Things happen very fast after that, and I can't tell what's just me dying, and what's actually taking place.
Like, for starters, a tree grows out of the dais.
Not a little one, either. A huge one. Not quite the Lasan Tree, but close. The marble floor ripples and splits to allow roots thicker than my thigh through. It grows at an alarming pace, the trunk up, the canopy outward, until its blue-green leaves brush against the vaulted ceiling. Branches curl and twist in every direction - it's an excellent climbing tree. Which is good, because Hunter appears to have landed in its branches instead of splattering all over the floor, and Neesha's used the distraction that is the tree to head-butt the Makan holding her and has thrown herself down after him.
The altar sits, unharmed, at the tree's base, but the Sentinel Sword isn't there. It takes me a minute to realize that's because it's still in my hand.
A violent shudder runs through me, but I don't drop it.
The ice inside me isn't shock. It's something else. Ice is the wrong word. It's not ice. Ice is a thing, and this cold isn't a thing. It's the cold of vast, empty spaces. Spaces hungry for something to generate heat they can reflect, but left starving for it instead. Like the space between spaces, but emptier than that. No ravening river of forces unseen, no screaming creation and snarling destruction fighting over the pieces of you. Just…nothing.
That Halberd…did…something to me. Sunborn said it was cursed, maybe that's…maybe that's it…
"Aiyet." It's more of a croak than a Call, but She hears me. Warmth floods my torso, but it doesn't touch the cold place growing inside me. The flow of blood from the wound I can't feel slows to a trickle, my lungs stop whistling and labouring, my heart finds its rhythm and stops tripping over itself, but nothing stops the seeping cold. "Aiyet," I Call again, but this time I get no answer.
I lie down on the dais and curl around the sword. No matter how hard I try I can't do anything except shiver and shake and watch the scene playing out in front of me.
The tree is already more than my struggling brain can take, but apparently there's more where it came from. Not trees. Just other impossibilities. All of the doors along the walls have been frozen shut - and I don't mean, like, subtly. A foot-thick layer of perfect ice glitters on top of them. It shudders as the things behind the doors pound on them, but doesn't move.
Since they can't get through that way, the demons have taken to running back upstairs and jumping from the balconies - they're demons, they don't care about the fall. But their dead puppets don't handle it well, and only a few of them are still useful when they hit the bottom. Of these, a good number are on fire. And I do mean fire. Imagine the difference between someone whose sleeve gets too close to a candle, compared to someone who was doused in oil and throw into a volcano. One of these things has intention behind it, and that's the kind of fire they're on.
Despite the many sources of light currently running around and screaming, the shadows in the temple are deeper than they should be. More than that, they move. Like tendrils of mist, ghosting across the floor, reaching out toward someone. Or someones, I realize. The bodies on the ground. The demons who jumped and had to abandon their puppets as broken beyond repair. The shadows crawl over the empty vessels and sit for a while. They make me think of a cat, crawling onto your chest to sit and purr and have a conversation about the meaning of life - except a cat big enough to obscure you entirely from view. Anywhere between a few seconds or a few minutes later, they move on, and either the corpse is still there, lying at odd angles with itself, or it's whole and getting to its feet again - except instead of glowing red eyes, it's got glowing black ones.
Have you ever seen black glow? It's hard to look at for long.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, is Sunborn. She's fighting with Harbinger. He's not using the halberd, that's still lying on the floor near the altar, eating pieces of the me inside me one bite at a time. Instead, he has his own blade - a strange, twisted thing of some kind of metal I've never seen before. The edges of it undulate and strain against - against what? I don't know, but it doesn't look happy about it. There's a weird sort of non-light in a nimbus around it. Not light, not even black light, but an absence of light. In the non-glow of it, Harbinger looks like his blade - like a thing too big for the bottle it's in. Like a shadowy cage with claws and tail and ravenous maw sticking out through the bars.
Sunborn's rapier is nowhere to be seen. She's making a constant stream of crystal knives, one in each hand. Every time they hit Harbinger's blade they shatter into nothing, but she just makes another and keeps going. The two-weapon style is familiar to me, but I'm too addled to think of who she might have learned it from.
And then I see something much happier.
"Lije!" Hunter says, turning me away from the fight so he can look at me. "Lije, say something!"
"D-d-dibs on top bunk," I manage through chattering teeth, and relief floods his face. I ruin it, though, by following up with: "I think I'm dying."
He looks away instead of answering, which more or less confirms it. "Neesha—" he starts to say, then draws himself up. "Neesha?"
The young Shardeni is bolting through the melee, dodging flaming ambulatory corpses and large spikes of ice with more grace than I can muster walking the straight line between the front door and the kitchen.
"Look out!" Hunter shouts after her as one of the demons - wearing a well armed dead soldier - lunges at her from the side.
She doesn't have enough time to react, but a blur of something brown and green reacts for her. It's moving too fast to follow, and it streaks away almost before the demon's eyes flare with sickly red light. It - the demon, not the blur - screams as its torn from its host and thrown back into the Shadow Lands, and Neesha just turns around again and keeps on running.
