A few years back, I posted a short I wrote on Ichor Falls, Wolves of the Stillwood. Ichor Falls has since gone away it seems, but the story was harvested for various creepypasta sites, albeit without crediting Ichor Falls or myself. I've been working on getting this noted on the postings I find, but I thought I'd share the best reading I found on youtube here.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Sunday, February 9, 2014
“Treason most foul, indeed, the cruelest twist of the knife,
is born in love and empathy, not in hate or vengeance.”
-Valentinian II, Words to the White Order
Artemis was uncomfortably cheerful, the mood of the port city entirely opposed to we four travelers. The harvest time of the surrounding countryside had come to its close, and the city was in full festival. Orange banners hung from every wall and windowsill, and streamers of the same crisscrossed from roof to roof above the streets. Even the ships in port flew pennants of that same hue. According to Grail, it was a seasonal affectation: orange in autumn, yellow at midwinter, lavender in spring and crimson at high summer.
The city was the fullest I had seen in quite some time, more even than the overcrowded City of Light or the packed merchant plaza in Levi. The countryside had emptied into Artemis for the celebration, with wagons and great tents blocking off already cramped and twisted streets. Men, women and legions of laughing and shrieking children reveled in any area that might have once been open.
Luckily, we had Grail to guide us through the city’s winding back streets, else it might have taken us a week to find someplace with room enough for us. As it was, it still took the better part of a day. Grail was also forced to pull double duty as our translator, the brogue that warped his speech afflicting the natives tenfold. Apparently his years away from home had softened his tongue some.
I was ready to drop from exhaustion by the time we reached Grail’s chosen inn. The cramped discomfort of our berth in the ship, as well as the tension and fresh emotional chaos our discussions had generated made sleep unsatisfying at best. My nightmares had reached a new stage of intensity as well, each time my eyes closed bringing me closer to death under the claws and fangs of my unnamable assailant.
As such, I had no true memory of reaching my room or stowing my gear before slipping into blessed unconsciousness. In truth, I had no memories of sleep, free from worry and nightmare both, but only a long, comforting black. It was, I suppose, the closest thing to actual peace I had found since the Demon had begun stalking us.
All good things come to an end.
My heart skipped a beat as I tried to remember where I was and how I had arrived. I squinted my eyes against the orange light the setting sun sent through my window, trying to make sense of my surroundings. The room was sparse, with my cot, the window and the door the only distinguishing characteristics of what could have been a monastic cell. My leathers, mantle and blade were piled on the naked floor, with the repeater tucked against my side, still in its scabbard.
As my place in the world sank in, I took note of the fading daylight outside. Either I had been asleep only an hour or so, or I had spent more than a day here. The latter, if fate is kind, I hoped, this last great push is going to take everything I’ve got, body and soul. Finding the heart will doubtlessly be harder than Richter’s planning makes it out to be. Baphomet isn’t likely to take this lying down, either… with our luck, any submerged horror within miles is likely to disinter as soon as we lay hands upon the artifact.
I stretched my arms above me, yawning such thoughts from my head. Worry about the unknowable was fruitless, now that our planning was done. I turned, instead, and took stock of the city I had been too weary and rushed to pay attention to on our arrival.
The rooftops of nearby buildings spread out in a cluttered forest of orange and brown clay tiles, interlocking scallops reminding me of the Niddhog’s armored hide. From my vantage point, three floors high and in a building perched near the top of the natural slope upon which Artemis had been built, I could look all the way down to the sea. Through the salty haze of the damp air, I could make out the square brown spire of the city’s Temple.
Artemis had been an occupied colony of Illuma from the beginning of the fourth crusade up until the end of the fifth. While none of the free cities had truly integrated with the Illuman Empire, Artemis would have come the closest to joining their hegemony. Based on the tolling of the evening bells coming from that distant tower, the Illumani might be gone, but their faith remained, and in far better condition than that in Hadrian.
I shook the last of the sleep from my head and rolled off my cot. Leaving the cuirass and gauntlets where they lay, I pulled on my leggings and boots. My torso I left covered with the grey tunic I had slept in, not seeing any need to gear-up to simply break my fast. Still, I strapped the repeater to my belt at the small of my back, draping my shirt over it. No harm came from caution, after all.
