Is this really how it happens?
Is this really how it ends?
The setting sun is blood red through the haze of fire and smoke. It’s so hot. My senses are dulled, yet still focused, like tunnel vision for my entire being. The pain is immense. At least a few of my ribs must be broken. My cheek is pressed against the ground as I lie slumped on my side. It hurts to breathe — that’ll be the ribs — and my breaths are quick and shallow. The others are still nearby, although I can’t see them; things probably aren’t going our way in that department.
But I can’t bring myself to care about any of it. Because there, lying on the ground, not ten feet away from me, is you. And you’re not looking as peachy keen as I’m feeling. You’re lying on your side, facing away from me. You’re not moving. Blood is pooling around you.
I extend a single hand out above my head, dig my fingertips into the ground, and claw myself forward a few measly inches. My entire body protests. I ignore its complaints, and reach out again. This would be so much easier if I was lying on my stomach, but I think I might pass out if I tried that. I muster myself with a feeble groan of pain, and push myself to my elbows and knees. It’s not good — in fact it fucking sucks — but it’s something. It’s anything.
After a minute or an hour or an eternity, I reach you. I try to kneel behind you, but my legs are too wobbly, and I ended up collapsing over you. I roll you onto your back, trying to hold myself up above you but only really succeeding in lying on top of you.
“Harrow?” I quaver, my voice a pained rasp. You don’t answer. I reach my trembling hands around to cradle your head, trying to lift it up, and oh, oh fuck, there is so much blood. It coats my hands, leaves a sticky puddle on the ground beneath you. I confirm for myself what I already knew.
You’re gone. The impact killed you instantly. I knew from the second I saw it happen, but I guess I convinced myself that I might be wrong, that there was a chance you might have lived. I’ve always been a fool. I clutch your head close to mine so our foreheads are pressed together and squeeze my eyes shut tight. A keening, animalistic noise escapes me, shrill over the dull roar of the flames, and keeps going until my lungs have no air left to sustain it.
It isn’t fair. We were going to have a future. For the first time I can remember, I had something to live for. But that’s not what we get, is it? Our lives are nothing but a string of bad hands from a dealer who rigged the deck, the entire arc of our existence laid out before we were even born by people who never gave a shit about us. Well we’ve reached the end of the arc they prescribed. We’ve lost the game they made the rules to. And in the end, this is all we get.
I’m not letting them get away with it. I’m not playing by their rules. If this is the only arc we have to follow, then I’m building a fucking new one. I’m building something new for us, my sunset queen, and all I’m asking is that you hang around long enough to see it. I’m not going to say you owe me, but I’m going to heavily imply it, and maybe that’ll guilt you into staying and seeing what I’m going to do. I can’t change how our story began, but I can damn well change how it ends. I’m not letting it end like this.
I kiss you delicately on your forehead. My eyes are still closed. I wonder if the blood in my mouth left an imprint on you, like a lipstick mark. I hope that it did. It’s a hollow gesture of comfort, but I make it nonetheless. Maybe it’s more for me than for you. I’m going to need it.
I take a deep breath. It’s far more steady and calm than it has any right to be.
I open my eyes.
I walked back from the brink of death with a slow, graceless stumble. I was sure that I had died for real that time. That I had drowned in a river that wasn’t even real, wearing a body that wasn’t even mine, alongside a person I didn’t even know. I’m glad it didn’t happen that way. That was a pretty shit way to die.
Reality trickled into my brain, painful and viscous. I wasn’t consciously aware of opening my eyes, but vision resolved itself from the blackness. Pain wracked through my chest. I was… I was coughing? Oh, yes, I was coughing — great, wrenching coughs, and there was a phantom sensation of fluid being violently ejected from my lungs, because even if the River isn’t real water, it’s difficult to stop your body from freaking out when it thinks its drowning. My mind and my soul and your body slid protestingly back into sync.
Half of my face was pressed against the ground, and some kind of soft, ashy sand was getting in my mouth. I was lying on my stomach, limbs sprawled out in all kinds of fun directions. My body still heaved with painful wheezing, but it began to abate. I groaned and tried to spit some of the sand out. It didn’t work. A little puddle of drool wetted the sand next to my mouth. I rolled onto my back.
