Pain, and she's on the ground. She rolls onto her stomach and crawls, head reeling too much to try standing up. It was in her hand just a moment ago, so it must be— oh, down there. That's an awfully tall, steep hill.
Pain again, this time between her shoulders. Her arms crumple beneath the force of the blow and she falls flat on her chest. This time she does try to stand, and something pulls her down. She pulls back, hears fabric ripping, is up on her feet with sudden and surprising ease. When she turns around, the large Dersite has a foot on the remains of her skirt and the arm of the White King around his neck.
"Hurry!" the King calls to her, and she tries, she really does. She's over the edge in a heartbeat, but from there it gets so much harder. The ground of the battlefield is smooth and glossy with no friction except what she can make with her claws. There are no rocks jutting out, only very slight grooves she can cling to by the tips of her fingers or larger ones she can wedge her body against. The spray from the falls is no help either. Minutes slip through her hands like the cliff-face almost does several times. She considers jumping, feels the phantom pain of shattered ankles, and keeps going how she is. Finally her feet touch down on something firmly horizontal, and she turns to sprint to the place she last saw the scepter.
It isn't there. Of course it isn't there. Because why should things start going right now? Why should the universe suddenly start caring how much sweat and shivering adrenaline she pours into just doing her damn job?
Off in the distance is a dot of black and bold, garish colors carrying a speck of shining blue. Her eyes trace its path ahead of it, up to the summit of the next hill, and what she sees there stops her heart.
Then the sky lights on fire and jolts it back to beating.
Looking back up the cliff she sees the King is still wrestling with the Brute, who seems to have gained the upper hand. It's far too late to save the scepter, but maybe there's still something she can do to help. Her only other option is to run for her life, and that would be disgraceful. A ruler sacrificing himself for his kingdom is one thing, but not just for one peasant, not for her. Even if he'd meant to do it, she couldn't possibly accept that.
Going up is, mercifully, faster than coming down, though the strain it puts on her arms is almost unbearable. Red lightning cracks above her head like a whip spurring her on. The Brute has his back turned to her when she reaches the top, and she draws her sword and strikes him across it — not hard enough to cut into the endoskeleton, but enough to draw blood. It's something she never wanted to do, but it's her duty as a loyal citizen of Prospit.
"Get out of here, your Majesty!" she shouts as the giant of a man roars in pain and spins around to face her. The King says nothing, just looks at her, and there's a small glint of admiration behind the quiet despair in his visage — and then he does as she tells him.
The Brute takes a looming step forward, and she holds out the Regisword between them in shaking hands. "Don't come any closer!" she says. He does, and she knows that she should strike — that she has to strike — but instead she backs up until her heel comes down on open air and she realizes she's hit the cliff. She's cornered in more ways than one: there are only two things that can happen now, and she isn't ready for either of them. "I mean it!" she says. The way his mouth splits open into a grin as he ignores her plea, the way the strands of saliva cling and stretch from tip to tip of his needle-sharp teeth, for a moment he doesn't look like a person so much as something that crawled out from the shadows at the edge of the universe.
She swings her sword — haphazardly, half-heartedly — and he leans out of the way so that she barely scratches him. On the downswing he lunges forward and swats her to the ground — not the far-too-far-below ground at her back, but to the side. The Brute kneels down over her. One double-sized hand pins her wrist, trapping her sword. The other closes around her throat and presses in. Her free hand shoots up of its own accord and wraps around the arm holding her down, claws sinking in until she can feel something warm and viscous well up against them. The Brute takes no notice, and as her muscles shudder and soften from lack of oxygen, her grip loosens and her arm collapses under its own weight, falling limply to her side.
The sound of falling water pounds in her aching head — much louder than it was a minute ago, she's sure — and the awful beauty of the sizzling sky almost burns her eyes as she stares up into it. The thought, When was the last time I looked at the sky?, darts in and out of her mind. There's an unusual sharpness to the world even as the edges start to blur, like her senses are fighting to soak up as much of it as they can. Above her, so very far away and out of her reach, she sees Prospit, her home, its great golden spires visible even from space.
She sees it ignite and start to crumble.
Something changes. The pain in her head and chest seems suddenly dull. Something else hurts, something that overshadows all the rest of it. She's dying, and the last thing she'll ever see is the end of the world. That's just too much.
Darkness creeps in around the edges of her vision, and her mind flickers like an old lightbulb.
She's had such a long day.
What is that?
(She's so tired.)
Wait. Is it..?
