XXXIII. Midnight Sun

They took inventory of their injuries. Frost’s was the worst, a cut on her arm deep enough that they could see the bone. Flame swore as made a tourniquet with a strip torn from his cloak. “Dammit, Sister, you shouldn’t have done that.”

“It was going to hit you,” said Frost. “I had to block it.”

“With your arm?” asked Flame. “I don’t want you to die for me.”

Frost shrugged and immediately winced. “You’d do the same for me.”

Garthniiel had a cut across his cheek from where he hadn’t quite been fast enough to dodge the blade. It wasn’t deep, but the blood ran down his face and dripped from his chin. He wiped it away. He looked to Avenel, kneeling by the body of Ephraim. From behind, he couldn’t tell if she was crying.

Deena descended down the stairs from the balcony. She reached out a hand for Avenel’s shoulder, then seemed to think better of it and pulled away.

“Are you hurt?” asked Avenel without looking up.

Deena shook her head. “No, I’m fine.” She hesitated. “Iz—Izra’s upstairs, Frost, if you want to…” she trailed off.

Frost looked at her arm. “Might be good for her to take a look at it, yeah,” she said.

“I’ll come with you,” said Flame. “Garth?”

Garthniiel touched his cheek. “Yeah. I should go too.”

Deena waited until they were gone. “Um, Avenel, there something—There’s something you should know. Izra was—She was the one who made these soldiers, who brought them back. She was experimenting on them to try to bring back Inoor.”

“Did she know about Ephraim?” asked Avenel.

“No. She didn’t know it was him.”

“I see,” said Avenel. “Thank you for telling me.” She stood. “Excuse me. I need to bury Ephraim’s body.”

It wasn’t long before Garthniiel and Flame returned, Garthniiel with a bandage on his cheek. Nicholas and Inoor soon found them as well. “What happened?” asked Nicholas, looking around at the bodies that littered the ground. “Who’s that Kassie’s burying? Where’s Izra?”

“Frost and Izra are upstairs,” said Flame. “Frost got a nasty cut. Izra’s helping her. And Avenel’s burying, uh—”

“It’s her wardfather,” said Deena. “Noriiel was using him as—as a vessel.”

“So she killed him?” asked Nicholas. “This Noriiel?”

Deena shook her head. “Just cut his connection to his army.”

Flame nudged one of the bodies with his foot. “What do we do with them? They’re still breathing.”

Nicholas bent down to examine the closest one. “That doesn’t mean they’re alive,” he said. “The best thing we can do is put them to rest.”

“You mean kill them?” asked Garthniiel.

“They’re already dead,” said Nicholas.

Flame nodded and drew an arrow from his quiver. “Deena, why don’t you wait outside?”

It was hours before Avenel had dug a hole deep enough in the frozen earth. By then, the others had piled the remaining bodies into a funeral pyre on the other side of the courtyard. Deena left before the smell could reach her, wandering through the temple’s ruins. She looked at the carvings on the wall, at the books and scrolls and shards of pottery, at the strange symbols and foreign glyphs she couldn’t read.

If the throne room was at the center of this temple, and the throne had been meant for her, then had this temple also been built for her, thousands of years in the past, in anticipation of her birth? If there hadn’t been an earthquake, if the priests of Asterii were still alive, would they greet her now as their savior and expect her to fix the sun?

She thought of Noriiel’s question, when he asked her why she wanted to save the world. She didn’t understand. Of course she wanted to save the world; she lived in it. It was her home. If she could go back in time and save Taunsgrove, of course she would do it.

She found a windowed room on an upper story that overlooked the courtyard. Through the broken glass, she watched the plumes of smoke rising from the funeral pyre.

Izra sat alone in the dark. Healing Frost’s arm had taken too much out of her, so soon after snapping the soldier’s bones, but the alternative was letting the woman bleed. While the others worked to give the dead soldiers a proper rest, she had found an intact room—the cell of one of the priests—and retired to a rest of her own.

She still wasn’t sure what Deena had seen. The others had made no mention of it; perhaps Deena hadn’t told them. Perhaps she had been wrong, and it would’ve been fine to trust the girl with the truth from the beginning, but—No, Ruuzael had said that she must not tell her, that it was something she must discover for herself.

And so, she sat in the dark, waiting and racked with guilt, but guilt was a feeling she knew well.

She didn’t know how much time had passed. An hour or two, perhaps more. Perhaps she dozed off, but in the dark and alone, it was difficult to tell. All she knew was that it was a long while before she heard footsteps in the corridor outside, and then her door was flung open by Nicholas.

“There you are,” said Nicholas. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

He was angry. It wasn’t often that he was angry, but lately it felt like he was always angry with her. There was a small black object in his hands, and he held it up for her to see.

“You found it,” said Izra, rising to her feet.

“Is it mine?” asked Nicholas.

Izra nodded. She was too tired to lie, and tired of lying.

“So you tampered with my mind,” said Nicholas, closing his fist around the stone. “My mind, Izi.”

His voice shook as he spoke. No, he wasn’t angry. He was livid.

He held out the stone. “Put it back,” he said.

Izra looked at it. “I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t?” asked Nicholas. “I know you can put back the memories you take; I’ve seen it.”

Izra shook her head. “That’s not what I mean.”

