Wyrren called to Sebastian, and he answered, <I’m in my office. I need to speak to you as well, Wyrren.>
The sun was setting outside. Wyrren hurried on her way to the Grand Meister’s office. Sebastian offered her a tight, small smile when she opened the door. “Wyrren. Come in.”
Wyrren sat across from Sebastian. How to begin?
“Perhaps I should start?” Sebastian asked. He reached into his desk, and pulled out the beautiful wooden box from his desk drawer, the one inlaid with mother of pearl. Wyrren knew that box. She’d found it when she’d desolidified his desk in pieces.
“I’d prepared this for you weeks ago.” Sebastian laid both hands on top. “This belonged to my mother, Wyrren. And my grandmother before her. I think they should be yours now.” He opened the case slowly. The crown’s sapphires and emeralds sparkled at her from their gold settings. They were still stunningly beautiful.
“These are the queen’s gems,” Wyrren said. Her voice was soft.
“I want you to be the next queen of Hael Malstrom.” He extended his hand. “Be my wife, Wyrren? I’ll accept whatever comes of refusing Kartania. It won’t be easy… but nothing worth doing is, after all.”
Wyrren looked from him to his hand, then to the jewels before her. “Sebastian…” Wyrren began, scrambling for the right words. “I love you, Sebastian. I’ve loved you for some time now.” She reached behind her head and took off her mask, folding the straps together. “This is yours now.” She put the mask in his outstretched hand. “I don’t want it anymore.”
Sebastian looked at the mask for a time, then back at her. “I’m glad.” He set the mask aside.
He was waiting for her answer. She could say yes. She could agree. She could be his wife, and put on his crown, damn what Edward Lowar had planned. They’d take whatever punishment the council handed them in retribution. She’d gained and lost the Marlan crown in a day’s time. She could rule another country at Sebastian’s side, a land of magic and sunlight and bountiful food. She could sleep beside the man she loved every night. And she could wait for her chance to confront him with his secret.
Until he read her mind, and she forgot everything.
“This is also yours,” Wyrren said, reached into the bag, and pulled out the diary Edward had stolen from Sebastian the night before. She closed the jewelry box and set the red leather book on top.
Sebastian looked at the diary for a long moment. “How did you come upon my diary, Wyrren?” he asked.
“Edward Lowar stole it from your office last night,” Wyrren said. “He was trying to turn me against you.”
“Of course he would be. He must have told you a fantastic story as well,” Sebastian said.
“Something like that,” Wyrren agreed. “It didn’t work.”
“I… see,” Sebastian said. His lips were pressed thin, his forehead wrinkled.
“Edward is a liar,” Wyrren continued. “I knew that. He might have shocked me… if I hadn’t already seen your fight in the catacombs. Or if I hadn’t found your diary first, days before he made his move.” Wyrren took a deep breath. It was too late to go back now. “I knew your identity before Edward came to me.”
“My identity?” Sebastian questioned.
“You’re half of Gideon Flynn.”
Sebastian’s eyes looked at the ground as if searching for an answer. “The better half of Gideon Flynn,” he corrected her. “Sometimes you are too stubborn for your own good, Wyrren.”
Wyrren felt like she had stepped on rotten ice. Where to go from here? “I want you to trust me,” she said. “I know what’s going on now, Sebastian.”
“You wanted to make me trust you by stealing my diary and learning my darkest secrets. Come now, Wyrren… how does that sound to you?” Sebastian asked.
“Not… a particularly good start,” Wyrren admitted. “I had to look, given the circumstances. I was scared for you. You are falling apart, aren’t you? Would it really be so bad to accept help, Sebastian?”
“You can’t help me, Wyrren. You don’t have the time to help me,” Sebastian said.
“I’m a necromancer,” Wyrren said. “I have a strong connection to Death. Let me try. What do you have to lose? Time?”
“No… but you have time to lose. You have a life to lose, a life to live that will be wasted trying to help me,” Sebastian said.
“It’s my life. I’ll spend it on you if I choose to,” Wyrren said, poking her chest. “You were asking me to spend it with you anyway. The only difference is you don’t get to lie to me anymore.”
“I have to lie to everyone, Wyrren. It’s the only way I can try to rid myself of this curse,” Sebastian said.
