“You insult more than this court by pleading for clemency purely on the virtue of the pain of your past. The question is never the pain of one’s existence, it’s how we choose to respond to it…” – From the Judgements of Dominus Simon, Australs V. Gilgai Holding
“Sectum segmentis…” Kevin murmured, blinking snowflakes from his eyes.
“Kevin!” Jelena cried joyously, kneeling on the snow-dusted deck of the icerunner as it sped across the rough and broken sea-ice of the Northern ocean, shaking the Mage gently.
“Sectum segmentis.” Kevin repeated, before lapsing once again into catatonia.
Jelena sighed, tucking a length of chestnut hair behind an ivory horn. They had tried a dozen times to move the mage down into the hold and out of the inclement weather, but every time they took their eyes off him, he seemed to vanish, only to be found a short time later, seated cross-legged upon the open deck once more.
“That’s good Jel. It means he’s starting to solve it.” A comforting voice murmured behind the Taurean, a man’s calloused hand gripping her shoulder gently.
“I feel so helpless, Uncle Samuel.” Jelena admitted, putting her own hand atop his, before using it to draw herself up, standing slightly unsteadily on digitigrade hooves.
“Helpless?” Samuel echoed, lines at the corner of his eyes deepening as his face crinkled in amusement. “If not for you he’d have frozen to death by now.”
“No thanks to you.” a snide voice remarks as a Cheshire cat pops into existence beside them, smirking mockingly at the human. “But I suppose expecting you to care is a bit too much.”
“Kylie!” Jelena gasps in shock. “Don’t you think that was a bit…”
“No, Jelena. I don’t. I told Alex, and I’ll tell you. You don’t understand what this ‘Disciple’ is capable of.” Kylie retorted evenly, examining a violet-furred paw before fixing the man with a glare, her felinid eyes filled with utter malice.
“Kylie…” Samuel choked, holding out a hand beseechingly.
“What part of ‘Don’t Ever Speak To Me’ did you miss, Resonant?” Kylie yowled. “Or did those rocks growing out of your head finally spur you into overdue dotage?”
Samuel’s shoulders slumped, and he turned towards the bow of the icerunner, suddenly looking very, very old.
“Handmaiden? Reverence?” another, younger man’s voice interrupted, the fur-and-steel clad form of a Tyrisian Paladin emerging through the flurries of snow, booted footfalls heavy on the wooden deck, Sunburst Tabard bright against the grey. “What’s happening? I heard you call out Kevin’s name.”
“False alarm Alex.” The Cheshire sighed, taking the Paladin’s arm casually in her violet-furred paws.
“Uncle Samuel said he’s closer to coming out of it though.” Jelena added hopefully. Kylie gave a derisive snort at the mention of the Resonant’s name.
Alex’s eyes flicked from Taurean to Cheshire and then to the hooded figure slumped against the railing at the bow of the vessel. He took in a deep breath of the chilly air, releasing it with a cloud of vapour. “Again, Kylie?”
“You’re guarding his person, not his feelings. What’s it matter to you?”
Alex put a mailed hand on Kylie’s paw beseechingly. “He’s a good man, you should…”
“You think sharing my bed a couple of nights gives you the right to tell me ‘should’, Paladin?” Kylie interjects, taking her paw from under his hand and staring at him challengingly.
“Well if I can’t appeal to empathy, perhaps you ought to listen to practicality.” Alex replied, folding his arms across his tabard-covered cuirass. “We need him, the WORLD needs him. And it helps exactly nobody with you slicing pieces off him every time he so much as looks at you.”
“The world… Pfft.” Kylie laughs mockingly. “You say it like he’s ever DONE anything. Let me tell you exactly how he’s contributed to all the major events he’s lauded with so much credit for. He. Was. There.”
