Haelel Ahn, King of Kings, the Glorious Emperor of both the and Living and the Dead, he who ate the Serpent's Heart and snatched the Crooked Staff from the hands of a dying god refused to sit upon his gilded throne. He sat upon the battlements of his tallest tower and took neither meat nor wine nor sleep. His lords and vassals challenged him to ritual combat as was their right and he refused though he had not the right to do so. Araleion the Master Scribe and Oroab the Lord Martial murdered a dozen powerful courtiers and then destroyed each other and Haelel stirred not from his perch.
On the eighth day of her father's solitude, Jarioth Ahn, Princess of the Realm and Sorceress of the Ebon Flame, ascended the spiral stair to the top of the tallest tower and sat with her father a time. Like her father, her hair was blacker than the feathers of the crow. Unlike her father she was small and delicate and given to fits of coughing. A chill wind blew from the northwest, out of the distant Ahar Mountains and over the silent remains of Aareth, once a proud and bustling fortress. It carried with it the ash of the last defenders of that empty stronghold. At the edge of the horizon she could almost make out a faint orange glow, the fires that destroyed Aareth and consumed its garrison ten days ago burned yet, the wrath of the scaled god still blazed unspent. Jarioth Ahn turned her head to avoid breathing the unclean breeze and looked out at the Living Forest, its boughs green and deep reddish-brown. The King at last took notice of his daughter. When he spoke, his normal joy had deserted him; his words were bitter and filled with pain.
"I name you regent until I return. The Blood-Red Sword offers no peace and I am sickened at heart each time I must carry it. Many will issue you challenge but stain not thy hands by taking up that sword."
"Where is it you would go? To Aareth? I say leave their spirits to suffer as an offering to the god they insulted." Jarioth took her father's hand and held it tightly.
"No my child, not to any place in this world."
So saying, Haelel Ahn, King of Kings, the Glorious Emperor of both the and Living and the Dead stood for the first time in eight days and cast himself off the parapet to his death.
* * *
"Tell us again, why did the King step off the parapet?"
"My father expressed his dissatisfaction with the theocracy; that is all. He was always one to guard his motives closely."
"And he named you Regent? Without contest or ritual?"
"Clear the Grand Circle and stand fast, I shall demonstrate my Right."
* * *
In the netherworld my crown is meaningless, my titles hollow. A friend walks by bound in chains of fire. He is old now, death hangs from his skin and his face is worn. He is bleeding his life's blood from the wounds in his chest and back. I look away as he turns his old eyes upon me. I won't look into those eyes.
* * *
"Tanists, lustrate me and begin the second sacrifice."
The Conjurtorium still held the dressings for the initiatory ceremonial preformed nearly a month ago. Only five of the eight candidates had died during the trials. I smiled at the memory. One of the outland witches had sent his two most promising apprentices. I had put on the mask of K'araos and visited them both in turn before their final ordeal. They had been so eager to please and so poor at pleasing that their deaths had seemed like a mercy at the time. The savages couldn't even retain their vital force at the crucial moments.
"Rlan eun rykhem." The slaves dully parroted the prayers of the tanists as they poured the water and went through the motions to ensure my ritual purity.
* * *
The tomb filled the horizon, a mountain risen to cover the corpse of a giant. I did not know his name. His name was as dust and as dead as its master. A second time I descended into the darkness of this place. I do not deserve to see the light of dawn again. Let the mountain crush me. Let me die the final death....
* * *
A tension fills the room as the wards are set. There is no turning back now. No escape. I shall endure, let God himself stand in my path. Let the heavens shake and the whole world tear itself to pieces. I will not break. I will not.
* * *
The door is wrought of blackened iron and upon its rough surface blaze the twelve great seals of Aauelim. I pass within. Empty. The body of a child floats in the stagnant pool. A final sacrifice or his last adherent? I continue to wind my way deeper into the secret places of the earth. Overhead I hear the beating of massive wings, ahead a rumbling in the heart of the mountain.
* * *
For once I stop and feel the tiny, panicked heartbeat. The bird is warm in my hands. My father's final command comes back to me as I pause; delaying the inevitable course of the ceremony, "Stain not thy hands by taking up that sword."
* * *
The gods die slow and even now he almost seemed to stir as I placed the Crooked Staff back in his hand. No, it was only light and shadows. He is dead and I am his murderer. I turn to leave. Only shadows.
* * *
I can see them through the smoke. The peers of the realm. My fellow pretenders unto divinity. Smiling false smiles as I strain my will against the inner gates. I can almost hear the Lords of the Upper Dark laughing as I loose my soul to begin the rite in the higher realms. At least the mockery of devils is honest.
* * *
No light greeted my emergence from the sepulchral depths. Melkun will not shine upon this place. I never cared for the elaborate forms of conveyance my brothers so relished. I called no spirits to carry me on golden palanquins nor serrloth to lift me upon their jeweled backs. I traveled the realms of the dead and unborn with none to guide me. I walked upon a road of black marble that I called into being before me and let crumble into dust behind. The road transversed the lower heavens and below I saw the Fields of Dead Nightmares. Dark shapes littered the ground, each a monstrosity born of the terrors of children, given life in the silent hours of the night and each still bleeding from the single wound in its chest.
I looked above and beheld the Vault of Eternity. I witnessed once more a sight that most found darkened and concealed from their gaze. I beheld the Seven Lords of the Upper Dark swimming through the void above the station of the moon. The Starry Lords, first-born cowards all, shone as points of fire below the Maelstrom. Even in the netherworld I could hear the thunder and fury of that place. I stopped for a moment and strained my eyes to pierce the veils of chaos that obscured my sight. Within the Maelstrom a million worlds dance and spin. Bourne upon the winds of that cosmic abyss. My spirit began to burn and tremble as I strained to see through the final barrier. Twice before had I made this attempt and for a third and perhaps final time I failed.
* * *
The Grand Circle flared with witch-fire and the room rocked violently. I rose above the palace and into the true sanctum sanctorium. The temple built of starlight and guarded by every black peril my kind had imagined since the beginning of time. The nobility rose with me, a host of figures silhouetted in the radiance of my soul. I was the center of the working and the power I had called raged within the prison I had built for it in my mind. My dagger had drunk deeply and the blade was red with gore. I forced power into it until it burned like a flaming brand. I held it before the first guardian and drew a sigil and then a star in lines of blue-white fire. The guardian lowered his blade and I alit upon a balcony. As I approached the temple a human eye embedded in an archway opened and I grimaced as it turned its gaze upon me.
* * *
I pass over the places of suffering and penance. I see an ancient and feeble soul torn to bloody ruin by the whips of the Overseers. The dead must work and the lash must fall. I pass onward and refuse to heed his cries.
* * *
The Heart of the Sanctum is a miracle of sorcery and architecture. A great egg hangs suspended over the Circle of the Art and shines with ethereal luminescence. The old serpent embraces the egg in its coils and grins her wicked grin. The souls of the Mystigoge, Hierophant, and Pythoness lounge upon three of the cardinal thrones, but the fourth seat stands empty. Even in death my fathers' soul should have rested there, but the manacles attached to the arms of the throne had been broken open.
* * *
The astral stronghold of the Hrailghen stood before me at last. The legions of conjoined and twisted souls guarding the outlands of their realm lay behind me. I had killed too many, this was an old game I played but it had never bothered me before. I shuddered as I thought back upon the war I had started in my youth, when the Hrailghen were still a half forgotten story. Men whispered that they had brought the first empire low and ruled over the northern lands until the Salkuth Algonn and the mighty Vennorok drove them west into the sea. Before my crowning I had sought for them in the visions of the lotus dens and the ramblings of degenerate sorcerers. When at last my soul stood alone and naked upon their unfamiliar shore I had felt my first taste of true fear and the beginnings of regret.
