Gwen spat out a trio of curses in a language forgotten by time and that she barely remembered.
“I always thought you were the reserved and proper one,” Nyka said. “If these walls had paint it’d be peeling.”
“You speak Kel’oishi?” Gwen asked, too irritated to be embarrassed.
“Only the good bits,” Nyka said, walking down the stairs into the subterranean lab. “Not finding what you need in the Tome of Endings I take it?”
“Oh, it’s here,” Gwen said. “The schematic of the Unmaking Pledge, the exact words that Sanielle swore. Even the words Ulidine probably swore for her side of it.”
“I was hoping that would be enough,” Nyka said.
She offered Gwen one of the two cups she’d brought in.
“If that’s poison, I’m tempted to guzzle it,” Gwen said.
“Coffee. Starbucks I’m afraid, I didn’t have time to hit my favorite place,” Nyka said with shrug.
“You drink Starbucks?”Gwen asked.
“When you get as old as me it’s hard to say if coffee is a beverage or a blood replacement to be consumed at regular intervals,” Nyka said.
“I know a lot of my classmates would agree with you,” Gwen said.
“So what’s the problem with the book?” Nyka asked. “The spells all there isn’t it?”
“It is but that’s not enough,” Gwen said. “There’s too many layers meaning wrapped up in each bit of the description. Even the words and formulas that I recognized are being used for very specific purposes and carry this huge weight of meaning behind them that’s essential to understanding what they’re doing.”
“And that’s what I was afraid of,” Nyka said. “I tried to puzzle it out myself and ran into the same problem. A plus B equals C I can follow but then it jumps to therefore D is the inverse of G and I feel like I missed a few hundred steps.”
“We have,” Gwen said. “I don’t know this spell, but the more of it I read the more of the higher end formulas for the House spells I’m able to remember.”
“That’s good,” Nyka said. “Can’t hurt to remember things.”
“Tell that to my impending migraine,” Gwen said. “The real problem though is that I’m also remembering how those spells were developed. No one came up with the really advanced ones out of the blue. They were built on earlier discoveries and extensions of existing logical structures.”
“If I have seen farther it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants,” Nyka said. “I was awake for a while back then, when Newton was doing his work, really wish I’d been able to meet him.”
“He wasn’t very friendly from what I’ve read, but your point stands,” Gwen said. “Some of the basic elements of magic are the same between Night and Day but we went in very different directions with them so the things I remember don’t match up with the structure of your spells.”
“We could go back to the House of Days,” Nyka said. “I knew where the copy of our version of the spell was, but if we searched we might be able to find where Ulidine hid hers.”
“She destroyed it,” Gwen said. “I remembered that too.”
“Why would she do that?” Nyka asked.
“She was distraught after she cast the spell,” Gwen said. “She uttered the words of it in a moment of rage and unbridled hate, but my queen wasn’t the kind of person who could hold onto those emotions. The next morning she was crushed with guilt.”
“I have a bad feeling I know where this story goes,” Nyka said.
“She tried to undo the spell, or our side of it at least,” Gwen said. “She burned the only copy of the spellbook trying to make the words fade but it didn’t help. Once the words were written in the heavens there was no erasing them.”
It was Nyka’s turn to sink into her chair, and Gwen could see the weight of countless years bending the old woman’s shoulders downwards. With a deep breath though, they rose again.
“So scrubbing it off isn’t an option. Good. We know not to bother with that plan then. What else did she try? Let’s eliminate as many of the options as we can to save time,” Nyka said.
Gwen took a long swig from the coffee Nyka had brought her and put it down, letting the warmth fill her with energy she didn’t feel like she had.
“She tried casting counter curses but those failed too,” Gwen said.
“Makes sense,” Nyka said. “The Unmaking Pledge is celestial. It’s literally above any earthly effects.”
“Disenchantments didn’t work either,” Gwen said.
“Which ones did she try?” Nyka asked.
They talked for the better part of an hour on that, reviewing the anti-magic effects Ulidine had admitted to attempting and the ones she would likely have had access too.
Nyka suggested a variety of alternate possibilities based on Night magic disenchantment spells, but when they reviewed the fundamental components of those techniques neither Gwen nor Nyka thought there was any chance of their success.
“I always pictured that we had the advantage in counterspells,” Nyka said. “So much of our natural skill involves stealth and disruption it seemed like anti-magic was our domain and you lot were a bunch of pretenders casting bad copies of our spells.”
“If it helps, I think we did reverse engineer some of our counter magics from your spells,” Gwen said. “We had our own too though and it looks like they were all pretty similar outside of the extraneous details.”
“Which means all of the things that Ulidine tried and failed with point to the rest of our arsenal not working either,” Nyka said.