“The Redemption. He asked the Lodge to do the heavy lifting for him. Fun fact, the Lodge wouldn’t have even been in disarray in the first place if not for him!” Kylie began, ticking things off on her violet paws. “The War of Angels, Corvus wouldn’t have even been a fugitive if not for the fact the Logos was chasing that miscreant! Saint Bruce the Vigilant held off the Dragon. Corvus brought the Logos to earth from the Dark Beyond. Lucifer, Ariael and the other Angels sired the mages. Four days ago, apart from saving his own skin, did he actually DO anything against Arin in his desperation? No, he was just THERE!”
“And he sired you.” Alex reminded her.
“And made me watch my mother die while He and Corvus, once again, did NOTHING!”
“Have a care how you speak of The Raven in front of me…” Alex warned in a low, deadly tone.
Kylie waved flippantly, ignoring the tightening of the Paladin’s jaw. “Corvus I can forgive, he was tied to this reality by design, else he wouldn’t have been able to defeat the Dragon. But him? He could have done something, if we meant a good gods-damn to…”
“STOP IT!” a voice shrieked, a flurry of blue hair and grey wings swirling the snow as the girlish form of Reitia landed on the deck, grabbing the front of the cheshire’s shirt in her delicate hands and shaking roughly. “STOP IT NOW!”
“Rei?” Jelena blurted in shock, astonished to see her retiring ‘sister’ assault the Cheshire so aggressively. Kylie, seemingly surprised herself, gave a wordless yowl before vanishing from existence. Unphased, Reitia bared her teeth in a surprisingly animalistic rictus. With a hooking motion, she swiped her hand downward, slender fingers bent like claws. With a shriek, the Cheshire appeared again on the deck, her eyes staring blindly in sheer terror as Reitia slowly rotated her wrist. Jelena tried to move, to speak, but she felt herself frozen helplessly immobile.
“You bleed Love upon the ground, to better harvest Pain…” Reitia began witheringly “…The very world screams at your presence. By My Father, and By The Gods who sired Him, I draw your venom from the wound in her heart… I Abjure thee, Apophis, and all thy works!” Reitia declared in a ringing voice, so very distant from the whimsical sing-song Jelena was used to.
“The termagant is MINE, Abomination!” a Sibilant voice seemed to echo above the whimpering form of Kylie, eyes still locked in fear at something only she could see.
“I cast thee out.” Reitia declared, raising her arm, her lithe muscles straining beneath the skin as if she struggled to lift an impossibly heavy load.
“Dread Queen of Justice…” Jelena prayed silently, helplessly in the vaults of her mind “…Holy Ammit… give her strength.”
“No!” The ghost-voice hissed in defiance.
“I Cast Thee Out!” Reitia repeated, more stridently, her other arm taking up position to mirror the first.
“What are you?” The voice demanded, a hint of desperation in its hissing scorn.
“I Am, that I Am.” Reita answered simply “Now Begone!”
The snow swirled in a vortex as a formless… something… lifted from Kylie’s body, hurtling through the air and back towards the east. The Cheshire began coughing violently, spitting on the deck as if to rid herself of something foul, before curling up, hugging her knees to herself and crying uncontrollably.
“Alex…” Jelena began, suddenly finding her voice once more. “…take her below.”
“Reverence.” Alex agreed with a grave nod, scooping the Cheshire into his arms, murmuring words of comfort as she clung to him, soaking his tabard in bitter tears. Reitia turned, drawing a deep, shuddering breath, her eyes pained as she wordlessly put her arms about the curvaceous Taurean.
“I want my Daddy.” Reitia said softly.
“I know, big sis…” Jelena murmured, kissing her on her blue-haired head. “…Me too.”
“This is Obscenity!” King Osmund roared, veins sticking out on his thick neck as he glared at the black-armoured figure in disbelief.
“Words, Horus…” The figure replied emotionlessly “…But you know that I speak the truth.”
“This is not the Will of Ammit! You trespass upon matters over which you have no authority.” The burly human continued, ignoring the stinking mass of shambling corpses which hungrily milled at the back of the court, reaching with grasping, decayed hands for the frightened humans huddled behind the wall of the King’s Divine Authority.
