It had been been two entire days since Jondi had arrived in Oridian, and he hadn't slept one single wink. Forty straight hours of claustrophobic, stressful exhaustion, cooped up in the closest place he could call to home.
He'd spit on almost everything else he'd done in the past, but he couldn't deny that Oridian was a treasure to him. When he had come into their borders with the bleeding bodies of Lady Wydel and one of Talvor's day-vamps, they'd accepted him without a word; when he'd told them there was something out there worse than the machinations of House Noon, they listened without hesitation; and when he told them to let anyone else know about this would be to risk further catastrophe, they'd believed him utterly.
No skepticism. No hate. No bridges burned. Jondi had made it his priority to talk as long as possible and explain as much as he could to Oridian's chief seer and the Moonguard regiment stationed by the village to protect it. Two-dozen Moonguard soldiers wouldn't do anything against Kryce's monstrous military force, but they could be relied upon for other crucial things.
Until Avis had shown him the temple and the impromptu night-claw orphanage within it, Jondi had not left Oridian for his and everyone else's own safety. He still didn't know exactly why, but he was a target. For the duration of the first night, when he'd finally exhausted everything he knew about the current situation on the King and Queen's little game, he'd sent two-dozen of the Moonguard soldiers to assess the current situation in Inoptica; six to investigate Dusk, two to investigate Dawn and four to investigate Midnight itself. None of them were to act yet while the situation was still volatile, but Jondi needed an update on the outside.
There had been no activity or word on Dawn or the Sprucequeen whatsoever; no seed-fang delegates or even any indication Ahandi was responding to the situation. Midnight was in pieces; either half-evacuated or entirely so, the population spread apart and the Moonguard divided to ensure Kryce couldn't take them all out at once. For all Jondi knew, the Bishops and the rest of Dusk's threaded populace were already dead. It made him sick to his stomach to stomach to think of all the wounded and crippled he'd seen in the over-packed infirmary forced to evacuate as they had. Not all of them could have made it, and as long as they were there, Trick-Jack would have easy prey.
All of this, Jondi constantly reminded himself, because he'd let Zada in. Forty straight hours, no matter how he occupied his mind, she chewed at the back of it. Forty hours he'd waited in exhaustion and dread for the word of the scouts, thinking about what she could have been doing out there. Forty hours he'd been pent up up here as night turned to noon, twice over with no action from the day-vamps or Zada—yet. Either side could have been tearing the rest of Inoptica apart. Even strolling through Oridian, dread was palpable in the air among everyone he could see. Inoptica, certainly, would be doomed.
But Jondi had never quite believed in certainty.
By the time the fortieth hour had passed—long after he had bid Milivia and Avis goodnight, just before the peak of dawn was to rise and Wydel would awaken—when Jondi struggled to keep his eyelids up and his mind had been gnawed like a corncob, the scouts finally came back. The first glimmers of morning were stretching over the horizon and the morning bell pealed twice when Jondi saw the glowing forms of the Moonguard scouts coming back into Oridian's borders. He light-bent himself out to meet them in a motion that took more out of his exhausted body than he anticipated.
"We have a report on Midnight and Dusk, sir," called out the first of the scouts as Jondi came out to meet them. Jondi held his silence until he'd counted everyone he'd sent.
Ten of the wing-sages had returned. Two were missing, both he'd sent to check on House Dawn.
"Where are Laru and Casidan?" Jondi asked, before anyone else could speak. "Where are the two I appointed to Dawn?"
Nervous glances and silence told Jondi immediately they had no idea. Dawn was either paralyzed, slaughtered or worse. Jondi feared to imagine at length.
"We're not sure, sir," one of the Dusk scouts finally said, vocalizing the obvious. "Dusk has evacuated, though. We light-bent to their own territory. The House itself was either entirely or mostly evacuated. But...they hadn't gone into the Wilt, sir. There were tracks in the glass desert, hundreds of them. They started from the House and just...continued straight on into the desert. As far as we dared to follow and further still."
"They're evacuating out of the Wilt, then," Jondi said, scratching his chin. The move would have surprised him if the situation weren't so dire. Jondi didn't know if the Pane had any influence on Inoptica past the Wilt—or, indeed, much of Inoptica past the Wilt at all. Raphandas could only be moving in desperation toward an unknown end. "How far did you follow?"
"For a half-day at least, I'd like to say, we dared," said the scout. "It was hard to keep track After a point...we found none of us could light-bend anymore. It became too dark. The sky became blacker than any of us could see and the glass stopped reflecting anything. It was like we'd wandered off the edge of the earth...but the tracks, as far as we saw, still kept going. And I'm guessing Raphandas and Dusk are a bit more used to the dark than we are."
"Then as far as we know, Raphandas and House Dusk haven't fallen prey to Trick-Jack yet," Jondi said. "Watcher knows what they're going to find out there. This may mean...we may not be getting the help of the Bishops."
Jondi sighed plaintively. Desperation was a hell of a force. He couldn't bring himself to condemn Raphandas for turning tail now that it had come down to the last tenth of what had once been a thriving people, but now of all times was a damn fine time to bail.
"If it's any consolation, sir," chimed in one of the soldiers from the Midnight squad, "we've gotten intelligence on a Midnight encampment that should be arriving at Oridian by this evening."
"How big of an encampment are we talking about?" asked Jondi. "You had no direct interaction with them, right?"
"None, like you requested. We stuck exclusively to the sidelines and listened in to what we could. There's a population of a few-hundred there, at least. They're being escorted by a captain named Rivien—there's about tenscore fighting men and women there, it sounds."
Two-hundred trained wing-sages and some fraction of a civilian population—not bad. Terrible for Oridian's security, though. Kryce, from what Jondi knew, led a force of thousands.
"Did you get any intelligence on the rest of Midnight's population?" Jondi inquired, anxiously. "Is it just Rivien's going to arrive?"
"We've heard nothing about the rest," the wing-sage scout said, with a noticeable note of sadness in his tone. "There are others—we know for sure, from what we overheard Rivien saying, Midnight's population scattered into at least seven groups—but not even Rivien seems to know where they are. I believe that's the exact reason he's headed here, sir; to set up an outpost and get in touch with the rest of Midnight."
