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Nyka sighed and flicked figures off the board before her one by one.
“An entire attack squad of Stonewalkers,” she said, fighting none too hard to keep the smugness from her voice. “All lost. For nothing. They succeeded in accomplishing exactly nothing. Oh, wait, I’m sorry, that’s not true. It’s a fair bet that the Elites of the House of Days are more in possession of their powers than they were before. So, that’s a thing.”
“The Throne recognizes your criticism Nyka,” Sondra said.
“That would be a first,” Nyka said.
“The important question is will the Throne accept her counsel now?” Kelian asked.
“I believe so,” Sondra said.
Nyka looked at her queen. She was so young once more. She’d always appeared young of course, that was one of the blessings the Throne bestowed on it’s prime avatar. A young body had never disguised the weight and age of Sanielle’s soul though.
Everyone in the Court of the Caverns of Night had loved Sanielle. Many had feared her too, but Nyka had had been too close to Sanielle to ever be afraid of her. Alloyed with her love for the queen, Nyka had felt only sorrow for the burdens that Sanielle carried and the distance they placed between her and the rest of her court.
Even poor Kelian, love-mad for his queen, had never been able to lift the cares from her shoulders.
The woman who sat before her and wore the crown was different though.
Sondra hadn’t lived a life crushed by the demands of duty. She’d fought her own battles, dealt with her own struggles, but they’d been just that. Her struggles. Not those of a cold and uncaring demi-force of the cosmos.
Nyka saw how Sondra and Kelian looked at one another. The old memories were there, blunted only a little by the passage of aeons. If she could have ushered them into one of the thousands of private rooms in the castle, she thought they might possibly have the sense to make up for all the lost time. Or not. It was hard to tell with the two of them. Each was roughly as thick as the castle walls and about as good at expressing their feelings for one another.
So long as the Throne had them on an imminent disaster standing, Nyka was sure nothing would change for any of them. De-escalating a force of nature was tricky business though, and with the Unmaking Pledge hanging over them, Nyka wasn’t even sure it was possible.
“If it helps, the one good thing that came out of this is that Mava definitely knows she needs to look for her queen now,” Nyka said.
“How can you be sure?” Kelian asked.
“We fought each other too many times, both before and after the Last Battle,” Nyka said. “I know how she thinks and the same’s true in reverse. Our forces lost to the Lightning Elite because Mava was barred from entering the battle. If she hadn’t been, there wouldn’t have been a fight. She would have annihilated them in an instant.”
“The Throne was satisfied with sending an entire squad of the Stonewalkers though,” Sondra said.
“That’s because the Throne has the tactical acumen of a brick,” Nyka said. “It’s seen the Stonewalkers smash stuff up. It can feel how durable they are. What it’s incapable of doing is remembering our opposite numbers’ capabilities for more than five damn minutes at a time.”
“So they were doomed from the start?” Kelian said.
“No there was a very good chance that a small force of ours would wipe out four women any one of whom could easily destroy an entire army,” Nyka said. “Of course they were doomed! Was I not crystal clear on that when I said ‘don’t send the Stonewalkers, they will not win this battle’?”
“You advised against sending any backup with them though?” Sondra said. “I’m not objecting to that, I’m just curious why that was your counsel if you knew the Stonewalkers couldn’t win?”
“The Throne is calling in resources for us all the time,” Nyka said. “But they’re not infinite. Any forces we sent against the Elites would, at best, suffer heavy losses, and most likely be lost to us completely. Now is not the time to pick a battle because we cannot currently win one.”
“You know that is going to send the Throne on a recruiting spree, don’t you?” Kelian asked.
Nyka grumbled flicked the last Stonewalker piece off the board with enough force that it punched a hole in the stone wall of the room.
“That’s a problem I don’t have a solution to,” she said. “One of so many today.”
“I wish we knew why the Throne was so impatient,” Sondra said. “It’s holding itself distant from me. I know I had much greater insight into its will when I was Sanielle, and maybe I’ve just forgotten how to connect with it properly, but it feels like there’s something different there too.”
“It’s going to demand that we attack the Elites again, isn’t it?” Kelian asked.
