nano post-mortem: betrayal comes from expected places
so--i made it through con, but upon returning home, i ended up having awful adhd days and bad pain days, so i basically barely managed to finish my nano.
but, i did.
however, it also meant that y'all didn't get any more excerpts--for which i apologize.
in penance, have a more or less completed battle scene (because, damn, look at that--a battle scene).
thank y'all for joining me in this ~handwaves~ thing. i'm hoping to actually finish this nonsense, so tune in next week? or the week after? or sometime?
this is literally the fully collected battle scene (with some edits). enjoy.
as always, y'all can read the fully italicized version--which is the best version--over here.
The courtyard was strangely empty when the contraptions came to a rest inside the wall that surrounded the seat of the Court of Miracles and the Chinaberry Forest that was cultivated around it.
Despite the Court of Miracles being in a perpetual spring-time, the chinaberry trees were always at full fruit: jewel-bright berries against leathery sharp-edged surreally blue-teal leaves supported by dark, dark, dark wood.
There was nothing natural about these chinaberry trees.
Which was one of those things that Grey had always loved about them: an imperfectly placed aesthetic against soft and new and young and dewy.
Something wintery in the spring.
But, the courtyard should be bustling—should be filled with the denizens of the castle coming to welcome their Scion home, welcome the Scions of the Courts in joy and alliance (or, at least, fake it well), should at least have Grey’s progenitors and Lux looking sleazy and petulant and kind of awful—yet, here it was, empty.
Boy-howdy, this isn’t right.
Armitage came to stand beside Grey looking wary as Cassius gambled up beside Tove, and for a quick moment, Grey was unsettled and unsteady and uncertain about the placement of Armitage and Cassius—especially after what happened in the Between Woods, but they were looking as concerned about the lack of people as Grey was feeling and actually continued to move past Grey, move past Tove, to stand before all of them in a protective stance.
In Grey’s peripheral vision, they saw Ione relax the tiniest bit and surreptitiously pocket the dagger that she had drawn.
Far—far, far, far—off Grey heard a sound that—wasn’t right.
A sound that didn’t belong in the Court of Miracles.
A sound that hadn’t been heard in the Court of Miracles since the Venery War during the dark times when the Courts fought each other with tooth and feather, hoof and claw.
A Bukkene Bruse.
It was a fucking Gruff.
Gruffs, magickally created constructs that were used in the Venery War, were supposed to be extinct.
I guess no one told them that.
With no though—just pure, adrenaline-fueled reaction—Grey fumbled the pocket-globe out of their shoulder-holster-hoodie-thing and triggered open a portal back to the Euigilans Somnium in the Gate Arch that led back towards the Between Woods.
Several hundred feet away from where they were all standing like bait.
Grey had no idea where in the Euigilans Somnium it had opened into, but anywhere was going to be better than here in about a minute-and-a-half.
As the portal opened far behind Grey, Killian squeaked a little in surprise—well, less of squeak and more of hissing hoot—looking confused. “What’s going on?” Killian leaned over to Grey, quietly cutting thin lines across the backs of his arms, arcane energy already beginning to spark.
Grey looked around and could see that everyone in their immediate group had heard Grey swear and then seen them trigger the portal: Ione was already pulling her six-barreled flintlock from across her back, loading it, as her curved falchions hung from her belt, peace-binding loose; Aedeir had already pulled out or manifested or something a glaive; Mad March Grey’s lithe pooka body seemed to be becoming hulking and huge and dangerous; Zoii, with a squelching noise, disappeared into the ground; Grey could already see blood reddening Tove’s court finery; Cassius had unsheathed a long-sword from somewhere; and Persis was stepping further and further back, stringing a bow with little finesse.
Armitage, however, had kept walking towards the sound that, apparently, only he and Grey were hearing.
“We’ve got Gruff incoming,” Grey shouted, drawing their own rapier and pepper-pot. “We need to get out of here now.”
There’s a sputtering noise that Grey thinks might have been Killian, but it might have been Cassius too—accompanied by someone saying “How in all that’s holy do you know that?” and someone else saying “Where in the actual fuck did they come from?”—but it was a sound of such intense disbelief that there was room for nothing else for a moment.
