Erinia was at the table to win, more than anything else. The need for it filled her bones, burned through her lungs, steadied her will. She wanted it more than earning the Empresses’ favor, more than testing her mettle, more than the pleasure of defeating her opponents, or the rush. She wouldn’t let anything interfere with the goal.
To win herself a wish.
Wafts of cabbage and rosewood infiltrated her nostrils as she poured a middle-aged carpenter from one beaker to the next, preparing her little champion, her gamepiece. He dribbled out, sludgelike and mercurial at the same time, and she smiled. Her expression was more focused than grim, though it was grim work, and sharper than it was happy.
Ghoststuff the same consistency and color as mashed pumpkin liquified completely as she mixed it with the clear memory-flecked gel already settled in the beaker. An onerous sound reverberated through the glass, coming out the open top in a fit of steam. The carpenter’s scream was all saw blades and mallets pounding wooden pegs, fitting them in holes, fastening things together. Nothing of the ghost fought her; it went easily, even the sound of him. Just loud enough to be noticed.
Amidst the vibrant noises echoing together around the competition’s large and circular table, her ghost’s scream sounded almost mundane. The pale man to her right, with the blue hair and a single eyebrow, was using some sort of uplifted bat soul as a base; he had to keep whistling it back into his flask. The chemyst across from her, with skin a deep and uncompromising brown just a shade darker than her own and a hand made of silk ribbons and gold wire, was grimly wrestling a fairy spirit that kept changing the colors of their silk hand. It made a scream like butterflies on fire and vines snapping stone. And then...well.
Erinia didn’t let herself look to her left. Seven chemysts competing for the game’s Wish; of course they would be one of them. Isidore.
Isidore had always matched her in the lab, matched her in ambition, if in nothing else. The scream from their vials sounded something like a natural disaster and a siren rolled into one. And of course it was vials, all three clasped together with a bronze tool, preparing three ghosts to twist into one right from the outset. Erinia did not allow herself to be curious.
Her teeth gritted at the thought of even wondering about Isidore’s ghost; still waiting for the final flecks to dissolve in her solution, shaking it in a tight circle. The way Isidore’s pretty nose would turn up till their eyes caught light and turned amber if they knew Erinia was thinking of them, accentuating their height and looking gracious and haughty and—
It would be so good to beat them. Everything else felt like a ghost all its own next to that single desire, beating them. Getting the wish.
Erinia’s slowly growing headache worsened a little at the thought, stress probably, but she didn’t care. She grabbed an eyedropper, slamming her second kit open on the table and making the pale man jump beside her. His skittish uneven glare she answered with a smirk and then ignored. A spectral wing was trying to slip out of his flask, the sneaky thing. He should’ve known it would get up to something; she did, even if she’d never worked with a bat before. Bats were tricky.
When would people learned that difficult didn’t mean best. There were many ways to win.
She glanced up at the miniature maze her creation would have to navigate, a spherical cityscape of shell and chrome-colored fossil levitating above the table. A pressure-headache hum of whispering thoughts brushed against her mind, the judges murmuring to each other. Something she could do without. She usually didn’t get headaches and she was already struggling with one. The judges’ thoughts made her nauseous to go along with it all, but it wasn’t like she could tell them to stop.
The Empresses, all nine, minds seething and strange behind shale-grey faces and six-split chins. Her competitors heard them too; she could see it in their furrowed brows as the tentacled judges commented on whatever had drawn their attention. Tallying their actions in whatever mysterious way they determined best.
Points for completion, points for style and invention, points for alief. Which as far as Erinia could translate meant maze-thought and fell somewhere between gumption and cleverness. It was in old Imperial, and far older than human tongues. Points for other things, too, not that many of the first would be awarded the way a human might. But that was almost the point: if they’d been human, they couldn’t have granted a wish at all.
Only the Nine could, all together.
With tool in hand Erinia squeezed up little droplets of liquid and puffs of gas from the leatherwood case in front of her, ferrying them into her carpenter soul with flicks of her wrist and tiny squeezes of the dropper.
First abandon, paired with an anxious need to act. Next the desperate knowledge of something better just over the hill; a lavender breath of smoke, something she’d bargained from a vampire tricked into daylight and cowering beneath a tree. Not hope; hope was malleable. She’d hoped before, she was hoping now; held it clenched between her teeth like a blade of ice. It was a terrible thing.
Her last touch, a earnest melancholy, that sort of relentless tapping of apathy on the glass; threatening to sink in claws if one slowed long enough for it to grasp. She’d tested them all together, twice. It’d worked once; the time before... it’d fallen apart.