“This world is steeped in Sin.” The figure intoned “And as Chastisement, the instrument of Her Scorn, I bring the purification of Death to cleanse it.”
“Yours is not to render Judgement!” Hathor declared. “He is High Magistrate.”
“All will be cleansed.” Chastisement replied, uncaring. “And if he is truly Her Servant, it will not hurt him to die…”
“By the Dread Queen…” Osmund snarled, hefting a weighty looking war-axe. “…I’ll make you pay for every innocent…”
“There are no more innocents.” Chastisement interjected, raising his own black blade.
“Coo-eee!” Came a ringing cry as a blurry form vaulted from the rafters, kicking the black-armoured figure directly in the chest and knocking it bodily back into the shamblers before recovering with an acrobatic flip, squirrel-like tail brushed out in smug self-satisfaction.
“Riley?” Hathor blurted unbelievingly. “What are you…”
“No time Milady! We beat her to it, and she’s gonna be pissed when she finds out!” The squirrel-girl interrupted with a cheeky grin, briefly bringing two clawed fingers to her left breast in an odd salute. Scampering up to the royal couple, she held a brown hemp sack out to the King, which the monarch took in one hand, setting aside the axe to better reveal its contents..
“Merciful Ammit… The Crown of the Pharaoh…” Osmund breathed reverently as he pulled the sack away, revealing entwined white and ebony circlets, fashioned after elegant cobras.
“Too much for a Human to bear alone. Die by my hand or die from your own hubris…” Chastisement hissed mockingly, regaining its mailed feet.
“Then he is fortunate indeed…” Hathor retorted, putting her own hand on the crown in Osmund’s hands. “…That he has never been alone.”
A bell-like ringing of metal filled the hall as the twin serpents seemed to come alive, ebony and ivory separating from each other, winding up the arms of both Human and Taurean, coming to rest upon their brows, the black now resting upon Osmund’s brow as the white encircled Hathor’s.
“Together, my Love?” Osmund asked, holding out his hand.
“Forever, dearest one.” Hathor replied warmly, taking his hand in her own.
“No!” Chastisement replied as the ground opened up beneath it, its black-armoured form splitting and falling away as the flickering hellfire of Duat swallowed it. A massed sigh seemed to go out from the shamblers as the force which animated them dissipated, the rotting bodies falling to the floor… once again dead and motionless.
“I believe, my Lord Marshal.” Horus sighed, ascending the dais and once again sitting on the throne, looking towards an armoured man with hair of an equally steely grey. “That you were going to tell us about the current casualties.”
“If I think hard enough, I can still hear their screams… The Elves who were swayed by Her honeyed promises and false assurances… This was the beginning, after the Ainorn burned. We justified it, those of us who had not yet admitted the necessity of Aut-Nan Annun. Our men died, but angels were born, and if one was to die, within the arms of a Goddess seemed an enviable way for such to occur…
…Fools. Cursed be the memory of Ilias, and Cursed be we who lied to ourselves.” – From ‘The Fall of the Tel’Quassir’, an unabridged interview with Matriarch Nasha, Sanguine Countess of House Carpathia.
“It is pleasing to know…” Apophis remarked, her ire dampened by the sight of the box held in the Salamander’s trembling hands. “…That at least some know the benefits of obedience to Our commandments.”
“Y-yes Majesty…” The Salamander replied, her hollow eyes fixed on the floor, her gaunt face showing no emotion. “…M-may we… May we feed the young ones now?”
“Go.” The Serpentine monarch commanded simply, taking the box with her lower pair of hands whilst the upper waved dismissively to the handful of starving reptilians. Without pause, the band of once-proud Tellisari quit the room as fast as weakened muscles would bear them.
“Your Majesty is indeed Gracious beyond measure.” the Resonant Joseph remarked respectfully from his place at the side of the God-Queen’s throne.
