A Beautiful DreamBeing the Fourth of the Chronicles of Amon'Valura.
The heart wants what it wants. If it is denied the object of its desire then it punishes the soul that surrounds it. And it is a well of poison.
***She awoke, gasping, to the memory of the dream. The same dream always, and as a memory of a dream the dream itself was a memory; a memory of scorched earth and boiling skies, a blanket of red over a blackened land, swarming with the enemy of old. Encased in iron and brandishing steel, the fever of lust burning behind eyes of pitch, they ranged across the blight seeking a salvation writ in death. The Scald. Ancient and implacable they howled their desire to the burning sky as they despoiled the living and took pleasure in the dead. Cailia crouched, hidden for moments among the dead, breathing shallow and silent. Scald warriors flowed across the earth digging at the piled dead and exalting as the dying answered to their steel. The clamour of metal drew near, armour on armour, and loose blades, echoed through the wall of grey flesh that walled her from those empty eyes. It was all she could do to keep from vomiting, the taste of bile had soaked into her mouth, but with their barking voices so close Cailia dared nothing but shallow breaths. The mound of vacant eyes and silent tongues, accusing and unforgiving, shook comically as blood wet steel pierced her sanctuary, sending them rolling at its force. Cailia held her breath, her empty lungs afire. A scabrous hand punched down beside her, scarred muscle and burnished iron all. She heard the ribs of an old man break as the tarnished silver of an old amulet was ripped from his neck, decimating his sallow body. The hand paused in closing over the dull metal and the eye of its palm narrowed over her flushed face. That was it, her game was over; she was alive and now the Scald knew too. Her head snapped back sharply as she was flipped over by unnatural strength, cool air soothing her starved lungs. The warriors blasted face sneered at her, it blood-matted black beard rancid and askew like a jesters mace, a dry barking laughter flecking her face with dark blood. Without ceremony it opened her throat with an ice smooth thrust of razor sharp steel and Cailia died in her dreams for the thousandth time.
We are not immune to the pleasures of the flesh, but we scourge ourselves for the want of despair, and take only what we need to further our ends.
The soothing quiet of a mother's breath.
"Hush, hush, the fire has died and the darkness gives comfort."
Cailia stilled. She had not realised she was crying until the darkness spoke. She laid back softly, the chains binding her rattling quietly upon themselves.
"Where am I?" she asked with breaking voice.
"Be calm my dear, they will not return."
"The forgotten spawn of Apomps. They are no more."
Cailia frowned. "The Gehreleth?"
The darkness laughed softly. "The Coi'hanahn."
"The…" Her blood froze. The Coi'hanahn. The Scald. They could not die, the darkness must lie.
Sensing her confusion it continued, its voice like summer silk. "They cower and die, misbegotten bastards of a bastard lord. Broken and left to the past."
"You lie!" she cried, intending more spite than she could muster through her cold body.
The air chilled with a palpable menace - it would not be accused. "I could send you back. To the furnace."
She let go and fell to silence. The blasted peaks of that infinite volcano were terrible and without forgiveness. She would trust to the darkness while she could. Lying back she waited for the absence to continue.
But it held its tongue.
Cailia felt no fear, although the loss of hope that enshrouded her did so with unbending strength. Her heart beat slowly but with a wracking tone that set her muscles to aching and her nerves to dancing. She lay waiting, not even bothering to test her bonds.
The voice was louder and no longer of the darkness. It was a presence. "Do you feel it?"
Twin eyes of pale blue glinted in the darkness, reflecting a light that could not be seen. For a moment she watched them, mesmerised. And then she smelt it. The carrion, the hot breath of a wasted soul. Still she felt no fear.
"The emptiness" the voice continued, an unmistakable reverence in its tone.
She stared into the pale orbs and entreated the darkness. None of this was real. The lies, the memories, the shadows. Conjured from her mind and wrapped about her dream. But she could feel it, seeping into her body with the languid touch of a favoured lover, seeking to fill the emptiness of her heart with that of its own.
"It is real you know," continued the voice, "all men feel it. That gnawing hole in the centre of their chest, that insatiable absence. They try to name it, to make it foe, for that which has a name may be killed. Some call it heart. But it is not, for the heart is only flesh and all flesh is weak. Others call it soul and claim it half as though it may be made whole through their trials. It may be so, but the soul is for sale and the absence is not. Surprisingly perhaps, men are not alone my love, as the absence is there in all things. The Celestials embody it, as if the giving of the self could fill them with the warmth. Even the infernal experience it, though their depravity can drown it in history, for the hole can be filled by filth, but at the cost of pleasure. I have looked for the absence through many worlds, seeking its cure, a balm to its acid. Always it is the same the answer. Do you know what I found? You will laugh, for it is the greatest joke. It is love. Simple and pure and transient. Many tried to tell me, without success, of its power, until the essence of it was given to me by a sheer and sorrowful girl. She told me, 'it is the joining of two bodies to create one warmth. The two halves of a whole.' I like that, but I am just a sentimental fool with the soul of a poet, a maudlin old whip. The love that fills the absence is beyond the soul and beyond temptation."
Cailia felt her stomach knot. "Why are you telling me this?"
"It is a beautiful dream isn't it?" Cailia could only nod into the void and its distant pale blue stars. She stared and the silence settled, withdrew into itself. She leant up, resting upon her elbows, expectation heavy in her mind. It must continue, she thought. These words were spoken to a purpose, they were not words intended for waste. She waited, a dull fear tickling her for the first time; what if the darkness remained silent? Moments passed and the blue grew cold, but the anticipation remained, the teasing of a skilled lover to keep the blood alive and desire burning.
She was rewarded, not with words but with a touch. A light finger upon her knee, warm and soft with a sharp nail to tease her skin. It lingered for a moment only, before slowly tracing a line along the inside of her thigh. The quiet rush of air from her gasp was repaid with more words.
"The many worlds believe this land lives upon disease, that it vomits up the corruption of boiled flesh and weakens will with a sense of living purpose. The many worlds are wrong. Even the false grant a purposeful animus to the Wastes. The truth is far more wonderous."
Cailia puzzled at the words even as her heart quickened under the darkness's touch.