* * *
The Sword rests at my side and none of them dare contest my claim. It burns like a shard of molten lightning. After returning, I struck off Adlim's head and ordered her body fed to the slaves. She had been the loudest to challenge my right. How long before I too stand upon the parapet? How much of my father's weakness is in my blood?
* * *
I rest uneasy in the coils of the dragon. The great wheel turns slowly for the dead. Days drift by between one bite and the next. The great black tongue caresses the hole in my chest, lapping blood. I pray my daughter is strong enough. Power is so easy, it makes us weak. Please Jary, forsake it while you're still young. Don't take up the Sword!
* * *
"She wears it so lightly, like she was born with it at her side."
"But methinks she carries another burden...."
"No consort yet, I wonder who the bastard's father is? I heard she has a taste for foreign fair."
* * *
I dig with my bare hands, blood still dripping from my chest. I can hear the old serpent sleeping, not far off. Sated at last. How deep did I hide it? I don't remember. I wasn't a man yet. So long ago, so deep. If I don't find it soon my soul will die. I promised her I would return.
* * *
I lay in the pit beneath the Husking Pole. The bronze arms reach out, each holding its' grim burden with a silken noose. The empty corpses of old friends hang above me, swaying gently. The ropes creak. I'm the only celebrant today. I bite down on a scream as the pain begins to build again.
* * *
Light burns a tunnel through the dark reaches and I fly. If another passes through my door, I'm lost.
* * *
I hold him in my arms, my son. He holds my finger in his tiny hand. He is fair skinned like the outlanders. Were they brothers? He has my father's eyes. I can hear his voice deep in my mind, an inaudible murmur at first and then words, "Stain not thy hands my daughter...."
The Chapel of Jarioth, Princess Regent and Sorceress of the Ebon Flame, stood empty. The shadows stirred, licking at the edges of the light that burned atop the altar. The divinity of the temple had visited less and less often since the birth of her son. She had withdrawn from tending her flock, was hardly seen outside her palace chambers. And always her son was close at hand. Her disciples whored and drank in her absence, or blackened their minds in the lotus-dens. The few who stayed to guard the chapel grew less vigilant with each passing night. The once immaculate defenses had started to crumble and shadows slithered through the cracks.
They crawled upon the floor of the inner adytum and they listened. Voices old with power whispered to each other in the darkness. The shadows caressed the seals of gold carved into the marble floor and felt the hatred of eons burning beneath them. Here lay an armory fit for a god and the key that would unlock it must soon leave all safety behind.
* * *
Jarioth fled for her life. Her newborn babe clasped in her arms. Her son who had once been her father. The sky split its seams and rain fell upon them in a crushing sheet. She looked back, the Black Star almost never sent incarnate agents to work the murderous will of its master. Old Rogath must be desperate. She thought she saw a glint of metal in the darkness, but that couldn't be them, they painted their blades with poisonous ash. Did he hire a second team? Someone new? No time to think.
She turned a corner into a side alley and came to a dead end. Damn this city! If only she hadn't abandoned her original escape route. Well, needs must, and the devil had been driving rather hard of late. No doors or windows, the alley was suspiciously clean and empty. Had they driven her here? A goddamn sheep to slaughter! No...No! Not yet. If only he hadn't stolen her power. Her adversaries would be nothing if she could call the Sword . No time for that. Desperate measures. Jarioth shivered involuntarily as she spoke the words:
"K'araos, Archon of the Pleasures of the Flesh, thou who dost wrap the minds of men in lust and dim their eyes from the sight of the incorruptible spirit, I summon thy banner unto me and beg thy intercession. Make them burn and I will accept thy offer."
The pounding rain drowned out her prayer and death crept closer on silent feet. If he doesn't answer, no, better we die clean deaths than call upon that.... Her son shifted in her arms and the currents of force begin to stir. Eight of them were visible through the rain, silhouettes carrying long knives and dark sorcery. A thin circlet of green light formed over the child's head. Old magick, deadly but diffused, almost feral. The spirit could only will so much when the body was not yet full formed. Jarioth grasped the circlet and ripped it from her baby's head. A channel, long closed, tore open and power struck her like a lightning bolt. A less trained sorceress might have died or gone mad from the impact, but she had endured worse wielding the Blood-Red Sword . The energy was caustic, it ate at her from within but she bent her will upon it and then let it fly. The circlet leapt away and grew until it became a cobra as large as a man. She watched as they died and wondered if any of her old friends could still be trusted.
* * *
"How many attempts to kill the boy king?"
"Tonight will make the seventh, the royal egregore holds him close."
The Lady Fedilena Rogath reclined on a couch in her boudoir. Her father paced nervously. She thought he had been behind at least three of the attempts, but now wondered if it might have been more. If one of his schemes spoiled her revenge she would not forgive him.
"And the Mother Regent?" She asked.
"Hiding behind the boy."
"If we fail again it may be time to tie our fate to a darker road."
* * *
Jarioth staggered as she ran. The sorcery that had saved her life had almost claimed it. Though she bore no wounds of the flesh, she felt as though she were bleeding. Her old cough had returned and she tasted bile. Her son had fallen deathly pale after the old power had woken in him. Whether sleep or coma had taken him she didn't know. Jarioth ran through the deserted streets of her city and wondered if she carried a corpse in her arms.
* * *
Wretch sat in the dim illumination cast by a solitary candle. He listened to the shadows outside his circle of light and scribbled their words onto scraps of paper with an old rusted nail. His face had earned him his name and his current way of life. His lower jaw had been smashed open and never fully healed. The princess of the realm and the royal heir lay beside him on a pile of rubbish.
"Weal or woe? Kill them and we would have great favor. Why let them draw another breath?"
The shadows stirred and Wretch resumed his writing.
"Then why lead me to them if not for the reward? A man with my name cannot afford to be seen indulging in charity."
His hand jerked and the nail bit into his palm. Blood soaked into the paper and when Wretch looked at it he saw a high doom written there.
* * *
"Haelel, how did we escape the city?"
The young king barely moved at his mother's words. They had awoken in a gutter just outside the city walls. Jarioth remembered the overwhelming smell of the flower district and then nothing. Upon waking she had found a solitary nightshade blossom laid in her hand, a warning or perhaps a token? She tucked the flower into a pocket and set off into the night.
* * *
Fedilena held Thorn in her hands and smiled. It had taken her four days to retrieve the crown from its hiding place. Her family's oldest secret, their weapon of last resort. If the others knew that such a thing was within the empire, no force on earth or even beyond it could shield her from their retribution. Necromancy was an unpardonable treason, and its practitioners the empire's most feared enemies. The crown itself was iron set with black diamonds and pearls. She knew little of its bloody past, only that her great grand-mother had fought with a wraith king and torn it from his brow.
She turned it in her hands, feeling the deadly spirit it contained. The risk would be worth it if they really had the power to bring her enemy low. She had suffered too much to let Jarioth go on drawing breath. The candles in her chamber began to gutter, an evil light flickering in their depths. She held her breath for thirteen heart beats and exhaled a small fragment of her soul. A spark of light that burned on her lips. She kissed the crown and the spark was gone.
* * *
"A shorn sorceress and her little cub come into my barraca on a most ill-omened night. I have sown the points and read the doom of my two best beloved sons. A doom you wrote with your own hand. You know I am a master of the Lashes of Fire and the hosts of the damned rise at my will to hound my enemies. They will pursue until the world rots and crumbles, never do they tire because I will drive them until I die, and I will never die until they drag my enemies into the Final Darkness. That is the promise I make my enemies. But you are brave to face me, so I will allow you to speak. Prove you are not my enemy."
The guard removed Jarioth's gag and blindfold but held his curved khopesh to her throat, almost pricking the skin. She remained silent for a moment, taking in the contents of the tent and the ancient visage of her captor. His eyes seemed to sink into his skull. Thin wisps of white were all that remained of his hair. He wore a simple robe of green, but he had the witch's garter on his left leg. A black length of cloth with eleven silver buckles, tied with a red cord. Her own garter had only three buckles, one for each coven that swore allegiance to her as Witch Queen. Regardless, her disciples were stronger than all the witches in the outlands combined. If only she could be sure of their loyalty. At least one of them must have turned against her. The assassins had known her defenses too well. No, until her power returned she didn't dare trust any of them. She took a long breath and spoke, choosing her words carefully.