"That could mean a lot," Jondi said, nodding along. "...I'm just worried his being here may paint a target upon our backs. I'm worried more about whatever's happening with Dawn. If Noon hasn't had anything to do with it...I'm thinking Trick-Jack might have gotten involved with the seed-fangs somehow. No way to tell for sure, mind...but I got a bad hunch."
The absence of the other two scouts seemed to be unsettling everyone present. Jondi could see how exhausted everyone was. He was nothing but fatigued himself. He'd pushed himself to stay up for periods of time longer than this with minimal sleep, but he'd never done it in these conditions.
Whether it was by Brood, by Kryce, by Zada or by Trick-Jack's own direct hand, hell was coming to Inoptica, and Jondi still wasn't prepared for it.
"All of you should get some rest," Jondi said, concluding the report for his sake as much as everyone else's. "I'll follow you shortly. Won't be out for long—enough so that it stops feeling like I'm holding up steel doors keeping my eyes open. Hrmm. We'll need someone awake to greet Rivien. Get someone from Oridian's regiment to do day-shift. Make sure everyone's in the know about all this and make sure you all stay prepared. Anything could change. Any second."
"We won't forget, sir," one of the scouts said, bowing his head. "Thank you, sir."
It was refreshing to be treated as genuine authority again. That, most of all, was what relaxed him about Oridian. The village was only the eye of the storm around him, but it was the one spot in all Inoptica right now he could always take a little bit of comfort out of, no matter how low he sunk. This place loved him, and he loved it back.
As soon as he'd bid the scouts good-day, Jondi light-bent himself back to the infirmary. He slowly made his way into the building, up the stairs to where Wydel and Avis were sleeping. The first threads of morning light were crawling into the infirmary. Everything, for the moment, seemed calm.
Then Jondi realized Wydel and Avis weren't in bed.
The bed Wydel had been sleeping in was covered in a cast of gnarling roots and branches, but their source was no longer sleeping soundly in their center. Avis' bed, too, was completely empty.
"Wydel? Avis?" Jondi stepped into the room, taking the covers off Avis' cover in disbelief. Where were they?
"Jondi?" said a brood-surgeon from behind him. Jondi turned around and saw a pair of milky white eyes looking back at him. The brood-surgeon seemed completely unaware of the two absences in the infirmary and starting pelting Jondi with questions. "How are the scouts? Any word on our House? How—"
"Where are my patients, doctor?" Jondi interrupted. The brood-surgeon became non-responsive for a few seconds before he walked up to Wydel's bedside.
"...They were here only an hour ago," he said, in a confused and terrified voice that made Jondi's heart twist into a helix. "I swear on my life, Jondi, they—"
"Don't blame yourself," Jondi said, rubbing his forehead. He was still bone-tired, but he wouldn't be able to go to sleep now. He had a burning headache. More acutely than he had in the past forty hours, he wanted to drown himself in beer. "This is nothing. Nothing at all. All we've done is gone and lost ourselves the princess of Dawn and the one person left who knows shit about anything."
Jondi smiled, part of his face feeling like it tore off in doing so. Everything was out of his control.
Avis had made himself all but a stranger to fear in the thirty years he'd lived within Inoptica. He'd seen Talvor's limitless cruelty, always another level he and his soldiers found a way to sink to. He'd seen and dealt with the monstrous beings of the Pane. He'd sold his soul and conscience to higher forces. He'd murdered hundreds, willingly and otherwise, and never once paused to stop. He'd never needed to. Everything worth accounting for was accounted for, and until two days ago almost everything had gone according to his own subtle design.
But now everything was falling apart. In one flash of light, Wydel was gone and Avis was alone in the desiccated forest. He was experienced something he'd specifically practiced hard to avoid feeling: terror.
Part of him wanted to call out for her, but he knew it had been futile. The white flash that had preceded Wydel's disappearance was the telltale sign of a wing-sage's light-bending. Zada had managed to find them, all because he'd bothered to leave for a few meager moments.
Then again, that was ever the nature of the game. The advantage fell toward whomever capitalized on a vulnerability first; and Avis had displayed plenty, in spite of himself. Zada was too good for him to keep up with.
Avis tried to control his breathing and his thumping heart-rate when he found himself alone in the desolate patch of the Wilt. The wasteland stretched on for miles and miles. Some manner of confrontation, Avis presumed, must have killed off all the forestry; perhaps the great Motherbrood beneath Inoptica had glutted itself. Nothing lesser could have killed a part of the Wilt so thoroughly.
He'd been a fool to come here. Avis closed his eyes, steadied his breathing as much as he could, and tried to picture the temple in his head. He was still winded from the last time he'd Blinked, but he needed to get back to Milivia, Jondi and the others as soon as possible. Avis snapped his eyes open and attempted to Blink.
A splitting pain exploded in his chest the instant he did so and the exertion of trying to Blink took its toll. Avis bit back a howling scream as his sewn-up stab wound flared up. He felt fresh orange blood staining his tunic, the bottom of his stomach bilious and his chest burning.
Loathe as he was to admit it, both Jondi and Wydel were utterly right about his condition. He couldn't push himself. Not like this. What else was he to do? Make it back to Oridian on foot?
Avis fell to his knees, the ground ashen underneath him. He couldn't even walk upright anymore. If he pushed himself anymore, he'd bleed himself out.
Avis sprawled out in the middle of the wasteland. His breath was harsh and his lungs felt like balloons about to pop, his feather tunic now spattered with ash and blood. Avis closed his eyes, groaning quietly as he inwardly self-flagellated himself for having come this far.
Had he become too sentimental? Wydel had taken him off-guard. Wydel was like no child he'd ever met before. Those who came into Inoptica as children tended to remain as children; but Wydel seemed mature to a point that unsettled Avis to think about. He had no regrets about what he'd done to save the children Talvor's brigade has prosecuted, not a single one. His only regret ever had been that he hadn't been able to save more of them. The night-claw orphanage was but a fraction of the children Talvor's brigade had put to the sword.
He'd never crossed that line, never deliberately, but he was starting to think his negligence in letting Wydel into all this was no better.