Grey was basically feeling the same sentiment at a cellular level.
Then, badness occurred, and chaos erupted around them.
Fire and smoke and loud, loud, loud billowed around them all—blinding and deafening and overwhelming them—and Grey immediately lost tract of everyone but Persis and Killian.
Grabbing Persis by the shoulder, Grey dragged her towards the portal back to the Euigilans Somnium. This time, Persis resisted, trying to return to where the rest of their group was located. “You need to go!” Grey shouted at Persis over everything, shoving her towards the portal as Killian protected their backs. “You need to run.”
“I’m not leaving any of you behind!” Persis shouted back as the ground bucked beneath them, nearly knocking Persis, Grey, and Killian off their feet. “You’re going to need my help! I know things, remember?”
Grey prevaricated for a moment—stay here and fight with Persis and risk everyone else needing Grey’s help or go help everyone else and risk Persis—and turned to Killian. “I need you to stay here with Persis and protect her.” Killian nodded quickly and solemnly, violet-black swirling over and around and through Killian’s fingers. Grey turned back to Persis. “You, think on how we can stop Gruffs. It has to be in that encyclopedic noggin of yours somewhere; you need to find it. Once you have it,” Grey motioned to Killian. “Y’all are going to have to find a way to let us know—”
“Cassius,” Killian said double-quick. “He’s an Orpheum.”
“That’ll do.” Grey agreed. “Once you’ve done this, I need you to get out Persis. I know you want to help, but the best way that you can help us out right now is with information and back-up.”
Persis looked like she was going to argue but ended up nodding her head hard once.
Grey kissed Persis and then Killian on their checks and ran back into the fray.
So far, it seemed that everything that had happened in the whole minute-and-a-half that had transpired since Grey had first heard the Gruffs out in the distance was that someone had mined the courtyard with Euigilans Somnium artillery, and what had caused all the fire and sound and awfulness, were things that hadn’t actually hurt anyone of their number.
And, really, if that wasn’t some sort of miracle (sic), Grey didn’t know what other terminology to use.
Okay, or, maybe it was just the dumb luck of a turncoat in the Venery not knowing how Euigilans Somnium ranged munitions actually worked.
Whichever, Grey would take it.
Because, the Gruffs were finally making their way into the Court of Miracles’ courtyard.
Three of them.
Because Gruffs always came in iterations of three.
Welcome to irony.
They were monstrously huge and looking more wildly dangerous that Grey had ever seen in the Court of Miracles’ history books, were walking on cloven hooves the size of large barrels; their long, very goat-like faces holding snarls that they shouldn’t actually be able to make; their eyes solid, depthless, flat black; their horns arching up and up and up and then back and back and back, an arch of bone and terror; their bodies were covered in rope-y not-fleece and things that were supposed clothes; their everything liberally splattered in red, rust, and black—the colors of differently aged blood having been spilt—and they were headed towards Grey’s still shocked and dazed chosen family.
Grey unfurled their wings and glided back into their line of defense, alighting next to Aedeir, who turned so that they were back to back with each other. “I always forget that you can do that.”
Grey smirked at Aedeir over their shoulder, trying to find solace in a bravado that they weren’t feeling when faced with magickal murder-machines, the barest quiver of wings giving Grey away. “Honestly, I forget sometimes too.”
As Grey spoke, the sounds that they have been hearing crescendo-ed as the Gruffs in question came lumbering up through the Chinaberry Forest—except that lumber wasn’t quite the right word.
It was more like tesseracting.
Which was so not how Gruffs were supposed to move.
“Fuck,” was all that Aedeir uttered when the Gruffs basically materialized.
“Someone’s been upgrading them.” And, Grey knew with a certainty that was kind of terrifying that these were not some sort of leftovers of long-past wars that had been harbored and nurtured by the Myst and accidently found themselves here in the heart of the Court of Miracles. These were newly created, revised murder-machines that could only be here for one reason.
Assassinating the Scions.
With a swiftness that Grey found surprising, Zoii suddenly appeared in front of the Gruffs at the place where the cobbles of the Concentric Courtyard met the Chinaberry Forest and spun a wall of rose-brambles out of themselves to halt the progression of the Gruffs, while thorny vines tried to wrap around the Gruffs, catching two as a third batted it away with a roar that was somewhere between a deafening goat-bleat and a giant, very angry goose.