"Chief Uldaraal, I will give you a reason. I claim the rights of hospitality in your house. My son is blood of your blood. I have come to present him in your tent and ask that by your grace you claim him as your own."
* * *
The crown rested upon her brow and sunk its claws into her mind. Its spirit strove with her, a dark and twisted will that ate at her desire to live. She could let go. Put an end to the eternal plotting, the daily struggle to maintain her position and with it her life. She fought back, but found herself toying with a silver bodkin. Turning the blade over and over again. Watching the deadly point gleam in the candle light. She didn't remember picking it up. Enough. The Rogath pride allows no room for weakness. Enough!
* * *
In the Chapel of the Ebon Flame, seven conspirators met in the darkness of the central nave. All but one were Jarioth's personal disciples. Old Rogath spoke and the others listened in silence.
"My daughter has made the contact I promised. They offer us a choice of paths, each with its price. The first is not to my liking, but they were reluctant to even consider another course. We are to perform a full invocation and they will send each of us the soul of one of their ancients."
"To ride us like some base animal and use us as instruments for their next conquest?"
"The power they offer is a fool's bargain, the dangers make it untenable. What is the second path you mentioned?"
"They will awaken one of the Chthonian Lords and loose him against our enemies."
"They can reach to those depths!?"
"The floor of the Abyss...."
"Even further, they said that to achieve this undertaking they must break through the foundation of the Abyss, draw the demon up from the Abhuman World. You all remember. You know what such a being is capable of."
"This pact is worse than the other! We have no guarantee they can banish it once the deed is done. What are we to do if it turns on us instead? Will your family name shield you then old man?"
"Rogath's don't need to be shielded from danger. We place our bets and let the dice fall where they may."
"And the price? What do they ask of us?"
* * *
A human skull and a sharpened bone occupied a low rock in the center of the cave. Haelel considered them. He knew this ceremony from his other lives. Did these nomads know the true purpose behind it? Doubtful. What lord would give his enemies the key to his power? It must be an imitation of the real ritual, children acting out the roles of their parents. He would show them what went on behind closed doors. He smiled to himself as he approached the crude altar. Let the empire fall, let its death begin here in this cave. He took up the bone and used it to smash a hole in the skull. The guards at the mouth of the cave reached for their blades, but Uldaraal shook his head.
* * *
Creation was flawed from the beginning, like too much wine flowing into too few glasses. The excess draining away into an endless pit, finding its end and soaking like so much blood into stone. Here rot the paths of creation that were rejected, stillborn, to gasp once and sink into the darkness below the pit. To the nadir of existence, where they can but claw vainly at the underbelly of creation and long for oblivion. Amid the fetid, blasphemous riot of flesh, a ragged shape stirred. It felt a sudden pressure as a long sealed gate began to swing open. A shard of solid form in a place where even existence was denied. The shape crossed the gate and began a climb that it had made once before, eons ago.
* * *
Chief Uldaraal was the first to die at the initiation feast. I felt the wrongness of the horror only a moment before it was upon us. The thing had no head, its jagged mouth and shining eyes were sunken into its chest. It tore the chief's viscera out of his stomach in a cascade of gore. The first guard to charge the demon died in agony. His bones contorting and ripping their way free from his flesh. The second faltered and had his neck snapped in an instant. Where was Jarioth?
Something shifted under the skin of the chieftain's corpse, then it burst, loosing a wave of damned souls. They rose, faded and black and bound in iron chains, a devouring swarm that fell upon the monster. The shrieking split the night. They tore at their enemy with the strength of insanity, heedless of their own safety. Spears began raining down upon the thing, each tipped with silver and wrapped in lethal sorcery. It shook itself free and the dead warriors died the second death, melting away before its gaze, reduced to nothingness before the fires of its will.
I shuddered at the terrible strength of the thing. Even an Infernal Prince would balk at facing it. Cursing myself, I did what needed to be done. The Blood-Red Sword answered my call, leaped easily to my hand. Both a familiar weight and hated burden, it shone in the wreckage of the feasting hall, a shard of molten lightning amid the carnage. The old lust came upon me. To revel in another's destruction. To taste their suffering and prolong it, rejoice in it. A crimson riot of death danced behind my eyes as I faced my enemy.
The thing was not human, but at the beginning of time it might have been. Uncountable millennia had corrupted it, eyes where their shouldn't have been eyes stared down at me, measuring, tasting my soul. The claws slashed towards my throat. The Sword moved with inhuman speed, but the demon moved faster still. It had to extend further to reach around the crackling blade. Blood welled from seven pin pricks on my neck but its hand never closed. Mother hurled the skull from the cave at its back. The skull was not a true thing of power, but it stung the demon. Made it turn a fraction. I darted away and climbed over the dead, I had one hope but didn't know if my young body could stand the strain it must endure. I found Jarioth's hand and cut the night air with the blade. It left an ugly scar on the surface of the world and we tumbled through. Falling into the void between the worlds.
* * *
I think I died during our hell ride, only the constant stream of vitality pouring from my daughter/mother kept my soul intact. Agency and free-will were slow to return. Other forces were thinking my thoughts for me in that place. Impression of colors, a sea of chaos moving to incomprehensible rhythms. At the same time my mind conjured pallid visions of normal life, desperate to put form and substance to the unknowable. A single instant of lucidity flashed through me like a thunderclap. I knew this would be the last time I would be in control of myself. My thoughts began to race. I vowed that I would dedicate my every moment, every action, every thought to escaping. Nothing else existed for me but the will to return to life. I remembered that I had hands and arms, I remembered the Sword. I still felt it. One cut and we would be free.
* * *
The Blue Pillars rose into the morning sky above us. A spiral of crystal standing stones crowning a hill. My son lay in my arms, burning with fever and shaking from the cold. The arm that had wielded the Sword was burned and twisted. He needed a new body, something strong and already full grown. The Royal Sanctum was the best place to enact the rites, but without my power the risk would be too great. Perhaps one of the old temples. No, still too dangerous, when we abandon a place of power there's always a good reason.
Haelel moaned and coughed blood onto the ground, then drifted away again. His breath strained and weak. No choice. I must call upon the Lord of Elder Night and seal our fate. I looked at him. Was he worth that price after what he had done to me? A mortal mother would never hesitate.
* * *
Two nights had passed since our escape from the void. My body ached and the fever only burned hotter. My right arm was a dead thing, useless. We hid in a shallow cave at the bottom of the hill while mother regained her strength. She refused to speak to me, she just read and re-read a miniature scroll that she kept in an small ebony case on a chain around her neck. I watched her study it several thousand times, and with each reading she grew harder and more distant.
* * *
Fedilena had dispensed with the seals and the triangle and the hundred other tools of the Art. The crown rested on a nearby table, watching her. She stood over the spirit, her arm buried in its undulating black flesh, her hand slowly crushing its heart.
"Tell me once more, and this time only the truth...."
"Mistress, please! My oath to your father forbids it."
"Then you will break your oath. You'll die the second death either way, you might as well enjoy this small betrayal while you can."
The spirit thrashed in her grip, then went still.
"He's won six of the Regent's disciples to his cause. Each is convinced that when she's finally dead, they'll be the one to wear the garter."
"What are their plans for me? Why wont father let me join the conspiracy?"
"They need someone to take the blame once the King is dead."
* * *
Fire began shooting up and down my spine the moment I heard my mother's indistinct opening call. It echoed back on the wind, pregnant with deadly power. She had left me in the cave as soon as the witching hour began, and climbed the hill to the Blue Pillars. What spirit did she call? I began to regret taking her magick as she bore me back into the world. Now she stood against some black terror in a final bid to secure our safety and I had taken every weapon she would need to defend herself.
