Mava clutched the bridge of her nose and squeezed as though she could press hard enough to make the day go away.
“I didn’t mean to let myself in without knocking, but, ummm…” Ally said, shifting her weight from one foot to another.
Her eyes had gone back to a normal set of human colors. Green irises, black overly wide pupils. The gentle curves at the corner of her eyes that spoke to her heritage were one of the few soft aspects of her body. The rest showed her athleticism and work as a personal trainer and bodybuilder.
Mava had wondered about the origin of her height. At over six feet tall, Ally had an imposing presence even when she dressed in baggy sweats that concealed the carefully sculpted muscles she sweated for each day. Viewing her reflection in Counter-Time though, Mava had to wonder how she ever could have missed the connection.
Ally was Aloka, one of her other sisters from among the Elite of Days. Aloka, the tallest and strongest of them all. Aloka who’d saved Mava’s life more times than Mava could count.
It was unbelievable. Ally and Aloka didn’t even look all that different in the Earthly realm. Ally had the same jawline, the same cheekbones and the same easy physicality as Aloka. Where Gwen was superficially very different from Gwena, it was as though Aloka had found a new body that looked basically identical to her previous one and said ‘yeah, I liked the results last time, I’ll go with this one again’.
“You wound up in Counter-Time, didn’t you?” Mava asked.
“I guess?” Ally said. “I didn’t mean to go there but I was watching a video about the attack at Nicky’s and I felt a pull and then it just happened.”
“Did you renew your pledge?” Gwen asked.
Mava cast her a sidelong glance. Ally had completely captivated Gwen’s attention. Mava couldn’t fault either one of them. The revival of two of her fellow elites had left Mava off balance and she had much more experience to draw on to keep herself grounded.
“Was I not supposed to?” Ally asked. “It felt natural, right even, but this seems really freaky.”
“It’s ok, I did too,” Gwen said.
“I’m guessing this is General Aloka?” Nyka asked.
“Do I know you?” Ally asked.
“You killed me once,” Nyka said. “Cheap shot though, not as classy as your commander here, so I got better pretty quick.”
“Uh, what?” Ally asked confused and reaching out for a handful of lightning without being conscious of doing so.
Aloka was not the most restrained of the Elite, and given Mava’s love of brawling in her youth, that was a claim that boded ill for Mava’s apartment and the people in it.
“She was an enemy. She’s not anymore. It was before human language developed so we’re not going to worry about it, right?” Mava wasn’t asking a question. She was giving an order and, from her memories as Aloka, Ally knew it. The lightning in her palm fizzled out.
“What are we going to do?” Gwen asked, not taking her eyes off Ally.
“Safe to say that hiding away drinking tea isn’t going to be an option for much longer,” Nyka said. “Whatever’s gathering your troops together has to have something greater in mind for you all.”
“What about you?” Mava asked. “If the House of Days is calling us back to service, won’t the Caverns be reaching out to you?”
“They might,” Nyka said. “At the moment I’m a free agent, but I expect that’ll change at some point.”
“And we’ll be back to being enemies?” Mava asked, genuinely curious as the what Nyka’s reply would be.
“I sincerely hope not,” Nyka said. “I feel like our battle ended a long time ago, and I know it’s been a long time since fighting you made any sense at all.”
“Must be something about living so long,” Mava said. “I reached that same point some time in the middle of the Roman Empire. Never really knew what it would be like to run into someone from the Last Battle, and now I’ve got three of you here.”
“Except we’re not from the Last Battle,” Gwen said. “I meant, we sort of are, I remember bits and pieces of it, but I remember all of my life from this era.”
“Me too,” Ally said. “Heck I remember you moving in here and that was, what, five year ago? I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you then.”
“I suppose I look a little different than I used to,” Mava said, stroking her wrinkled face and looking at her hands.
“You’re still there though,” Ally said. “I mean even without looking in Counter-Time, I can still see the commander I knew.”
“That’s nice of you to say, but I don’t know if I’m really her anymore,” Mava said. “I’ve seen too much and done too much. She’s more like someone I used to know.”
“It still feels like I found you at last,” Ally said. “I’ve always been a little unsettled. Like no matter where I looked I couldn’t quite find my place in the world. I thought it was because I’m gay, but then, well, college happened and I learned that wasn’t the reason.”
“And now it feels like you’ve got a purpose right?” Nyka said. “You’ll want to be careful of that. It’s an easy thing to get swept up in. Suddenly everything makes sense and you see connections and relationships that you’d never imagined before.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” Ally asked.
