“The finest summation of Traitorous’s reign I ever heard came from an illiterate peasant from the outskirts of Ater, who described it as follows: ‘Like watching a snake eat its own tail, only the tail was fake the snake was an angry badger and also you are poisoned.'”
– Introduction to ‘More Art Than Act’ by Hakim of Kahtan, the Haunted Scholar
And so the sound of my fragile mortal shell being ripped into signaled it was time for everyone’s favourite Wasteland game: backstab, help or both. Akua had grown on me, rather like the bubonic plague, so I was going to give her the benefit of the doubt and put my money on ‘both’. It was mildly surprising she’d stuck around at all, to be honest. I’d expected her to be halfway back to Praes by now, considering I’d lost my leash on her along with my soul. The unsettling sensation of fingers squeezing around my beating heart was coloured by the unspoken acknowledgement this was a dark mirror to Second Liesse’s ending. And to think they said Diabolist didn’t have a sense of humour. The sheer shock of being torn into this brutally and suddenly was tipping me right over the edge and straight into the grave, my vision dimming, but in the darkness power awaited. Not owned, no. Sve Noc’s victory had been too deep a cut for that. But Akua bestowed upon me a chord, an invisible string, and through it my fading senses expanded.
“Both it is,” I muttered. “Called it.”
Winter as an independent entity was dead. I knew that instantly and instinctively as my mind glimpsed the web of power spread over Great Strycht. There would be no restoration, it was too far gone for that. Sve Noc had clumsily melded Night and Winter where she could, though the merging was far from complete and my old mantle had reacted violently to the attempt. Knots of raging power had erupted all over the city, like too-large insects caught in a web of Night: wherever they stormed they weakened the weave around them. The Priestess had been hammering them into submission, I thought, one at a time. A time-consuming process, and a difficult one – like trying to smooth out wrinkles on steel. I could feel the gargantuan weight of her presence gripping one of the storms, fingers pulling out the threads one after another and releasing them accalmed. She had barely a sliver of her attention on me, I thought. Broken thing that I was, I’d been judged harmless and only a cursory eye had been kept on me. Bad form, that. It would remiss of me not to make her pay harshly for it.
“You forced her to act early,” Akua said.
Diabolist felt like she was at my side, but she couldn’t be. I wasn’t really anywhere, practically speaking. Just a ghost haunting the labyrinth, and her barely more than that. And yet if felt like her breath was whispering against my ear, like she was not even an inch away.
“So, the power of friendship,” I said. “Feels a bit ungrateful to say as much after such a touching interruption, but we’re not really friends. Acquaintances, at most, and that’s being generous.”
“You break my heart, dearest,” Diabolist drawled. “Again.”
“And I didn’t even need to punch through your ribcage first this time,” I replied, genuinely pleased. “I am getting better at this.”
“So is she,” Akua said.
She didn’t point – we were presences, not flesh – but like a feather’s touch her attention moved towards Sve Noc. My not-eyes followed.
“She wanted to bleed me after smoothing out all the knots,” I said. “Like a coronation.”
“Baptism in queen’s blood, yes,” Diabolist said. “Quite properly done, if a mite archaic. Queens are not as easy to acquire as they were in olden days.”
“But she doesn’t need it,” I said, feeling out the web with a thought. “She’s already winning, Akua. The Night is absorbing Winter, slowly but surely.”
“This situation should feel familiar, my heart,” she replied. “You are a claimant once more. The lesser one, certainly, but a claimant still.”
“For what?” I asked.
“That rather depends, I think, on which of you successfully presses her claim,” Akua said. “Before, I would have wagered it was sovereignty over night. But now… who knows?”
The shade laughed.
“Interesting times, dearest Catherine,” she said. “Interesting times indeed.”
“Interesting,” I repeated. “That’s a word for it. Especially considering I don’t see your hat anywhere in the ring. This was your chance to get back on top, Diabolist. There will not be another no matter the outcome.”
