To Kill a Prince
But maybe it was for the best that she didn’t. Such a reaction had its uses.
As she took a deep breath to settle her stomach the empty bay began to fill up with light as first Anna and then the other AI from the various ships of the aerial strike force began to materialize. The fleet was composed of close to 18 ships, but only a handful were large enough and complex enough to warrant the use of an animating intelligence.
“We’ve crossed into the shadowland and will reach the target location in 73 seconds.” The AI from the Tearing Gale was the first to speak. As the primary (and really only) gunship in the fleet it tended to act with the most aggression, providing information and assessment even when not asked. Still, it was hard to maintain any kind of ill will towards it. To date it was the only animating intelligence created by Kadon, and he had fashioned it after Nessa. And now that Nessa…
Mnemia only nodded, as if she didn’t already know. “And the others? Is everyone else in position?”
Wait, who else is here?
This time it was the AI of Mercury’s Envy that responded. She was serving as the command hub for the operation given her speed and maneuverability. ”Two of the three fangs have breached the city proper. The third faced unusual resistance at the northern gate, but Zuko and Scarlet are redirecting their infiltration unit to provide support. The fang on the Glorious Will will deploy with you when you land. The reinforcements on the Nimbus Voyager and Aurora Dancer are ready to deploy as needed. Kadon is aboard the Tearing Gale, coordinating the aerial assault. Fire Orchid is coordinating the battle at large from the bridge of Mercury’s Envy.”
Mnemia nodded again. Everything seemed to be in place but something was not right. What was she missing?
“And the enemy, have they responded as expected? Any surprises aside from the northern gate?”
“None.” Mercury’s Envy continued to speak for the strike force. ”As expected, most of the enemy’s forces are fleet bound, conducting raids of their own.”
“And how bad is it?”
“We have few reports, but none of them bear good news. It seems it was not hyperbole when he claimed he had the means of conquering all of Creation.”
“Then we cannot fail here.” Mnemia concluded as she turned away from the projections to look at the bay door that would begin to open in just a few seconds.
All of Creation?
“We are approaching the drop zone.” Mercury’s Envy continued as the outer doors began to pull open. With Mnemia now watching the gray sky seep into the ship the AI began to disappear, light particles once bound in place now released sped away with their new found freedom, until only one remained. Matching her step for step Anna stayed with Mnemia as the exalt walked to the edge of the platform.
“The moment you need me I will be there.” The dead woman whispered, a sound that should have been lost to the roar of the wind filling the hold.
“As you always are.” Mnemia responded with a soft smile.
Neither of them spoke again as Mnemia waited for Mercury’s Envy to reach the target location. As it did the screams of the wind died, providing a moment of calm and silence before Mnemia pushed away from the ship and plummeted 200 feet to the city below.
The exalt landed hard, driving a small indentation into the dirt where she hit the ground. But her unusual strength protected her now, her muscles wrapping around bones and organs, weathering the force of the impact. Turning her gaze from the ground at her feet to the city around her she quickly took stock of her situation. There was no visible fighting, but she could hear the sounds of battle carried on the air. And though she had never stood on this street before, there was no mistaking the city now laid out around her. Onyx.
Onyx? What the Hell was she doing in Onyx?
A moment later Mnemia was moving. The fang she was going to lead could hardly jump out of an airship with her. Instead the plan was to have the exalt secure the landing site once she was in the city. Mnemia would be more than capable of dealing with a token mortal force and by doing it herself they guaranteed that the timing would be as tight as possible. Taking the location too soon or too late could be disastrous.
Mnemia had entered the city a little less than half a mile from the Pinnacle of the Illustrious Truth, a distance she was able to cover in only a few minutes. While there was wealth within the city, little of it reached here, the residential area that housed much of the living labor workforce. Building out was easier than building up, leaving this section of the city a warren of tiny alleyways and narrow streets. It gave Mnemia plenty of opportunity to travel above ground level, but below the rooftops as she moved along awning, windowsills and clotheslines.
As for the Pinnacle itself, the Silver Prince made extensive use of propaganda, and this large open square served a one of several speaker pavilions scattered throughout the city, each large enough to hold a significant portion of the population. Its size made it ideal for the mass indoctrination of an abused labor force as well as a landing site for an invading army.
The Pinnacle was an architectural oddity. It was as if a great hand had reached out to scoop up a section of housing to toss it away. The dilapidated two and three story hovels simply came to an abrupt stop, looking almost like a makeshift wall protecting the space. In the center a square stone platform rose a meter out of the ground. The block was 7 or 8 meters to a side, and on it was a smaller secondary platform made of wood. This would seem to be the pulpit, but Mnemia suspected it could be quickly broken down and replaced with a gallows should the authorities feel a demonstration was in order.
