“Quite literally not what I was aiming for, but I can work with this.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II, as her flying fortress began falling on Laure
Why was it always explosions?
Everybody always tried to blow me up. Akua, Pilgrim, too many Summer fae to count. Even William, and he didn’t even have powers that made it easy for him – he’d used godsdamned munitions. Was there some manual you got when you became Named that set it out as a preferred tactic? Just once, for diversity’s sake, someone should start with fire. Or ice, or even bloody lightning. Sure I’d dabbled in the explosion method myself so some – viper tongues one and all – might call me a hypocrite for complaining, but in my defence this was reaching a point where I’d received a lot more explosions than I’d dealt out. Once more, this savage world of ours was proving to be deeply unjust at its core. I was probably going to be blamed for this too. This tower would prove to be some deeply holy place to the drow, and good ol’ Catherine Foundling would be charged with desecration of some fancy Night temple. It was getting as bad as the goblinfire, which for the record I didn’t use nearly as often as some people implied. Thinking of you, Hakram.
“Would, like, shadow snakes be too much to ask for?” I said. “Sure there’s a lot of phallic symbolism involved, but-”
A hole the size of a watermelon formed in my torso, scattering my organs in a shower of gore even as I fell. The Longstrides either had a very dark sense of humour or they weren’t the most stirring of conversationalists. There were six – no, seven, one was half-veiled by an illusion of Night – drow below and they went about their assault with calculated professionalism. The explosion that’d made an abstractly-patterned portrait of my insides all over the stone had blown me back towards the wall, where a blanket of shadow was already awaiting me. The acid trick again? Best not to test it out, I decided. My wings were smothered in strands of Night the moment they tried to move and take me out of freefall, but I had other options. The gate opened under me, and after a few heartbeats of falling through Arcadian sky I gated back out atop the now-roofless tower. Mighty Rumena was still perched at the edge of it, standing unruffled with its hands folded into obsidian-ringlet sleeves. I killed my wings and formed them out again, getting rid of the interfering Night, and landed on the opposite side with largely accidental grace.
“You seem irritated,” Rumena noted. “Is your attempted enslavement of my entire race proving too troublesome for your tastes?”
“That one was a fair shot,” I conceded. “Are you not taking part in this kill-a-queen festival?”
“Humans,” the Mighty sighed. “Such impatient creatures. All in due time, Losara Queen.”
I liked to think I wasn’t so much of a fool as to fall for the exact same trick twice in a row, so even as we spoke I’d started moving. Just because I’d found seven of the Longstrides so far didn’t meant that was all of them. The sudden attack had not been a pleasant surprise, but my plan was still working out at the moment – as made clear by the fact that I’d been ambushed by a small pack, not the full roster of two hundred. I learned why this particular lot had been the vanguard the moment I leapt down to temple’s roof a few dozen feet below and to the side, when they smoothly walked out of the shade cast by statues. In a loose circle of which I was the centre. I was going to get surrounded no matter where I went, wasn’t I? Shadow-striding, my Peerage had called it. I was kind of a pain I was no longer the only one on the field with an unfair mobility trick.
“So, you’re Longstride Cabal,” I said. “Are we not even going to have a round of introductions? Pretty rude of you, I have to say.”
I didn’t have eyes in the back of my head – although I could actually grow those, I’d found out, I still hadn’t figured out how to make them function properly – so I could only make out the appearance of the five relatively in front of me. Not unexpectedly, there was little common to their armaments and looks. Most of them were ageless in that way the Mighty were, but there was one looking even older than Rumena and one I’d have called a teenager if not for the too-sharp features. Spears, swords, one had a nifty steel hammer and there was even one wielding some kind of chain with sharp spikes at the end that had to be a nightmare to actually use in a fight. Armour varied from half-naked to a set of full plate in what I was pretty sure was rune-inscribed granite. Tactics were going to be tricky here: the weapons were probably the least dangerous thing about them, but if they still bothered to bring them into a battle it would be with the expectation they’d have some use. The one in plate, which also looked like it’d been made from grey leather left too long out in the sun, was the only one to reply.
“Full account of your deeds will be taken from a follower after the hunt has come to an end, Queen of Lost and Found,” the Mighty said. “There is no need to worry they will be forgot after your passing.”
“Not exactly what I was getting at,” I replied.
There was a soft sound near the back of the roof and I pivoted slightly so that section entered my peripheral vision. My brow rose: Rumena had joined us, making the leap down effortlessly. The Longstrides parted around it, allowing it to stand among the circle surrounding me. Allies? I hadn’t thought this lot, or even drow in general, the kind of people to stick to a pact past its immediate purpose being fulfilled.
“You are seen, Rumena Tomb-Maker,” the drow in plate said. “Out of respect for your past office, you will not be hunted this night. Depart without strife.”
