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this grave's the second-marriage bed

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“God’s victory and death was a girl.”

Tamsyn Muir, Harrow the Ninth.

 

"To whom death again did wed, this grave’s the second marriage bed."

Richard Crashaw, An Epitaph Upon Husband And Wife.

 

"I’ve hoarded your name in my mouth for months now. My throat is a beehive pitched in the river. Look! Look how long this love can hold its breath."

Sierra DeMulder, Today Means Amen.

 

"Tragedy is restful; and the reason is hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped."

Jean Anouilh, Antigone.

 

 

 

In Etheria, there are stories.

Legends and myths and epics about rebellion, about love, about death — and it is always death, always a corpse seeking its lover, its flesh.

They all blur together, but they have this in common: a girl.

There is a girl, the stories say. The girl with the sword, they say. The girl with the golden eyes, they whisper.

There is a girl in a tomb and she is the key to the end of the Empire. The abyss of Eternia. The death of the Lord.

There is a girl; she is wrapped in chains, she is wrapped in all of the regrets of the First Rebellion.

She must never be woken. That tomb is locked for a reason.

This girl is the entity that Lord Prime killed once and can never kill again.

(There’s something else about this girl the stories don’t mention: there is another.

There is a name on this girl’s lips that will be stained there for all of eternity.

If the girl in the Locked Tomb is the end, then this woman is her flesh. She is what this girl longs for.

What do corpses long for? Well, the same thing anyone longs for. Someone to hold onto. Someone to hold and sink your teeth into. We are all just waiting for someone to swallow us whole.)

This is what the stories don’t mention: she is waking up.

 

━━━━━

 

(six months before the death of the emperor)

It’s the knocking that wakes her up.

“Catra?” And it’s Bow, because, of course it is. “Catra, are you awake?”

She presses the heels of her palm into her eyes and groans. There’s another series of knocks, one right after the other, and she shoots the door a fierce glare.

“Catra, come on,” Another knock, and then what she suspects is a hard bang to the plaster, followed by a gasp of pain. “You’re going to be late.”

“I don’t even have any meetings today,” She bites out, her legs swinging over the bed as she gets up. The moonlight shines through her windows, practically incandescent, and it nearly blinds her. She closes her curtains with a scowl.

There’s a sigh from the other side of the door, followed by another knock. “Angella asked me to come get you.”

She huffs out a breath, walking to the door and flings it open, and Bow meets her glare with a too-innocent smile. “I was sleeping,” She grouses. “Don’t you have someone else to bother?”

“You know Glimmer might kill you if you’re late to dinner,” Bow says, and she lets out another groan, holding the door open for him as he walks in.

She frowns as she looks at her face in the mirror, barren and tinged with exhaustion. She brushes her hair out of her face. “Do you even know what time it is?”

“Yeah, it’s late,” He says and Catra raises a brow at that, “You never sleep in this late, you know,” His head tilts, and he gives her that look, the one he’s been giving her for years, the one that says I’m worried about you and Let us help.

Her bottom lip catches between her teeth and she runs a hand through her hair. I don’t need you to take care of me, rests on her tongue, but she knows it would ring hollow. Not even she can push out a lie that big.

She hasn’t been able to sleep for years, for a fucking decade, without a scream tearing itself from her throat, without seeing a flash of blue light and golden eyes and the sharp blade of a sword.

She can’t explain it — she has no idea why, it’s almost automatic, almost instinctual, and she has no idea how to get it to stop.

She thinks everyone else knows, though. They have to. They all look at her too carefully for it to be otherwise — their eyes always flickering towards her in that tentative, irresolute way of theirs, the way one looks at a ticking bomb.

Catra never asks though. She lets the lie sit.

She has enough trouble with the pity. The way they speak about her — with the sorrowful, irreverent tone that one might give to a grimy gravestone, to a skeleton — makes her teeth grit and her pulse throb just by itself. She doesn’t think she could bear to know the goddamn reason.

Bow smiles at her, sadly, with that same fucking look, and she has to remind herself that it’s different, that it’s Bow — he cares about her, it’s not a pity, but a concern, it’s different — Catra sighs, her hands tugging at her hair as she spins on her heel to walk to her dresser. “I thought you were sleeping better?”

“Just because the dreams stopped doesn’t mean everything’s suddenly perfect, Arrow Boy,” She sweeps through her drawer, shuffling through her old robes. She can feel his eyes on her and she sighs, curling her fingers around the drawer. “It’s fine, alright? Don’t worry about me.”

“Catra.”

“It’s fine,” She says. “It’s not like it was before,” She grabs her gloves from the drawer, tossing them onto her bed. “I’m still getting some sleep.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s enough,” He says. “Maybe we could talk to Juliet again. She helped last time, didn’t she?”

Catra snorts. “No, her girlfriend did. I still can’t believe you guys are totally cool with the guard just shacking up with Angella’s sister.”

“Sister-in-law,” Bow points out. He grabs a blouse from next to her desk and holds it up. Catra shakes her head in response. “Besides, there aren’t really any rules about it. Juliet isn’t exactly a cavalier.”

“Yeah, whatever,” She takes out a dark red jumpsuit and tosses it to him. “Guess it’s just weird to me. I’m still not completely used to this place.”

He stretches the creases from the fabric. “You still have a little bit of Ninth in you. You’ll get used to us eventually,” He grins, and holds out the jumpsuit. “Does this even still fit?”

The sight of it makes her teeth ache at the root and the golden creases in the fabric make her head throb, and she’s vaguely aware of a trail of blood gushing from her nose. She wipes it away. “Why wouldn’t it?”

Bow lifts a shoulder. “You got it almost a decade ago, right?”

Catra scoffs. “It’s not like I even remember getting it. Pretty sure I had it before I came to Bright Moon.”