An unfamiliar hall greeted me on the other side of my door. I wandered through the corridor, doubling back when I met a dead end in my search for the stairs, which lay in the opposite direction. How I had navigated such a staircase in my exhaustion was another thing I was better off not remembering. With steps a span high and a hand wide, it seemed more a ladder than a stairway.
The taproom that greeted me upon my descent of those precarious steps was as crowded as I remembered the streets being. Nearly every table and stool was packed with eating, drinking or generally carousing men. Grail’s friends, whoever they might be, obviously owed him quite a bit to give us the rooms during this time of year.
I managed to find a seat in the corner nearest the door and flagged down a barmaid weaving her way between the boisterous masses of patrons. Nodding politely through her incomprehensible colloquialisms, I managed to impress upon her my need for food. A short time later, she returned with a trencher of borogove stew, steam still wafting from its yellow surface.
As I sated my hunger, I began considering where my friends were. Obviously, given the size of my room, the others are likely in similarly divided quarters. There’s the possibility that each of them has been sleeping as late as I did, I demurred, but that’s doubtful. Perhaps, I brightened, there’s another area of the inn they have gathered in, away from prying eyes. Certainly, they cannot have simply left me alone.
That certainty was shattered as the inn’s doors opened, bringing with it Grail and a gust of crisp autumn air. His coat was slung over one arm, and his face was damp with exertion. Based on his breathing, he had probably been down the hill and returned in as short a time as possible. I called the old man’s name to garner his attention.
“Careful where ya’ sling that name, lad,” he puffed, seating himself next to me. “I told ya’ back in Levi that me name dun’na’ bring the best o’ attentions with it. Here we’re with friends, o’ a sort, but if’n ya’ dun’na’ wish ta’ be runnin’ out o’ another town, keep a level head about ya’, ya’ ken?”
I shook my head, not caring about the old man’s paranoia for the moment. “Just where have you been? And where is everyone else?” I wasn’t upset, not quite yet, but I was looking for a damned good explanation.
The Artemisian frowned. “Tha’ young master said he’d told ya’ we were stepin’ out. He said so long as two o’ us were together, there wasn’t any harm in breakin’ ranks jess’ fer’ a moment or two.”
I placed my head in my hands. Richter’s arrogance was worse than the Demon, seeming dead at times but never long for the grave. Once more I was struck by how someone I knew to be so very bright made such Demon-damned stupid choices. It was as if consequences and the actions that preceded them were unrelated. A side of me berated myself for not keeping a tighter rein on him, having seen this behavior all my life, but mostly I just wanted to wring his neck.
“And what, can I ask, was so important as to leave Ialae and I here alone?” To my credit, I did not vent any of my frustration with Richter out onto Grail.
“I reckon ‘twas ta’ prepare fer’ our trip. Said he had need o’ ‘reagents’ an’ ‘foci’, what ‘er those might be. As fer’ tha’ lass, Richter said she’d stepped out fer’ a moment herself, or at tha’ least she wasn’t in her room”
That gave my thoughts something to chew on. Ialae has been… distant again since our discussion on the ship, but her leaving without word is still… troubling. It seems I’m the only one who sees any danger in splitting up over and over. Then again, I groused, I’m the only one to have to risk his neck trying to keep us all alive when someone gets into trouble as well.
Richter’s reasons were now more transparent, though. He had, on numerous occasions during our time in Luxor, decried the use of a physical focus as a crutch. If he was hedging his bets now by trying to shore up any gaps in his strength, he was as nervous as I was. His reasons for slipping out without telling me were as simple as trying to maintain the veil of self-confidence.
It didn’t make it any less foolish, though.
“Where did you find the money for that kind of thing? I’ve barely got ten copper pennies to my name after our travel down the Acheron.”
Grail gave me his customary wide and toothy grin. “Tha’ young master said he’d squirreled a few crowns away here an’ there. I’m fer’ bettin’ that he’s jess’ been holdin’ out when things were thin.”
I grunted at that. “So, how much did he have to buy?” I decided to try and make light of it, despite my frustration with my friend. “Did you have to come back to get one of the horses?” I tried to grin back with that, but it felt more like a wince.
Grail frowned a bit at that. “Nay, lad. He spotted somethin’ in tha’ market that got his dander up an’ told me ta’ hie back here quick, so as ta’ have ya’ ready ta’ leave if’n tha’ situation demanded it.”