I started to catch snatches of the evocation, words of power that I had never heard before, words older than the earth upon which I lay. What secret rite had she uncovered? Was it woman's magick? No, I had been Pythoness the last time I wore a female body. I could never have forgotten words like these. The earth began to vibrate and throb in time with the incantation.
* * *
Life shifted within the pillars, beating in concert with my heart. Blood from thirteen wounds anointed them. Binding us. I moved not as myself alone, but together with a multitude. They saw through my eyes into the world of movement and I saw through their roots into the blood of the earth. A great slow river pouring ever downward. This night I clothe myself in blood.
Father knew so few of my secrets. He thought he could twist me into a pathetic weakling like himself. A creature that digs in the dirt and calls itself wise. There will be a reckoning with all my enemies, even you my son. Pale shades began to crawl within the bale fire; larvae, and hungry ghosts drawn to the flames only to be consumed. The fires became deep blue and climbed higher into the air.
The gods of the earth settled into my body. I threw a handful of powdered Eskellion into the flames and the smoke danced with me between the great stones. My hands stroked each manhir as I passed, both loving and incestuous, like infinite reflections grasping at each other. I moved as the earth moves. An inexorable turning and wheeling that never ends. The voices of the gods burned my throat and tongue with a song of power meant for the celestial spheres. Calling across the Stygian darkness, resounding throughout all the worlds.
Two blasts from a hunting horn heralded the arrival of Onaul's Emissary. The central pillar darkened and he stepped through into the mortal world. The Lord of Elder Night stood seven feet tall, a mantle of ebony hair cloaking his naked body. Red eyes drank in the night and gore soaked hands took my waist and shoulder. We danced to the echoes of the music, still reverberating through the pillars. A measured, courtly waltz at first. Our hands crossing again and again as I turned. Then the pace quickened. The savage dances of my youth could not begin to compare. Two primitive beasts striving with claws, mauling each other, inflicting pain because they themselves hurt. But we never broke the rhythm of the music.
Then I remembered. I must hurt him more than he hurt me. I ripped at his flesh with my nails and tore out black hair with my teeth. He smiled and ran a finger down my spine. I bit off a scream as my muscles convulsed, my heart racing too fast. Sweat drenched and shaking I continued the dance. Very well, I knew this game. My thumb ground into the soft spot at the base of his skull. I breathed through the point of contact, stabbing at him with my thoughts. He trailed his fingers along my ear, trying to cripple all of my organs at once. I had sealed those points long ago. I smiled back at him. The spirit I had bound into my second vertebra uncoiled and struck. It almost sank its fangs into his wrist, but he chose that moment to spin me away. I spun back and tried to brush my fingers across his heart, he took us into a chassis and I had to resume the proper form. The music finally died and we parted.
I smiled, we stood in tableau for a moment before he saw what I had done. A chip of blue crystal protruded from a small gash on his forearm. He moved to pry it free but I was already within him. I seized his heart first, then spread up the central channel, walling off his intellect behind the weight of my memories. I left the Lower Jewel for last, believing my victory already vouchsafed. Then the serpent rose from the base of his spine, burning and smashing all the middle gates. He rode the fire, not some unrefined passion, but his entire intellect. It stuck the bastion I had raised to encircle his heart and strove with me there.
The terrestrial gods lent me power. Pouring strength back into my soul. The first blow had nearly killed me outright. I braced for the second and began the Dragon's Breath. My own inner fires stirred. I didn't send them to strike my enemy, but forced them upward. The gates along my spine blossomed and spun, opening all the inner paths. He struck again and my hold on his heart crumbled. I fled and dug myself deep into his mind. The hidden jewel at my throat opened as the fires reached it and I felt the Forbidden Gate. It stood there within my soul, a rusting, dead place that cried out to me. I shuddered and rode the serpent higher.
My Eye of Wisdom opened, drawing my powers of sight into itself. I knew rather than saw what my future held. The paths branching out like the petals of a flower. I saw myself die so many deaths, his hand plunging through my chest, my throat crushed, the abyss of his mind swallowing my own. I chose the best path I could see and struck his stomach with the flat of my palm. He had been about to cave in my skull, thinking me too caught up in our inner battle to defend myself. The vibrations from my strike hammered his Lower Jewel, they spread upward through the serpent fires, diffusing them. In the chaos I launched a sortie from his mind and drove the fires off, burning through a thousand side channels. An inferno blazing out of control. His body shook and he spat blood into my face. I licked it from my lips and pressed the assault. I retook his heart but could advance no further. The lower gates were burning. They blackened and cracked, spilling their vital force to feed the flames. I made the Sword Handseal with both hands and drew the proper runes on the roof of my mouth with my tongue. I struck with a flurry of blows, closing the channels around the Lower Jewel, putting out the fires.
His consciousness should have been scattered, as good as snuffed out, but he had weathered the blaze. He sprang through my fingers, into my body. I caught the tail end of his intellect by closing my hand into the Sign of Alkemneth. He thrashed and tore at my soul, but I had him now. I struck my wrist with the first two fingers of my other hand, lancing him with an unseen blade. I forced him out and joined my hands together into the Seal of the Coranostrum, imprisoning him within it. I pressed the seal into my stomach, closing all of the channels but the one I wanted him to follow. Raising wards around my own Lower Jewel. I let the serpent fire flow back down my spine, shifted to a different breathing pattern. One meant to stoke the inner fires without moving them. Blistering heat suffused my body, a calcination meant to refine the first matter. I focused it against his intellect, turning my Lower Jewel into a furnace that fed on itself. An unending spiral of flame. I held him there. My awareness became the actions. Inhale, gather the aether, exhale it into the furnace. A bellows to feed the fire.
The sun rose over the horizon. My lungs burned, how many hours had it been? I felt him give in. His dominion fading as the sun slew the shadows of night. Too weary to gloat over my victory, I plucked the crystal shard from his arm. I scratched the bind-runes into the gem and pressed it to my lips. He passed within, his rage battering at the prison I had wrought for him. I drew my black hilted knife and turned towards the twitching corpse that lay at my feet. I had bloody work to do before the first cock crowed.
* * *
My son crouched in the back of the cave, shaking. His eyes never left my right arm. Damn bloody work. The crystal shard glowed with a faint sapphire light from under my shoulder. I had sown it beneath the skin. Power roiled and burned along my arm. A column of ebony darkness, shot through with veins of bloody fire. My enemy's Eye of Wisdom blazed in my palm, freshly dug from his skull and red with gore. My witchmark forevermore. Few in all the ages of this world had dared to strike so deadly a pact. Perhaps I should indulge in a small demonstration. My son had earned that.
He screamed as I ripped his wasted arm out of its socket. I tossed it to the floor. My heart quickened as I saw his blood. This was petty retribution, but I savored it nonetheless. Stolen power rose at my command. All the noxious, evil things that grow in the darkness swarmed my inner vision. Things buried so deep they have never known the light, corruption that putrefies unseen. And there you shall rectify the Secret Stone.
"V.I.T.R.I.O.L!" The word struck my son like a blow. Sank into his ravaged flesh. His body spasmed uncontrollably as I worked my will upon him. He boiled before my eyes. The base matter of his body burning away and sinking into the earth, gone. I caught his soul between dark talons and plucked the divine spark out of it. I held his soul in one hand and his spirit in the other.
"You will never again use me in your sick games, old man."
I shoved the spark deep into a bag of still bloody leather and sealed it tight. Then I sat down to have my way with his soul.
* * *
Fedilena donned her black crown and stepped into the higher worlds. The wraith greeted her with a slight mocking bow. Beneath its silver cloak she saw an endless sea of faces, shifting and screaming silently. She had been unsure that they would answer her entreaty, much less send the spirit she required. It gestured, a rhythmic, hypnotic dancing and splaying of its dessicated fingers. She studied its face more closely and realized it couldn't speak. The seals it formed with its hands corresponded to numbers. This was an old speech, only dimly remembered by the wise. She bent her hands to the task, haltingly, straining her memory for the phrases she needed.