“I think it was a gift,” His hands still as he stops himself, a strangled noise wracking from his throat. He’s looking at her with something akin to fear, to horror, as if he had jumped over some invisible string one was never meant to cross.

She raises a brow. “A gift?” She asks in disbelief. That noise returns and his fingers curl into the fabric of the jumpsuit before letting it slip from his hands. Catra narrows her eyes. “From who?”

“Nothing,” He squeaks. He raises his hands in surrender when her lips twitch into a scowl, her arms crossing over her chest. “It’s probably no one.”

She sighs, biting her bottom lip to try and keep her temper in check. They were always doing this. Him, Glimmer, Angella, even fucking Juliet. It made her feel like she was some missing puzzle piece, it made her feel like a rupture waiting to happen. “Bow,” She says, her teeth gritting in annoyance. “Who?”

He looks at her, his eyes flitting from the curl of her fingers to the smeared blood on her lip. She watches as his resolve crumbles like bone. “Do you remember that woman?” He asks. “The one who was here before you?”

She nods. At least that part she does remember. She had stayed here, in this room, before Catra. Her belongings had been everywhere when she first got here. Some old robes, a couple of hair ties, a somewhat matching set of red boots and a red jacket.

She thinks she was a friend of Glimmer’s. Or maybe just another cavalier who lost her necromancer young. That happened sometimes; sometimes people lied, sometimes oaths ran out way too soon.

(She never really understood that, the whole oath, the bond between a necromancer and their cavalier. It’s not like she has any experience. She’s never had to make one in the first place.

Whenever she looks at Glimmer and Bow, at the way they weave and blur into each other with ease, she feels a wound in the back of her head that she doesn’t remember the name of.)

“Yeah,” She shrugs. “Sparkles still has a bunch of her stuff, doesn’t she?” At Bow’s nod, she huffs, grabbing a hair tie to pull her hair back. “What ever happened to her, anyway? Neither of you guys ever talk about it.”

“It’s kind of hard to talk about,” He says and she frowns.

Bow’s always been able to talk to her about anything — that’s how they worked; he knows that ━ they always counted on each other to be honest about everything, to put a voice to the things they were too hesitant, too scared, to say in front of anyone else.

It’s weird for her to think that there’s a part of him she doesn’t know about, a part that he keeps secret. “She, uh,” His voice is strained, pinched, “She died.”

“The Rebellion,” Catra says. It’s not a question, not really, because she already knows the answer. The room, that box Glimmer guards in her room, the way that everybody weaves past the cavalier’s memory with a dodge — it couldn’t be anything else.

He nods. “You never knew her, but,” His voice is hard at that, yet it wavers, as if he’s trying more to convince just her. “It’s just weird to talk about her when —”

“I’m sleeping in her old room?” She asks, a smirk playing on her lips. It’s more than just that: it’s a plea, a way for her to say I’m here, you know, if you ever need someone to scream at.

“Basically, yeah,” Bow laughs. He gives her shoulder a squeeze and she bats his hand away, her lips twitching at the grin he gives her. “I wasn’t kidding about Glimmer maybe killing you, you know. She’s been off today.”

She raises a brow. “What do you mean ‘off’?”

“I don’t know, she hasn’t really been herself. She’s been so quiet,” He rubs the back of his neck, his head ducking down, “I think she’s planning something. She’s spent the whole day searching for something at the library,” Bow shrugs. “I guess we’ll find out at dinner.”

“She’s totally going to spring something up on Angella,” Catra grins. “I’ll bet you that’s what she’s been planning for all day. I’d bet on the Tomb.”

He grins at her, then laughs. “Yeah, I don’t think I should take that bet,” He teases.

She smirks at him. “Seriously? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little competition.”

“Hey, I’ve learned my lesson from last time,” He says. “Betting against you never ends well,” He presses a quick kiss to her hair before sprinting to the door and she scowls at him, only meaning it a little. “Don’t be late, okay?”

“No promises,” She says, and the door closes behind him. She makes quick work of her robe, letting it fall to the ground as she slips on her jumpsuit, then her gloves.

She can’t really remember where she got them — a part of her knows she hasn’t always had them, she must’ve gotten them from somewhere, but she can’t place it. She doesn’t remember ever buying them, and the only two people who would have bought something like this for her, denied it whenever she asked.

There are a lot of memories that don’t quite add up. Catra tries to blame it on the lack of sleep. She’s not sure if she believes herself today.

She finds herself staring at the top of her dresser as she slips on her earrings, and then her rings — bone fragments that Catra can’t quite place either; she must have gotten them from the Forge, right before she left the Ninth House; she doesn’t know if this is the truth, a memory, or another lie she tells herself just to keep herself from breaking apart.

Her eyes flit over the letters that sit there, and then, finally, to that golden pin. It’s ridged and dull and faded and Catra’s hands shake as she picks up, running the tips of her fingers over the edges.

That throb in the back of her head is back, and her other hand grips the edge of the nightstand to keep herself upright. She feels more blood gush down to her lips but she doesn’t wipe it away. She doesn’t trust herself to keep standing if she lets go.

The pin — the letter too, the one that only has Catra scrawled on it in her handwriting and a series of instructions she still can’t decipher despite the decade that's passed — is important. She knows this, even if she can’t remember it.

It brings out a feeling in her, one that claws at the edges of her mind and has her dizzy, has her vomiting in its intensity. She couldn’t explain it if she tried. It’s just — there’s a word for it but she can’t remember it, she can’t access it and more blood gushes down, further and further until the metallic taste of her stains her tongue.

The pin is special and it’s hers, it must be — A gift, her letter had said, I don’t care if it could save your life, under no circumstances do you let that thing out of your fucking sight — it’s funny, Catra thinks, to have such a large part of her missing.

She wonders if it’s her lack of sleep. She wonders if it’s that Thing — the capitalization is necessary, she thinks, it’s the kind of cataclysmic event that needs to be pronounced even in speech, even in writing — that had happened a decade ago, that no one talks about, that everyone tiptoes around.