“And you just left him alone?” His words had shattered my prior restraint like rock through a glass pane. “Are you out of your pox-blasted mind? There’s no telling what kind of trouble he’s in now.” Based on Grail’s account of events, Richter had either seen something he wanted or something that had him spooked. Either way, he was in danger, with no one at his back, again.
Grail responded with a howl of laughter, slapping one palm against the table with enough force to dislodge my silverware. “Let him? Ya’ve been at his side a sight longer than me, lad. If’n ya’ hadn’t noticed, he’s got a stubborn streak as wide as tha’ Bellicose is long. Ya’ can’na reason with him if’n he’s got somethin’ stuck in his skull.”
“Fair enough.” In truth, stubborn was an understatement. Adamant could be more yielding.
“Ta’ tell ya’ true,” the old Artemisian rambled on, ignoring my agreement, “he reminds me o’ his father at that age. Give him a set o’ morals ta’ make a paladin envious an’ gold instead o’ coal atop his head, an’ they’d be tha’ very same man.”
It was my turn to laugh. “I’d be careful to never let Richter hear a word of that little observation. I think the whole reason we’re even in this mess is because Richter didn’t want to become his father.” I could remember well their constant bickering before we had abandoned Luxor. Neither would give the other an inch.
Grail blinked in confusion at my words. “If’n tha’ young master din’na want ta’ be his father’s son, then traipsin’ from one side o’ tha’ sea ta’ tha’ other an’ tiltin’ at windmills ain’t tha’ way ta’ do it. Did Malachi not tell ya’ two how me an’ him met?”
The door slammed open again before I could question Grail further. With the newest burst of chill wind strode Richter, harried expression on his face and one arm deep in his satchel, his hand most likely on the scattergun. His eyes darted about, raking the room in search of something. His gaze lit upon Grail and I moments later, and the invoker practically dashed to our table.
My friend still had enough presence of mind to draw up a seat, rather than simply stand there and haranguing us. “What in the Devil’s name are you doing sitting about, Saga?” He turned from me to Grail. “Did I not tell you to have him make ready to leave?”
I lifted a hand to stop further chastisement. “He only arrived less than half a bell ago. I’ve barely had time to ask what’s going on, let alone pack up.” I lowered my arm back to the table. “Now tell me what’s going on?”
Richter ran a hand through his unkempt black locks. “Time is short and I shall be blunt, Saga. The Inquisition has found us once more.”
I could feel the blood leave my face as my heart tried to force its way out of my chest. “But…but…How? Why? The Inquisition has no authority here in Artemis. Glass, even if they came at us with formal charges, the constables here would rather put out their own eyes than kowtow to the Illumani again.”
Richter gave a single laugh so dry of levity and caustic with cynicism that it could have burned flesh. “You think the Inquisitors are here with black blades naked and crimson mantles flaring in the wind? That they would, bold as brass, march through that door as they did in Ward and try to arrest us again?” He slammed both fists on the table. “As deluded and overzealous as they are, good Saga, they are not fools. They are here incognito, only detected by simple chance and my own keen perceptions.”
I was in no mood for his braggadocio. “Demon-damn you, Richter. Cut the dramatics and tell me what you saw already.”
The scholar’s eyes were like a hooded furnace as they met mine, dark but with something dangerous smoldering behind. “Very well. While Grail and I were out gathering the supplies for our final endeavor, we neared the Temple Petra. As I haggled with the most miserly vendor this side of Faraday, my eye caught on a cluster of men on the steps of the Temple proper. While quite plainly dressed, the swords they tried to keep shadowed beneath their mantles were very familiar.”
I put my knuckles to my temple as I gave a single nod. “Basket hilts with black iron and scarlet tassels, right?” He nodded back. “Good catch.” That evidence would be damning enough, but Richter continued.
“I sent Grail back to prepare you, while I confirmed my suspicions.” My colleague paused to adjust his spectacles, which had slid down to the tip of his nose. “I managed to trail them through the narthex and into the nave, blending with the parishioners arriving for evening mass. There, our would-be pursuers met with men of much more obvious allegiances, locals thought they may have been.”
I tossed Richter a confused look after a moment’s thought, which he was only too glad to dispel for me. “They were Templarae, Saga, blue cloaks and all. Obviously, a holy site like Petra demands dedicated wardens, so their presence is not particularly surprising. Their knowledge of our names and the fact that we are somewhere in this city is, however.”
