Sondra’s castle was less than dust and ash on Earth. Not even one stone remained of it’s once grand structures. It’s reflection in Counter-Time though stood like a beautiful ebony beacon, calling her back to the embrace of home and hearth.
“I don’t remember it looking this grand,” she said as she and Kelian climbed the long thin stair that led up the Royal Castle of the Caverns of the Night.
To Sondra’s eyes, a castle dedicated to the “Caverns” of the Night seemed like an odd thing to find on a wide open plain with a curtain of impossible dense starts hanging above it. From her memories as the Queen of the Night though she remembered ordering the construction of the castle on the exact inverse point to the House of Days.
There were a myriad of caverns and tunnels and fissures that comprised her lands but each in the end lead down into the Earth so far that they eventually came up into the lands of the Night. Sondra wanted to object that the Earth’s molten core would be problematic for such subsurface features but she knew that “down” and “up” were largely perceptual value in a land that ran through far more dimensions than the typical three that Sondra had grown up accustomed to.
“My heart remembers it like this, but to these eyes…” Kelian said and sighed, lapsing back into a more modern tone of speech. “It looks brand new to me too.”
“We’re not quite who we used to be, are we?” Sondra asked. Her memories of the Last Battle and the time before it were stronger while she was in Counter-Time but they were so mixed with the memories of the life she’d been leading that she didn’t think she was fully Sondra or Sanielle, the name she’d once worn as queen.
The strange mixture of the two inside her was a continually changing brew too. Some things came so easy, like stepping into Counter-Time and finding a path to her castle, while other things were maddeningly difficult.
Kelian fell into both categories.
She knew him, remembered the Kelian-Who-Was, and she trusted him. He had stayed with her till the end. Or close to the end at least. Her memories of the final battle and how her life ended were either too deeply hidden to recall or lost with the missing millenia. Kelian’s fate though, that she remembered.
She’d cradled his burnt and dying body, and almost given up the assault that was their last chance at ending the war with the House of Days. If she could have saved him, Sondra thought Sanielle would have sacrificed everything to do so.
The wounds the House warriors had inflicted had burned too deeply though and no healing magic on either side could have repaired the damage in time even if an immediate cease-fire had been possible to arrange.
Kelian had died in her arms, of wounds sustained sheltering her. In all the nights before that though, he’d spoken fairly to her and openly, voicing every concern and reservation he had about the war as it developed. He’d opposed it, hated it even, but he’d never abandoned her.
A queen couldn’t love her subjects, not as individuals, but Kelian’s death had shattered Sanielle’s heart and, despite his presence beside her, Sondra felt the ache of that loss too.
Placed beside those feelings of connection and loss though was a sense of how alien his presence was. Sondra had dated a few boys before. She’d dated a few girls as well. None of them lasted long though and when she looked at the relationships in hindsight she saw that they’d crumbled because she drew away just as soon as she really started to care for them.
To feel the sudden weight of intimacy that Sanielle and Kelian had shared thrust upon her was almost enough to send Sondra fleeing as fast as she could run.
For his part, Kelian seemed unsure of their new positions as well, but unlike the Steve and the other men she’d been working with, he appeared to be willing to give her the time required to process the changes she was working through.
“We’re not the same as we were, but it’s surprising how much overlap there is,” Kelian said.
“You were an Archduke in this life too?” Sondra asked.
“No, but I was the Director of Sales and Marketing for Positron Brands,” he said. “It’s not quite the same as advising on policy matters to a queen or ordering troops into battle, but it is, or was I guess, a position of authority and I was responsible for the well being of the people assigned to me.”
“How much of Kelian’s life do you remember,” Sondra asked.
“Not all of it,” he said. “Not even most. When I’m with you it seems clearer, but there are big sections of it that still feel like a dream.”
“How did you know I was the queen?” Sondra asked.
“I…it’s hard to describe,” Kelian said. “It’s like asking how I know that I should breath. When I woke up this morning, the dreams I’ve been having for years didn’t go away like they usually do. I kept seeing an image over and over.”
“Me?” Sondra asked.
“Sort of,” he said. “I didn’t know what you looked like. Not as you are now anyways. I just knew you were out there and I knew what kind of starlight you held.”
“When did Kelian’s memories start coming back?”
