Chapter Delay

I’m having health problems, so despite my best efforts the chapter won’t be up tonight. It should be by tomorrow evening, however, at which point I’ll delete this post.

Sorry for the delay,
E.E.

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Chapter 44: Catherine’s Plan

“From the example of the claimant Desolate we can learn this: no scheme is so perfect that it is invulnerable to the utter idiocy of an opponent.”
-Extract from an untitled historical commentary on the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One, by the Imperial Concubine Alaya of the Green Stretch

There was only the void to keep track of now, at least. Wings burst out of my back and with a swift beat had me spinning sideways: I caught Masego by the collar, though he kept wriggling uncomfortably. If this had been freefall back in Creation, the howl of the wind would have forced me to raise my voice. No such troubles plagued our descent into nothingness, a silver lining on a situation I knew to be bad but vaguely suspected was much, much worse.

“Can you get us out of here?” I asked, wings beating behind me to keep us aloft.

Diabolist was nothing more than a shade on my back, kept there by the fact I willed it so. Whatever weight she’d had earlier, it was gone now.

“There is no here,” Hierophant replied. “We are in between places that exist, within the contained entity that was the central chamber.”

“And can you get us out of that?” I hissed.

“It is an egg, Catherine,” he said. “We are within. If you want to leave…”

Crack the shell, I thought. Easier said than done: if that’d been on the table since the beginning, there would have been much less planning needed. Could’ve burst straight into the Skein’s lair, seized the wheels and assassinated Malicia. Of course, we had eventually burst into that lair. It hadn’t gone what one might call ‘well’, or to be honest anywhere near that neighbourhood. After the elven Revenant I’d thought that Neshamah’s guardians were dangerous yet not beyond our ability to handle. I’d just been roughly disabused of that notion. Even Masego picking up his second aspect had barely managed to get the situation under control long enough for the rat to screw us over again.

“Where do I hit?” I asked Hierophant.

The heart of our working relationship, laid bare.

“Anywhere,” he laughed.

I blew out a cold breath and allowed Winter to slither through my veins. Our exertions fighting the Skein had not tired it. It felt, if anything, even more eager than before. I was beginning to grasp the secret at the heart of the fae, slowly but surely: their power delighted in use, rewarded it. I’d inherited that without the tight constraints of a role in the colourful but uncompromising tapestry that had once governed the entire realm of faerie. Before the King of Winter hoodwinked me into killing and freeing him with the same sentence, anyway. Who knew what the face of Arcadia was, now that its ever-feuding courts had become one?  I felt Akua’s not-eyed follow the shape of the power I was shaping, but she did not take part. She had not spoken a word since my last summons, I only now noticed.

“Diabolist?” I said.

“I am reaching the limit,” the shade murmured through tight lips.

I glanced back, the light of my translucent wings casting her scarlet eyes almost purple to my sight.

“Of what?” I asked.

“How much principle alienation I can take for you,” Diabolist said. “My thoughts already grow… stilted. Forced down unproductive paths.”

I blinked in surprise. Shit. It was true I’d been tossing around Winter like rarely before and my mind remained mostly my own, but I’d not… There’d been a lot of sweet talk about apotheosis, of late. Foolishly enough, I’d assumed that I’d somehow outgrown my old troubles. Not so, evidently. How had Akua even – ah, the chain. Had to be. This entire time, she’d been taking the plunge so I would remain mostly clear-headed. I could only admire her capacity to master her own thoughts in the face of Winter influence, if her limit was only now reached. My tongue burned with a half a dozen questions but they would have to wait for later. There were no physical markers for me to hit around here, so I didn’t bother with anything too precise. Ice and shadow, woven into a spike that spun and elongated into something closer to a massive javelin. I shaped it carefully, and only when I was satisfied with the flawlessness of the working did I let it loose. For a heartbeat, I hit nothing. The javelin kept moving through nothingness unimpeded, is momentum undaunted by the distance.

Then I hit a wall, or something close to it.

Like an arrow hitting stone my working did little more than leave a mark on the surface, but there was an unmistakable notch of damage on the surface of the nothingness in front of us. Winter’s span was a difficult thing to measure, for my mantle obeyed no rules but its own and sometimes not even that, but I had put much of myself into the javelin. Enough that, with Akua no longer serving as my filter, I could feel the creep of influence at the edge of my mind. Still indistinct whispers, for now. They would grow louder, I knew, until there was no difference between them and my own thoughts. Hammering through wasn’t going to work. I’d come out of here spouting monologues, if not worse, and I wouldn’t catch Malicia acting like the very same people she’d arranged the deaths of for decades over a nice cup of wine. I wasn’t ready to call this a wash yet, and embracing the fullness of Winter was more or less that.

“Hierophant, I need you to pry that open,” I said.

Masego frowned.

“Platform,” he said.

Reluctantly, I snatched another wisp of Winter and crafted one beneath him before dropping his collar. He landed on his feet, if not particularly gracefully, but that wasn’t what drew my attention. I could smell the sorcery on him. I always could, really, and given the amount of protective enchantments he layered on himself whenever we went into battle this should not be a surprise. But there was something different, this time. The magic was curving beneath his skin, deep into his body. My eyes narrowed and traced the shape of them with my mind, like a blind girl trying to see the face of another with my fingers. Some of that sorcery was going straight into his heart, keeping the blood pumping steadily. More was stiffening muscles, like those of his lower back. Keeping him standing up straight. And there were two little pinpricks, going into smaller glands above his kidneys. Forcing them to keep functioning, for whatever eldritch purpose. My studies of anatomy had largely been aimed towards killing or more recreational affairs, but I could recognize the sight of a man tinkering with his own body to keep it going when it was falling apart. He’d used powerful sorceries, today. Birthed an aspect, and used another. Back when I’d been the Squire and just that, even calling on a single such power would have wiped me out. A long overdue reminder that Masego, like the rest of the Woe, was still very much human. With all the messy, unpleasant parts that involved.

I kept my mouth shut anyway as he began to trace runes.