The creature shuddered. For a moment she feared she had made some fatal error in her signs. It stood utterly still, than answered her with a quick series of gestures. It would be the instrument of her revenge. She drew a small black token from her bodice and placed it in her new servant's outstretched hand.
* * *
I conducted a council of war as I flew through the night sky.
"I have shown you my memories of the slaughter at Uldaraal's Hall, what is the nature of my enemy?"
My demon purred, tendrils wrapping around the jewel of my throat, slowly digging towards the Forbidden Gate. "It is Nemesis. Your ultimate destruction. None of the Powers may stay its hand or hinder your meeting. Fate herself cannot gainsay this. It has tasted you. Drunk in your essence. There is no world you can flee to where it cannot follow."
"How is it abjured?"
"Throw open the Forbidden Gate and I will teach you."
"No. Take my Lower Jewel instead. The information is worthless to me if the price is my death."
"So you've dabbled with the blacker secrets, you know what waits there. Good. I'm glad I wasn't bound by an amateur. The price is your heart. Fair enough for the answer to your present troubles."
"Later perhaps, as a final resort."
We flew on in silence.
* * *
I entered my chapel in broad daylight, under the gaze of all who deigned to look. Few did. My situation must be general knowledge. Word would reach my enemies quickly, if they didn't already lay in wait for me. I had woven a counterfeit semblance about myself, a meek beggar barely able to stand, dragging herself to the temple to make what pitiful sacrifice her means allowed. No true god could fail to recognize me through my disguise, but at least it might fool any mortal spies.
The aroma of searing oxen from the offering pit reminded me how few meals I had had in recent days. Time enough later. I descended through the seven portals into the sacred adytum, giving the sign, word, and grip to each sentinel as I passed. Each wall was of a different colored stone, some hauled at incalculable expense from the remotest reaches of the earth. The ceiling was of whitest alabaster, black stars etched in a thousand permutations. All of them overlapping each other. Each showing the constellations from the perspective of a different planet. A conflicting and disorienting map that resumed the entire cosmos into a symbol of perfect unity. One astrologer had been driven to take his own life by the strain of the calculations the task had required. The floor was of black and white marble, the seals of the Infernal Powers worked in gold into an arching spiral. In the center stood a reliquary, the skull from one of my old bodies for a chalice, a rod carved from one of my bones, I forget which, lay beside it. The mummified heart of my first master rested in the cup.
The eighth and ninth portals were concealed with infinite care, each a holy mystery of my faith. I touched the side of the reliquary with a certain gesture, and the guards escorted the other devotees out of the chamber. I took up the wand and began opening the eighth door. I drew lines of force in the air, connecting each star on the ceiling with the seal of its ruling demon on the floor. Some of my adherents spent their entire lives trying to master this ritual, only to die and have to start over again at the beginning in their next life. Done with all formality it could take nine days to complete. I knew secrets about it denied to even my closest disciples. Connecting each star to its governor and then that star to the Infernal Lord who ruled it would normally let me finish in under an hour. I split my consciousness between my soul and my body, each working independently of the other to double my speed. I could attempt a third split and send out my spirit as well but that would increase my danger significantly. I didn't know when my enemies planned to spring their trap. Exposing my spirit could mean facing the second death.
The web of power began to take shape, filling the room, naturally expanding to make the connections I had skipped. When I finished, the eighth gate stood suspended in the air, in the exact center of my skein. Seen in outline only, visible only because of its absence within the web. I grasped the fabric of creation, not with mind alone, but with everything I was working in concert. With a supreme effort I twisted what I held, turning reality inside-out, inverting it. Normally even a god could not perform this feat but within the heart of this working, within this holy chamber it became possible.
The gate which had been only an idea, the possibility of a gate, instantly manifested as an actuality. A stone coffin of seven sides that descended gently to the floor. The adytum had become a world unto itself. Every object within the chamber took on all of the possible forms it could ever have had, all at once. The sight had driven several promising candidates to madness.
The gate opened at my command and I lay within it. Entombed and drifting between the worlds. Now for my greatest secret, to open the ninth gate within the eighth. I grasped reality a second time and with a violent motion restored it to its proper shape. The gate reverted to pure ideation and I with it.
* * *
"You risk all that you are by coming here my daughter."
The voice of the Aeon brought me back to awareness. My senses gathered slowly, each from a diffused and useless ecstasy of its own. Maintaining even the fraction of duality required to function as an individual being was difficult. To be a single breath within a cyclone, an undifferentiated mote of thought within the universal mind. That was the ultimate purpose behind creation. The longing that tore the hearts of men and gods alike. Turned them into monsters when they mistook it for their own carnal desires.
"Yes, my daughter, you are home. Though I will warn you again, souls who visit here are required to transverse all the intervening heavens and allow us to try their worth at every step. If you persist in using the back door we will be forced to lock it and station a guardian there that will slay all trespassers out of hand."
"I understand, Lohuth. I gambled my life and soul that it would be you who found me."
"You were within the maw of death when I came upon you. You know better than this. Only incorruptible bodies may dwell here and survive the Presence. And you have taken an unclean spirit within your innermost self. You have defiled yourself shamefully. It will take more lifetimes than there are stars in the vault of heaven for you to regain what this hateful thing has cost you. I confess, even I who love you dearly can hardly stand to look upon you now."
"So all doors are to be barred against me?"
"Why have you done this? Love again?"
"Yes, and hatred and pride as well. The lands of the dead are terrible and we are weak. However, if it were only the vain bickering of men and gods I would never trouble your ears with it. A being that defies death and all the strictures of natural order has slipped the bounds of its prison. It moves at will through realms it should be denied and I fear that creation itself is threatened."
"We know of this. The Power you speak of was once called Arabet, now it answers to no name for it has lost its true self. The principle of severity, untempered by mercy and forced to its uttermost extreme gave birth to it. It is one of the eleven adverse gods, a reflection upon dark waters that may not live or die."
"Will you aid me in its destruction? I have been told that even the hand of Fate is bound. But surely the Aeons-"
"No my child, we will not intervene. Creation can never be threatened. Think of Apocalypse not as a time, but as a state of mind. When it dawns upon the worlds, all that is unclean shall be burned away and the essence will return to the Pleroma. Nothing that this creature does will change that. It was born of the incorruptible spirit and it too will face that Final Fire, as shall we all."
"Then I am lost."
"Depart now, my beloved. Consider the principles I have revealed to you. And please, give no more of yourself over to that devil. Every inch of you that he takes delays our next meeting by centuries. Not long as I reckon the ages but I fear how much that suffering will change you."
* * *
I awoke under a field of stars. The ceiling still shone with a fading phosphorescence, token of the great working I had dared. I touched the leather bag that held my son's immortal spirit. It was still there. The movement, small though it was, made my head spin.
My devil! Gone. Where was my devil? I searched, turning my gaze inward, began shaking when I couldn't find him. Losing my power a second time was intolerable. Not now, ringed about by enemies. Not now. Taking him with me into the Pleroma had been a risk, but I had counted on his strength to sustain him. If that had failed, then perhaps his cunning had served instead? I looked deeper, caught the faintest flash of his essence. Close to the surface. I began opening the eighty-four thousand gates that adorn the flesh of the human body. I started breathing easier as the vital force permeated my skin, passing within to replenish my failing reserves. I found him locked within the nine-hundred and first gate. I tore it open and let him draw upon my energy. Darkness spread within my sphere of sensation, like an ill vapor smothering a lantern's light. It settled into the shard of crystal I had bound it too, poured from my wound and took shape. I clenched both fists. I must be ready.