“We need another method of neutering the effect then,” Gwen said. “If we can’t break the spells, what if we channel them?”
“The pledges are keyed to two billion targets each and carry enough energy to erase those targets from the timeline completely,” Nyka said. “What would we use to channel them?”
“Didn’t you have troops that could absorb magic just by touching it?” Gwen asked.
“Several different types in fact, but none on this scale,” Nyka said.
“We have unison spells,” Gwen said. “If your troops total storage capacity was enough, we could link them together. Turn them into one giant funnel to pour the Unmaking spell out into the void.”
“I remember the unison spells,” Nyka said. “Those were terrifying. Let me get a count of the troops we have and their capacities. You work out what kind of amplification effect we can get from your best unison spells.”
They spent another thirty minutes pursuing that lead and in the end came up with nothing.
“We’re not even close,” Nyka said, dropping her head onto the notepad in front of her.
“Even if we run the magic absorbers to annihilation and let the spell exit with the only enough force to throw everyone into comas, we’re still five orders of magnitude short of the troops we would need,” Gwen said.
“We were insane during the war, and this was the height of our insanity” Nyka said and then added in a smaller voice. “And I caused all of it.”
“I don’t know if that’s fair,” Gwen said. “You were the match that struck the first spark, but the House and the Caverns had spent a long time building up the kindling and the wood for that bonfire.”
“Did you hate us too? I know Mava did, and all of you had cause,” Nyka said.
“For a long time I was too busy to hate you,” Gwen said. “I think the hate only crept through me as the fighting went on and I kept seeing horror after horror. Kept performing horror after horror. I didn’t regret it then, but I think that’s because I got numb to it. Everyone had their method of dealing with what was going on and mine was just as unhealthy as the rest.”
“I hope that feels like a long time ago and far away for you,” Nyka said. “I don’t think any of us could have recovered after the end of the Last Battle.”
“I don’t know, people can make it back from the most incredible things,” Gwen said. “But I also have a sense that I’m glad there’s a lot I don’t remember, and that Gwena’s memories have kind of a hazy, distant quality to them. More like I saw them on TV than actually lived them in a lot of cases.”
“It’s like that for us too, I think, Mava and I,” Nyka said. “I know a lot has faded for me. It’s like the woman I was sort of rubbed away over the ages and all that’s left is this.”
She held up her unblemished but deeply wrinkled hand.
“I’m jealous of your muscle tone,” Gwen said. “The last time I managed to get out and hit the gym to stay in shape was never.”
“Side benefit to cheating with magic for most of your strength,” Nyka said. “Magic’s lazy too. If you call it often enough for extra strength it just gives you muscles to save time later on.”
“Sadly it’s not too lazy to kill us all if the Unmaking pledge decides to fire,” Gwen said.
“Maybe it is,” Nyka said. “There is one other option I’ve been thinking about. What if rather than channeling it into mana absorbers, we channeled it into someone who was functionally immortal?”
“Such as who?” Gwen asked.
“Me,” Nyka said. “My Eternal Vow means I come back from being killed whenever the conditions are right. What if we let the Unmaking Pledge erase me from history?”
“We can’t do that,” Gwen said.
“I deserve it,” Nyka said. “And if I’m erased, that might undo everything. If I don’t kill the Eldest Son of the House, the war would never start and the queens would never cast the Unmaking Pledge.”
“Which is one of many reasons we can’t do that,” Gwen said. “That would be the biggest paradox we could create. Time would definitely shred.”
“I’ve lived too long though,” Nyka said. “I don’t deserve this.”
“Maybe living is exactly what you deserve,” Gwen said. “You’ve come so far that you can feel the weight of what you’ve done again, and you’re trying to make what amends you can. It sounds to me like you haven’t lived anywhere near long enough.”
Nyka tilted her head and looked at Gwen.
“I’m not sure if that’s the worst curse I’ve ever heard or the nicest,” she said.
“Seems fitting, we’re age old enemies right?” Gwen said, offering Nyka a smile with more kindness than any Gwena could have ever managed.
“Yes, horrible enemies,” Nyka said.
“Almost as horrible as we are at spell research,” Gwen said. “There’s gotta be something we’re missing, something we can do.”
Nyka’s response was interrupting by Kelian’s entrance into the lab.
“We’re under attack,” he said.
“The Elites?” Gwen asked.
“Who else?” Kelian asked.
“Is Ulidine with them?” Nyka asked.
“Not that we’ve seen yet,” Kelian said.
“That’s not a good sign,” Nyka said.
Neither was the explosion that rocked the castle hard enough that Gwen felt it even in the depth of the Nyka’s lab.
Please don’t rescue me, Gwen thought, I haven’t figured out how to save us yet!