If I’d been a better friend, a better person, I might have taken the burden off his shoulders. Valiantly declared that we would find another way, that I’d take care of it somehow. But I was just me, and it was too late for last-hour gambits. I needed Malicia dead, and I needed it done soon. I’d have to trust that Masego would not irreparably hurt himself, and let him bleed for my objectives. Isn’t it funny? I thought. How the higher you rise, the more power comes into the shape of others suffering for you. I was not smiling. But what was the worth of that, if I still kept silent?

“I can turn a scuffmark into a hole,” Hierophant finally said. “That is, I’m afraid, the limit of what I can do. You will have to address the rest of the matter.”

I nodded.

“Do it,” I ordered.

He attacked the mark I’d left with what looked like twin thin needles of light, but to my senses felt more like a chisel and a hammer. One was heavier than the other, using the weaker one to pry open the wall. Masego’s breath quickened, and I felt some of the spells on his body weaken. Like Diabolist, he was nearing his limit. The Woe were powerful, for our age. More than we had any right to. But if we could not hurt our enemy badly in the initial stretch of the fight, as a group we had a tendency to begin slowly losing. Too many shortcuts. Too many advances with weak foundations. We had rushed to power, and it’d made us fragile. I dismissed the thought, and sharpened my will like a blade as Hierophant finished making that final breach. A small one, less than an inch wide. But I could feel Creation behind it, and an opening was all I’d needed. I called on my domain, the night-realm within, and before it could fall over us like a curtain I wove the smallest sliver through the breach. Gave us a path into Creation.

Night followed.

My wings died behind me as I tread soft snow, the starless sky above spreading out forever. Masego stumbled and shivered as he joined me, but I guided away the worst of the cold with a thought and offered him an arm to lean on. I’d already asked too much of him today. Akua did not appear: she’d always been there. I simply had not acknowledged her presence, or so it felt like. And it was not her fae guise she wore, either. In here, I looked upon the same Diabolist I had fought in Liesse. Tall and splendid, all aristocratic arrogance and careless disdain. In here, all we had done to hide her true face fell away. Unlike Hierophant, she was not burdened by the touch of my kingdom of moonless night. She looked up at the pitch-black firmament and smiled, as if I’d taken her to a tea shop with a charming decor instead of the last remaining hold of the Winter Court. She hummed quietly, lips quirking. I knew that song.

Parts of it, anyway.

“The second is the longest, they said

You will walk under the restless dead

The hanged all crooning from the gallows –

To join them and rest in the shadows.”

Her voice was soft, and the pitch of the tune perfect.

“Diabolist,” I sharply said.

She turned to me, still smiling.

“Come, dearest heart,” Akua said, eyes alight with savage glee. “Let us speak to the Empress of succession.”

My fingers clenched. I still remembered the conversation she’d had with Thief, not so long ago. She’d thrown the argument, as Vivienne had suspected, but the girl who’d once been Heiress never spoke with a single purpose to her words. Had she known I was a wake and listening, even then? Maybe. Or perhaps she was addressing that inscrutable audience that always listened, the unseen hand of fate that always sought to curb us to its purpose. She wanted me to be Empress. She wanted, perhaps, to be my Chancellor. And she thought Malicia’s death would be the birth of that story. Damnably, she might be right. I hoped, against my better judgement, that is was the flesh simulacrum of the Empress that awaited us. I was already in too many knife-fights with fate to pick yet another.

“Follow,” I said, and tugged Masego along.

I left no trace on the snow, and neither did Akua. She had become a creature of this place, by hook and crook. It was Hierophant, sagging and increasingly drenched in cold sweat, that needed the help. I propped him up until the itch in the back of my head had grown too much to ignore. I could feel it, the… depression in this place. As if the supports beneath my domain were uneven and it had sagged. I closed my eyes and withdrew it all. A sea unleashed, slowly siphoned back into my too-small frame, until the touch of the sun was on my face and my eyes fluttered open. We were back in the Threefold Reflection, at last. Green light fell down over us like a shower from a sun pit towering high above, kept functional through all hours of the day by a cunning set of mirrors. This was a salon, by the looks of it, with long resting couches and low tables filling most the place. There were half a dozen doors out of the room, likely meant for servants more than the guests.

“The palace still seems… whole,” I said.

“I would assume the three layers to be completely separate now,” Akua replied. “This felt like Creation to you, yes? Likely this the the original Threefold Reflection that was built before the dimensional overlay was set.”

“So no more shunting,” I said. “Good news. Much as I hate to ask, what plan are we on now?”

Diabolist laughed.

“I’m afraid there is none left,” she said. “None that I can remember, at least. This particular sequence of events was entirely unforeseen.”

Shoddy planning, that. Given how frequently we fucked it all up, not counting that as an option was just bad form on our part.

“You two are done fighting for the day,” I finally said.

“I am still conscious,” Masego muttered.

“Takes a little more than that to be qualified for a throw down with the Empress’ finest,” I replied

Assuming we even found them.

“Diabolist, I’m going to find us a way out,” I said. “Try to find the others and prepare for the worst.”

“I would be of use to you, when facing Malicia,” the shade replied.

“You should be more careful about what songs you sing,” I replied flatly.

Masego’s glass eyes moved from one of us to the other, his face bemused.

“What songs?” he asked.

I met Akua’s now-scarlet eyes and found a thread of amusement in there. That song… The Girl Who Climbed The Tower, Black had called it. There were still many things about it I didn’t understand. I’d first heard Robber humming it, but when I’d eventually asked him about it years later he’d admitted he recalled singing an entirely different song. It was not for everyone’s ears, it seemed.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him, then glanced up.

I could roll the dice with trying to find a way out of the pyramid on foot, but that carried risks. There might still be traps, even without the wheels being a factor. This would do. Window was probably warded, but then I still had the traditional Foundling skeleton key of punching things really hard. Wisps of Winter coalesced behind me, translucent wings coming into being, and I shot up quick as an arrow. My fist smashed into the green glass with my full weight behind it, but I let out a yelp when it bounced off harmlessly and I hit the damned thing like a bird hitting a window. Godsdamnit. Down below, I heard Masego cough out a pained laugh. The glass was set in that pale stone I recognized from outside, with discreet carved runes connecting them. Fine, I could work with that. Wings batting behind me unconsciously, I formed my fingers into a wedge and struck at the stone. I’d aimed well beneath the runes, so I ripped my way through without too much trouble. After that it was just a matter of digging around the boundaries, until I tossed down a stone-encircled glass pane and flew up through the opening. I landed under the noon sun of Keter, while in the distance the plume of smoke from the fires we’d set began to disperse. They’d put out the fires, then.

