the first thirty heartbeats it was horribly distracting, to fight while I had this… second line of thought going on in the back of my head, but soon enough I learned to ignore it. The need for control had always been the lid on the powers I’d stolen from Winter, hadn’t it? It was a lesser surrender, the act of allowing Diabolist some manner of rule over it, but it was still a step towards that place I yet shied away from. Neshamah had called it apotheosis, and mused it to be the result of happenstance. I was not so certain, but I knew than if I reached the world I looked back to would be a very different place.
Winter sunk into the sea of bones like a great tree’s roots, tainting and binding and made into pattern impossibly perfect by another’s will.
My mind had brushed against the flow, and though it kept existing bereft of my attention my gaze no longer gave it clear definition. Like watching without eyes, I thought. It was not the kind of thought a human would understand. That I did, instinctively so, was certain to have a price down the line. I exhaled, sword in hand, and watched the Skein’s muscles pull and shift. He was a dead thing, in the end, and Winter knew much of death. The Revenant was not of my own raising, but there was an… affinity there, now that I knew to look for it. Not a door into usurpation – in those eldritch struggles knowledge was always paramount, and compared to the likes of the Dead King I was a babe in the woods – but the ratling was not untouchable. Like me, he was a construct.
Those could always be broken, with the rights tools.
The muscle weaves beneath shoulder contracted, bent and though the Revenant angled his body to hide the tail I felt it shift. In, out. My breath came steady, an illusion imposed on myself for reassurance. Pretty ritual that it was, it served its purpose. The Skein struck with inhuman swiftness, clawed hand shattering the remains like toys as it passed where I had been but moments earlier. No longer. What difference was there, between the ice I shaped and the stuff of my own body? Beneath the surface, absolutely nothing. The twin spider-like limbs that ripped out of the back of my plate and shifted to see me land on the Skein’s extended arm made that bitter admission impossible to deny. Muscles shifted beneath me, the sweep of the tail abandoned as the Skein prioritized shaking me off. Lower leg inclined, and it followed that – there it went, the dip, but his very nature made me an oracle’s bastard child.
Steel would do nothing against the ratling’s eldritch hide and fur, but steel was just one of many tools at my fingertips. I tugged out a string of my domain, shaped it into a hook and carved into the Revenant’s flesh even as he made to throw me off. It did all the work itself: the momentum had me swinging around his side, the hook of darkness slicing into his skin as I descended. The Skein let did not let out a sound. Did he even feel pain? No matter. I’d take him apart piece by piece, if that was what it took. I hung from the hook under his belly and hoisted myself up, spider legs born anew to hold me as I began climbing back up the side.
Power reflected into itself, a hall of mirrors containing a conflagration until it came out roaring like the great beasts of the First Dawn. Claws and fangs and wings and most of all eyes that were entirely Akua Sahelian’s.
There disconnect between seeing the working unfold through Diabolist and my own body’s senses hearing the thousands of bones come together with strings of shade and ice, rising a behemoth of a drake that collided against the Skein with a thunderous crash. Too many ears. Too many eyes. The spider limbs cracked and broke until I grit my teeth and forced them to shape anew.
“The whole world is the altar of the profane, both seeing and unseeing.”
Hierophant’s words rang loud and clear, though the undertone was made uncomfortably inhuman by the protective globe of ivory-like power protecting him. The Skein ripped through the neck of Diabolist’s drake, devouring the power within, but I could feel her laugh and let loose the endless depths of Winter into his maw. I swung myself around with the limbs, landing on his lower back, and wrenched out the hook. A failure in imagination, this particular tool. Limited by my own thinking. I stole away more of my domain, gave it more useful shape. The arc of the bow was smooth, the string indistinguishable from it. The hook changed, shaped by a thought, and I anchored it somewhere hands could not reach. The Skein moved before I could loose. Abandoning the drake, he turned and massive fangs shone in half-light. There’d been the hint of a hint in the way his muscles moved. The ice limbs dug under the punctured hide and folded into themselves then outwards, impossibly lengthened, until I hung high in the air and away from his snapping jaws. With a hard grin, I loosed my arrow.
