Nyka saw Mava fall and sighed a long and weary sigh. There were times, so many times, when seeing the Commander of the Dawn Elites crumple into a boneless blob would have brightened her night immeasurably. She’d lost friends, she’d lost lovers even, thanks to her mania to destroy the enemy and no one had been a greater enemy than General Mava Sunsworn.
So, of course, when the hated Mava finally did fall before her, it was at precisely the moment when she would derive no joy from the victory.
“This sun-blighted world, seriously,” she cursed, shaking her head.
The stun bolt which Mava’s assailant fired at Nyka fizzled against the shadows that wrapped protectively around her. The shooter had been lucky to take Mava unawares. They only got one shot with that advantage though.
“You can come out,” Nyka said.
Silence greeted her, broken only by the scrapping of the Nekkabrutes scales as it slithered over the ground, eyeing her warily.
That was a good sign. The brute didn’t recognize the old commands, or wasn’t bound them if it did, but it did recognize the Cavern’s magic.
And it was wary of her.
“You can come out,” Nyka repeated. “Or I can come in there and find you.”
The Freeman Gallery was a ruin. Completely flattened by the Nekkabrute, which were nothing if not efficient with their destructive capabilities. The buildings around the Gallery were largely undamaged though. The various residential buildings would have made great locations to sharpshoot spells from, except for the need to deal with the occupants. The new, partially completed building that was being constructed to the west of the Freeman Gallery however offered the same advantages of height and unobstructed lines of fire, without the hassle of inquisitive humans butting in where they didn’t belong.
That was great for the shooter but finding someone in the building wasn’t likely to be fun. Doable, but not fun. Too many stairs, too few spots with good cover. If her quarry decided to flee rather than fight, she would be hard pressed to stop them too.
“You use our magic but you’re not sworn to the Throne of the Night,” a man said, stepping out of the shadows in the partially completed building. He was dressed in an obscuring cloak and carried a sigil covered battle staff. Nyka’s eyes widened. She hadn’t see a staff like that for close to eighty thousand years, and those were all heavily battleworn. This staff was pristine.
“That is some very interesting gear you have there,” Nyka said. “Would you care to tell me where you got it from?”
She knew that the man couldn’t be a tomb robber. The tombs of the Caverns of the Night had been swept away along with every other remnant of them.
“Once you identify yourself, I’ll consider it,” the man said.
“Since you’re the one shooting people and unleashing Nekkabrutes on them, maybe you go first,” Nyka said and turned to the Nekkabruta who had stalked around behind her. “I see you there. That was nice form. Very good hunting pose. Who’s a good brute, who’s a good brutey.”
The end of the Nekkanbrute’s tail swished back and forth, as though hearing the words on its own from the rest of the body, which remained tense and drawn.
“Those really aren’t supposed to like anyone,” the man said. “Are you corrupting my soldier?”
“Nekkabrutes are their own soldiers,” Nyka said. “They just let us borrow their strength because they’re so strong and powerful. Aren’t you? Aren’t you? Such heavy scales, and well curved claws. You grew up very nicely didn’t you?”
The Nekkabrute flattened its ears and bowed its head down between its shoulder before shifting back and forth in place to look at Nyka from different angles.
“That’s incredible,” the man said. “You have to tell me who you are!”
“You first child,” Nyka said, watching the Nekkabrute with a smile blossoming from her heart. They were among her favorite of the inhuman forces the Caverns had their disposal. If the war had ended on a less fatal note, she had imagined retiring and raising them as her new profession. Properly breed they were fiercely loyal and adept a variety of tasks if given sufficient recompense. That they were also stubborn, dangerous and easy to annoy made them feel like kindred spirits in Nyka’s estimation.
“I am Archduke Kelian Dawnsherald, First Sworn to Her Majesty the Queen Upon the Throne of Night,” the man said.
Nyka sputtered and choked.
“Kelian? Get over here and let me see you!” she said.
“Not until I know who I’m dealing with,” Kelian said. “Your magic marks you as a friend but the company you keep is worrisome.”
“I’m Nyka you idiot,” she said.
“Nyka?” The puzzled scrambling at the doors of memory was plain in his voice.
“General Nyka Nightsender, Grand Strategist and Principal Slayer for the Caverns of the Night, sworn to throne and queen through the turning of many an age,” Nyka said. “Now get over here and tell me what the hell is going on.”
“Grand Strategist? Is that possible?” Kelian asked, hopping down from the third floor of the building and landing with the softness of a down feather.
“I’m very possible,” Nyka said. “You, however, are confusing the hell out of me. How can you be back? You never took the Eternal Vow.”
“The what?” Kelian asked, walking up beside the Nekkabrute and throwing back the hood of his cloak.
“Stars above, it is you,” Nyka said, her vision shifted over to see him in Counter-Time. The body he wore was different, but the starlight he carried was irrefutable. The soul looking at Nyka from behind those far too young eyes belonged to one of her best friends.
If she hadn’t encountered Gwen and Ally, and become familiar with the phenomena through them, Nyka wasn’t sure she would have believed her own eyes.
“This must be what Mava felt like,” Nyka said, a unbidden tear rolling down her cheek. “It’s really you?”
“Yeah,” Kelian said. “Or most of me, a little bit of me? I can’t tell really. I know I’m still me, the me I’ve been all of my life in this time and the same me I was at the Last Battle, but there’s a lot of things missing too.”
Nyka let out a dry and rueful chuckle.
“So I’ve been hearing today,” she said.
