As the Aechyed had predicted, the trail brought them out of the canyon within the hour, depositing them instead on a steep, barren slope on the mountain’s southern face. The snow was thin here, mostly melted to mud, and no more fell from the sky, which had turned overcast rather than stormy.
On horseback once more, they began their slow descent into the Carvil Valley.
* * *
The Lady Raven found her twin sister at the bottom of the chasm and sat beside her on a craggy rock for a while without exchanging words, looking out over the fiercely churning waters of the Waelyngar River.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Death asked eventually, the deep black holes of her eyes meeting her sister’s pupil-less blue ones.
“You know very well what brings me here, Mortua.”
The Third of the Three Queens of Time smiled mirthlessly and turned her sinister gaze upwards, toward the canyon rim. “I have as much a right to them as you do, my dear Moriba. Were one of your precious Six to take a tumble from a high place, I would feel no need to hesitate before swooping down upon him.”
The Second of the Three Queens of Time folded her pale arms across her chest. “If you swoop down upon any of them for any reason,” she snapped, “then the Infernal Worm wins the war!”
Queen Mortua frowned, adjusting her crown of human bones. “Would that really be such a bad thing, though? I tire of the unending battle. Let it win, I say.”
“But now we can end it forever, Mortua!”
“That is what you said the last time it reared its ugly head, and yet here we stand again.”
“But now, sister, I have found the Six! The new Six shall end what the old Six began so very long ago. They meet all the criteria set forth in the prophecy—one to represent each of us, Mortua. They aren’t so very much unlike we were then: young, energetic, adventurous…what I wouldn’t give to feel so alive once more!”
Mortua turned her flat stare back to her sister, slightly interested. “Which one of them is mine? Do I get the girl?”
“No, Viviane gets the girl,” Queen Moriba replied.
Death snorted. “Viviane always gets the girl,” she muttered.
The Lady Raven continued as if her sister had not spoken. “You get the lanky, pale, insecure mage boy.”
Mortua was insulted. “Really? You thought that would represent me best?”
“Well,” Moriba responded, “aside from the fact that he’s gangly, anxious and male, he’s actually a rather good match. He killed his own parents, after all, just like you did. Plus, he’s the most powerful of the Six, like you were, and he has a mad fraternal twin, just like you have.”
The Queen of the Dead seemed to find this to be an acceptable explanation. “So who has the rest? I presume yours is the mad fraternal twin.”
“You presume rightly.” Moriba smiled, exposing her fangs. “I’m sure you can guess the others once you’ve gotten a good look at them all. Now—are you with me, or are you against me, sister?”
Mortua considered for a moment. “What say the others?”
“I know not about Viviane, but Lowryn and Elnias stand with me.”
“If Elnias stands with you, then I cannot.” Her pale face turned stern and impassive. “I will not stand alongside him who betrayed me.”
“Ah,” Moriba went on, “but would you stand alongside him who prompted Elnias to betray you?”
“Do you mean to say…?”
“Yesss,” the Queen of the In-Between hissed. “Aita stands against us. By siding against Elnias, you would be fighting on Aita’s behalf.”
An expression of anguish passed over Mortua’s features upon the presentation of this dilemma. “I shall have to think about it then,” she said after awhile.
Moriba stood up and nodded once. “Come find me when you have reached your decision. And kindly refrain from ‘swooping’ upon any of my Six until you are quite certain that you have made up your mind.”
With that, the Lady Raven spread her wings and flew away.