“No,” Nyka said. “It’s the most powerful thing in the world. But everything has a cost. Let yourself get pulled into the tide of what you think you’re supposed to be and it’s real easy to forget who you are.”
“Why would that be bad?” Gwen asked.
“In this case? Because you’d be charging into a battle that killed you the last time you fought it and, instead, this life could instead be a second chance for you to live in peace,” Mava said.
“But it doesn’t look like they’re going to get to live in peace, does it?” Nyka asked.
“No,” Mava said with a heavy sigh. “No, it does not.”
“So what are we going to do then?” Ally asked.
“I don’t want to die, but I don’t think we can let monsters like the Chrysalstones just run around killing people,” Gwen said. “I can’t live like that.”
“Was that you who stopped them?” Ally asked.
“Sort of,” Gwen said.
“Wow, you looked fantastic!” Ally said. “How did you do that whole glowing thing?”
“It’s how we fight,” Mava said. “And maybe that’s where we begin.”
“You sure you want to do that?” Nyka asked.
“Do what?” Gwen asked.
“Take you two into Counter-Time to one of the old training halls,” Nyka said. “Or am I guessing wrong.”
“You’re not, and I’m open to better ideas?” Mava said.
“I know where some active volcanoes are. Pitching ourselves into them might be a more enjoyable experience,” Nyka said.
“What the hell are these training halls like?” Ally asked. “I mean if all we need is space, I can close down the gym for the night.”
“You need more than an night of training,” Mava said. “And the kind of workout I’m going to put you through wouldn’t leave much of your gym standing.”
“The training halls have the advantage that she won’t be using you as target practice either,” Nyka said.
“I never used them for target practice,” Mava said. “I just taught them the practical applications of attack avoidance.”
“I have this odd memory of you yelling ‘dodge’ at us out of the blue and then throwing a bunch of horrible attacks at us?” Gwen said.
“Your commander’s training regime was kind of legendary. We even heard about it in the Caverns,” Nyka said.
“How?” Mava asked.
“We tried to sneak some spies into your ranks,” Nyka said. “Most of them washed out and came back gibbering about how hard your regime was.”
“You should have sent better spies,” Mava said. “I always went easy on the new recruits.”
“This sounds borderline terrifying, but I’m still in,” Ally said.
“Me too”, Gwen said. “How long will we be gone?”
“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right,” Mava said. “I won’t say make arrangements for if you don’t come back, but you might not come back.”
“This week, this month, or ever?” Gwen asked.
“Probably ever I’m guessing,” Ally said.
“Don’t let the name fool you,” Mava said. “The training halls are real environments. That’s why we use them.”
“Do you know if any of them are still serviceable?” Nyka asked.
“They’re in Counter-Time,” Mava said. “They shouldn’t have been wiped away like the Earthly castles and keeps were.”
“I’m not worried that they won’t be there,” Nyka said. “I’m worried that they haven’t been tended properly in a hundred thousand years. They could be empty at this point, or not.”
“Probably not empty,” Mava said. “They were always too central to sit idle for all that long.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Nyka said.
“What kind of things are in these training grounds?” Gwen asked.
“Monsters,” Mava said.
“The real kind,” Nyka added.
“The Chrysalstones you battled before were troops of the Caverns of the Night,” Mava said. “Not the brightest maybe, but still soldiers. The things in the training halls aren’t like that. They’re incarnations of malice, and they will try their best to kill you.”
“Used to be they weren’t that talented at it, but there were a lot of them, so it was a good workout to survive a while in a training hall,” Nyka said.
“It sounds like both sides used them. Do we have to worry about running into the Cavern’s troops there?” Ally asked.
“No, they’re in fragmentary space,” Mava said. “All you find in there is what you bring in with you.”
“We’re bringing her in with us aren’t we?” Ally asked gesturing towards Nyka.
“Nope,” Nyka said. “I’m not quite as old as Mava, but I’m old enough to know better than to go poking around in a training hall. You girls are welcome to all the fun you can find there.”
“This sounds terrifying,” Gwen said.
“Fighting against real foes always is,” Mava said. “This is the best way to be sure you’re ready for that though.”
In the distance, they heard a scream.
Not a human scream.
Not the scream of a creature that had ever walked the Earth while humans called it home.
But it was still a scream that they all recognized.
A Nekkabrute had crossed over from Counter-Time. One of the old horrors of the Last Battle. A creature that had felled legions on its own. No force left on Earth could stand against it.
Except for them.