"The truth is, the Waste is dead. A dead land with nothing to give but abandonment, existing only to take, from piteous and wroth alike, their dreams and their love and the vigour of their souls. And this is the true wonder for us, the children of the Waste, our reward for perpetuating the death of the land. Forged in a womb of acid and forgotten longing we are given the gift of emptiness…"
Cailia's legs parted voluntarily as the darkness ran a finger along her labia, hot with her desire. She fell back with soft cry under a sharp intake of breath and raised her hips to its touch.
"This is why we are whole, the children of the Waste, and why we are of the land, for we each have been given the gift. In return for the corruption of hope and the depravations of the flesh, our absence is taken away, filled with the stolen despair of all worlds. I am passion without fear for I feel neither lust nor hate, neither love nor sorrow. I feel only the rot of my flesh and the purpose of my hand, that my fingers are given unto war and my tongue unto deceit." The darkness paused - it was easy to get carried away whilst proselytising. The promise was getting lost in the message, it was time to offer the gift. "I feel no rapture I do not choose and I only feel the despair of others as a healing of my scars. It is a beautiful thing and a miracle of reality rather than the promise of a dream, that a dead land can empower its children so with the despoiled passions of the weak. The land can fill your absence child, with that same emptiness, that promise of abandonment. You need only say the word."
Twin tears spilled from Cailia's eyes, her desires overwhelming. Even in the face of the darkness' lurid affirmation of it's nature, her desire to be cleansed, for her abandonment to be righted, her absence filled, and her desire for the touch of the darkness devoured her as only love can. It pushed into her in soft degrees, and she moaned at its urgency. "Yes," she whispered, pushing back as she loosened around its sex.
"Nothing is free my love, the price must be agreed," whispered the darkness as it began to thrust into her, slow and in control. "Name your love, name that which once filled the absence, your one warmth."
"Diana," she whispered, "my love."
"Yes, Diana. Abandoner."
Cailia was lost in the promise of the darkness, in the ease of her suffering and in the lust for this rotting soul that filled her body with heat. "Diana," she repeated and her body wracked, but whether for pleasure or for remembrance she could not tell. Diana, the second half of her one warmth, her love, her presence. Cailia had known happiness in those arms, soft and white, and in the simple pleasure of belonging. It was a joy without end that did end. For a god. It was the reason she trusted to the darkness. Diana was given over to Athena, subservient and humbled by whim. Betrayed to duty, Diana had turned her back on Cailia at the need of her god and left her alone and frail in the winter.
She had never recovered. Spurned at every path and every gate, the faithful of Athena had turned her away. Her love was broken but could find solace in faith. Cailia had no such comfort. One cannot compete with the gods, nor with duty. For some it transcends the real and the immediate as it was with Diana.
"Tell me of her lies. Reveal her secrets," urged the darkness, quickening inside her. "Betray your heart and we will court the assassination of your emptiness."
Lost in old reveries Cailia refused. "I cannot."
The darkness stilled and became cold. "No, don't stop, don't…" Cailia choked on the words as the emptiness fled from her heart, washed away like a broken shell. It was in that moment that she knew she would tell the darkness what it wanted to know. The emptiness was worth it, worth the loss of absence if it could not be filled with belonging once more.
The darkness confirmed her thoughts, "that is the price. I must know it all. Betray your love and you will never want for it again."
Cailia nodded and the darkness thrust back hard, fucking her with the feral intimacy that only those who have embraced desperation can share. Filled with the fire of the darkness and the emptiness of the land, Cailia told.
She told it everything.
Cailia lay back and wept long, her sorrow a wave of salt through her nerves. The darkness was true, her absence was gone, but not filled with the void of emptiness. Instead it was replaced with the regret of loss, of mourning for stolen love, unfelt hate and passion leeched. A loss much worse than buried pain, for this was a new absence, a replacement of the hole in her chest with the scoria of a life remembered but unfelt, like someone else's memories. The absence fuelled by the loss of Diana was replaced with a sorrow for its loss, and was all the more bitter. She was hollow, and she remembered, but her heart had been stolen, replaced with the darkness's lies. And though her violation was total, she could not even hate in return. As always since they parted, Cailia wept for herself, to herself, but now the Wastes answered her tears with promises of its own. She would buy her peace with the only thing she had left.
The darkness wrapped about Amon'Valura and watched along like a brother, indifferent to the rapture that washed through him at the sight of the mortal's mourning. It was always so much more delightful when it was the truth that bought betrayal. Even the best lies required a want, a need buried in the depths of those being lied to. But the truth was inarguable, and when it was recognised it was devastation distilled. The sweetest part was that it was not only the truth that had bought betrayal, it was the promise of reprieve, that beautiful dream that promised peace. He always took pleasure in the things that men did not know or that they locked away in the darkness of their secret hearts, taking bliss in their ignorance. Sometimes he marvelled at the power they ceded when they did so, for a simple recognition of momentary pain could save them so much of the future. All they had to do was accept the truth.
The beautiful dreams are all lies.
***The doors were old, their worn black face a testament to the scalding land. Even here, hidden from the surface, they wore the scars of fire and blight. Shapes rested uncomfortably on them, moving from the corner of an unwary eye, names and words, images of death and famine, their meanings long lost to all but the chosen of the land. Originally they were set upon the Waste to bar entrance to the planes, but when the children migrated to the blasted furnaces the father/mothers had taken the doors and the entrance deep into Krangath in a miracle of ancient magics that trivialised the false gods.
Seven Mezzoloths circled the chamber, their mandibles clicking as they chattered to themselves, their excitement and their pleasure clear for those who knew such signs. A darkness had come to the chamber, bleak and pestilent, it spilled along the floor as mist, touching the 'loths with a tenderness reserved for children.
"How many know of this place?" Amon'Valura asked of the darkness.
"Only the thirteen," replied Tellura, smiling as she shed her cloak of black to be replaced by the ocean blue of her hair and bottomless eyes. "This is one of those doors. Soon we will open it and all the planes shall weep at the horror."
Amon'Valura nodded and took a crippled step towards the ancient gate. As always he took comfort in that infirmity that he had no reason to hide from the father/mothers. "I feel the anticipation of the few."
"There is time. Great works require patience."
The father/mothers were the architects of the multiverses demise, ever patient, ever vigilent. There would be no mistakes.
"The mortal betrayed the past?" It was a cursory question. Tellura knew the answer.
"It did. Completely."
"Then you have the name?"
"It was too easy father/mother," Amon'Valura let a trace of regret into his voice.
Tellura nodded slightly. "It is the will of the land. The weak cannot resist. It is the fraility of mortals that makes it so. It will not always be. Take those pleasures where you can my child."