* * *
The Lord of Elder Night sank his claws into his captor and drank deep. The sudden transition between worlds had caught him off guard. Still reeling from the shock he hadn't had time to brace himself for what followed. To stand so close to the heart of the cosmos, feel it beating all around him. Within him. The sound had been an all consuming fire he could not escape. Instinct alone had saved him. He had suffered greater torment in those moments than he had in all the bleak millennia of his existence. Perhaps this counterfeit immortal was the weapon he had been waiting for? To walk into the midst of her enemies and dare so much, even the Demiurge had never gone that far.
We both felt the trap close at the same time, a sudden wrenching in the mind. We felt the wards rise, one after another. Sealing each of the subtle planes, locking us into this time and place. Their demon is in the cage with us. I'm still weak and she's half dead from the journey. If she dies violently enough I might be able to use her death energy to break through the wards. If I can reach my domain before it catches me....
* * *
A searing, empty wind heralded its arrival. A well of black radiance poured from its neck, dripping down its shoulders and into its eyes. The deaths it had wrought since our last meeting stained its teeth crimson with gore. I met that terrible gaze and staggered back, behind my reliquary. The nameless thing which had once been a god advanced, towering over me, the certainty of my murder already burning in its eyes.
One more step.
As it lunged to pierce me with its talons, it crossed the center of the design. I hurled myself backwards, knowing I would be too slow. The claws raked my stomach, cutting lines of agony into my flesh. "My Lords, I hereby license thee to depart!"
The room erupted as the pent up wrath of seventy-two Infernal Princes and all of their demonic legions burst forth from the seals etched into the floor. I wrapped my own demon around myself, a feeble cloak to weather the coming storm. I wove all of my enchantments of blinding and distraction together, a shield of darkness that might keep me unscathed. They rampaged across my vision. Aligol with its black chariot, Sarax and Alsrax wearing the severed heads of their enemies, Klipol with her dragon's head and lioness body, Erikogaal clothed in red steel and holding his flaming brand aloft. They shattered the northern wall and poured into the city, breaking the wards and setting us free. I caught hold of the pelt of a massive two-headed wolf and held on with the last of my failing strength. Tonight the empire will burn.
* * *
The shadows howled in rage. Their moment had finally come and their prophet lay dead in the street. One of the Greater Powers had seemed to recognize him for what he was. Had veered its black steed and lopped off his head with a single sword stroke. Wretch's ghoulish grin bounced up and down as his head swung from one of the iron hooks set into the horse's flank.
* * *
I remembered the wolf's true name, Astreiel. I whispered it again and again as we fled, a silent threat, a goad to keep my steed in full gallop, to ensure I survived the ride.
* * *
Fedilena held her own private festival as the city burned. She practiced the interior, wet path of alchemy, forcing each infernal spirit that she caught into the body of her most beautiful slave, before she took up her cup and strove to unite the essences of fire and water. With each victory her power deepened. If she lived through the night she would ride this storm to the heights of her ambition.
* * *
The seven that met in darkness, met once again to decide their fate. Each drew an ivory token from a silk bag. Each token bore the motto and seal of one of the conspirators. The last token to be drawn would mark the sacrifice. The rampart and trowel of House Ahn, the pelican biting its own breast for House Anghaal, a burning star with the motto; "We shall not adore the Lord.", the bag passed hands and the rest of the tokens came quickly, their owners relieved that they would be spared. The last to draw let out an exclamation. As she drew the final token, she felt another strike the bottom of the bag. Without thinking she reached in and withdrew it. It was a disk of blackened bone on which was scratched the seal of their ergregore and the motto of the conspiracy. As one they fell dead, their souls ripped away and bound for the Stronghold of the Necromancers. They were seven and in the darkness their eyes made twice seven dead lights shining as though from the bottom of the abyss.
* * *
My blood stained Astreiel's coat and ran down my legs, each movement of his powerful limbs tearing my wounds. He ran upon the surface of the ocean and the beasts of the deep followed in our wake.
* * *
The Abhuman God killed two of the insects that stood in its way. Things that seemed to mock it with their parody of corruption. Little spirits that chose to twist their forms into bestial shapes but could not see beyond human evil. Impure. A mixing of forces that made them weak. It felt its prey, her heartbeat slowing to low ebb, the cuts it had dealt her already beginning to fester. She rode away and death followed close behind.
* * *
Lady Rogath crowed her triumph to the world. The changes had begun! Her hair and nails had fallen out and she sweat with a wracking fever. The black serpent coiled within her brain, obliterating conscious thought. She must go on, must risk the Red Work. Her slave lay too spent to move. She called for another and began to heat her vessel once more. This time she offered up prayers to the Powers that they might multiply her work.
* * *
"We have deigned to carry thee this night. We wonder how thou shalt repay our kindness?" Both heads purred as they spoke. Jarioth lay sprawled in the shingle of a foreign beach, she knew not where. The sun shed its golden blood into the distant waters and a warm breeze played over her face.
"Give that pretty spark into our keeping and we shall consider thy debt repayed."
Her escape had saved her life but placed her in Astreiel's power. She had raised the demon but had no strength to put it back down. All of her plans depended on keeping her father's spirit safe. She could offer her blood instead, but she had little enough left. Then she remembered. She feebly clawed at the chain around her neck, worked it free.
"O Prince of the Final Darkness, I beg a favor. Accept this scroll instead. Its worth far surpasses the souls of a thousand men. Take it and let their always be peace between us."
* * *
The ocean became a carpet of bodies as it pursued the one it sought. The creatures of the deep died as it passed over them, a harbinger about to announce the doom it carried from the pit. The stench of their boiling carcasses rose to darken its passage.
* * *
I don't know how I made it to the forest. I felt as though I had walked this land before, as a child perhaps, when the world was young. Kheddi and Chrombey were easy enough, but it took me too long to find the Ketega mushrooms. My body wanted to die, to lay down and slip into nothingness. I trudged on, clinging to trees to support myself, crawling at times. My feet found an old path, one I seemed to know. I smelled the place before I saw it. An ancient cave, cut into the mountainside. It reeked of old power, of sabbats long past. The stang was still there. The wood rotten, but the skull that crowned it unbroken. I rested my back against the pole. Touched the oath stone, stained brown with old blood. I brewed my medicine with shaking hands. A rusted cup as my chalice, my knife and a piece of animal bone to kill the plants and give them new life. As I drank it down I wiped my blood upon the stone and swore that if I lived, I would return to this place and hold the rites anew.
* * *
Fedilena transversed the heavens at will, drunk on power and moved by forces she could not perceive. Her skin shone like white-gold, a new star burning in the night sky. She wore an incorruptible body, but deep in her heart, the spirits she had conquered writhed. Gnawing at her, finding the impurities in her vessel, the hatreds and vain jealousies. Spreading along the fault lines of her soul. They whispered dark thoughts to her. Stoked the fires of her ambition, turned them into an inferno of madness that she would not long survive.
* * *
My devil sat next to me on the floor of the cave. His fingertips red and wet. His dark hair falling over him like a shroud. His eyes the only points of light burning in the darkness.
"It is almost upon you. It might wait for daybreak so that it can enjoy the sight of your vital organs arcing through the morning light. It might come sooner. Each breath you draw brings it closer. All I want is your heart. Is that so much to ask?"
"Not yet. You said yourself, I'm no amateur. I've walked unclothed in flesh. Something as mundane as death holds no terror for me. You will have to do better than that."
"Do you know what awaits the souls it reaps?" He traced a spiral on the floor with a long bloody nail. "Have you seen the bottom of the bottomless pit?"
"I've gazed into the Abyss and seen the Beast That Walks. I've seen fools cut to pieces on the bridge. And once I descended until the body I wore was burned away and only my soul remained. There is no bottom. It's all merely delusion, taken from our own minds and made real. It never ends because our delusions never end."
He smiled, as though at some private jest.