Tomb-Maker, huh. That was the kind of epithet only people you didn’t want to fuck with ended up earning. The drow, stooped old creature that it was, straightened its back with a nasty crack.
“Make me,” Mighty Rumena said, voice utterly serene.
Damn. Sure, it’d baited me into a pretty bad situation and it was most likely after my head. But I couldn’t deny the old monster had class.
“Are you sure I can’t recruit you?” I felt compelled to ask. “I’ll be honest, I would spend good money to see you punch Saint in the face.”
“So be it,” plated-drow shrugged, flatly ignoring me. “Under auspices red I declare-”
“Drown,” I shamelessly interrupted, and ripped open my gates.
Three of them shaped like a dome going over all of us. Why not? I had nothing to fear from the waters. And I certainly didn’t owe them the courtesy of allowing them to finish whatever murderous ceremonial phrase they’d wanted to speak. It took three heartbeats for the mass of water to hit the rooftop, and by then I was the only one left on it. A thought had the gates closing as the temple under me collapsed, icy waters tearing through the roof with a thunderous crash, and the weight of it had me crushed against the ground beneath. It didn’t matter: I formed a globe of ice around myself and gated out heartbeats before some spike of Night ripped through where’d I’d been, leaving Arcadia to tread on the wet grounds outside the temple. I could have gone further out, but the whole point of using the lake-gates as an opening volley had been giving me materials easy to work with. A flick of the wrist had the lakewater turning into mist, billowing out and swallowing our surroundings. I pricked my ears, but could not hear a single one of them moving. Silencing their footsteps was too basic a use of Night for it to have been reasonable to hope otherwise, I conceded, but at least the mist would hinder their vision.
I felt Night flare above and looked up, quietly climbing a large hall’s roof to get a better angle, and what I found had me frowning. They’d put us in a box. Using the mist as delineation for the area, one of them had slapped down a rectangular box of roiling Night – with all nine of us presumably inside it. It should be useless, I thought, since I could gate out anytime. But the dawning itch on my skin told a different story. It felt like a ward, or at least something to the same effect. I kept moving, since staying in the same place for too long was bound to get me discovered and then surrounded in swift succession. I glamoured out the sound my footsteps, unwilling to rely on my own limited sneaking abilities to keep me out of trouble, and dropped in a low crouch when I heard the sound of stone shattering in the distance. I couldn’t see anyone, at the moment, so I carefully began heading into that direction to see what’d happened. Had Rumena and the Longstrides begun fighting? I got the answer before I finished making my way there, when a temple to my left was brutally flattened by another massive spike of Night. Ah, they weren’t fighting. They were methodically getting rid of anything I could use for cover.
If they kept this up, I’d end up on flat grounds with nothing to manoeuver around. After that, all they needed to do was get rid of the mist and it was all going to eagerly proceed downhill. Clever enemies were the worst, I thought.
Still, I wasn’t without an arsenal of my own. I reached for my domain – not to call it down, but to use the substance of it as a tool. One, two, three. I continued forging long chains ending in hooks out of Moonless Night, making them come out of my palms, until I had enough of them for every structure I could make out around me. After that it was only a matter of tossing them at the temples and towers and making the hooks sink into them. I broadened my stance, more out of habit than true need, and after grasping all the chains tightly began to turn. My muscles might be make-believe, nowadays, but the strength was real. With one snap after another I ripped out temples and towers, sometimes mere walls but on occasion the whole thing when the foundation was weak enough. With a grunt I put my whole body into it spinning the entire mass of ripped stone like a giant mace. I didn’t need to actually find the drow if I hit everything. Tearing through other structures slowed the momentum, but I kept spinning and so did my makeshift weapon. Had I hit any of them? Maybe, maybe not. I wouldn’t have been able to feel it if I had, given the weight difference. Given the nature of my improvised weapon it wasn’t hard for the drow to guess at my location – there were chains leading straight to it – and that was things got interesting.
Odds had always been low I’d actually kill one of them with the whirl. There’d been another reason for the move, and I showed as much when a pair of Longstrides emerged out of shadows and I picked two chained temples to send smashing down at them. Both dispersed, shadow-illusions broken by the impact, and it was from behind me they struck. One spear from the left, one from the right, and when I attempted to move forward out of their reach I found a large snake of Night striking out. Yeah, they’d definitely heard me complain. And they had a truly terrible sense of humour. I had only a heartbeat to react, my chained weapons too far to recall in time, so I dropped low. The spears and snake followed my descent flawlessly, but that moment of readjustment bought me just long enough to encase myself in ice. It shattered under the spear tips while the snake went straight though, but I’d left a hole at the bottom and turned into mist. I went back into human shape behind the snake, swinging a wall at it that caved in the shape and broke it apart. Night pulsed like a heartbeat on the other side of the mauled ice structure, and I backed away expecting an assault.