Mnemia had expected some token resistance when she arrived, but nothing on the scale of what was unfolding before her as the pavilion came within sight. Nearby, a woman dressed in the colors of the exalt’s army, was fighting off four soldiers wearing the armor of the Silver Prince. The figure was constantly in motion, darting in and out, waiting for any of her opponents to provide an opening. When one of them did she lashed out. But instead of using a conventional weapon her shadow seems to move up her body and wrap around her arm before extending in the blink of an eye, striking the man in the chest and killing him instantly. Another attacker, believing he had an opening of his own, advanced, jabbing his spear against her exposed ribs. But where the metal…
…would have been driven into her flesh it instead met another shadow construct, this time a shield or barrier of some kind. The tip of the weapon slid against the surface as if it was ice, causing the spearman to lose his balance and fall forward. The woman turned, shaping darkness yet again and cleaving his head from his body.
The other two, having seen their numbers cut in half in a fraction of a second (though given the number of bodies on the ground Mnemia suspected they had dealt with that fact a number of times already), hesitated a moment, taking a step back and letting fear drop their guard. The woman, now more of her covered in writhing darkness than not, leapt forward, edged shafts of shadow striking the chest and neck of the retreating soldiers. As they fell dead at her feet the shadows began to recede as her attention turned to a second woman on the far side of the square.
This other soldier, also dressed as an ally, was doing less direct fighting. Instead she stood in the center of a maelstrom of violence, semi transparent creatures of a roughly humanoid form moving about her, tearing into the few guards still standing, their screams ringing through the square as they died, their defensive strikes passing through their attackers as if they weren’t there. She was like a houndmaster directing her charges, but these were no dogs. They were… Po?
With the last of the opposition dead at her feet the second woman turned to face the first. And with Mnemia’s first good look at the face of one of the women she clearly saw the tattoos of the Tya adorn her brow and cheek. Both then turned to face Mnemia who was still standing in an alleyway watching events unfold. The closer woman, the one who had wielded shadow as a weapon, also had the markings of the Tya, but there was something else. Though the further one was too far away to make out clearly without using a charm, a smile was clearly visible on the face of the closer as her eyes came to rest on Mnemia.
Mnemia was stunned into silence as Kasi stepped forward and embraced her. By the time the woman had pulled away Aly had closed the distance and took her sister’s place. But as Kasi got a good look at Mnemia’s face her own started to fall.
“Mom… What’s wrong?”
For a moment Mnemia said nothing, her eyes locked on this woman before her whom she knew to be her daughter Kasiris, but who couldn’t be. Kasi was 5 not…
“Kasi… how old are you?”
“Are you okay?” Kasi asked, looking to Aly before looking back to her mother again. ”We’re 19 mom.”
Nineteen. Mnemia’s mind began to race as her body remained motionless. Something had been bothering her since… when? The shadowland. It was when she had entered the shadowland. That’s when it had started. That’s when a voice in the back of her head started telling her something wasn’t right. Now it was screaming at her.
The woman standing in front of her was Kasiris, without a doubt, but only the vaguest hints of the small child she knew remained. Instead it was the features of Anna and her own staring back at her that cemented the connection she knew instinctively to be true. Both Kasi and Aly had grown tall, standing a hair above Mnemia’s already tall 5’11? height. Their hair had remained a jet black, and Anna’s brown eyes looked back at her. Both had the tattoos of the Tya, but the curves and lines were totally different between them. Alyrja had also taken a liking to piercings as well, her ears heavily studded as was her lower lip and one eyebrow.
A millions questions flew through her mind, but she finally settled on one. ”What are you two doing here?”
“Oh, no.” Aly said, shifting her weight and taking a stance Mnemia knew she herself took when she became frustrated. ”Don’t you dare send us away. You said we could be here. We need to be here!”
“No, it’s not that.” Mnemia said, waving the concerns aside. ”Though we’ll come back to you and your sister being in Onyx in a moment. No, what are we doing here? Why… There must have been a reset. Do you girls remember the past several years?”
“Reset?” Aly asked, her frustration turning to confusion. ”What are you talking about?” Kasi added.
“Did I really never… fine, I’ll contact Kadon or Zuko.”
Mnemia was reaching up to the communicator that was wrapped around her ear when she caught sight of an airship swinging in over the square and beginning to descend. A moment later Anna materialized next to the women.