Amon'Valura nearly shuddered in remembrance of stolen pleasure.
"Then we are to forever play in shadows, to guide the chaos and desolation of lies behind doors such as this?" As always, it was not a rebuke. The father/mothers were beyond reproach, they were the perfect anathema.
"For some. Others are given over to violence, and others to velvet voices. Soon it will be your time to defile."
Amon'Valura's voice rumbled deep in his chest, a sound of satisfaction and anticipation.
"With the key of the Athenian temple we will unlock this wall between realities. The Celestials will break and our word will be fulfilled."
Not all was given to Amon'Valura and he did not question the Baern's words. If he was meant to know he would be told.
"I will take back the key and paint the sky with the blood of the god-slaves."
The Bearn nodded. "You will do well my Aleena."
Out here, where belief crafts reality, it is possible for that which comes after to determine that which comes before. These mirrors and their infinite reflections belie the hope for any chance of justice.
***The woman had come from nowhere, pale and empty, dressed in the detached shock of one who expects to be waking at any moment. But Locult knew there was no waking from this. This was the reality of Khalas, home to murderers and betrayers, where only hate kept you alive. She would not last long here, where the weak were brutalised and left to rot. Locult was not one to question, and a free slave, albeit an unwitting one, was not to be turned away. And she was beautiful, there was no question, her pale skin and auburn hair would see her remain so well into her age, assuming she was kept well. He laughed to himself and shook his head. He would not be the one to ruin her. Not through any noble desire of course, Locult had never experienced the like, but because unmarked she would be worth maybe as much as three hundred gold coins. She had been following them for what might have been three days - it was hard to be sure in this blasted land where no sun rose or fell - and he had been feeding her the whole time. The rest of his cargo, haggard, weak, were chained and broken, good for little more than being worked to death, but this gift of the Furnace would see him kept in the manner of a lord for at least a month when they reached the Teardrop Palace.
Locult spat. Gift of the Furnace. Ha! There was no such thing.
"Crud, bring the Seer," he said quietly to a nearby man, filthy and haggard as the slaves he oversaw. Locult always spoke quietly in the hope he would be forced to repeat himself. He was usually only ever forced to do so once for each of his men, who quickly developed preternaturally good hearing in his presence.
He felt a small pang of disappointment as the slaver scrambled off to find the old diviner. He was in the mood to punish. As he waited his eyes were drawn to the new one. She looked away quickly as his gaze fell upon her, his smile appreciative and devouring. His mood had shifted, her presence tilling the dread from the soil to his heart. If the old man's magic told of ill tiding then he would be stuck. He couldn't cut her loose - he was a business man after all, but he would not risk the land. The old sage was a weathered old cock, good for nothing but pissing, but his tellings had yet to be wrong.
He turned and smiled at his approach. "Ah Krall, I am glad you have found us well," his sincerity hollow.
"Save it you worn out old prick," shot back the seer, "I'll not waste words in this place. Hotter'n a red steel Tanar'ri codpiece - sucks the spit straight outta me mouth."
Locult almost laughed. Better not to let the hired help think they were anything but. Instead he nodded at the old man and turned back to Crud. "Bring us some of the new comers hair."
Crud nodded his understanding and near ran over to the woman. She eyed him warily as he approached, and skidded back quickly on her hanuches as he produced a short fat blade from his belt.
"Calm it ya scrag," he spat, "jus' need some o' ya hair. Sit back an' let me cut it an' that'll be that."
She shot a quick glance at Locult and Krall as they watched, bored and sharp-eyed at the same time. She turned back to Crud, standing there with his hands spread, as to say "let's do this the easy way." She nodded shortly and held out a fistful of hair. With remarkable gentleness, Crud smoothly sliced a thin lock and returned to Locult without ceremony.
Locult nodded his thanks as Crud handed him the woman's hair. "Now, fuck off."
Crud was gone in a blink, yelling at some of the others to stop gawking and get on with their job. Krall smiled, a glint of excitement in his eye as he took the lock of hair from the slave master. "Let's go shopping old man."
They walked across the barren ground to the chained line of broken souls that sat immobile, hollow, broken. Their eyes were empty and long since given up on hope, and most did not even flinch at their approach. Before them the land tilted wildly downward, a rolling suicide drop that was denied to them by their quiescent despair. Locult strolled carelessly before them, marking off their value in his head. The Aasimar girl - obiedient and silent, a petitioner. A smart slaver sold on the petitioners; they lasted longer and broke easier, and were thus more highly sought after. The black tiefling - strong, fit. The gith sisters - sleek, unbroken. They would fetch fine prices from the priests of Sung Chiang and trained in death. Might even buy them back one day. A man could never have too many murderous cunts at his disposal. The burnt human - perhaps. Locult stopped and raised an eyebrow to Krall who nodded in return. The man was strong but badly scarred by fire, a blemish that would drive down his value. Besides, it was a human and never dead, they always brought the lowest prices. Too flighty.
"Gather the scab," he said quietly to the wirey tiefer guard watching him who produced a narrow key on a loop of chain and casually bent down in front of the man. Locult was disappointed that the man's only response was a gentle exhale as his eyes dulled in acceptance. The tiefer guard turned the key and the lock binding the man to the gang popped free. He reached out a marred pale yellow hand to pull the man to his feet. The man had other ideas. He exploded upward, head smashing into the chin of the tiefling who bit half his own tongue off at the force of it and went sliding back toward the edge.
"Subdue this bastard!" roared Locult to no one in particular, "but don't fucking kill him!"
Crud rushed the scarred man who was already looking for escape, moving toward the back of their camp, measuring a way up into the heights above. The man was a good actor, Locult had to give him that much, he looked the part of a broken skeleton. He winced in sympathy as the man's elbow broke Crud's nose in an explosion of blood, and then laughed at the prone guard.
"My dose!" moaned Crud, "vucker broag by dose!"
Locult laughed harder, "Crud you useless tit, get that under control now!" but his voice was lost in his laughter.
Crud scrambled to his feet, but the man was a good fifteen or twenty paces ahead of him now, although he would have two guards to contend with momentarily. It was unnecessary. As Crud lurched forward the man stumbled and dropped to his knees. He reached his arm up slowly to the back of his neck, as he swayed in place, and came away with a small needle. He eyed it curiously for a moment before falling backward into the dirt, a comical look of surprise across his unconscious face.