Avis stumbled up, his breathing labored as he did so, and he began to move in a straight line. The wasteland couldn't continue forever; soon he'd seen the colorful trees start to swallow the horizon. Soon he'd have everything under control again.
He hoped—and in the mere act of hoping realized how far he'd fallen.
Avis continued limping forward for quite some time, clutching onto those stray hopes as he did so, entertaining fantasies where Jondi or Milivia saved him before casting them aside. This was his own fault, his own predicament; he could deal with his himself.
Every single breath hurt. Every single time he inhaled, a knife slipped though his chest; when he exhaled, the knife took itself out, and a little bit more blood with it. Standing up hurt. If he Blinked so much as one more time, Avis feared he might kill himself by complete accident. It was a strenuous act for a day-vamp Avis had taught himself, year by year, to master. Never with a fresh hole in his chest, though.
He couldn't stop. This was his plan. These were his mistakes. He needed to be there to account for them.
Avis didn't know how long it had been before something began to change. It wasn't the horizon, as he'd hoped. It was the sky. The hazy morning orange had been breaking through the darkness above, but something about it was all too wrong now. It wasn't orange, not even vaguely; it was a peculiar shade of red. Avis froze as he saw the orange dawn consumed by a new light. The red in the sky was warm and crisp at first, soft and subtle as the morning orange had been.
Then the colors began to sharpen. The red became brighter, bloodier, the sky suddenly gleaming with a crimson aurora. Avis' eyes turned to pinpricks as the sky, all at once, broke into a red dawn.
This could only mean one thing—the Conflagration was about to come down upon Inoptica. At this point in time, Avis had planned to be within House Noon itself. He realized how badly—how very badly—he'd judged his leash on the situation to be. Kryce was about to begin the crusade to end all Inoptica.
The sky had become a spectrum of hatred above. It was a vile and violent red, from one end of the sky to the other. Avis tried to find some obscenity or gesticulation to convey his anger.
Nothing quite did the situation justice. Avis sighed, shrugged, and did exactly what Talvor had trained him to do; brace for war.
"What do you mean he's not here, Milivia?!"
Jondi had scrambled around Oridian, top to bottom twice and then thriceover, looking for any sign Wydel and Avis. He was about to go twice more for good measure before he remembered somewhere pertinent; the day-vamp temple.
When he'd arrived there, past the cusp of dawn, all he'd gotten were bleary, half-lidded eyes and groggy groans. Most of Milivia's brigade had been asleep until Jondi had stormed in. His heart had soared for a second when he saw Milivia, completely awake and answering Jondi as she answered everything; with a scowl.
"He's not here," she'd said, crossing her arms and sinking Jondi's heart like a stone in water. "You were the one insisting on a 'good night's sleep' anyway, huh, wing-rat?"
"He's gone!" Jondi said, throwing out his hands as though they were flapping wings. "Gone! Poof! Magic! He took the princess with him, too!"
"What, Wydel's gone, too?" Milivia said, curling her lip up to reveal a bat-like fang. "You take great care of your charges."
Jondi fired a fierce glare at Milivia. Her sneering disapproval of Jondi didn't waver on the slightest.
"He probably went off on his own anyway," Milivia said, rubbing two of her fingers together as she looked at her amassing soldiers. "Go back to bed, boys."
"This could be serious, Milivia!" Jondi cried.
"It could be, very well," Milivia said, shrugging. "Must be if he saw it necessary to take the princess of Dawn with him. Why'd you leave her alone with him, doc? Huh? Did you want to trust him, or were you just taking chances you shouldn't have?"
"Because it was my duty," Jondi answered, unflinchingly. "Same reason I have to deal with vermin like you. We need to find out where they went before—"
"Big brother's gone?" spoke up a shy voice from behind Jondi. Shyla and a few of the other night-claw children had clearly heard the ruckus. Shyla, with sleepy eyes, walked up to Jondi with a scared look. "Where's Avis?"
Jondi thought about how this must have looked from the young night-claw's view and cringed. He almost tripped on what to say next before Milivia, unfortunately, spoke for him.
"Avis is gone," she said. "He flaked. Or he died. Or maybe he just took a walk and you're having a fit—probably not in these drastic times, though. The old man didn't do too good a job at taking care of your brother, Shyla. That's all I'm getting out of this."
Shyla frowned and took a step back. Jondi looked at her, seeing the innocent confusion and sadness on her face. Jondi had no idea how long Shyla had lived in Inoptica or who her original foster family had been, but she was still a child by every definition of the term. She was scared, lost, and Jondi wasn't sure if he could do anything to make it better.
He wanted to say something. Anything.
Say something. Anything.
Jondi looked into Shyla's eyes, and found he couldn't look away. Her confused and scared expression transfixed itself onto his gaze, and even when he tried to look at Milivia he couldn't pull it away from Shyla's eyes. He couldn't hear anyone. He couldn't say anything. He couldn't do anything.
He was having another vision of the Pane. But this time, he wasn't just asleep or unconscious—he was being forced out of reality.
Shyla's image flickered out, but her image remained. Jondi was dimly aware of the real world seeping away from him, like his entire being was being slipped through a slit into another word like a finely-sealed envelope.
Then darkness. He expected to see at any moment the blossoms of the coral forest and the tentacled trees. He expected to see the strange and the alien become familiar to him once more. The idea of another world between Inoptica and Earth had long stopped surprising him. He feared no longer their servitors. He wanted revenge. He wanted peace. He wanted closure. Jondi remained steadfast as he woke up once again in the new world, ready to see anything.
But he saw nothing. Nothing but a windswept darkness.
Something from the abyss was talking to him in a language he didn't understand, with words that felt like they were stealing his own in order to talk. With every syllable, he choked; with every word, he suffocated. He tried to cover his ears, but he no longer had hands; and neither did he have ears, or a head, or a face, or any physical body or aspect whatsoever. All of a sudden he was disembodied, bereft of his physical body, nothing but a spirit suspended in a voice.
The suffocating words became louder. The words glistened sometimes, other times they crackled, but Jondi could never understand what they were saying. The garbled tones the voice spoke in became long and frustrated—or Jondi assumed it as frustration—and then, as abruptly as the indecipherable voice from the dark had begun, it stopped.