“Did Death tell you this?” Wyrren asked.
“No. Death refuses to see me. I am barred from it in every way,” Sebastian admitted. “It wouldn’t just leave me here, with no way to undo what happened, though. There has to be a way. This has to be the way.”
“How long are you going to try one idea before you decide this isn’t the right answer?”
“I was sure this time, though! There couldn’t be anything else, Wyrren. I had tried anything I could think of before. I had all the time in the world to ponder, to formulate the plan.”
“No,” she said. “Only half of you tried everything. You left the other half behind. If Death didn’t want Edward, Death could have cut him out himself. What if you need him?”
“Need him?!” Sebastian shouted indignantly. “I don’t need that cast off! That trash! He’s the problem to begin with! He’s the parts of me that put me in this situation! This is his fault!
“He caused the mistakes! I have to correct them. He doesn’t have the sense, the drive, or the will to correct his own mistakes. He’ll be left behind once I’ve finished. Left to rot!” Sebastian declared. He was beginning to become visibly unhinged.
“Sebastian…” Wyrren got to her feet.
“No, Wyrren! I am tired. Tired of living and feeling nothing, tired of being forced to make these kinds of choices. I’ve worked and I’ve slaved, and for what? To see it all ruined over and over again by that bastard!” Sebastian slammed his fist down on his desk, which split down the center. The queen’s crown and the diary slid into the crack, along with the rest of his paperwork. “He might not be able to die, but he can suffer like any man.”
Wyrren stepped back. Her legs hit the chair she’d been sitting in, and she looked at Sebastian in fear and pity. When she spoke, she forced herself to keep her tone gentle. “Let me help you.”
Sebastian ran his hand up his face and through his hair. “Do you think this all wrong, Wyrren?” he asked. “Do you think I’ve been doing this wrong, trying to break this curse in the wrong way?”
“Yes,” Wyrren said. “I do.”
Sebastian exhaled and shut his eyes. “Then I renounce it.”
He threw his coat from his back, took off his pendant and his rings, everything that represented his status. It all fell to the floor. “I am not beholden to these people or this council any longer. I’ll try things your way.” He started for the door.
Wyrren stepped in his way. “Where are you going, Sebastian?”
“To expose that malformation for what he is, and to present him his reward for years of antagonizing me.”
Wyrren grabbed his arm. “Sebastian, no! Don’t go out there.” Not like that.
“Wyrren, call your girls and contact Kearn. I’m giving you my authority to see the city evacuated,” Sebastian said, pulling away. “This will be my last order as Grand Meister.”
“Do not fight Lowar!” Wyrren grabbed for him again. “Sebastian! Gideon!”
Sebastian wrenched his arm away from her. “Wyrren, I’m sorry,” he said, and waved his hand.
She fell onto wild grass in the dark. The portal snapped shut behind her.
Blinkerbugs flew all around. She saw trees, the night sky, dead grass where she’d fallen. No buildings. No man-made lights. She stood and called, “Sebastian? Gideon!” She sent him a mental message, but he did not respond.
There was the rise of a hill nearby. She started for it, climbed up the grassy slopes in her palace slippers and looked down once she’d gotten to the top. The city Valdenemus was ablaze with light and no bigger than a coin on the horizon.
“No,” Wyrren whispered.
Evacuate the city, Sebastian had ordered.
‘Remember what happened last time we fought near a city?’ Edward had said. Two immortal biskmatars, about to come face to face. And she’d just taken away the reason Sebastian had not confronted Edward: the sake of preserving his facade. She clamped her teeth down and stared at the city until her jaw hurt.
<Kearn,> she thought, <Sebastian asked me to relay his last order as Grand Meister. We need to evacuate Valdenemus.> She was not a good runner, and if that hill was any indication she would only hurt herself in those shoes. She sat down on dead grass and recreated a pair more suited to athletics.
<His last order as Grand Meister…? I’m not sure I understand, Lady Jadis,> Kearn returned.