"You tight bastard Locult. Pay for proper...employees...next time," mocked Krall as he returned a small blow pipe to his shirt.
Locult laughed again and silently congratulated himself on hiring the seer. There was never any danger of the man escaping, he would have brought the prick down himself if necessary, but it was an entertaining distraction, and gave up another of the old man's secrets.
He turned his attention back to the yellow tiefer who had just managed to pull himself up from the edge. "You two, bring that wirey prick back down here. Crud, throw that useless sod over the edge, let Gehenna take him."
One dead slave, one dead guard. It all evened out in the end.
Krall's third incision went from the man's sternum to his pelvis. It was precision, straight and clean. The guards held the man about his shoulders and his thighs, over a short rise so his back arched forward over the ground Krall had swept free of debris. Slowly, like the petals of a pallid flower, the incisions the seer had made opened as the magic wound it way free of them, and in a summer shower of blood they separated with a wet, stretching sound, spilling his stomach and entrails across the ground. Locult turned away, pale, the seer's necromancy, and the enthusiasm he had for it, never sat well with him no matter how useful it was.
Krall scrambled to the man's viscera and plunged his hands into the steaming morass, chanting the arcana that would divine the will of the plane. His mind was split in two; one half lost to the magic that burned through him like a tidal wave of opiate, the other forming the questions he needed answered. This was how it was on Gehenna, no easy answers, only difficult questions. The slave was barely enough. The plane called for the murder of a companion, a confidante, not a possession. But it should be enough. Green fire licked along his arms as his hands massaged the grey ribbons of flesh, the magic weaving its answers into the exposed penetralia of the man's desecration. Krall gasped and tumbled backwards, arms flailing, painting black lines across the ground and over the guards' legs, the blood roiled by the green magic as it leeched into the air. Krall up and scrambled back, hovering over the mess of organs, speaking quietly to himself as he read their lay.
Locult had seen it before and nodded to the guards to toss the shell aside. They did so without pause, not even watching as it rolled away toward the edge of the bluff, skidding to a halt only inches from the side. He watched the old seer like a hawk, waiting for some sign. He knew that the old buzzard would try and play his cards close, but he always gave a sign as he came out of the magic - a sound, an expression, that gave away the read. He need not have bothered.
"They're 'ere! Draw steel you fuckers - death comes cloaked in iron!" Four additional words burst from his mouth and Locult had to shield his eyes from the explosion of magic as the Diviners wards and abjurations burst into existance.
"Secure the cargo and see to the flanks. Prepare yourselves! Time to earn your gold you addlepated berks" roared Locult, twin blades of thin greensteel appearing in his hands. This was more his speed. "Old man speak! What is it?"
"It's the price Locult, you fucking leather'ead. Kill that bitch now and we can...FUCK ME!" Iron fell from the sky and exploded onto the dirt before the old seer, cracking the earth under its weight. Six and half feet of muscle caged in iron stood before the old mage, black hair and chaotic beard framed a scarred face with empty eyes. The Coi'hanahn leaned down at Krall, still crouched besides the now forgotten guts of the slave, and simply screamed, flecks of spittle misting against his abjurations.
"SCALD!" screamed Locult, "it's the fucking Scald! Crud, protect the woman, DO NOT LET HER GO!" He watched the slaver as he stopped shitting himself, wild eyes gaining some focus as he heard the orders. Crud may have had the intelligence of the average dog, but he followed orders. Locult nodded to himself as he watched him move across to the woman, as more of the crazed bastards filled their camp with each step Crud made.
The camp was in chaos, from calm to insanity in ten seconds. Already three of his men were down, dead or screaming, two of the cargo as well. Hells with this. Locult advanced on the first of the Scald, it was shaking under an arc of light attached to Krall's outstretched hand. The old man was good. Locult pushed both of his blades through the throat of the shivering Scald, twisting them as they went, and was rewarded with a shower of black and a wet gurgle. Locult half smiled as the old mage began incanting another spell, and strode off into the melee as the Scald corpse crumpled.
It was not pretty. At least a dozen of the frothing Coi'hanahn were murdering his crew with ease, sending pieces of them scattering to the sky as they swept their giant blades about with a precision born of brute strength. One of them had it's back to him, drawing it's sword from the throat of one of his Gith. That was a couple hundred gold pieces worth of blood feeding the parched ground. Pity he couldn't inflict two hundred gold pieces worth of pain in return - not enough time. He flicked his short blade up into the air, sent it spinning end over end, and slid a dag from a sheath strapped to his back. As the short blade spun up, floating with well timed grace, he tossed the dag, weighted for throwing, at the back of the Scald's unprotected head. It hit hard, burying itself up to the hilt at the base of it's skull. Locult held his hand open for a moment, and closed it smoothly over the hilt of short blade as it landed cleanly in his palm. He smiled and almost bowed- everyone loves a showman. The demon turned sharply to him and opened it's mouth to scream. Instead it vomited a thick gout of black blood across the ground, staggering briefly before bringing it's own heavy blade to bear on the slaver. That wasn't right, that wasn't right at all. The Scald charged, iron clanking, steel swirling, and was upon Locult way too quickly. He rolled under the arc of it's swing coming up cleanly behind it. He pushed the blade of his long sword into the unprotected upper thigh of the demon. It hardly reacted, turning swiftly and almost ripping the blade from Locult's hand. He twisted it slightly and managed to slide it free, staring into it's face. It looked human, maybe it once was, but now it was...more. Long black hair filthy and matted with mud, or maybe shit, Locult couldn't tell. Much like he couldn't tell if there was anything behind the empty wells of it's crimson eyes. It smiled at him through cracked and bleeding lips,black teeth tasting the air as it croaked at him. Words? Who knew, they were not words Locult had ever heard before. The Scald swung it's sword up from it's relaxed grip, across Locult, from hip to shoulder. The slaver almost took it all, stumbling back at the last moment and landing ungracefully on his arse. This was not going well. Pulling his feet under him he rolled under the overhead swing of the demon and came to his feet at it's side. It's blade had dug deep into the earth, and taking only a minute to thank whatever the bloody hells had got him out of the way of it he sliced through the thick arm of the Scald, all but severing it as it struggled to free it's blade. This time it did howl, long and cold, a lone wolf in a deep night. Locult wasn't waiting around to see what it still had left. His short blade was swift and into the things throat, bursting out the other side with an explosion of black ichor. His long blade right behind it, up into it's chin and out the top of it's head. Fucker wasn't getting up from that.