“Under this theology of disbelief, the scales bear the weight of nothingness and the the sum of all that is, finding them equal and equivalent.”
Like a spool unwinding, my domain followed in the arrow’s wake. The Skein ducked, impossibly knowing of the trajectory, but a flicker of will was all it took the have the projectile tearing downwards and straight into the crook of his neck. I have you now, Horned Lord. I reached and grabbed the other end of the thread, night-stuff coiling around my fingers, and dismissed the limbs. He would have moved before I dropped onto his back, but the fur glistened with cold and Diabolist emerged from it in glimmering ice.
“You drank too deep,” Akua Sahelian chided, smiling in that same fearless way she had when she’d pitted her madness alone against the full might of the East.
Ice formed in restraining shackles around the Skein’s limbs, and though he broke through them that moment was all it took for me to land. I shifted, spread my legs and pulled even as the arrowhead became an ugly root of darkness within its flesh. He fought me for a moment, but then the Revenant bent and I crouched to forced the other end of the thread into the flesh of his lower back. It spread without hesitation, forcing the whole creature’s body into a warped arc as he failed to break the strength of my domain manifest.
“My hand is the sword of truth, denying the rot of entropy: ‘lo and behold, the shade of Ruin falls upon you.”
A shiver went through me as sorcery filled the entire cavern. I had felt the likes of this before, once. For a quick, fleeting moment. When Black had spoken a single word and wrecked Liesse like a castle of glass, a madman’s will shattering all that displeased his sight. Hierophant had stolen an aspect, or at least an aspect’s cast, and now wielded it like a hammer against the Revenant that sought to break us. The Skein screamed, this time. Limbs and flesh smashed, breaking apart from the inside and through the yell the ratling hissed a word.
I frowned, what/
I stood on the bones again, Akua helping me up, but her hand left mine quickly and she turned a burning glare on the Skein. The remnants of her drake were still lying half-broken, reeking of Winter, Masego was back under his Ivory Globe and my domain was whole. So was the Revenant, not a mark on him. All our successes erased in a heartbeat.
“Again,” the Skein leered. “Teach me all your tricks, crawling things.”
We hadn’t even managed to kill it last time. And he’d still unmade it all, easy a waving a hand. Gods, how many times could he call on that aspect? Three, ten? As many times as he wanted?
“Interesting,” Hierophant said. “You did not break the march of time so much as sever causality. Prune away events from a sequence that still theoretically exists.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Let’s find out how many lives a rat can have.”
“Our minds were left untouched,” Diabolist noted. “As was his. In broader Creation such a working would have shattered him upon the wheel, from all the cascade of innumerable events affected. The aspect was bastardized, made contingent to this place.”
“It is a good cage,” the Skein said. “You will not leave it.”
“So we’re playing shatranj,” I said. “Across possibilities he can ‘spool’ back at any time.”
“Alas,” Masego said, tone amused, and the Ivory Globe winked out. “A mistake was made.”
“You fail,” the Skein told him. “Here? You always fail, again and again.”
“You are not the only one who can learn,” Hierophant said, and his glass eyes burned bright beneath the cloth. “And all you have earned from this is further Ruin.”
I’d seen a lot of aspects over the last few years. Become familiar enough with the gifts of Named that I could be considered a discerning judge. William’s Rise had been like a wellspring of harsh light from within, hollowing out his insides but removing every wound inflicted. Black’s Destroy was like a bolt fired at Creation, a wilful removal of what my teacher wanted gone. Akua’s Bind had been little more than an acknowledgement of her nature, the thirst for control deepened and formalized by the touch of the Gods. This was different. Masego had come into his Name standing defiant in the face of a sun that was not a sun, a godly thing that defied the laws of Creation and human comprehension, and it had shaped what he’d become. Usher of Mysteries, Vivisector of Miracles. Witness had been the outgrowth of the former, perhaps, but now I was seeing the latter and it was a terrible thing to behold.
Aspects were act, not simply a word, because they were an exercise of will. A piece of you made into a blade and turned against Creation. This, then, was intimate part of Masego. Of the man he was turning into, and there was cause for worry in it. To ruin something was no small thing: it was to destroy and devastate it irreparably. The Skein had spoken five letters and wiped away all we had wrought.