“She’s talking about a temporal event that causes the timeline within Creation to revert to a previous point, usually to avert some kind of disaster.” Aly and Kasi looked as confused at that as Mnemia suspected she had when Kadon had first tried to explain it.
Anna turned to face Mnemia, “But we lost access to the chamber some time ago. We have not been able to institute a reset for years, though Kadon suspects Avatar may still be able to.”
“Then why don’t I remember the last 14 years?” Mnemia almost shouted to be heard over the engines of the Glorious Will.
“What?!” her daughters shouted simultaneously. “You can’t be serious.” Aly added.
“We’re in Onyx, apparently making a move against the Silver Prince, possibly the most powerful deathlord in Creation. Does this seem like a good time for me to be pulling your chain?” Mnemia said as she moved away from her family towards the columns of soldiers beginning to fill the square. “I’m missing details, a lot of them, but being here in this place and doing the impossible seems, well, how it should. I don’t know why I’ve lost more than a decade, maybe the Silver Prince has found a way to target me directly with some kind of mental assault, but none of that matters. I’m here now and it would seem I have a job to do. So while I’m organizing this lot you two are going to tell me exactly why I would agree to let you be here for something like this.”
Aly and Kasi looked at each other then looked at Anna (who merely shrugged in response) before finally facing Mnemia. For a second neither of them responded.
Mnemia barked an order to one of the sergeants before turning her attention back to them. “Well?”
“It’s just…” Kasi began.
“Convincing you the first time was hard enough.” Aly took over. “And if you’re missing 14 years…”
“You had better try or the Glorious Will will have you aboard when it takes off again.”
“It’s Nana… err, Zis. After everything she did, going to the Labyrinth alone and returning with the secret to killing the Silver Prince.” Aly started before Kasi took over, a habit they had already started showing at 5. “She’s risked everything for us. We have to be here. We have to see this through. We have to stand together.” It was Aly that finished. “All of our futures are wrapped up in this. You can’t ask us to do nothing while all of these people risk their lives.”
Mnemia didn’t immediately respond. In fact, her next words weren’t to her daughters, but the two lieutenants that had approached a moment before for their orders. “I want 6 man strike teams weaving through these streets on the way to Ebon Skull. Until they reach the castle I don’t want any groups larger than that for more than 60 seconds. If we hit resistance I want to come at the defenders from all side, crush them and disperse again. Do not lose your mobility on these streets or we’re dead.”
The lieutenants saluted and returned to their men, leaving the four women alone again.
“All I ever wanted for you two was to give you a normal life. And normal teens don’t go about slaughtering the minions of a deathlord. Has everything I’ve done up until now been a waste?”
At this the twins had no immediate response. It even looked like Anna was about to say something, but Mnemia cut her short.
“No, not a waste, but not entirely effort well spent either.” Mnemia sighed, but no one else broke in. “I think I figured it out too late. I kept telling myself that I wanted you two to have a normal life. I didn’t realize that that wasn’t what I really wanted to give you. I wanted to give you the choice; to have a normal life or not. I didn’t want you following my footsteps because you had to. But if you want to be here, if it’s important to you both that you stand with the rest of us, then I won’t say no to you. Your lives are not mine to live.”
Around them the soldiers were beginning to move out, broken up as Mnemia had ordered. And though Mnemia could read the relief in their body language, the twins kept their response subdued. Now was hardly the time to be celebrating. Instead they nodded before falling in on either side of Mnemia as they started their advance towards the seat of power of the Silver Prince.
They passed through the streets of Onyx in silence for a time, Anna having dematerialized once again. Though they were hardly stealthy, Mnemia needed a moment to get used to the idea of her babies going to war with her. Regardless of her words a moment before, she was torn at the thought of putting them in harm’s way. Aly and Kasi, despite how little time they had found to spend with their mother growing up, could still read Mnemia well enough and did little to push the issue even though with most of her memories gone Mnemia was in desperate need of a briefing before they reached Ebon Skull.
“Okay, why were you in that pavilion. Had I ordered you to hold the location?”
Kasi did little to mask the relief in her voice at Mnemia’s question. “No, we were assigned to go with Zuko and Scarlet to assassinate the 5 Dark Judges. It had been decided that our arcanoi could be of use should the defenses of any of them be more spiritual than material.”
“And that’s what I saw you two using?”
“Yes.” Aly responded.
Kasi continued. “As we were moving through the city Scarlet came across a unit of enlightened defenders in possession of soulsteel weapons and headed towards the Pinnacle.”