“I’ve always had bits and pieces of them. Mostly relating to you. I always thought they were just a fantasy novel that I was waiting to write up someday, maybe after I retired. I mean, a long lost queen who I alone was called to find and protect? That’s some quality romance novel trash there isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. Is it? This feels so real now.”
“It does,” Kelian said, offering her a small smile. “But I don’t think this is the start of a happily ever after.”
It didn’t feel like that to Sondra either. They had been called by the Throne of the Night, or the unnameable forces it represented, and the wordless voice that called to them wanted something. The memories of their old lives, the incomplete, missing bits of themselves that they’d been yearning for, were the carrot to lure them in. Sondra had accepted the calling knowing that, but it didn’t make her feel any safer knowing that such irresistible bait had to be balanced against an equally powerful duty.
“I never believed in happily ever after,” Sondra said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever even believed in living happily. Life has too many challenges, too many opportunities to fail. We feel happy when we achieve something but until we die there’s always another goal to pursue.”
“What sort of goal do you think comes with this?” Kelian asked, gesturing to the castle that rose before them.
The night black walls of the grand structure were mirror bright, reflecting the stars above them with perfect clarity. The spires that rose to touch the sky grew like crystals rising from a great impenetrable base that had been worked and etched with protective glyphs by millions of craft workers.
“It feels like something is incomplete,” Sondra said. “Like we’re being given a second chance to put right what went wrong in our last lives.”
“Another chance to win maybe?” Kelian asked.
“We’ve seen that one House warrior is still active,” Sondra said. “If she’s alone maybe she’ll be willing to surrender.”
“Maybe that’s why I was in sales in this life?” Kelian said. “There can’t be anything she’d have to fight for anymore. Could be I’m supposed to talk her into declaring that the Last Battle went in our favor. And if not, well, we’ve got her outnumbered two to one, right?”
“Maybe even three to one,” Sondra said. “Some of the videos I watched showed an old woman trying to talk to the Chrysalstone. I couldn’t recognize her over a recording, but I can remember the words she said. Sacred commands. Only someone one our side would know the right ones to give to command the Chrysalstones.”
“Was she the one who called them to Earth?” Kelian asked.
“I don’t think so, she was trying to get them to stand down.”
“And it didn’t work?”
“No, which could be a problem,” Sondra said. “If the Chrysalstones disobeyed her, then she must not be pledged to the Throne of Night anymore.”
They’d reached the hundred foot tall gates to the castle which swung open silently as they approached. The Messenger of the Night had recognized Sondra, she had accepted the investiture offered by the Throne of the Night, so everything within her dominion would recognize her and obey her commands. In theory anyways.
“Do you think she could be working with the House’s warrior?” Kelian asked.
“If she is then we’re at even odds,” Sondra said. “Maybe we could surrender to them in that case?”
The starlight that flowed with her turned in response to those words.
One moment she was walking slowly into her new home and the next searing pain lanced through her body sending her toppling bonelessly to the floor.
As she drifted in a delirium of pain, she heard Kelian calling to her from what felt like miles away. She was cold and growing colder with the only relief being the numb dissolution that overwhelmed the spots where the cold was the most intense.
It wasn’t a voice that spoke to her. The Throne didn’t communicate in anything as inefficient as words. Instead, knowledge blossomed in Sondra’s mind directly.
She was not allowed to lose. She was not allowed to surrender. The alternative to victory was oblivion.
Her dominion had been swept away by the changing tides of time. The reprieve she’d been granted was not an indefinite one though. She would have her armies again. Her generals would awaken once more. In victory, they would find renewed life and fate would leave them free to pursue whatever tomorrow they might wish to create in a world where her rule was unchallenged.
Today, however, was not hers. Today, and all of the todays to follow until the Last Battle was completed, belonged to the Throne of the Night.
With the message delivered, Sondra felt the pain that wracked her body recede. Eventually her awareness returned to the palace in Counter-Time and she found her head laying in Kelian’s lap.
“I’m ok,” she said, though the thready weakness in her voice proved her words were a lie.
“What happened?” Kelian asked.
“The Unmaking Pledge is still in force,” she said. “We’re still committed to destroying the House of Days, no matter who they are it seems.”
Kelian shared a cold, thin frown with her. They hadn’t been brought back for a happily ever after, they’d been brought back to refight the worst battle their world had ever seen.
The one that no one had walked away from.