Nyka walked through the vast gates to the Castle of Night and felt an unexpected twinge of nostalgia flow through her. Millenia dropped away and for a moment she was back in the days of her first life, young and awed by the majesty of the cause she pledged her life to support.
Long before the Last Battle, doubt had seeped in through the cracks pain and loss had left in her psyche, but in those early days there had been nothing but zeal and reverence filling her heart.
Walking through the castle’s empty halls was almost too clearly a mirror of her mind. When she was young and full of passion, the castle had been packed with people of every shape and size and species. Returning to find it empty of even their ghosts left Nyka painfully aware of the void that had filled her heart centuries ago.
“Sanielle is waiting for you in the throne room,” Kelian said.
“You’re not coming?” Nyka asked.
“I’ll catch up with you,” Kelian said. “We’re seeing our warriors reappearing in a steady stream. I need to go coordinate their placement in the castle.”
“None of the other Generals are back yet?” Nyka asked.
“It’s just the three of us so far,” Kelian said. “The soldiers we’re getting are all members of our shock troops like the Nekkabrute.”
“You don’t need to secure her do you?” Nyka asked, reaching over to scratch under the Nekkabrutes chin.
“You want to take a Nekkabrute with you when you see the queen?” Kelian asked.
“It’s not like I’ve never done that before,” Nyka said. “I’m guessing it’ll make it easier on you too. As I recall our shock troops didn’t tend to get along with each other terribly well.”
“We have a big castle to house them in,” Kelian said.
“Looks like it’s the same size that it always was,” Nyka said. “Just a lot emptier.”
“I know, or I can imagine I guess,” Kelian said. “I look at these halls and I feel this weird echo of what they were. Seeing them like this feels wrong. Like I’m having a bad dream.”
“Maybe we are,” Nyka said. “This is Counter-Time, it doesn’t play by quite the same rules as the Earth does.”
“I guess the question is would waking up land us in a better world or a worse one?” Kelian asked.
“We’ll have to see how this one turns out I guess,” Nyka said. “But I have to admit it’s nice to see you again.”
“I didn’t even know I missed you,” Kelian said. “But apparently I did.”
He reached over and squeezed Nyka’s shoulder, his voice growing tight on the last syllable.
“Go get our soldiers quartered,” Nyka said. She was too old for sentimentality to budge her. It just made her cheek inexplicably wet, until she brushed it away. “Wouldn’t want half those idiots to kill the other half.”
Kelian nodded and turned off to descend to the lower levels of the castle. Nyka smiled, he’d been a good friend. Seeing him with a new face left Nyka questioning her path through life though. He hadn’t sworn the Eternal Vow and here he was renewed and vital again while she was a shadow of the woman she’d once been.
She was wrestling with that idea and what it would mean if she resumed her pledge to Throne of Night when she reached the Queen’s audience chamber.
“Kelian?” Sanielle called out. Or someone who sat in Sanielle’s seat. The voice was strange to Nyka, though it mimicked Sanielle’s well.
“Nope,” Nyka said, entering the room, “Just some old trash he picked up while we was out.”
The Nekkabrute entered with her, but knelt to the floor when the Queen rose to her feet.
“Who…Nyka? Is that you?” the Queen asked, moving slowly forward as though propelled by her disbelief.
“In the flesh, wrinkly though it may be,” Nyka said.
“What happened to you?” the Queen asked, coming forward and gently brushing Nyka’s face.
“Time passed. I got old,” Nyka said. “I seem to have missed the invitation for a new body and I think this one is too damaged to return.”
The Queen swept her into a rib crushing embrace.
“I can’t believe you’re back!” she said.
“Truth be told, I never left,” Nyka said. “Or only left briefly.”
“The Eternal Vow?” the Queen asked. “It held you here?”
“Except when I was dead, yes, yes it did,” Nyka said.
The queen released her and stalked off.
“I told you not to take that Vow. I told you there would be consequences. Did you listen to me though? No. You did not. You’re smartest idiot I had in all of my forces.”
When the Queen turned back, despite the fact that she looked completely different, Nyka saw Sanielle embodied in all her regal glory, all of the old familiar frustration and love shining from her eyes.
“If you happen to have a need for a smart idiot, I could act as your Grand Strategist again, Your Majesty,” Nyka said, smiling at how right that offer felt.
“You haven’t pledged yourself to the Throne of Night yet have you?” Sanielle asked.
“That’s an odd question,” Nyka said. “Up until our forces started ignoring me today, I would have said that being under an Eternal Vow sort of guaranteed that I was pledged to the Throne of Night.”
“What about me? You made a vow to me as well. Does that still stand?” Sanielle asked.
“You have my loyalty, my blade, and my life,” Nyka said. As she said the words she felt the bond between them reform.