It wasn’t, I grasped a moment too late. It was a beacon.
The full seven Longstrides were on me in moments, shadow-striding into the scene. The chains were getting too unwieldy for our combat range, so I drew them back into my domain. Just in time for the enemy cabal to prove they’d come by their reputation honestly. The two fighting me hadn’t been going at it seriously, I realized. They were just pinning me down until the other hunters arrived – and when they did, the gloves came off. The sheer variety of Secrets caught me off-guard. One turned into a mass of shifting shadows not even remotely humanoid, tendrils and clawed limbs sprawling out. Another knelt and pressed a palm against the ground, Night spreading from it like a tide of rancid oil. One’s own shadow slithered out to connect to mine as another touched its shoulder, and immediately I felt my blood turn into a muddy sludge. A ball of shadows formed over my head, casting impossible stripes of darkness down around me, and drow flickered out of those like they were passages. The entire thing had taken, at most, two heartbeats from the moment they’d gathered here. I’d fought heroic bands that were not nearly that skilled at working together. Shit, I wasn’t sure the Calamities would be that good at it.
If this turned into a brawl I was dead. Winter or not, apotheosis or not.
“Let’s try it, then,” I said. “Your Night against mine.”
Darkness fell over all of us, my kingdom manifest – for I was Sovereign of Moonless Nights, and here even Mighty were but troublesome guests. Cold beyond cold enveloped the Longstrides, coating their bodies with frost as their feet bit into supernaturally pristine snow. Not a speck of light here, though it mattered not to my eyes. Something deeper than vision was my due in here. Their Secrets broke like kindling, hollowed out by Winter, but the drow did not flinch. I’d seen my domain make sport of sorcery and devils, turn men into trifles, yet the seven Longstrides shook it off with seemingly little effort. Even bereft of their Night they moved, weapons in hand, and fell upon me. I could feel my power slithering through my veins, pure and untethered, and words were on the tip of my tongue. I swallowed them, familiar by now with the touch of alienation. It was growing in me faster than I could shunt it off. With flawless timing the seven struck together, but before their blades could bite into me I bit into them. There was warmth at the heart of them, flickering candles, and with a pluck of my fingers I smothered the flames. One after another they dropped, puppets without strings.
“Oh, but we are far from done,” I murmured as the last fell. “I have a use for you.”
If I was forced to use my domain this early, then I would at least get the full value out of it. Silver eyes turned blue, a brilliant droplet spreading and devouring the irises whole. My Longstrides rose to their feet. There was still Night in them, but it was cowed. Tamed by the looming power of Winter holding primacy inside them. How many Secrets would they retain, I wondered? It would be interesting to find out when I sent them out to war. There were still one hundred and seventy three to add to my cohort of monsters, after all. The one wearing plate – Segur, my mind whispered – suddenly shivered. Surprise stilled my hand, just as I’d been about to shatter the domain and return to a marred Creation. It was no longer living, I’d killed it myself. So why did it feel cold?
“Glorious,” the corpse laughed. “Deeply, unspeakably glorious. You stole half the Garden from their hands, Losara. It is all there.”
Tendrils of silver spread through blue eyes, clawing back ownership.
“You have no power here, Sve Noc, save that which I grant you,” I said. “And I grant you nothing.”
Will against will, we struggled. I would have been crushed in an instant, were this Creation. But here she was trying to thread an ocean through the eye of a needle. I drove her back, inch by inch.
“But you did,” the corpse said. “You let me in. You gave me an anchor. And so I stand, within and without.”
Only the smallest sliver left. She was desperately trying to keep it in her grasp, but she did not belong here. I did not simply rule this place, it was me. My soul, or whatever was left of it, given shape. The dead drow turned to face me, the last pinprick of silver dying.
“Let it be one and the same,” Sve Noc laughed. “All is Night.”
I won and lost in the same moment. Chased her away just as she struck. My world of moonless night screamed, a cut appearing in the endless sky. It spread quick as lightning, splitting the starless firmament in half, and I screamed along my domain at the inhuman pain of it. A touch like fingers whispered through the opening, grasping the sides, and like curtains being opened the sky was pulled back.
I stood kneeling, forced back to Creation, as the whole of Winter was unleashed upon Great Strycht.
It was merciful thing when the darkness took me.
I woke up in a monstrous amount of pain, shivering.
My eyes opened to a moonless sky and a scream ripped itself free of my throat. It was wrong, wrongwrongwrong. It should not be there. There was no ceiling behind it, only an endless void that was no longer mine. My limbs were numb from the heinous throbbing that had claimed every speck of my body, feeling nothing but the pain. My fingers clawed at the ground and it gave. Were they bleeding? It was like they’d been scraped raw. I forced myself to sit, but my arms were shaking and I fell back. I swallowed the scream, but my throat bulged and I found myself spewing on the ground. I had to crawl away not to drown in it, nothing but clear water leaving my mouth. But the taste of it… Gods, nothing tasted like that. It was like life leaving my wretched body. I was surrounded, I finally saw, by ice and snow. As if some divine blizzard had ripped through the city, sparing nothing. I could not hear a single living soul. I couldn’t… My body seized up and I twisted like a worm against the frost. I could hear only my own breath. I couldn’t hear faraway, not anymore. I could no longer sense the heat of living things, or see flawlessly in the dark. She’s taken all of it.