“But how?” I repeated lamely, even as my stomach sank with the cold, leaden weight of the implications.
“I have no idea how they could have found us, friend Saga.” Richter’s mocking tone removed any doubt his feigned ignorance could have created. “How could one of the holy orders, which spends its time and resources solely on building fortresses atop the bones of martyrs, have possibly found us? Whenever have we even crossed their path?” He raised his fore and index fingers in the air above his head, his expression a caricature of surprise. “Oh, I know! Why do we not simply ask the one we have with us? Certainly she could illuminate us…but where ever has she gone?”
I rose, intending to do just that, to leave this place and track her down rather than let Richter accuse her undefended, but my friend caught me by the wrist, pulling me back down. “No, Saga. I know that expression far too well. You intend to prove me wrong, without considering the whole of your risk.” His fingers locked tighter, digging into my skin as I tried to pull away. “She is likely already with them, down in the Temple, or worse, left some trap prepared in her quarters for us to discover. Please, old friend, be reasonable for once.”
I shook my hand free of his grasp, but did not rise again. “Reasonable? How is that reasonable? For one thing, when has she ever had the chance to give word to the Church? You’ve had me watching her like a hawk.”
Richter’s line of thinking had beaten me to my own point. “How about Hadrian? By your own admission, she prattled on in a language neither you nor Grail could comprehend. Who is to say there was not a member of her order concealed there, to receive her messages? Or even earlier, when you left her alone at Brunt to retrieve me? Could she not have left some token then?”
I wanted to protest that last assertion, saying she had been with Grail, but I knew it wouldn’t stick. The old man had not been the one sworn to watch her for signs of treason. A thread of doubt began to worm through me, whispering, perhaps, I‘ve been used all along.
“You and I both should have known this was coming, especially after her little outburst aboard the ship.” My old friend’s expression softened. “I am not blind Saga. It is obvious that you have feelings for this girl…Heaven above and Hell below, if you had not met her first, I would likely be sniffing after her, fetching as she is. But these aforementioned emotions have left you unable to see the whole picture. As your friend, I cannot keep sitting idly by while you are manipulated thus. We need to move, now, and leave her behind, traitor or no.”
Richter seemed at a loss for words, a moment as rare as hen’s teeth, but Grail was there to pick up the slack. “I told ya’ once before, ya’ can’na’ trust tha’ lass jess ‘cause she’s got a bonnie face. Aye, she’s got a good heart too, that’s fer’ true, but ya’ can’na’ say if’n it’s in tha’ right place or back with tha’ Empire. An’ as she’s fond o’ sayin’, this task is a sight too important ta’ divert fer’ others.”
I nodded, neck weak and shoulders slumped with defeat, watching them both look down at the table, not meeting my eye. I rose again, this time my motions slow, without the speed of anger behind them. “I’ll get my things, then. How long will a ride to the Well of Souls take us?” I asked, my concern for both how long we could evade new pursuit and the duration of our supplies only a dull note in my mind now.
Richter cleared his throat, obviously still uncomfortable. “We have to assume that the gates will be monitored and our exit from Artemis noted by agents of the Inquisition. As such, we will have to push our mounts to outpace them, putting us at Amn-Feng’s doorstep by this time tomorrow evening, if we follow the old supply road and ride through the night.” His expression turned sour even as Grail glanced up in surprise. “Yes, yes. I am aware of the ill-portent that brings with it, but we no longer have any say in the timetable.”
My dispirited and distracted thoughts took a moment to jump at the words ‘ill-portent’. “What’s so wrong with tomorrow?”
“Samhain, lad!” Grail’s words were aflame with his agitation. “All Hallows, or what ‘er ya’ call it in Samarkand.” I replied with only a more confused expression.
“He means the Day of the Dead, Saga.” Richter did not share Grail’s apprehension, it seemed. The Day of the Dead was a time of superstition, when it was said the bonds of Heaven, Hell and Death itself were loosed and all manner of ill fortune arose. Not the most auspicious of times to make our descent.
I rolled my eyes. Superstition wasn’t going to take my head from its shoulders, but the Inquisition would. “Oh, well. Assuming there’s not some kind of unholy conjunction of stars or black anniversary that falls on tomorrow night, I don’t think we should fall over ourselves for folk tradition.” I paused to give Richter time to bring up anything else he had neglected to mention. Both he and Grail were silent. “Good. Then let me get my things and we’ll go.”