I feel like the cold is spreading. Like, it's not. It's still just in a ball in the centre of my chest where Harbinger stabbed me, but it's bigger than that too. The curse is slowly but surely taking more of whatever it is it's taking from me and leaving the icy nothing in its place.
"Get her," I tell Hunter, "and g-g-go."
"I'm not leaving you here, Lije. Not with all the demons around."
"W-What're you g-g-gonna do?" I demand. "You g-got sanctified b-b-blades somewhere?"
"What are you gonna do?" he counters. "Shiver them to death? Now shut up. I think Neesha's bringing back help."
"I C-c-called on Aiyet," I tell him. "She didn't help. Who is N-Neesha—"
"Gettin' real tired of breaking spells on you, kid," says Nabah as she drops into a crouch beside Hunter.
"You can stop it right?" says Neesha, jogging up behind her. "You can save her?"
"Probably," Nabah replies, her eyes flooding with silver.
"And that will stop—"
"No," Nabah cuts her off. "It's too late. The only thing stopping it from happening is the damn Halberd took too big a bite with this one. As soon as I cut it off it'll do what it's meant to do. You all need to be anywhere but here when that happens."
"I want to fight with you," Neesha protests.
"Then stop disobeying orders long enough to take your Rite of Passage," Nabah replies without sympathy, immune to Neesha's flinch. She looks down at me. "I can't get back what it's already stolen, but you've got more than enough there to keep doing your thing. This is going to hurt, are you ready?"
I'm shaking too hard now to say any of the smart-mouthed things that immediately spring to mind, but I manage to nod at her. Her eyes narrow with focus and she digs her fingers into my shoulder as she does whatever it is she's doing. For a split second I don't feel anything worse than I already do, and I think maybe she exaggerated, but then it hits me. Again, and again, and again.
It's like someone's lit an inferno in my chest to battle it out with the ice. It's like I'm being torn apart, and then remade, and then torn apart again, all at the same time. It's like nothing I've ever felt before, nothing I can even wrap my mind all the way around. Every nerve in my body shrieks in agony, I can hear my own anguished voice, screaming for Bruiser and the Dukae. Screaming for the mother I never knew, and the father no one talks about ("I know your father," he said. Present tense.).
Then it's over, and I'm lying in the Temple of the Three, hoarse and covered in blood, but whole, inside and out. Warmth - nice, non-burning, I-am-a-warm-blooded-creature type warmth - floods the cold space and within seconds it's like it was never empty.
"Magic sucks," I rasp as Hunter and Neesha haul me to my feet.
And then the Halberd explodes.
It throws Nabah one way, and the three of us another. We land hard amid the roots of the tree, and are just picking ourselves up with a series of groans and swear words when it explodes again. This time the altar cracks.
Third time's the charm, right?
"Take cover!" Hunter shouts.
We bolt for the other side of the tree and throw ourselves into a huddle between its roots as a third explosion rocks the temple and we hear the altar shatter.
"Lije!" Hunter hisses when I crawl over to the edge of the tree to look at what's happening. "Neesha!" he protests when she follows me. And then, because he is not the type of person to be left out, he joins us.
The bones Harbinger left all over the floor have gathered, caught up in a maelstrom under the tree's canopy. Red lightning arcs around and between them, as they're flung this way and that. A skull, still shedding dirt and worms from its recent escape, hovers above the whole mess, like an angry child trying to force the pieces of a puzzle together. The strength of the magic at work is tearing chunks of bark and wood off the tree, and has driven the rest of the combatants to stop fighting and take cover where they can.
The demons are exultant, shrieking and cheering into the tumult. The others - I see the Speaker-Minister and Lightbringer and Right Hand at a glance - look desperate or furious or despairing in equal measure.
I know what's happening. Sunborn told me. The Demon King is resurrecting - right here. Right now, in front of me. Malakai the Betrayer. Keeper of Destruction. Worse than the Bogeyman, a spiritual cousin of the Shaligilli, the most powerful warlock of our Cycle, and the big bad in every Warden's story ever told.
My hands tighten on the Sentinel Sword. Because this is now, officially, a Warden's story. But I'm not yet officially the Warden.
I still haven't drawn the sword.
"It's now or never," Hunter says, reading my face or the situation, I don't know.
"If I draw this blade…there's no going back from that."
He gives me a weird look, somehow older than he is, and he says, "You are who you are. There was never any going back."
I wrap my hand around the hilt and a chorus of bells starts to swell somewhere deep in my heart.
And then the Temple explodes.
The force of it picks us up and hurls us around like ragdolls. For a handful of seconds the air is filled with debris and noise; stone cracks, wood snaps, glass shatters, and the ceiling bursts outward. Through the hole in the ceiling I can see the sky, not bright and blue like it should be, but covered over with roiling gray clouds, lined with the dull, angry red light of something that isn't quite the sun. I know, without knowing how, that I am not looking at Qaensgate's sky.
By the time I'm able to force myself back to my feet, Hunter and Neesha are nowhere near me. Neither is the Sentinel Sword. It's not what I'm most worried about right now, but it's what I manage to find first. Its jutting up from where it's wedged between the rubble, ribbons curling out, like lazy flags in a sleepy wind.
