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Imperfect Lyctorhood was shit.

Total absolute shit.

Lyctorhood was the kind of shit where a cavalier could sacrifice herself to save her necromancer, give Harrow her whole entire life, and then almost a year later the cavalier could find out that her body didn’t actually die! No, actually her body was just fine and there was barely a scar from where she--again--gave Harrow her whole entire life and now Harrow’s dead girlfriend was all moved in and she’d rearranged all of Gideon’s furniture. Now Gideon was the one sitting in the tomb while Harrow stared at her body, at someone else inside it, while Harrow tentatively reached out to touch her body’s hand, like Harrow never attempted when Gideon was actually in there.

Now when Harrow sank down (presumably to inform Gideon that she was acting like a stubborn piss baby, though she never managed to say the words out loud) Harrow kissed Gideon and it felt like maybe she’d rather be kissing someone else. Now, suddenly, Gideon remembered the look on Harrow’s face back in the pool in Canaan House and Harrow’s tongue in Ianthe Tridentarius’s mouth and those moments seemed even more significant. Suddenly Coronabeth Tridentarius was standing there and instead of looking absolutely amazing, she was just another shit reminder that Harrow might have been Gideon’s first kiss, but Harrow chose Corona’s sister instead.

That wasn’t a fair thought, but Lyctorhood wasn’t fair.

Imperfect Lyctorhood wasn’t fair.

None of this was fucking fair.

At least with the first brand of Lyctorhood--the kind where Harrow sucked Gideon from her teeth and burned her for eternity--at least with that, Gideon wouldn’t have to sit there and watch. Harrow could live happily ever after with her girlfriend nestled up in Gideon’s body and Gideon would be blissfully unaware as she burned and burned and burned.

Long story short, Gideon refused to surface again for weeks.

She hunkered down while Palamedes said, “Is she alright?” with concern plastered all over Camilla’s face, and Harrow said, “She does this sometimes. She always has,” which, okay, fuck you, Harrow. Fuck you and your big dark eyes. Gideon saw the way that Harrow looked at her body now. She felt the way that Harrow’s heart jumped and her stomach fluttered.

Gideon tried to roll the rock shut behind her, tried to lock herself in, but the stupid thing wouldn’t move. She begged the ghosts, got down on her knees, but the ghosts wouldn’t come for her and the rock wouldn’t budge. Apparently the rock only moved for Harrow, God’s blood be damned.

Speaking of God’s blood and the body that contained it, Alecto was weird. Mercymorn and Augustine were awful, but they were also right. Alecto did things that were not normal. She stuffed bits of bone in her mouth like a fucking chipmunk and she sat there for an hour with them in her cheek, Gideon’s poor face puffed out so she looked like a total asshole, like she did after Crux kicked her with a heavy boot. Alecto routinely ate food that was too hot and didn’t seem to notice, and had probably scalded all of Gideon’s insides beyond repair. It left Gideon wondering if her body was as dead as Protesilaus, as dead as Pelleamena and Priamhark. Maybe she was, in fact, super dead and her body was just being puppeted by her dad’s creeper cavalier, like the ghost of her mother in the body of Dulci--Cytherea the First.

Harrow’s eyes were all over the body, and from where Gideon was hiding, her body definitely didn’t look dead.

Worst of all was the way Alecto moved. Most of the time it was fine, but there were moments where she seemed to forget, here she moved too fast or too slow, where she bent in ways that Gideon never bent and moved in ways that Gideon never moved, and even that didn’t drive Harrow away.

When it came down to it, Pyrrha was the only person there who seemed to understand Alecto, though Harrow tried. Of course, Harrow tried.

Harrow stood over Alecto’s bed and watched her lie there, her eyes staring at nothing--she never seemed to sleep. Harrow, Gideon could tell, wanted to crawl right into bed with Alecto, cradle her girlfriend in Gideon’s body, and fall asleep holding Gideon’s (Alecto’s) hand.

“How are you?” Palamades asked Harrow routinely, because Harrow walked around in a fucking daze, just staring at her would-be girlfriend in her cavalier’s discarded body, just tentatively reaching out with shaking fingers and then pulling away.

Gideon felt Harrow’s heart jump each time he asked the question and she huffed a sort of laugh. Out loud to the tomb and the worms and the ghosts, Gideon said: “Can’t you see she’s living the dream?”