“That was important,” Sanielle said. “It shouldn’t have been important though. It shouldn’t have felt like the first time you pledged yourself to me.”
“No, it shouldn’t have. Not if you were the same Queen as the one I spoke those words to when I was young,” Nyka said.
“I am her,” the Queen said. “I remember the Last Battle, and this castle back in the days before the world fell.”
“Oh, I believe you’re Sanielle,” Nyka said. “No one else can get quite as aggravated with me as she can.”
“Why was your vow so new then?” the Queen asked.
“If I had to guess? You’re Sanielle, but that’s not all that you are, is it?” Nyka said.
“I had a life in this time too,” the Queen said. “But that doesn’t change who I am.”
“You’ve got a fresh start,” Nyka said. “That appears to include a new beginning with your relationships too. What is your name in this life?”
“Sondra,” the Queen said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty Sondra,” Nyka said. “I’ve missed you for longer than you can imagine.”
“But you don’t know me as Sondra.”
“I spent decades devoted to you before the Last Battle and millenia preserving your memory after the fall of the Caverns,” Nyka said. “I’m pretty sure I know you better than you know yourself at this point, but I’m also willing to bet you’ve got a lot of new stories to tell me about who you’ve chosen to be in this life.”
“I don’t even know where to begin,” the Queen said.
“How about with your name?” Nyka said. “Which do you prefer? Sanielle? Sondra? Or a new one to represent both of them?”
“I think Sondra is the most comfortable for me, at least for now,” she said. “Sanielle is still so distant and incomplete.”
“I thought that might be the case,” Nyka said. “So the next question is, what are you doing as Queen again Your Majesty Sondra? It wasn’t all that wonderful a position the last time you held it.”
“I was called,” Sondra said.
“By the Throne?” Nyka asked.
“By Kelian, but it was the Throne working through him,” Sondra said. “How did it call you?”
“It didn’t,” Nyka said.
“Why?” Sondra asked.
“Probably because I don’t want to work for it anymore,” Nyka said.
“But the Eternal Vow?” Sondra said.
“Means I don’t have a lot of choice in the matter,” Nyka said. “Maybe it’s only looking for eager volunteers for now though?”
“I think there’s more to it than that,” Sondra said. “We’ve been seeing new troops pouring in almost continually but none of the rest of my commanders have appeared.”
“Kelian said you’ve only been getting the shock troops in too?” Nyka asked.
“We have ten Nekkabrutes, fifty Chrysalstones and an assortment of other special forces, but none of our regular troops yet,” Sondra said. “I don’t understand why they’re being drawn back first.”
“I’m afraid I do,” Nyka said. “It’s the Throne. The thing always had the patience of a toddler stuffed with sugar buns. It’s calling in the sort of troops who can strike quickly and end a conflict before it starts.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad strategy to lead with,” Sondra said. “The question is where is the House of Days and how can we strike at them?”
“A better question is why is the Throne so intent on starting the Last Battle over again?” Nyka asked.
“It has to,” Sondra said. “The Unmaking Pledge is still in effect.”
“What?” Nyka asked. “How is that possible? We lost the Last Battle. Both sides did. And we both got Unmade. There’s nothing left of either of our domains.”
“That’s not true. There’s something left of our Domain,” Sondra said, gazing into Nyka’s eyes.
Nyka closed her eyes and sighed a long and disbelieving sigh.
“This can’t be real,” she said. “All this time and Mava and I have been carrying the Unmaking Pledges?”
“Mava? The Commander of the Dawn Elites?” Sondra asked.
“Yes, we had our first beers together just a few hours ago,” Nyka said. “Decided to settle the whole Last Battle. Or decided it already had been settled I guess.”
“I don’t think that’s for you to decide,” Sondra said. “The Throne was very clear. We have to fight, and we have to win. If we don’t, if we lose, the balance of the Unmaking will be cast against us and we’ll be erased from history.”
“Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad,” Nyka said. “I know you’re young, and this is your second chance, but another war with the House of Days is going to destroy a lot more than the three of us and a hundred or so shock troops.”
“I don’t know if I’d be brave enough even to think about that if I didn’t remember how bad it got in the Last Battle,” Sondra said. “It’s not that simple though.”
“Of course it’s not,” Nyka said, her shoulder’s slumping, “What else do we have to deal with?”
“I was reborn in the modern world, and so was Kelian,” Sondra said. “And so was everyone else from our domain.”
“Everyone else?” Nyka asked. “Where are they?”
“They’re out there, living their lives like normal people,” Sondra said. “Billions of them.”
“Billions?” Nyka said, more shocked and surprised than she’d been in centuries.
“When I said ‘everyone else’, I meant everyone else,” Sondra said. “According to the Throne, everyone who ever lived in our domain has been reborn into the world today. That’s who we’re fighting for. That’s why we can’t back down and we can’t give up.”