Jondi, for the loneliest instant of his entire existence, was alone with the silence in the void. He was trapped there in the blinding darkness, the constricting darkness, the darkness above and below and all around. The darkness in place of his body; the darkness instead of his world; as if his eyes had been sealed shut, and then he'd lost any concept of ever having had eyes in the first place.
The silence stretched. Jondi sensed nothing. No more words. No sign of the coral forest. Nothing awaited him. Nothing surprised him. He was drifting, and he didn't know why he was drifting anymore. It had happened so suddenly, like Milivia and Shyla and all the day-vamps had blinked out of existence. The silence stretched and stretched, and Jondi feared it might forever.
Was it the end, or the beginning of some unfathomable new nightmare for him?
The instant he pondered despair, the very second he tasted the potential of staying here forever, there was a twinkle in the darkness. Jondi saw it unmistakably with eyes that weren't there any longer. He couldn't come toward it of his own volition, but it instead came toward him. It was gleaming with warm, invigorating white light. It was dazzling, and it banished the darkness in its wake as it grew closer.
Jondi wanted to come closer to it. In spite of everything he valued and held as rational, he wanted nothing more than to escape from the dark hell he was alone in. He tried to imagine himself reaching out toward the light as though that would bring it closer as it twinkled ever closer, shining like a brilliant diamond in a sea of coal—
—and Jondi pulled away in fear of what he might discover instead, retreating into the safety of the lonely darkness. Something about him was screaming not to go.
As soon as he hesitated, the fire showed from underneath the diamond.
"beautiful, is it not?"
The white light exploded. The darkness was obliterated and Jondi was thrust into a light that burned hotter than anything he'd ever experienced. Then the pain stopped, and he'd forgotten instantly what it had felt like; at the whim of the things that had forced him into this vision.
He could see a world made entirely out of glass. He struggled to recall the word—a very human word—before it came back to him. He was staring upon a city of diamond, a castle with battlements of crystal, mirrored merlons and majestic, cone-crowned turrets of flawlessly smooth glass. Every single thing in the city was opaquely reflective, from the barren houses the castle overlooked to every glimmering, palatial inch of the crystalline castle.
This could have been nothing less than the kingdom of the Pane. Jondi could see no people in the mirror streets, despite the abundance of houses. There was no sign of life whatsoever. The entire place was as lifeless as a reflection.
Jondi's gaze was pulled forth closer and closer against his will. As soon as he'd been thrust into this strange world he was sent hurtling toward the castle. His bodiless form phased through the glass with ease, and then before him he finally saw who had conjured him—or some part of him, at least—here in the city of diamond.
Standing in a room of glass was a being that looked, a bit, like Ahandi. Jondi had only ever seen the Sprucequeen a fleeting few times from meetings years hence, but his memory, battered as it was, never forgot a face. Jondi was staring at a face he could have sworn belonged to the Sprucequeen herself—but her entire body was made of the strange coral and fungi of the Pane instead of the plant-life of the Wilt.
It was staring at her, its expression blank. Jondi got a good look at its uncanny face before the voice that had called him back here introduced itself.
"you've never been here before," it said—a voice that shimmered and echoed like a scream caught in a hall of mirros, with a tone as cold as the core of a glacier—"so please do excuse the awkward manner in which my husband and i am to introduce ourselves to you. we had to time this just right, and there is no better opportunity but now."
Jondi dared to look up at the source of where the sub-zero voice was coming from, and wished immediately he hadn't. His gaze parted from the Ahandi-thing and looked upward instead to see the two-hundred foot, coiling, leviathan form of the White Queen herself.
She looked like a serpent carved from writhing glass. Her scales were all perfect mirrors, millions of them dotting her body from the tip of her tail to the top of her looming head. She was coiled all around on a diamond throne almost as big as she, her head halfway between serpentine and human. The shape of her skull was neither quite flat nor quite rounded, disconcertingly nothing like anything Jondi had any existing name for. Her jaw unhinged to display two fangs like mountainous icicles, nothing upon her face but a single Cyclopean eye that was as blank and reflective as the rest of her skin.
When Jondi looked into the White Queen's eye, he saw himself—so he heard he himself talking back as the White Queen spoke, in an inflectionless, hollow voice.
"take a deep look at yourself, brood-surgeon. i look into you and i see every buried secret you have. every single thing you have ever been afraid or ashamed to admit about yourself i see before me. they're like an stack of cards; endless, piling up as far as i can see."
The White Queen's serpent face bowed closer to Jondi. The full enormity of her head was enough to crush Jondi underneath it, body or no body.
"i had a litany of speeches prepared from you, but i don't need to say much, do i? how much can one man hate himself in spite of everything he's done? you know exactly how much of a drunken wretch you are. you're lucidly aware of your every niggling flaw. everything negative you see about yourself, i see, is acutely correct."
Jondi wanted to find the will to say something, but even if he could, it was hopeless. No mouth. No throat. No tongue. No lungs. He couldn't speak, though he wanted to scream—and yet nothing came out, either way.
"i know how much you want to say something, jondi. i know how much you want to wail. your spirit writhes. your mind aches. you claw at your bonds with invisible hands, hoping to scratch away your chains with fantasy tools. what a funny little thing you are. a funny sparrow pretending to be an eagle in a world that has torn itself apart time after time after time again. my husband and i rule your world. your pathetic watcher is dead, jondi, and we killed him. we have taken into his blood and bathed in his spoiled essence, and now we dance upon his dream. ashes to ashes, day to day; and it is all but a game, in the end, my husband and i have played. a game in which you were the pieces, a game in which you were the pawns. a game you all have all been playing with us, as long as there has been ears to listen and wars to wage; as long as there has been pain and fury to cultivate, brothers to turn upon sisters, families to sunder at the seams. as long as there has been sorrow in your world, there has been i and my red king."
The White Queen blinked with an eyelid that all at once reminded him of a tranquil ocean and a cracked mirror. His reflection didn't vanish, but when the White Queen opened her eye again, he was staring at Zada reflected within instead.
"you are a pet, jondi. that is all you amount to as an individual. your entire life is a trick. the champion i have chosen for this final round between my husband and i is most enamored with you, and i have tolerated it, but the only reason we have singled you out is because of circumstance."