The sky was dismally grey, and yet somehow still irritatingly bright. I hated looking at it. I sat up, then hauled myself to my feet with a body that protested every second I asked its muscles to move. My mind dizzily oriented itself without being especially committed to the task.
A rocky outcrop just behind me was the only thing that disrupted the featureless wasteland. Vast dunes rolled lazily towards the horizon in every direction. Every single part of that desolate world was grey. The sky was a pale, hazy grey, the sand was a dull slate grey, the rocks were a dark, almost charcoal grey. It was really fucking grey, is what I’m trying to convey here. Eddies of wind carried particles of ashen sand through the air in little swirls. There was nothing — no one walking by, no ships overhead, no sign of civilization in the distance. I was alone.
Everything hit me all at once.
You were gone. You hadn’t come back. I was pretty sure you weren’t dead — I could still feel your presence in there somewhere — but you weren’t alive either. I knew from what the other lyctors said that you weren’t down there fighting the big planet beastie. No, I had no illusions that you were on your way back. Nor could I get you back; what could I possibly have done? I’d have fought anybody I needed to fight to keep you alive, but that spirit stuff was beyond me. There was nothing I could do to coax you back, or wake you up, or whatever needed to happen to get you out of there.
There was nothing I could do. There was no path forward. I was by myself, in a body that wasn’t mine, on a world that I had no way to escape. You were functionally dead, and pretty soon I would be actually, permanently dead. I had failed you.
I’d like to say that that’s when I rallied. That I stood tall and refused to stop fighting. But it wouldn’t be true. What actually happened was this: I gave up. I trudged over to that big rock sticking out of the ground, I sat down, and I leaned back against it. I saw my two-hander lying half-buried beside me, and I placed it flat across my lap. I closed my eyes. I felt the single massive ache that your body had become. And I slept.
It might seem ridiculous, given where I was, but it’s true. I was so goddamn exhausted, Harrow. You barely ever slept. You hardly ever ate. You had apparently never heard the word cardio in your entire life. All of that negligence got dropped on my head, and I was exhausted. I was exhausted of fighting for air the whole time you kept me shoved under the surface of your mind. I was exhausted of watching you get stabbed and manipulated and humiliated. I was exhausted of watching you deliberately spit on every single thing I ever did for you, one by one.
Perhaps I would die there. I did not, in fact, die there, because your body was literally incapable of dying that way, but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. I don’t know how long I slept. The sky was unchanged when I awoke, just as bright and depressing as before. But as I blinked myself back into half-consciousness, I saw something.
There was a figure, standing atop one of those massive dunes. It was close enough that I could tell it was moving towards me, but not close enough that I could tell who it was.
So I waited. I sat there, uncaring, as the gaunt form of Gideon the First — or Pyrrha Dve, I suppose — resolved itself from the haze.
She had one of those stupid-looking white cloaks that you all carried, but now hers was tied around her neck like a scarf and pulled up into a makeshift mask to keep out the swirling sand. As she came to a halt in front of me, she pulled it down so her mouth was visible.
“She’s dead then?”
A manic, hysterical laugh burst from my lips. “No, no, Harrowhark Nonagesimus would never do something so mundane as to die. That would involve facing a consequence for once in her life. No, she’s fucked off and left us to clean up after her.”
Pyrrha nodded and looked off to the side. She squinted up at the sky, and took a deep breath. She cracked her neck, and then looked back at me and gestured with her head. “Alright. Let’s go.”
“Go? Where the fuck are we supposed to go? Hell, how did we even get here?”
“Friend of yours pulled us out of the River. This was the closest planet. Got you out, went back for me. Didn’t surface in exactly the same spot. We split up to look for you; should be meeting up with them again in a few hours.”
Pyrrha hesitated. “It’s complicated. They’ll explain.”
“No, I don’t think they will,” I said. Pyrrha simply stared at me. “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m done. I’m tapping out.”
“That isn’t how this works.”
“It works however I damn well want it to work! I’ve had enough. I’ve done my part, I’ve paid my dues, and I’m not going to put up with this shit anymore.” The bitterness flowed from my lips like poison. I had been scooped out and left hollow on the inside. I was tired. And if I’m being honest, I was really, really fucking pissed at you. That was a big part of it.