I stagger over to it in the coughing, confused aftermath and just look at it for a while. There are a thousand more important things I need to be doing - I'm pretty sure people are shouting at me about them right now. But my head's bleeding, which isn't helping my decision making capacity, and this is something I need to be doing, too.
I put my hand on the sword's hilt and hear again the slow swelling of a chorus of bells, feel the hilt grow warm against my palm. I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna draw it this time.
But then something large and old and dignified moans, like an old man whose knees are finally giving out. It's punctuated by an impossibly loud snap, followed by the grinding screech of stone on stone. Somebody screams a warning and I look up to see my death in the form of the steeple of the Temple of the Three falling back onto us.
First it takes out the rest of the ceiling, followed by a good portion of the walls. Then it hits the great tree's canopy and snaps its trunk in half on impact. The next thing it hits, of course, is me. For a brief instant, my world is a fury of stone and leaves and wood, and then everything goes black.
It's only the tree that saves me.
When I come to, bloodier and bruisier than before - a feat I didn't think was possible - I realize I'm in a makeshift alcove. Stone on either side of me, and a thick wooden trunk above. The tree took the brunt of the impact and shielded me from the rest. As beat up as I am and I raise a hand to touch the dying wood and pay my respects.
When I put my hand back down, it tangles in silk and steel. I don't have to look to know what it is - the Sentinel Sword. I'm getting tired of losing the thing, so I turn the Dukae's boon into a makeshift sword belt and contort myself in the small space to tie the sword on.
I have done everything in my power over the years to avoid wearing a sword, up to and including tantrums. I had an endless line of arguments. They're heavy, they slow me down. I have so many tricks up my sleeve, what do I need a sword for? Wouldn't it be better if none of us had swords? Then nobody would need one, and don't bring up the gryphons argument, Greymane, no one's getting attacked by a gryphon.
But this one's not too bad. It doesn't weigh me down like the others, doesn't tangle with my legs or feel like it's in the way. Putting it on is less like losing an argument and more like accepting a hand up from a friend. It's still a weapon, and that's got a weight that all the magic in the world couldn't lighten, but I feel like it knows that, and it takes that reality seriously. That makes a difference somehow.
I have other thoughts about it, but they make me feel like maybe I'm losing it, so I ignore them and starting digging my way out.
The good news is the sky has gone back to regular old Qaensgate blue. The bad news is literally everything else. Between the ruined steeple and the shattered tree, the temple's been effectively bisected. Two pillars and the shattered altar on my side, and six pillars and everything else on the other. "Neesha?" I call uncertainly. "Hunter?" They were close to me when things blew up, they have to still be on this side of the Temple.
It's as close to a whisper as she can get without me not being able to hear her. Through a small gap in the mound of rubble separating the two halves of the temple, I can just barely make out a brown face and golden eyes.
I manage to swallow my less than quiet exclamation and opt instead to crawl over the rubble to get closer.
"Lije, you have to get out of there," she says as soon as I get close.
"What about the demons?" I demand.
"We shielded ourselves. They didn't have that option. They're banished or forced to retreat. But something worse has come in their stead. You have to get out of there before he—"
A large hand presses itself flat against the stone above our access point. Before I'm even done jumping back in surprise, the rubble ages a hundred years in the space of a few seconds and collapses in on itself. Sunborn manages on frantic syllable - "Run!" - before we're cut off entirely.
I should listen to her, but instead I let my gaze trace the length of the hand (huge and well defined) until it becomes an arm (criss-crossed with scars, pale against the brown flesh and taut muscle), and then a chest broad enough to rival Bruiser's (respectable amount of hair, but no one's taking that crown from my uncle). I look up from there, waaaaay up, into a handsome face; strong features, well defined, marked by the lines of hard choices made the hard way.
His eyes are the colour of rust, if that rust was bold and bright and the truest form of itself. Electric tension arcs down my spine as I realize what their peculiar intensity means - they're Keeper eyes.
Which makes him the Keeper of Destruction, Betrayer of the Watch, and the Demon King.
He studies me as well, though I am far less physically impressive. Like a rabbit scenting a wolf, I freeze under his gaze, instinct hoping stillness will camouflage and discourage. He looks from the scabbard at my hip to my face and he meets my eyes (Keeper eyes too, I realize, seventeen-and-a-half years too late).
The moment hangs between us, heavy with history neither of us has lived, fragile and jagged, until:
"Hi," I say. "I'm Lije."
The Demon King's eyebrow leaps toward his hairline and surprise takes some of the tension out of his stance - some. "Malakai," he says, politeness taking over while surprise distracts intent. His voice is deep, pleasantly rumbly.
"Why are you naked?" I ask.
"Why am I—?" he repeats, confused not so much by the question as my priorities. He looks down at himself, and then back up at me. "You have to die to be resurrected. My clothes didn't die."
He squints at my face again, and I get the distinct impression he sees something in it that reminds him of something or someone and he's trying to figure out who. "How long have I been dead?" he asks. There is a realization dawning on his face.
"Twelve years according to the stories."
"Harbinger!" he bellows, startling me badly enough that I scuttle back a few steps. Seems he's got a temper to rival mine. "Come out here you slithering wretch!" There's no reply from the devastated temple except the distant settling of rubble. "Twelve years," he mutters to himself.