“We don’t know how they found out about your plan,” Aly started again. “but it seemed clear they were going to ambush you while you were alone and waiting for the troops. They didn’t look like they could pull it off, but we couldn’t take that chance.”
“We?” Mnemia interrupted.
“Zuko wasn’t a big fan of Aly and I leaving to ambush the ambush, but after something unspoken between him and Scarlet he knew it would be more trouble than it was worth to try to stop us. We’d killed four of the judges, so he wished as luck and continued with the plan without us.”
“And the ambush? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to wait until I was there so we could work together?”
At this the twins blushed. “We didn’t know how you would react if you found us there, violating your attack orders.”
“We figured we could take care of them and then rendevous back with Zuko for the last judge and you’d never know we’d been there.”
“You run too damn fast mom.”
Mnemia chuckled a bit at that. “Okay then, what about this weakness of the Silver Prince, what is it?”
“Nana wouldn’t tell us.” Kasi responded, her gaze dropping unconsciously for a moment.
“She said it couldn’t be orchestrated, it had to be real.” Aly added. “Whatever that means.”
“She told us she could direct the flow of events, make sure what needed to happen did happen, but that we couldn’t know what the plan was ahead of time. If it doesn’t go as planned she may call to abort, so until that happens…”
“We can only assume this is how it has to be.” Mnemia finished. “And where is she now?”
“She’s leading the fang of Tya moving in from the west. They should reach Ebon Skull first.”
Mnemia nodded, unhappy with the situation, but not surprised. Killing a deathlord was hardly going to be easy.
Though both Aly and Kasi were fit, setting a good pace, Mnemia was forced to reduce her speed to not leave them behind. She also had to think of the troops under her command, further slowing her. As a result it took more than a half hour to move through Onyx. On four separate occasions one of the strike teams came across a force of defenders too large to defeat on their own. In each case the nearby units collapsed, striking the defenders from all sides and wiping them out to the man. By the time they reached Ebon Skull they had lost only 9 men.
Ebon Skull sat higher up on the volcanic slope than the rest of Onyx. Here the great walls that circle the city form parallel barriers 12 meters high covering 100 meters of open space leading up to the gates of castle. That stretch of land was an attacker’s nightmare. Outside the gates the plains of ash would slow an army to a crawl, leaving them easy to pick off. Here the ground was packed harder, but the twin walls formed an intimidating gauntlet never the less. Crossing it would cost them lives.
Mnemia’s unit was the third fang to arrive, the strike teams merging efficiently back into a larger force as they entered the defensive stretch. But instead of facing a wall of defenders and a hail of spears and arrows the way was mostly clear. To be sure, soldiers from both sides lay dead and dying on the hard earth, but not nearly of the number Mnemia expected. Though she didn’t remember the details she still knew the Silver Prince had only left a token defensive force within the city; most of his people with his fleet striking out against the rest of Creation. But it seemed even that description had been generous. Isolated patches of fighting could still be seen, but it looked like the day was won.
Taking her lieutenants aside Mnemia gave them new orders. They were to turn around and head north. The fang attempting to breach the Bone Gate had encountered unusual resistance and if they were still held up she wanted her troops to hit the defenders from behind. They would have to go without her though. The Silver Prince was before her, not behind her, and she needed to be there to see this done. Knowing better than to offer an escort the lieutenants saluted and began breaking up the fang again. Good, they were going to pass through the city as strike teams again. With that done Mnemia, Aly and Kasi continued south to Ebon Skull.
The scene at the gates looked promising, though was hardly as firmly in their control as the gauntlet had been. Here the two walls converged, presenting a formidable barrier. The heavy stone was black and the gate forged of soulsteel. All along the surface pikes of soulsteel jutted out, some capped with skulls or other macabre trophies. Below two fangs fought for space while the defenders in and on the fortifications fought to keep them all on one side of the wall. Even so Mnemia could see half a dozen breaches. If only they could widen those a bit…
The call to retreat caught Mnemia by surprise, but at the rear of the chaotic formation there was little she could do about it. Still she began to move forward as best as she could, calling out for commanding officers.
“You don’t want to do that.” Anna said, suddenly in front of her and smiling.
“What is going on?” Mnemia demanded.
That smile still on her lips, but no response forthcoming, Anna simply looked up. Following her gaze Mnemia caught sight of the Tearing Gale coming in low, her port side turned to face the gate house. And then it was as if the gates of Hell opened up. Dozens of cannons, both seen and unseen, opened fire on the wall. Bolts of essence and columns of fire rained down on the structure before them in a shower of thunder and destruction. And even as Mnemia thought nothing could have survived the first barrage a second wave of firepower tore into the final defenses of the Silver Prince. All around ash and dust filled the sky, glimpses of fire and rubble all that could be seen as the winds created opening in the veil.