Something happened, that day, when the Rebellion fell and the Locked Tomb was closed. She doesn’t remember it, she wasn’t even there for it, but even she knows something must have happened.

Another throb, another gush of blood. She drops the pin with a gasp, and it clunks against the glass of the dresser. Her hand shakes as she wipes the blood away with the back of her hand, and she tries to push all of it — the letter, the pin, the way that nothing in her life fucking makes sense anymore — to the back of her mind.

It doesn’t work. Her head still pulses with the feeling of something she can’t quite place.

 

━━━━━

 

By the time she gets to the dining hall, the throb has dulled to a faint ache. Catra can still taste the tang of blood on her lips, and gnaws on her bottom lip to chase away the feeling.

When she pushes the door open, they’re all waiting for her. Juliet stands in the corner, only leaving with the rest of the guards at Angella’s look.

She tries to not stumble as she makes her way to the table, but she notices anyway. Angella’s brows furrow as she stares, flickering from her face to the shake of her hands and the buckling of her legs. She just shakes her head, her lips pressing together. I’m fine. Angella doesn’t look convinced.

Bow gives her a smile and a thumbs up as she sits by him while Glimmer gives her a smirk, and there’s a gleam in her eyes that Catra’s learned to associate with trouble. She grins back at her.

“You’re late,” Glimmer whispers, more of a hiss than anything else. Next to her, Bow mouths out a Sorry, shrugging his shoulders as he pops a piece of bread into his mouth. “You promised you'd be on time.”

She dips her spoon in her soup, before tasting it and making a face. “Uh, no, I didn’t.”

“Catra.”

She rolls her eyes. “Oh, come on. It’s just dinner. It’s not like I missed a meeting.”

Angella raises an eyebrow at her in amusement. “Catra, you have never missed a meeting.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” She says, stealing some bread off of Glimmer’s plate, who scowls at her, smacking her hand away. “I’m the royal advisor, aren’t I? Isn’t that kind of my job?”

“It wouldn’t kill you to miss one meeting, you know.”

“It might,” She shrugs. “Not sure I trust these two idiots by themselves. You’ve seen them. Who knows what could happen without me there.”

“I don’t think we’re that bad,” Glimmer mutters.

A fragment of osseous sneaks its way up her arm and she bats it away. “You know, I’m pretty sure you need to have an actual plan for a battle. Pro-tip, just charging is a shit plan ━ actually, it doesn’t count as a plan at all. Admit it, you’d be dead if it weren’t for me, Sparkles.”

She rolls her eyes, throwing the fragment at her, which she crushes to dust. “Listen, now that we’re all here,” She throws Catra a glare, and she maturely sticks her tongue out at her, “There’s something I wanted to talk about.”

She punches Bow in the arm. “I told you!”

“See, this is why I don’t take bets from you,” He says.

Glimmer glowers at both of them. “As I was saying —”

“I don’t think this is the right time for a serious discussion,” Angella says, frowning at her daughter in confusion. “No politics at dinner.”

“I never agreed to that rule.”

“Neither did I,” Catra snorts.

Bow throws his hands up in the air and whines, “Well, someone has to! We came up with that rule for a reason!”

“Think that was just you, Arrow Boy,” She teases and he steals some bread from her in retaliation.

Glimmer sighs, then rolls her eyes. “Look, ignore them,” — Hey! You know I’m right, Bow says — “We need to talk about what we’re doing about the Emperor.”

Angella frowns and Bow gives Catra a look. “I knew you were planning something.”

“I wasn’t planning something,” Glimmer says, turning to him. “I was just preparing.”

Catra raises her spoon at her, in question. “How is that not the same thing?”

“It’s not!”

“I’m pretty sure it is.”

“No, it’s — Ugh, shut up, I’m trying to focus,” Catra looks over at Bow, who’s trying not to laugh, and grins at him. “Mom, the last time we went up against the Emperor, we got so close. Once we actually found people to fight, we destroyed so many of those warships.”

“Glimmer —”

“And I know it’s been years, but we could do it again. I mean, we have to,” She leans against the edge of the table and pushes her food away so her hands can brace against it, “We can’t just keep doing nothing. The more we do, the more planets he takes. We have to act now.”

Catra snorts, almost derisively. “Sparkles, this is the Third. It’s not exactly the military.”

“The Empire doesn’t have a military anymore. But it could be,” Glimmer says and Angella sighs, bracing herself on the table. “I’m serious! Mom —”

“Glimmer,” She says, in the weary tone of someone who’s had this argument way too many times before, “We’ve talked about this.”

Her lips press together into a scowl and she swipes a piece of bread from Bow’s plate, her eyes narrowing at her mother. “We haven’t! You just say no at whatever idea I bring up!”

“You know I value your opinion —”

“— Then why won’t you listen —”

“But,” She interjects, giving her a stern look that has Glimmer flopping back into her chair, angrily, “Catra’s right. We aren’t the military — we aren’t the Cohort. This isn’t what this House is for. We’re supposed to be an united front, not starting another rebellion.”

She scoffs. “No, all the Third House is apparently for is guarding a prison.”

“And since when is the Third an united front?” Catra snorts. “All anyone does is argue. Nothing would get done if it weren’t for us.”

Angella gives her a stern look, and she rolls her eyes, propping her foot up against the seat. “Regardless of what you think our House is for,” She looks right at Catra as she says this, and her lips twitch up into a small smile, “We’ve never been the Empire’s military. That was always the Second. It’s what Thaymor had been built for.”

“That doesn’t mean we can’t fight,” Glimmer points out.

She sighs. “It’s beyond our resources.”