Look down into the pit, I saw the other two awaiting me. Akua could make her own way up, but Masego would need a little help. Another sliver of Winter had a thick rope of shadow slithering down the pit. Hierophant eyed it sceptically, until an exertion of my will had it tying around his waist. I dragged him up, hoist by hoist, careful not to go too quickly and smash him into the walls. My fingers closed around the back of his neck, and with all the gentleness I could manage I took him out and put him down. Gods, it was like trying not to hurt a baby bird. People were so fragile. The three of us stood under true Creation sunlight for the first time in too long, Akua and I pristine but Masego the picture of exhaustion. He’d lost weight, but there was quite a bit of difference between shedding the pounds – unhealthy as his manner of doing it had been – and being in good shape. We were maybe halfway up the southern slope of the pyramid, facing the Garden of Crowns and the edge of the Silent Palace. The gardens and colonnades below showed no sign of Malicia, but then I’d not expected that to be so easy.

“We have an escape route in case this all blows up in our face,” I half-stated, half-asked.

My eyes were on Akua, making it clear who was meant to answer.

“That is correct,” she replied. “Though it was expected that true disaster would force is to flee through Arcadia.”

“Then fall back there,” I said. “The others will know the way?”

“By now, all their memory blocks should have ended,” she replied.

Good enough, given that I couldn’t afford going around fetching everyone. Adjutant I might be able to find, but who the Hells knew where Archer was? Thief was the last out in the wilds, and to be honest there was no chance of me finding her in the city if she didn’t want to be found.

“Be safe, you two,” I said, and grimaced immediately.

I was painfully aware that the words being spoken in Keter made them even more a platitude than usual. There was no safety here, only the Dead King’s whimsical sufferance.

“That seems unlikely,” Masego noted. “But I shall attempt it nonetheless.”

I squeezed his shoulder before sending him off. It would be slow work for him to descend the pyramid’s slope, but hardly impossible. Diabolist could handle herself, and the steady look I gave her before she left made it clear she was supposed to ease his exhaustion as much as possible. All that was left now was to somehow find Malicia, crush her defences and taker her life. All without breaching the unspoken rules the Dead King had set about what would constitute breaking his hospitality. I doubted Neshamah would truly mind a spot of murder even in his personal backyard, but that wasn’t how this worked: I had to maintain a certain level of deniability. Which wasn’t looking great, considering the closest thing I had to a plan at the moment was ‘murder in broad daylight’. The Skein and the Spellblade should no longer be a part of this, at least. The Revenants would remain stuck in their little kingdoms. That left the Empress’ own personal guard.

The Sentinels hardly scared me, at the end of the day. Well-trained or not, they were only soldiers. But there was a more than decent chance she’d have Wasteland mages with her, and that was a different story entirely. I’d killed more than a few of those, over the last few years, but that’d been before I’d become… this. Wards mattered to me a lot more than they used to, and I wasn’t meeting a cluster of casters in the middle of a chaotic battlefield: these sorcerers would likely have been told everything the Empress knew about what I could and couldn’t do, including vulnerabilities. Black had made a career out of killing enemies much stronger than him with careful planning and preparation. I did not intend to end up on the wrong side of his teachings. Power clapped in the distance, a quick spike followed by smaller workings. I cocked my head. Northern slope of the pyramid, maybe a little further. A trap? Maybe. Or a distraction. But I couldn’t afford not to look, could I?

With gritted teeth, I set out for my little talk with the Dread Empress of Praes.

Chapter 43: Masego’s Plan

“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.

Spool.”

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.

Chapter 42: The Skein’s Plan

“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.

I paused.

“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.

How?”

“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.

He nodded.

“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.”

-ly. Rude.

“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.

I sighed.

“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.

Chapter 41: Akua’s Plan

“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.

I winced.

“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.

Skein.

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?

Spellblade.

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?”

He grimaced.

“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.

Chapter 40: Vivienne’s Plan

“A battle is, in my experience, a handful of hours where one of two generals proceeds to destroy his own army while the other simply happens to be there.”
– Prince Fernando of Salamans

For anyone to come up with the underlying principles of the Threefold Reflection and to then decide someone should live in there required an impressive amount of dementia, so in a sense it made sense that Neshamah had built the damned thing. I’d seen drawing of the pyramids that could be found in northern Praes – Wolof, in particular, was known for them – but this one was of a decidedly different bent. Stone instead of mud, for a start, but where the Soninke works tended to be broad and gently sloped this one was tall and unpleasantly angular. I suspected if the monuments were going to have anything in common, it was the amount of bodies buried beneath them. Akua had been vague about the rituals that still took place by the city she’d once been in line to inherit, but Masego had been disturbingly informative about the most infamous atrocities associated with the place. It took a particular kind of people to decide it was a going idea to sacrifice a few thousand people to make something called a ‘plague cauldron’. The only reason I was pretty sure Diabolist had never been taken down there to murder puppies as a kid was that after the whole ‘murder your childhood friend’ party it’d feel like a bit of a let-down.

I pulled the Mantle of Woe closer around my shoulders after running a metaphysical finger down the chain binding Akua. Still pulled taut. Wherever she was, it wasn’t anywhere close. After Hakram informed us we were meant to split the group in two to take different doors – the western gate for Masego and I, while it was the southern one for him – we’d wasted no time dawdling around. A trail of smoke going up into the sky of Keter made it plain that our work there had not been discreet, which I assumed to be the point. Hierophant was not in a chatty mood as we passed through the colonnades surrounding the pyramid proper at a brisk pace. Whether it was our piecemeal fiasco of a plan or the loss of an eye that had him in a tiff I didn’t know, but either way I couldn’t blame him. There was much I despised about what I’d become through Winter, but I would feel… naked without the eldritch senses of my constructed body. I’d come to take what they told me for granted: tasting heat and fear, hearing beyond that even of a Named. That muted sense I had of the intents of others, which straddled the line between sorcerous boon and a flood of details put together I would never have noticed without Winter. All that, and I was only a bastard child of Arcadia.