Again the White Queen blinked. Not a person this time in the bowels of her eye, but a place: Oridian, still tranquil in the morning ambience. Oridian, the single thing he treasured most, within the eye of the most monstrous thing he had ever beheld.
"do you know what your proud little village is, jondi? the one—the only—thing you ever dare to treasure in your pathetic life is of that disgusting little village. that place is a graveyard. you built that village on the blood of my children."
It didn't take long for Jondi to realize what the White Queen was talking about.
The red queens. He'd never forgotten the awful forms of the red queens. They were the most horrible Brood he'd ever fought against, yet now the White Queen spoke of them in the tone of not a monster, but a bereaved mother.
"our only true children. the ones who inherited our power. not mindless, abstract creations like the other brood; not that runaway imp trick-jack; my children, my beautiful red queens, murdered by an upstart parasite. our children, the ones who would break open the gate for us at last—and you took everything from them, jondi. from us. this is not mere spite, jondi. this is i have not pulled you here to play a cruel and elaborate prank on you."
The sub-zero chill in the White Queen's voice became absolute zero with three quiet words, whispered right into Jondi's soul; a coldness in his very existence that made him ponder what wrong direction in life he'd taken to have earned the personal enmity of a god.
"this is revenge."
The White Queen blinked once again and opened up her eye to reveal a world of endless, scorching fire. Jondi was sucked through.
All the hate the rulers of the Pane had for Jondi was finely magnified. Every sliver of abhorrence seared like embers within his skin. Every infinitesimal malign thought stung like a Brood-wasp. Every remote iota of harm meant toward Jondi hurt him on a spiritual level. All together that hatred made up an ocean of raging flame, crashing waves seiching waves of fire below him. Jondi fell, plunging like a comet, and fell into the fire.
The ocean of flame churned and swirled, eddying Jondi deeper into its scorching embrace, tugging him down and down until he was drowning in fire. He couldn't breath, couldn't speak, couldn't do anything but feel the brutal magnitude of an entire world of hatred forced upon him all at once.
Then the flames cooled—slightly—and he found the ability to scream, but nothing else. He tried to take advantage of it, trying to yell out to the void so Milivia or Wydel or anyone in Oridian could hear him.
Jondi's scream pierced the air. As it did, so did another.
Then another, and then yet another, and more, more, voices he'd never heard before in his life. Long after Jondi had gone silent in abject horror of what he was hearing in response, the screams around him continued, filling up the inferno. Some sounded vaguely like the outcries of his fellow Inopticans, but others were sounds Jondi had never heard before, torn from lungs native nowhere to Inoptica. They were high-pitched, low-pitched, and everything in-between, sharp like sirens, low like earthquakes, piercing and rending and shattering and never-ending. There were thousands of thousands of screams in the flaming void; millions of millions, billions, more than the sum total of everyone who had ever lived throughout the history of Inoptica.
In the maelstrom of burning rage, Jondi could see faces forming in the fire, the impressions of smoldering eyes and howling eyes and melting, popping features. Jondi's entire world was still on fire with no respite, but that agony wasn't up to par with what he felt when he saw the orchestra performing in the flame.
"CINDERS AND ASHES."
From the bottom of the maelstrom a blazing voice spoke forth, a voice heated with such passion and such malevolence the fire around Jondi became cool in response to it. As the pain dimmed, the choir of screams didn't stop—and they never would—but they quieted as the warden of this hellhole made himself directly known to Jondi. The maelstrom of fire split into six pairs of phoenix wings with feathers of rippling sun-fire, and a long beak of obsidian protruded from the scarlet world, glowing like heated magma. An avian face formed from the flames and so do did a vague body, until the full and fulgent form of the Red King had appeared before Jondi; a phoenix that could end worlds with the flap of his twelve wings. Still caught within his six wings were the agonized faces of all those he had trapped here, to burn for eternities uncounted. Eyes like crimson nebulae blinked open last of all to stare deep and meaningfully into Jondi.
"CINDERS AND ASHES I AND MY BELOVED HAVE LEFT OF YOUR WORLD AND COUNTLESS OTHERS, LITTLE UPLIFITED PRIMITIVE. ARE YOU IMPRESSED WITH MY COLLECTION? GO AHEAD—AND BASK!"
All six of the Red King's titanic wings flapped and a searing current swept across the whole of the Red King's flaming gaol. The screams within the Red King's flame reached a crescendo as he did so, as though he'd jabbed all his captured souls with a heated pitchfork to make his music.
"DO YOU THINK YOUR WORLD IS ALONE IN THIS UNIVERSE? DOES YOUR OWN INOPTICA NOT SIT ON THE PRECIPICE OF AN INFINITELY SUPERIOR WORLD? THAT IS ALL YOU ARE. THAT IS ALL YOUR GOD EVER BROUGHT YOU HERE TO BE; A MEANINGLESS REFLECTION OF A BETTER WORLD." The Red King guffawed, his nebula-eyes flaring, his wicked beak clacking. "THESE SCREAMS ARE ALL REMAINING OF THE WORLDS BEFORE YOURS WE HAVE SCOURED. BEFORE WE PLAYED THE GAME ON INOPTICA, WE PLAYED IT UPON A TINY CIVILIZATION ON THE EDGE OF A DYING STAR. BEFORE THAT WE PLAYED UPON A GLACIAL PLANET WHERE THE MEN AND WOMEN AND CHILDREN WERE ALL SOFT AND MELTABLE. AND BEFORE THAT THERE WERE A HUNDRED-HUNDRED OTHERS, WORLDS LIKE PITIFUL EMBERS IN THE BLACK OF SPACE, NO LARGER THAN YOUR OWN. AND FOR AS LONG AS IT HAD BEEN ENTERTAINING TO US, MY BELOVED AND I HAVE EXTINGUISHED THEM, ONE AFTER ANOTHER. THEIR SOULS; THEIR HISTORIES; THEIR GODS EVER RETURN TO US!"
The details in the Red King's wings changed. There were still the faces burning within the Red King's flames, but now there were the aspects of worlds; civilizations Jondi had never conceived of up in flames, alien forests much like the Wilt scorched to the last fern, simple but flourishing civilizations all put to the torch from one end of the universe to the other.
"DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR GOD IS, PRIMITIVE?" taunted the Red King in his bellowing voice. "COULD YOU WRAP YOUR HEAD AROUND THE CONFLICT YOUR 'WATCHER' AND I HAD BEFORE YOU HAD EVEN BEEN BREATHED INTO EXISTENCE? YOUR GOD FOUGHT HARD, AND YOUR GOD FOUGHT PROUD—LIKE IT THOUGHT IT HAD SOMETHING TO PROTECT—BUT ALL THE SAME WE HAVE SLAIN IT AND CAST IT TO THE DIRT!"
Jondi recognized, now, what was burning within the Red King's flames; the image of Oridian.
His dream on fire. All the lives he'd wasted taking the Crim from the Brood about to be for nothing; all the lives he'd given a home about to be destroyed.
"AND YET...YOU STILL FOUND A WAY TO HURT US, PRIMITIVE. YOU HAD NO IDEA WHAT YOU WERE DOING WHEN YOU MURDERED OUR CHILDREN, DID YOU? YOU HAD NO IDEA WHAT YOU STOLE FROM US, DID YOU?!"
Jondi knew lucidly the Red King and the White Queen had singled him out. He'd been spared by Trick-Jack during the botched moon-strike, he'd been used by Zada to some horrible end, and he'd implausibly been in proxy of every event that had happened since.
All of it came back down to Oridian.
"...YOU HAVE A POWER YOU SHOULD NOT. A POWER YOU TOOK FROM THE RED QUEENS. WHEN YOU BUILT THAT HIDEOUS VILLAGE, YOU WEREN'T FURTHERING LIFE FOR INOPTICA. YOU WERE SEALING ITS DESTRUCTION. YOU WERE GETTING IN THE WAY OF THE GAME. YOU MADE YOURSELF A TARGET."
The White Queen's voice seeped back into Jondi's head.
"all this time wandering the cosmos we have been in search of a world to be, at last, worthy opponents; not pawns in our great game, but equals. you placed yourself in the way. you made yourself the key to the garden when all you should have been was one more life to feed to the flame."
"ALL THIS TIME SEARCHING THE BLACK INFINITY AND WE AT LAST HAVE FOUND THE WORLD WE SHALL PLAY WITH—EARTH! AND YET HERE WE ARE, STILL STUCK UPON THIS DISGUSTING WORLD, BIDING OUR TIME WITH THE LIVES OF YOUR PAGAN GOD'S SLAVES."
"only you can bring us through now."
"ONLY YOU CAN SET US FREE."
"but my, my..."
"...HOW WE HATE YOU."
For the most agonizing instant of his entire life, Jondi felt his spirit stretched between the coils of the White Queen and the talons of the Red King. Part of him felt empty, despairing, like he was falling into a hole with no end; the other part of him felt his pain acutely, like his nerves were being seared away and fire was screaming within his veins. The screams became louder than anything he'd ever heard; a chorus of agony carved from countless millennia of wandering the universe, taking and stealing and burning everything.
The game had been played in Inoptica for ages, but ages before that it had stretched. Jondi knew, seeing the form of Oridian burning, that today, that game ended.
"i wish you were right here with me in the flesh. there is so much pain you'd hidden beneath yourself i'd so love to dig up—there is nothing better to unearth than your own hidden darkness, is there not? so many sensitive secrets. so many fine hairs to pull. so many knives to slip into the places you guard dearest."
"WE SEE YOU. WE SEE YOU AND YOUR KIND SLUMBERING AWAY IN YOUR GRAVEYARD VILLAGE. WE HAVE SUMMONED YOU HERE FOR A FORMAL INTRODUCTION AND A COURTESY WE HAVE SELDOM EVER GIVEN TO A INSIGIFNICANT PRIMITIVE LIKE YOU."
"so don't fear, jondi. don't be afraid of what's to come. we will see you again, and it will be face-to-face. i'm sure you must have so much to say for yourself. so much you must think we need to hear."
"SO HOLD OUT. ENJOY THE SURPRISE WE WE HAVE COMING FOR YOU AND ORIDIAN THIS LOVELY MORNING. THEN WE'LL MEET; THEN WE'LL TALK; AND THEN THE GARDEN OF EARTH BE OPEN TO US."
"you will suffer in ways you can't imagine. through fire and diamond your journey has brought you and at the end of it you will be broken."
"AND THEN, WHEN THE LAST GASP OF LIFE HAS LEFT YOUR LUNGS, I SHALL TAKE YOUR SOUL AND YOU SHALL SING FROM WTHIN MY GAOL FOREVERMORE."
Just before Jondi's soul could snap in twine, Jondi snapped back to Inoptica in a literal instant.
No time had passed this time. Shyla was still looking at him with a soft, concerned frown. Milivia still looked smug and contemptuous, like this was somehow beneath her concern. When Jondi came back to reality it was exactly as it was as he'd left it, until his knees knocked and his breath gave away and he fell to the floor feeling like all the blood had been ripped from his body.
His mind was exploding, the leftover pain and spiritual exhaustion aching from when he'd been forcibly conjured before the Red King and the White Queen by the Ahandi-thing. He still had no real answers—nothing about Dawn, nothing about Zada, nothing about Avis and Wydel—but everything that had seemed urgent in the past minute no longer seemed so much.
All that mattered was that Oridian was in danger.
"What the hell?!" Milivia went as Jondi fell over. With more concern than he would have expected out of her, Milivia was by his side almost as quickly as Shyla, confused. "Are you having a stroke, old man?"
Jondi stood up with Shyla's help. He couldn't speak without wheezing incoherently at first, but his words rushed out breathlessly as soon as he was gathered enough to speak.
Jondi knelt over, through and suppressed a sudden mouthful of vomit from how jolted he'd been. Choking a bit, Jondi looked up and saw Shyla fixing him with an expression halfway between what it had been before and the inquisitive look he'd first seen on her.
"...Did you see the world in the pane again?" she asked,, as if it were just common knowledge.
Jondi nodded, breathlessly. "I...I saw the Red King and the White Queen."