I suppose not everything can sound terrifying?
The un-entangled Gruff took a swipe at Zoii with its mace, and Zoii disappeared back into the ground from whence they came.
Wow, we they in a lot of trouble.
As Zoii slipped back into the ground, Ione was lining up her shot, aiming for one of the mostly free Gruff’s giant knees since two of the Gruffs were continuing to struggle with the brilliant brambles and vines that Zoii had somehow brought forth, and the third one was still loose and getting closer—and, Ione knew that her shotgun wasn’t going to do more than really annoy the Gruff unless she was lucky, lucky, lucky.
But, there wasn’t really another option, now was there? Her falchions were going to have to be her last resort this time.
In that comfortable, comforting place between one breath and the next, Ione shot, watching as it impacted with the Gruff’s knee and—by some miracle of physics and luck—its knew just crumpled beneath it.
Ione cocked her gun and re-acquired her target.
Persis was too far away to have a really comprehensive understanding of what was going on, but Persis did recognize a Gruff when she saw one.
One of the joys and wonders of living in the Court of Miracles: encyclopedic knowledge of ancient weapons of mass murder.
Not because the Court of Miracles had used them—no, hulking constructs with a single-minded necessity were far too gauche for them—but because the Court of Miracles believed in ensuring that everyone had a chip on their shoulders the size of Antarctica before they were even old enough to speak.
But—Gruffs were just about the nastiest piece of work that Persis had ever come across aside from the magickal bindings that keep the Redcap Triumvirate and Otello literally bound to their own skulls for the rest of forever.
And, the rituals by which entities such as Mad March Grey were created and the giese used to bind Ione to Tove were basically right behind.
The Courts had a lot to answer for.
Not the time.
However, Persis could see how the Gruffs were moving in to engage Persis’ family—the closest thing to a family she had ever had—and Persis found herself lifting her bow—that bow that had caused her so many problems over the years, was still causing her problems—an arrow notched and heard Aedeir’s voice in her head as Zoii just appeared with brambles and vines and managing to hold two of the Gruffs to a standstill, no matter how momentary, saying Breathe in, two, three, four, five, and out, six, five, four, three, two, one, and again—
Persis loosed the arrow and watched as it flew with a purpose and a surety that Persis had never seen in her arrows before, split in light and sound and fury, and struck.
Just as Persis heard Ione’s precious Euigilans Somnium-made, Killian-magicked weapon.
Fuck me, we might actually get out of this alive.
The blood was already running down Tove’s arms from fine, precise lines—meant to bleed a lot yet not scar the skin, just as Tove had always been taught—when the Gruffs came into view.
And, all Tove could think was Those are so not right.
They really weren’t right—even for somethings that were built for war and destruction—they just looked wrong, like, they were eating the space around them and emanating a sickly red-violet-gray light, like a deep bruise, the blood so close to the surface.
Like they were a wound on the world.
Tove could see Aedeir and Grey, standing back to back like they were going to take on the world—and they might just have too—to Tove’s left while Mad March Grey was to Tove’s right looking particularly worrying with Cassius and Armitage standing between the rest of them and the giant goat-monsters that were moving towards them faster than anything that size had any right to move.
And, Tove knew that Zoii was out there somewhere hiding, waiting to attack again with her Meliae-granted speed, and that Ione was perched as high as she could get, ready with weapon and a keen eye. Tove could only hope that Persis was safely tucked away and that Killian’s absence meant that he was with her protecting her.
So, Tove did the only thing that she could do: cast a spell that ended with a radiant glow of showering sparks raining down upon the goat-monsters heads.
Where the sparks touched, everything was burning.
As the Gruffs were howling with the pain of the combined attacks of Tove, Ione, and—amazingly—Persis, Killian had the unfamiliar feeling of hope sink into his skin—an emotion that he was only able to recognize because of the people in this courtyard.
It was an important feeling.