"He might be dead," I say hopefully.
"That creature has stood on the crusts of shattering worlds more times than there are years in a Cycle. He is not dead. I promise you that." He glances again at the Sentinel Sword, then gives me that same look, haunted by something in my face. "Is that the Sentinel Sword?"
"Are you the Warden of the Watch?"
"I…don't…know," I say slowly. "Other people think so." I consider that. "I think maybe I do to."
He studies me and says to himself, "She would choose the Warden. Of course She would." He curls his hand into a fist. "Why send me just to betray me?"
As usual, I speak before I can think better of it. "I thought you were the Betrayer."
He's not a young man, but the expression that hardens his features and deepens the lines around his mouth and eyes is even older than that. Older than I can comprehend. And so heavy; it sits on his face like a mask cast in iron, with hardly a hole to breathe through. "I am the Betrayed." He holds out his hand and there's a clattering of stone and a trail of dust as his halberd streaks through the air to smack against his palm. "I've read my own history, I know my own tale. Every Cycle is different, but they all spin toward the same end. One of us dead at the feet of the other."
The memory of a cold empty place inside me drives me backward several steps. "I feel like maybe we could keep talking," I say. "Maybe resolve some of these…issues. Maybe. It's the…it's the Armistice Festival, right? Let's…let's Armistice."
"Draw your sword," he says, and advances.
Given the intent in his steps and the way he's holding that halberd, I am forced to admit that that is an excellent suggestion, but "No," I say, and mean it.
"Draw your sword," he repeats.
I stumble over a loose piece of rubble but keep my feet through the brief heart attack it causes. "No," I say again.
"You don't want to die with your blade in your hand?"
"I don't want to die at all, jackass," I snap. Belated but welcome anger mingles with the fear in my gut and flares brightly. "And dignity is a stupid, petty reason to draw a sword."
"I'm going to kill you," he says.
I stop backing up so abruptly that he doesn't realize it until he's standing right in front of me. He pauses with his halberd raised and I lean into his malice, baring my teeth up at him. "So kill me."
It might just be wishful thinking, but as he brings the halberd down to oblige me, there's a quirk to his expression that makes me think I've at least impressed him.
Not enough to save me, but I can respect an enemy who respects me.
I consume the last smoldering embers of my anger in order to keep myself from breaking his gaze as he kills me, which means I don't see the shadowy blur streaking out of the rubble until it manifests as my cousin. He's got two silvery knives in his hands, now buried deep in the Demon King's side.
Malakai roars like a wounded dragon, and his halberd misses the mark by a not-quite-comfortable margin. With my rage having been used up, common sense and primordial fear reassert their control of the situation and I scramble away from him like a scalded rabbit.
He tears himself away from Hunter and reaches for his weapon - the better to pursue me and drive it through my skull. But as he wraps his hand around it, a small foot slams onto the haft and smacks it from his hand. Neesha kicks it out of his reach before he can recover from his surprise and tries to dance out of his way.
"Enough!" he roars, and his eyes flood with red. He strikes the ground with a clenched fist and when Neesha's next footstep lands, the floor gives out beneath her. Hunter, who had been about to stab Malakai again with a third knife (how many of those is he hiding under his coat?), lunges instead for her and manages to catch her hand before she falls into the same catacombs Sunborn and I took to get in here. But it leaves him prone on the ground.
Malakai, eyes still red, rises to his feet and pulls both knives from his side as though they're little more than thorns. "Koresh steel," he says. "Expensive toys for a boy." He takes one by the blade and closes his hand around it with enough force that the blade should slice through his fingers. Instead he opens his hand and discards a crumpled knife on the ground in front of them. The better to make them understand their mistake.
But he doesn't realize his.
The Sentinel Sword sings as I pull it from its sheathe - I mean that literally. The faint sound of bells I heard when I touched the hilt becomes a chorus, sounding from every steeple of every church and clock tower and cat's collar. There are no words for what it feels like to pull that sword free of the sheathe. It slices through the light of the ruined day and something in my heart sings a song I didn't know I knew the words to. Sacred fire erupts from the silvery blade, vicious and bright and as blue as my Keeper's eyes.
I stand between my new friends and the Demon King and raise my old one. He stares at the blue flames and his startled eyes narrow. "You're holding it wrong," he says. I hear a pained groan of second-hand embarrassment from the hole behind me, and then he lashes out at me with Hunter's knife.
He shouldn't be able to do much with that blade, but his eyes are still wall-to-wall red, and he strikes the dagger against my sword with so much more force than he should have been able to muster. The spirit is willing, but the fingers are clumsy sausages, and the holiest of all holy things goes flying from my grasp like so much slag.
"For the record," I say, "I still think we can talk this—"
He doesn't bother with the knife when he hits me. A fist is good enough to cave in a rib or two and send me flying backward. Behind me, Neesha has managed to scrabble from the pit and both she and Neesha get to their feet just in time for me to slam into them. We all go down in a stunned heap.
"Malakai!" snarls a new voice. I want to say to our right, but honestly the entire room is spinning and a pulsing collection of black spots are making everything very complicated to understand. "Is it not enough you made thieves and assassins of us? Are we child-killers now too?"