I turned my back to them both and stepped away from the table, I heard a chair scrape as one of them moved to follow, but I raised a hand above my shoulder to wave them away. “No. Stay here. I need a moment to get my thoughts together anyway.”
I walked back to the stairs, ignoring the bumps and jostles as I was shouldered by drunken Artemisians. My second trip up the stairs was as unmemorable as my first, in spite of that steep grade. I shot a suspicious glance around the hallway, wishing I knew which door had been Ialae’s, Richter’s voice in my head parroting his prior warnings. With nothing evident, I sighed and slipped back into my room.
Letting my body go through the motions of dressing, I began to bat my troubled thoughts about like a tomcat with a mouse. As right and logical as Richter sounded, my heart didn’t want to hear him. Nothing else makes sense, though, my trained logic insisted. We have practically been wraiths since Brunt, after all, and only she of all of us has had reason to turn the coat.
It would have gone as far back as Brunt, I decided, else the Inquisition wouldn’t have had enough time to cross the Glass Sea. That thought made my stomach twist anew, regretting the moments I had let her weep on my shoulder that night. Has everything just been an act? Glass, has she been a plant ever since Ward, as Richter suggested outside the Golga? She’d have to have ice water in her veins in order to pull that off… but nothing seems beneath her now.
My hand found the hilt of my saber as I buckled it to my belt. I let out a growl through my grinding teeth, anger simmering like a coal within my breast. I nearly lost my life for her… nearly lost my oldest friend fighting for her! Has it all truly just been a deception for Ialae? A glass-cut game, playing off my conflicting desires for her own bloody ends?
The door behind me creaked open and I, still wrestling my feelings, simply barked without turning. “Damn it, Richter, I told you, just give me some bloody space. I’ll be down when I’m ready.”
There was a strange silence, filled only with the sound of myself and my visitor’s breathing. “Saga, I…”
The voice was not Richter’s.
I had my sword half out of its scabbard before I had turned to face her. Somehow, Ialae had managed to get within reach without my notice, unsurprising given how deep in my thoughts I had been, and her outstretched hand stopped me from freeing my weapon. With my daggers still arrayed on the floor, I lashed out with my other hand in an open-palmed strike, which the knight deflected with some sort of dark bundle she carried.
“Saga, what is the matter with you? I’m not trying to hurt you.”
I fell back a step, sliding my saber back in place, but with my other hand snaking around my back to where the repeater still hung. So far as I could see, the lady had no weapon, nothing at hand besides the folded cloth in her arms. She was draped in a clingy, high-necked grey shift that fell well below her knees, hair unbound about her shoulders. “What are you doing here, Ialae?”
The Templarae looked hurt, or, at least to my cynical eyes, like she was trying to look hurt. “I…I came to bring you this.” She tossed me her bundle, forcing me to take my hand from the grip of my sword to catch it.
“What’s this?” I asked rhetorically, as I unfolded the black cloth to examine the garment she had passed to me. It was a mantle of double-thick ampil, long enough to brush my ankles, with steel buckles securing it where it parted at the sternum and throat. The heavy winter cloak was even topped with a hood and a broad collar that could be raised and buckled to protect the face.
“I picked it up while you slept, as a peace offering.” I lowered the mantle from before me, my expression one of unmasked disbelief. Has this really all just been sick misunderstanding and dire coincidence? The anger and hurt I felt was still too fresh inside me to give Ialae the benefit of the doubt.
“Ialae, what...” I started to blurt, but the knight’s own outburst interrupted.
“No, Saga. This is important, and if I don’t say it now, you won’t get another chance.” My mind could only see the darker implications of those words. The Templarae shifted, one arm swinging back to shut the door as she sat down on my cot. She looked up at me, eyes full of that same pain and anxiety they had held when we sat above the road to Brunt.
“I didn’t think I would let this happen.” Ialae’s hands began to absently smooth and wrinkle the cloth at her lap. “Life hasn’t made a lot of sense after I left Illuma, though, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Over and over, I’ve been forced to face terrible, horrible things, about myself and you and your friends…and my people too. Very little of who I started this journey as seems to have survived the journey. Everything I thought I knew has changed.”