“I think so,” Sondra said. “They’re going to find Ulidine you said? Do we know where they’re going? Or can we track them?”
“You seem almost as eager as the Throne of Night is to find her,” Nyka said.
“She’s the Queen of Days, I’m the Queen of Night,” Sondra said. “But I’ve changed. A lot. I can be more than Sanielle was, so maybe whoever Ulidine is now can be more than she was then. I think that’s our only hope. Apart from one of us dying.”
“Both of you dying didn’t seem to help things last time, so I’m going to suggest that not be the plan we adopt this time,” Nyka said.
“I seem to recall you insisting that I had to live last time too,” Sondra said. “Sorry it didn’t work out.”
“That was my fault,” Nyka said. “Had to go and get myself killed so I couldn’t be around to protect you.”
“You weren’t the only one,” Kelian said.
“So, no more dying then,” Sondra said. “We have proof it doesn’t do any good.”
“We have proof killing doesn’t help either, but the Throne seems convinced to give that another try,” Nyka said.
“Which is all the more reason why we need to find Ulidine as soon as possible,” Sondra said. “If the Throne decides that we need to keep escalating things are going to get messy around here.”
The queen could resist the Throne’s will. It was her role to temper its desires into reasonable actions. The Throne wasn’t gracious about the restraints its avatars placed on it though and it wasn’t completely bound by their will either.
Nyka pictured the flow of recruits arriving at the castle drying up as the Throne of Night started directing them against the Elites. All that would accomplish would be to turn a lot of the Caverns of the Night’s forces into corpses. It was a phenomena she’d had to fight before though and so she had a few strategies already prepared to pacify the Throne’s destructive impulses.
“We don’t know where Ulidine is,” she said. “But I can guess where Mava will start looking for her.”
“So we’ll dispatch spies to follow them then?” Sondra asked.
“No,” Nyka said. “Ulidine has either already been called and is in hiding or we are in a world of trouble. Assuming it’s the case where we have a future ahead of us, Ulidine’s hiding place is going to be secured against all manner of stealth.”
“But the House of Days can’t match our skill at remaining undetected,” Kelian said.
“That’s true, but their magic can counteract it,” Nyka said. “Mava in particular was a terror at that. You may not recall but we tried to assassinate her so many times that I started spelling out messages to her with the assassin’s names.”
“Messages like what?” Kelian asked.
“Curses mostly,” Nyka said. “I eventually went into a long diatribe on the sort of marital relations her parents engaged in to conceive her, but by that time they were less assassination attempts and more an effort to weed out the incompetent from our ranks.”
“That’s a lot of assassins,” Sondra said, looking faintly horrified.
“We never lacked for incompetent henchmen,” Nyka said.
“So if we can’t follow them by stealth, and our assassins are historically inept, what other option is there?” Kelian asked.
“We’re going to meet them with brute force,” Nyka said.
“And where will we be taking this brute force?” Sondra asked.
“The House of Days,” Nyka said.
“Perhaps my memory isn’t fully back yet, but isn’t that the seat of their power?” Kelian asked.
“It was,” Nyka said. “That’s why Mava will take the Elites there. If there’s any trail to Ulidine for them to find, it will start there.”
“And we can’t simply get there first why?” Sondra asked.
“Well, first, it’s still protected against intrusion by any of us,” Nyka said. “I tried to get in there about a thousand years ago and nearly had the skin fried off my bones. Second, even if we could get in there, the Throne of Days won’t have left a trail that we can follow.”
“Then why confront them at all?” Sondra asked. “Why not just wait until they’ve found the trail and follow them out of their castle?”
“Their castle is like ours,” Nyka said. “There are doorways in here that lead to all corners of our realm.”
“So we can be sure when they enter the castle, but not when or where they leave,” Kelian said.
“How does that help us though?” Sondra said. “You said we can’t defeat them with our current forces.”
“We can’t,” Nyka said. “Not with the victory conditions that the Throne of Night has in mind. If we adjust those conditions though, turn the situation into the game that we want to play, then winning will be all too easy.”
“What kind of a victory are we going to be working for?” Sondra asked.
“We don’t need to find Queen Ulidine,” Nyka said. “Not if we can make her come out and find us.”
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