No wonder the fae had reputation for exquisite machinations, if they had all these senses and more: it was like being the only person in a pitch-black room that could see in the dark.

“Our gate,” Hierophant said, breaking our stretch of silence.

I nodded slowly. It’d been too much to hope, I supposed, that it would be wide open for us. Instead the two slabs of sun-drenched stone remained tightly shut, which was admittedly something of a problem.

“I’m guessing hammering through isn’t an option,” I half-guessed.

“We have no hammer,” Masego reminded me gently. “And even should we employ sorcery, it would be loud and difficult to open this through force.”

Figured. It wasn’t like the Dead King bothered to build on anything but titanic scale.

“Maybe there’s a magic word,” I suggested.

The dark-skinned man inclined his head in concession.

“Neshamah,” he tried.

Nothing. Yeah, I supposed it would be a little like a Callowan wizard using ‘revenge’ as the key to a magic door. There probably had been at least one that embarrassingly lame in the past, but it wasn’t common practice.

“Could you-“ I began, but he raised his hand.

“Quiet,” he murmured.

His brow creased, and after a moment he traced a rune against his temple. A dot of light came out, and in a streak came before the both of us. It changed into an illusionary card, the Eight of Wands, and on the projection a few words in Old Miezan were written. I winced. I’d never paid as close attention as I should to those lessons – I’d had a deal with another girl where I traded her translations for my history essays – and I was horribly rusty besides.

“Translation?” I asked.

“Sparrow,” Masego said. “And I am instructing myself to remove the third rune from your artefact.”

“That’s skipping one,” I noted. “Last time was the first.”

“It occurs to me,” Hierophant, “that the confusion here might be the purpose instead of a mistake.”

Yeah, I’d come to that conclusion myself a while back. I wouldn’t work off anything this messy and complex if I had a feasible alternative, which once more took me back to the soothsaying Revenant awaiting us inside: the Skein. I was starting to get the impression we were not playing shatranj with the oracle so much as tossing handfuls of pebbles at the board and hoping one ended up tipping over the king.

“That aside,” I said. “Did you engrave a card into your own head?”

“Several,” Masego replied. “It seems wiser than keeping them at hand, where they could be witnessed. Aunt Eudokia always told me that treason is the one thing one should leave no paper trail for.”

That might be true, but it didn’t make him any less of a show-off.

“All right, Zeze,” I said. “Magic fingers it is.”

With a put-upon sigh he rested his palm against the back of my head and-

“The palace isn’t a maze,” Vivienne said, elbows on the table. “Not in the traditional sense. There’s a chamber at the centre with a guiding artefact.”

Akua got it before any of us, which did not strike me as odd. Masego might boast a broader base of sorcerous knowledge, but these kind of traps were as milk and honey to Praesi highborn.

“Three palaces, reflections in overlap,” she said. “The artefact is able to decide which threshold connects to which across the span entire.”

“It looks like three wheels on a stick,” the other Callowan said. “With pieces of twine hanging through, tying places together.”

The look on Masego’s face at the revelation was pure avarice. Godsdamnit. His mild magpie tendencies when it came to artefacts had only increased since we’d technically robbed the Sahelians of their most precious artefact. In our defence, Akua had been in the box and it’d been just lying there. Finders keepers, right?

“You found the room at the centre,” Hakram said, cutting at the heart of the matter.

Vivienne nodded.

“More accurately, I was allowed to,” she said.

“You ran into the guarding Revenant,” I guessed.

“He’s called the Skein,” the dark-haired woman said. “And before getting deeper into that, I have a few questions for our foreign experts. What can you tell me about ratlings?”

Indrani set down her cup, looking interested for the first time in a while.

“The species?” she said. “Nothing too deep. Lycaonese call them ‘the Plague’ because they never stop being hungry. Just like a disease, they’ll wipe out everything even if it starves them down the line.”

“Said hunger has been speculated to be caused by their unusual physiology,” Masego added. “They never cease growing. They are birthed as bipedal rodents smaller than humans, and have no theoretical check on how large they can be save for each other. The Chain of Hunger is so named because ratlings will promptly devour each other when there are no other sources of immediate sustenance. Father believes the entire species is a kind of strange Demiurgian phenomenon of unknown purpose.”

My eyes turned to Akua, who’d been standing a little outside of the Woe’s circle this entire time.

“Wolofite records agree with the Lord Warlock,” she said. “There are scrolls dating back to Triumphant’s campaign in the region that speak of a time in the life of their kind called the ‘metamorphosis’, where ratlings will transition from bipedal beings of observed sapience into the animalistic large creatures called the Ancient Ones. The few of those beings that manage to consume enough quickly enough while in that state are speculated to undergo a second metamorphosis into the elusive Horned Lords of lore.”

“Those Horned Lords,” Vivienne said. “Back on two feet, about sixty feet high, antler-like pairs spouting from the head, capable of human speech?”

“That’s how the the Lady described them,” Indrani slowly said. “Save for the antlers.”

“Well,” Vivienne smiled ruefully. “We have something of a problem, then.”

“- Burning Hells,” I exhaled. “Horned Lord, Hierophant. There’s one of those with seer powers sitting pretty in the middle of the pyramid just waiting to fuck with us through a maze-making control artefact.”

“A ratling?” Masego mused. “Unusual. I suppose the Kingdom of the Dead does have a border with their kind. Do you have the magic word for the gates?”

I sighed.

“Apparently that wasn’t judged a high priority,” I said. “What had you reaching for the card, anyway? Any help coming from there?”

“I was instructed not to tell,” Hierophant replied absent-mindedly. “I suppose attempting to jostle the wards open is in order, lacking alternative.”

“That’s feasible?” I asked.

“Quickly?” he said. “No. But a few hours of protracted study should do the trick. It won’t take more than half a day.”

“We’re in a bit of a hurry,” I said. “… I think.”

“This is not the kind of miracle I am proficient with, Catherine,” he replied peevishly.

Bickering would have been a nice way to let off the steam, but a notion reached the surface of my mind, quicksilver-swift.

