CHAPTER ONE: GOING HOME
The answer to Silent's question--Why aren't you shaking? As if everyone would have the same reactions--was that Archer had seen plenty of battlefields. She was a xia. Of course she had seen her friends fall in battle, of course she had breathed the stench of blood through her mouth, of course she had slipped in puddles of things she would rather not identify. But she didn't say anything of the sort. If she had, Silent would simply insist that this was different.
Archer felt her mouth draw into a thin line as she stared at Eden's body, whose slender form had become tangled with the black armored figure of the Dark Lord. Eden's white robes had been stained with blood, both hers, his, and somebody else's, and her fingertips rested just a hairsbreadth away from the knife hilt protruding from the Dark Lord's heart. When she considered that it was Eden who was dead, Silent was right: this was different.
The xia bent to smooth Eden's black hair away from her face, her fingers cupping the dead woman's cheek. Like any pain-bearer, death had apparently been rapturous for her. All the fear and sorrow and despair that had filled Eden's expression in the moments before she died had faded away, leaving only the satisfaction. The Dark Lord, of course, probably hadn't been so fortunate, but Archer was hesitant to take off his helmet and find out.
Her fingers trailed from Eden's cheek to her throat, resting in the faintly warm hollow of her collarbones. She lightly touched the pain-bearer's necklace with her fingertips, then curled her hand around it and yanked. The weak silver links snapped almost instantly, and she stood, the simplistic token clutched in her fist.
She looked around, taking stock of who had survived. The child, Dollie, had of course lived--Eden had given her life to make sure of it--and Silent was weeping in a corner somewhere, Archer could hear it. Dirk was staring, shell-shocked, at Spark's body. And Gray...
He looked none the worse for wear. The numerous dark splotches on his cloak and clothing could easily have passed for water had she not known better. Only a few flecks of blood spattered his face, and even those most likely weren't his. He returned her gaze, eyes unflinching. For once, he volunteered a sentence. "We can't stay here."
Dollie shifted away from Dirk and ran full-tilt for Gray. She was tiny. Archer was amused to see that the child's light weight didn't so much as make Gray twitch when she wrapped her arms around his knees. Dollie peered out from beh0ind Gray, in a fashion that would have been shy, had Dollie not been completely expressionless. "Can't stay," she echoed.
Dollie was not Archer's favorite member of the group, never had been. Hell, she'd spoken out against the idea of taking a child with them into certain danger and almost-certain death. At the time, it hadn't been because Dollie was more unsettling than going toe-to-toe with the unliving remains of one's parents. Unfortunately, Dollie had not exactly endeared herself.
The sobbing from the northeast stopped. Archer waited a few seconds--and that was really the only way to make sure you knew where Silent was; you waited, and then she was there--and noted that Silent chose to appear behind Gray's left shoulder. His weak side. Dollie, of course, gave a little squeak at the sudden presence of the shortest fighter immediately behind her, to which neither Gray nor Silent responded.
Before Silent could say anything, Dirk bent over, plucked his knife from the eye socket of a fallen dark soldier, and drawled, "If we're going to move, we should move now. Wouldn't want to find out if the legends are true, would we?"
Dollie stuck her thumb in her mouth, probably not comprehending. The legends Dirk meant were old, so old Archer had only heard the barest whispers of them as a child, when she'd asked why the heroes who had slain the Lady had never returned.
If she'd been an animal, Silent's ears would have perked. Archer could see it in her expression and posture as she leaned a little toward Dirk. "Legends?"
Gray ended the discussion before it could begin, wiping the blood from his sword and then sheathing it. He adjusted his cloak slightly, lifting the hem out of a puddle of blood, and then moved toward the room's only exit with a curt, "No time."
* * *
The legends were true. The Glittering Palace, all the bards claimed, was sustained by the Lady, a beautiful woman the Dark Lord took to wife, then made a sacrifice of. She became one with the moon and the ice that ruled the Frostfang. She became the incarnation of the ice spirit Sahieve, whom the Dark Lord had enslaved long ago. It was the will of the Lady that kept the Dark Lord's palace still standing and not melting in the sunlight.
But they'd killed the Lady; Oath had mowed right through her, very nearly bisecting her with just a couple of swings of his sword. Archer herself had paused only long enough to put another knife in her throat and jam a dark soldier's arrow in her eye. Incarnations of the worldspirits were known to be difficult to kill.
Silent stopped to touch one of the spires that formed the palace. It was sweating, melting. Silent's fingers actually left an indentation. Water began to pour off the column, ever faster.