“But, it’s not!” She argues, throwing her hands in the air. “We had the resources. The Rebellion got so close last time,” Angella opens her mouth to protest but she cuts her off, barreling ahead before she can even get a word in, “And, even if we didn’t, it’s not like we don’t have any options. We could go to the Fifth and find Netossa, I’m sure she’d still be willing to help if she knew we wanted to fight back — Spinnerella too!”

Angella sighs again, one of her hands going to rest against her brow, and Catra shares a look with Bow, pressing her lips together and furrowing her brows in their signal of Do we need to be here for this? He shrugs at her in response, Probably not, but we should still stay, which she rolls her eyes at.

“You know what happened with the last Rebellion, Glimmer,” She pushes her plate away from her and rests her elbows on the edge of the table again. “The Emperor completely destroyed us. People lost their lives. We just can’t risk that again. We don’t have that kind of power anymore.”

She scoffs, bracing her hands on the table and rising from her seat. Catra and Bow share another look, Uh oh. “It’s not like we’re completely powerless! We have Catra, we have Bow, we could even use your magic if you would just let us fight.”

“I can’t use my magic, Glimmer,” She sighs. “You know this.”

Her lips press together and she huffs, a pool of blood swirling around the table. “What was the point of losing him if you won’t even use it?”

Angella rears back like she had been slapped and Bow moves to rest his hand on top of his necromancer’s. Glimmer sighs as he does, turning her hand to lace their fingers together.

There’s a pause as she looks down at the ground, her other hand balling into a fist, and Catra tries not to notice the tears welling in her eyes. “Mom, I didn’t mean —”

“I know what you meant,” Angella says, and her voice is hard, like steel, like the blade of a two-hand. They all know there’s no point in arguing with her about it. “But it’s out of the question. Our House has enough problems without adding any of my abilities to it.”

She sits back down, her grip on Bow’s hand tightening. “We still have options, though! You can send the three of us to get reinforcements,” Absolutely not, is the reply that comes almost instantaneously, which she ignores, “There’s an entire prison downstairs holding one of the most powerful cavaliers in the whole Empire.”

Both Bow and Angella freeze, giving her a chastising look. She doesn’t back down. “She's just been sitting there for years, Mom. We don’t even know what that thing is doing to her. You can’t tell me you’ve never thought about letting her out.”

Catra raises an eyebrow at both of them, leaning back in her chair as her arms cross. “I thought there was a girl in the Tomb?”

“There is,” Bow says, almost uncomfortably, his face shifting into a grimace, “But she was — she’s different. She wasn’t like us. She didn’t come from the Nine Houses.”

Her fingers go to tap against her belt, flicking one of the bone chips that are etched there. If she wasn’t from Etheria, then where — “She was Eternian.”

He nods. “She was a cavalier,” He says. “One of the few that helped the Rebellion.”

She flicks the chip again and again, sinking her teeth inside her cheek as her mind races. It doesn’t make sense, she thinks. Sure, the woman in the Tomb was Eternian — that was one of the only things that added up, the Empire had been fighting them for as long as it’s been alive, maybe even longer — she believed that, but how could she be a cavalier? It was meant to be something that protected, something that shielded. What kind of necromancer would even agree to an oath like that?

“And a powerful one,” Glimmer says, and her eyes shine with guilt, with concern, with something she can’t recognize. Catra can’t tell if it’s at her or Angella. “She nearly took down the Emperor, Mom. She could do it again.”

She purses her lips. “You of all people know where that road led to, Glimmer. Going after the Emperor is dangerous,” She sighs, that intense glare flowing out of her like blood, “I understand that it was hard losing her. It was hard for all of us,” She looks over at Bow and Glimmer, her gaze skimming over Catra like she wasn’t even there. It makes her press her fingers into the edge of the table. She hates this, she always does, it feels like she’s missing a piece of the puzzle and no one will give it to her.

“If I could let her out, I would,” Angella says. “You know that.”

Catra frowns, her brow arching. “Then what’s stopping you?”

She looks at her then, finally, as if she’s deciding something, and her fingers skim along the patterns of the table, once, and then twice. “The Locked Tomb isn’t just a grave, Catra. It’s a prison, a failsafe. When the Emperor left here, he made sure that none of us could open it. Not without consequences.”

Her frown deepens. How would he — “He put a ward on it.”

“A blood ward,” She nods. “It can’t be opened.”

“Mom, blood wards aren’t foolproof,” Glimmer says, her words coming out more of a frustrated bite than anything else. “There has to be some way to break it. Not even the Emperor is that strong.”

“You don’t know that, Glimmer. Magic — necromancy — has been here for thousands of years, and he was the first. You know what he’s capable of. It wouldn’t do any of us any good to underestimate him.”

“I’m not underestimating him!”

“She has a point,” Bow cuts in, and his hand finds hers again, giving her a look, one of those shared ones that Catra still can’t decipher despite the decade she’s known them. “We don’t really know what he’s capable of. Whatever it is, he’s powerful enough to seal that thing for a long time.”

“It’s not like the Third doesn’t have any of our own,” She turns back to her mother, her eyes pleading, “If you just let me, I’m sure I could find a way to get rid of it. If I could release the right amount of thanergy, then maybe —”

“You can’t,” She says, shaking her head, and Glimmer’s expression hardens with determination.

“Mom, I’ve been studying blood wards since I was a kid.”

Angella bristles. “That is not the point. We can’t let her out — it’s impossible. This isn’t like the theorems you studied, Glimmer. He’s much more powerful than that,” Glimmer’s face screws up, almost in outrage, at that, “That’s the reason why the Emperor put a blood ward on it in the first place. The Locked Tomb must stay shut. The rock can never be rolled over.”

“But that’s just what he told us,” Glimmer argues. Bow lets go of her hand and gives her another look, Not the time. “We don’t even know if the Tomb opening would end the Empire.”

“We can’t risk it,” She says, shaking her head. “There’s too much at stake. What if you were wrong? What if he did do something to that Tomb? You wouldn’t just be dooming the House, Glimmer, you would be dooming the entire Empire.”