<He threw off his pendant and rings,> Wyrren replied. She got to her feet and ran down the hill, toward the distant city. Even then, she was sure she’d never reach it in time. It would take hours. Could Edward and Sebastian fight for hours? <He’s quitting. He wants you and the murder to evacuate the city, and you must do it quickly. Start wherever Edward Lowar is.> She felt a slight wind against her face, barging past clouds of blinkerbugs as she ran.
<Edward Lowar? Why…? He’s in the council chambers, with the council. They just called an emergency meeting an hour ago,> Kearn replied. <I need an explanation, Wyrren.>
<Sebastian just called you. What exactly did he say?>
<He said that you had his full authority,> Kearn said. <And then he didn’t reply to any of my questions. Evacuation, though? The city is swamped with tourists!> Kearn projected the mental equivalent of taking a long, deep breath. <The city is yours, Lady Jadis.>
Wyrren’s lungs felt hot and tight, even as she started climbing the next hill. <I want at least three of the murder in the council building, getting people to safety. Concentrate your efforts on the government district, but announce the evacuation city-wide. Tell the people…> What should he tell the people? Something to alarm them without panicking them, something to discourage bravado. She couldn’t keep running at this pace, not for long. <Tell them that some hazardous spell has been set off near Palacia del Torlo, and they should move to ensure their safety. All parties are cancelled. Can you make that sound more official, Kearn?>
<I can,> Kearn answered. There was a brief pause before his mental voice returned. <City-wide announcements have been made. I’m sending the golems and Corvin into the council building. The triplets will be with me in the government district, and the law enforcement has been called to see the rest of the city to safety. Is there anything else, Lady Jadis?>
<Two last things,> Wyrren said, breathing hard. She reached the top of the next hill and stopped to rest, gasping for air. <Do not try to evacuate Edward or Sebastian. Stay as far away from them both as possible.
<Sebastian sent me through a portal outside the city. Northeast, I think. Is there any way you can transport me back to Valdenemus without sacrificing the integrity of your evacuation?> She’d run back to the city until her legs wouldn’t carry her any farther if there was no other way, but maybe Kearn would have an alternative.
<I can’t transport you personally, but I will send someone to collect you,> Kearn returned.
<Do it,> Wyrren said, let herself stop at the second hill’s summit and gasped for air. <I’ll signal.>
<Keep an eye upwards,> Kearn said.
The skies above Wyrren were clear, save for the blinkerbugs dancing about. Wyrren sat and turned dirt to sand, then sand to a Marlan flare, which she sent shrieking into the sky. A minute later she shot another. The flare crackled like a firework and the transfer made her head spin.
Though it was a clear night, Wyrren swore that she heard thunder.
One light in the sky to began to grow brighter than the rest—golden and glowing, from the size of a blinkerbug light to that of an eagle, then to a monster. The massive bird flew toward her, circled, and landed nearby; the ground shook and little stones jumped at the impact. Sparks of electricity flew from its wings. Wyrren almost had her breath back—the roc took it away again. It must have been as tall as a building.
Wyrren ran to it, and she climbed on its back when it knelt down to her. Wyrren got a good grip around its neck. “Remind me, which one are you?” Wyrren asked. She could never keep the triplets straight.
<Undil, Lady Jadis. It’s nice to see you again. To the city center then?> he asked.
<Outside the council building,> Wyrren said, and made sure she had a good grip. <And fast.>
<Your wish is my pleasure, Lady Jadis,> Undil returned. With one powerful motion of his wings they were propelled into the air, sparks flying beneath. Undil turned in the air and shot for the council building like an arrow. The sky roared behind them.
Wyrren hung on for dear life, eyes squinted against the wind. Her hair stood up on end, only countered by the speed at which they flew. She saw wilderness beneath them, then farmland and farmhouses, brief flashes of small rural parties. She saw the city walls, the city gates, the city roofs.
Ahead of them Wyrren saw the council building. Then part of the roof collapsed, black and violet eating away at its center. People in fine dress ran from the government district, but seemed to have no consensus on where to go. There was a phoenix in the air above the city, a big man in frozen armor. Wyrren began to hear a voice in her head, calmly announcing an emergency evacuation. The council building jumped again. Wyrren swallowed hard. <After we land, I’m going to run inside. See the rest to safety, Undil.>
<Of course. Lady Jadis, are you certain you should be running in there alone?> Undil asked, beginning his descent.