Nobody replied. Jondi wasn't waiting for them do. He rushed outside, and saw something that confirmed his dreadful suspicions.
The entire sky had gone red, a lurid cerise. As it had been in the Red Dawn, so it was about to be again—with Midnight, with Dusk, with Dawn and perhaps Noon itself. Milivia was soon outside after Jondi, and the look of horror on her face told Jondi everything he needed to know about how she was feeling now.
"...It's Kryce," she said, shaking her head. "Oh, no. I didn't think...I didn't truly think he'd be ready to use the Conflagration yet..."
"Milivia, get back inside," Jondi ordered. "Go back, get your remaining brigade, get the night-claws...get them somewhere safe. If you find Avis, bring him to me. Otherwise..."
Jondi inhaled. If this wasn't stopped now, all of Inoptica—and far, far more—would be doomed. This would be the biggest battle Inoptica had ever seen, and he was at the centerpiece of it all.
"I'm going to Oridian. I'm finishing this damn game and I'm finishing it tonight."
Avis had never considered himself much of a religious man before, but sprawled out underneath the red sky he found himself praying.
The sky had been red for the last ten minutes, and Avis hadn't managed to strength to limp far before his knees had given away and he'd fallen over. The pain in his chest was still flaring up, blood ebbing into his robe. His hands were currently locked in a semblance of reverence, his head bowed and his head mumbling a quiet prayer to the Watcher in the language of his long-dead descendants.
He had no reason to disbelieve in the power of the Watcher. There was no other reason as to why he had lived in one world—Earth—before being spirited away into Inoptica and transformed into a thing called a day-vamp. He'd never found any reason to care about the deity that had entrapped him here in the first place, even as the rest in Noon waged wars of worship.
Baffling further to Avis was even the concept of worship. He had almost no interest in humanity, or what lingering parts there were of it. He had long forsaken anything 'human' about him, and he had forsaken perhaps more in dealing with gods he knew could crush the Watcher. If it had been silent for this long, perhaps the Watcher was nothing but dust already.
Yet even with that uncertainty, Avis prayed.
He needed to find strength in something, anything, and his fellow day-vamps had found it in service to the great, fiery Watcher. Even twisted by Talvor's rhetoric, House Noon had always expected providence from the Watcher, crusades of passion across the Wilt all for that supposed divine glory. The Conflagration was meant to be but a shred of the Watcher's power, and here now it was poised to annihilate everything.
Such divine providence, indeed—and yet, Avis continued to pray.
He took strength, for the first time, in what his deluded brothers and sisters always had. He prayed to see his little brothers and sisters safe. He prayed to see Dusk saved from the ravages upcoming for Inoptica. He needed nothing more than the spark to continue on, even if only just long enough to see his crusade fulfilled.
Then Avis stood back up, holding his bloody chest. Prayer could only ever get him so far, but Avis saw—if only in a myopic way—part of what had driven his former brothers so fiercely. Talvor had left them with nothing but the fire and the ray, nothing but the faith he'd perverted so thoroughly.
Avis took in a deep breath, some manner of faith of his own held in his heart, and finally dared to Blink to the day-vamp temple.
That human sentiment carried him a curiously far way, as Avis, contrary to his expectations, held onto life in the ensuing ten seconds of explosive, all-consuming pain.
He'd arrived exactly in front of the temple, collapsed, and started hacking up blood not a second after he'd Blinked. He'd pushed his body to his limit and far past it, slick orange blood dribbling from his wheezing mouth and soaking the white robe through. After the ten seconds had passed and he was finished vomiting blood into the grass, Avis stared up and heard, through ringing ears, clattering footsteps and murky voices. His vision was blurred with pain, but he could tell day-vamps from Milivia's brigade were rushing toward him.
To his dismay, he could also tell the sky was still painted crimson.
He was on the edge of consciousness for a second, barely able to keep himself upright and his breath trembling uncontrollably in his attempts to keep it level. Talvor had taught up to channel his pain into energy; to push on where most others would pass out from stress, fueled by pure manic bloodlust. Avis couldn't channel the agony in his chest as anything but a groaning half-scream that he heard answered by Milivia.
Milivia's voice was fractured through the ringing of his ears. Avis swallowed back what felt like a pint of his own blood and forced himself up onto his wobbling knees. His vision was clearing up, very slightly, as was his hearing.
"Kryce has readied the Conflagration," he managed, even though it hurt to speak. Milivia's dumbfounded reaction told him he was passing on the urgent news a bit late.
"We know," she hissed, Avis reading her lips to make up for that he couldn't hear. "Have you taken a single look at the sky? It's the Red Dawn all over again?"
"Worse," Avis sputtered, plainly and simply. "The death of all Inoptica. Every House. Everyone. This is what the Red King wanted...all along..."
Avis cut off with a gasp. He was running out of breath talking even as tersely as he did. Milivia narrowed her eyes with the thinnest trickle of pity within them before she instructed two of her men.
"Blink him to the infirmary," she said. "One of you get his little kids."
"Are they safe?!" Avis managed, the thought of their terrified faces exploding into his mind. He'd made a promise to Shyla he'd come back alive. He had to keep it. For the sake of his little sister, for all of his family.
For the sake of everyone in Dusk he'd forced himself to murder.
"Safe and sound," Milivia said in a softer tone than Avis was used to from her, as her men took Avis by the shoulders. "Just worried about their brother, is all..."
The two soldiers Blinked with Avis in tow. The pain flared up a bit more, but dimmed quickly; the stress of being Blinked was nowhere near as much as Blinking himself. The infirmary was all but deserted now, and Avis had no plans of staying here himself for long. As he was laid down in one of the stone beds by the guards, Milivia Blinked back into the room. Shadow-surfing up behind her was Shyla.
Avis let a threadbare smile come to his face when Shyla rushed up to him. He felt her small hand press into his, not withdrawing even when her palm soaked with Avis' blood.
"I'm sorry, Shyla," Avis said, with a painful, joyless, blood-soaked laugh. "Sorry you had to see this. So sorry."
"You're going to be alright now," Shyla urged. "You're back with us. You're back now, broth—"
"I can't stay," Avis whispered. He took his gaze away from Shyla's teary face—much as it felt like ripping out part of his own eyes in doing so—and let his head turn to Milivia. "Come closer. I need to speak with you."