“Save your flattery for…” Apophis began, hungrily raising the lid of the box before pausing, outrage and horror writ large on her dusky, hooded features. “…No. This is not possible!”
“Majesty?” Joseph exclaimed in genuine surprise, the glyph he had held so tightly to in his mind vanished in an instant. This wasn’t the plan! He was supposed to destroy the crown!
“I can feel it here!” Apophis exclaimed, yanking at the silken lining, ripping it out and casting it to the floor. “I can feel it, and yet it is not here!”
“If your Majesty would concede to…” Joseph began placatingly, ducking as the twilight serpent hurled the box at his head in petulant fury.
“Gone! Gone! Summon the Tellisari! Get them back! I want to PEEL every last one of them!” Apophis demanded.
“Majesty… Perhaps a small time to compose yourself might avail you of a more salient solution.” Joseph suggested desperately. No more monstrosity. Not today, his soul could bear no more.
“Compose myself? COMPOSE MYSELF?” Apophis hissed, rearing off her throne and looming over the Resonant. “And how, my Seneschal, would you propose I do that?”
“Mayhap…Mayhap I could be of some small assistance?” Joseph gulped, raising his hand tentatively to stroke the God Queen along the side of her Cobra-like hood, fully expecting the offending arm to be torn off at the socket any moment now…
“Oh? Oh…” Apophis mused, a small, almost girlish smile growing upon her mouth. “…Maybe you could at that.”
Joseph dared not pray, for fear the dusky-skinned Serpent would hear it, but in a tiny corner of his mind, he hoped Tyris would understand, and Ammit not judge him too harshly for what he must do, as he accepted the God-Queen’s hand, allowing her to draw him towards the richly scented hangings of her draped boudoir.
“He’ll forgive you…” Alex assured the cheshire, stroking her violet hair soothingly.
“How?” Kylie demanded through her tears. “The things I said… The horrible, horrible things…”
“You weren’t yourself.”
“Wasn’t I?” Kylie retorted bitterly “I hated him for so long, Alex. So long I don’t even know where the line between my hatred and that mind-worming BITCH began.”
“Can I show you something?” The Paladin asked, wrapping his arms around the sobbing Cheshire comfortingly. Kylie nuzzled into him almost instinctively, nodding through her tears. Alex released her with one arm, reaching into his pack at the foot of the cot and bringing out a oilcloth-bound tome.
“Tyrisian Scripture, really?” Kylie drawled flatly, looking nonplussed up at Alex, the skin of his earnest face still smooth and boyish after his healing.
Alex chuckled, flipping the book open with practiced nonchalance, leafing through pages of scripture until he came to an illustrated panel. “What do you see?”
“The Remonstration of the Disciple, Saint Bruce the Vigilant rescinds his dominion.” Kylie read, her feral eyes flicking over the image. “Corvus was never that pretty.” she remarked finally, an involuntary smirk curving her mouth as she regarded the beatified image of the young God.
“Funny.” Alex joshed, nudging her and pointing to an auburn haired figure knelt before Corvus. “Who’s that?”
“Alex, you know very well who it is, what’s your point?”
“What’s in his arms?”
Kylie yowled, shoving at the Paladin. “Are you trying to torture me?.”
“Humor me, just once.” Alex beseeched her.
“Me, alright? Are you happy? I’m in your fucking scriptures.” Kylie blustered, rounding on him “And if you so much as LOOK like you’re about to genuflect I’ll make you wish Arin had finished what he started with your face.”
“The Daughter of the Disciple, Beloved amongst Beloved, blessed and anointed.” Alex intoned. “I didn’t want to admit it at first, partly because… well…”
“I had your prick in me in varying styles.” Kylie prompted flatly. “Don’t dance around it.”
“Well that…” The Paladin admitted with a slight blush “…And also because I couldn’t understand why you seemed to hate him so much. The doctrines stress how much he doted on you.Tyris, they use you and your parents as symbolism for the blessings bestowed upon a loving family.”
