A long time ago: Aware that the Osirian Court will have a part to play in her people's War, Lolita convinces the Osirian Lord Geb to meet her on a world at the edge of his court's influence. Geb's children raised this world up from savagery within three generations, but Geb doesn't care for his children and is even less interested in Lolita and her war. Nevertheless, when she offers him a box that she claims contains the future, he opens it out of curiosity -- and the box pins him in place with a containment field and begins to dissect him where he stands. Once she has enough information, Lolita leaves, telling the screaming Geb that he has at least a 40% chance of survival.
Earth, late 18th century: Six months after their encounter with Faction Paradox, Corwyn Marne invites the poet and mystic Abelard Finton to his home in Naples to discuss matters. Finton is writing an epic poem about Eliza, whom he saw as central to the conflict, and Marne needs to speak to a visionary, as he's been dreaming of a dead world littered with Egyptian-like ruins. In the dream, a force of nature is tearing its way out of the ground; Corwyn compares it to a sphinx, with the body of an animal and the mind of a human. Just before he wakes, he hears a woman calling out to him; he can't make out the words, but it feels like shame. Marne admits that he's kept the sarcophagus that links this time period to the Osirian Court, and that his dreams began two months ago, at the same time that the sarcophagus started to make a strange noise. Since Astarte hasn't shared his dreams, Corwyn believes that the sarcophagus is calling to him specifically, and he wants Finton to witness the act.
Finton reluctantly helps Marne to open the sarcophagus, and inside, they see that the time tunnel is more violent and shorter than before. Marne admits that he intends to enter the tunnel, and Finton understands why better than Marne had expected; they have both seen events so huge that they feel insignificant by comparison, and wish to do something of importance to find out if they really count for anything. Finton thus insists upon accompanying Marne on his expedition rather than just watching him leave. He and Marne step into the sarcophagus and arrive on the dead world, which smells of dead insects; the constellations in the sky are familiar, but distorted. Unfortunately, Marne had assumed that there would also be a sarcophagus on this side of the tunnel, and there isn't, which means they're stuck here.
Marne and Finton follow a set of canal-like tunnels towards the only visible landmark, a huge pyramid on the horizon. Marne is armed with a harpoon gun for peace of mind, but doesn't expect it to have any effect on the creature from his dreams. As they walk, Finton inquires about Justine's claim that Marne's adopted daughter was literally missing days out of her life. It's said that people panicked when the English government altered the calendar, fearing that they'd lost eleven days out of their allotted span of life; perhaps that's literally true in Lucita's case, and perhaps Marne is troubled that the same thing could happen to him. As Finton muses, he and Marne are attacked by a swarm of huge insects similar to grasshoppers, and realise that the "canals" are their burrows. Marne shoots the closest insect with his harpoon, and he and Finton then retreat into a nearby tunnel and bring the entrance down, blocking themselves in but keeping the insects out. As they recover from the attack, however, they see that this tunnel is connected to several others -- and realise that they can see because starlight is shining through cracks in the roof. The insects claw their way into the tunnels, and as Marne tries to bring more of the roof down, the insects grab Finton and drag him away.
The insects drag Finton to a ruined building like a temple. As he tries to apologise for his intrusion, Cousin Justine arrives and barks out commands in the Osirian formal tongue; the insects release Finton, unable to speak the language but cowed by a race memory of its importance. However, Justine only came to investigate an unrelated battle and just happened across Finton; she doesn't have the authority or the weaponry to go looking for the missing Marne, and in any case, she doesn't seem to recall who Finton and Marne are. Finton boards Justine's barque, which is piloted by a mummy-like servitor created by Lord Anubis, and as they approach the pyramid, Justine explains that she's not the same woman Finton met. The original Justine allowed Sutekh to live after the battle with Horus because Sutekh had something that she needed, and Sutekh has now insisted that the question of the throne's ownership be brought before a trial of the gods. The trial has convened on a remote world that once fell under the Court's jurisdiction -- Mars. Sutekh is bound to the judgement of the Court only because he was weakened by his battle with Horus, and he blames Justine for his downfall; thus, the real Cousin Justine has gone into hiding and has created a simulacrum of herself to act as a go-between to the rest of the Court.