Gray jerked her back. "Idiot. Run!"
Silent clenched her hands into fists, but for once she didn't argue. They ran, trying not to notice how the floor warped beneath their feet. How they skidded and slid along the floor. At one point, after Dollie tripped, Archer saw Gray simply pick the girl up. She was clearly feather-light in his arms.
Silent wrapped her fingers around Dirk's wrist, pulled him along with her. They went slipping away, feet splashing in puddles. Pillars made strange cracking noises.
Archer was almost happy to see the gate. It looked just as massive and stately as it had when first she saw it. All those columns, arranged in a style not even Haniyya used. The imitation of some foreign stone. She almost liked its elegance and grace; the Dark Lord might have been evil, might have turned the guardian of the Frostfang against herself, but at least he had good taste.
The ever-present snow fell in thick blotches. It turned Gray's cloak salt-and-pepper, made Silent look as if she'd aged twenty years. Archer knew she probably looked the same; snowflakes blurred on her eyelashes, probably dusted her hair. It certainly dusted the corpses of dark soldiers, who lay amidst the sharp, glittering ice and soft sparkling snow. Strange offerings at the foot of a stranger altar. Archer kicked one, remembering the black-feathered arrows they'd put in her gorget. The black-feathered arrows that had sent Spark to a place far beyond Eden's reach.
They deserved whatever hell Andieve had in store for them. Archer's hand strayed to the Crown of Haniyya she'd tied to her throat after the fight. Eden's crown, hers by right of blood and birth. Oath had married better than he knew. Or perhaps not. The Crown was distinctive. Any freeborn son of Haniyya and its surrounding territories ought to recognize it, even if his bride wore it at her throat and not her hair.
"Please," Dirk gasped as they pounded out through the final gate, hearts racing, bodies aching, grief breaking. "Please."
His nameless prayer--the nameless, wordless plea they were all echoing--was answered. No new dark soldiers manning the gate. No new dark soldiers guarding the Via Dominica. Even though they were running downhill, they wouldn't have had the energy to fight. Not after the losses of Oath, Eden, and Spark. Not after the struggle to weaken the Dark Lord.
"Thank the Lady," Dirk breathed.
Archer didn't put a hand to her mouth, though she almost wanted to. He couldn't have meant the White Lady, the spirit they had just killed. Only pain-bearers and those from Haniy truly worshiped the incarnated spirit. The rest simply paid her lip service.
"Rather sacrilegious," Gray remarked, slowing to a walk and shifting Dollie on his hip. She clutched his gray cloak with tiny, trembling fingers.
Silent slowed too, pulling her arms behind her in a stretch. The gesture was casual, at ease, but there was a faint tremor in her fingers and her skin had gone gray. No matter how inscrutable she tried to be, Silent was easy to read if you knew how. "Where next? I have friends in the Lotus."
No. Not the Lotus. Archer tasted blood in her mouth, smelled year-old promises. There was one more thing to do. She had a vow to keep, a promise she'd made to a man who never broke his word and a promise she'd made to the women he loved.
"No," she said, staring up at the coin of the sun and knowing the others wouldn't disagree. "No. We go to Haniyya, where Eden was born."
Silent opened her mouth, only to be cut off by Gray. "We'll stop in the Lotus on the way."
Archer stayed quiet. It was true. Considering how far north they were, and how far southwest Haniyya was, they'd have to.
Resolving where they would go next left one more problem: how. There were two exits from the godforsaken mountain some called the Frostfang and others called the Swordspoint. They could take the Corpsemarche--barren and depressing, seldom-traveled, but flat and an easy walk--or the Via Dominica, through the Teeth of the World. The Teeth were brutal; all sharp, jagged peaks and hard, open-mouthed valleys. If they survived, the Via Dominica would be a shot shot south to Yuufei, also called the Lotus, and then Haniyya, capital city of Haniy.
If they survived.
"The fastest way is through the mountains." Gray wrapped his cloak around Dollie, again shifting her on his hip. She clung to him, wrapping short chubby arms around his neck and lacing her fingers under his hair.
Silent shook her head, rubbing at her arms in a rare fidget. Probably because it was so cold. "That's the fastest way to die."
Gray narrowed his eyes. "With Sahieve released from His service, the mountains won't stand against us."
"We caused her pain, and there's no human to bind her power to the living world. She's not going to help us."
