And the day came of a Second Resurrection, when the River was set aright. It was not done by the hand of the Prime Resurrector, the Kindly Prince, the King Undying, the Necrolord who had blazed even as Dominicus for ten thousand years in glory; instead the River was succored, and the dead raised, by the touch of a no-tiddy goth witch who had a face made for baby-eating and a lack of booty so astounding it would make a black hole weep.
"You swine. You -- take it back. You m-miserable, oathbreaking --"
"Fuck off," croaked Gideon Nav, First Reborn of the Second Resurrection, as she fended off a vicious and unprovoked rain of blows from her Resurrector's tiny fists. Or tried to; her arms were like noodles that had boiled for about half a year. All her beautiful muscles were half wasted to nothing. "What'd you do, bring me back just to kill me again? Can't let anyone else get the last word even if they're dead, can you, you mega-bitch?"
The Resurrector of the River, the Lyctor and scourge of Lyctors, Harrowhark the First and Harrowhark the Last, was an absolute fucking pathetic mess. Not a hint of paint was visible under the blood and mud she seemed to have been dunked in, and tears and snot threatened to obscure the rest. Her eyes were burning brands in ghastly pits. If Gideon hadn't had some practice looking at those extremely hot eyes in that nauseating face, she would have lost her spiritual lunch. Instead, because of her great courage and fortitude, she even touched it, dragging one thumb shakily over her Resurrector's knife-sharp cheekbones, drawing a track in the grease and blood. "You look like shit," she said.
Harrowhark was kneeling over her, shaking with her own paroxysms. Blood oozed from basically every orifice. "I hate you!" she cried.
"Likewise, dollface," Gideon answered, with just enough bitterness to still sound detached and cool. "You could have left me dead, then you wouldn't have to look at me anymore."
"Shut up." Harrowhark crumpled like an unpinned construct, buried her mucky face in the starving hollow of her cavalier's ribs, and burst into tears.
Gideon was too wise to fall for this kind of wily Nonagesimus trap. She wrapped her arms around her necromancer (still her necromancer, past life and through like three different kinds of death), just to immobilize her and keep her from lashing out again. Even atrophied from a year spent dead on a slab, Gideon's arms were basically iron bars against Harrow's measly three muscles. And the six-foot spike of actual iron that Harrow had strapped to her back, which she had completely and maliciously wrecked, by the way.
"Fuck you, you fucked up my sword," Gideon said, just so it wouldn't go unnoted. "Just for that, I should have let those bees eat your thumbs."
Harrow sobbed something that sounded suspiciously like You are my sword, which Gideon didn't feel quite strong enough to tackle just then. She'd just been hauled out of the River like a flopping half-gutted saltwater leech, and she was still getting her life legs back. Not that leeches had legs --
"Griddle," Harrowhark said unsteadily, which felt like being dragged out of the River all over again. "I hereby release you from all service, debt, or obligation to the House of the Ninth, to the Tomb and the chain, to myself or my heirs, living or dead --"
"Hey! What the fuck!" Gideon tried to push Harrow away, but all she really managed to do was wriggle a bit, which revealed the squishy unpleasantness of the mud and blood she was laying in. Probably the same mud and blood that was all over Harrow's face. They seemed to be on a planet, under a sky so rusty-looking it could probably give you tetanus. And they seemed to be in the middle of some kind of battle, to judge by the reverberating howls of what were probably seriously pissed-off ghosts. But Gideon was so blinded by a hot flare of rage that she hardly noticed any of that. She shoved herself up a monumental few inches and pulled Harrow's head up by the hair so she could look her in the backstabbing eye. "Seriously? You're just gonna throw me away again like garbage? After I died for you like five times?! Fuck you, I'm going back --"
"No!" Harrow dug her little claws into Gideon's deltoids with such ferocity that for a second Gideon expected her to dig her teeth in, too. "Nav, no, I don't -- you don't understand --"
"What's there to understand? You don't need me, you never did. Dragged me back just to rub it in. I get it." Gideon tried again to tug Harrow off, but didn't get anywhere, which was pathetic. "I gave you my life, I fed you my soul, and you didn't want it. You still don't. I'm just tired of being dicked around, okay? If you --"
"Gideon Nav. I mutilated my own brain to keep it from feeding you to the furnace of my Lyctorhood," said the Last Lyctor, as hopeless and bedraggled as a half-drowned rat. "I need you more than you could possibly imagine! I was entirely undone without you -- I was obliterated and destroyed. Your death achieved what God could not. I will not survive losing you again." She was shaking like a bone chandelier in a high wind, her teeth chattering, but she continued to cling to Gideon's flesh with a grim determination.