“Sparrow,” I spoke at the gate.

The heartbeat of silence that followed echoed with unspoken mockery. Ah, well, it’d been worth a try.

“Sparrow,” Masego said as well, only in Ashkaran.

Without a sound, the stone slabs withdrew into the threshold.

“I would have thought of that eventually,” I said, not the defensive in the slightest.

“I note you did not give a precise time limit for that statement,” the one-eyed mage said.

If I stepped on his foot going into the Threefold Reflection, well, no one could prove it wasn’t an accident.

I’d considered it a safe assumption that the creepy dimensionally layered murder pyramid would look like a dusty crypt inside, but apparently I’d done the Dead King disservice: it was actually pretty pleasant in here. Sunlight, fresh air, and the decorations were both tasteful and welcoming. The unfortunate part was that ‘here’ was becoming a vaguer term every time we turned a corner of passed a door.

“Left,” Hierophant decided.

“We literally just took a right,” I said.

“In another palace, yes,” Masego agreed. “This is… not that one.”

After spending a solid sixty heartbeats in awe of the fact that it was natural sunlight and not torches or magelights that lit up the entrance hall of the Threefold Reflection – I’d checked out for most of the ensuing mutterings about ‘fixed temporal sliver’ and ‘redistribution arrays’ – he’d gotten his shit together and begun to serve as my personal navigator. Since the entire place was a madman’s nightmare of wards and thresholds, it was possible for him to follow along the metaphorical dotted lines of the wards and get a bare bones idea of the layout of the palace. Took him a little bit and required concentration, but it was reliable. Unfortunately, it was also useless: the image he got from that trick was only a single layer of the reflection, which meant the moment we left that layer we were lost again. And he couldn’t see the whole pyramid with that trick, either, which had bitten us in the ass swiftly. We were probably past the outer reaches of the palace, but the gates we’d come in through were nowhere in sight. Which went some way in explaining why it’d been so easy to get in, I supposed.

It was inside the palace that the Skein would find us easiest to contain. So why had we wandered in blindly? This was Hakram’s plan we were following, and as far as I could see it could only end in failure. More than that, we were wasting precious time. Malicia and her minions might already be out of the pyramid for all I knew.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” I said, then winced at the accidental pun.

I looked up at the ceiling.

“Skein, right?” I said. “I’m assuming you’re listening, because let’s be honest – if I were in your place, I’d want a good look at the people I was screwing with. Don’t suppose we could cut out the whole maze thing and have a civilized conversation instead?”

No answer.

“Cat,” Masego said quietly.

He was gesturing towards a door we’d passed earlier, and my brow rose. The room behind that threshold – a cosy little antechamber with fainting couches – had gone dark. An invitation? Only one way to find out. I made sure Hierophant was right next to me when I passed the threshold, as I had this entire time. The last thing I wanted was to get separated from my erstwhile navigator. My reflexes were quick, but not quite quick enough not to fall. Winter came eagerly when called and a platform of ice formed beneath my feet, though I almost slid off it when I had to bend over to catch Masego by the scruff of the neck.

“Impressive workmanship,” Hierophant noted, lone eye looking down through his own body.

I glanced as well, and forced myself to count up to ten in silence. A spike pit. And actual fucking pit filled with sharp metal spikes. There were even faded skeletons at the bottom, which was really the spine in the wine as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t like they hadn’t had literal centuries to clean that up, I just knew they’d left them there as a statement.

“A simple no would have sufficed,” I complained, looking upwards.

There was solid ground on the other side of the pit, and with a careful flex of my legs I leapt up here. No threshold there, at least. Jumping from pit to pit would have been a bit much even by fucking Keteran standards. I dropped Masego back on his feet fairly awkwardly, given that I was holding him by the neck and he had a few feet on me.

“Quiet bubble,” I ordered.

The ward went up, and we tried to position ourselves in a way that would make it difficult to read our lips. Changed to speaking Kharsum as well, it wasn’t nearly as well known as Lower Miezan or the other Imperial languages.

“This isn’t working,” I told Hierophant. “We need a change of tactics. Your source that you can’t talk about, can they be any help?”

“I assume they already would have intervened if they could,” Masego said.

Was that implying the conversation went only one way, or was I reading too much into it? That was the pain in this plan – well, one of them – I never could be sure whether I was supposed to try to figure out something or not. I shifted on my feet, though not because of what he’d said. His silence ward wasn’t the same he’d used when we were inside the Silent Palace, it had no physical component to it. Not that it had helped in the slightest against the Thief of Stars that we knew of. It wasn’t a sound so much as a moving of air that I caught, a difference in pressure. My hand snapped out and I caught a wriggling form by throat as I smoothly unsheathed my sword.

“Morning, Catherine,” Vivienne said, snapping into sight.

I dropped her with a sigh.

“I could have stabbed you, Thief,” I said.

“My aspect is the only reason we managed to run into each other,” she said. “He shunts me off at will otherwise. If I remain hidden in his vision of the future, he cannot predict where I am. It is no absolute. The rest of the gambit was presuming you’d irritate the Skein enough for him to send you here eventually.”

I raised an eyebrow at both things being implied – first, that Hide could ward her from whatever means the Skein used to see us. Second, that she’d expected us to end up here.

“This was planned,” I said.

“Sparrow,” she replied in Kharsum. “Owl done, we on my tack now.”

Her hold on the language was bare bones, but Hakram had taught her enough we could have a functional conversation. My eyes narrowed. The second card had the word Lark written on the back, without an explanation. I’d taken it to mean an adventure or a bit of fun, because Past Catherine had a terrible sense of humour, but it was also a kind of bird wasn’t it? Owl didn’t ring a bell in the slightest, but it might be there were at least three plans unfolding. And Vivienne had told us we were now on ‘her tack’. Skein. Prophecy by spun thread. One set of eyes. Were we… Gods, that would mean building at least three interconnected towers. The sheer complexity of that – we did have Akua, though. Who was still missing. And the first rune-bound memory had me considering the need for a touchstone, which might very well be her. It was a good thing I almost never got headaches these days, I decided.

“Where do we go from here?” I asked. “Your aspect can’t cover all three of us.”