Skaia quakes from the impact. Air rushes into her lungs and blood into her head, and she realizes the shockwave has thrown the Brute off of her. She pushes through the light-headedness and gets to her feet while he's still struggling to his. His size and weight — an asset to him a moment ago, when he was using them to crush the life from her body — are now working against him. She could try to run, but she's seen how fast he can be and how intent he is on killing her. She sees — with the same strange, cold clarity with which she saw the world as she lay suffocating — what she has to do to live. He's half on the ground and it really isn't fair, but then neither is anything else that's happened today. She's barely even surprised by the strength with which she brings the sword down.
Some time passes. She doesn't know or care how much. She watches the man she killed bleed into the stream and waits to feel something besides anger. It will hit her eventually, the horror of what she's just done. It has to, or else she's no different than—
—than the person whose voice she suddenly hears crackle from the radio on the dead man's body. She picks it up, listens, asks, "Archagent Noir?" Her own voice sounds distant and unfamiliar.
"Who is this?"
"The Parcel Mistress." Just a simple mail-carrier, she thinks, and something that's either a laugh or a sob wells up in her throat, but she swallows it before she can find out which.
"Where the fuck is HB?"
"He attacked me," she hears herself say dispassionately.
There's a moment of silence followed by barking laughter. She realizes all at once that he understands, that she knew he would understand, that somehow she's speaking in the tone of a hardened killer. "All right, doll," Jack says, now sounding positively cheerful. "What's the status on your mission?"
"I did what you wanted me to." She could phrase it any other way and it wouldn't be a lie. An hour ago, she would have chosen to. But there's a small, worthless triumph in deceiving this destroyer of worlds, and a somewhat less worthless one in the hope that the deception just might keep two people alive for at least a little bit longer. If they aren't already dead, she thinks, and wishes that sort of thought would still make her shudder.
"Good, good! Well, that makes my life easier. You still on Skaia?"
"Excellent. Stay where you are, I'll be right over with your reward."
It occurs to her there's a strong possibility he means to "reward" her for her supposed treachery and for killing one of his men, and that therefore it would probably be a good idea to get as far away from the rendezvous point as she can. But damn it, she's come this far and she isn't giving up. Even now, even at the end of the world, her job matters. It has to matter. She sets the radio down, takes the crowns out of her bag, and waits.
She's never hated anyone before, so she isn't ready for the feeling that hits her when she sees him descend from the flame-lit sky. She wants to scream at him until her throat is raw, to fling herself on him and dig in her claws, to draw the sword he gave her and tear him to pieces. Holding herself back hurts so much that tears start to prick at her eyes, but she holds those back too.
There's some relief when he's true to his word, even if she can't stand the way he smiles at her. But as the Droll hands her the box and she hands him the crowns, Jack Noir clears his throat. "I like you, kid," he says. "You've got style." He gestures toward the headless corpse at her feet. "And, hey, looks like I've got an opening for a new agent. Interested?'"
"No." The word comes out like bile. What kind of person do you think I am? she thinks, and remembers having the same thought when he first handed her the sword and the hit list. She isn't the person she thought she was then, either, and she doesn't want to know how deep the hole goes.
"You sure? Keep in mind, doll, it's either me or the wasteland. There's nothing else left for you now."
She looks him directly in the eye and forces as much of her hatred as she can out with the words she speaks. "Then I choose exile."
"Huh. What a waste. Well, hold on to that radio. If you change your mind between here and the portal, you know how to reach me."
Without a word, she stomps on the radio and smashes it to pieces. The broken casing cuts into her foot, but she doesn't care. It's worth it, because for a moment Jack looks at her with undisguised shock.
"Suit yourself, doll," he says, regaining his composure. The anger is seeping back into his voice, and she's so very glad; the last thing in the world she wants is his approval. "But there is one more thing that I'm going to insist you do for me: think of me, when you realize that the food is all gone, that there isn't a scrap left on the whole miserable planet and your only options are to wait patiently to die or to end your suffering by your own hand. When you're hurting and fading from the hunger — believe me, doll, I've had prisoners starved, and there is nothing more pathetic — remember this moment. Remember that I tried to give you a way out." She says nothing, and he turns away from her. "Come on, CD. We've got worlds to conquer and brats to kill."
She holds her breath until they're out of sight, and when she lets it out only part of the ache in her chest subsides. There's just one more job to do, and after that she doesn't know what. Maybe the fate he foresees for her. Maybe deservedly. After all she thinks, looking down one last time at the decapitated Dersite, her victim, I've just gone and thrown away everything I've ever believed in.
But that's not true at all, says a mocking little voice in the back of her mind. You believed in work ethic, and see how far you've gone for that? Prospit is destroyed, there's blood on your hands, and you've struck a deal with a man who murdered most of the people you've ever met, but the mail will be delivered!
Then again, if that's what she has to cling to… Well, she could still be worse off, if not by much. She's done her job, and that matters. It has to matter.
She will make it matter.