Masego replied with four and the world shattered.
The cavern came apart at the seams. Entire chunks of it split from the rest, drifting into black nothingness as unmoored ships, and like spider webs the destruction spread across all the Revenant’s realm. Akua and I stood together as the bones beneath us began to spill into nothing, incomprehensibly coming back around to fall from the ceiling in another shard. My will extended into the ice I’d used to keep the gates open, and found they were still there. We were not ruined along the rest of this, then, not necessarily. The Skein moved, and in a myriad other shards did the same. Hierophant stood alone on his pile of bones, wreathed in ribbons of sorcery so thick it was visible to the eye, his smile almost innocently joyful. Wait had, the – my eyes flicked back and with muted horror I watched the platform on which the wheels stood slowly begin to topple into a streak of dark. I would not make it in time. It was not physically possible to… I inhaled and ice bloomed.
“Diabolist,” I ordered.
The moment the glimmering silhouette finished taking shape, Akua was within it, having swum there through Winter. She reached down and snatched the edge of the highest wheel. The ice that made her up began to crack under the massive weight and from the corner of my eye I saw the Skein move towards her in a dozen different shards. He couldn’t kill her through the shell, so it must be the artefact he was aiming for. I could not allow that, if any part of this was to be salvaged. Diabolist’s will was ruling the ice construct, but what was that to me? I seized the reins and let Winter loose: it grew and swelled, a hunched apelike thing that tossed the wheels towards me like they were feather-light. A heartbeat later the Revenant tore through my creation, but I’d already ceased paying attention. A third of the way to me the artefact moved from a shard facing me to one in the far back and I leapt through the void. Flicker. Wrong shard. I was by Masego’s side.
“Hierophant,” I barked. “Contain the rat.”
The dark-skinned man laughed almost drunkenly and brushed back his sleeves. Hands extended, he snapped his wrists together. Two shards collided in a spray of bones that obeyed no sense in where it went and fell, but two Revenant reflections went opposite ways and the undead screamed. It would do. Flicker. I crossed into another shard, almost tripping on a massive half-buried skull, and watched the wheels continue to arc down in the opposite direction. Which meant nothing, but – I made three shells of ice, eyeballing it, yet the artefact still collided entered a fourth. The Skein snatched them before they could bounce, and with a fanged grin leant over the edge of the shard to throw them down into the void. I learned from my mistake, this time. I formed the silhouette directly on the surface of the artefact and broadened it with rough strokes. Akua did not not need a reminder to seize it. Or instructions in how to operate the massive wings I had shaped.
That lasted until the Skein opened his maw and wisps of Winter were sucked out of the construct, leaving it no more than ice with a shade within. He could take it out as fast as I could pour it, I was pretty sure, so instead of wasting power I went for an alternative. I leapt into the void, gallantly suppressing the scream boiling out of my throat.
Fragments spread across places and times yet linked, always linked, for Winter was a single entity and the void’s touch could be bridged. A thousands hands moved.
Akua had gone for numbers, I thought, and even as I fell into the dark I saw limbs, skeletons and even skulls move under Winter’s writ, biting and grasping at the Skein. I found the wheels at last. Hurtling down into the nothing that would lead somewhere else. My body is an illusion, I told myself. I closed my eyes, let distractions fall away.
“My body is an illusion,” I insisted.
Just glamour, and anything I had seen I could glamour. Wings or iridescent blue ripped out of my back, long and ephemeral. It was like moving a limb, if that limb had been wounded for months and I was only getting used to it moving again. Angling my fall was easy enough. I collided with the wheels, setting my feet on the middle rung, and tried to convince myself that weight was an illusion as well.
“Sulia never cared about weight,” I said. “It does not apply to me.”
The wings didn’t change. But instead of slowing, my descent stopped. And then slowly, painfully, we started rising.
“Spool,” the Skein said.
I screamed in frustration and/
I was back on the shard where I’d begun, damn him.
“Did you think it would always work?” Hierophant laughed. “There is nothing I have seen you can take from me. Witness.”