Just as Archer put her gloved hand to the bridge of her nose, Dirk exploded. Perhaps it was the memory she knew they were all thinking about, the memory of Oath, beautiful and terrible with his sword, body poised and perfect as he delivered the cut of a lifetime, a century, a cut cleaner than Gray had ever given. A cut that went through the thin, whipcord body of the Lady's human incarnation with one slice and made Archer remember why the xia of Aomori had long called death an art when she had learned the grim truth that death and dying were painful and hard and ugly, no glory or beauty anywhere.
"You!" Dirk pointed at Gray. "Do you want to die?"
For once, Gray's expression changed. Archer detected complete and total surprise in the arching of both his eyebrows and the way his mouth opened a little. Dirk didn't exactly get along with anybody, but he'd never openly challenged Gray or Oath. And now he had. He'd raised his voice at Gray, who had always come down on Oath's side, giving the final word and a nasty glare to silence any dissenters.
When Gray didn't answer, Dirk turned and pointed at Silent. "And you! Do you want to see them?"
Naturally, Silent had an answer for him. "I'd rather see them than die."
It was a good answer. They had better things to do than die, especially now that the Dark Lord was dead and Eden's dream was within reach. Gray conceded the point with a tilt of his head and Archer nodded her agreement. The Corpsemarche it would be.
* * *
They made good time. It was perhaps two days' walk to from the base of the Frostfang to the northeastern reaches of the Corspemarche, and almost all of it was downhill. Gray picked Dollie up and carried her, since they had no horses, and she passed the walk without complaint. For all that she lacked the ability to endear herself to others, she was at least well-mannered.
At night, when they camped, Archer found herself again struck by the incongruity of that dirty, cracked porcelain doll. A quarter of its face--its right temple and right eye--was completely missing, but what remained of the doll and its dress looked expensive. Far too expensive for a peasant child to have.
The next day, their first day in the Corspemarch proper, dawned far too early for anyone's taste. Even in the morning, the sun was hot and the air was moist. Their proximity to the Sun's Anvil was making itself known. Despite the wet air, the plants were dry, as if the water they lived in and practically breathed could not touch them. Archer could feel the water in the air cling to her leathers, making her gorget stifling. She tugged a finger down into the space between the gorget and her neck, but it didn't alleviate the feeling of strangling.
All around the road, half-dead brown weeds shaded stagnant pools and puddles. They were tiny lakes, deeper than they looked, and yet still not deep at all. Like fly-infested mirrors on the ground. Pale white faces floated beneath the water. Archer got a glimpse of tangled red-brown hair and closed her eyes against the very thought. Spark wasn't here, trapped in this limbo where the Dark Huntress only half ruled. She was at peace with Andieve. She had to be; she had been joined by Oath and Eden, her best beloved, and the Dark Lord was dead.
The ground was flat, so flat it made her feet ache with every step. She hadn't expected it to be this completely flat. It was almost as if whatever worldspirit that governed this place wanted them to look into the pools that were just beginning to dot the landscape. Then again, it wasn't like there was much else to look at.
Except her companions. Archer turned to look at the other survivors of Eden's desperate hopes. Dirk had pulled up the hood of his cloak, as well as tied on his black mouth guard. It left his face virtually invisible and completely unreadable. He hadn't worn either since they killed the Dark Enchantress.
So. He had something to hide. Archer wasn't surprised; he'd never been the type to bare his weaknesses, but he wasn't made of stone, either.
Speaking of people made of stone, she felt Gray draw her gaze. He looked much the same as he always did. There was no expression on his face. He gave no sign that Dollie was a burden. His steps were even and light, despite the heavy pack and the child clinging to his neck. She almost envied him his solidity.
Silent bore the trip with good grace. It took Archer a few moments to find her; she'd drifted behind the rest of the party, lingering at pathside puddles, half-entranced with the faces she saw. It was different for everyone. No two people saw the same faces, though tight-knit groups such as families (or their own, perhaps?) might have a few similar visions.
The way Silent stopped, one might think she'd lost more people than she'd ever claimed. Archer reflected on the fact that Silent had never revealed her true name and wondered why. What could a girl from Yuufei who was at her best in a fight possibly have to hide? What had she done--or not done, or to whom had she been born--that leaving the wards of Yuufei could make her a target for sorcery?
Archer stuck her finger down between her gorget and her skin again, the nails of her other fingers itching against the intricately carved leather. It was the only thing she had left of her gon ban dya. She took obsessively good care of it. Those had been some of the happiest days of her life, despite the blood and death she had soaked her hands in.