Her eyes darted to the door, as if she wanted to run, or expected someone to break through at any moment. Perhaps it was both. Instead, the lady moved back to her feet, face and body close, though she could not get her gaze to meet mine. “Yet, through it all… the monsters and the madness, I’ve managed to keep from breaking down somehow. Originally, I thought it was my faith that held me together, the iron armor of the Church.” Her voice quavered a bit, but I hardly noticed. “Until you opened my eyes, that is, leaving me undefended when we argued on the riverboat…”
Dropping the black mantle, I placed my hands on her shoulders, pushing the knight to a more comfortable distance. “What are you trying to say here, Ialae?”
Ialae finally looked up again, her eyes wet, tears shimmering like cryshala in the last light of the day. “I’m saying it’s you, Saga. You’re the reason I’m whole, the reason I’m still sane, the reason I’m alive, Demon-damn you!” She moved a hand up to brush the side of my face. “You’re the reason I care if this whole world goes to Hell or not. I need you, Saga, and… I need you to know that I need you.”
In the woman’s eyes, I saw the misery and terror the Golga had left inside of her, terrible, weeping scars. I saw the cracked and dented remains of her devotion, hammered nearly to pieces by Mercer and his men, and by her slaying of one of the same. She seemed so brittle then, like a figurine of blown glass, so delicate that the softest of blows to her spirit would leave her in a thousand pieces. Gone was the furious battle-knight I had known, and in her place was a woman who asked only one thing, for me to stand between her and the darkness.
Even as that chivalrous urge nearly overwhelmed me, my other impulses rallied. That voice, Richter’s voice inside of my head, howled: she cannot be trusted! This is yet another façade and to embrace her is to be destroyed! This is, it insisted, the trap. Something more insidious than anything I could have imagined.
I moved one hand up to Ialae’s face, mirroring her own motions as I cupped her cheek, fingers lacing through the crimson locks below her ear. My other hand dropped from her shoulder, tracing along the curve of her side and brushing her hip before I drew it back to my own chest. “Ialae,” I began, my own voice now the one tremoring with the strain of what I was about to say, as my thoughts resolved into actions.
I made my decision.
My fist, index and mid knuckles first, struck her in the chakra between the breast and the stomach. This time, her mail shirt was not there to blunt the blow. Instead, I saw the light in her eyes shatter as she fell unconscious, her body slumping over my outstretched arm. I guided her to the cot as gently as I could.
“I’m sorry.” The words tasted like ashes in my mouth. The risks are too great, I repeated to myself again, the battle too narrow and the price too dear, to let it all be risked for my emotions. I… no, make that we, cannot take the chance on her being honest now… that she meant every word of what she just said.
That she had loved me.
I quickly gathered the rest of my things, moving the repeater to its home on my thigh. I vacillated for a brief moment on which mantle to don, sweeping the newer of the two from my floor after a breath of hesitation. Hating myself for the cold pragmatism, I quickly shredded the other, binding the Templarae’s hands and feet. Can’t have her chasing after us too quickly, after all.
As I performed my last bitter task, I saw the glint of silver as a chain slipped loose of Ialae’s collar. Oddly curious, I unclasped it, drawing it from beneath her shirt. It was the shard of cryshala she had taken from Hadrian. I started to put it back, but then drew back, tucking it into one of my own pouches. It will be a keepsake, I decided, to remind me of what she and I can never have.
I practically threw myself down those treacherous stairs as I dashed back to the commons. This time, it was I who shoved and shouldered through, ignoring the grunts and oaths of upset Artemisians I passed. Richter and Grail rose to meet me as I tried to sprint for the door.
“Well, Saga, you had me worried for a moment there. You certainly took your time collecting your things. Lucky for us, goodman Grail informs me the city gates stay open night and day during this festival. It allows traffic to flow from the drink tents outside the city and back or some such.” Richter quirked an eyebrow at me as we passed into the cool evening, “Where ever did you get that mantle? That cannot be the one you brought in with us.”
I glared at my friend as we walked to the stables and mounted up, our horses already prepared for us, most likely at a prior command of Richter’s. “I found it in my room.” I wasn’t willing to disclose my close encounter with Ialae. Richter would likely want to question the lady… or worse, kill her. Neither was palatable to me.
He stared at me for a few moments longer, awaiting a full response. With none forthcoming, he made a disgusted grunt and spurred his horse onto the street, Grail following close behind. “Fine, Saga, be that way. I only hope you are not quite so miserable after we are through with this whole business. Baphomet’s presence has made you quite a boor of late.”