However, as Killian watched two creatures similar in size to the not-carriages and all unnaturally long legs ending in wickedly hooked claws and black and white stripped spines and maws filled with rows and rows and rows of teeth—the word Bandersnatch flickering through Killian’s brain—appeared in the courtyard behind Killian’s friends—and wasn’t that also a weird word to have in Killian’s repertoire now too?—knocking over the not-carriage that Ione had made her improvised sniper’s nest, sending her skidding almost the rest of the way to the castle, and charging towards Mad March Grey and Tove, apparently intent upon goring one or both
Killian couldn’t allow that; however, his spell wasn’t ready yet, still a simmering, low heat in his back and hands, needing more spilling of Killian’s blood to make it work, and as Killian sliced another, deeper line across his forearm, he saw one of the Bandersnatches grappling with Mad March Grey as Mad March got one of his newly huge hands wrapped tight around the creature’s practically non-existent throat, and Tove somehow managed to dodge out of the way of curved claws that slashed and caught the hem of Tove’s court finery before Tove tumbled away.
Just as Killian was about to cheer because, damn, look at his friends go, one of the Gruffs who had been tangled up in Zoii’s vines and brambles tore itself loose and roared.
And, Killian felt the spell’s energy click into place.
Killian could do this.
With a few guttural, slip-slide words and a physical, arcane twist that Killian was certain looked ridiculous, impossible, and painful all at once, Killian released a bolt of solid violet-black energy directly into the first Gruff’s side.
And, it connected.
And, it flickered away leaving behind an incredibly angry Gruff—who was now looking at Killian and Persis.
Aedeir was stuck.
No, that wasn’t right. Aedeir was frozen.
Aedeir. Not Melisan. Although, given Gruffs and Bandersnatches and mortal combat and such, Melisan should be the one who was frozen, but no, it was Aedeir.
Because Aedeir remembered the Gruffs, remember the Bandersnatches—remembered what they could do—what they had done—remembered so vividly and brightly that Aedeir was stuck.
But, Aedeir and Melisan also needed to help their friends, needed to help Zoii.
Needed to help all the people that had counted on them—would ever count on them—here, in the Court of Nightmares, in the Venery, in the world.
We can do this. Melisan’s voice was small and strong and too like Persis’ own tiny voice. We can save them, Aedeir. We just have to take the first step.
Glancing between the Bandersnatches and the three Gruffs—one Bandersnatch still wrapped up and quarreling with Mad March Grey, the other picking itself up from where it had skidded into the edges of the Chinaberry Forrest when Tove dodged it, the Gruff that was still tangled in Zoii’s bramble and vine show, the Gruff with the basically non-existent knee, and the Gruff that was looking mightily put-out after Killian’s little arcane firecracker—Aedeir took a steadying breath, readying her glaive, flicked out her own wings—See, Grey, I can flitter and fly too.—pushed off the cobblestones with the full, thunderous force of all six of her tentacles, and went hurtling towards the Gruff that was headed towards Killian and Persis.
As Aedeir flew at the Gruff—low to the ground, so low that the Gruff wasn’t going to see her because, Aedeir remembered, Gruffs had a blind-spot due to their height, due to their eyes, that meant that, if you could come in low enough, fast enough, one could attack them before they knew that anyone was their—she hooked the curved blade of the glaive into the place where ankle met cloven hoof, used her momentum to whip around to the back of the Gruff, and began using the razor-sharp edge of the blade to slice again and again and again into the Achilles tendon causing the Gruff to come crashing to the ground yelling and roaring and bleating in pain, blood beginning to pour.
Landing lightly on the cobblestone-Forest barrier—tentacles flexing, one hand bracing and balancing Aedeir’s weight, her glaive dripping red and extended out beside her—Aedeir pushed back off, golden wings flickering in and out of plane, and landed on the Gruff’s back and stabbed the blade down, down, down through cloth, fleece, muscle, and bone to find the Gruff’s heart and stop it.
The Gruff thrashed once, twice, and fell silent and still and cooling.
Hell, yeah! Melisan yelled in the back of Aedeir’s mind. That’s how we do the thing!
Aedeir agreed and flung herself once more unto the breech.