Hunter drags himself out from under me, prompting a pained gasp as my broken ribs scrape against something inside me. All I want to do is lie here until my insides stop touching each other, but someone else speaks, and even in my addled state, this voice I recognize, and this voice forces me onto my hands and knees out of fear more than anything else.
"We've been child-killers since Casque, don't you remember, Denimah?" says Harbinger, his voice sickly sweet and sticky with malice.
"Denimah!" says Malakai, cutting across the oaths Nabah spits at him. "You?!" Then he shakes his head. "It doesn't matter. Give me the halberd." He holds out his hand expectantly, and turns his eyes back to us.
It takes me a second to focus my eyes enough to pick her out amidst the wreckage. She stands near where the altar used to be, bloodied and muddied by the explosion. She sways a little on her feet, and I think maybe she's hurt worse than she's letting on.
Soul Eater is in her hands. I've seen her hold weapons before. They don't scare her; she knows her way around them. But this one she holds awkwardly in two hands, and out from herself. Like she wants to touch it as little as possible. She makes no move to give it to him.
There is an open struggle on her face. I can't even begin to guess the significance of this moment for her, but it's like I'm watching her try to choose the best way to break her own heart.
"Do as he says, Denimah," Harbinger advises her. "He's not having a good day, I wouldn't test him now."
"Nabah," Malakai snarls.
"Shut up and let her think," I rasp, every syllable an agony.
"Why is she still alive?" Harbinger demands of Malakai, annoyed.
"Why was I left dead for twelve years?" he retorts, moving the force of his glare over to Harbinger. "Do not question me, monster. Not before I have my own answers."
Nabah's eyes are on Harbinger, and I can see the pieces falling into place for her. "He is a monster," she says, "and I am done making monsters for you."
"Nabah—!" Malakai tries, but he's too late.
She lifts the halberd up and her eyes flood with silver as she brings it down across her knee. There's a loud snap and a gust of rancid wind and blistering heat. In the stunned silence that follows, her neglectful discarding of the broken pieces is deafening. "Neesha," she says evenly. "I gave you your orders. Follow them."
"Yes, Denimah," says Neesha. Her eyes are wide, her face bloodless, and her voice more subdued than I would have thought possible. Whatever just happened was a very big deal.
"Find a new blade, Demon King," Nabah spits as she draws her own, "and defend yourself."
"You want a demon king?" Malakai demands, infuriated. "I will give you a demon king!" A rush of red fills his eyes again, and a half-dozen points of flickering red light appear in the air around us. There's no way this is ending well.
Neesha and Hunter each grab one of my arms and lift me to my feet, despite the line of swear words I hiss out between my teeth. "The sword," I grunt and start moving toward it. Every step makes my chest hurt and I can feel cool sweat on my forehead despite the rising air temperature.
Neesha points to the back of the ruined temple, behind the shattered trunk of the tree. "I think there might be a spot where we can push through there."
"Are we just going to leave Nabah?" I demand. As though on cue she snarls a pained oath behind us.
"I have my orders," she replies, her face stone.
I open my mouth to argue, but the room is inundated with a flash of bright red light and I have to cover my eyes instead. When it fades and I open them again, things have gotten more complicated. Six new figures have joined the fight, none comparable to the others except that they're generally arranged with the same number of limbs in sort of the same places as mortals, and they all have eyes like smoldering coals.
"Demons," Hunter says, enough fear in his voice that I feel my resolve weaken. "Full demons. We have to leave. Now."
"But Nabah—!" Something slams into me with enough force to rip me out of Hunter's grip and slam me into the ground. I hear him and Neesha call my name, but they sound far away. My vision is swimming, my thoughts have gone to static under the white noise of pain, and somebody's hands are wrapped around my throat.
Harbinger. Getting the realization is like pulling teeth. It's so hard to think.
"I think," says Harbinger between his teeth, "I've finally figured out how to break this wretched curse." Something soft and cool brushes against my fingers and pulls a little piece of me back to myself. The piece that cares, more than anything else, about living. "I just need to make him give up." I scrape at the softness with fingers I can't really feel and tangle them enough to pull it closer. The sword. My sword. "And what better way to do that, then by using these hands to—!"
With every last shred of strength my survival instinct can muster, I bring the sword up. It blazes so brightly I can see it, even through my darkening vision, and Harbinger shrieks in pain and horror as the blade bites deep. His own survival instinct takes him, and he lurches up and off me, batting desperately at the cerulean flames licking at him, even as he tears himself free of the blade.
I gasp in a agonizing breath, and then another, and then another. Slowly the black begins to recede. Hunter and Neesha are there, pulling me to my feet again, and trying to pull me back the way we came. Harbinger's nearly got the flames out, and he rounds on us, all traces of amusement gone from him. His expression is terrifying, made all the worse by the realization that under the charred remains of his scarf, he has a mostly human face. It's badly burned right now, but healing as we watch. The extra flesh doesn't make his scowl any less frightening. He takes a step toward us.
A portal opens - not a portal, a Door - and the dark blur that saved Neesha earlier streaks out of it, slamming into Harbinger with impossible force. It sends him flying back into the shattered remains of the altar, and then takes shape. A shape I recognize.