“Isn’t that the point?” She asks, throwing her hands up in frustration. “You’ve wanted Prime gone for years!”

“Gone, yes, but not by putting hundreds of lives on the line. Opening the Tomb could put all of Etheria at risk, Glimmer.”

She scoffs. “So, we just do nothing? We just leave her there like that forever?”

“We don’t have any other choice.”

Her lips press together, before she grits her teeth, snatching her hand from Bow’s and leaving her seat. “We do have a choice. If you would stop being so scared, we could come up with a plan to open the Tomb. Or to rebuild the Rebellion —”

“I said no, Glimmer,” And she reels back at that, a scoff leaving her mouth, “I won’t risk it. I can’t risk it, not with all of you.”

“But Mom —”

She cuts her off with a raise of her hand, and her stern gaze bares into all of them. “The Locked Tomb stays shut,” Glimmer opens her mouth to protest and she rises from her seat, “That is final.”

 

━━━━━

 

When she sleeps, Catra dreams.

This one is new, is the first thing you think about when you regain consciousness. Except, no, that’s not the right word. You don’t know the right word for it. There are a lot of things you do not know.

There is a pool at the end of the hallway you stand in. The water is pale, almost muddy, and you find yourself scowling as you dip your feet in. You have never been a fan of water, but this will have to do.

There is a woman next to you. You cannot see her face, and the body, the silhouette of it is blurry, like you are squinting around a bright light. She turns to you, as much as you can see anyway, and gives you a look.

It is a look you have not been given before. You are certain of it. You do not think you would be able to forget such a look, if you had.

Her face twitches into something resembling a smile that you are familiar with, but it is not like this; this woman’s smile seems to melt around her, seems to soften her. You have never been looked at like that either.

She opens her mouth and when she speaks her voice is muffled, as if she were speaking underwater. Despite this, despite it all, you know what she says, you can see her lips form the words, Promise?

Your own lips work of their own accord, and the voice that comes out is not muffled like the woman’s, but clear as day. It is soft, in a way you have only let yourself be with three other people in this world. You feel her press something into your hand, something small, something cold, something edged. This version of you smiles, though you cannot decipher the reason why.

I promise, You say. The woman’s face blurs even more, until there is no discerning any of her features, until she is nothing but the mockery of a revenant.

Still, you can see her mouth form another set of words, and these make you stop, because you know them, they are the words you have seen necromancers and cavaliers swear to each other. They are the oath that is sworn in blood, in bone, in flesh.

Come on, dumbass, The woman says, Say it.

This is stupid, is what you say back. There’s a jab into your sternum and your lips find themselves twitching into a scowl. You can’t decipher the tone of your voice when you speak back. It’s an emotion you have never felt before. It’s one you have seen up close, that you have read about, but have never felt.

There’s a word for it. You can’t say it.

One flesh, You say back, One end.

When she wakes, there is always a pounding in the back of her head, and blood always finds itself pooling at her neck.

There is a very good reason Catra doesn’t sleep much.

 

━━━━━

 

There’s a certain rhythm to constructing skeletons. She had learned this young ━ she had taught herself young, the credit was hers alone, she was her own keeper of knowledge ━ hunkered in the depths of the library of the Forge.

She had studied the bones first, she had made that her religion ━ not in absence of one, but as a rejection of another; she considers every flick of the wrist, every sculpture of osseus to just be another fuck you to the Ninth ━ they were easy enough anyways. She remembers, as a child, curling her index finger and pressing it into her wrist: Distal phalanges, she would recite, Metacarpal, she would write into her book.

She had been determined, early on, to become the best damn necromancer the Ninth had ever seen. She wanted to prove anyone who had ever doubted her wrong. She did.

The first time she ever constructed a skeleton was a struggle, though not one she really remembers. There had been blood and sweat and a tearing through her thoracic cage. After that it became easy ━ she thinks, she thinks, her memories of her childhood, of her time in the Forge were always blurry, like someone had torn out the page and scratched it out ━ the theorems had come to her quickly, and all it took was a twist of her wrist and a jab of her hand and the matter shifts together, the bones twining and sculpting as they form, rising out of the ground with a rumble.

Now, as she stands before Bow in a clearing near Bright Moon, her hand shakes as she twists it above her head and she can feel the beginnings of a headache pouring through. She ignores it.

The skeleton springs up, dirt clinging to its bones, and Bow curls his hand around the hilt of his sword, his bow and arrow forgotten, laying on a bench near the steps of the palace. He brings it up in a parry as her construct strikes down, the clash of metal against bone echoes across the clearing, making her grin.

It had nearly laughed in his face when Bow had tried to tug her into a training session, but now she relishes in it, flicking her hand as her construct pivots.

(“You need to take a break,” Bow had said, around an hour ago.

Catra had raised an eyebrow and scowled. “I don’t need a break. I’m trying to get some work done.”

“You have,” He said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you get up since breakfast.”

“House advisor has its downsides, Arrow Boy,” She had rolled her eyes but made room on the bench for him, “Besides, I actually like my job.”

“Doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a break! We had an agreement, remember? We train together and I make sure you’re not working yourself into the ground.”

“I never agreed to that,” She had argued.

“Yes, you did.”

“I literally didn’t.”

“Promises are unbreakable, Catra,” He had shrugged, and he had dodged and laughed at the pen she had thrown his way, “There’s no going back on it now.”

She had let out a growl of frustration, but they both knew she didn’t mean it. It had been a while since her glares and her scowls had any real heat behind them. “You’re terrible, you know that, right?”

“Maybe,” He had pressed a kiss to her forehead, “Now, come on, Ninth. Go long.”)

“You know,” She says, flicking her wrist as the skeleton blocks a thrust with its ulna, “If I wanted to see someone fall on their ass, I’d just ask Sparkles to cook something for me.”