Up at the surface Harrow said, “I don’t understand how this happened,” and Palamedes nodded and made all kinds of small thoughtful noises that seemed wrong coming from Camilla Hect’s throat.

In moments like those Gideon had a hard time containing herself and she felt pressed up tight against Harrow’s walls, constricted and confined. There was no space to move, barely space to breath, her face right up against Harrow’s armpit, her legs impossibly twisted up in Harrow’s legs. She should be too heavy for Harrow to carry. Harrow should buckle beneath her weight. Gideon tried to shift, tried to push away from Harrow, and then it was Harrow making small noises in her throat, her heart a gallop, her fingers tight against her knee. Gideon could tell that Harrow wanted to kick and she wanted to scream and she didn’t do either, just sat there and waited for Gideon to settle, to shrink and fall back against the stones.

Alecto watched with Gideon’s eyes in Gideon’s face, a fucking monster, and Harrow could hardly look away.

“It would be helpful to talk to Gideon directly--” Palamedes said. He looked Harrow pointedly in the eye, as though trying to transmit his judgement way down to Harrow’s base, through the tunnel, and up into the tomb. It worked. Gideon received that message loud and clear. “--but based on Pyrrha’s description of the events that took place while you were in the River, my guess is your cavalier’s physical stubbornness traces back to the same source that allowed you to unlock the tomb with her blood on your hands.”

Harrow moved. She moved toward Alecto and fell to her knees. She looked up into Gideon’s eyes in Gideon’s face and she said, “Do you know how much you mean to me? You were always with me, and I was never sure.”

“I know,” Gideon’s mouth lied.

Harrow, unsatisfied, pushed on: “It was really you, wasn’t it? It was you all along.”

Gideon’s eyes blinked down at Harrow. “You’re a daughter of Anastasia Nove and you came to set me free and I’ve followed a half step behind ever since.”

Pyrrha grunted at that. She stood and walked to the other side of the room.

Harrow’s intake of breath was sharp and it caught in Gideon’s imaginary nose. Inside Harrow was screaming. Inside Gideon was beyond the tomb and Harrow’s hands were on her, yanking her out from beneath Harrow’s armpit, holding her too tight, squeezing and pinching. She was screaming I begged you to wake and you spent a year at my side and up at the surface she opened her mouth to say the words, but they would not come.

Harrow retreated, out of the bedroom, back toward the living area with its sad saggy sofa and its whirring fan. Gideon fell back into the tomb and she touched her arms where Harrow had touched her and tried to find marks to prove that it was real. A ghost--this one a little boy--sat down beside her and shrugged his shoulders as if to say: what can you do? Gideon closed her eyes and when she opened them again, the ghost was gone.

Back in the living room on their first day there, Judith Deuteros and Coronabeth Tridentarius were on the sofa, pressed together with their knees touching, the head of Judith’s cane gripped tight in her hand. There were files spread across the table. They were paper, all paper, records of the horrors perpetuated by the Empire, by God and his Hands and his Cohort, and since the last time they saw one another even Judith had carefully reconsidered her side. Corona and Judith eyed Pyrrha warily, knew all that she’d done, but they were still entangled in it. They couldn’t help themselves. They were as Nine Houses as they come, Judith weak and hunched now, never fully healed, never quite the same, but a necromancer through and through. Corona, tall and shining, with a rapier at her side. Corona explained how it happened, how she trained with Camilla for months and then she spoke the oath with her hand on Judith’s cheek. One flesh, one end, and Gideon for one did not see that coming.

Harrow did not seem to care.

Each day Corona and Judith disappeared and each evening Corona and Judith returned and every night someone stretched sheets over the sofa cushions and Harrow curled up there and she slept. Pyrrha slept on the floor or she took a blanket and stretched out across two chairs as though it was nothing, as though she’d slept through worse. Gideon lost track of the days, but one day, in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark, Harrow opened her eyes to find Gideon’s body standing beside the sofa. When Harrow spoke, her throat was thick with sleep.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen you read something without illustrations, Gri--” Harrow stilled as she remembered who she was talking to and as her eyes adjusted, she saw that Pyrrha was awake too, sitting up straight in her chair, silent and watching. Alecto was holding a stack of the papers from the table, carefully turning them over in Gideon’s hands.