But Pyrrha wasn’t having it. “I don’t have time for your self-pity. Let’s go.”
“Fuck you,” I spat, sounding more than a little bit like a child having a temper tantrum, but too angry to be self-conscious about it, “just because you’ve forgotten what being a human being is like doesn’t mean that I’ve done the same. You have no idea how much I’ve lost.”
Something flashed in her eyes. She grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and hefted me into the air with one hand. My sword fell to the ground. My shirt slid halfway up my chest and I dangled from it, kicking my legs impotently. I looked like a toddler being bullied by a thirty year old man.
“Don’t speak to me of loss,” she warned, and for the first time, I heard genuine anger in that flat, monotone voice, “you have no idea what that word means. If I don’t get to tap out, then neither do you. Now let’s go.”
She hefted me forwards and I landed running, arms pinwheeling and legs frantically trying to keep the momentum from sending me sprawling right onto my face again. I came to a stop, breathing a lot harder than I’d like to confess. Pyrrha walked past me, and as she did, she pressed my two-hander against my chest. I fumblingly grabbed it, and watched her walk away. She did not turn around to see if I was following her.
I followed her.
I quickly discovered that Pyrrha Dve took after her necromancer; she was not much for conversation — not that I was making much of an attempt myself. I was still feeling a bit rebellious and pissed off about the whole thing, and I decided that I didn’t give a shit, and I wouldn’t ask what was going on. But let me tell you, there was not much going on on that barren planet, and I have an extremely low tolerance for boredom.
We trudged over the endless dunes. The sand shifted and sunk beneath our feet, making each step take just enough effort to be irritating. I wasn’t even sure I should be calling it sand. It felt a lot like it, but it was softer, and the particles were bigger, forming little flakes of grey. I almost wanted to call it ash, or some kind of extremely odd snow, but the edges of the flakes were weirdly sharp, and they gave it that same unpleasant grit that sand has. You can probably tell how thoroughly boring that journey was by the fact that I was diving so deep into the taxonomy of sand.
Eventually, the boredom got to me, and I cracked. “Does being in his body feel as weird for you as this does for me?”
I waited to see if she would say anything else. We crested a dune, and the sand beneath my feet slid worryingly as we began our steep descent, making me stumble and wave my arms about frantically to keep my balance. When she failed to elaborate, I continued, “Not much of a talker, are you?”
She didn’t deign to respond to that. After we reached the nadir of the gap between two dunes, we began our ascent up a truly massive one, the biggest anywhere nearby. My breath grew heavy as I hiked up that slope in a body that had never gone for a jog in its life. I was pouring sweat. At least that shitty planet had the decency to be chilly, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Pyrrha looked at me, and I couldn’t quite parse her expression. Consideration, maybe? Or maybe she was just pitying the miserable state of my current form. It was hard to tell. It made me antsy, so I searched for something to say. I had a lot of options — a lot of shit had happened to us since I first woke up in your body. There were a lot of very good, pertinent questions I could have asked, like: Did the Emperor die? What happened to the Resurrection Beast? How did you become Gideon’s cavalier without dying? Did you really bang my mom? I did not ask those questions.
My mind kept returning to one thing — to your constant companion, that beautiful face that haunted you. Yes, Harrow, I could see the Body too, all those long months under the surface of your mind. I couldn’t tell if it was a spirit or a delusion, but what you saw, I saw. So instead of asking one of the plethora of more immediately relevant questions, I asked,
“Why were your buddies so scared of Alecto?” Nobody told me that the Body was Alecto, but I’m not stupid, as much as you might like to argue the contrary, and I could figure that much out on my own. Maybe I wanted to learn a little bit about your girlfriend, alright? I wasn’t jealous, I just wanted to know.
Pyrrha’s face remained impassive, and for moment I thought she was going to keep ignoring me. At length, she spoke, "John never told me what she was — only Augustine and Mercymorn knew. I know she was volatile. Gentle most of the time, but her anger was… explosive. They were terrified of her.”
“Were you?” A strange expression crossed her face — not quite a smile, but something amused and self-satisfied nonetheless.
