Mava as glad that it was Zia they were tracking down.
Akola moved too quickly when she was in a hurry. Even at a dead run they would have had problems catching her. Gwena, on the other had, was too smart to leave many traces behind. The’d have searched for weeks just to find the first clue where she’d gone. Zia’s path, happily though, was relatively easy to follow.
There were plenty of things in Counter-Time that bore no allegiance to Day or Night. Creatures that were a danger or opportunity all unto themselves. Mava’s preferred method of deal with such things was to show them what she could do and then let them decide if they were hungry enough for a fight or smart enough to talk.
Zia’s methods were less nuanced.
“This clearing didn’t use to be here did it?” Gwen asked, wiping a finger on the ashen bark of a tree at the perimeter of the perfectly circular void in the thick growth of forest they were moving through.
“I don’t get why this forest is here at all,” Ally said. “I thought Counter-Time was a mirror to Earth. We don’t have a forest like this without fifty miles of the city.”
“It’s only a mirror in some places,” Gwen said. “There’s more dimensions here so you have space overlapping space.”
“It seems like there’s four or five things wrong with what you just said.” Ally stood up from the charred remains of what might have been more Chrysalstones but which had been sufficiently charred that identification was impossible.
“Sorry, I think the only proper method of describing this place is with math. A lot of math,” Gwen said. “I can kind of see the equations, but I know I don’t remember them all.”
“Is that going to make navigating a problem?” Ally asked.
“Not as long as things are stupid enough to keep attacking Zia,” Mava said. “I smell smoke traveling down this path.”
She pointed to an area that was one of the less overgrown ones.
The followed down the rough path and the forest gradually vanished into a beach of golden sands and shimmering dark waters lit by more stars than were visible on the Earth.
“Ok, we definitely don’t have this in walking distance on Earth,” Ally said.
“There can be all sorts of spaces you run across in Counter-Time,” Mava said. “Don’t get too hung up on any of them though. Counter-Time is a nice place to visit but you don’t want to stay here.”
“Why?” Gwen asked. “I mean, I remember that lingering in the wilds of Counter-Time for too long is a bad thing but I don’t recall the exact reason.”
“There’s a lot of reasons,” Mava said. “For one, half the things here want to eat you, and they’re not like the cute little predators on Earth. Counter-Time predators never learned to be afraid of humans. They’ve never needed to be.”
“I seem to recall that the three of us should be more than a match for anything we encounter here though,” Ally said. “Unless new creatures have shown up?”
“Anything’s possible in Counter-Time, new creatures, old creatures with new abilities. Old Creatures with powers we haven’t seen in forever.”
“What would have brought Zia here then?” Ally asked. “I stumbled into Counter-Time on accident. I certainly didn’t plan to stay there though.”
“Iishil said she was heading towards one of the Training Halls,” Mava said. “My guess is the Throne of Days is sending her there since it would be the easiest place for us to meet up.”
“You’re apartment seemed like a pretty easy place to me,” Ally said. “Hell, I’d have cleaned mine up if that was all it took.”
“We don’t know how far she’s coming from,” Mava said. “Distance in Counter-Time is weird.”
“Not weird, just folded,” Gwen said, and growled in frustration, “Once upon a time, I could have predicted this whole route. Once upon a time, I had a map to this whole place memorized.”
“You had a map from here to the Training Halls memorized?” Ally said.
“No, I had the map of Counter-Time memorized,” Gwen said. “Now I’ve got nothing. I mean it’s there. Like having a word on the tip of your tongue. I just can’t quite grab it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mava said. “Zia’s leaving us a fine trail of breadcrumbs to follow her by.”
“Smoking, charred breadcrumbs,” Ally said as they rounded an outcropping on the beach and found pools of glowing magma that even the boundless waters of the ocean hadn’t cooled yet.
“Is it wrong that this feels comforting?” Gwen asked.
“Probably, but I know what you mean,” Ally said. “It’s like finding your girlfriend’s favorite clothes draped over a dining room chair. She’s not there but you’ve got a memento of her.”
“Except in this case, instead of clothes, it’s lava,” Gwen said.