There was little time to congratulate himself as he was forced to shield his eyes briefly as a small ball of flame roared past his head, and then swore softly before diving to the ground, his arms over his head. He had been in battle enough to know a Fireball when he saw one. The crack rent the air as the ball exploded, bursting forth in a shower of flame that roared out with primal ferocity before dissipating just as quickly. Two of the Scald were hurled flaming over the bluff, their cries full of rage rather than pain or fear. Two of his slaves had also melted in the magical flame, the blackened flesh of one searing in the air as its neighbour sat staring in mute horror, unharmed not two feet away. Locult turned back to the seer - that kind of shit would not fly! You don't damage the cargo. He stopped cold at the sight of Krall splayed across the ground, his abjurations fading into the air as he gasped for breath, hair matted to his head with his own blood. Locult swore under his breath for the second time in less than a minute when he saw what had undone the Diviner.
This wasn't right. This wasn't right one fucking little bit.
Crud let out a high pitched squeal that would have been embarrassing in any other circumstance, but when you've just had three of your fingers severed you can be forgiven a girlish scream. The Scald had taken four separate hits from his broad sword, blows that would have killed any other man he had ever fought, but the bastard of a thing just kept coming. Sure it was tottering a little, favouring it's right leg on account of the large piece of knee it was missing, but it was still fast enough to force Crud into some unplanned off hand practice. The woman screamed again as the Scald continued to advance on Crud. Fucking women, why did they have the scream? It's not like he wasn't aware of just how deep the shit he was standing in was. Least she still had a care enough to scream he figured, most gave that up in pretty short order when they got into the Furnace. It was the heat. And the oppressive, violent evil that you could taste like a streak of shit on the air, of course. Shaking his head briefly at the pain in his hand and the stupid shit going through his mind in the middle of a fight, Crud knelt under a wild swing from the broken Coi'hanahn and made good on the promise of that half a knee that had been slowing it down, making his job just that little bit easier. The bottom half of the demon's leg came off, and it followed that half a leg to the ground, dropping like a sack full of mud.
Crud laughed as he saw that somehow the damned thing had managed to skewer itself on it's own blade as it fell, straight through it's armour and into it's chest, where they may or may not have been a heart. Going to have to think of a story for that one - glory was always more useful than comedy when it came to battle stories. He quickly scanned around, and with no immediate danger present he knelt in front of the woman, nursing his half missing hand and trying not to pass out.
"Look, we gotta get you outta here. Boss'll be right pissed if anythin' 'appens to ya." He reached his hand out but stopped at the look in her eye. Fear? "You got nothin' ta fear from me. Gimme yer..." No. Not fear of him. She was looking over his shoulder. "Ahh fuck!" he managed to get out before the back of his head exploded through his face.
Locult dropped to his knees, blades sliding free of his hands. There was no point in entertaining the thought of violence even if the Arcanaloth hadn't bound him with those words. Bleak words, cold and inevitable. Locult did not know them but their meaning was plain: "you are a worm and exist at my sufferance." He looked over towards the woman, saw the bloody mess that was once Crud, the Scald poised over her, axe in hand. The thought had become a theme for the day - this had not worked out as well as it could have. Locult laughed despite himself - nothing like a little understatement to drive home the abusrdity of one's position.
Cailia screamed. What else was there to do? May as well go out making some noise. The one called Crud had tried but there were too many of them. Scald. How did they find her? What did it matter now? Her dreams were about to become reailty. The Scald lifted it's axe high, blood leaking from the cracks of it's lips as it smiled, tongue and teeth all, and hooted without ceremony as it swung. The axe began it's descent, Cailia watching it in slow motion, each second as long as a thousand, the plane prolonging her last moments to sup upon her terror as it had ever since she had arrived. Deciding not to give it the pleasure she closed her eyes, the inescapable giving her some measure of calm. Perhaps death was the release she needed, the answer to her ever present loss? If so, let it come, it will be a welcome respite, grim with the promise of true and total absence.
Death never came.
Hesitently she opened her eyes, puzzled at the headless abomination teetering before her. The Scald slumped backwards, it's axe falling forgotten besides it's headless body, an ocean of black blood spreading, soaked up by the eager earth. She looked around, the air clouded and faint. She brought a hand up to her eyes, rubbed them and found her fingers came away wet with gore. She was soaked in it, the remains of the Scald's head. Cailia thought she should scream. Or maybe puke. She did neither, there was nothing left in her.
Shadows approached, thin and tall. Not Scald. Rubbing her eyes again she tried to make them out.
"Is this the one?" A voice, deep and soft, used to being listened to and obeyed.
"Yes, my Lord. This is the one the Scald were tracking." A sibilant voice, wet and cold.
"Bring it with us."
"And the others?"
No hesitation. "Kill them all". Then, almost as an after thought, "and bring me the brains of the seer."
***Amon'Valura walked through the courtyard with absolute authority, as though he owned all in creation. Let alone the fact he was the architect of this altars demise. The devastation was total. The dead littered the ground like autumn leaves, chilling in their own blood amid the rubble and the ruin. The Arcanaloth was not stirred by them - they were, after all, simply mortal. Godslaves at that. Does the exterminator pity the vermin that dine on his poison? These were not even rats. The dead of the Yugoloths lay scattered as well, although less in number. They also were beneath his contempt; brought low by servants of those of the oldest mortal lie, it was well their weakness was exposed, expunged. The purity of the race would be strengthened by the cleansing of their weakness.
The walls and yards of The Lady's Shelter, temple to Athena, house of charity and artifice, sat aflame with sickness - a plague wrought by those for whom plague was kin. Amon'Valura was here for the key, but time was on his side and there was pleasure to be taken in these halls. The suffering of the godslaves was a thing to be savoured.
He paused and fought down bile. Sometimes the children needed to be schooled. Like dogs, it was the only way they could learn. To the edge of the courtyard three Mezzoloths were hunched over feasting upon the corpse of one of Athena's servile dogs. Disgust rippled the Arcanaloth's fur as it paused and spoke low words, words that carried in that charnel house to the ears of all. All three of them fell back from their feast, their wide, dark eyes bulging, mandibles clicking loudly, furiously. Slow grey ichor seeped from their heads, thick like treacle, running from their eyes, their mouths. One by one the 'loths heads melted in upon themselves, chitinous plates popping off and leaving wet flesh to run. Six eyes popped like grapes and each Mezzoloth dropped to the ground twitching, bodies running like sacks of mud sliced open and left to the sun.