“Not need to,” Vivienne smiled thinly. “We hunted Malicia presently. Now by, the Skein have her on way out here.”

“By now,” I corrected.

She rolled her eyes.

“He can still move us between the layers so we never run into her,” I said.

“Before answer. Object limits has,” she said. “Can not bridge same layer. Can not go nowhere.”

“How do you know this?” Masego asked.

“Skein,” she said. “Flaw. Single speaker, must. Memory back.”

Monologue, I thought. She’d met the ratling before, that much I’d already suspected, but this explained quite a bit. He must have been a villain while alive. Which still begged the question of why the Dead King had put someone in charge of the Threefold Reflection he had to know would give us a solution to the riddle if pressed. He could have put a hero instead, and they might not have been as skilled at using the artefact but they wouldn’t have talked either. It felt like he was willingly giving us an opportunity to kill Malicia if we were sharp enough, and while that fit with my suspicions this was a test it also had me wary. Guessing at the Hidden Horror’s motives was a dangerous game at the best of times, which these were most definitely not.

“That’s useful and all, but how do we find Malicia through the shunts?” I asked.

“No go layer,” she smiled. “Centre artefact. I saw.”

She tapped Masego’s belly.

“Extract,” she said.

And she tapped mine.

“Gate,” she continued. “No inside. Cold iron protect. Close.”

I frowned.

“Then why didn’t we gate directly from the Silent Palace?” I asked.

“You can’t thread through different pieces of fabric,” Masego said. “I would presume that chamber to be removed from Creation. This layer, however, is directly connected.”

Then why hadn’t we done that the moment we entered the pyramid? Why leave a necessary piece of information, the location of the central chamber, solely in the hand of – I winced at the sudden spike of pain from my forehead.

“Second rune is flaring,” Hierophant murmured.

So we hadn’t. Masego and I had just never thought of it, and Vivienne being here was a contingency. She must have entered through a place that guaranteed she’d be here to wait for us – evidently she’d found it the first time she came here, she must have moved the exact same way. What if the Skein had never sent us here and we’d never thought of it? Mhm. There might be other contingencies, then. Hakram was now unaccounted for as well as the other two. And I still had a card encased. Fine, then, maybe we’d been surprisingly cautious in our recklessness. I clenched my fingers and reached for Winter.

Time to pay the Skein a visit.

Chapter 39: Hakram’s Plan

“My dear prince, why would I settle for merely being on the right side of history when I could be on all sides of it instead?”
– Extract from the minutes of the Conference of the Blessed Isle, between the Shining Prince Harry Alban and Dread Emperor Traitorous

Black had once told me that people could get used to nearly anything, if it happened regularly for long enough. It’d been while we were having one of our evening lessons in Ater, talking of the many reasons why there’d never been a serious attempt by the Tower to forbid diabolism across the Wasteland. It was one of those little truths he enjoyed that seemed vague but ended up relevant surprisingly often. To demonstrate: arson. No matter what rumours Robber kept spreading, I didn’t actually enjoy setting things on fire. Sure, it was one of the most frequently used tools in my arsenal even if it did have the nasty tendency of collateral damage. But it wasn’t, like, my first resort. There’d even been a time where’d I’d been somewhat conflicted at the notion of dropping goblinfire on the head of the latest Named, army, entity – I supposed with the Tenth Crusade in full swing I was due to add ‘continental coalition’ to the list – that was after my head on a pike.  Not without reason, either. When you tossed a match onto goblinfire, the closest thing there was to control available was damage control. Sadly, as I helped Vivienne pour oil on a wooden frame, I was forced to admit that I had gotten used to arson. It was just one of those things. I still wasn’t an advocate of tactically setting fire to things, mind you, unlike your average sapper. I was, if anything, lukewarm to the notion.

“You look like you’re trying to convince yourself of something very hard,” Thief noted.

“I’m just saying it’s disingenuous to call me a pyromaniac when I have actual pyromaniacs in my employ,” I told her. “It trivializes the word to use it like that. Is that really so hard to understand?”

The other woman cocked an eyebrow.

“I’m going to pretend you never said that,” she informed me. “And hope Hakram fixes whatever is wrong with your…”

She paused.

“… everything,” she finally said. “What’s wrong with your everything.”

“Just pour the godsdamned oil,” I sighed. “I still don’t understand why we can’t just have Masego wizard it, but let’s be generous and assume there’s a reason.”

Setting fire to a palace that was mostly marble was fairly tricky, but we had it mostly under control. The walls might be stone, but the largest rooms all had crisscrossing wooden beams beneath the rafters to hang tapestries and decorations from. Vivienne had climbed her way up, but I wasn’t in the mood for wall-climbing in chain mail so instead I’d reached for Winter and spread a ramp of ice that took me there. Hakram had insisted that there be at least three different sources for the fire, so we’d rinsed and repeated twice before seeing to this particular dining hall. We’d yet to run into a single white-robed servant, which was a little odd. Had we told them to clear out last night? It wasn’t like our breakfast table would have appeared out of thin air. Thief emptied the remnants of her jug and wiped her hands on her leathers, disappearing the empty receptacle without a word. I didn’t know if there was a limit to how much her ‘bag’ could hold, but if there was she’d never spoken of it. Considering she’d once dropped a fleet of barges in the way of the Fifteenth, I supposed it would take a truly spectacular amount of knick-knacks to take up all of that space. And that was without even considering that at some point she’d stolen the sun.

“It’s done,” she said, eyeing her still-wet fingers with irritation.

“We’ll still need to actually light them,” I noted.

“Athal first, allegedly,” she said, and without any ceremony leapt down to the floor.

She managed that landing in perfect silence, to my mild envy. If I did that it’d sound like I was running around with a dozen rings of keys. I slid down the ramp smoothly, though in truth that had more to do with my shaping of the ice than any skill on my part. Hard to fall down the stairs when you controlled where they were. The ramp shattered into shards behind me and I brushed off a few pieces from my shoulder.

“Think Hakram found him yet?” I asked.

“He’s got the aspect for it,” Vivienne shrugged. “I’m more interested in why we’re starting a fire in the first place.”

“Smoke will be visible from outside,” I said. “Could be to draw the patrols.”