She's Fae. I've seen her before, she used to visit the Dukae. She shouldn't be here. The Fae don't leave the 'Twixt, that's what keeps them safe from mortal wars and disease and all the horrors of mortal life. That's what keeps them safe from death.
Worse than that, I realize, she's the one who Told that tree into existence. For her to have been able to Tell something that big, from this side of the Lost Doors…she'd have to be a Narrator. And there's only one possible reason a Narrator would be here, now.
Well when it rains it bloody pours, doesn't it?
Is this your idea of a Welcome to the Watch party, oh ye holy trinity of impolite words for terrible people and Goddesses? Not enough to sic the Demon King on me, you gotta bring the Narrators into this? Like, why? Do you have bets on how I'm gonna bite it? I'm guessing Kyn's money is on Malakai, he feels like Her kind of thing. Aiyet would have the Narrators. So what about You, Irae? What's your guess?
The Fae steps toward me and I step back immediately…onto thin air.
The hole. I forgot about the hole.
Love You too, Irae.
Hunter and Neesha both try to catch me, but the ground is uneven and unstable and after a bit of fumbling and stumbling all we manage to accomplish is that I pull them in with me. I see the Fae woman raise her hand and hear a sound like leaves urgently rustling. Then the air we fall through turns into tree branches and leaves, sweet and earthy smelling, and then into open air again - but not the dank of the sewers beneath a defiled temple. Try the bright sun of a summer afternoon. I get a glimpse of blue sky, green grass, and a burning city not far behind us, and then we crash into someone's cart with the force of a meteor.
There's a lot of startled shouting, the sound of several weapons being drawn, and Neesha yelling, "Amplissa! Aliza! It's me! It's me!"
"What the Hell?" Hunter asks, picking himself up with a groan.
I give him the only answer I've got, which is to pass out.
I wake up two days later, tucked into Melody's bed at the Double-Em ranch. The Shardeni are gone; they apparently stayed long enough to hand Hunter and I over to Melody's mother and then left. Neesha went with them, which makes sense, but I'm upset all the same. It would have been nice to say goodbye.
The Double-Em is the first major property on the main road out of town, so we're picking up an alarming stream of bloodied Luciens. I ignore Molly's curse-littered orders to get back to bed and ask everyone who comes in through the door for their story. She stops yelling me at me when she realizes we've got too many people coming in who need the bed more than I do. I stop asking for stories when I realize they're getting more and more depressing.
"Molly," I ask her when I catch her in the kitchen. Something in my voice draws her dark eyes to me. "Are we going to lose Lucity?"
If she wasn't so tired, maybe she'd lie to me. "We're going to have to close the gates soon," she says instead. "We can't take on more people than we can move quickly if we haven't got an all clear by sunrise."
"I'd go now," she says, "but I want to give Melody and Haru time to get here." She glances out the window at the bloody horizon and the lines around her eyes deepen.
I wonder, for the thousandth time since telling her that I left Melody behind in Lucity, whether I should have stayed with her and the Nolanians after all. But I couldn't leave Hunter and Neesha. Is this what it's like, being the Warden? Choosing which friends to leave behind?
The Sentinel Sword chimes a few notes at me. It thinks I did the right thing. But it wasn't there. How does it know?
It chimes at me again. I know you.
We hear scattered rumours about the Keepers. Somebody claims to have seen the Shadow General fighting somewhere on the east side, after the destruction of the Temple of the Three. The Lightbringer was seen the day after, heading north on the road with what was left of his retinue. They were ambushed by full demons on the way out of the city, apparently. Hard to kill Koresh, but a demon can usually manage it. Somebody else claimed to have seen the Right Hand's body in an alley, but I refuse to believe that. No word on the others, and no word at all about a Fae.
When I go upstairs for bed, Hunter watches me from his cot near the window. "Did you tell Molly?" he asks as I settle in.
"Tell Molly what?" I reply, but the answer presents itself immediately when I turn my head to look at him. The twilight gleams on the silver hilt of the Sentinel Sword, set against the wall with the rest of our stuff. A bell rings twice, and I don't bother asking Hunter if he can hear it. I already know he can't. "No," I say slowly. "I didn't think of it." I pull my eyes away from it. "She wouldn't believe me anyway. What kind of a Warden gets her sword knocked out of her hand two seconds into a fight with the Demon King?"
He offers me a kind look. "The type who jumps between him and her friends to save them?"
"I didn't do that because I'm the Warden, I did that because I'm me."
He winces as he rolls himself over to see me better - I was in bad shape when we got here and apparently used up most of the limited magical healing supplies. Which means Hunter gets to heal the old fashioned way. "That's the point," he says seriously. "Forget any ideas you had about who and what the Warden is, because she's you. Whatever you are, that's what she is. And it doesn't matter how many stories people tell that make you think otherwise. They're the ones that are wrong. Not you."
"So the Warden is a teenage girl with bad debt, worse swordfighting, and a criminal record?"
"Apparently," he says, then pauses. "You have a criminal record?"