And if she hadn’t stepped in the game would have come to an end. I could still vaguely feel my body in the hands of Sve’s manifestation, but she’d yet to kill it. There’d be no point, I thought. What she needed on the altar was me, not a mangled empty corpse. If Akua had no chance of claiming this mess for herself I would have called this pragmatism, denying the Priestess her victory at the last moment, but she’d had other options. She could have fled, she could have fought. And yet here we were.
“Am I not in your service?” Akua said. “Bindings are formality, not essence.”
“Don’t waste our time,” I said. “She’s nearly done with the knot.”
I felt the shade press close to me, almost like an embrace, and I saw Akua Sahelian whole. Not the shade with the bloody hole in her chest, not the semblance of fae I’d turned her into. The same woman I’d met under the Name of Heiress, who’d schemed her way into becoming the Diabolist and vaingloriously raised her banners against the entire villainy of the East. Golden eyes set in a sculpted face, her long tresses falling in a curtain behind her. Adorned in a crimson gown set close against long legs, belted high on her waist in rubies and gold. She’d always been gorgeous. Even when I’d first met her, before I’d learned to truly hate her, I’d thought as much. This was not Akua as she was, but as she still saw herself, and I could not call her anything but the culmination of centuries of Wasteland breeding: as beautiful as she was terrible.
“I have grown tired,” she said, “of iron.”
“There’s no walking back the Folly,” I told her. “Not even for this. I’m one life, Akua. That’s the weight I have on the scales.”
“I consider myself something of a theologian,” she said. “And yet I still lack the answer to one question. Perhaps you can answer it for me. Which matters most, Catherine, when it comes to doing good – the conviction or the act?”
There was a beat of silence as the enormity of what she’d just said sunk in.
“You can’t be serious,” I said.
I was not sure whether to be amazed or appalled by what she was implying. Akua might be the single most amoral person I knew, which was saying something considering I was acquainted with the fucking King of Death. And she was talking of redemption? No, I realized. Not redemption. The conviction or the act, she’d said. I hated to even think it, but it fit with how she’d always done things. I used stories as an arsenal, taking up and discarding what was of use to me, but Akua? She rode them into the storm like a warhorse. It had killed her, in the end, the flying fortresses and the monologues. But before it had she’d matched an entire empire blow for blow.
“But I am,” she smiled. “I shall be, Catherine, the most terrifyingly heroic woman in the history of my kind. And in the end, together we will learn the answer to my question.”
“It’s not the Gods you have to convince,” I hissed. “It’s me.”
“Would you snuff me out for observing your own principles?” Akua asked. “I will do nothing but what you have demanded of me.”
“They won’t take you in,” I said. “You have to know that. You can’t fake being a good person.”
“I have learned much from you, darling one,” Akua Sahelian smiled. “I may fail, true. In my hour of judgement I may – most likely will – be unmade and cast into the deepest burning pits. But until then? Oh, what a glorious ride it will be.”
She spun away from me, presence parting in full.
“Now, my dear Catherine,” Diabolist said, and there was joyous laughter in her voice. “Shall we save some innocents?”
I would have argued still. Done something, anything, to deny this. But the last string of Winter was untangled, made docile, and even as the Night spread through it Sve Noc finally turned her whole attention to us.
“Clever little rats,” the Priestess of Night said. “You have earned death at my hand.”
It felt like the tide pulling back before the wave. Something unspeakably massive gathering before release, preparing to crush everything in its path. I called on all that I was, too, but I was no longer Sovereign of Moonless Nights. There were no bottomless depths of Winter to stand behind me, no stolen mantle to make me anything more than I was. In the face of a living deity, I stood a mere mortal – one with a claim, perhaps, but no less frail for it. If she crushed me here, I thought, would die. Unmade so thoroughly there might not be enough of me left for the afterlife. And so we began the dance one last time, for keeps. Winner got to be Queen Bitch of Night forevermore, a victory almost as terrible as defeat. I didn’t want it, I realized. I didn’t want to go back to the thing I’d turned into, that pale imitation of myself. A creature playacting at being a person, more a pack of lies and ambitions than anything remotely human. I’d feared alienation as the consequence of drawing on my mantle, all the while too far gone to realize I’d already estranged myself from everything that’d made me Catherine Foundling. Better to die than go back to it, I thought. To be nothing at all rather than be that. I closed my not-eyes.
