Mava’s world ended before the dawn of human history. A hundred thousand years, give or take an uncounted number of forgotten nights and lost days. For all that though the sour bite of the beer that washed over her tongue still teased a smile from her lips.
“Some things never change do they?”
Mava didn’t flinch as the speaker slid into the chair on the opposite side of the small table from her. It was one of the advantages of having lived one year out of every thousand since the fall of the House of Days. In her youth Mava would have smashed the uninvited guest in the face with her beer and then decided if she was interested in provoking a fight. The fights were never unwelcome but after all the long years she’d finally stilled her reflexes enough not to waste a perfectly good beer.
“Either that or we get too old to notice the differences,” Mava said, lifting her beer again and draining another long pull from it as she evaluated the woman who sat opposite her.
Nicky’s Taproom wasn’t one of the world’s finest drinking establishments, but Samantha, Nicky’s granddaughter and sole remaining heir, had improved on the decor and selection of beverages as best she could. Those changes brought in a wide enough class of customers than even an elderly lady like Mava didn’t appear too out of place.
The same couldn’t be said about the woman who had claimed a seat at Mava’s table.
She was old as well, her pale white skin wrinkled by time but unmarked by spots of aging. Hair that was once pale yellow had faded to downy white and grew thin and sparse on a scalp that had clearly been forever hidden from the sun. Frailty should have claimed the woman, but despite the thinness of her arms and shoulders, Mava saw muscles tight as steel bands and eyes that remained undimmed in the face of centuries.
She knew those eyes. Black pupils wider than any humans could ever be and framed by an iris of brilliant blue and purple.
The eyes of an enemy.
“Nyka,” Mava said, her own eyes narrowing as she cast her gaze around the dark corners of the small bar. Where one enemy lurked there were often others in Mava’s experience.
“Mava,” Nyka said. “It’s been a while.”
Mava watched her oldest, bitterest enemy take the same sort of long, slow pull from the kitschy beer stein that she had.
“It has,” Mava said. “Kind of expected it to be longer though. Didn’t I kill you the last time we met?”
“Yep,” Nyka said, nodding either in confirmation of Mava’s claim or appreciation of the beer.
“Guessing I missed a spot?” Mava said, and took another drink. If violence was in the offing, having a good buzz might help offset the inevitable pain a bit. The stars above knew Mava wasn’t going to enjoy it like she used to. Among other things that getting old ruined was her ability to crawl out of the gutter the morning after and be in one relatively whole piece for the next night of carousing.
“No, you do good work,” Nyka said. “It was a clean hit. Right through the neck. Barely felt a thing. I probably owe you a beer for that.”
“You seem less dead than I would have hoped at the time,” Mava said.
“Some things stay the same, some things change,” Nyka said. “That was what, ten thousand years ago or so that we last fought?”
“Something like that,” Mava said. “Gets hard to keep counting after a while.”
“Well, you killed me nice and clean, so that let me rest for a good long while, a few thousand years or so I think. Then the old bonds started tugging on me and one night the right kind of storm blew over my resting place and I was back walking around on this lovely rock.”
“Surprised this is the first we’ve met since then,” Mava said. She finished the beer, pushed it to the side, and folded her dark hands on the table in front of her. She liked her hands. They’d done good work in the past and they were still meaty and rough enough to be serviceable. The sunshine in her heart that let her pass over the years and sleep through the millenia was still sufficiently strong that she wasn’t worried about winning a fight if one started. The question was whether she had the spirit to provoke one in the first place anymore.
“I certainly wasn’t looking for you,” Nyka said. “As far as I’m concerned that last fight we had put an end to things. I spent a few decades worried you might not feel the same, but after enough time even that faded away.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Mava said, hoisting a newly refilled stein. Samantha knew she was a regular, knew Mava liked to tip well, and knew the old lady could drink any three other customers under the table without getting tipsy.
Nyka clinked her plastic stein into Mava’s and took a deep pull.
“So how did you find me?” Mava asked.
“I didn’t,” Nyka said. “I mean not intentionally. I’m in town for the Freeman Gallery opening.”
“And you wandered into a place like this?” Mava asked.
“I’ve only been awake for about a decade this time,” Nyka said. “Passing myself off as an art historian was the best I could do, and believe me, they don’t get paid as much as they’re worth. This place looked like the best I could afford.”
“I know what you mean,” Mava said. “You sleep through a century or two and the world becomes very strange.”
“How long have you been awake?” Nyka asked. “I’m presuming Counter-Time calls you back too right?”