Mnemia’s hand went immediately to her communicator, activating it.
“Kadon!” she yelled.
The voice that came back to her was filled with mirth. “Come now, did you seriously expect me to do nothing here? You gave me a gunship to command!”
“You could have at least warned me.” Mnemia tried to sound angry, but it was hard to. The display had been quite effective and she had never been any good at lying.
Kadon laughed. “And what fun would that be?”
“Do I have to restart the count?”
“Ha! You can’t count high enough for that to be much of a threat.”
“I only need one.” And with that Mnemia cut the connection.
Anna was still grinning as she began to disperse again as Mnemia, Aly and Kasi began pushing through the army. The solar had made it halfway through when the ash and smoke in the center cleared away, revealing the figure of the Silver Prince slowly walking down the steps of the stairs leading up to the entrance of his fortress. All units had been instructed to not engage the Bodhisattva, so as he approached they slowly retreated. All except one person.
Stepping forward to face him was Zis, her caste mark alight with an odd hybrid of abyssal and solar effects. She had done much to cleanse her soul, but there was still much to do. Her first few steps were slow and deliberate, but as the Silver Prince turned his attention fully to her she darted up the stairs, quickly closing the distance. Her initial attack was a flurry of blows, her chain whipping out at impossible angles and speeds, striking her target in places he couldn’t predict. And yet he stopped each attack seemingly with ease, his daiklave always present to parry the strike.
Unwilling to let her lover face this threat alone Mnemia began pushing through the soldiers with more force, often leaving them knocked to the ground as she moved forward, Aly and Kasi following in her wake. Above her Zis tried a different approach, attempting to get inside her opponent’s guard to wrap him up, taking his daiklave out of the fight. Ducking one of his strikes she threw one end of her chain over the Silver Prince’s sword arm, planning to follow up the move with a roll to the other side, drawing the arm against his body as the chain went taunt. The move went as planned until the Silver Prince wrenched his arm from his side, breaking the hold and leaving Zis off balance. Striking down with his other hand he caught Zis on her shoulder, shattering bone and driving the the woman to a heap at his feet.
Mnemia panicked, turning her attention fully to the wall of bodies before her. With little regard for their safety she began throwing them aside like ragdolls, her curse bubbling to the surface. Even the soldiers trying to get out of her way were tossed away. If they were slow enough for her to get a hand on them they weren’t moving fast enough.
As Mnemia cleared her own men Zis and the Silver Prince came within sight again. The deathlord was holding Zis aloft by the neck, her feet half a meter off of the ground, her eyes blinking rapidly as she tried to retain consciousness. Seeing this Mnemia came to a stop, drawing her own grand daiklave as the caste mark on her head flashed to life.
“I thought we had an understanding you and I.” The Silver Prince began. “You keep to your islands and I leave those two darling girls of yours alone. And yet, here you are, thinking that because my army is not here I might be easy prey. You are mistaken.”
Before Mnemia could respond the Silver Prince drove his daiklave into Zis’ abdomen, just below the rib cage. Then, with a savage rip, he pulled the blade through her body, severing her spine and spilling her entrails and blood on the stairs at his feet. Her body still held in one piece by a bit of flesh and muscle, the Silver Prince tossed Zis aside.
A primal scream torn through Mnemia, her anima banner going totemic in a burst of crimson radiance. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening!
With a start Mnemia sat forward, a sheet pooling in her lap. For a moment she wasn’t sure where she was, but slowly the room came into focus; her room, in the Emerald City. As the adrenaline began to leave her system memories began to take their place. She wasn’t on Skullstone, she was in Aboshi’s pocket metropolis. She was here… debriefing. The Cult wanted to know all about their trip to Autochthon. It… it had gone late and they had recessed for a few hours. Mnemia had thought to get some sleep. Hardly the restful slumber she had hoped for. But, it was better than that nightmare being reality. She couldn’t shake the image of Zis’ body torn nearly in half…
Falling onto her back again she took a deep breath before rolling on her side. There, in her room was… Arvia? As she pushed up onto her elbow the goddess began to sink into the floor of the room.
“Arvia?” But the goddess didn’t respond. She was almost gone when the potential implication of her presence dawned on Mnemia. “Arvia? Wait, please! Arvia!”