“Mortal,” I whispered. “To the end, whatever that may be.”
A savage joy took hold of me, sweeter than wine, and I almost laughed. Even if it was doomed, even if all was lost – I would not go quietly into the night. I would go out kicking and screaming, making an unholy mess of it. Not-lips splitting into a grin, I took hold of what remained of my mind. If you are the sea, then I am a needle, I thought. Slender and piercing and too slight to catch. Hold and release, and then the impact of our wills shook the entire web. I went through like a needle through silk, and sunk into darkness. The pressure of it was crushing, a mind so much greater than my own bearing down, and I balked. I am stone, I thought. The pebble beneath the coursing river, smooth and unmoving. I crashed at the bottom, but there I remained. Unbroken. I could do this, I thought. I was so much less, but what I was could change. Adapt. She was too large to be able to do the same so easily. The sea withdrew and I let out a relieved breath. The web was frittering, I saw. Parts that had been calmed grew riotous as Sve Noc exerted herself against me. Winter was not so easily tamed.
“Fumbling child,” the Priestess of Night said. “You but delay the inevitable.”
“Hells, Sve,” I grinned savagely. “That’s my life in a sentence.”
I had become unto stone, and so she became a chisel. She struck down, lumbering and unstoppable. She had become a chisel, and so I became wind: shapeless, coursing around the might of her. The chisel broke into a storm, taking hold of me, and so I became a bird. I rode the winds, and she turned into a hand. Fingers closed around me, but I was smoke and slipped through them. It was a game of riddles, where the first mistake would be the last. Smoke was inhaled by gaping maw, the maw escaped by a scuttling rat, the rat crushed by boot only for mud to stick at the bottom of the sole. Shape to shape we went, ever changing and never twice the same. I knew, instinctively, that repetition would be barred to me. Always forward, or there could be only death. I had become a snake, coiling around a narrow spike, when Sve Noc screamed. There was a flicker, and I saw her long-haired silhouette again – with Diabolist stabbing away at her neck, dagger in hand. Taking your eyes off the Praesi, huh. Always a mistake, that. Akua was swatted away angrily, her shape shattered by the sheer force of the blow, but I was already moving.
“I am a sword,” I murmured. “Sharp and merciless, I cut.”
My will struck out against hers and finally I drew blood. And here was the pit fight Archer had promised, I thought. Two beasts in a hole, tearing at each other. Devouring. I was to eat what I had carved out, grow stronger from it. Ascend through this hallowed cannibalism and strike again, until one of us had consumed the other whole. That was Below’s game, its promised and certain victory.
“Mortal, you meddling fucks,” I snarled. “To the end.”
I crawled into the gushing wound, spite warming me down to my petty core.
“It is forbidden, ‘Mina. The vigil must be held alone.”
The suddenness of the sound had me twitching. There had been the warm darkness of blood, until I crawled out dripping onto a floor of stone, and immediately the woman had spoken. I rose to my feet, eyes wary. It looked like a temple, that was my first thought. The ceiling was tall and curved, held up by arches and columns. The stone beneath me covered in strange scriptures similar to Crepuscular, but only in part. Older, I decided. What few words I understood among them seemed to be in the vein of astronomy, about celestial orbs and their movements. On all four sides arched thresholds led into nothing: I could glimpse a sea of lights below, and only then did I realized I was standing atop a tower. There were no stairs, no visible way into the room save the arches. Rich laughter drew my attention sharply, and my eyes moved to watch a pair of drow. Both young – truly young, not like the Mighty were – and long-haired, though their appearance was starkly sexless. One sat with her legs folded, in the centre of the room, while the other lounged against a pillar. She’d been the one to laugh.
“So many rules,” the drow called ‘Mina gently mocked. “Why apprentice to the Sages at all, if you intend on following all of them?”