“How are you here though?” he asked. “If you’re using our magic you must have pledged yourself to the Throne of Night but Sanielle and I are the only two who’ve been to the palace so far.”
“Sanielle’s back too?” Nyka asked, feeling like she’d been struck by a thunderbolt while her guards were down.
“Yes,” Kelian said. “I found her today and she accepted the royal mantle.”
“So you’re the Messenger this time?” Nyka said. “That’s good. It suits you.”
“Thank you, but that still doesn’t explain why you’re here or how you got so…” his voice trailed off as he searched for the term.
“Old,” Nyka said. “You can say it, it’s not like I don’t look in a mirror once in awhile.”
“When did you get your memories back?” Kelian asked.
“I never lost them,” Nyka said. “I mean, I suppose I lost a few of them over the years, or more than a few, but that’s to be expected when you try to cram a hundred thousand years into a brain, even one as magnificent as mine.”
“Stars above, you really are Nyka,” Kelian said. “I’d remember that arrogance no matter which life we were in. A hundred thousand years though? Did you survive the battle?”
“No, I went down fighting, just like the rest of you,” Nyka said. “But I’d taken the Eternal Vow.”
“That’s a hole in my memory I guess, what is that, the Eternal Vow?” Kelian asked.
“I gave myself to the Throne,” Nyka said. “I pledged to serve so long as the stars still burned in exchange for being able to draw directly on its powers.”
“And come back from the dead?” Kelian asked.
“That was an unexpected side-effect,” Nyka said. “Apparently when you bargain with eternal cosmic powers you need to consider that to them death is no more of an excuse to be released from your contract than being asleep or having a stubbed toe.”
“So you can’t die? That sounds incredible!” Kelian said.
“Oh, I can die easily enough,” Nyka said. “I just don’t stay dead. I think the Thrones have some kind of rules that they follow, but each time I’ve died it’s taken different amount of time before I came back. I missed about fifty thousand years when really I lost my head one time.”
“That still sounds incredible, why didn’t we all do that?” Kelian asked.
“The Eternal Vow gives the acolyte more power, but it also grants the Throne more power over the acolyte,” Nyka said. “That’s why it was forbidden.”
“Forbidden?” Kelian asked. “The Nyka I remember was…ok, she was a rule breaker, but forbidden by who?”
“The queen,” Nyka said. “The Throne’s ability to execute a war was, let’s call it ‘limited’. We could also call it monomaniacal and extremely short sighted. People the Throne had control over tended to devolve into mindless beasts, which wasn’t terribly useful for Her Majesty’s needs.”
“But she let you do it?” Kelian asked.
“No, she forgave me for doing it,” Nyka said. “You never ask permission for something like that.”
“Some of this is coming back to me now,” Kelian. “Did I help you with it?”
“If by help you mean squealed on me to the queen so that she knew the moment I finished the vow, then, yes, you helped.”
“I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Kelian said.
“To be fair, it was, and you were right to tell her,” Nyka said. “I swore an oath to her following that which helped keep the Eternal Vow in check.”
“Ok that all makes sense but there’s something I still don’t understand,” Kelian said.
“Why you and Sanielle are back now too?” Nyka asked.
“No. What I can’t figure out is what you were doing with them?” Kelian said, pointing at the prone bodies of the Gwen, Ally and Mava.
“Trying to keep the world from going crazy, believe it or not,” Nyka said.
“Well that’s easy to accomplish,” Kelian said and turned to the Nekkabrute. “Kill them all.”
“Wait!” Nyka said and this time the beast did pause in its tracks.
“They’re our enemies,” Kelian said. “We have to destroy them.”
“They’re not,” Nyka said. “Not anymore. Our war was too long ago. We don’t need to keep fighting it.”
“I’m afraid we do,” Kelian said. “Sanielle made a joke about surrendering and the Throne nearly killed her. Like it or not, we have to end this conflict once and for all, or we’ll die trying.”
That was so entirely in character for the Throne of Night that Nyka didn’t even bother trying to argue with Kelian instead, when she spoke to him, she framed her words for the Throne’s benefit.
“That’s exactly why we can’t kill them,” Nyka said. “If Sanielle is back, then their queen must be back as well. If we kill them here, she’ll stay in hiding until she can muster a new set of Elites.”
“What are you suggesting?” Kelian asked.
“Right now, these three have every reason to search for the queen for us,” Nyka said. “After a defeat like this, they’ll have to, and they’ll be drawn to her location so that they can offer her protection.”
“So if we let them live and follow them to the Queen, we finish this battle far sooner than we would otherwise. That’s perfect. Which makes sense I guess. You were our Grand Strategist after all.”
“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” Nyka said. “Now let’s go back to the Castle and meet this new Sanielle. She still owes me for a bet we made.”
“It sounds like the police are finally heading in, so that sounds like a good idea,” Kelian said. “I’ll open a portal path, so we travel directly there.
“Thanks,” Nyka said. “It’s been awhile since I’ve tried to travel a great distance in Counter-Time.”
“Getting feeble in your old age?” Kelian asked and dashed through the portal when it opened to avoid Nyka hitting him.
The brute went next, it’s body easier to maintain in Counter-Time.
“I’m sorry,” Nyka whispered, sending the words to the sleeping Mava. Getting mixed up in the Last Battle once again was the last thing that Nyka wanted, but it looked like that was the only option she had for saving the Dawn Elites.
She stepped through the portal with no more fanfare, disappearing into the Caverns of the Night with an unanswerable prayer that she would never see Mava Sunsworn ever again, since from this point forward they could only meet as enemies.