“How much is real?” Alecto asked.

Harrow said, “I don’t know.”

And Pyrrha said, “All of it. Every single word.”

Alecto moved to stand beside Pyrrha, her hand on Pyrrha’s forearm. “You were there?”

Pyrrha pressed her hand over Alecto’s (Gideon’s) hand in a strange display of familiarity, of understanding and affection. “With Gideon, yes, for everything. It’s my doing as much as anyone’s. I was his sword through and through, and I wasn’t burning myself up for anyone.”

“Where is John?”

Pyrrha shook her head. “Unreachable.” That couldn’t be true, couldn’t possibly be true. The Mithraeum was reachable, the Mithraeum’s replacement must be reachable too.

“I can’t feel him,” Alecto said.

Pyrrha wasn’t done: “We need to go back for your body.” She nodded up at Gideon’s frame. “You’ll need the real thing. We go back, get you out of your chains and you’ll feel him. He’ll come and then we can decide what to do.”

Gideon remembered how it went with Mercymorn, how it went with Augustine. She imagined the Ninth House--Drearburh, the drillshaft, Crux and the great-aunts, all of it--sucked into the stoma at the base of the River. Harrow hadn’t been there, she didn’t know to object. She sat on the sofa in silence, eyes for Alecto alone.

Eventually Alecto remembered her. She left Pyrrha’s side and returned to the sofa to look down at Harrow.

Alecto didn’t look down at Harrow the way that Gideon would have looked at Harrow. At least, Gideon didn’t think that was even close to how she ever looked at Harrow. Gideon looked at Harrow a lot, and she’d looked at her in many ways over the years: with anger, frustration, hatred, with worry, and pride and wonder. She had a hard time imagining her face ever looking this cold, even in those moments when she’d really truly hated Harrow more than any single person in existence.

“My love,” Harrow said, and Gideon listened, rapt. Harrow held out her hand to the cold and distant Alecto, to this woman living rent-free in Gideon’s body, and the body accepted. Gideon’s larger hand curled around Harrow’s, fingers warm and definitely not dead. Harrow’s heart skipped a beat and she froze, held like that for a moment, and then ripped her hand away, as though stung, bitten or burned.

Harrow sank in a desperate panic, the sort Gideon hadn’t felt since that moment when she did the exact same thing. Gideon held on tight, did not want to surface with the memory of her hand in her hand. She could not do it, would not do it--not unless Harrow asked--and when she met Harrow half way, she grabbed on and she shook her head, fierce with resolution.

“My love,” Gideon echoed. It was meant to be an accusation, but Harrow stared back at her with wide stunned eyes, and when she kissed Gideon it felt like the first time. Gideon was not sure what that meant. It felt like a trick, like Harrow kissing the safe stand-in, and Gideon was not in the mood for tricks. She let go of Harrow and watched as Harrow rose back toward the surface, watched her go as Gideon sank back down toward the tomb.

Harrow did not reach for the woman in Gideon’s body again.

Eventually it became clear that what they needed was a plan, a course of action. They could not hide out stuffed in an apartment on Ephesians for the next ten thousand years. They shouldn’t hide out stuffed in an apartment on Ephesians for another month. They should be gone by week’s end.

The plan Pyrrha proposed wasn’t at all what Gideon expected. From her back seat, Gideon assumed they’d go right back to the Ninth, charge down the shaft and roll the rock aside. The triumph of the Reverend Daughter’s return would be shattered with an immediate act of blasphemy, of treason, but Harrow would let it happen. She’d been waiting for this moment her entire life, for Alecto unchained.

Instead they would return to the First, to Canaan House and its crumbling tower, to its haunted labs and endless sea.

They left one day too late. One day earlier and they would have left Ephesians undetected. One day sooner and the Edenites would not have realized, or they would have realized and they would have been too late. Maybe it was the missing files, maybe Corona stumbled and said the wrong thing. Maybe they were watching closer than Camilla and Palamedes realized and they caught a good look at Harrow or, more likely, Pyrrha. Hard to hide a face they’d been tracking and fighting for ten thousand years. Hard to hide a face so intricately intertwined with the life and loss of their most influential commander.

It started with a bullet through the window that lodged itself in Judith’s shoulder.