I grin. "It was my second day in Lucity. I was hungry and didn't understand money, so I took some bread and got into a fight with a merchant, then got into a fight with the guards." I shrug. "I wasn't in jail long. Twenty minutes, maybe. Just long enough for them to give up on making any sense of my backstory, to record my name as 'Lije Qaenschild', and to throw me in a cell. Things got boring after that, so I Called on Irae and I ditched."
"Wonder if that will make it into your commemorative mural."
"Anybody tries making a mural out of my life," I say, "and I'll vandalize it myself."
Hunter snickers, amused at the image.
"How do you know so much about the Warden anyway?" I ask.
"Everyone knows the stories."
"Yeah, but you don't talk like you're reciting a story," I counter. "You talk like you're reciting facts."
He shrugs, then winces when the motion pulls his side the wrong way. "I've studied her, that's all. My mother was a priestess. She wanted me to follow in her footsteps."
"You're going to be a priest?"
"Not if I can help it," he says with a grin. "But I do want to honour her memory, so I study her religion. It was important to her. It can be important to me, too, even if I don't take her path."
"What was she like?" I ask. "If you don't mind talking about her. Bruiser doesn't really ever mention her."
"I don't remember her that well. She died when I was little." His expression grows distant. "I remember she had curls like mine. She smelled like the temple. Like candles and books. She had a very even voice, and I liked it when she sang."
"What did she sing?"
"Nursery rhymes," he answered. "Hymns. Warden songs. That kind of thing." He glances at me out of the corner of his eye. "Do you remember your parents at all?"
"You mean my first parents? My biological parents?"
I think about it. "No," I say finally. "The earliest memory I have - and I mean, it's not really a memory of a scene. More just…impressions, you know? I remember being scared. I remember a fire. I remember the Dukae holding me while I cried. That's it." I stare up at the ceiling. "For a long time in the 'Twixt I assumed I was a Fae. Everyone around me was, it made sense to me that I must have been one too. But when I realized I wasn't…I kind of wish I knew who they were, that's all. Not because I think I need the information, or because it would change anything. It's just…I mean Bruiser remembers my dad, at least, even if he doesn't talk about him. I know he remembers him. But he never met my mum. Nobody knows who she was. Nobody remembers her." Except Harbinger. "I'd remember her if I could, that's all."
Hunter doesn't say anything for a long time, and I get lost in my own thoughts. It's not until my eyelids start to get heavy and droop that he stirs and speaks. "I think," he says, his voice thick with almost-sleep, "the Warden thing is probably what Dad was talking about in his note to you. For that book. You're probably safe to open it now."
"What is it?" I ask, but he doesn't answer.
I twist and reach under the bed to fish around blindly in my bag, looking for the feel of soft leather and the crinkle of parchment. I pull it out when I find it and climb to my feet, moving over to the chair by Melody's window. I drop into it and look out at the ranch grounds below. Except for a few torchlights patrolling the tall fences, it's lit only by the moon and stars. It makes the grass look more silver than green, and makes the week's events seem farther away than they are.
I pull Bruiser's letter free of the book and re-read it. Who, very close to Bruiser, could have a story to tell me that would matter in the face of the Warden thing?
I pull open the cover and look at the pages. They've been creased and re-creased many times - especially the earlier pages, at least until someone took them, folded into uniform size, and bound them carefully into this book. I flip through them without reading. They all follow roughly the same format, the same handwriting.
They're letters. Addressed to me.
With a shaking hand I return to the first page.
Things have been rough lately and getting rougher. Earlier today I got news so good I cried a little bit when nobody was looking, but it came with news so bad I don't quite know how to react, except by preparing for the worst.
You are three-years old and the light of my life. I've been writing these letters to you since the day you were born, because your mother is an amazing woman, but she's not great with the emotional stuff and it's not a satisfying experience for either of us when I get sappy.
I always figured I'd give these to you when you passed your Quisros, but since I might not be there for that, I'm sending them to my brother for safe keeping. If things don't work out, he'll give them to you instead.
I went through them and censored some of the names - including yours. Three years old and you have enemies enough that I don't sleep much these days. I'm hoping by the time you read these, things will be better, but for now, I'm taking precautions, just in case. Too many people know too many things already.
I hope these letters reach you. I hope that whatever happens between now and then, you know that you are loved.
I love you.
A rush of cold air pulls me from my sleep long before I'm ready. I roll over with a groan, pulling the blankets tighter around me and open my eyes to see what's causing it. Silhouetted against the open window behind Hunter's cot I see a small shadow land quietly in the room. Hunter's shadow moves behind it to close the window. I climb into a seated position with an effort.
"What's happening?" I ask. "Who's there?"
"She nearly broke the window," Hunter says. I'm not sure whether he means it as useful information or an accusation.
I turn to see who he's talking about and straighten in surprise. "Neesha! What are you—?"
But she and Hunter both hiss at me to lower my voice. "I came back," she says. "I think I found a way to fix things."
"Like the demon things?" I say, hope chasing some of the sleep from my brain.
She hesitates. "Maybe. I don't know. I just know that Nabah thought that if everyone signed this piece of paper—"
"Nabah's okay?!" I demand, relief flooding through me. "She made it."