Counter-Time, the other world, the one where magic flows and the balance of fate can be grasped in your hand.
“It does,” Mava said. “But it’s hold is lessening on me.”
“It’s a bit chilling isn’t it?” Nyka said. “At first, after the Last War, it let me stay awake for one day in a century. Then a week, then a month. It’s been ten years this time and I can only barely feel the pull.”
“It feels like we’re winding down doesn’t it?” Mava asked.
“Or coming to rest,” Nyka said. “Like stones cast across the waters, with each skip growing shorter and shorter.”
“Until one day, we’ll finally stop and sink,” Mava said.
“Now that I’m like this,” Nyka said, holding up her aged hands, “I don’t find the idea so terrible. I’ve seen more than I ever imagined I would, gone farther than I dreamed I could go. Somedays coming to rest doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. That’s why I sat down here, you know.”
“Because you want me to send you to your rest?” Mava asked.
“No,” Nyka scowled. “I don’t need any help with that. But I think if I’m going to stop running, I’d like to do it with a clear conscience, and at least one less enemy than I started with.”
“It’s been ten thousand years since I thought of you as an enemy,” Mava said. “Though to be fair, it’s been ten thousand years since I had any reason to.”
“Was there ever a reason to?” Nyka asked.
“You slew the Eldest Son of the House of Days,” Mava said.
“I did,” Nyka said. “And not just him. That was a mess. I wasn’t ready for that assignment.”
“But you couldn’t disobey the Throne of the Night, could you?” Mava said.
“Couldn’t and didn’t want to,” Nyka said. “Back then, I was glad to be given that order. I was so proud, so righteous. Killing him was a sacrilege and a sacrament, and the most profound thing I’d ever done. The glory that came with it was indescribable.”
“We hated you for that,” Mava said. “I hated you. Oh stars, I killed you in effigy in every battle I fought after that. Visions of you put fire in my blood and steel in my spine. I refused to die before I left you choking on your own guts.”
“To youth, and the passion it brings,” Nyka said, raising her stein.
Mava smiled and knocked a plasticy clink out against it with her own.
“I never said I was sorry for that,” Nyka said. “Not even after I learned that he stole away the Princess of the Lost Deeps at her own request.”
“To be fair, by the time that came to light, you didn’t really have to apologize,” Mava said. “Both sides had already sworn the Unmaking Pledge and it was too late for anything except all the atrocities we performed.”
“Is it too late now do you think? “ Nyka asked.
“Probably,” Mava said. “We’re both the ones who need to say we’re sorry, but the ones who deserve to hear it have been dust for so long the world’s forgotten about them.”
“It’s worse than that,” Nyka said. “The people of our world passed away, but the Earth did more than forget them. They’re gone.”
“By more time than history can recount,” Mava said.
“No I mean, they never were,” Nyka said. “You and I, we’re the only ones that are left. All the rest, all the things we made? It’s all been erased. There never was a House of the Day, or a Caverns of the Night. It’s why I became an art historian. I thought some fragment of our civilizations would remain, but there’s nothing.”
“Nothing that art historians have found, but they’re not looking in the right places are they?” Mava asked.
“Nothing that anyone has found,” Nyka said. “Or can find. I know. I’ve looked. Even the faint traces that should remain? The subtle clues that could be discounted as evidence? They’re missing.”
“Why would they be gone?” Mava asked.
“The Unmaking Pledge,” Nyka said. “It was supposed to destroy one side utterly right?”
“And who won the war?” Nyka asked.
“Your side did,” Mava said. “Our queen died guarding the Last Lights.”
“Right, here’s the problem though,” Nyka said. “We didn’t kill her. I know. I was leading the strike force that was directly assigned to take her out and we never reached the throne room.”
“She was alone,” Mava said, old, distant, pains stirring in her chest. “She ordered us all out to protect the city. Maybe there was another strike force sent in too?”
“By then? No, you’d slaughtered our best generals. I was the last one left, and the only one who had a prayer of pulling off that gambit.”
“Are you saying the House of Days won that battle?” Mava asked.
“I don’t think so,” Nyka said. “I think we both lost it.”
“But there were others on your side who survived,” Mava said. “It felt like every time I woke early on, there was another one of you to fight.”
“We had a lot of…survivors pledged to our cause,” Nyka said.
“Survivors?” Mava asked.
“Cowards,” Nyka said. “By the time the Last Battle came to blows, you had decimated our forces and destroyed our morale. Some of our troops stayed out of fear or blind loyalty, but so many others fled into the dark corners of Counter-Time or deeps in the Earth that were hidden even from the Throne of Night.”