The barque enters the pyramid's central chamber, and Finton is lost for words at the sight of so many Egyptian gods gathered before a miniature sun. Justine identifies it as an aspect of their own god, Ra, and warns Finton that Lord Geb, who is overseeing the tribunal, is the oldest of the gods and Sutekh's father -- but he has reason to hate Horus even more than he hates Sutekh. Nephthys addresses the court on behalf of Horus, claiming that the current situation is no different than the many other times that Osiris has changed his appearance; however, Sutekh then disrupts proceedings by descending to speak on his own behalf. Sutekh reminds the court that Horus's body is tainted by the protocols of Faction Paradox, a fallen House but related to their enemies nonetheless. Nephthys tries to dismiss these claims as scare tactics, but Geb angrily reminds her that a representative of the Great Houses once tore open his body after approaching under the guise of peace. Geb still bears scar tissue so deep that even Osirian biosculptors can't fix it. He'll never forgive the Great Houses for what they did to him, and if Horus is indeed tainted with their protocols, Geb will never accept him as fit to rule.
Elsewhere, while searching for a way out of the tunnels, Marne encounters an injured woman surrounded by insects. These insects have a different colouration than the others, and the injured woman, Lolita, claims to be the Queen of Mars. Marne assumes at first that she's like the queen of a beehive and thus has a significantly different appearance than her drones, but in fact she was just being sarcastic; these insects only imprinted upon her because she was present when they hatched, and she feels an affinity for them because they consider species more important than individuals. Grudgingly impressed by Marne's desire to understand what's going on even if it means his death, she tells him her story in the form of a faerie tale: the story of a bright and complicated being who rose up through the ranks of her people to become their War Queen, and of the evil princess from another bloodline who was armed with a magical weapon that made her potentially very dangerous. Lolita tried to destroy the princess before she could become a serious threat, but the princess responded by sending an army of monsters to attack Lolita's homeworld. Lolita herself was badly injured in the fighting, and is now recuperating while the evil princess is distracted by other matters.
Lolita further explains that she has come here to keep an eye on the Osirian power struggle. The Osirians once raised up the insects of Mars into a great civilisation, but then got bored and abandoned them, and other forces moved in and destroyed the insect race. The return of the Osirians caused a few dormant eggs to hatch, but the new generation has turned on itself, fighting a civil war that will wipe out the species for a second time. Lolita claims that she already knows how the Osirian power struggle will end -- with Sutekh's imprisonment and eventual death -- because the Osirians' future is already history to her. She scoffs at Marne's attempt to understand if there really is such a thing as destiny, but suddenly takes much more of an interest when he mentions his friend Justine. As they speak, they hear is a deep rumbling from beneath the ground, the sound of events nearing their conclusion...
In the pyramid, Sutekh politely requests that Horus speak for himself; he is not compelled to do so, but Sutekh announces that he will relinquish his claim to the throne if no satisfactory conclusion can be reached today. After a moment, the royal barque arrives, and Finton is astonished to recognise Horus as Cousin Eliza. Horus makes a barbed comment about Sutekh's injuries and demands that they cut straight to the point rather than getting bogged down in ritual, but Sutekh makes political capital of this attitude, which seems to prove that Horus holds Osirian laws and procedures in contempt. By law, Sutekh could simply challenge Horus to ritual combat, but even Geb, who can't bring himself to acknowledge Horus as his offspring, points out that Horus is under no obligation to accept the challenge; in any case, Sutekh is too badly injured to win. But this gives Sutekh the opening to point out how similar his own wounds are to his father's scars -- evidence that they too were inflicted by the weapons of the Great Houses. This is why Sutekh wishes to challenge Horus to combat: to prove that Horus's body is indeed riddled with the protocols of their enemies.
Geb demands that Horus answer the challenge, and loses his temper when another of the gods scoffs aloud; he hasn't quite grasped that his hatred of the Great Houses is a private vendetta that not all of the other gods care about. The enraged Geb clears the assembly, and Finton and Justine take the opportunity of the recess to meet with Horus. Finton must acknowledge that this isn't the woman he knew as Eliza, and he can do little but watch as Justine and Horus discuss their next move. Horus has sent his wife Hathor to have sex with Geb; this calms Geb down, and once his mood has improved, the assembly reconvenes. Horus announces that he will accept Sutekh's challenge on condition that he be allowed to choose the battlefield. Geb and Sutekh agree to his terms, and Horus announces that the battle will be fought on a field suited to a war between the gods: Time itself.
Horus's announcement carries such weight that the echoes seem to build up into the rumbling roar that Marne and Lolita can hear beneath the ground. The tunnels begin to collapse around them as Time opens up, and Lolita, convinced that this is all part of the evil princess's plan, orders Marne to hold onto her and stop thinking of himself as such an individual. She reveals her true form, and Marne begins to scream as they vanish from the tunnels...