Armitage had been drawn towards the initial sound that the Gruffs’ had made when they were lumbering through the Chinaberry Forest—trees crashing to the ground, the snapping of a billion twigs, leaves rustling like thunder to his ears—but then, the sound had changed, had become something that sounded almost more like a sub-sonic zip with a pop on the end, and the Gruffs were just there standing directly in front of Armitage all hooves and blood and terror.
Somehow, these Gruffs had the ability to Shimmer, which was not a thing that they should be able to do.
And, yeah, Armitage wasn’t certain that standing right in front of the Gruffs when they zippop-ed into the Concentric Courtyard was the least smart thing that they had ever done or what, but it had to be fairly close to the top of the list, and there were some doosies on that list.
Then, the explosions had started, and Armie found themself really quite pleased that they were so close in proximity to the Chinaberry Forest because his delicate ears were still fucking ringing, and who the hell let someone from the Venery get their incompetent fingers on Euigilans Somnium munitions? Because, whoever that was, Armie was going to kick them ‘til they were dead just on principle at this point.
And, then that Meliae that the Principle Flutter was so enamored of was doing something stealthy and sharp at the Gruffs to slow them down, and there was blinding light and spark-hot fire and something that looked distinctly like a Euigilans Somnium weapon, but there was something additional to it, something that stunk of arcane tinkering, and the weapon was held in the more-than-reasonably competent hands of that Salamander.
Armie was felling more than a little impressed by this odd horde of children that their Principle Flutter had adopted—especially after the Pooka just grabbed one of the Bandersnatches by the semantic-neck and began wrestling it to the ground with sheer force of body and mind which was quickly followed by a bolt of arcane ability that smelled distinctly like the same magick that had come off of the Salamander’s Euigilans Somnium weapon.
The bolt may have fizzled out on the Gruff’s magic-resistant skin, but it had still made a fucking impression, which Armie could totally get behind, the Hieracosphinx looking pleased and worried in turns, bleeding from self-inflicted cuts that meant that the Hieracosphinx was, like the Hind with the pretty spark-fire, a blood-wielder.
Which meant that, despite not know it yet, the Hieracosphinx had so much more ability just waiting to be tapped into, to be learned, to be nurtured.
And, was—as all blood-wielders were—going to have a continual fight against their own darkness and want of more power.
Because blood was blood was blood. And, blood could be obtained in much more expedient ways than the shedding of one’s own.
That Hieracosphinx could be a problem—especially since they were from Calamities with the taboo against the arcane, at least the Hind blood-wielder being from Dreams meant that they had a deeply ingrained taboo against using anyone’s blood but their own for blood-wielders—but Armie had to admit, there was a certain level of implicit trust there because the Principle Flutter trusted these children.
And, they trusted her. That said a lot about them too.
Armie caught a double-quick blur of violet and gold, blue and silver, and just barely caught their Principle Flutter taking down a Gruff all by herself.
Armie really needed to step into the fray.
With a burst of clipclopstomp, Armie Shimmered themself to and through the currently entangled Gruff—literally displacing himself through the Gruff’s physicality—taking out one of its ankles by displacing parts of it with Armie. Falling and screaming and covered in thorns, the Gruff fell prone to the ground as the Meliae’s thorns covered the Gruff further and further and further—wrapping it up and dragging it down and holding it fast.
Armie had to admit, that was a pretty nifty trick.
As the Gruffs began to become less and less and less of an immediate danger, Grey began to feel distantly hopeful about the entire situation; although there were a myriad of things still ticking and still burbling in the back of their mind.
Like where were the members of the Court of Miracles.
After all of this ruckus, still no one had emerged from the gates.
Grey wasn’t even certain there was anyone in the castle.
And, that was worrying too.
Then, there were the Bandersnatches—and, really, who the actual fuck was building new versions of ancient battle-creatures because they really needed to stop—one caught up by Mad March Grey, who was slowly choking the life out it? Which was kind of terrifying at a completely different level? But, still kind of awesome? And, Grey was totally horrified at theirself that they thought it was kind of awesome.
Really, the fact that all of them were so, well, battle-ready and battle-competent was so worrying that Grey was, legitimately, stuck in place for just a moment—a moment of thought, a moment of distraction, a moment that meant that Grey was looking just right of everything that was happening to see someone who looked an awful lot like Tove just appear with a side-step out of the aether.