It was weird listening to her talk. She had her necromancer’s taciturn demeanor, but it wasn’t the same. The way he spoke was always flat and monotone. Her words, on the other hand, had the slightest hint of inflection to them. There was more emotion there, even if it was subtle and muted. The slight searching hesitation before the word ‘volatile.’ The glimpse of anger she directed at me earlier. It wasn’t much, but it was more than you ever got from him.
There was a long silence as we made our way up the steep surface of that dune, me panting and wheezing, her looking completely unbothered. The silence weirded me out, and because I am a little shit, I asked her the other question I couldn’t stop pondering.
“So… which one of you was it that Harrow caught fucking Cytherea’s corpse? Was it you, or Gideon?”
Pyrrha didn’t even look at me. “Do you always ask so many questions?”
“Only when it’s funny.”
We crested the top of the mountainous dune, and the landscape opened up before us. The rolling hills transitioned into a vast flatland interspersed with massive rocks skewed at violent angles. They formed scattered piles that jutted out of the landscape like thorns. Pyrrha pointed to our destination — one particular outcropping where one of those spikes collapsed and broke into three segments, creating a semicircle that formed a large, sheltered clearing in the middle. But that wasn’t what drew my attention. What drew my attention was the sandstorm.
It loomed on the horizon, a huge wall of billowing ash ripping across the flat landscape ahead of us. It moved frighteningly fast. I’d never been in a sandstorm before, but I had a feeling that the sharp texture of the ash would not be kind to us at those speeds. My mind tore through our options. Shelter behind the dune? Unlikely to work, the dune was made of sand, it would get swept up in the storm. Retreat to the little sheltered rock pile I woke up beside? Too far back, we’d never make it in time.
Pyrrha and I didn’t even have to look at one another to confirm our plan. We started moving simultaneously, tearing down the far side of the dune at a breakneck pace, sprinting towards the semicircle shelter of rock. It was an incredibly stupid decision to make, and I regretted it immediately. Sand avalanched down the slope with us, our feet destabilizing great drifts of ash. Balance was impossible, and it wasn’t long before I toppled, tumbling head over heels down that surprisingly precipitous incline. My world was a greyscale swirl. I’d have thought that the loose, soft surface beneath me would cushion some of the impact, but it sure as hell didn’t feel like it, and a particularly brutal landing on my back forced the air from my lungs. I gasped for breath and inhaled sand, prompting my lungs to frantically attempt to cough without any air to expel.
I sprawled out onto my stomach as the slope began to even out, and Pyrrha grabbed my arm, yanking me to my feet without a pause. She, of course, had not fallen, and she rocketed ahead of me as I struggled to find my feet. My sword was in her other hand. I felt a ripping pain as the glassy sand tore up the inside of my lungs, and then a viscerally uncomfortable fleshy sensation as they knitted themselves whole again. I stumbled forward fully doubled over and coughed up cancerous gobs of blood and grit.
The storm loomed closer. God, it was fucking fast. It’s not like we had weather, growing up on the Ninth, I had no idea it could look like this. I heaved a rasping breath and resumed sprinting. We were on flatter ground now, and the wind was picking up, heralding the storm to come. I gritted my teeth and tore into it, feeling it whip your annoyingly long hair behind you. We were getting close now, the rocks growing larger and larger before us, but so was the wall. I tried so hard to move faster, but I couldn’t make your body do something it wasn’t capable of.
In the distance I saw a shape moving through the air parallel to the storm — a ship, and from the looks of it the pilot must have been absolutely gunning it, slicing through the air at speeds that in-atmo engines don’t usually try to push.
Pyrrha reached the rocks first, and I followed not far behind. It wasn’t a perfect shelter — the huge slabs of collapsed rock had gaps between them where the wind could come through, and the stray boulders littering the ground weren’t packed tightly enough to form an enclosure — but it would have to be enough. I frantically searched for the safest spot to hunker down. I followed Pyrrha, and ducked behind the densest cluster of boulders, yanking my shirt over my mouth as the storm hit us like a sledgehammer.