“We could have moved quietly instead,” the dark-haired thief pointed out.

“Not so sure about that,” I mused. “Mind you, we can sort of manage quiet. But against a seer? As long as the patrols are out there, a single message is all it takes for them to be in our way.”

“That assumes they’re all coming into the palace,” Vivienne said. “The Binds, at least, are sapient. It would be an elementary mistake.”

“We don’t really know how they function, Vivienne,” I pointed out. “It might be that the Dead King gave them the order to check on disturbances and they literally can’t disobey him regardless of context.”

“Guesswork will only take us in circles,” she sighed. “Let’s find Hakram. One assumes he knows the next step in this cavalcade of merriment.”

We ran into Hierophant first, as it happened. He’d been weaving spells at the other two bonfires, just small spurts of flame that’d get the blaze started after long enough had passed. His mood had not improved since breakfast, and he merely grunted at us on his way to the hall we’d just left.

“Nice to see you too, Zeze,” I called out as he cleared the corner.

I wasn’t a fool. I’d waited until he could no longer aim easily at my wakeleaf. Not even fifteen minutes we found Hakram navigating the corridors with Athal at his side, the dark-haired Host looking rather harried. Had he been sleeping?

“Great Majesty, honoured guest,” the man greeted us, bowing low. “I was told you had need of my services?”

“It will wait until Hierophant has joined us,” Adjutant gravelled.

I did not gainsay him, since I had no idea where we were going from here.

“I have a question or two for you, until then,” I told the pale man. “Did we happen to speak last night?”

He blinked in surprised.

“Indeed, Great Majesty,” he said. “You were wondering as to the steps the Crown took to assure your safety within these walls.”

Well, that was ominous.

“Anything in, uh, particular?” I probed.

“You were quite curious as to the nature of the measures that would be taken in the face of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a fire,” Athal told me. “Do you not remember this, honoured one?”

“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” I muttered.

Most of which I did not remember, apparently. So the fire had a payoff beyond just serving as a distraction, probably. Before I could think of a way to delicately ask what, in a pure hypothetical, would happen if the Silent Palace caught fire, Hierophant joined us. Masego took one look at us, hid his hand behind his back, and I felt a small flare of sorcery.

“Lord Hierophant,” Athal said, bowing once more.

“The palace caught fire, Host,” he said.

The dark-haired servant blinked.

How?” he asked, aghast. “When?”

I clapped him on the shoulder.

“Listen,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. Those sound like details above our pay grade.”

“Are you not a queen, Great Majesty?” he said in a strangled voice.

“And, as a queen, I’m deciding this is above my pay grade,” I sagely said. “Obviously we can’t stay in a palace that’s on fire. That’d be dangerous. So were are we headed, my good man?”

“There is a passage to outside,” Athal said. “I will lead you through it, if it please you.”

He sounded a little dazed. Well, I didn’t blame him. Lots of that going around today. I checked on the last card in my cloak, but the ice casing had yet to melt. Blindly forward it was, then. The Host led us deeper into the palace until we reached the end of a corridor with two opposite-leading doors. Instead of taking one of them, Athal took out a small knife from his sleeve and cut his palm open before smearing his blood on the wall. Even as runes lit up I rose an eyebrow. Why did people always go for the palm? It made it so much harder to hold things afterwards, and it wasn’t like hand blood was better than forearm blood or anything. What had previously appeared to be a wall vanished into nothingness, leaving only the blood-red runes hanging in the air for a few moments before they vanished as well. Masego let out a noise that implied he now felt like sticking around and having a closer look so I discretely kicked him in the shin.

“There was no need for that,” he whispered.

“Maybe not,” I replied just as low. “But someone screwed with my breakfast this morning so I’m all moody now.”

He half-glared at me, which to be frank was more amusing than intimidating.

“If you would follow me, honoured guests,” Athal said.

The threshold led into what appeared to be a dark tunnel, though the moment the Host stepped within magelights began to light in sequence. By the look of them, we were headed down. Thief went still at my side.

“I forgot something in my rooms,” she announced. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up.”

I cast her a look but she shook her head. So it’d been nothing she could share.

“Honoured one,” the dark-haired man said. “Please do not. The guards will be arriving soon, and smother the flames long before anything within your rooms can be lost.”

I blinked and Thief was gone.

“She’s hard of hearing,” I told Athal. “And not very bright. Also, frequently mutinous. I’m going to start a ledger.”

The last part had no bearing on the situation, but I felt like it needed to be said for posterity’s sake.

“I must find her,” the Host gravely said. “It would be a grave breach of hospitality if-“

“Oh, look,” I said. “Adjutant is sick.”

There was a heartbeat of silence. Hakram coughed into his fist.

“I am,” he loyally said.

“It’s the fire,” I told Athal. “Orcs are notoriously afraid of it. We have to get him out of here before it gets worse.”

I felt Masego twitch and shot him a glare. Now is not the time to be a pedant, Zeze. Do not contradict my blatant lies.

“I feel faint,” the orc added dutifully. “Like a dove. A dove that is sick.”

Way to sell it, Hakram. Glad to have you on the team.

“We must make haste, then,” Athal said.

He looked like he very much wanted to express scepticism but was too polite to do as much. Ah, the joys of diplomacy. We followed him as he briskly led us into the tunnel, and I pretended not to hear Masego mutter no they are not under his breath. The entire passage felt drenched in sorcery to my senses, heavily enough I could barely sense the magelights when I stood next to them. The Host apparently knew the way by rote, as when a crossroads appeared he led us down the left corridor without hesitation. All right, so Thief was going after something. She’d been necessary to the first part of this mess because we’d needed her to put the Thief of Stars into her bag – she’d also given Masego the signal to close the doors, but we could have given that card to anyone. Diabolist and Archer were still out there up to the Gods knew what, and since there’d been no instructions to seek them most likely the next part could be accomplished by Adjutant, Hierophant and myself alone. The Empress was still inside her palace, so that was likely where we should be headed when we emerged from this. Alone? Ah, that mighe have been the whole point of Thief splitting off: that Athal would have to go after her, leaving us to our own devices after opening the passage.

