Gwen didn’t react to surprises with loud outbursts or sudden flashes of action. She grew cold. Not the cold of paralysis, but rather a cold that suppressed empathy and kindness and restraint. It was the cold of a hungry winter. Of wolves prowling through a snowy night. Of the shallow and forgotten grave she would leave her foes to rot in.
“I’ve seen that look before,” Nyka said. “Before you freeze my heart into a spiky ball, take this.”
She held a leather bound book out towards Gwen. The cover was illuminated by a soft pulse of royal blue light that traced the geometric pathways carved into the leather.
“What is that?” Gwen asked, the clarity of frost settling over her mind like an icy cape.
“The House of Days is defended by all kinds of magics,” Nyka said. “A fair number of them require someone to pay attention to the alarm that’s raised though, or at least keep the enchanted weapons charged. The rest, if you’re clever and know the right spells, you can sneak around. At least far enough to get here.”
“That’s the schematics of our defenses that the Throne of Night was able to work out?” Gwen asked.
“No, I can just tell you those,” Nyka said. “This is the spell book for the magics I used to get in here.”
“What good would that do me,” Gwen asked. “I can’t use your magic.”
“No, but you can design counterspells to it,” Nyka said.
“Wait, when you said spellbook, you mean this has the full treatise on the spells?” Gwen asked, the frost in her veins thawing a few degrees.”
“This contains the complete details on the workings of the spells I used to gain access to your laboratory,” Nyka said. “Everything you need to know to disable, counter or reverse them.”
“Why are you giving this to me,” Gwen said. “Is Mava right? Are you really trying to help us?”
“No,” Nyka said. “It’s more accurate to say I need you to help me.”
“So you’re trying to buy my loyalty away from the Throne of Days with a book?” Gwen asked.
“Not at all,” Nyka said. “The book is yours now. It’s sole purpose was to give you a reason to listen to me. If you don’t like what I have to say, I’ll leave,” Nyka said.
“Just leave? No threats? No coercion?” Gwen asked.
“We’ll get to that,” Nyka said. “Short form though, what happens next is up to you.”
“I should call the others,” Gwen said. “I have more of my memories back now. I remember how often you tricked us before.”
“No,” Nyka said, raising her hand in alarm.
“No, what?” Gwen asked, the frost creeping back into her.
“No, this isn’t a trick. Or it is, but not on you. And no, don’t call them, everything is going to fall apart if this doesn’t go right and I don’t know if any of us will be able to put it back together afterwards.”
“I should definitely call them,” Gwen said, backing up towards the door.
“The world is literally going to die if you do,” Nyka said.
“Are we at the part where you make threats now?” she asked.
“No,” Nyka said. “We’re at the part where an old lady, one who is damn sick of war and even more sick of dying, asks you very nicely to hear her out. You say you remember me, if so you remember the sort of magics I have, the different tools that I could employ to keep you here. I vow I will use none of them on you.”
“For today?” Gwen asked.
“Forever,” Nyka said.
Gwen sat down.
“Ok, you have my attention then, how is the world going to end?” she asked.
“Have you remembered the Unmaking Pledge yet?” Nyka asked.
“Yes, is it still in effect?” Gwen asked.
“According to my queen? Very much so,” Nyka said.
“There aren’t that many that the Throne of Days has called back so far,” Gwen said. “Even if we lost, it wouldn’t literally end the world, so what don’t I know there?”
“When the Pledge completes, everyone connected to the losing throne will be swept into oblivion, destroyed now and through all of time so that it was like they never lived at all,” Nyka said.
“Why did our queens ever cast that spell?” Gwen asked. “That’s unimaginably evil.”
“We had done a lot of unimaginably evil things to each other by that point,” Nyka said.
“Starting with you,” Gwen said. “You were the first to break the peace between us.”
“Yes, I was,” Nyka said. “I’ve died a few times for that, and if you want a go at killing me for it too when this all over, you can have it then, but first we have to make sure I’m the only one who’ll be dying.”
“You’re serious about that?” Gwen asked.
“I really wish I wasn’t,” Nyka said. “After a few aeons though you kind of get used to things like ‘people’ and not having them around seems like a pretty miserable option.”
“I don’t get it, why wouldn’t there be any people left?” Gwen asked. “How many of us could there still be who are connected to one of the two Thrones?”
“Assuming your side is roughly balanced against mine?” Nyka said. “About half of the global population.”
“Wait, the global population of what?” she asked.
“Humans,” Nyka said. “I’m not counting all of the Counter-Time creatures that are loyal to one side or the other. I don’t think we ever had an accurate census of those.”
“You’re saying that there are four billion humans alive today who are subject of one of the two Thones?” Gwen said. “We never had anywhere near that number of subjects, not even at our height.”
“We didn’t either, but when you look across the whole history of our two powers, it seems like that’s what it adds up to.”
“So when one of the Thrones falls, two billion people are going to vanish with it?” Gwen asked.
“Probably more than two billion, but yeah,” Nyka said. “That’s not the worst part though.”
“The Loom of Time,” Gwen said, memories piling back into her.
“Yes, how well do you think the fabric of time is going to handle having two billion holes ripped into it all at once?” Nyka asked.
“We’ll see inversions, and abomination apertures, everywhere,” Gwen said, her thoughts reeling at the images her imagination conjured.
“That’s if we’re lucky,” Nyka said. “In the best scenario, the survivors will have to deal with pockets of space where time tears things apart like a blender and rips in reality that allow in creatures beyond reason.”