The whole world went dark in seconds. I couldn’t see the sky. The wind was screaming. The buffer of rock diminished the full force of the ash, but it couldn’t stop it, swirling around the sides in hostile gusts that stung like chips of glass. I realized too late that I needed to close my eyes, and a whirl of ash caught me right in the face. I slammed my eyes shut, and felt a trickle of blood ooze down my face. The storm called into sharp relief the fact that this was not sand. That was simply the best word I could find to describe it, but sand could not cut like this. Dozens of tiny tears bloomed across my skin before my healing wilted them.
A noise, barely audible above the keening howl. Engines. A rumbling whine that started strong, then stuttered, and gasped, and cut out entirely. A loud thunk of metal as something heavy slammed into the ground. I couldn’t tell where the ship was, only that it was close. We needed to move fast. I grabbed Pyrrha by the arm, and I opened my eyes. There was a light over to our side, just barely piercing through the shroud. I sprinted towards it, guiding Pyrrha blindly behind me as my eyes filled with blood. A shouting voice resolved from the gale as we got closer, but I couldn’t discern what it was saying. Three more steps, each digging into the sand beneath me, and then the fourth landed on solid metal.
I stumbled to the top of the ship’s entrance ramp, and proceeded to immediately collapse, curling up on my side and clutching my face, keening in pain. A pneumatic hiss sounded from behind me as the ramp closed. Pyrrha dropped my sword, and it clattered loudly to the floor.
“Dammit Pyrrha, I told you it was a bad idea to split up our search!” I knew that voice. My eyes became eyes once again, and I resisted the urge to vomit. I blinked my vision back into existence and rolled over to face Camilla Hect.
She looked exactly the same as I remembered her — boring gray clothes, hair cut into a short, practical bob, hands moving with quick, efficient purpose. The sight of her, looking totally unchanged, calmed something within me.
“Cam,” I croaked by way of greeting. I meant to sound happy to see her, but my vocal chords weren’t really on board with that plan at the moment. She ignored me, huddled over Pyrrha, who was in abysmal shape.
Her whole body was cut all to hell, and the sharp grit had torn thousands of tiny little cuts across every single inch of exposed skin. The oozing wounds left her clothes spotted with blood all over. Cam pulled the cloak away from Pyrrha’s face to assess the damage, and Pyrrha’s lips were pulled thin and tight with pain. I waited for her wounds to close, for her body to miraculously heal itself as mine did.
It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t going to happen. Pyrrha was not a lyctor anymore, and her wounds stayed stubbornly in place.
Camilla placed a hand on Pyrrha’s face, and I watched as the myriad of cuts began to stitch themselves up. It wasn’t fast or automatic like my healing was; it was thoughtful and deliberate, wounds getting sealed up only a handful at a time. I might not have known Camilla Hect for very long, but I knew that she was no necromancer, and I knew for sure that she couldn’t do that. I looked closer. Camilla’s eyes were not the wintry, pale brown they used to be. Or, at least, one of them wasn’t. One eye was the color it should be, but the other was a clear, deep grey. The color of Palamedes’ eyes.
I watched her — him? — work, every movement deliberate, every glance intensely focused. I had so many questions, but the air was so thick with her concentration that I didn’t dare speak.
I took a moment to orient myself. I expected to see the same shuttle that Camilla, Coronabeth, and Judith had been on the last time you came across them, but this was a different ship. Less horrifically cramped, for one thing. It bore some resemblance to the other shuttle in its design — all plain, heat-treated metal, boxy and utilitarian, without any of the adornment typical of the Empire’s fleet.
We were in the middle of an open, central room with a few crated piled up in one corner, and a plex screen on one wall with a panel of buttons and dials beneath it. There were three closed doors leading to other rooms, one on each side, the fourth side holding the shuttle’s entrance ramp. The only decorations were two framed photographs on either side of the door opposite the ramp. One I recognized as the same red-haired woman whose picture was in the tiny shuttle Camilla was in before. The other was of a bald man with brown skin and a bitchin’ salt and pepper beard.
I glanced over at Camilla. She was still deep in concentration, so I stood up and walked over to the portrait of the woman. There was a small inscription set onto the bottom of the frame, and it said only one word.