Gideon, meanwhile, was way too cool to be crying. Even though she'd had an extremely long and very stressful afterlife. And her chest felt both hollow and too full, in a way that didn't not remind her of having a huge pointy metal thing shoved shatteringly through it. "Then why the fuck are you sending me away?"
Someone shouted, "Incoming! Look alive, Ninth!"
A ghoulish, gelatinous person-shaped thing lurched writhingly into Gideon’s field of vision. It reached for them; its hands were flapping unsettlingly at the ends of decaying wrist tendons, but that didn’t stop it from trying to shovel whatever human flesh it could reach into its slavering dead jaws. Its gray deliquescing fingers scrabbled at Harrow’s robes.
Gideon struggled to think through a flat white burst of animal panic, then stopped thinking. Harrow was laying on top of her, and on top of Harrow was her sword. Gideon’s hand found the hilt, and with her other arm still around her puny necromancer, she heaved the bone-coated blade up in a supremely awkward one-handed thrust that took off the monster’s wailing head. Bile and ichor splattered them like rain.
“Oh, what now,” Harrowhark said, suddenly exactly as petty and cranky as she’d been back in the pit of Drearburh. She sat up, pushing Gideon’s shaking sword-arm out of the way, ignoring Gideon’s groan of pain as the poor blade landed with a squelch in the mud. Harrow levered herself unsteadily up on a length of conjured rib, then split it into frazzled handfuls of bone gunge, which she flung in long arcs in all directions. Most of it hit the faces of the shambling zombie horde that was apparently really invested in making Gideon dead again. The zombies fell back, howling and clawing at the full skeletons suddenly sprouting from their half-melted-off torsos, but Harrow was so absorbed in orchestrating her calcified legions that she'd left her back wide open.
Not if one extremely sexy ex-zombie had anything to say about it.
It was probably a pretty short fight, even though it felt like half a myriad. Gideon's arms and chest burned like she'd been kicked in the torso by a parade of skeletons that were also on fire. It was only a tiny bit less awful than when she'd tried to fight in Harrow's pathetic body, about a billion years ago. But at the end of it she stood in a radius of gore, panting and feeling each breath in her newly-knit lungs like a spray of needles, faithful sword clutched in both hands, and turned to face Harrow.
Harrow looked, if anything, worse, but she was still alive. Or alive-adjacent, anyway. It was always so hard to tell with her.
"That was for free, highness," Gideon said bluntly, avoiding Harrow's eyes (Gideon’s eyes, not like anyone cared). "I'll get out of your way now."
She swung the sword jauntily up onto one shoulder and turned her back. What was Harrow going to do, kill her again? She was too stingy with thanergy to pull the same trick twice in five minutes. Besides, Gideon didn't think anything Harrow did would make her heart hurt and stomach twist worse than I hereby release you.
Oh, was she wrong.
Bony arms wrapped around her waist. For a solid three seconds she thought Harrow had summoned a skeleton to pin her down (which would be so fucking typical). She had the pommel of her sword lifted to shatter the ulnae and radii hugging her before she realized they were sheathed in skin and no fat and the barest suggestion of a muscle.
"Nav," Harrow said, and the feeling of her face pressed into the small of Gideon's back made her knees so weak that she almost face-planted into the mud again and dragged Harrow with her. "Gideon. Please. This is -- there's no trick. You've repaid every debt to me and to the House of the Ninth a thousand times. I can no longer hold you by any bond or obligation. I needed you to know. You are free."
"Then what the fuck," Gideon said, "are you doing?"