<Ironically, I don’t think anyone can help me,> Wyrren returned, and buried her face in Undil’s feathers. She felt his body move with the impact of landing, then slid from Undil’s back. “Thank you,” she said, looking up at the building. Windows were broken. Walls were cracked. Statues had been toppled. An entire portion of the structure had been torn away it seemed, and resettled almost in its old position.
She opened the double doors with both hands and sprinted inside.
No magical lights glowed in the halls anymore. Chunks of the building seemed to be missing, eaten away in meandering swaths. The artwork that still stood hung at angles if it hung at all, and as Wyrren ran something shook the building, throwing her against the wall. She struggled to her feet and continued on to a T-intersection, beyond which she found a set of stars. Past the art, past toppled seats, marble floors covered with spilled paper and ink, past a small fire that had started at the end of a hall and the smoke that seemed to follow her through the building until she found the door to the balcony. It rattled violently on its hinges, and Wyrren could hear the sound of rushing air behind it. She caught the handle and threw it open.
The wind caught her first, a roaring hurricane that threw her flat against the nearest wall. The door she’d opened wrenched at its hinges, slamming back and forth with the wood splintering with every swing. Wyrren had just enough foresight to throw herself to the floor and cover her head before the door let loose and slammed above her. Then the hurricane threw the door to the other side of the great chamber, one more crash in the cacophony. Wyrren couldn’t be sure, but she thought she heard laughter.
“Sebastian!” she shouted, as loud as she could. She had trouble making out her own voice, and received no reply.
The high ceiling of the council chamber had been torn away; Wyrren could see the night sky through the whirl of the debris. Tongues of fire looped around the chamber, and several chairs that remained bolted to the balcony burned. Most of the room’s light emanated from the center, a swirl of white that Wyrren couldn’t look at directly. That would be where Sebastian and Edward would be, the chamber center below the balcony. That was where she needed to go. The wind pressed her against the wall she crouched beside, and her eyes followed the floor and the balcony rail, looking for some way to get there. Part of the balcony had collapsed much further on, forming a makeshift ramp. Almost all the seating had been pried up, but the bolts and metal supports held still. Things she could hold onto.
Wyrren crept to the edge of her wall. The six feet from her shelter and the nearest viable handhold felt like an impenetrable chasm, and her eyes raised to the wall and the door and numerous chairs embedded deep within wood and plaster.
When the wind fluctuated, she dove and grabbed a metal rung and began pulled herself from post to post, slowly and steadily crossing the seating and closer to the collapsed floor. The wind pushed and pulled at her. Sometimes she felt as if it were trying to lift her. Nearly a quarter of the way to her destination she felt something go into her leg, and had to wrench it out again, one-handed and by feel. She came up with a metal scrap, the last several inches stained in her blood, and tossed it. The wind carried it away. She passed an intact chair, cracks in the floor, one several inches wide. A banister railing slid down the floor like an ancient jouster’s lance she’d seen in the local history books. The building trembled, the light flared and receded. One of the walls began to crumble entirely, and the furnishings from the next room were incorporated into the whirlwind.
Then Wyrren felt the floor under her shift, groan, and rise under her. She hung weightless for a moment. Then it all came crashing down.
Wyrren’s handhold bent, and her grip slipped and sliced her hand. The balcony groaned and crashed onto the floor.
Wyrren felt the wind lift her, and held out her arms to catch herself. She heard her arm and wrist snap, then fell prone to the floor beside a pile of rubble. Her arm right arm curved like a snake, turning in directions her bones did not point in. Her head spun, and she curled into a fetal position around her broken arm, nauseous and thinking desperately for a way out, any way to get out. She shouldn’t have come in here. She should have gotten Undil to follow her. Why did she do this? Why did she always do this?
Darkness tinged with violet edges ate away at the floor nearby, leaving nothing in its wake. She heard Sebastian yelling, then an explosion so bright that afterward she could see nothing at all—white under her eyelids and blackness before her, except for the biskmatry fragments devouring the floor. She could see that clearly, every speck of it as it moved embedded in her head. The ground shook again. She heard crashing, crackling, smoke, the sting of debris striking her skin.