“Down!” Corona shouted, as more followed, popping through the windows and ricocheting off the walls, and Gideon was up and out of the tomb before Corona’s mouth closed down on the word. Gideon surged forth and pulled Harrow to her knees. Harrow did the rest, fell onto her stomach, her head turned to the side as she searched for Alecto, searched to make sure Alecto was there and okay. Alecto was down too. Gideon’s face was still. She did not look frightened.

“That shouldn’t have been possible through the glass,” Camilla noted, or perhaps it was Palamedes. Harrow couldn’t see their face, so Gideon couldn’t check the eyes. Harrow’s focus was down now, down thirty floors to the street and back up again.

“They’re coming up the stairs,” Harrow said. Behind her, the Sixth said, “I count thirty.”

It was hard, on a planet with a population like Ephesians, to single out individual sources of thalergy that might raise suspicion. It was difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in a building that housed hundreds, surrounded by buildings just as tall, stuffed with hundreds and thousands more.

“Thirty-three,” Harrow corrected.

From somewhere in the room, Pyrrha let loose a breathy laugh. “Still not enough.”

Harrow was searching her pockets for bone, but her pockets weren’t as big here, and they were nearly empty. She was missing the robes of the Ninth, with their extensive pockets hidden within, with her piles of bone and dirt. It wouldn’t matter. She still had her sword.

“Goal is to protect the Third, the Second, and Alecto on the way down,” Pyrrha said. “No real threat here for the rest of us.”

“Leave me behind,” Judith said, immediately. Her voice was strained, but still commanding. “I’ll just slow you down.”

Harrow turned her head and Gideon saw that Corona and Camilla had crawled to Judith’s side. The Sixth pressed at the wound in her shoulder while Corona held Judith close, her fingers soft on Judith’s cheek.

“Don’t be a baby, Jude,” Corona insisted. “You’re fine.”

Judith laughed and gripped her cane. “I haven’t been fine since the First and you know it.”

They all watched as Corona’s face went hard. She set her jaw and said, “All right, then we finish what was started there, just like we discussed.”

Judith shook your head. “Like you discussed. I never once agreed.”

“What floor?” Pyrrha asked and the Sixth, without shifting away from the Second, said, “Twenty-first.”

Corona leaned down and kissed Judith on the mouth, those soft Tridentarius lips over a mouth taut with pain. Harrow closed her eyes and turned away, opened them again on Alecto’s blank expressive.

Typical. Harrow never looked at the things Gideon actually wanted to see.

And then something happened. Judith and the Sixth both shouted at once. Harrow turned her head back just in time to watch Corona stand, just in time to see her body shake with the impact of the bullets, to watch her fall back to the floor at Judith’s side.

Corona was smiling, her eyes bright, and when she spoke blood appeared at the corners of her lips. “Do it, Jude. You’ve seen them. You know how we could be.”

“You crazy stubborn bitch,” Judith said, but she was moving. She was moving toward Corona and the Sixth reached out to help.

Pyrrha, unphased, left them to it and started toward the door. Gideon fought Harrow for joint control. It didn’t take Harrow long to take the hint and shift aside, and as soon as she did, Gideon moved. She crouched low as she ran for the bedroom, for the swords and the bones Camilla kept hidden in a trunk there. Fuck guns, Gideon would have a sword in her hand.

True to form, Camilla had stockpiled a lot of swords. Gideon looked down at the bounty and closed her eyes. Heaven. “Camilla Hect, I could kiss you.”

Camilla wasn’t there to kiss, and Harrow probably wouldn’t like it if she was, so Gideon settled for getting Harrow’s grubby little hands on as many weapons as she could hold. Rapiers for Corona and Pyrrha, knives similar to those she’d seen Camilla wield. The biggest sword in the bunch--not big enough--for herself, and another big one for Alecto, though Gideon had no idea if Alecto could or would use it. Maybe Gideon’s body held enough muscle memory to wield it in her absence. She could only hope.

They pushed out into the hallway together, five bodies instead of six. Pyrrha and Gideon were at the front, Camilla and Corona taking up the rear with Alecto positioned at their center. The thinking was that she had the most vulnerable body now, but considering the fact that Gideon’s body was still walking, it seemed that might not be the case. Gideon did not want to think about that, so she forged ahead, keen to protect her body from destruction, even if looking at it totally fucked her up inside.