To see Cy appear.
Cy who was just standing there like there wasn’t a miniature war happening right there in front of him.
Cy who looked completely unconcerned.
Cy who looked as if they had spent a whole lot of time getting a super-villain makeover, and yeah—no—this wasn’t a good thing.
And, then there was the Bandersnatch that Tove had avoided who took a swipe, a bite, a slice at Grey when Grey began to head towards where Cy was standing in all of his assholier-than-thou super-villain glory because—of course—who else except fucking Cy would be planning the assassination of his own sibling.
Again, where’s Lux. You know that Lux is just as willing to take the easy way out to get what he wants.
Grey stumbled the last few steps towards Cy that Grey needed to take to be within range, pulled out the Euigilans Somnium-built, Killian-magicked pepper-pot, fell into a Grand Salute, took aim, and fired—
There was a sharp, burning cold, ow, ow, ow, fucking sharp pain in Grey’s side with an accompanying shove that knocked Grey’s aim askew so that the shot at Cy barely clipped his ear instead of being the headshot that it was supposed to be.
And, Grey suddenly couldn’t get their breath—breath in, one two three four five, and breath out, one two three four five six seven, breath in—the cold spreading up their side and down their leg, something wet tickling and trickling down the inside of Grey’s finery, a solid cough rattling Grey’s lung in a way that hurt, throbbing and sharp and stabbing all at once accompanied by that persistent cold, and Grey found their legs weren’t holding them up anymore, that Grey was slowing sliding down to the cobblestones, the edges of their vision blurring.
Grey looked up, saw Lux flittering—back and through and away—as if what he had done to Grey wasn’t even worth the time to stop and gloat, and really, that was more insulting than Lux having—Grey was pretty certain—stabbed Grey in the literal back.
But, further away, Grey could see Cy standing, ear bleeding just a little bit, and he smiled, and it was literally one of the worse things that Grey had ever seen—worse than the Myst and the Gruffs and the Bandersnatches, wow, Grey was having a hell of a day—because while Grey kind of felt like someone had to be mentally unwell to try to out and out murder one’s sibling—Grey’s was pretty certain that the argument could be made for Lux, at least—there was nothing of madness or remorse in Cy’s eyes. Just cool, calm murderous intent.
It’d be inspiring if it wasn’t so fucking scary.
Cy raised his hand, sickly green-grey energy already crackling threateningly, took aim at Grey, and Grey saw nothing but that dead moss color, sinking down into it, falling into it.
This is me unconscious.
Grey was on the ground.
Cassius wasn’t precisely certain what was going—the joy and wonder of always showing up late with Starbucks, Armie would argue—but Cassius sure as hell knew that whatever was going on was not of the good.
There were Bandersnatches.
There were fucking Gruffs.
These were things that Cassius had only ever seen in books.
And, yet, here they were in all their horrifying horror, and Cassius didn’t know what to do, so Cassius did the only thing that he legitimately could do.
A sing, ringing tone of pure, unadulterated fury and fear and grief.
And, Cassius aimed it at the remaining Gruffs.
The Gruffs—weebling the wooble of the Weeble-Wobble—clutched at their heads, allowing Cassius to regroup with Tove and Armie, and as the echo of Cassius’ scream faded, the two Gruffs—in their wounded, shambling states—attempted to charge at them.
Cassius smiled, feral and bloodthirsty.
Yeah, he had this.
“Grey!” Tove screamed as a bold to sickly green-grey energy caught Tove’s attention, and Tove saw Grey take the arcane blast in the side, knocking them the rest of the way to the ground they were kneeling upon, blood forming an ever increasing pool beneath them. “Cassius, cover me!”
With a flick of his hand, Cassius sent a regiment of his squirrel army to overcome the last two gravely wounded, yet still towering, still fully capable of raining bloody death Gruffs that were bearing down upon Tove, Armitage, and Cassius in a shrieking, shrill pile of fluffy tails, sharp claws, and sharper teeth. Cassius turned as there were duel THUDS and more screaming that went suddenly, terrifyingly silent, and as Tove flitted swiftly surefooted across the carnage—dodging fleetly around and over a Bandersnatch—to reach Grey, Cassius sang Tove cover—a trilling melody of sweetly, deep summer notes—creating a sonic tunnel of shimmering golden harmony.