The thing was, a plan with this many moving parts wasn’t going to work. I should have known that last night, but I’d gone ahead with it anyway – which either meant the plan wasn’t supposed to work, or that I was missing something. All pithy Imperial quotes about planning aside, there were too many points of failure for even the sections of this I was presuming had worked as intended. What if the Thief of Stars had taken a card, or added a fake one? To play the rebel’s advocate, it might be that the Revenant wasn’t supposed to meddle in our affairs. Only listen in on our conversations. But that was quite the mighty if, and it was making a lot of assumptions about the agency of all involved. It had to be about the Skein, one way or another. Why else screw with our own memories? Thief had called what they did ‘prophecy by spun thread’.

I’d mentally considered the enemy Revenant to be an oracle, but it didn’t quite sound right. No seer was omniscient, even those who also bore a Name, and the source of their visions tended to give a hint about their limitations. For example, as a heroine the Augur most likely took her cues from Above. I had a nifty little booklet from Black that was half speculation half observation on the nature of her abilities, which were terrifyingly broad in scope but also as fatally flawed as those of any other Named. The Eyes were convinced her limit was that she could only foresee things that were already in motion – or, as my teacher had put it, initiated decisions chains. It was why the Empire’s once-frequent assassination attempts on the First Prince and some of the most key supporters of her regime had always failed. So the Empire had managed to catch diplomatic couriers and even the odd tactical coup by leaving agents in place with no instructions except taking advantage of presented opportunities. Except it wasn’t actually that clean-cut, because there’d been an attempt on the First Prince’s life that fell under those characteristics two months after Second Liesse and it had failed. Black had amended the theory to note that it was feasible the Augur could make two kinds of prophecies.

The first would be those she got handed by Above, about whatever Above cared at that time. Those were likely to be significantly more detailed, but also significantly rarer. The Heavens couldn’t repeatedly put their finger to the scales like that without enabling the opposition to do the same – and more than that, the Augur was only one of many tools. They wouldn’t send her a flock of eagles or whatever she read the future through when whatever that prediction was about could be handled just as well by a hero they’d sent in to take care of it. If the likes of Black and Malicia had been handing out prophecies to their people, I had no doubt that trusted underling or not there would have been predictions given anyway. Just to be sure. But heroes were already supposed to win, weren’t they? Unless that loss was part of the story, meant to pay off down the line. And the whole point of the wager known as Creation was that the Gods didn’t know which of them would win their pissing contest. Black had a whole half-page of scribbles going on about how the Augur could likely read ‘Fate’ as seen by the Heavens but couldn’t go beyond those bounds, making heroes a blind spot of sorts, but in my opinion it was simpler than that: the Augur’s Role was that of a coordinator. She got the message out so troops would stand at the right place at the right time, but she wasn’t supposed to actually guarantee a victory.

She couldn’t, I suspected. If the game was that blatantly rigged, Below would have whelped out an oracle of their own to check her by now. Above had to toe the line.

The second kind of prophecies would be those she sought out herself. It was on record that the Augur had wielded visions to help her cousin the First Prince win that same title on the battlefield against the other contenders in the Proceran civil war. It was dubious the Heavens have much of a shit about Procerans slaughtering each other – if they had, a hero would have popped out to take care of the mess – so the Augur herself had likely sought out those visions. And that was the interesting part, because then she was acting as a person and not a messenger – which meant she was fallible. Odds were that was when the decision chain limit came into play, but that was too low a bar. She couldn’t be impossibly hard to interpret, since she was capable of passing coherent military information along to the Iron Prince that was usable for campaigning. That left the oldest of mortal failings: she only had one set of eyes, metaphorical or not. If she had to seek out the vision about something, it followed she couldn’t see all things at all times. And that meant she could be fooled, if she was looking at the wrong unfolding plot. It wasn’t a flawless solution, as Black had written in his notes.

If the failure was too large in scope, she’d likely receive one of the first kind of visions to make up for it. Coordinator, yes, but perhaps also a safeguard.

Sadly, I did not have one of foremost namelore experts alive and an Empire’s worth of informants to help me puzzle out how the Skein’s future-telling abilities worked. We had something of an idea, evidently, because Vivienne had given me a hint earlier. How we’d learned that was impossible to puzzle out at the moment, so I’d set the question aside to pick at later. What I wanted to know, as a stepping stone, was whether the Skein had been a hero or a villain while alive – or even one of those Named that floated somewhere in between, cast into one Role or the other depending on the story they came in touch with. Neutral was the wrong word for it: there could be no such thing as neutrality in the Game of the Gods. Even objecting to the rules was to take a side, in its own way. I was jarred out of my thoughts when we finally reached the end of the passage, Athal smearing blood on solid stone to open it up once more. We emerged into daylight, the four of us blinking until we’d acclimated again.

I glanced around curiously. We weren’t on the wide avenues surrounding the Hall of the Dead. No, this was the base of a rampart. The innermost set of it, right before the ring of palaces. Near the outer edge of the Garden of Crowns, though I could see our target from where we stood. The Threefold Reflection, as King Edward had implied, was a pyramid of faded white stone that held so much sorcery it was almost visible to the naked eye.

“Guards will soon come to guide you to a temporary resting place,” the dark-haired Host informed us. “I must return to find the Lady Thief, but I implore you to remain here until your escorts arrive.”

I smiled and put my hand over my heart.

“On my teacher’s honour,” I said.

A flicker of amusement passed through the man’s eyes. Yeah, I wouldn’t have bought that in his place either.

“May your hours be fruitful, Great Majesty,” Athal said, and after a bow went back into the dark.

The three of us stood there for a moment, and eventually I cleared my throat.

“Hakram?” I asked.

“My health has improved, thank you,” the orc drily said.

I rolled my eyes.

“I assume you remember the plan,” I said.

“I do,” Adjutant agreed. “I must proceed alone. The pyramid has three gates, leading into three different intertwined palaces. You are to take the western gate, while I take the southern one.”

“We’re splitting up,” I slowly said. “Oh Hells. This just keeps getting better.”

“Look on the bright side, Cat,” Adjutant grinned, ivory fangs bared. “How can they foil our master plan if even we don’t know our master plan?”

I much preferred, I decided, being on the other side of that brand of quips.