Bow passes forward, before parrying her construct’s blow. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen her cook anything,” He says. “From one to ten, how bad do you think it would be?”

She laughs. “If she’s anything like Angella? A total fucking disaster,” Her wrist flicks again, her construct pivoting before striking a blow against Bow’s rapier.

His moves are fluid, easy, and Catra can predict the flow of his sword before he even moves ━ she’s not sure where she learned to discern the strike of a blade, the forceful movements of a lunge, but she doesn’t question it. There’s a lot Catra has learned not to question. She feels a gush of blood erupt but she ignores it. “Actually, we should do it.”

“That would be a terrible idea.”

Her grin borders on the edge of feral. “Which is exactly why we should do it! God, can you imagine?”

“What do you think she’d do first?” He teases, digging his heels into the dirt, “Break the stove or set fire to the kitchens?”

“You’re underestimating her,” Catra says, wiping away the blood that trails down the side of her face, “Don’t act like she wouldn’t do both at the same time.”

He lifts his shoulder, the movement too quick to be called a shrug. His hands slide up the hilt of his sword as he tightens his grip before lunging. “I like to be optimistic.”

“Probably the worst thing about you,” She deadpans and she grits her teeth as the back of her head throbs, her vision blurring for only a moment. Focus, she tells herself. This is barely even a fight. You could do a more detailed construct in your sleep.

The pommel of his sword jabs into its maxilla, the sickening crack reverberating across the clearing. Catra smirks as she watches osseous matter scatter across the ground, and she twists her wrist, before curling her fingers in. Her construct parries his next blow before lunging, and Bow grunts as he’s pushed back.

“That was good,” He says and she huffs out a laugh.

“Not over yet,” She says, and more blood drips down, and Catra can’t tell if it’s because of the skeleton that’s seconds away from crumbling to ash, or the cyclicar something that has been plaguing her for a decade. “Don’t get distracted.”

She jabs her arm forward and the scaphoid sharpens, almost into a dagger, and her construct fades back before leaping forwards, missing his thoracic cage as he blocks the blow. Her hand shakes as it parries another blow, and this time she can’t ignore the flow of blood that trails down, staining her teeth as she attempts to keep going.

The edge of his blade glints against the moonlight and he stops mid-blow, his brows knit in concern as his eyes meet hers, no doubt taking in her shaking limbs, her trail of blood, her construct that’s on the verge of death.

God, what is with her?

“Catra,” He says, and she grits her teeth.

“Did you even hear me? Don’t get distracted?”

He leans his sword against the bench and gathers her in his arms, and, for once, she doesn’t protest as he lets her lean all her weight against him. “Was it too much?”

“I’m fine,” She says.

“You’re bleeding,” Bow counters.

He doesn’t say anything else as he helps her sit on the bench, and Catra bites the inside of her cheek as her construct crumbles into nothing but dust and osseous matter.

“Fuck,” She says, wiping the blood from her lip, her cheek. She groans as the pounding in her head gets worse, striking her with the force of a blade. “God, fuck this.”

“Is it just your head?” He asks.

“I’m fine,” Catra repeats, and he nods, hearing the Yes, idiot, it’s my fucking head regardless. She buries her head in her hands, gripping her hair until she can feel it at the base of her skull before Bow curls his hand around hers and gently brings it back.

“Ugh,” She says and he hums, nods, as if to say Yeah, I know. When she looks back up, his eyes are glistening with concern, and she sighs, looking forward at clearing that leads up to the Palace, to Bright Moon. She knows he’s probably looking for an explanation, even if he never says it; none of them really know why she gets like this ━ maybe except Angella; Catra thinks she’s the only one who knows the whole story ━ she knows they all have questions.

She knows she should give one, but what she says instead is, “Why the sword?”

His brows furrow. “What do you mean?”

She nods to the rapier that lies on the grounds. “The sword, idiot. I know for a fact you’re better with those arrows than you are with a rapier.”

“I’m used to them,” He says, lifting his shoulder into a shrug. “They were the first thing I learned when I got to Bright Moon.”

She frowns, prodding his ankle with her boot. “What, you never planned to be Sparkles’ cavalier?”

Bow laughs and ducks his head. “Not really. You know I just came here for research. Remember, I told you my dads were writing that book on the inner workings of the Houses.”

“I thought it was a sermon?”

He makes a disapproving noise in the back of his throat. “I’m pretty sure that’s just what Lance said to get funding. He’s wanted to write something like this for ages. There aren’t really any accurate books about all the Houses. Everything we have at Bones and Nobles is pretty outdated. There’s some good ones on the Velvet Glove but nothing about the Houses.”

“So, you were their scrappy little researcher?” She grunts as he passes her a towel from the bench.

He wrinkles his nose. “Am I scrappy?”

“You could be,” Catra shrugs. 

“I think you’re plenty scrappy enough for the both of us.”

She grins, bumping her shoulder against his, trying to ignore the way it makes her head pulse and throb all over again. “Wait, so, if you came here for some dumb research then how’d you end up as a cavalier?”

He beams at her, his eyes glistening in that way of his that makes Catra want to shove him. “Maybe, I contain multitudes.”

“Yeah, you contain shit,” She snorts. “Come on, what was it? You get bored one day?”

“I met Glimmer,” Catra makes a gagging noise and he throws his sheathe at her, smiling as she collapses into laughter. “I’m serious!

“Oh, please don’t tell me you took that oath because of some sparkles,” She says, rolling her eyes.

“I didn’t!” Bow laughs. “I don’t know, after a while, this place just kind of became home,” He takes a deep breath and looks back at Bright Moon, his eyes almost heavy, wistful, now. “The thing about history is that you can’t really hide from it. I’ve heard the stories, you know, of what the Emperor does to all those planets, Eridani, Salienas ━ I’ve heard what happens to the things he kills. There was a chance I could really do something, you know. I had to take it.”