They met the first group on the stairs. Pyrrha was right. It was barely a fight; over in seconds. Bullets fell from Harrow’s chest as her body repaired the damage, clinked as they landed against the stairs. Pyrrha’s body was slower and she grunted and pushed at a hole in her arm as she slowly worked a bullet from her muscle. It slid out into her fingers and she threw it aside with a hiss.

“Are we good?” she asked. Murmured confirmation and they pushed on, plowing through the Edenites until they were out on the streets. Bullets rained down from the windows above and they huddled around Alecto, ducked through alleys and crouched beside smoking vehicles. Gideon hadn’t come this way since they first arrived and she was actually surprised to find the shuttle exactly where they left it.

They piled inside and checked the damage. A bullet had grazed Alecto’s shoulder blade, a red line across Gideon’s brown skin. Gideon steeled herself and poked at it. It wasn’t deep. She’d be fine. Her body had been through worse, which was--fuck, it was fucked, Gideon fell back into a seat and laughed as the Sixth sat heavily beside her.

In the back of the shuttle, Corona sat thrumming, her breath coming fast and ragged as they adjusted to the transition, her eyes shifting from violet to Judith’s rich dark brown. She had blood on her shirt. There were holes in the fabric, tears that showed the smooth undamaged skin beneath.

“I knew she wouldn’t reject me,” Corona smiled. She said it to Gideon or to no one. It wasn’t clear. “I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist climbing inside.” She shook in her seat and shut her mismatched eyes.

Gideon turned to the Sixth, to the dark eyes that watched Corona and Judith as they threaded together and fought over space. Gideon leaned in close and said, “I highly recommend kissing during the transitions, if you haven’t tried it already.”

Palamedes cleared his throat and averted his eyes. “We’ll keep that in mind. Welcome back.”

Pyrrha did not wait for clearance to land on the First. She guided them through the atmosphere, settling onto the empty landing terrace. Skeletons streamed through the doors toward the shuttle.

“That little fucker is still alive?” Corona asked, though given the words it was probably Judith.

“Call him if you need to,” Pyrrha suggested when Teacher appeared, a smile plastered on his face as he welcomed the Necrolord’s esteemed Saint of Duty back to the First. “Let him know who is here.”

Teacher’s eyes followed Gideon’s body and he muttered and shuffled away.

In Canaan House, Pyrrha led them down, down that terrible ladder, past the blood stains left by the Fifth, past the place where Isaac died. She led them past Laboratory Eight and Laboratory Nine and then she stood in the dilapidated ruins of Laboratory Ten and she pushed aside a fallen ceiling panel. Behind it was a door, thick and black and stone.

Harrow’s breath hitched. “I knew it.”

“Your secret door theory,” Palamedes said, impressed. “Hot damn.”

Pyrrha did something complicated with a keypad below the knob, with her thumb and a light, followed by a bunch of buttons. There was a satisfying click, and they all pushed through. The staircase behind the door was wood, well preserved like the Lyctor studies above. The air smelled damp and briney.

Pyrrha led them through a beautiful study with lush carpets and a heavy wooden desk. Harrow and Palamedes gravitated toward the shelves of books and stacks of paper, but Pyrrha reeled them in and pressed on toward another staircase, down a level deeper. They passed a bedroom, another kitchen, a less formal living space, and then another door and another keypad, another staircase of dark wood.

Finally, they found themselves within a pit of stone and at its base, a rock. Finally they found themselves at the bottom of Canaan House, and at its base, chains connected to pillars of steel, chains that disappeared into holes in the ground.

The air down here smelled like the deepest parts of the Ninth, and Harrow convulsed around Gideon. The ocean inside her sloshed and it shook. Waves crashed against the stone island within Gideon’s tomb and Gideon readied herself, just in case Harrow could not deal, just in case she had to sink.

Harrow held. “I know these chains.”

Pyrrha nodded. “I understand you also know the theorems we’ll need to roll this rock away.”

Harrow began to sway. Gideon stretched out, held her in place. “I do.”

“There’s a ward,” Pyrrha said. She looked to Alecto. “In that body you can break it.”

Harrow looked down at her hands. There was dried blood there from where Gideon had pressed at the wound on Alecto’s shoulder, where she’d pressed Harrow’s fingertips to that wet red line, her own blood on Harrow’s hands.

Harrow stepped toward the rock. “I can help with that too."