She mixed both into her beaker with a stick made from mother of pearl and breathed a sigh of relief as she left it spinning there, her ghostly mixture slowly eating it away. The scream in her bottle shifted as the stick dissolved until it was mallets made of pearl and wood thudding away, beating walls into shape, passing nails into planks. No more cutting, no more slicing.
There was a scoff, from beside her. And it wasn’t the bat handler.
“You never did have any flare.” It’d been four years and their voice sounded exactly the same. Biting, snide, and addictive. Neither of them had aged particularly well—they each looked like it’d been twice as long at least—but their voice was the same. There was that at least.
The ice-thick feeling in Erinia’s mouth widened and sharpened pathetically, joined by a curtain of embarrassed heat dropping from her eyes. Facing off against them, competing, had always been a rush.
She snorted the feeling away, carefully removing her last two ingredients. One in a box, a ghost of clay pulled from the River Imperian, extracted from the corpse of a melted again-urn. Another, the shard of a mirror.
She bent over her creation-in-progress, motions deliberate and cautious. “Just because something isn’t flashy doesn’t mean it isn’t clever. And that’s what matters, something clever enough to win,” she retorted back, using the mirror shard like a spoon, splitting the clay into octants and dropping each into her ghost; letting the shard itself sizzle in last. The scream grew errant, like an echo of itself, like it was questioning, questing.
Perfect. Well, hopefully perfect. Erinia wiped her brow, clearing the sweat that’d beaded there. She’d practiced as much as she could; still hadn’t been entirely certain it would work. But it had, precisely. Just as well as if she’d done it a hundred times.
“Hah. You could win the maze and still lose the wish, if you’re not willing to take risks, and you never were, were you?” Isidore sniped, peeling their gloves off and feeding them of all things to their vials; she saw it out of the corner of her eye.
“Flashless doesn’t mean riskless. And besides, risks are well and good, but—” Her potion was opalescent now, the ghost muddy and vapory at the same time. But solid, but real. She could feel it in her hand, singing through her. Just as it should. “—winning is better.”
With a wild grin, she slid a stopper in her beaker’s mouth, felt the scream already begin to pinch and pound at the glass, and flung it at the globe. Two other containers were in the air just moments after hers, but not Isidore’s.
First wasn’t better than good, anymore than complicated was, but it still made her want to crow. Her heart pumped, adrenaline racing.
Things began to move quickly then, as other vials joined hers. They crashed onto the maze all together, each one releasing a tiny, newly minted ghost onto the artificial world.
Most of them appeared solid; hers did not. It wasn’t quite translucent but still faded, looking around at the maze curiously as it began to explore. Isidore was moving in a blur, but she focused on the goal. Focused on her ghost.
His hand touched the walls, tracing them as he started to jog, turning at strange intervals as the other spirits began to race. A thrice-damn lightning spirit went racing by him, and Erinia whistled as he dodged in time, the other ghost too occupied with moving forward to attempt a turn.
A few minutes later the lightning came again, this time from behind, with immortal and impossible speed. Her carpenter dodged to the side again but this time lashed out with his mirrored mallet—deflecting the other ghost into the wall.
Where it promptly collapsed into a thousand sparks each racing in opposite and harmless directions. Her carpenter continued. Across the table, somebody cursed.
“I told you. Flashy and smart aren’t the same,” she drawled.
Isidore didn’t answer, instead tying a bizarrely knotted string around their vials and hurling them at the floating maze. They both watched, rapt, intent, hands gripping the table in almost identical positions; knuckles gone white.
The vials exploded, and didn’t stop exploding; the glass turned into wheels spinning through a storm of all fire and cloud and thundering, about three times taller than the tallest ghost already on the field. An elemental ghost, far stronger than the lightning bolt.
It began to smash through wall, after wall, grabbing a section of one and tossing it atop the fairy ghost. The other spirit did not move, after that.
“A little thunder, a little show and sizzle, is good for something. If the way is hard, make a new one.” Her once-paramour was gloating, already, in that irritating know-it-all way that—
She took a steadying breath.
It didn’t matter. It was even a little ironic, that as different as they were, they often hit along similar angles. A new way, indeed.
More quietly, Erinia’s carpenter began to sprint, faster and steady. He began to change too, growing more solid. His head elongating, chin drooping down, beginning to split, beginning to writhe. And-
“You absolute witch,” Isidore hissed in admiration.