“Wow,” She drawls and she smacks Bow’s hand away when he goes to ruffle her hair, “You know, that was a lot more boring than I thought it would be. Didn’t peg the Third to be one for heroics.”

“Maybe you just haven’t looked hard enough,” He shrugs, his tone absolutely dripping with earnesty.

She snorts. “I’ve seen enough of the Third, thanks.”

“You know, I think you’re starting to like us,” He teases. “You wouldn’t still be so dedicated if you didn’t. At least a little.”

“Maybe I just like the scenery,” Catra says haughtily.

“It’s nice,” He agrees, “But I’m thinking it has a little more to do with us.”

Her response is cut off by a rumble, and then a jolt, and Catra hisses instinctively, clutching Bow’s arm as her eyes widen. Above Bright Moon, the sky ruptures, and then, to their complete horror, splits apart. Dust and light and osseous matter erupts from the sky as it flows, as it bleeds.

There’s a bolt of something black, something dark, and she abandons her book as the echo of it reverabates around the castle, around the planet she’d argue.

Catra raises her brow as she turns to him. “What the hell was that?”

When Bow looks at her again, his face is ashen and shocked, and his bottom lip catches between his teeth as his arrows fall to the ground. His brow furrows before smoothening out, a look of utter horror replacing it.

He looks — she doesn’t know how to describe it. She doesn’t think she’s ever seen Bow look so terrified, like the grim smile of a skeleton, like death had gotten his hold on him. His hand slides down from grasping her arm, and he clasps her hand. “Glimmer,” He says.

She frowns. “Glimmer? I haven’t seen her since —”

Since dinner last night. Bow looks horrified, and, suddenly, Catra understands how utterly fucked they all are.

“Oh, shit.”

━━━━━

 

The Palace rumbles as the sky cracks and splits apart, and Catra clutches Bow’s hand as he drags her down the depths of Bright Moon. The heels of her boots crack against the glass and she clutches the chips at her belt, just in case.

There had been all kinds of stories about the Locked Tomb, about who was in it, why they were in it, but none of them had weaved about what happened after.

What happens when the slayer of the King Undying rises again? The question had always been a rhetorical one, a way to scare the children and the visitors and the cavaliers from the other Houses who just did not know.

Nothing would happen, Angella had once said, serene, to the necromantic scion of the Fourth House, who just tossed her ocean-blue hair behind her shoulder in response, It’s simply a myth. The rock of the Locked Tomb will never be rolled over.

Well, Catra had never been one to believe in myths, or fairy tales. They were the type of bullshit one sells to a child, to a toddler, as a denial of what the world really is. It wasn’t right or just or beautiful, it was like a corpse, something dying, something fading, desperately trying to believe that it isn’t. The Locked Tomb was never a myth — it just was. It held the Emperor’s greatest enemy. It was them, their minds, that turned that graveyard into some type of folklore.

But it wasn’t, was it? Something had happened with the tomb, something no one could have predicted, and it had cracked the very sky open. It had sent for Death itself. It had brought the end a millennia early.

God, Catra hated being wrong.

Bow runs past the armory, the Dining Hall, and she can just barely see Juliet give her a look of alarm as she passes them, her sword drawn as she stands in front of the door.

“Bow,” She says, and he gives her hand another tug. “Can you tell me what the fuck is going on?”

He pushes the door to the Atrium open, sprinting to the double doors down the hall. The glass chandelier of the room shakes and jolts as the sky cracks above them. Around them, she can see the remains of broken glass and torn mosaics.

He pants as he gets to the doors, curling his hand around the handle. They’re pristine, in a way the rest of the palace isn’t, like the thousand years of Bright Moon hasn’t touched it yet. The Third House — Bright Moon — is angelic, luminescent, yes, but it is as old as necromancy itself. The rest of the palace is worn, the gold and purple of the jewels are faded, though still glistening. Like everything, death had wrapped his lips around it.

These are different though — Catra doesn’t think they’ve been touched in years. They still gleam, like time had unbound itself from the rest of the palace.

The doors are golden and red, and clash harshly with the bright purples surrounding them. There are jagged edges around the handles, and Catra finds herself coughing when he pushes them open too. His face is somber, almost grim, when he looks back at her, his lips pressed together as he squeezes her hand too tightly.

“What do you know about the Locked Tomb?” Bow asks.

Catra scoffs, following him through the doors as they lead to a staircase. It’s black, with a sigil burned into the paint, one she’s seen thousands of times — the insignia of the Emperor. “Barely anything. Not like any of you talk about it.”

“There’s a reason for that,” He says, frowning. “It’s not just a tomb.”

“Yeah, I know,” She grouses. “Angella said it was more than a grave. A failsafe, whatever the fuck that means.”

He sighs. “I don’t think it’s a tomb at all. It was his backup plan,” He explains, which doesn’t answer any of her questions. “He left it here for a reason, Catra. We’re not like you, and we’re not like the Second House either. This wasn’t meant to hold a prisoner. That’s not what the Third is for.”

“Okay,” She says slowly. She’s still trying to pin the pieces together and she blinks as they stop in front of what looks like a cellar. The doors are black too, but this one looks ancient. Definitely older than Bright Moon — it might even be older than the Resurrection. The etchings and scarring that plagued the ivory doors had to be older than the House itself.

The Emperor’s insignia is plastered all over, and it’s an amalgam of red and black. The Locked Tomb, Catra thinks, almost instantly. It’s plain as day as to what this is. It’s different from what she was expecting. It doesn’t look like a tomb, or like a gravestone at all. It looks more like a mausoleum, like a palace.

“So, what?” She asks, tracing her fingers along the door. It has to be centuries old, if not a millennia. The rings around it are too wide for it to be otherwise. There are so many of them that Catra loses count. “The Emperor left it here as punishment? For what happened with the Rebellion?”