"I have no claim and no right to your sword or your service. But I can ask." Harrow was remarkably calm for someone who was still crying. "Please, Gideon, come with me. Stay. You are the center and the heart of me. I have taken your life, I have taken your death from you, and still I ask for --"
"Yeah, all right," Gideon said.
She was wearing a loose, grubby shirt and black trousers, with no scabbard or belt, but she needed both hands, so she was forced to set the sword down on the ground -- lovingly, with a silent apology and promise of extra polishing later. Then she turned and looked at her necromancer.
It was an awful sight. Tears had carved tracks down Harrow's face, and Gideon realized with a numbing shock that the Reverend Daughter wore no face paint. Clearly a lot more had happened while she'd been dead than she'd realized.
"You are such an idiot," Harrow croaked, displaying her usual strategic genius by following a heartfelt plea with a condescending jab. "After everything that's happened, would you still just do anything I --"
"Yop," Gideon said, and kissed her.
Her lips were hot and dry and tasted like old blood. Gideon's heart felt squeezed in a bony fist so hard that black spots danced over her vision, so she closed her eyes. Harrow's body was pressed against hers, lighting up every resurrected neuron like marshfire. She knew every inch of it, remembered every ridge and angle from when she'd hefted her necromancer over her shoulder and then held her in her arms, all the way back at Canaan House. She remembered what that sharp little body felt like from the inside, too, but this was a whole other universe, this business of touching. Harrow pressed herself against Gideon as though hiding a secret in the nonexistent space between them, grabbing at the back of her neck to keep from drowning.
Gideon Nav had never had a home, not really -- indentured orphan, rootless mongrel, she'd never been welcomed anywhere, never been safe, never been wanted. She'd never had anywhere or anyone to come home to. But Harrow leaned into her and sucked face like she was thinking of chaining them together just to keep her. Gideon felt herself falling, felt herself coming apart like a shuttle dropping into atmosphere after a year in the void of deep space. If this was what coming home felt like, she thought she was starting to see what all the fuss was about.
Harrow pushed her away eventually. Then stared up at her, with the expression of a devout nun given two minutes alone in a niche with a holy relic she’d spent twenty years yearning to behold. Even with a necromantically appropriate smattering of burst blood vessels around the irises, the golden eyes were still all wrong. They softened the lust in her expression into something gentler, that might not even involve ripping out and embalming Gideon's organs.
"I love you," she said, in a voice all cracked and mangled, raw as a mortal wound. "I thought I knew the meaning of the word. But I was wrong. I do not admit that lightly."
Her hands were hot on Gideon's wrists. Her hair was longer than Gideon had ever seen it and matted with neglect. She was horrid, and stupidly beautiful, and looked like she'd been through a meat grinder and a few assassination attempts since Gideon had last seen her (or been her).
"Yeah. No shit." Gideon pressed her palm to Harrow's cheek and wiped away a big clump of dirt and bile. She felt drunk on the sight of the bare skin underneath, appallingly vulnerable. "You look like complete garbage, by the way. Clearly you can't last five minutes without me." Her heart was trying to climb up her aorta into her throat. She swallowed it down and added, "You need a cavalier. Someone has to take better care of you."
The mask of grim death twitched with the ghost of a rueful smile. "It's rotten work."
"You and Crux used to make me clean the eye sockets on all the skulls in the oss," Gideon said. "I had to pick the maggots out. Looking smoking hot and doing nasty jobs is my middle name."
"Griddle," Harrow answered, in a small, helpless voice. Gideon pulled her close and hugged her tighter than either of them had ever been hugged in all their lives, then tilted her chin up and ducked down to kiss her again.
The sound of a throat being pointedly cleared behind them totally failed to get their attention.
"Six and a half minutes. Not bad. I bet the Warden it would take you at least fifteen," said Camilla Hect, who was a pill.
"And that, children, is why, on the anniversary of the Second Resurrection, we lock annoying necromancers and their cavaliers in a closet for seven minutes," Gideon said sagely.
"Six and a half," Camilla corrected her.