It sucked the breath out of my lungs. That was her. That was my mom. It never occurred to me that I didn’t actually know what she looked like. But there she was. Her face was cold and callous, her face creased not with laugh-lines but with the etchings of a lifetime of anger. Even when posing for a picture, her face was set into a vague scowl. I could see some of myself in her — the shape of my nose, my hair, my broad shoulders — but less than I expected to. I stared at her for a minute, trying to decide how I should feel about this. I listened to the dull roar of the sandstorm relentlessly pelting the shuttle. I did not find an answer. Eventually I wrenched my eyes away and looked towards the other photograph. It had an inscription just like the other one.
The man — given the context I assumed that he must be Wake’s successor — had a much softer face than my mom. His beard was short, and I could see from the stubble on his head that his hair was shaved, not just bald. He gave off an impression of calm, but his deep brown eyes looked right through me, perceptive and calculating.
I heard movement from behind me, and I turned to see Camilla stepping back and holding out her hand to help Pyrrha to her feet. Pyrrha’s clothes were still bloodied and disgusting, but her skin was no longer a mess. Camilla appraised her handiwork and Pyrrha nodded gratefully.
“Palamedes?” I finally ventured to ask. Whoever it was turned to face me.
“More or less, yes. It’s good to see you, Ninth.” The cadence was definitely Camilla’s, clipped and curt, but the warmth in their tone was distinctly Palamedes.
“But Camilla — “
“I am Camilla.”
“I — what? Which one of you am I even talking to right now?”
“I’m afraid there isn’t a straightforward answer to that question, Nav. I’m not sure that one can distinguish between Camilla and Palamedes anymore. There’s just… me.”
I didn’t know where to go from there. I could see what they meant, even just looking at them. They had Camilla’s tense alertness, that impression of being coiled like a spring, ready to leap into action at the slightest whisper of danger, but they also had Palamedes’s intent focus, their eyes curious and contemplative. It was Camilla’s body, sure, but there was so much of him in there, in their posture, their fidgeting, the sound of their voice, the look in their eyes. So many little details that were so distinctly not Camilla.
It felt like I was looking at the end of a story without knowing the middle. There were too many things I needed to get caught up on. But if there was one thing I always appreciated about Camilla Hect, it was that she liked to get straight to the point.
“In the Dominicus system. Surveilling the movements of Blood of Eden’s operatives in the area.”
“Back in the Cohort, and very graciously not letting anybody know about us, in exchange for Coronabeth’s intel.”
“What happened with Blood of Eden?”
“Our original plan relied on Harrowhark. When it became clear that she wasn’t in play anymore, we had to scrap it. Without that agreement making us work together, our relationship with the Commander… deteriorated, suffice to say.”
“You figured out how to be a lyctor without offing your cavalier?”
“Yes and no. I know how to do it, but I’m not certain it will work, and that’s not what I am. True lyctorhood requires both people to be in their original bodies, and that was no longer an option for me. The form I have achieved is… limited. I’ll never have the power of a full lyctor, but I’m still far beyond any normal human.”
I nodded, trying to absorb everything at once. I was formulating my next question when Camilla and/or Palamedes kept going,
“Alright, it’s my turn now. Before we went looking for you, Pyrrha filled me in on everything that happened, but Gideon, where is the Reverend Daughter? Where is Harrowhark?”
“Look Sextus, do you think I have any goddamn idea how this shit works? I’m not a necromancer. I have no idea where she is. She’s just gone. She’s not coming back.”
“How do you know?”
I shrugged, “I just do. Trust me, if Harrow was dead, I’d know it. No. She’s still here, I can feel her inside me.” There was a pause. Camilla looked at me with an air of resigned expectation. “Look, don’t even get me started, we’d be here all day. But I want you all to appreciate that I am exercising an impressive amount of restraint right now.”
They ignored me, and continued, “If she hasn’t surfaced, and she’s not dead, then there’s only a few other options to consider. Given our last conversation, I think the most likely possibility is that she has created a bubble within the River; a liminal space that is anchored to her body, allowing her to remain attached to her physical form without needing to occupy it.”
“Why would she do that?” I asked. The glare that was sent my way was distinctly Camilla’s, visible in the sheer weight of the implied ‘Are you slow?’ radiating out of it. “What?”
“I think we can safely assume that she will refuse to return until her body is vacated,” Palamedes said, “but luckily, we have the ability to vacate it.”