“We all have our little calling cards,” Mava said. “It’s kind of cute that Zia remembers hers.”
“That’s another thing I’m missing I guess,” Gwen said. “I’m remembering Zia from her handiwork, Ally’s like Aloka never left, but I’ve got no idea what I was supposed to be good at.”
Ally stopped so abruptly that Gwen ran into her.
“Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding right?”
“No, it’s really driving me crazy,” Gwen said. “I’ve got this stew of half memories that don’t add up to anything.”
Ally looked at Gwen with a puzzled expression for a moment, but then Mava saw a look of old and familiar mischief spark through Ally’s eyes.
“You’re the pretty one,” she said. “Zia’s the hot head, I’m the muscles, Mava’s the leader and you’re the one the boys all swooned over.”
“Shut up, that’s obviously not true,” Gwen said.
“I seem to recall you hiding away in the royal library to escape your suitors, since you had so many of them,” Ally said.
“I never did that,” Gwen said. “Did I?”
The question was addressed to Mava, who felt compelled to tell the truth.
“You did on at least one occasion that I can recall,” she said. “I think you were more unhappy with one of the suitors in particular than you were with the number of them though.”
“Really?” Gwen asked. “Why? What was wrong with him?”
“Well, he wasn’t the queen, for one thing,” Mava said. “We were all madly in love with her. But that was just her nature. She was the sun we revolved around. It was hard not to love her. In your case though, there was more to it. Your heart was already given to another though stars above did it take you forever to work that one out.”
“Why don’t I remember any of that?” Gwen asked. “It kind of seems like those would be important memories!”
“Painful ones too,” Mava said. “The war wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t pretty. We lost everything in it, and we did things that I’m glad you don’t remember. So don’t ask me too many questions about back then. If you’ve forgotten that life, then you’ve lost both bad and good things, and they’ll come back to you or not in time. For now, just keep moving forward.”
Gwen absorbed that information and blinked as she processed it. It seemed to provide some relief to her from the smile it brought to her face.
“Is that an order?” she asked.
“Yes, a direct one,” Mava said. “Literally, move forward, we’re falling behind Zia while we stand here jabbering.”
Gwen pushed Ally’s shoulder, reaching up past her own head to do so, and the two started forward again. Mava rolled her eyes. In some cases the present repeating the past was kind of adorable. She hoped they could avoid all of the ugly bits that had come before though.
As they walked, Mava’s thoughts turned to Nyka. She was more than certain that Nyka had saved them. That had to be a good sign. It was proof that people could change since at the Last Battle she and Nyka would have inflicted all manners of horrors on one another if they’d had the opportunity.
Somehow Mava had gone from that to a deep sense of apprehension for Nyka’s fate. Even with the promise that the Night would bring her back eventually, Nyka could be in for some truly miserable experiences with the current forces of the Caverns of the Night. Mava knew Nyka was smart though, hopefully smart enough to preserve her own skin and keep her side from going completely out of control.
“I think we’re getting close,” Ally said.
“Why’s that?” Mava asked, hustling to keep up with the younger women.
“I can smell smoke again,” Ally said. Which Mava could as well when she drew in a deep breath.
“And I can hear cursing,” Gwen said.
“Is that Spanish?” Ally asked.
“Yes,” Mava said and chuckled.
“What’s she saying?” Gwen asked.
“You’re too young for me to translate that,” Mava said and stepped around the next rock formation on the beach.
On the far side, a rocky desert vista awaited them. Tall columns of unworked stones stood at irregular intervals. Around them bulbous ghosts, looking more like gelatinous beach balls than the spirits of the dead, swooped.
Normally they would have been a danger to the casual traveler. Unfortunately for them, the casual traveler they’d tried to endanger was firing meteors of flame from a giant burning ring that floated behind her shoulders.
Mava wasn’t sure which was doing more damage to the ghosts, the burning orbs or the soul scorching stream of curses Zia was spewing.
The Spanish was new, but the contents and intent were not, and that brought another surge of joy to Mava’s heart. Her second in command was back. Zia definitely lived again.