I was just Catherine Foundling, and might as well have been blind.
I could feel my heart beat, my real heart. My blood flow from my veins. I had never in my life felt so vulnerable as I did then, stripped of every bit of power I’d clawed my way into owning. Made just a bag of blood and meat, one wracked with feverous shivers. The pain was going away, replaced by a cold numbness, and that was when I realized I was dying. Gods, I was tired. I tried to crawl again but my leg flared with agony even through the numbness. My limp, I thought, almost drunkenly. My bad leg. The wound I’d cheated my way out of so many times, but it seemed that dance could only be danced for so long. I fought to keep my eyes open, but the entire world was forcing them to close. I had lost. Some part of me rebelled at the thought. The same voice that’d kept me going through butcheries and catastrophes, through every dark hour I’d ever faced. It shouted, but the sound was dim. Muted. Dying, like the rest of me. The thought came guilty, but it would not go away. It would be a relief, wouldn’t it? To sleep. To finally rest. I tried to think of Callow, but found nothing there to make me stand. I had brought so much destruction to my home, every day claiming I was saving it.
I’d given so much, without a single clean victory to show for it.
I wept into the snow, tears and dark laughter choking up my throat. Snot dripped down, to my visceral disgust. How long had it been, since I’d had snot? The thought startled me by its inhumanity. I’d died long before today, perhaps that was the harsh truth of it. My eyes closing here would just be a formality, a final curtain. I buried my face in the cold and waited. No footsteps came. No sharp memory drifted to the surface of my fevered mind. No vision filled my unseeing gaze, some mentor or foe chiding me or raising me up. Not a single damned thing. I was dying, and the world answered with resounding silence. But we all died alone, didn’t we? That was the secret at the heart of Winter. I had worn grandiose plans in place of the regalia I disdained, and a single defeat was enough to shatter all of them. Was it like that with everyone? Or had I simply been building on sand all this time? There were no answers to be found, I knew. And the questions rang empty when I asked them. Would they mourn me? Some, I thought. Few, I admitted after. It would hurt the handful I’d found it in me to love, but that knowledge did not stir me as much as it should have. I was in pain as well, and for all that I had tried to be a better woman in the end my own pain mattered most to me. I’d stood for hours at the edge of the roof, as a child. Back at the orphanage. Because I’d been afraid of heights and hated it. Maybe there had been wisdom in that fear, I now thought. Maybe deep down I’d known there would always be that voice whispering taking the drop, oh so temptingly.
I waited and did not die. My face was warm again, I realized. I’d melted the snow enough I could breathe. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Even through the painful convulsions I laughed, until a spasm had my cheek lying against a snow.
“Do I have to do everything myself?” I croaked out.
I fell into another fit of laughter at that. The sound of it was ugly to my ears, but then everything was. Gods, this entire world had gone from a master’s work to a child’s scribble. It almost felt beneath me to stay in it. But no, they wouldn’t get to have that.
“That was your chance,” I said, to no one at all.
I was already dead, wasn’t I? Or close enough. A goddess had ripped open my soul and let the contents spill out. I was mortal as an insect, and there was no changing the ending striding towards me. I should have broken me, that knowledge. The inevitability of it. But it didn’t. It was liberating. There were no stakes now. Nothing left to lose. Whether I rose or not would make no difference. So why bother, a voice insisted.
“Why not?” I whispered.
My arms gave again. Twice I fell back into the same patch of ice, stuck there watching it until the pain ebbed low and I could stomach moving again. But I managed to sit the third time, and that felt like something. My bad leg folded like parchment when I tried to stand and the fall that followed had me weeping like a child for the ache, so instead I crawled in the snow until I reached a broken wall and slowly hoisted myself up. To my hilarity, there were only about four feet of wall left to prop myself against until I’d have to stand on my own.
I had crawled to the wrong fucking wall.
I was choking on a mouthful of laughter – and bile, I was still dying – while considering where I should crawl next when a silhouette walked out of the dark. I couldn’t make it out, at first, or hear it move. But eventually the face swam into focus and I found the pale silver eyes of Mighty Rumena watching me.
“Ah, finally,” I drawled, regally flopping my wrist at it. “I was getting bored. And crippled, but that one’s admittedly not your fault.”
Choosing my words with great care, I grinned and met its gaze.
“Take me to your leader,” I ordered.