Neither of their eyes were silver, I realized with a start. Both a deep amber, identical in every way. As if sisters. My blood thrummed with excitement. I’d been right, then. It was Sve Noc’s soul I had cut open, and it was her memories I’d crawled my way into. And if I got to the bottom, found the right path… My way out. The victory denied.
“We are the enemy of death,” the sitting drow replied, almost chiding. “It is great honour to be chosen to stand among those who hold back twilight.”
“Shrouded Gods, Andronike,” her sister said, rolling her eyes. “You could at least wait until after the ceremony to start with that. If I wanted to get preached at I’d prostrate at temple like a good little zealot.”
“There will be no ceremony at all, Komena, if you are caught up here,” Andronike sharply replied. “I will be sent home in disgrace and Mother-”
“- will have to take the war oath or be forever disgraced,” Komena interrupted. “I’ve heard that song before, sister. You say that like it’d be such a disaster. I’ll be taking the very same oath this year, and it’d be nice to have kin at my side.”
The other drow’s face softened.
“You know I would follow you,” she said. “If I had not been called to higher purpose.”
“All hail the mighty Twilight Sages,” Komena said, smile too serrated to be genuine. “May we forever kiss the hem of their robes.”
“I didn’t meant it like that, ‘Mina,” Andronike feebly said. “There is great honour in war service.”
“Just not quite as much as in this,” her sister said.
The other drow’s eyes tightened.
“You have the talent, Komena,” she said. “Our fathers both have sorcerer blood. Do not blame me simply because you never had the discipline to sharpen your skills.”
“Much good they will do you, these precious skills,” Komena said. “Cloistered in some hidden shrine, debating magic with crazed half-corpses. At least my lack of discipline will serve the Firstborn against our enemies.”
“Fetching human servants for the rylleh?” Andronike ridiculed. “Squabbling with the nerezim over some empty tunnel? How well you would serve our people.”
“How gladly you mock the same blades that keep our mines full, that keep the nerezim from making goblins of us,” her sister snarled. “At least we act, inglorious as our lot is. Provide for the Empire Ever Dark.”
“You talk like a colonist,” Andronike said, wrinkling her nose. “The King Under the Mountain will slay us all, every Firstborn must take the oath! There will be peace, sister, as there has been for over a century. War is only ever waged for petty glories.”
I coughed into my fist. Well, you couldn’t get them all right. Probably the single worst thing she could have gotten wrong, but in her defence she didn’t seem alone in her assumption. If the drow in charge had really all believed that it was no wonder the dwarves had wrecked them in the following wars. That did not sound like an empire ready for a hard fight. The two sisters continued to argue, but I let the noise wash over me. There was something… There it was again. A tremor. I knelt, wincing as my lame leg flared, and pressed my ear against the stone. It came again, louder, and my fingers clenched. Not a tremor, a footstep. And one getting closer. Time to move on, then, I’d learned all I could from this anyway. There was no obvious way out, I thought, save the one I’d rather not take. I breathed out and got up.
“Oh Gods, this better work,” I muttered, and took a running leap off the tower.
I thought I’d failed, at first, because I stood in utter darkness. But then there was movement, Komena sweeping out her arm and causing globes off glass to light all over the room. She’d gotten older, I saw. There was nasty scar on her neck, but it was the sharper features and braided hair that drew my attention. She wore armour, too: good steel mail, with pauldrons of sculpted obsidian. The sword at her hip was without a sheath and glinted cold blue. Enchanted, for sure. As she began unstrapping her armour I allowed my gaze to sweep our surroundings, reluctantly admitting that the woman who’d become Sve Noc had taste. And coin to burn, apparently, because much of the furniture in here was wood instead of stone and that was a rare thing in the Everdark. I froze when she did, only the noticing that there was someone seated in the corner. Who it was I could not tell for sure – though I had a decent guess – because they were masked and covered by a thick cloak. It was an ornate thing, the mask. Forged iron, the upper half of it a sun setting while the bottom was half the moon. Komena drew her sword without hesitation.