“And in the worst case the Loom shreds and time ends with it,” Gwen said.
“Exactly,” Nyka said. “When the Unmaking Pledge was sworn there were few enough of us left that one side being unmade would be messy but not the literal end of the world.”
“The Thrones brought us all back because they have to win, but in doing so they’ve guaranteed that winning is impossible,” Gwen said.
“They’re not the most clever of powers,” Nyka said.
A low, feral growl echoed through the room and it took Gwen a few moments to notice she was the one it originated from.
“This can’t be real,” she said, and felt herself go preternaturally still.
“I know the feeling,” Nyka said. “In fact I know it so well that I’m hoping by working together we can make the whole thing go away.”
“Why me?” Gwen asked.
“Several reasons,” Nyka said. “The most important of which being that I remember you.”
“Why is that important?” Gwen asked.
“I fought and schemed against Mava the most,” Nyka said. “I know her better than I know my sisters. She wasn’t the only one who thwarted my plans though. Each of you were your own unique little challenges, and in your case the challenge was how to out think that brilliant mind which I am praying is still inside you.”
“I’m feeling like far too much of it is gone at this point,” Gwen said. “I remember being able to do so much, I remember knowing so much, and it’s all a big mush in my head now.”
“Believe it or not, that’s ok,” Nyka said.
“How is my brain being mush ok?” Gwen asked.
“You’re brain we need, but your memories aren’t as critical,” Nyka said. “We’re going to be working in an area that’s brand new, so having an open mind will be important.”
“What do you mean ‘we’ll be working’? What is it that you need from me?” Gwen asked.
“Don’t kill me, but I need to kidnap you,” Nyka said.
“Please explain,” Gwen said, with exacting care.
“Ok, here’s the nice part; I need to take you back with me to the Caverns of Night so that you can review our side of the Unmaking Pledge. You’re literally the smartest scholar alive when it comes to magic this old and I am certain I cannot solve problem of dismantling it without you.”
“Ok, now explain why you need to kidnap me?” Gwen said.
“Well, first, I will only take you with me if you consent to it,” Nyka said.
“And I would consent because the world will end if I don’t?” Gwen said. “That’s still somewhat coerced isn’t it?”
“If you want to try to stop it using your own methods I will leave you to it and give you what help I can,” Nyka said. “I think we’ll have more luck working together though, and that’s why I want you on board with this. I can’t compel you to do brilliant science on the magics involved here. You need to bring a desire to do that all on your own.”
“Assuming I do agree to this, why would you call it a kidnapping?” Gwen asked. “Why can’t we all just go back to your palace and work this out?”
“Because the Thrones won’t let us,” Nyka said. “The Throne of Night is as dumb as a stump, but it can distinguish between friend and foe. Dimly. If it sees you and Mava and the rest walking freely into our castle it will assume you are invading, or that I have turned traitor, or both.”
“So you have to make it think I’m your prisoner to get me in,” Gwen said. “Won’t it be watching me while I’m inside the castle too though.”
“Yes, it will, but watching is not the same as understanding what it’s seeing,” Nyka said. “It if sees you with me in one of our labs and you’re not trying to escape, it will assume that I’m questioning you or torturing you or that you’ve been disabled and are no longer a threat.”
“That makes sense,” Gwen said, “And honestly it fits with what I remember about the Throne of Days. Will Sanielle allow that though?”
“She was the one who came up with the idea,” Nyka said. “She’s Sondra now and she’s a very different woman than she used to be.”
“Less murder-death-apocalypse?” Gwen asked.
“Yes,” Nyka said. “But more than that too. She had a new life on Earth, the same as you did, and it changed her. So far it looks like that’s mostly for the better, but if worst comes to worst, it‘ll be pretty bad for all of us.”
“One last question then, for now,” Gwen said. “Why don’t you want me to call Mava and the rest? I could explain the situation and reassure them. If I don’t, they’re going to follow us and tear apart the Castle of Night.”
“Believe it or not that’s precisely what I’m hoping they’ll do,” Nyka said.
“To distract the Throne of Night from what we’re working on?” Gwen asked.
“That’s one benefit,” Nyka said. “The other goal is to flush out Ulidine.”
“You’re after our queen?” Gwen asked.
“We need her,” Nyka said. “The Throne of Night is crazed to find her, and Sondra is reasonably sure that it will take the two of them to declare the war ended. If she is hiding, or being hidden by the Throne of Days, you being taken by my side should be enough to get her out onto the field again.”
“That could leave her terribly vulnerable,” Gwen said.
“Not could, will, Ulidine absolutely will be more vulnerable the moment she stops hiding,” Nyka said.
“That makes it rather dangerous for me to help you,” Gwen said.
“Yes and no,” Nyka said. “If she emerges from hiding to save you, it will be with Mava and the others as her protectors. The Throne of Days will probably summon even more guardians for her as well. It’s the strongest, safest play she can make. The alternative, the one where the legion of scouts the Throne of Night has dispatched find her succeed? That scenario goes much more poorly for her in almost every permutation.”
Gwen was quiet for a long moment, letting the seconds pile carelessly into minutes as she turned the problem over in her head.
“I’ll go with you,” she said at last. “On one condition.”
“Name your price,” Nyka said.
“Ally isn’t harmed,” Gwen said. “Not by you, not by any of the Nightfolk. I want to see her again whole and in one piece.”
“I can’t promise her safety, there’s too many things that can go wrong that are out of my control, but I can swear that any harm she suffers, I will take on a dozen fold.”
“Good enough,” Gwen said. “Let’s go save the world then.”