"Here me well my children, the dead of the gods are not food. They are poison, their blood not fit for the fire. They are to rot under blue skies on damp earth, testament to the weakness of the false. You have done well today and will be rewarded, but even the greatest harbinger amoung you will be turned to vellum should you taste of their flesh. And as vellum you will record only the words of dogs and imps, the foolish compacts of the lesser races shall marr your flesh and nothing of you shall be reborn." A spring breeze fell across the courtyard, and the loose refuse that moved under its breath made the only sound. No Yugoloth moved, nor did they look at Amon'Valura, the threat of becoming a Yugoloth contract more dire even than that of death. The Arcanaloth stood still for mere moments; moments where time stopped and the land itself shrank back. And then he was done, his message heard.
"Oh, mighty words jackal, so filled with flourish and threat. I expect you believe you have the soul of a king, or perhaps a poet. How sad for you to be so alone and bereft of love that your words can inspire only fear and hate in your inferiors. I pity you and your kind finding joy only in death and in pestilence. But do not despair, I am here to offer you respite and send you back to the soil where your misunderstood and misbegotten heart may find solace in the mud."
The man was big and thick with muscle under his white robes. A long handled flail rested comfortably in his hand as he stood looking at the Arcanaloth. This must be Costarsis, warrior-chaplain of the temple. Amon'Valura was not impressed.
"You are quite the wordsmith yourself godslave, but in your fleeting existance you know nothing of despair. So blind and narrow minded that you know only compromise. But this, like all things will change. Soon you will know what true compromise is, and you will learn to appreciate what it is to surrender on anothers terms."
Costarsis smirked at the 'loths words.
"But I am not here to trade empty words with servants. You know why we have come. Give me the key and I will see that you die swiftly." A pointless lie of course, but Amon'Valura was warming to his new role as king and poet of this blasted temple.
Costarsis laughed, long and deep. "Of course I know why you have come jackal, and I laugh because I know you cannot take it from us. Athena, our Lady, watches over this place and protects it from the likes of you. You cannot win"
Amon'Valura laughed in turn, high pitched and barking. "You will die in pain."
The daemon took to the air, exploding into flight, his pale blue robes rolling about him with applause through the air. Wan light spilt from his eyes, writhing like mist, and ancient words fell from his tongue in draughts of poisoned speech. Costarsis canted his own magics, his voice loud and beseeching, calling to Athena and chanelling the gods divine strength and wrapping him in tendrils of radiant light. Bolts of pitch, sinewy and cold, streamed from the outstretched hands of Amon'Valura, the golden sigils of his robe humming as the veins of magic pulsed over and through his arms. Seven nightshade bolts struck the Athenian priest, splashing like tides of death over his body, each stripped and discarded by the protective layers wrapped around him as the arms of his goddess. He staggered under their weight.
"Yes mortal, you feel death, it sings to you with ashen tongue and your cunting harlot mistress can do naught but weep as you die."
The priest was not intimidated as new words, unutterable and radiant, burst from his mouth in a torrent of sound, a wail of devastation. The daemon was unprepared for the assault and flew back under their weight, rolling over himself, a pebble in a mountain slide, to be dashed against the wall of the courtyard gatehouse. Stone exploded into the air where he struck and was swallowed by the wall. The priest did not waste words as flames exploded from the hole, called forth from his mistresses divine well by his tongue, sweltering the courtyard and raining ash in its wake.
Several Mezzoloths stood, raising arms - halberds and military forks. A bulbous Dhergoloth, it's five arms each brandishing a different shape of steel rose and strode with purpose toward Costarsis.
"Be still my children, I am not so easily undone," the voice of Amon'Valura echoed in their minds, terrible and reassuring at once. The Dhergoloth began chattering, laughing in a high pitched whine, a dissonant chord of stretched strings from a lunatic orchestra. Costarsis dropped to one knee, his hands pressed to his ears as those ribbons of sound sliced at him like whips. He canted quietly to himself, concentration robbing him of his voice, and punched the earth with an iron hand. The ripple spread from his feet, rolling toward the Dhergoloth like an uncoiling snake. The laughter died on it's teeth as ground burst open beneath it, knifes of stone slicing upward and through it, sending pieces of it dancing in all directions, a shower of dust and blood.
The Arcanaloth appeared in the courtyard with the telltale pop of displaced air. Words of power already filling the air as the priest roared his fury and unlinked his flail, blue radiance flaring from its spiked head. He charged across the courtyard, bearing upon the Yugoloth with practiced grace. It was not enough. Radiance spilled from Amon'Valura, from his eyes, his mouth and his hands, filaments of light, seven once again. They flowed toward Costarsis with the keeness of steel and the certainty of the sunrise. He rolled to his left - red arced away, scorching the earth, orange followed, setting it aflame. Yellow touched his skin, a burning ray, slicing with the ease of heated iron, shearing off his arm and cauterizing it like a madhouse surgeon. Costarsis staggered and fell, his knees stripped of their skin as he skidded. Then green, a wave of poison, washed over him like the embrace of a wraith. His skin paled and burst; a thousand sores, distended and oozing pus, erupted like mud. The priest vomited, thick and black, blood and bile and worse.
"...in pain..." whispered the Arcanaloth as he withdrew the remains of his spell. He walked slowly towards the twitching priest, a calm superiority his only air. Costarsis struggled to his knees and groped blindly for his flail, still clasped in his absent hand a few feet away. Amon'Valura was not impressed by the futility - more fascinated by the stubborn will. The godslave had...spirit. Sadly, it had proved unsufficient. He stopped short of Costarsis and kicked the flail away carelessly. The priest coughed and cried tears of blood as he tried to laugh. There was one last word left on his broken lips.
The air protested, seeming to groan as steel popped into existance. Blades, dozens of them, surrounded the priest, whirling and dancing as though wielded by master swordsmen, cutting the air with the whoosh of a waterfall. The daemon started in surprise and almost leapt backwards to avoid them, and, if he wasn't cloaked in layers of magic, he well might have. But with the sum total of almost that had plagued the warrior-priest that day, the Arcanaloth did the opposite and stepped forward, under that dome of whirling death and picked the wasted priest up by the throat.