“So you’re side won by default?” Mava said.
“The ones who fled lost their place in the Caverns of the Night,” Nyka said. “They may have claimed what power lingered afterwards but any you encountered after the Last Battle were pretenders at best.”
“Don’t know how I feel about that,” Mava said. “Back then I thought I was doing holy work still. Now it feels like I was just exterminating vermin.”
“It was long ago and far away,” Nyka said.
“Not so long that I don’t remember the worst of them,” Mava said. “Which doesn’t make sense if what you say is true. If our people and our cities have been erased from history, then how could we remember them?”
“I don’t know. I was a warrior-general, your opposite number I think,” Nyka said.
“That you were. The Grand Strategist Nyka Nightsender, feared by all in the House of Days,” Mava said.
“Not all certainly. Mava Sunsworn was said to have never feared any foe she faced in battle or barroom,” Nyka said.
“You gave me more than a few sleepless nights,” Mava said.
“I can’t tell you how many days I spent planning around you,” Nyka said. “So many schemes ruined, so many plans thwarted. I swear I want to slap my younger self for the mistakes I made in trying to battle you.”
“I spent a long time wanting to slap her too,” Mava said. “You were too damn clever by far. I lost so many troops to you. I thought cutting off your head would make up for that, but it gave me precisely zero comfort.”
“Give me a warning if you plan to take a second try at that,” Nyka said.
“It might be a blasphemy against the House of Days, and I never could have imagined this, but I think I prefer drinking with you to slicing heads,” Mava said.
“It’s because we’re getting old,” Nyka said.
“Or, like you said, maybe there was never a good reason for us to hate one another in the first place,” Mava said.
“Could be that’s why fate brought us back together,” Nyka said. “I look back on the battles we fought, on how our plans clashed, and I see a very different woman than I did then. You really believed in your cause, and you cared for those who served under you.”
“I did,” Mava said. “Long ago I did, but I’ve forgotten so many of their faces.”
“I wasn’t that kindly,” Nyka said. “I used my subordinates like the weapons they were meant to be. I spent them frugally because I never had enough to spare, but I didn’t shelter and nurture them like you did.”
“Sheltering my people didn’t save them though,” Mava said. “When the Last Battle came, they all had to fight, and in the end, they all died. All except me.”
“How did you survive?” Nyka asked.
“I was carried off the field as the last bastion fell. Gwena, the youngest of the Elites, put me in a healing pod and sealed it shut so I couldn’t escape. I slept in there until her spell finally cracked after ten thousand years.”
“It sounds like you won the Last Battle then,” Nyka said. “I died trying to breach the throne room. One of your Elites, Aloka I think, roasted me with a lightning storm.”
“Hard to call it a win when everyone I cared about was killed,” Mava said. “It’s strange though. Talking it about now, with you of all people, doesn’t hurt like it used to.”
“Maybe chopping my head off did help?” Nyka said.
“No, but you sitting down at the chair might have,” Mava said. “If the Last Battle really didn’t finish before, maybe it’d be nice to think that we can call an end to it now. We’re the last two left and I’ve got no interest in fighting with someone who doesn’t mind me chopping her head off.”
A soft smile spread across Nyka’s face.
“I’m glad to hear it. As someone who’s had her head chopped off I can say I don’t have any interest in fighting with you anymore either.”
The door creaked open behind Mava and she watched Nyka’s expression sink into confusion. Nyka blinked, her eyes filling with the purple and blue of her irises, and her face fell into an unmistakable look of dread.
Mava didn’t turn to see what Nyka was looking at. Nothing good could cause that expression and after over a hundred years of life, Mava just didn’t need to wrestle with any more nightmares.
“This isn’t possible,” Nyka said. The only reason the color didn’t drain from her face was because she had barely any color there to begin with.
“What is it?” Mava asked, resolutely refusing to turn around.
“We’re not the last two,” Nyka mumbled.
Mava caught sight of the person who’d entered as the girl walked up to the bar.
She didn’t look familiar, but she moved with a liquid grace that Mava hadn’t seen since the Last Battle.
Mava blinked, casting her vision into Counter-Time and focusing down to the level of elemental power.
Looking at the girl who stood hunched over the bar was like watching a wave of ocean water that was ready to frolic free of all the constraints placed on it.
Gwena, the youngest of the Elite who guarded the House of Days, walked the Earth once more.