“Uh, I don’t mean to burst your bubble — pun absolutely intended — but unless I’m miscounting, I think we’re short at least one body.” They didn’t respond, but when I looked at them, there was a glint in their eye that spoke louder than words. “Oh shit. Oh shit you have it, you have my body. Okay, fuck, yes, show me, show me now.”
Looking at your own body from the outside is an experience I really cannot recommend to anyone. I’d seen myself in mirrors before, I knew what I looked like, and yet the experience was entirely different. I felt suddenly hyperaware of every little thing I didn’t like about being in your body. Not to belabor the point Harrow, but it was a long list.
My body lay peacefully on a tiny cot in the shuttle’s crew quarters — a narrow, cramped little room with four identical beds arranged in a row along one wall. I approached it tentatively, and as I got close, reached out with one hand. My fingers brushed over my body’s cheek. I almost expected it to feel cold and dead, but it was perfectly warm. There was no decay — presumably some kind of preservation magic was at play. My hand trailed down to rest on one bicep.
“When Blood of Eden rescued us from Canaan house, we were able to negotiate with them to bring — “
“Shh shh shh,” I cut them off, “give me a minute. I need to appreciate how good I look.” Camilla sighed wearily. “Don’t you judge me, I’ve spent the last nine months stuck in Harrow’s shitty, malnourished body. I deserve this.”
The others waited impatiently as I made good on my word and spent a good long while just staring at my body.
Eventually, Palamedes interrupted. “A very touching reunion, Nav, but we really do need to hurry.”
I paused. “Why?”
“If my theory about her whereabouts is correct, then her time is limited. It took me years to figure out how to create the bubble I stayed in. The Reverend Daughter had to do it on the fly, with zero preparation, using theorems she’d never employed before, from a school of necromancy that is not her specialty. It is extremely unlikely that the bubble she created is stable enough to last as long as mine did. If we do nothing, we might lose her, and we have no way of telling how soon that might happen.”
“What would I need to do?”
“The process is by no means simple, but most of that complexity is on my end. I’ll lay your bodies out side by side, and paint blood wards around them. Then I’ll induce your soul to leave your body. The wards will create a channel of sorts for your soul to follow, and keep out roaming spirits while your bodies are empty. Once you are back in your body, the Reverend Daughter should be able to sense that her body is vacant, and return.”
“This isn’t exactly something I’ve attempted before, Nav. Nothing is guaranteed. If all goes well, this will create a temporary barrier between your souls, to prevent her from immediately absorbing you. It won’t last more than a few days, but that’s long enough for Nonagesimus to finish the process.”
“And then we’ll be a lyctor — a true lyctor.”
“You will be immortal. Your souls will be bound together for the rest of eternity.”
I didn’t answer right away. I had been so caught up in the mechanics of everything that I had forgotten about that part. It was a much easier decision to make the first time around. I died, and then I didn’t have to deal with the consequences anymore; or at least that was how it was supposed to go. But this… this was it. If I did this, there would be no tapping out, not anymore.
Can you blame me for having doubts? The two of us did not get along — over the course of entire lives, we were in sync for approximately one day, and then I died, and you spent the next nine months setting what little trust we had built on fire. I didn’t know if we could do it. I couldn’t imagine it. Maybe if they had asked me back at Canaan house, after you confessed your secrets to me, I would have said yes.
My reticence must have been visible on my face. “Nav,” one of the Sixth pair warned, “don’t tell me you’re seriously considering not doing it.” When I did not respond, they grew increasingly agitated. “Goddammit Nav, you have to do this. I know the two of you have had your disagreements in the past, but you can’t just leave her to die.”
Still I did not respond, nor did I look at them. I stared at my body, but I was not seeing it, not really. My vision was distant and unfocused as I sat within my thoughts.
“Are you not her cavalier?” they demanded, “Did you not swear an oath to her? One flesh, one end; this was part of the deal, Nav!”
Finally I looked up. But not at them. I couldn’t have told you why, but I looked at Pyrrha. She was standing quietly near the door, watching this entire exchange without comment.
“And what about you?” I softly asked, “Are you not going to tell me to do it?”