"I have stood in that place, that place you call mere delusion. You've heard God's heart beating at the center of the cosmos? I've been to its uttermost edge, felt the beating of their hearts, just beyond that final barrier. God may be one, but they are legion. The beast that stalks you now is the first and greatest of them, taking on physicality has weakened him. That wont last long. By now he's gorged himself on souls, soon he will regain his former power and then-"
"And then this world will perish."
"More or less...."
Jarioth stared into the darkness, weighing a world against her soul. At last she spoke.
"My choice is made. I will face my nemesis without your guidance and accept your pact only if I fail."
* * *
The demons bound into Fedilena's heart began trembling as she approached the island. They felt the doom that lay upon it, but a voiceless call urged them on. Something of their kin drew them closer, down into the darkness. Within the black and twisted chamber of her heart they whispered to each other.
Nahab spoke first, "Kill the girl before she brings us any nearer to that monstrosity. We cannot face it and live."
"Speak for thyself, old crone. Let us sway her thoughts. Use her to destroy the Abhuman. The death of our brothers demands retribution. We may be nothing but ants to him, but a thousand ants can still tear the flesh from a man."
"Wait, listen to thy elder my children. There is a better way...."
* * *
I tread widdershins around the stang. My gaze locked upon the skull, right eye closed. I walked with an uneven, limping step, singing the runes as I went. Unseen eyes opened all around me as I built the power, spirits long starved of sacrifice waking at my call. I chose the eleven strongest and invited them within the bounds I had set. It had taken far too long to find the goat and the three white doves, but they all lay at my feet, tied and helpless.
I took up my black knife and made short work of them. Steam rose from the blood as I painted the triangle on the ground. I brought my hands to my lips and drank, the first to partake. The corpse twitched and shook as the spirits joined my meal. I pressed my hand to the stone and swore the oath. More bloody hand prints joined my own. Twelve in all and my devil made thirteen.
I sat crouched over the fire I had built, swaying forward and back, staring into the heart of the flames. I rocked, slowly at first, but with increasing violence. My body began to spasm, the inner fires seething as I stoked them higher. They entered my crown and "I" ceased to be. My body continued to act but I barely noticed. My spirit stood with the coven in a deeper world.
They bent over the fire, drawing strength from the rite, even as they gave the power I needed to finish my work. Their hollow stomachs expanded as they fed, their bodies growing less withered. I began to recognize faces from my childhood. Demons and witches long dead and forgotten stood with me. My first coven, the original wellspring of our lineage. As I greeted the woman who had initiated me into the Art, a sad recognition crossed her ancient face. She gestured and I knelt, taking up the ritual position. She gave me the devil's kiss, her breath hot on my skin. The serpent stirred deep within my Lower Jewel, awoke, began the slow climb. This was not the coarse fire I had raised earlier, but the pure essence.
I rode it into a side channel, found the gate I wanted. I cried the proper God Name and it unfolded like a flower, each petal resonating with a single letter of the name. Good. The trap was ready. Now to set the snare.
* * *
It sensed the working but didn't hesitate. Only common sorcery. The Abhuman had grown during its hunt. It grew as a sickness would, twisting itself into shapes impossible for the minds of men to comprehend. Nature recoiled as it passed. The very world seemed to bend to avoid touching its corruption.
* * *
Jarioth lay within the triangle, the refuse of her conjuring spread around her. A jagged talon hovered above her heart, poised to strike. The Abhuman paused, for reasons it could not fathom its hand drifted up and to the left. It gently broke the skin, a bead of blood welled up around the tip of its nail. Color began leeching out of the creature, drawn into the point of contact. The bruised blue-black of its hide fading into gray. The crimson of its mouthes dimming into a pale pink. Within moments it became a spinning white mass, lacking all definition. It shrank until it had been drawn within her body entirely.
* * *
She lay in wait behind one of the Lesser Gates. As her enemy entered her, she completed her invocation, merging her being with the last of the coven spirits. They fit together as they always had, thirteen practitioners of a primal sorcery becoming the act of sorcery itself. No identity or will drove them, they rested in the unseen hand of their patron, a weapon for it to wield as it chose. As one, they struck, seizing their adversary and plunging through the gate.
* * *
The stars of heaven burn within the body of every man and woman. She had opened a bridge between one of her interior lights and its corresponding celestial body. We emerged in the Upper Dark, high above the Station of the Moon. She had brought us close to the green star H'tar. A goddess sat within the flames like a shadow, casting her radiance into the murky depths below. Her eyes fell upon us and I felt all of the torments and passions of my youth, spent now and dry as dust. She tilted her head and it was an invitation. The creature we held shifted and fought. Jarioth tightened her grip and fell. The shape darkened as we neared, became an absence, a hole within the star. We passed through and entered her domain.
She reclined upon a velvet couch, a harem of beautiful men attending to her every whim. Pillars of emerald and chalcedony ringed the dais. In the distance, walls of storm clouds muttered their anger. She watched us, impassive and silent, as though she were about to pronounce sentence against us and was measuring the extent of our transgressions.
Now I understood my mistress's plan. H'tar embodied fidelity and compassion, her realm was antithetical to our enemy. With a slight nod of her head, the scene receded into blackness and we stood within a cavern. The dais and our deific host gone. Deep pools of untempered chaos littered the ground, shining impossible colors and fading away into alien spectrums that challenged both reason and sanity. Dream shapes reminiscent of men dove into them from a ledge near the ceiling, stopping themselves from striking bottom through no obvious agency outside of their own will.
* * *
The Abhuman's taint curdled the air but it was no longer in my grasp. Behind me. I felt its breath, hot on my back. I ran for the far end of the cave. Heard the death cry of a dozen souls as they burned away in its wake. The pools boiled and blackened until they where like pitch. Faster. A path led out of the chamber. I stumbled through the darkness of a rough hewn corridor until it gave way to a yawning chasm. The path became flat and undulating, like a silver ribbon bridging the abyss that opened before me.
Suddenly, I felt another presence near me. Haelel ran at my side. Not the worthless child I had witnessed creep into this world like a thief. His spirit took its old shape. My father. His black hair had silvered and the lines of his face were cut deep. I touched the leather bag that had held him and felt the rip.
"I thought you would have tried something sooner."
My son looked at me and answered, "I've been thinking...."
"Contemplating your sins?"
"I went too far." His voice was flat and dead as he spoke the words.
The path seemed endless. I didn't dare risk a glance behind us. I saw the distortions in the air, the weight of the demon's obscenity against the cosmic order had begun to unmake the world around him. If he caught us now we'd face a fate far worse than the second death.
* * *
Fedilena Rogath stood over the prone body of her enemy. She stroked the raven black hair and stared deep into the unseeing eyes. The primitive ritual trappings annoyed her. That an enemy so exalted in the black arts should be reduced to this rude thaumatugy was an affront against the Art itself.
She spoke softly, whispering into Jaroith's ear. "Please don't think that I do this because our houses have been at war for longer than mortal memory. No, old hatreds don't matter now. All that matters is our privet quarrel. Tonight we settle all of the debts that lay between us."
* * *
"Please go on, tell me how violating my spirit as you used me to cross back into life is justified. Quote me your precious philosophy."
I had remembered one of the secret paths of this realm and we now hurried through a dry ocean bed, grotesque lurking things gasped and thrashed around us. The waters that would mean their life and our death arched high above us, held back by old sorcery. The taint of our hunter clung to us, a sour reek that turned my stomach. The creature followed close, along different pathways but never far behind.
"I thought I was protecting you from my mistakes, but all I did was compound them. I tried to repent, I returned the staff and took back my heart, but it wasn't enough. I can't make things right." All of his old strength had gone from him. He had spent dozens of lives giving commands and having them obeyed. Now for the first time he pleaded.
"You are a false god, my son. You preach the evils of power but that didn't stop you from taking up the Sword . This is the only chance I will allow you. Explain yourself."
Haelel opened his mouth, tried to form words, but he had none.