Neesha's expression turns sour and I feel my stomach drop, but before I can ask, Hunter cuts me off. "What piece of paper?" His eyes are narrowed, not in suspicion, but in curiosity and maybe tentative hope.
Neesha reaches into the purse around her waist and pulls out a rolled up piece of parchment with words scrawled carefully across it. It's black along the edges and burned through in a few spots.
"What happened to it?" I ask.
"Things did not go smoothly when she caught up to us," she replies, her face a stone. "There was some fighting. I can't talk about it."
"Somebody threw it in the fire?" Hunter asks, taking it from her.
"Jinni took it from her and threw it in the fire," Neesha replies. "I pulled it out."
"Because I don't like Jinni," she replies and glares at me.
"You mean," I say, softening, "because you do like Nabah."
She makes a face and looks out the window for a long moment. "Nabah couldn't get them to sign it, and now it's too late for her to try, but…" She hesitates. "Maybe it's not too late for you."
"Me?" I straighten. "What can I do that the Denimah of the Shardeni can't?"
Across the room, the Sentinel Sword chimes a note at me, at the same time as Neesha says, "You've got that Warden thing. Hunter said they practically worship you."
Hunter raises a finger to correct her without looking up from the paper. "First, that's not what I said. But second," he points at me, "she's right." He pulls his eyes away from the charred scrap to look up at Neesha. "This is Nabah's signature? It's not a forgery or a fake?"
"Yes," she says.
"Did she sign it before or after Harbinger resurrected Malakai?"
"Why does that matter?"
"Because she has to have signed it when she was the lawful leader of your people for it to be considered binding."
"She's still the—Malakai's not—that's not how it—." She stops, frustrated, then tries again. "Yes," she says. "She signed it before."
"Hunter, what is it?" I ask.
"And she thought this would work? She thought your people would respect this if it was signed?"
"She said there was a chance."
"A chance for what?"
His eyes are bright in the moonlight, and I can't tell if it's the still healing blood loss or the possibilities represented by that piece of paper. "A chance is better than what we have right now."
"If you don't tell me what it is I'm going back to sleep."
"It's a treaty," Hunter replies. "Formally ending the Great War and laying the groundwork to avoid another one. I mean, I'm not a legal expert, I can't tell if it's any good or not—"
"Aliza wrote it," Neesha cuts in. "She's a legal expert. She studies that kind of thing. It's good."
"It'll have to be. Lije, you have to get the others to sign this."
"Sure," I say with a shrug, "lemme just get my boots on, and we can head back to Lucity and I'll walk on up to Sunborn Castle and request an audience."
"Lije," Hunter says.
"Excuse me, kind guard, but I'm here to see the leaders of the the whole entire world. Would you kindly let me pass? I'm have this paper you see."
"Lije," Hunter says.
"What's that you say? No way in Hell am I getting in there? Well that's a real shame."
"Lije!" Hunter cries. "I know you've had a rough couple days, and a lot has happened and it's all really hard to take in. I get it, believe me, I get it. But I need you to believe me when I tell you that's exactly what you need to do."
"Not the Lucity part," Neesha throws in. "The demons hold it by now."
"You don't know that," I say sullenly.
"Yes I do," she replies without sympathy.
"Lije, you know the stories. You know what the Warden is, what she means."
"But I'm not—"
"This isn't about you," Hunter interrupts me. He moves around the bed to sit on the edge of it and hold my gaze. "It's not about who you are to you, or who you are to me, or to Molly, or to dad. It's about who you are to them." He lifts the parchment. "To them you are a message, sent by the Qaen. To them you are divine intention given flesh and a sword and the power to reshape the world." He gestures, eyes wide with exploding possibilities only he can see. "I mean, it can't be a coincidence that the Keepers are all leaders of nations! That every last person you need to sign this is a member of the Watch! The same Watch the Warden is supposed to lead! Lije!"
"So what?" I demand. "You're saying the fact that Jinni doesn't know how to throw a piece of paper is destiny?"
"I'm saying," Hunter corrects me, holding the parchment out to me, "that destiny is just the word we use when a collection of choices have fallen into place like cobblestones under our feet. And that maybe the Qaen are trying to give you a hint."
"The Qaen have not been very nice to me the last couple of days," I say, giving the paper a dirty look.
"That's because you're a blasphemer and you take Their names in vain as often as the rest of us take in air." His expression softens. "They also come when you call and have gotten you out of some rough scrapes, as I recall."
"If you don't do this," Neesha says, pulling my eyes back over to her. "There will be another war. And it's going to be a hundred times worse than the first one."
"There are entire towns," Hunter says, "south of here, where the fighting hit its peak, that were reduced to graveyards during the last war. You can still visit them. But nobody lives there now. The skeletons still lie in the fields where they fell. Unburied. Unremembered."
I stare at them. "I am seventeen," I say. Not because I want to argue with them. Just because I want them to understand how unlikely and horribly conceived this whole plan is.
"And a half," says Neesha.
Fifteen minutes later, we are climbing out the window and moving toward the back gate. If Hunter is right, and it is the Qaen's cobblestone under our feet, I sure hope They know where the path is taking us, because I don't.
The only thing I'm sure of - right down through my bones - is that from here on out there's no turning back.
- 22 -