Gideon reached over the arm of her delightfully squashy armchair and used the remains of the festive bone-shaped candy she'd been sucking on to spear a morsel of dense, wobbly cake off Cam's plate. "We round up. 'Six and a Half Minutes in Heaven' sounds completely stupid."
"Accuracy isn't stupid," Cam objected, but Palamedes scuttled up her arm and squeezed her shoulder with his bony fingers. She gave up with a nearly-undetectable sigh and offered her plate to Gideon, who happily shoved more mediocre cake into her face. Cam stood up with the unmistakeable posture of ‘I’m going to find someone smarter than you to talk to’, which was fine by Gideon.
As she turned away her adept scurried up her shoulder and balanced on his scaphoid and pisiform to straighten the bright red hat she was wearing. She claimed it was an ancient artifact that had been used in celebrations of rebirth and transformation since before the advent of the King Undying, only recently rediscovered in some musty vault in the depths of the Sixth House. She’d given Gideon one as a holiday gift, but Harrow had thrown it into the fire, because Harrow was a wet blanket with terminal fun deficiency.
The wet blanket had spent all her ire on harmless decorations and was now curled up in her cavalier's lap. Hours of dedicated work on Gideon's part had filled her with so much cake and diluted hot chocolate that she was practically comatose, but she managed to scowl without opening her eyes. "I don't remember it happening like that."
"You probably don't remember it right. You were too busy crying all over everything."
Harrow managed to open her eyes about halfway. The firelight gleamed deeply in the golden depths of her irises, warmer than the light of a living sun. Gideon had spent the last year learning all about the joys of basking in the thalergetic light of stars that weren't Dominicus; Harrow still treated sunlight as if it would turn her to ash, but she couldn't help carrying it around with her, right in her face. Gideon had come to appreciate the sexiness of her own eyes even more since they'd become Harrow's.
And it was adorable, the way they never quite made it all the way to the knife-edged suspicious gleam Harrow had wielded in their youth. "If I recall, you were the one who was incapacitated. And weepy, for some reason."
"Nope. You got hit on the head by a skeleton. Trust me." Gideon pressed a wet smooch full of cake-crumbs to her necromancer's forehead. Harrow wiped at her face with a small sound of disgust, then sank grumbling back into her sugar-crash coma. The architect of the Second Resurrection, who had achieved a feat equaled only by the ex-Necrolord Prime, had gone against every precept of her upbringing and refused to have a hand in the rituals that sprang up around the battle she'd been instrumental in winning. That left it up to the others who had been present (read: mostly Gideon) to decide how humanity celebrated the overthrow of God and the laying to rest of the ghosts of Old Earth.
Gideon was pretty happy with how the holiday had turned out; mandatory cake, candy bones, the forgiveness of debts. Mostly she was happy about the cake. The 'Seven Minutes in Heaven' thing hadn't caught on yet, but she was working on it. Maybe next year.
A rustle of robes betrayed that Harrow wasn’t quite as asleep as she appeared. “Griddle,” she sighed, somehow sliding one of her tiny freezing hands up under the hem of Gideon’s ridiculous sweater (it was embroidered with clumsy dancing skeletons and said HAPPY 2ND RESURRECTION DAY. Ianthe had made it, but Gideon loved it anyway).
“Yes, gloom mistress?”
“This whole ‘party’ idea is an insult to the spirits of humanity’s dead. We will not do it again.”
“Says you.” As someone who had not even known what a party was until her late teens, Gideon was not about to let anyone deprive her of a chance to eat stodgy cake with little fruits in it and drink the concoctions Cam made out of eggs and paint-thinner moonshine. But she could be flexible for the one person in the universe who she loved almost as much as she loved cake. “Next year we’ll go away, just the two of us. How’s that sound?”
Lights twinkled in the rafters and outside in the sky; warm lights, living lights, unhaunted by anything looking for murder or revenge. The greatest and last necromancers in the universe had gotten involved in a joke-telling contest to try to make Camilla Hect laugh. The Second Resurrector turned her face into the boob window of Gideon’s sweater and murmured, “That would be acceptable.”
“And a Happy New Year,” Gideon said. And for once, it actually was.