What was he/
I tightened my grip on the wheels, swinging them over the edge of the closest shard with a grunt. The Skein in most shards strangely looked like he’d taken to wearing armour, covered in a sea of remains that fruitlessly bit and clawed at his hide. Diabolist was trying to slow and blind him, with only mixed success. I glanced to the side, dragging the artefact further over the ledge, and froze when I saw myself standing near the gate, utterly furious. And again, in another shard, getting crushed by the Skein’s clawed hands as he seized the wheels. Was I even the real one? No, the existential crisis could wait until later. I needed to get this to Masego so we could get out of here and find Malicia. I raised the wheels over my head and legged it. I couldn’t even tell where this shard was related to the others, much less when: bones and void weren’t exactly trail markers. I leapt across the nearest shard – flicker – and cursed as soon as I landed. The Skein was in this one, fighting… me. And our earlier work and been done anew, with the ratling bound by a string of my domain, forced into that painful stretched. The other Catherine glanced at me, then shrugged and began forming a massive spike of darkness above the Skein’s head.
My own domain ebbed in answer.
Was she… Eye on the prize, Catherine. I made my way around the Revenant’s desperate death throes and leapt. Flicker. This one was empty, save for aimlessly angry bones animated by Diabolist. My fists tightened around the artefact. I could keep this up for hours and still be lost.
“Hierophant,” I called out. “Chart me a path.”
A dot of blue light formed ahead of me then peeled off. Good enough. I followed as swiftly as I could, until it crossed into another shard. Flicker. Empty as well, except the Skein suddenly turned around in another shards and passed into this one. The Revenant loomed as tall as ever, though the smaller shard was forcing him to be careful where he stepped.
“I see you,” the ratling hissed.
The dot of blue light wheeled to the left and crossed into another shard. Less than helpful, that, since unlike it I had to worry about the giant rat. See me, huh. Akua had seemed able to work through Winter in multiple shards, so theoretically… I sunk into my own mind, forcing myself to consider angles, then bent Winter to my will. Across a dozen shards mirrors formed, reflecting the light from the pit into the Skein’s eyes – which he was already covering, aware that with so many mirrors I’d covered near every angle he could look away to. Fucking oracles. It bought me a heartbeat where I ran for it, wheels over my head, but he swung blindly and with his size there was almost no need to aim. I managed a leap on a platform before I was swept away, but then the tail struck and even even tossing half a tower’s worth of ice in the way only slowed it down. A repeat would be the end of this unfortunate magical adventure.
Following light like a current, through as many mirrors as there could be, and weaving power into the reflections. A dozen arrows loosed.
Akua used my work to craft her own, abandoning the undead to taint the light coming from the mirrors with concentrated cold. The Skein slowed, until he shook it off, but it was just long enough for me to manage the leap. The tail swung behind me, hitting only air. Flicker. Masego stood ahead of me, tracing runes that resonated like a gong and drove back the Skein when he attempted to cross behind me.
“Take it,” I said, and tossed the wheels toward him.
It skidded across bones, and would have toppled him outright if he didn’t hastily trace another rune to slow it down to a halt.
“Our entry gate,” I said. “Make it lead to Malicia.”
He wasted no time on backtalk, ripping away a string and tying it to the central axis as I cast a look around. The rat was trying to sneak through the back, but there would be none of that on my watch. I took the whole of my domain, ripping it away from three other Catherines trying to use it, and shaped it into a bolt that shot right at the Revenant as he leapt. It caught him in the chest, tearing through bone and flesh. Both it and the bolt fell into the void, and only then did I allow the others to play with my –our – domain again. A quick look told me Masego had tied the thread to a place on the lowest wheel, which was our signal to get the Hells out of here.
“Akua, back to me,” I said, and yanked her.
I staggered at the impact, which was so much heavier than usual, but then she was at my shoulder again if looking none too pleased at the manhandling. She looked up, and her face fell.
“Catherine,” she said, and her hand rose.
She shaped Winter, but it was too little and too late. The Skein fell down from above, shattering the wheels with a massive paw.
“You lose,” the Revenant crowed.
The ground broke beneath our feet, and after that there was only the fall.