* * *
Slitting her throat would be simple. A common death that was too good for her. It would break the cycle of her ritual incarnations and set her back a few lifetimes. She would pass through the Black Wheel and suffer a mortal birth, but it wasn't enough! Memories long denied began clawing their way to the surface.
It was during the Final Rite of my thirteenth incarnation. Success meant high honor in the Holy Order, and political favor for my house, something we needed desperately in those days. Four of the other houses had done everything but declare open war against us. It was the two old men, father and grandfather, they had brought us to this.
We were close then. We called each other sister. I looked down at her as I hung from the Husking Pole, the silk rope cutting into my neck. I did as I was taught. Slowed my heart and breath, prolonging the life of my current body until the proper moment for its death. I could see her below me if I strained my neck. She lay in the pit under the pole, her own breath ragged and strained as the other celebrant preformed his office. I felt the beginnings of fear then. She should be breathing in the proscribed rhythm, the ceremony demanded perfect concentration from all of its participants. If she gave herself over to pleasure she wouldn't be able to catch me when my time came.
The tension built between us, filled the chamber. It pulsed in time with their movements. She gasped and I knew I was lost. It was too late to do anything but complete the rite and hope I survived. The knife was cold as I drew it across my stomach, opening myself. I fell with my blood, my essence splashing over them in a red cascade. My timing had been perfect, I washed over them as she conceived. For a brief instant we joined, than Jarioth faltered, let me go. I stained the bottom of the pit, all that I was pooling around their bodies. I felt the stranger lodge inside her belly, another had taken the place meant for me. The shade of some low-born sorcerer had stolen her from me.
It was later, as I clawed my way out of the netherworld that I learned the bitter truth. She had let me go on purpose. Consigned me to this degradation so that her mortal lover could be one of us. The Wheel took me and I knew I would be born with nothing, not even my memories. I swore that I would remember. I would force myself to remember. Than I would pay her back for all that she had done to me and for all that I must endure.
* * *
I coiled around my mistress's arm, spreading from her shoulder, burrowing into the deep places of her spirit. I sensed what was about to happen in the material world. Princes of the Lower Dark had come. A legion of the damned stood around her mortal body. If they cut my prison from her flesh I would be at their mercy, and they had little mercy. They were using the Art. I felt the working begin to build. We were out of time.
* * *
"Hawthorn to bind the gate and kill a witch. I love having mortal hands. This wort is just as hateful to our kind, but she can touch it."
"Stop thy gloating Sarax. Our lovely plaything might hear and realize she isn't alone."
"Is her arrogance not beautiful? She thought to sublimate us and keep our power for herself."
"Poor creature. All we are is power. I love to watch when they doom themselves...."
* * *
It found us as we reached the heart of H'tar's domain. This was not a place, but a vision. An expression of the Face of God that she embodied. We stood within the boughs of a bright tree. Its roots spread into the heavens, its branches growing downward into the earth.
It came cloaked in night. A darkness veiled the Abhuman that went beyond mere shadow. Pure nothingness surrounded it, an un-light that devoured all that it touched. I could not see the teeth and claws that waited within that darkness. My daughter stood fast. Her demon whispering its council in her ear. I knew I could not face it a second time. I had no strength to call the Blood-Red Sword and I couldn't bear the shame of it if I did. Jarioth tensed, than sagged. She had accepted some hard choice. I could see it in her eyes. Her demon billowed out from her, a serpent of black smoke shot through with bloody fire. It met the destroying darkness and held it back.
She hugged me. It was the first time I had ever held her. When she spoke it was with absolute control. Each word seemed to cost her deeply.
Than I fell. She had pushed me into the tree. I flowed through the branches and passed down. Through the worlds and back into the mortal realm. I felt the Black Wheel take me and I knew peace.
* * *
The creature lay in the branches of the tree. It didn't move. The shield of un-light had cracked and faded. Its misshapen body convulsed. Its eyes bleeding tiny streams of fire. I stood over it and did the things my devil instructed. I touched its eyes and mouth, praying the oldest prayer as I did. It began to twist and thrash. It knew what I was about to do. I finished the prayer and spoke the benediction:
"As the stars fell, so to have you fallen my child. I give you what they sought. I name thee Arabet! "
For a moment the web of creation seemed to dance, the worlds vibrating to a discordant note that rang out, passing into the deep places and ringing true at last. The Abhuman dissolved into the bark of the tree, no longer nameless it followed the sound of its birth cry and sought out the company of the gods it had rejected when the worlds were still young.
* * *
When I returned to my body I awoke inside of a corpse. My hands were bound above my head. trussed to the stang. My stomach was slit open and my insides hung around my knees. My garter was tied around my neck. The brand of the Oathbreaker and Warlock. Someone had moved me outside the cave. The sun burned my flesh and the scent of death welled up from within. I had begun to rot in the heat. I tried to flee, back into the spirit world where I was clean and safe, but I could not.
The Runes of Vennorok blackened my skin, burned there and each pierced by a thorn. A binding over each of my Inner Gates. Someone had cut a circle into the ground around me, a spirit-trap that held me fast. My body was dead, but long habit let me feel the knife, a distant slicing ache in my shoulder.
A harsh voice cut through my stupor, sharpened my failing senses.
"We are out of time mistress! They will tear me from you in a moment. If you let that happen we are both lost." The Lord of Elder Night seemed to quail within my mind.
Who had caught me? I forced my dead eyes to focus, saw my tormentor standing before me, working a gore stained blade into my shoulder. Old Rogath's daughter! Linna? What was her name? She burned like a miniature sun, blinding and holy. The Body of Light didn't exist. It was a dream for celibate mystics. A story they told themselves to justify their idiocy. But she had attained it, something denied to us since the beginning of our reign.
I tried to speak, stale air croaked through my lips. She looked into my eyes, her face a mask of hatred. Then she smiled. I remembered that smile. She gave the dagger a wrench and ran her fingers through my hair. Kissed my brow like she used to.
"Did you like my gift, sister? I set the hunter on your trail. But you're still the same clever girl. It wont be coming back, will it?"
She gave the blade another turn. The pain shot through me, sharper now.
"You're going to stand here until the world's end, sister. You'll watch that final cataclysm consume this realm and only then will I allow you to die. No one will find your corpse and set you free. I'll hid you too well for that. I may come back in a few centuries, to give you pain and listen to you beg for death. Or perhaps I'll leave you to your thoughts, let you count your sins until the cleansing fire takes us all."
I felt my pact waver as she pulled at the crystal embedded in my shoulder. If she took it I truly would be lost. I spoke to my devil, "It looks like you'll be getting your price after all." He began to answer but I ignored him. I withdrew from my body and became a point of awareness within my throat. Even spelled Hawthorn couldn't close the Forbidden Gate. I released my demon from his binding and drew him within myself. Together we spoke the words that break the seal, we opened the way that man must not tread. Passed through the gate and into the chaos of the Abyss.
* * *
When they say the path to gnosis is thin as a razor's edge, it isn't metaphor. The bridge that spans the Abyss is a sword and many fools have walked it's length. A brown stain coats the bottom of the blade, all that remains of those who had gone before. We stood at the precipice, looking down into the pit. All the depraved imaginings of gods and men swirled below us, worse than the hell at the bottom of a witch's cauldron. There was nothing down there but madness and dissolution into the fires of chaos. Even if my demon had spoken true and it had a bottom, we would never reach it. And if we did it was a dead end, it didn't lead back to the realms I knew.
The hilt of the sword was embedded in the earth, rusted gold with a cracked ruby set into its pommel. A test ordained by the Aeons to guard the Higher Realms. The blade vanished into the darkness. The Archons themselves were said to challenge any who dared to cross the Abyss. If we took that path I didn't know what I would lose. What parts of my being would be burned away. If nothing within me was pure enough I would cease to exist as so many before me had.
I looked up and saw the light of the Pleroma, a star set into the sky as a promise. If I survived the test I could go home. I could rest. I lowered my eyes and took a step forward, setting my foot upon the bridge.
© Tobias Loc 2018