“I know not your intent, Sage, but I am a jawor of the Southern Army,” she coldly said. “I will not be disappeared so easily.”
The Twilight Sage slowly raised a hand and took off the mask, revealing the very pair of amber eyes I had expected. Andronike hesitated, worrying her lip.
“‘Mina,” she quietly said. “I know we did not part-”
The sword clattered against the ground, and I had to admit I was touched at the sight of Komena embracing her sister without the slightest hint of hesitation. The two drow remained like that for a long moment, and I saw their arms tightening against each other like they were afraid of letting go.
“‘Nike,” the younger sister said, after finally releasing the other. “Gods be kind. I have regretted many things since taking the oath, but none half as much as the last words we spoke.”
“I’m sorry, Komena,” Andronike whispered. “I was too proud to reach out, after. I have sown sorrow where there needed be none.”
The other drow touched her shoulder, almost shyly.
“It does not matter,” she said. “It could have been a hundred years instead of twenty, and still it would not matter. Heart of my heart.”
“Heart of my heart,” Andronike whispered back, voice shaky.
Komena shook herself, as if trying to wake. She smoothed out her already pristine armour out of nervousness.
“I am being a frightful host,” she said. “I have senna, if you would like a drink – or! I have this bottle of this drink they call wynneh, from the Burning Lands. Very exotic, you wouldn’t believe how many fingers I had to break to get it.”
Andronike took her sister’s hand and shook her head.
“Sit with me,” she asked. “This is… better spoken sober.”
Komena’s eyes tightened.
“You worry me, sister,” she said. “Are you in danger? I now striking a Sage is sacrilege, but I will not-”
“We are all in danger, I fear,” Andronike croaked. “‘Mina, what I want to tell you, it is a crime for me to speak it. Even if all you do is listen, they would-”
“Heart of my heart,” Komena said, voice like steel. “Your woe is my woe. No soul can change this.”
Her sister smiled, for just a moment, and it felt like dawn breaking over the room. Andronike tugged her down into a seat and they settled together while the Sage sister chose her words. The ritual, I thought. This is about the ritual when they tried to become immortals.
“They’re going to kill us all, ‘Mina,” Andronike murmured, sounding genuinely terrified. “The Sages, the elders among them – they’re afraid of dying. The alchemies work a little less every year and their minds have begun to fray. So they now plan a ritual.”
“A ritual,” Komena repeated slowly, trying to understand her sister’s fear.
And failing, though I thought she was a decent hand at hiding it.
“They will borrow from the years of every Firstborn yet to be,” the drow said. “They say they have it charted – they’ve used oracles, the old rites as well – but they’re wrong Komena. There are too many uncertainties.”
“There will be revolt, if this comes out,” Komena said face gone grim. “I can reach out to other officers-”
“You don’t understand,” Andronike said. “They are proud. They through it we will all be made immortal. With the turn of the red season they will announce it themselves.”
“But you don’t believe it will work,” the younger sister said.
“All it takes is a single mistake, and our entire people will pay for it,” the other drow replied, shaking her head. “There is always a mistake, ‘Mina. Always.”
Her sister slowly nodded, and I watched her thoughts flicker through her face. Hesitation, first, then reproach. And after that only determination, cold and relentless.
“So what,” Komena said, “are we going to do about it?”
Pivot, I thought. They were not Named, not yet, but that sentence and that moment were the beginning of a very dark road I already knew the end of.
“In that moment, I loved her more than I have ever loved anyone or anything.”
I froze. She’d not made a sound, until the moment she spoke. Not a breath, not whisper of foot on stone. I turned and there she was, standing at my side. The cloak I recognized, for she wore it in front of me as well, but there was no mask now. She had grown, I thought, beyond such petty symbols.
“Strange,” she said, head cocked to the side. “That even after all these years, I grieve that more than all the rest.”
“Andronike,” I said, meeting eyes of pure silver.
“Catherine Foundling,” the other half of Sve Noc greeted me calmly. “I believe you were looking for me.”