Camilla and Palamedes turned to face her. “Yes, please, Pyrrha.”
She did not move, and the expression on her face did not change.
“It’s her decision to make,” Pyrrha said at length. Palamedes opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and instead put his face in his palm and sighed. I ignored him.
“How long has it been since you died?” I asked her.
“Nine thousand five hundred and seventy three years.”
For once I felt like my stare was unwavering enough to match hers. “And was it worth it?”
That finally pulled a reaction from her. She blinked, and looked off to the side. I was surprised by the genuine consideration she seemed to put into it. It took her a full minute to respond, and when she spoke, she looked directly at me.
I let out a heavy breath and stared at my feet. I thought about every way you had ever pissed me off. I thought about years of torment. I thought about nine months spent gasping for air. I thought about the empty, broken look on your face when you confessed to me the guilt of your own existence. I thought about my mother screaming her killer’s name, her lover’s name.
I considered the facts, considered everything Palamedes told me about how this worked. A temporary barrier, to keep you from finishing the job the old fashioned way before you could do it the fancy way. Those would be my only two options — an eternity together, or death. I came to a decision.
“It must be peaceful, being in a bubble. Just… sheltered from the world. Being able to rest. I bet this is the most content she’s been in her entire life.”
“Nav… “ Palamedes warned. I cracked my knuckles, then my neck. I turned to face him.
“Alright then, what are we waiting for? Let’s go ruin her whole fucking day.”
In a remote region of the galaxy, on a space station that circled no star, Ianthe Tridentarius returned to her body the way a brick might return to the ground after being dropped from orbit. Her entire body felt like a single continuous wound. Like a bruise that went down to each one of her bones. She struggled to breathe. Her vision was dark and blurry, her ears ringing. She was surrounded by corpses. The insectile Heralds were strewn across the floor in great swathes, their guts spilling out all over the place. The sight of them no longer held any fear for her.
It was dead.
It was dead.
The Beast had no body. It was a mass of seventy violently blue eyes, each of them bigger than the Mithraeum itself. Rather than a pupil, the center of each eye was a gaping mouth. Out of each mouth came seventy tongues, each comprised of seventy long arms with seventy joints. Each hand had seventy fingers, and in each palm was another mouth with seventy teeth in a ring, like a lamprey. The mouths did not eat flesh or blood, for those things did not truly exist in the River. Instead they ate away at her soul, until she wasn’t sure how much of one she had left.
And she felled every single one. She slayed it. She watched as the equally monstrous stoma devoured it whole. It had tried to run when they were forced to surface, and she had expected it to escape while the Necrolord’s saints had their little spat. But those ghosts, those three cavaliers, had pinned in down long enough for her to catch up and finish the job. She wasn’t sure what happened to them, in the end.
She wasn’t sure what was going to happen to her, either. It felt like she was dying. The pain was not receding, her healing was not kicking in. It had taken that from her too, and she did not know if she would get it back. She had barely been able to use necromancy at all by the end of it. The world was far away and dull, dwarfed by the emptiness, by the void it left inside her. Never in her life had she felt so alone.
Noises. A voice. Probably Teacher’s. She could make out what he was saying, but comprehension was beyond her.
“Ianthe! Ianthe hold on!” The world lit up white and she felt necromancy course through her as he tried to heal her. The wound resisted. It twisted and writhed inside her and she screamed, unable to make sense of anything through the agony. The flow of thanergy halted and the writhing stopped with it. “Dammit!”
Teacher’s hands fretted above her, trying to avoid hurting her even more by touching her. She wanted him to touch her. She wanted anyone to touch her. He was not high on her list, but he was somebody, somebody other than the knawing emptiness. That was where the pain came from; the physical wounds were both immense and inconsequential. The Beast had planted a black hole in the center of her being, and it ate her alive with each passing second.
He placed a single hand on her upper arm. It was not enough, but it was something. The world was far away, but that touch was a lighthouse in the dark. She strained to take in shallow, choked breaths. She chased the light, held it tight, until it burned her hand.
As she blacked out, only one thought filled her head; was this man really going to be her only companion for the rest of eternity? Maybe she would die, and it wouldn’t matter anymore. She closed her eyes, and let the darkness decide the answer.