“At least tell me what you took,” said Nicholas.

Izra sighed. He was still angry. She wanted him to leave. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“I don’t—Of course I don’t!” exclaimed Nicholas. “I don’t know what you took! I don’t know what’s in here! I don’t know what’s missing from my own mind! My own past!”

“Perhaps that’s a blessing,” said Izra. She was so tired of lying, of carrying the truth alone, of his accusatory gaze for something she did not do.

“A blessing?” asked Nicholas. “Even if that’s true, you have no right to make that decision for me! To—to tamper with my mind and hide it from me! To refuse to even tell me—”

“I did it,” snapped Izra, “because you begged me to!”

“What?” asked Nicholas. “Why would I—?”

“Because you’re a coward!” shouted Izra. “You hated what you knew! What we knew! When Inoor died—when Asterii died—and the burden of knowing fell on just the two of us, you begged me to take that away from you! You begged until I relented, knowing full well it would mean that I would have bear it alone!” She snatched the stone from his hand. “Centuries, Nicholas!” she shouted, flinging the stone against the wall. “Centuries, you’ve made me carry this weight alone!”

Nicholas turned to see where the stone had fallen, unharmed, to the ground. “Then why—” he began, then seemed to realize the inanity of his own question. Then why did you agree to do it?

She answered it anyway. “Because you were all I had left.”

He picked up the stone. “What—What was so terrible that I had to forget?”

Izra looked away. “It was never supposed to be only me,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“You, me, and Inoor. There are things we’ve done, things we promised to do. Coming to this temple, bringing Deena here—it was supposed to be the three of us.”

“Why would that be so terrible?” asked Nicholas.

“Because,” said Izra, “of what she has to do next.”

It was night, or whatever night meant so far north. The sun skimmed the horizon behind what remained of the funeral pyre. Avenel had stacked a few rocks over Ephraim’s grave in a makeshift cairn, but there was nothing for the charred bones and ashes of the nameless others.

When the last of the fire had died away, Avenel found Deena by the window overlooking the courtyard. For a while they stood in silence, looking out at Ephraim’s cairn, at the ruined spire of the throne room, at the sunlight painting the clouds a fiery gold. Wind blew in through the broken glass, carrying with it a few flakes of snow.

“Are you cold?” asked Avenel, her breath clouding in the northern air.

Deena shook her head. “How’s Frost’s arm?”

“Izra closed the wound and stopped the bleeding,” said Avenel. “She’ll be fine.”

Deena nodded.

They stood there a few minutes longer, then Avenel put a hand on Deena’s shoulder. “It’s time,” she said, and Deena didn’t need to ask what she meant.

They walked together back through the ruins, their footsteps echoing off the ancient walls.

At the door leading out to the courtyard, Deena stopped.

“What’s wrong?” asked Avenel.

“I—I’m scared,” admitted Deena.

Avenel took her by the hand. “Whatever happens, I’ll be right there beside you.”

Deena nodded. She wondered if Noriiel was still here somewhere, watching her. She wondered if Ruuzael was too.

Blood stained the snow within the throne room, or perhaps it was only the red of the stained glass windows. Otherwise, there was no longer any evidence of a fight. The others were all there, all of them except Izra.

“She’s sleeping,” said Nicholas, when Deena looked around for her. “She didn’t sleep much last night, and fixing Frost’s arm took a lot out of her.”

Deena nodded. She looked around at the room, at the pile of rubble that had once been the roof, at the broken statues that lined the walls. The throne sat at the far end of the room, atop a dais as tall as a house. She could feel the others watching her expectantly as she and Avenel made their way across the hall and up the crumbling steps of the dais. At the top, she turned to look at Avenel. “Do I—Do I just sit?” she asked.

“That’s what Izra said,” said Avenel.

Deena looked at the throne again. It did not look much like how Deena expected a throne to look. Rather, it looked like a jagged black rock that had always been there, that had been roughly shaped into the facsimile of a chair, with the room and temple built up around it. She put a hand on one of the arms, and to her surprise, it was warm.

“Go on,” called Flame from across the room. He meant it to be encouraging, she was sure, but she did not feel encouraged.

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Avenel.

Deena nodded. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. What am I afraid of? she wondered. All I have to do is sit.

She sat.

For a moment nothing happened, and her head was filled with thoughts of how this was it, that they had come all this way for nothing, that at any moment the expectant gaze of the others would turn to disappointment.

“I’m sor—” she began, then felt herself fall.

Memories flooded her, memories that were not her own. They were men, women, children who lived hundreds of years ago, thousands, millennia and eons ago. In a flash she saw their lives, felt their joys and sorrows, further and further and further back until—

Until she was the earth. She was heat and darkness and unspeakable pressure, matter newly formed from stardust. The light of the sun was a gentle caress upon her skin, and as her rivers of magma cooled to stone, she understood.

This was her fate. From the beginning, it had been written into the fabric of the world. As Harbinger, her soul was tied to the sun’s.

Avenel caught her she fell. “Deena?” she asked, her voice tinged with worry. She put a hand to Deena’s forehead. “You’re burning.”

Deena shook her head. “This isn’t a throne,” she said.

“What?” asked Avenel.

“This isn’t a throne,” repeated Deena. “It’s a sacrificial altar. To save the world, I have to die.”