“It wasn’t a punishment,” Bow says. “It was a message.”

He gnaws on his lip as he tugs at the handle of the cellar and creaks it open. Through the door, she can see the glide of a tide, the crash of water against something heavy. His brows crease in horror, and his hands ball into fists. “Shit,” He says, and her brows raise to her hairline.

“What?”

“It’s not supposed to be open,” He says gravely.

Glimmer, she thinks. Whatever the fuck is going on, it’s got to be on her. Whatever she did has got to do with this tomb — it has to do with that conversation they had at dinner. “Angella said there was a blood ward.”

“It shouldn’t be open, Catra,” His eyes are glassy when their eyes lock. “It’s impossible.”

“You heard Sparkles,” She says, “It’s just a ward. Not even the Emperor can create something unbreakable. Everything has a weakness — you just need to figure out what it is.”

“But you can’t,” He snaps, his voice breaking and she curls her fingers around Bow’s wrist to ground him. “It’s a blood ward — You can’t break one from the Emperor. He was the cause of the Resurrection, he’s the reason there’s necromancy in the first place!”

She shakes her head, descending further and further down the cellar. She grimaces as her heels hit cool saltwater, a hiss striking from her throat. “Nothing is foolproof, Arrow Boy. There’s always a weak spot, something that can be exploited. Anyone can get through a ward with the right amount of skill. And you know how long Glimmer’s been obsessed with this. She’s been studying flesh magic,” She spits this out in derision, in disgust, because no matter how different her feelings on the Third have changed in the last decade, flesh is still flesh, “For longer than I have. She knows what the fuck she’s doing.”

“But she can’t! She — God, why didn’t she just listen? Angella told her what would happen.”

She scoffs, her lips twitching into a scowl as they wade through the water. “None of you have explained what the fuck is going to happen if this thing gets open. What’s even in it, anyway?”

“We told you —”

“A girl, I know,” Her eyes roll as she raises her brows skeptically, “But that’s not an explanation. There’s more to the story. I can see it in your face,” Bow starts to descend down the stairs but she stops him, grabbing his wrist. “She’s not from the Nine Houses. She’s an Eternian. But, all of you knew her. All of you were friends. She even lived in my fucking room.”

His voice is quiet when he says, “It used to be hers.”

“Who is she? Why did the Emperor lock her up? And what the fuck is going on?”

“I can’t explain it, Catra,” He says, gently, too fucking gently, and she is so sick of all of them treading over her like a bomb, like a weapon, like a failed construct that’s seconds away from turning into dust.

“Bow,” Her voice is thin, strained, “It’s me. What the hell is going on? After everything we’ve been through, don’t I at least fucking deserve that?”

He opens his mouth to speak but he’s cut off as another rumble splits through the palace, and the sky, the entire goddamn planet, sounds like it’s screaming, like it’s burning. Bow only gives her an apologetic glance before he’s making his way down the stairs, the clang of his boots echoing around them.

At the bottom of it is a pool. It swirls and shifts, like a tide, and Catra grimaces as they wade through it. It’s cold to the bone, and she hisses out a breath and she shivers.

In the middle of it, though, is a rock, dark and jagged, with the insignia carved into it. It’s been pushed aside, only half of it shadowing over what looks like a grave, with white chains attached to them both.

Kneeling over the rock is Glimmer; blood drips down her skull, her arms, like a river, painting such a figure that she looks like an angel of death. Her hand is clutching her abdomen and her eyes are stained red, blood sliding down her cheeks as she stares. Both of them stare in horror at the wounds that litter her body, her arms are covered with them and she lets out a pained grunt as she moves.

“Glimmer,” He whispers, like the clang of a church bell, “What did you do?”

She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t have to. Catra may have a failing when it comes to flesh magic, when it comes to the adepts of the Third, but she knows wards. They’re complicated if you don’t know what you’re doing, but complete child’s play if you do. You don’t need a key to break a ward, you just need death.

If I release the right amount of thanergy, Glimmer had said last night. That was the key. That was the exploit.

God, what did she kill?

Next to her, there’s a groan, and then a whimper, and then a, “What the hell is happening?”

The girl in the Locked Tomb. She had heard stories, whispers, about who she was, what she was, but none of it could have prepared her for this.

She looks like a corpse, is the first thing she thinks as she stares down at her. The woman’s face is pale, her skin gaunt, and she resembles one of Catra’s bone constructs, though, she doesn’t even think she could build something like that.

Her hair is long, almost stringy, the dark blonde strands framing her face, making her almost seem like a ghost. Her eyes are an electric blue, and they glow brighter than anything she’s ever seen. The thought makes her hand shake, it makes her head pulse and pound.

She notices a sword that lays beside her, and Catra feels bile creep up along her throat.

There’s a strike in the back of her head, and then a throb, an ache. Her face twitches as she holds back a cough, and everyone’s eyes turn to her. Glimmer’s expression shifts from determination, from pride, to worry as she tries to get up only to stumble and lean all her weight on the woman.

She hasn’t stopped staring at her. Her lips are parted, and a gasp rips itself from her throat. She clutches at Glimmer, hissing in pain as she does, and it’s only then does Catra realize there are chains wrapped around her wrists, even her neck.

“Catra,” The woman says, breathing her name out like a prayer, like she fucking knows her, and her brows furrow.

A hand curls around her shoulder but she doesn’t pay attention to it. All she sees, all she is thinking about, is the metallic taste in her mouth, the blood that flows down like one of Glimmer’s constructs.

The throb bites its way through, and she hisses as her vision blurs. The woman tries to get up, to reach for Bow maybe, but the chains stop her. Glimmer wraps her arm around her shoulder to stop her.

The hand tightens around her. “Glimmer,” The woman says, bemused, and her chains rattle again.

“I know,” She sighs, “I know,” and the last thing she sees before her legs give out is the sight of her lips forming a word that Catra can't understand.