Erinia gazed up at the Empresses on their shadowed thrones. Arranged near the ceiling, in a half circle, all in the dark except for lightly glowing veins of crystal. The minds that’d made the maze, that’d shaped it. As she’d provided a mirror, and clay, to be shaped. There was no reaction, no buzz or hum. Her headache worsened but only gradually. Their three-cornered eyes stared altogether at the game even more fixedly than the players’.
There was something disturbing about that, but she didn’t mind. She wanted them to see, because it was going to be close. Both their ghosts were moving at a steady clip, dangerous and competent.
Bats stood up poorly to mallets, it turned out, especially mirrored ones, and her carpenter knew exactly where to turn as it navigated through the city-scape. The monstrous elemental was equally intent on crushing the opposition and crushing its own path to the maze’s end. Erinia’s world narrowed, ignoring the other competitors, her eyes only for the fruit of her work. The fruit of Isidore’s.
The contest between them.
All that mattered was winning.
Her heart wasn’t just in her throat but under her tongue, crowding against the roof of her mouth, the backs of her teeth. The two ghosts reached the topmost section of the maze at the exact same moment, entering from opposite ends.
The elemental ghost and the tentacled carpenter stared at each other from across the top of the sphere, the glass-wheeled storm spinning in a slow tornado of itself. They lunged forward, the elemental reaching with one massive hand to swat the the tiny carpenter and with the other reaching for the raised tableau that would mark victory.
The carpenter threw his mallet to the ground shattering it, creating a half dozen images of himself all ducking and weaving. Isidore’s ghost roared, smashed two carpenter-shadows. But three of them touched the tableau just as the elemental did. And one of them was real.
That— Okay. That was disappointing. A tie, but solving the maze wasn’t the only qualifier. There was the how; there was the work. The way it’d been done. And Erinia was always confident in her work. She forced her hands off the table, folding them behind her back as the ghosts both froze.
There was a thrum, a pulsing in the air. The reflections faded.
A few moments later, the maze went dim, ghosts vanishing completely, and the room filled with a migraine of private conversation. Isidore looked up at their judges, and Erinia followed, uncomfortably.
Who knew how long it would take. She’d known some contestants had waited days for the judges to deliberate; she could almost see herself waiting, waiting for hours right in this spot, until her legs went to jelly and her bad knee began to ache. Almost a real memory, with how much she dreaded it.
Her stomach was twisting in knots as excitement faded into tension and she braced herself and—
“You have won. You may have your wish.”
The voice blared into her mind, a nine-sided song trumpeting and fervent and wistful all at the same time. Almost marveling.
Somewhere in her mind, a bell went off; a canary whistled. The Empresses’ marveling; they held the games twice a year. Why marvel? It’d been a good trick but...
She turned to Isidore, starting to smirk, only to see the same expression on their face. They each turned scowly. Irritation soured in her chest. They couldn’t have tied, could they? Not on every level.
Though, there could be worse things. She liked fighting Isidore, facing off against them; it was challenging. It’d always been challenging. If they could go at it again, it wouldn’t be so bad. Go at it so she could win this time. Her scowl started to turn upwards.
The judges repeated themselves. And then—
“Again, we grant your wish.”
Erinia opened her mouth to speak the wish, then paused, again? She tried to say something boastful, to clarify, to— Sound came out. She was sure of that, even if she didn’t hear. Beside her, Isidore’s eyes went wide as Erinia’s smirking words didn’t quite treble the air.
The pressure-headache swarmed her all at once, crowding into her, shaking her too much to think about Isidore more. She was dizzy, she couldn’t move, her fingers only twitched and—
Smoke curdled in the room around them; panic spiked in her chest, acid boiling in her stomach as the world slowed down.
And she understood.
She wondered, briefly, why she’d thought telepathic queens would wait for her to ask, for her to phrase her wish in words. To speak it aloud. For either of them to.
Erinia tried to think, desperately, of what had been on her mind. Her exact thoughts before panic. What about Isidore’s? She tried to think at them to wait, tried to imagine waiting, but there was just sensation flowing past, rippling along her skin. There was motion. The stone pressing at her, all at once, or the wind or-everything blurred at the edges of concept.
The world went onyx and glass, the air went tar and tasted of burnt tangerine, forced its way through her mouth and her nose, invading her.
And her wish, their wishes, were granted.
Isidore was at the table to win, before anything else. They always were. They glanced at Erinia. Despite the unusual pressure beating at their skull, this was going to be great.