I bit my lip until I tasted the sticky heat of blood, holding back words that would have only made things worse. Instead, I retreated into my own thoughts, hoping to myself that Ialae would awake enraged that her quarry had escaped and not in tears instead. If it is the latter, I dared to hope, maybe someday she can believe that I have done this not out of my own doubt, but to keep her out of harm’s way… in case what awaits us in the Well of Souls proves too much for us to overcome.
Even I didn’t believe that one.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
“My eyes could not track it, so great was the speed,
the creature gliding like a shadow over water…”
-Saga of Samarkand
The wind forced the great ship to shudder and sway, the first taste of winter in its mournful song. The craft was the last of its kind to leave the port of Wyrdin and brave the late autumn storms for a final crossing of the Glass Sea before the winds shifted west. The constant hammering of rain and sleet seemed proof enough to the crewmen that their voyage had come too late in the season, or true winter had come too soon.
The figure at the battered wooden rail sneered from beneath his hood at the oaths and pleas of the sailors as they grunted and heaved at their tasks. If God was listening to their cries, He only replied with more wind and rain. And with good reason, the figure mused to himself, even as he ignored the calls to go below decks in such a storm.
The thing that had once called itself Kage fingered the wrappings about his other arm. Though he was loathe to shroud the magnificence beneath the filthy ampil tatters, he knew that the horror the claw would engender in the weak about him would be less than desirable, pleasurable though it might be. No, discretion is demanded for now, if I am ever to reach my destiny.
Securing passage had been easy enough, a simple matter of relieving some preening fool of his purse. Murder became a much simpler affair when the corpse could remove itself. Even with the creature lurking somewhere in the wilds near Hadrian, having run with the untiring speed of the dead, what had been Kage could sense it like a phantom limb. With but a thought, he could force the corpse to shambling, ready to serve.
That vestigial sense was far from the once-man’s thoughts, however. The siren call dominated his mind, ever louder as not-Kage drew near, a dull throbbing mirroring the beat of the things own heart. In the echo, he could hear another, lesser sound. A whisper, repeated again and again, approaching to the sound of his fate. It was a note full of hate and heat and the promise of violence.
The seductive hiss rose in not-Kage’s mind, though in truth, he could no longer discern between his own thoughts and the Demon’s. He and we draw near together. Our hands reach for him. There was a pause, then a flare of something not quite pain. The thing reeled as he felt a servitor shorn from him. With a curse, he pulled his will back, like a child snatching seared fingers away from a hot stove. Only one body replied to the command, the rest already severed beyond hope of recall.
“Again he defies me,” the ruined being spat through teeth now yellowed and cracked. “His outrages pile higher than even his father’s.” Hate flared in his eyes, a flame that obliterated their greenish-grey and left a swirl of red and purple around pupils like the bottom of a well. Beneath his cowled hand, the rail began to warp, black rot soaking through the formerly stout wood.
“He shall pay in good time,” the androgynous voice hummed through not-Kage’s chaotic thoughts. “We have more important tasks to be about.
Confusion washed across the haggard figure’s face. Did I truly say that? He frowned. Yes, yes I did… but why? Nothing was as important as Richter’s destruction, was it? The creature once called Kage raised his unshod hand to his head, not seeing the patches of hair that fell as his fingers passed. That hand then fell to the figure’s chest, once more fingering the star pendant of the slain priest, though try as he might, not-Kage could not recall the former owner’s name.
“When we are whole we may bring ruin to the fool” the voice purred warmly. “Such delights we shall show him, when our might is full and the moon hungers again.”
The figure continued to mutter to himself, lost in his debate with the will that ruled him now. The internal battle was a common thing, as each time what remained of Kage feebly tried to reassert itself before being lulled back to torpor by Baphomet’s gentle whisper. Still, it was a moment where neither being was conscious of the world around it.
The warning shouts of the sailors went unheard and unheeded, as did the sharp cracking sounds nearby. A heavy rope, sheeted with ice and taut with the strain of the sails snapped, raw force suddenly free and lashing towards the hooded form. Only at the last moment, just as the braided hemp struck, did the twisted shell that had once been a man raise its head.