Milivia edged closer. She stopped when Shyla tossed a glare back at her. Avis sighed and managed the strength to put a hand on Shyla's shoulder.
"I need to talk to her, sister," he pleaded. "Don't let bad history stand in the way of a good judgment, just this once, sister. Inoptica is about to die...but I know how to stop it."
Avis felt Shyla's quivering hand still clutched firmly to his for fifteen seconds longer, and treasured them all. Then she let go.
"...I can't ask you to promise me to come back this time, can I, big brother?" she said, facing away from him.
Avis sighed, through bitter blood. "No. Not this time, Shyla. I can...I can try my damnedest, but—"
"Don't waste your strength trying to reassure me, Avis," Shyla said, turning around. Despite the tears in her eyes, the subtle anguish in her expression, she was smiling. "You taught me better than that. Even if I lose you...I still have the others. I'll be strong for them no matter what. And even if it ends up being the only thing you have left, just...know you have a family that loves you, Avis."
Avis wanted to smile back to her. Even with the blood in his mouth and the pain in his chest, he wanted to mirror her smile and find some kind of line of hope between them. If this was the last time they saw each other, he wanted to leave her with a memory she could cherish.
He couldn't even twitch up the corners of his mouth; couldn't manage so much as a soft, quiet sigh as Shyla finally crept back into the shadows, leaving him alone with Milivia.
He could only picture the rest of the three-dozen he'd managed to save, in fear and panic, no part of him there to greet them except Shyla's shaken testimony. Milivia minded her silence for a few seconds before she spoke up.
"...How much do your brothers and sisters even know about what you've done, soldier?" she asked. Her tone still lacked the acerbity he was used to from her; perhaps, impossibly, respectful of Avis and his chosen family. "No soldier of Talvor's escaped the brutality. You were there during the crusades. You were there during the Red Dawn. How many night-claws have you killed?"
"Eight-hundred-and-two personally," Avis said, closing his eyes wistfully, the exact number long frozen in his mind. "Thousands by proxy of my service to the King and Queen." He took in a deep, needle-sharp breath. "Only twenty-one children. Had to close my eyes each time. Did them when too many soldiers were watching...killed the soldiers the other times."
Milivia's expression didn't change, and neither did her tone. Her facial language indicated Avis' response had been perfectly in line with her expectations. "And how many day-vamps have you killed?"
"I haven't counted," he replied. "They're worthless. Every single one of them. You, me and your brigade included."
Milivia's eyes narrowed, the first betrayal of emotion in the past few minutes. "I love them. Not a thing you say can change my mind on that, soldier."
"Not trying to. But if you think their lives are worth anything...you'll need to prove it in the hours ahead. I know how to stop the Conflagration."
"It was the final step of my plan when I was still serving the Red King. Kryce only has de facto control over the Conflagration; he's taken it by force. But he hasn't taken the title of Batlord. He never planned on doing so and never would. It would be a disgrace to Talvor. Power over the Conflagration cedes to the Batlord...the same ritual that gave Talvor his wings. The same power that allowed him to bend the Conflagration in the first place."
Milivia nodded, quietly processing Avis' information for a minute before continuing. "So you want to become Batlord."
"...Better you than Kryce. I'd hate you in those wings, not by a long-shot...but I've got no inclination toward the position myself. How do we do this?"
Avis closed his eyes to imagine the location. The location of Noon's sanctum had been a secret Talvor had guarded carefully—he'd never appointed anyone worthy to undertake the ritual to succeed him as Batlord before his demise. He'd been too proud to imagine the world without himself to scar it.
"Underneath House Noon is a sanctum built by our ancestors in Noon," Avis replied. "The details are foggy to me, but a day-vamp may undertake a ritual to make himself Batlord when the incumbent has died. With that power...I can turn the Conflagration out of Kryce's control."
"I'm guessing," Milivia piped in, "that maybe Talvor didn't die for nothing."
Avis closed his eyes and held his silence.
"You killed him, didn't you?" Milivia said. "No. Don't answer that. I'd guessed as much a while back. All I have to ask; why, Avis?"
"Why did I kill Talvor?"
"No. There were a thousand reasons to murder that son of a bitch and you'd be hard-pressed to call a single one of them wrong. I'm asking why you did all this for the night-claws. All of this...comes back to you, Avis. The Conflagration got out of hand because you were playing with fire and let it get loose. That's alright, to me. That's just the way of Noon. It happened to me, it happened to Talvor—it'll happen to Kryce, eventually. But I still don't got a single clue on why you thought your methods made a lick of sense."
"They never needed to," Avis said. "Not to anyone but myself. This mission is only thing I have. Make what you will of my reasons. But they were what told me I wasn't Talvor's dog anymore." Avis took another raspy breath in. "...I thought...maybe I could be better. Here I am. A monster, all the same. Damage control has failed us. Everything of value I've destroyed with my own claws and the rest will follow if we don't act."
With a great deal of effort, Avis sat up and stood up. Milivia winced as he did so.
"Get me some drakeroot, bandages, a sword and a cuirass," Avis ordered, tearing the bloodstained wing-sage robe off himself, baring his bloody wound to the world. The stitching Jondi had used to sew it up had undone somewhat, and it pulsed orange in tandem with Avis' rapid heartbeat. He didn't care anymore if Milivia saw his scars. There were more pressing things. "I'll guide you through Noon, Milivia, but you'll need to do the Blinking."
"I already figured as much," Milivia said, shaking her head as she saw Avis struggling to stand. "You look like you're on the verge of death, Avis."
"It doesn't matter," Avis said. "You saw the sky. I already failed Wydel. Watcher knows what they're doing with her right now. Watcher knows what's happening to all the Houses...but if we have the smallest chance stopping this now, we have to. Even it's a shallow way to atone for having let this spread out of control...I will fight to my last breath, Milivia. Until my soul is but a burning ember."
"Spoken like a true soldier, Avis," Milivia replied. The respect had returned to her voice. "I don't like you. I never will. But I'm damned as much as you are if we don't stop this fight now—so let's go. Back to House Noon."