As Tove came skidding to halt beside Grey, Zoii erupted from the ground in all of her glorious autumnal abundance pressing moss and healing herbs into the gaping wound in Grey’s right shoulder, the deeper wound in their side.
The clatter of a dagger bearing the crest of the Court of Miracles falling to the ground covered in Grey’s blood.
And, then, too much happened at once for Tove to properly process on a conscious level.
There was Grey—gravely wounded—with Zoii attempting some healing that only a Meliae would have access to, shrugging off much of the ballistics and energy being flung about because she’s a tree, and trees persevere, and there—in Tove’s peripheral vision—darkness, blurring motion, and a rattling hollowness that echoed and ate sound all at one.
Then, there were Tove’s hands, red with the blood of her beloved Grey—her darling little raven—who was good and true and just wanted the world to be a better place for everyone, as naïve as that was, who managed to make Tove see that even the entrapment of the Redcap Triumvirate was a great and terrible Wrong, who brOUGHT LIGHT TO THE WORLD, AND HERE WAS CY TRYING TO DESTROY ONE OF THE BEST PEOPLE TOVE HAD EVER MET—
Red and gold and yellow and burning, and Cy screaming as a plume of purely blood-bound magick hit him full in the chest knocking him back and back and back until he finally landed with a dull thud that Tove knew hadn’t done more than hurt that traitorous fuckwit.
Tove’s throat hurt as if she had been screaming her thoughts as she had blasted that magickal blast through herself—magick that she shouldn’t have been able to cast.
Blood-magick that was not based in her own blood but in the blood of one she loved, one who was—in a very real way—acting as a willing sacrifice, made stronger because Grey—Tove’s stubborn, wonderful, infuriating, amazing Grey—loved Tove back.
Well, fuck. That’s something that I never wanted to know would work.
During this nearly split-second exchange, Zoii had managed to stop the blood coming from Grey’s wounds to something that was—well, there was no such thing as reasonable but less worrying—and was pulling Grey to their feet and shoving them into Tove’s arms. “You need to get Grey out of here,” Zoii yelled over the cacophony of battle. “You need to get all of you out. Live to fight another day.”
Tove hesitated, Grey heaving in her arms and beginning to groggily stir muttering feebly, “We can’t leave Zoii here. We can all get out toge—”
Before Grey could finish their weakly spoken words, Zoii brushed the fine feather-hairs from Grey’s face. “You don’t have a choice, darling. You need to go.” And, Zoii pushed Tove and Grey away to position herself to confront a new danger that was manifesting itself from the Chinaberry Forest: a platoon of Venery warriors who were spilling into the Concentric Courtyard.
Another platoon poured like angry ants from the gates of the Court of the Miracles, from the Throne of Stars itself.
The enormity of what was going on was even more unsettling than what Tove had thought.
“Get out of here!” Growling like a forest in a tornado, Zoii grew and grew and grew and generated a wall of branches and brambles between herself and the Venery warriors saying in her now booming voice. “I’ll hold them off.”
“Well, find you.” Statement. Tove speaking with straight fury spoke truth and Truth. Spoke Pronouncement.
“Yes, yes—good—now get the hell out of here.”
Tove tightened her hold on Grey, and shouting at the rest of the party, Tove pushed Persis and Killian towards the Venery Gate that was, by some miracle (thank you, Grey) still open and drug Grey across the incredibly exposed courtyard, to the Gate, and fell back through to the Euigilans Somnium.
Tove and Grey fell through the Gate, and there was only dark and cold, cold, cold pavement and the faintest crunch of the vestiges of autumn, the glow of the Gate showing a barely moonlit Persis and Killian—weapons up, magick ready—and a parking lot next to an apparently out-of-business petrol station.
Dragging Grey further away from the Gate, back towards where Persis and Killian were standing—worrying that the Gate wouldn’t stay open with Grey in and out of consciousness the way that they were, losing blood again due to the jarring of their body in the escape and the rather rough landing—Tove waited, magick ready, to see who or what would come through the Gate next.