The blackness and violet reached her and gobbled the tip of a finger.
Pain like Wyrren had never felt before filled her, pain to make her curving, bulging arm seem like a dull ache. She was on her feet again, facing the wind, her good arm shielding her face, her unsteady legs backing away from the biskmatry. The wind wasn’t as strong here as it had been on the balcony. It pressed at her, but did not threaten to lift her up.
“— bury you, Lowar!” Sebastian shouted ahead of Wyrren. “—bury — — this city — — self-important bullshit!”
Wyrren’s jaw hurt from clenching her teeth. She retreated a step from the darkness. The biskmatry followed, as if it wanted her in particular. More of it was coming. A rock struck her chest. She took another step back, pinned against the rubble. The darkness advanced and surrounded her, like something intelligent: it formed a ring and closed in.
“Sebastian!” Wyrren yelled, as loud as she could. “Sebastian!”
The darkness crept closer. She shifted her foot, putting an extra few inches between her shoe and the approaching wave. Sebastian didn’t break away from his fight. She doubted he even heard.
Edward had told her that necromancy was a counter to biskmatry. She hoped that he was right.
She thought of Death more desperately than she ever had before. She thought of the wilting, dead grass under her feet. She thought of the friends she had lost in Marla, then the men she had killed there herself, the Vastii palace that had looked so much like this after the coup. It all came to her at her call, and she felt her broken body radiate with the energy. The biskmatry closed in, outlining her feet and did not progress.
Wyrren took a step forward blindly into the abyssal blackness. The biskmatry cleared just enough to form an island where she put her foot down.
Stiff limbs and faded feathers. Wyrren took another step. Without her vision, she had no way to see what the wind was sending her way; fire streaking or stones hurtling through the air. Something crashed in front of her, but she continued on to where she knew Sebastian and Edward stood.
Rabbits stiff with rigor mortis. Another step. Bones stabbing through petrified skin. Another. Meat eaten, joints gnawed, ball-joints broken. Another. Every fish and eel she had ever dined on. Endings and dust. The biskmatry followed her, pressing in, barely held back.
Her eyesight began to return, enough to barely see color. She was inside a glowy haze of light now, and could just make out a green blur on her left—Edward and his long green coat, snapping around him. There was Sebastian on her right in dark colors, and she could just make out a deep rift in the floor between them.
“Give it up, Sebastian! We both know how this ends!” Edward shouted over the chaos.
Then she was out of the hurricane and into the storm’s eye. She staggered, then thrust herself between the two men, where they would be sure to see her, and shouted as loudly as she could, “STOP!”
The biskmatry dispersed.
The wind stopped. Rock and rubble fell to the floor.
They wouldn’t hurt her. Not intentionally.
“Your arm.” Sebastian broke the silence first. He stepped forward.
“Just…” Wyrren gasped for a breath, and waved him back with her good arm. His concert for her was the only thing holding his attention. “Just stop! Stop.”
Sebastian stopped. “…What are you doing here?”
“You pushed me out of the city,” Wyrren said, and let herself drop. Being on the ground helped her dizziness, but she had to swallow down bile rising up her throat. “I want you to stand down, both of you. Yes, you as well, Edward. You’re still half of the problem.”
“I’d like to think I was only one quarter of the problem,” Edward said.
“Edward, please shut up before Sebastian goes insane again.” Wyrren looked in Sebastian’s direction, her hands held out palm down before her. “Please. Please believe me. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go, Sebastian. However much you hate him, I think you need him more. Please.”
“What? I don’t need him! I never needed him!” Sebastian insisted.
“And if it costs you your death?” Wyrren asked. “Haven’t you spent five thousand years trying everything else? What if you’re wrong, Sebastian? What if you do need him? What if this is what’s standing in your way? What would you lose?!”
Sebastian was silent for a long moment. “… Nothing,” he finally admitted.
“And if you try, and you are sure I was mistaken later… what is there to stop you from splitting yourself again?” Wyrren asked.
“Certainly not him,” Sebastian spat.
“I want you to try,” Wyrren said. He had to try.
“You want me to try. Why? What makes you think that I need him, Wyrren?” Sebastian asked.
“Because you’re missing part of yourself,” Wyrren said.