His eyes, though thick with blood, burned with hatred, and had not Amon'Valura's hand been firmly clasped around his neck he would have spat. The daemon toyed briefly with honouring him with some final words, but instead simply lifted him up into his own wall of steel. The priests dancing blades sliced into his head, tearing of pieces of hair, of skull, of brains, and when there was no life left in him, they faded out of reality, their magic dying with him.
Amon'Valura smiled with small satisfaction and looked toward the domed heart of the temple that was his goal. "Diana! Come to me my love. Come to me bearing gifts and promises that we may spare ourselves unnecessary suffeirng," he crooned with soft voice as he tossed aside the corpse of the warrior-chaplain, thoughtlessly wiping the blood from his canine aspect.
There was only silence.
"So be it." There was no such thing as unnecessary suffering.
Amon'Valura floated towards a set of giant wooden doors, letting the myriad dweomers that wrapped him like armour carry him to the entrance to the inner sanctum of the Temple grounds. Again he spoke, utterances of magic old and black, and a silent quake pulsed from his body. The ground rumbled, protested, as the wave rolled out, heaving and displacing the flagstones of the courtyard. The doors groaned, heavy wood bending upon itself, then shattered. Dust filled the courtyard like a fog as splinters fell like snow, and Amon'Valura, patient and implaccable, violated the asylum of Athena's abode.
A white gallery opened into The Lady's Shelter, faceted glass and marble held aloft upon fluted and patterned columns of jade and iron. People cowered behind them, in archways and alcoves, too terrified to move. Amon'Valura almost smiled so deep was his satisfaction, but it would not do to let the servile know. Instead they must repent.
"Leave now whoever wishes life or values freedom, I will not stop you. Deny your heavenly trickster, your holy con artist, and you will be spared. Renounce the deceiver and you will be allowed to proclaim unto the planes how she could not save her own house, nor her valued slaves. Stand and leave and you will live."
None of them moved, only crouched or sat trying to make sense of the Yugoloth's words. Then the pebble - a thin old man, draped in white cloth stepped forward. He walked slowly toward an alabaster statue of the goddess, radiant with yellow light, in an alcove by the door, and spat on it. Amon'Valura watched, impassive, his hidden heart afire with a revel of blasphemy. The avalanche followed as those remaining stood and left, scurrying past the Arcanaloth like so much vermin. Amon'Valura watched their faces and regretted that he would not bear witness to their slaughter.
The gallery was long and empty now, still radiant but dull with unease. The click of a closing door broke the silence.
"You can come no further."
The speaker, a woman of middle age and exquisite beauty, stood at the end of the gallery. Yellow robes traced with silver flowed over light olive skin and complemented fiery hair. A shining blade, also of silver, rested comfortably in her left hand, small arcs of magic gliding faintly over it.
"Diana," whispered Amon'Valura, "I recognise you from her words. They did not do you justice." His new found poet smiled in remberance.
Momentary confusion. "Who...what words...?"
"No," the daemon stopped her. "There is time enough for talk after. For now, your mistress has fled, as have your servants, betrayal as thick on their tongues as is their blood thick on your ground. You have already lost, and now, with nothing left to fight for, I will ask of you the key, to ease your passing into oblivion."
Diana stood tall and authoritative, "you are wrong fiend. There is always something worth fighting for, but you who have nothing will never understand. My lady dwells here still, in my heart, and in my words. Athena demands that you begone from her house and return to the ash and the soil, for you are naught but a broker of disease and a despoiler of the weak, unfit to stand in her presence."
Amon'Valura snarled and barked arcane words, delicate tendrils rising from his tongue like a languid spring mist as the magic floated to the sky. The dome cracked, the grinding of stone like a whip that shed dust like dead skin, then a groan as flakes and slabs fell to the earth. Diana closed her eyes and breathed deep, pale radiance shimmering about her as stone slid harmlessly around her and rattled the floor with its weight. With practiced speed she weaved her blade around her in a blurred cloak, humming as it cut the air. Leaping to the air with vital grace, Amon'Valura continue to cant, his voice low and cruel. Lines of pulsing light, as bleached as the ancient dead, traced from his hands and followed their movements, and where they touched stone and earth mists dust filled the air. Diana ignored them as they were dashed upon her wards, dismissed to the weave, and spoke words of her own. Chains of cold iron reached from the columns of marble, hooked and barbed, designed to hold rather than flay. Unerringly the barbs bit into the arms and legs of the Arcanaloth, whipping his limbs to and aerial crucifix as he howled his pain to the hall. Blackened blood flecked the hall as though a lunatic artist had discovered a well of inspiration as he was hoisted into place. Brow furrowed in pain he uttered more magic and dismissed the chains as Diana had dismissed his pale lights. He was not quick enough for her silver though, and the blade took him deep in the chest after arcing smoothly through the air from her hands. Silver was a bitter poison to the Yugoloths and the blade bit deep. Grimacing he pulled it free and nodded grimly as the wound closed upon itself, made whole once more by his abjurations. The blade clattered upon the ground.
"You have power godslave. This will take time, but I have come prepared to endure. I shall outstay your struggle."
Diana, smiled softly. "No jackal. You will not."
Then she pronounced the word. That primal word of divine will, and white radiance warped from her mouth as a thousand suns, as bright as creation. Amon'Valura screamed, screamed like he never had before, from the depths of his being in a chorus of rage and agony. Sigils and wards melted from his body, exploding out as Diana's holy word stripped his protective magics and drove into his being. The gallery shook, the columns protesting under the weight of magic, and the ceiling cracking, slivers of polished glass falling like glinting tears. The last of Amon'Valura's abjurations was blasted away, pulses of radiance bursting from his body, slicing the air and turning all that they touched to dust. Fire exploded out from the daemon's body, bringing down the devasted gallery, in an avalanche of glass and stone as the world shook. The Arcanaloth's body was flung, smoldering, across the room where it landed with a broken thump, needles of smoke rising into the cold air.
Diana walked over to his body, as he began to laugh painfully to himself. She was untouched by the devastation, and the light, given freedom from the shadow of the roof, fell upon her, lighting her up like the goddess herself. The daemon was protected by powerful magics indeed, for the holy word should have either sent it back to the Waste or destroyed it utterly. Never to mind - it was not in any position to cause further strife.
"What is so funny 'loth? You are broken, easily so it would seem, and now, since you have resisted the word, you will die."
It continued to laugh.