As they waited—long moments met only with the struggling, sucking breaths of Grey—Tove began to think that they were going to have to collapse the Gate themselves. “Persis,” Tove spoke softly, urgently. “Do you know a way to pull this thing down without Grey’s help?”
Tove could feel Persis’ surprise—another fun bonus of having Grey’s blood all over Tove’s hands—and could feel Persis look to Killian. “Of course,” Tove could feel Persis hesitate—could feel that Persis was holding back everything that she could be saying, wanted to be saying—to trying to find a way convince Tove to not close the Gate. We can’t let her close the Gate! Everyone else is still back there. They’re going to be killed—
“Persis,” Tove cut off the rattling that was surely only in her own head. “I know that we could be abandoning our friends to that horror show, but we cannot allow a Gruff or a Bandersnatch to find their way into the Euigilans Somnium.” Tove flicked a soft, sad smile back towards Persis. “We protect their world as much as our own, and right now, theirs is the only one that we can protect.”
Persis mantled and then deflated—pulling back into herself until she was small and tired and just sad, sad, sad. “I understand. I need Killian’s help since you’re—” Tove could see the barest flick of Persis’ hand in Tove’s direction. “Otherwise occupied.”
The Gate flared to life for a moment—Tove readying another of sparking fire blasts—as Ione kind of—well, kind of flew backwards through the Gate to land on her back on the pavement at Tove’s hooves, gun still at the ready as the sharp scent of gunpowder and ozone and spent magick filled Tove’s nose.
Tove had never realized until that moment that magick actually had a smell.
Ione looked up at Tove, a wry, slightly mad grin on her face. “Incoming?”
And, with that, Aedeir came running through the Gate literally dragging an unconscious Mad March Grey behind her—still so large that they barely fit through the Gate properly—as if they weighed nothing at all.
Tove filed that away for later.
Aedeir physically slide Mad March Grey the rest of the way across the parking lot so that they were out of the way in all of their abundance and came to stand beside Tove, glaive at the ready. “We need to keep the Gate open just a few more moments. Armie, Cassius, and Zoii were coming up behind us, but as soon as they’re through, we’ve got to pull this thing down because they are so going to be coming in hot.”
“We’re on it,” Tove heard Killian say with a confidence that Tove was honestly not used to hearing from him, but good on Killian if today was the day that confidence came to visit. If there was a day for that bastard to visit and it be a help, it was today.
Tove was starting to think that they needed to go ahead and close the Gate. Zoii said that they could find their own way out, yeah? Surely, that would be easier with Armitage and Cassius?
The Gate flared again.
“Killian, Persis,” Aedeir spoke so quietly—a strange counterpoint to the thunderous noise of battle that Tove could feel in her blood and mind—that it was surprising loud in the clear, cold evening. “It’s time.”
Persis sounded so steady.
Tove felt like she was falling apart.
A flurry of squirrels came streaming out of the Gate like an oncoming storm—grey and black and ruddy red—then the delicate curve of Cassius’ rams-horns, Armitage’s blindingly horrific pants.
Where was Zoii?
“Where’s Zoii?” Tove kind of inadvertently shouted over the negligible noise that was Cassius and Armitage’s arrival.
“Coming.” Cassius was holding the side of his head as Armitage took three limping steps and then collapse to the ground, Cassius sitting a more controlled way beside them. “Zoii’s right behind—”
With a rush of dirt and rock, Zoii shot through the Gate in a way that implied that they had been doing that thing where they traveled beneath the ground and had jettisoned themselves through the Gate from the ground at an angle, and as Zoii hit the pavement on the other side of the Gate, they disappeared again into the ground, leaving pavement cracked and pulled up and broken in their wake.
“Drop it!” Aedeir yelled just as a Bandersnatches toothy maw broke the surface of the Gate.
The Gate closed, and they were left with a neatly sliced off Bandersnatch face sitting on the ground in a uigilans Somnium parking lot.
“Well, fuck.” Tove heard Aedeir practically whispered, and Tove sat down on the ground hard, hard, hard and didn’t really know anything for awhile.