Cloth and flesh shredded with equal ease under that lash, drawing a jagged line across not-Kage’s shoulder and up into his lower jaw. Blood, thick and dark like a freshly clotted wound spattered on the deck, along with a pair of broken, rotten teeth. Reeling, the Demon’s puppet staggered and fell upon his back, avoiding the sea only by rebounding forcefully off the rail.
Pain burned through him. It took several moments to realize that the grating whine filling his ears were his own cries of pain. One sailor moved to help him, calling out for the ship’s healer. The crewman reached down with one gnarled hand, trying to staunch Kage’s wounds with his mantle. Fresh misery flowed from that act of misguided mercy, as the salt-crusted garment sent needles of pain into the open wound. Instinctively, Kage lashed out at the man above him.
What would have been a glancing blow from a mortal man instead knocked the lanky sailor from his feet. Where the gauntlet had touched, upon his cheek and his shoulder, he began to blacken and blister. Writhing in agony, the man clawed at the blighted flesh, even as the taint flensed his fingertips to the bone.
Not-Kage pulled himself to his feet, the other man’s pain and fear lending him strength as the Demon crooned appreciatively. Like a sweet aria, cries of horror drifted to his ears, as more sailors and the healer came upon their now-mangled crewmate. For a dozen heartbeats, it was all the former brigand could do to stand and bask in the misery and dread, even as his torn flesh began to stitch itself closed.
The screams of horror became twisted into sounds of revulsion or shouts of anger as the crewmen finally tore their gaze from the dying man and looked upon his killer. The twisted mixture of Demonic flesh and broken man could not help but smile as the first seaman rushed at him, a knife in each meaty fist. With a speed that blurred the sailor’s vision, not-Kage slipped inside his guard, blackened talons pressing palm-down upon his victim’s chest. Before the man could reverse his charge, red steam began to seep from between those segmented fingers, as the heart beneath began to boil in its own fluid.
Ignoring the man as he began vomiting blood and collapsed beside the first, not-Kage turned to confront the pair of sailors rushing behind him. Clenching the claw into a fist, he brought it to his blistered lips. Anointing it with a puff of foul breath, he uncurled his fingers at the howling men. Fire, bent and jagged, burning crimson and violet and laced with shards of black, leapt from the palm of his hand, slamming into the pair with a screech like a dying woman. Like candle wax left under the summer sun, the men melted under that withering blaze, dead so swiftly they had no time to scream.
The healer made a mad dash towards the aft cabin, his calls for help barely carrying through the wind and rain. Not-Kage let him flee, relishing the terror, his hate temporarily vented. Besides, he laughed to himself, a ship still needs a crew. I shall have to make them more pliable, that’s all.
He stalked forward, laughter now bubbling out of his thoughts and through his mouth as the Demon joined him in perverse mirth, mingling its voice with his own. The discordant giggling rent through the night, ignoring both storm and ship to sink into the hearts of those trapped below the horror above them. More fear wafted up to greet not-Kage as he finally entered the ship’s hold.
“I would suggest you make it easy on yourselves,” not-Kage rasped as his warped talons reduced a door to maggoty detritus. “Stand against me and you merely purchase a night of horror and exhaustion, followed by your agonizing deaths.” The not-man paused over another sailor, smirking as the man cowered on the floor. “Rather than just the agonizing death, that is.”
After a long night of blood and screams, not-Kage stood upon the deck of its ship. Through luck others would call the Devil’s own, the storm had slackened not long into the bacchanalian of shredded flesh and black sorcery, else the vessel would sure be beneath the waves now. Such thoughts were far from the minds of the crew, assuming they had minds left. The gibbering husks of meat and bone knew only their master’s will now, only served the Demon’s purpose.
The creature, not a single shred of humanity left in it to let it be called a man, stared out to sea. With distracted motions, it brushed the dried blood from its clothes, unheeding of the black flecks of decay the gauntlet left behind. Even the corrosion of the chain about its neck and the soft ringing as the priest’s pendant fell into the sea did not draw its attention.
Beyond that horizon, its thoughts were almost wholly in the voice of the Demon now, lies everything. Power unlimited. Life without end. Everything.
It gave a wordless command, and the ghoulish crew threw the sails wide. Others began to toss unneeded provisions overboard: food, bedding and weapons were all of little use to them now. They shared only their master’s need for haste and his burning desire. Inside each rotting heart, the twined flames of hate and need burned, just as it did in what had been Kage.
Need to be whole. All that remained of the former man was an all-consuming hate for Richter.