“There’s nothing good to be said for him!” Sebastian countered.
“He’s your sense of humor,” Wyrren said. “And he has your sense of passion. He’s your suave charm and your quick wit. And yes, he’s your sneaky, conniving side. We all have that. We deal with it as best we can.” She paused to catch her breath, then continued. “And you are his responsibility. You’re his sense of duty. His discipline. He has always needed you, hasn’t he?”
“If he needed me, then why did he run?” Sebastian asked. “Why has he done nothing but try to break me?!”
“Edward?” Wyrren asked.
“You…” Edward seemed to be without words for perhaps the first time since Wyrren had known him. “We broke each other apart. I had no idea what had happened. You want the truth, Sebastian? You scare me. You still scare me. Look at what you’re doing to the people around you. To your wives. To your sons. You wouldn’t see me at all. You wouldn’t talk. I had to force you. You didn’t give me any other choice.”
“I’m doing this to gain my mortality. Sacrifice is required. You wouldn’t know anything about that!” Sebastian said.
“Stealing the lives of your children makes you a monster, not a mortal,” Edward said.
“What does that make you then?” Sebastian asked.
“Everything you’re missing,” Edward said. “Everything you need to make it through an eternity.”
Sebastian seemed to be considering.
Wyrren looked between them, silent. The ruin of the council was still. She made herself stagger in Sebastian’s direction, slowly, painfully. She stopped before him, on her knees. “Please,” she said. “If you don’t trust him… then trust me.”
She could almost see his face by now. Sebastian looked down at her for a long, silent moment. Wyrren hoped.
Then he held out his hand to Edward. Edward hesitated only for a moment, then jumped over the fissure between them and grabbed Sebastian’s hand.
Another flash of blinding light enveloped them both. Wyrren, on the floor a few feet away, covered her eyes and looked away. The light faded. Edward Lowar and Sebastian del Torlo had vanished with it. The room became dark, lit only by moonlight through the broken roof and the glow of the emptied city.
One man remained. He stood naked where Sebastian and Edward had been, his chest rising and falling as he breathed. He picked up a pair of underclothes first, then a pair of pants, and put them both on. He grabbed Edward’s long green coat, but stopped dressing when he noticed her there on the floor. He knelt down beside her. “Let me see your arm,” he whispered. A different voice. A different man.
Sebastian was gone.
He touched her arm gently, and his hand glowed green. “I’ll try to keep this from hurting.”
Wyrren heard her bone crunch again, and was struck not by pain, but the clear wave that she ought to be in pain. He set the bone back into place and healed her arm and wrist. He pulled a piece of metal from her leg, put his hand on the side of her face and let her see clearly again. The fingertip clipped by biskmatry closed, but did not regrow. Her last finger on her left hand no longer had a nail.
Gideon Flynn had dark hair long enough to fall into his face, but despite this Wyrren could just make out his expression: a mixture of longing and adoration. It scared her. He took her hand and kissed it. “Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s been so long.”
“You’re welcome,” Wyrren said. She put her hand over her slack mouth and looked down.
Gideon caught her hand and pushed it away. “You never needed your mask, Wyrren.”
“You know me?”
“I’m Sebastian.” Gideon frowned, then seemed to reconsider, and his mouth curved into a little smile. “Almost Sebastian. Almost Edward. Not quite either. It’s… hard to explain. But yes, I know you.
“I have something I need to say to you. I should have said this weeks ago. Wyrren Jadis, I love you. I love you more than anything, a thousand times over. Forgive me?”
Wyrren let his hand go. She felt very unsure about all this, but she put her palm against his cheek and studied his face. His eyes were pale now, blue or gray, and his cheeks were scratchy against her fingers. She turned his head, looking for something of Sebastian or Edward in his eyes. He wrinkled his nose and looked vaguely offended for a moment, and then Wyrren saw them both—Sebastian’s press of his lips, the lift of Edward’s eyebrows, as if asking ‘are you quite done yet?’. She gasped and lunged, catching him in a tight hug around the shoulders. “I didn’t know what you were going to turn into,” she said. “I thought I might lose you.”
“No. Never,” Gideon said. “I’m yours as long as you’ll have me. Such as I am.”