"Speak your last words, I know the love you have for your own voice. What amuses you so jackal?", an edge of anger crept into her voice.
"She was as sunshine peering through the clouds, warm and fierce enough to chase away the night..." The 'loth's voice was soft and sad, bleak and feminine and filled with the bitterness of remembrance. "Like the gods had painted upon her a splendor of beauty so pure that death itself would strike those who dared to contemplate her face..."
Diana faltered. "What manner..." she whispered, her face paling as a ghost under her porcelain skin.
The 'loth was gone, dust and blood the only remainder of it's ruined body.
"And her heart was pure and perfect, delicate and so filled with love...", the voice, behind her.
She was cold, fear and broken heart both draining her heat. "Cailia...?"
"We danced, danced long and lost to the world in that place where only two hearts can touch. Such was our joy, deeper than time..."
Heart fit to burst at that voice, Diana trembled. Lost Cailia. Lost to her and lost to love. Would she tell this thing her heart? "You are not her, jackal. Your tongue is poison and cares only for lies." Her words, weak and filled with doubt, did not ease her aching chest.
"Then it was gone. Withdrawn like a mocking offer of bread to a begger. The absence wide and profound at her choice. A goddess. More like a queen who needs her servants but can never love them. And with kind words she turned her back, oblivous, and left me to..."
Diana choked back tears, "no...don't...stop, stop!"
"...don't stop," cooed the 'loth, his voice his own once more, "yes, that's what she said. Those were the words she used to beg of me when I was inside her, cold and rich with blood." Tears rolled down Diana's cheeks and she did not try to stop them, paralysed with memory. "I want you to know godslave, that I healed her. Took her half, rotten and dead, took it and replaced it with the hallowed indifference of the land. I removed that scar, along with her heart, to stop her suffering. Then quietly she thanked me, and forgot your name."
"You murdered her heart!" Dianna cried, her throat thick with accusation and rage.
"No my love, you did. You and your self satisfied whore of a god. Hollowed it out and filled it with piss."
Blood red rage boiled in Diana's chest. "I will see you die! I will tear out your heart and bathe it in Elysiums blazing light!"
Diana stood and turned on Amon'Valura, her eyes filled with salt and red fury, divine words rolling from her tongue as fire danced upon it.
"It is too late now for anger, godslave" answered the 'loth, his voice deep and terrible. "For old betrayals have come home to roost and they have brought with them the rot and the rage they have nurtured long these years." The air rippled with the undercurrent of power woven into those words, deep with magic, as black and old as the father/mothers themselves. Her tongue stilled and her power fled with the shimmering breath of Amon'Valura, and Diana fell to her knees upon the trembling ground.
"So many things were spoken into the darkness in return for reprieve. Desires, fears, past joys, remembered sorrows, and ... names my Diana. Names were spoken into the darkness. Serafene."
Serafene. Only two people knew her name. Diana shrank into herself, her betrayal complete.
"Yes...Serafene. The name of your heart, of your self." Amon'Valura laughed softly. "You have failed. Your god has failed. Betrayed by one of the few things we cannot pervert with promises." He sucked at his teeth. "The pleasure of your demise is every bit as sweet as they held it would be."
Night came to the Temple of Athena, pure and impenetrable, summoned by the words of the father/mothers, rolling from Amon'Valura's tongue as the breath of a shadow. Marble groaned as it died, from white to black, the light of Athena drawn out as poison from a wound. The Arcanaloth stood immense and unyielding, a shimmering radiance of shadows. To know the true name of a thing makes it yours, a delicate possession, but by itself that name is just a secret to be kept close to ones heart. Knowledge can tranform that secret. With the right words, a true name gives one possession of that which is named. The baern know those words. Amon'Valura knew those words and he turned them upon Diana, upon Serafene, with a terrible lust. Her tears became blood as the magic ate into her, raping her of all she had. Her skin parched with age as years were torn from her, stealing her beauty and imposing upon her the indignities of all that came with that fraility.
But amidst the mire of her desecration Diana smiled. Slowly at first, crooked through the pain of magic ravishing her body, but with growing strength and growing confidence she turned her face upon the Arcanaloth. A glimmer set to her eye and a pale light unto her hair as she sat, her skin decaying even as her radiance grew. There was forgiveness even in this torn sanctuary.
She looked up at Amon'Valura, looked through him and smiled, hopeful and beautiful. "We will save her."
And with those words the shadows were pushed back. The light of Athena drew Diana in upon herself, folding impossibly as she was taken from the Arcanaloth's perversion into a blessing of devotion.
Amon'Valura let the words die upon his lips. The tattered white robes of the godslave lay limp upon the defiled ground. He knelt before them and reached in, knowing he had won. The key was there, round and perfect. He took it from the cloth and held it to his eye, a perfect sphere of blue, deep and cold as elemental water. This was the key to those hidden doors, itself locked away and safe until need returned it, just like the horrors behind those doors that would make the planes weep with despair. Worlds were to be rent asunder.
Even in the darkest times there is hope if one looks into ones heart and searches for what is important. The answer to the questions asked of oneself in times of despair is never hubris. It is always forgiveness.
***The pain was unbearable, rending her body as a poison and with terrible speed. But it was secondary, and almost welcome in the face of the jackal's words. Always they came with lies, lies seeded with enough truth to turn hearts. Yet sometimes they came with the truth, bald and innocent, by itself. These words were the truth she knew, spoken in Cailia's own voice telling of naught but betrayal. Diana's betrayal. Cailia's betrayal. Even so, through the pain, through the hurt, there was no regret for her choice, only sadness for her love and what she had wrought. It was for the best that she die.
"Do not despair sweet Diana, there is always hope."
Her pain eased as her body filled with her presence. Athena. Never had she felt such love, such an abundance. More than enough to fill her. But it left no room for others. For Cailia. Her sorrow would not ease.
"She can be saved my Diana. Surrender yourself and cease your fight. We will save her."
"But the key," she thought, "we cannot lose it."
"Let the corruption take it, you have done what you can, what you must. It is theirs no longer. Let it go. Let yourself go. I will mend your quivering heart and we will save your love. She will be alone no longer."
Joy, pure and powerful swept through Diana as she did as Athena bade her. She let go of the key and smiled as the darkness fled her body. She felt the light of Athena surrounding her, washing through her, granting her a strength only moments ago taken from her. With the darkness gone she stared into the light and smiled.
"We will save her."