“Yeah well, we all see what bullshit that is.”
“Challenge, I’m a fucking Handmaiden, I outrank you.” Kylie replied hotly, yet a hint of her earlier playfulness seemed to have crept back into her voice. “Look, I get what you’re trying to do Alex. It’s sweet. YOU’RE sweet… But I can’t just pretend the decades between me and him didn’t happen.”
“Nobody’s asking you to. Just… Just talk to him. Please.”
“It really would mean that much to you, wouldn’t it?” Kylie mused speculatively.
Alex nodded soberly. “I would be very grateful.”
“Oh yeah?” Kylie drawled, popping from existence to reappear above the Paladin, driving him onto his back in the cot. “Why don’t you show me?”
“The thing with gratitude is it occurs AFTER the favour is done.” Alex chides, unable to keep the helpless grin from his face as the famously infectious playfulness of the Cheshire wins over.
“Screw that, I always get payment up front.” Kylie quips, hungrily bringing her mouth to his.
“Are you SURE I can’t hold her?” Riley lamented, the squirrel-girl reaching sharp-clawed hands almost instinctively towards the infant in the wax and amber cradle.
Dexter chuckled from where he stood at Cerani’s side. Kissing his Hive-Queen wife briefly, the ginger-haired human put a hand on Riley’s head, mussing the Ratatoskr’s bob-cut hair fondly. “You really don’t like the word ‘No’, do you little sis?”
“Her wings and Carapace are very delicate at this time, Riley.” Cerani explained. “With but a few days to harden…”
“I know… It’s just… She’s the reason we went into that stinking necropolis in the first place.” Riley sighed in acceptance.
“That was very brave of you.” Dexter praised. “You probably saved the Westerlands, if not the entire world.”
“Tell that to Petey… Stuck in there with that thing that should not be…” Riley jibed, yet a small catch of sorrow coloured her voice. “…I-I hope that she makes him happy.”
“It took that to make you admit you had feelings for him, sis?” Dexter mused comfortingly, hugging the Ratatoskr with an amber and hide clothed arm.
“Too late now anyway. It’s done.” Riley sniffed, dashing unshed tears from her eyes. “It’s what we do. Caretakers of Duat I mean. We keep the world moving so that the real heroes can stand on it in the right place.”
“Sweet sister-in-law…” Cerani chided softly. “…You have accomplished something not many in this world could even conceive of. I must admit, The Archmage had me concerned when he…”
“When he what?” Enoch’s voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once as a burst of arcane energy filled the air, before solidifying into the platinum haired man.
“Mister Nocky!” Riley cried happily, scampering over to hug the Archmage.
“Hah.” Enoch grunted with suppressed discomfort as the Squirrel-Girl impacted with his torso. “Well done Riley. I knew you could do it.”
“Peter is where he needs to be.” Enoch explained, placing a gentle hand atop Riley’s head. “Corvus showed me enough of the skeins of fate that I had a decent idea of how this would play out. Ammit took a terrible risk in casting Chastisement into this world.”
“She had faith in us!” Riley objected. “She knew Horus and Hathor would see it through.”
“Maybe I’m a little biased, but I think those two get enough credit for things.” Enoch grinned down at Riley softly. “Maybe she just had faith in you.”
“Shh. Everything will work out fine, little one.” Enoch assured her. “Mellisae is born, and beautiful… and the sun is finally…”
Cerani gasped, starting forward in her amber throne. “Something is coming! Something terrible, it’s killing my drones!”
Enoch cursed, gently pushing Riley away. “I thought we had more time than this…” drawing a knife from his belt, he made a cut to the meat of his forearm, allowing blood to drip with a soft plik-plik-plik on the stone below.
“Caladon…” He intoned “…Ancient spirits of Earth and Field. You know who I am. Guard her.”
The amber floor creaked and cracked as thick vines, vibrant and green burst from the floor, coiling around the cradle. Viridian energy pulsed forth with a soothing glow, surrounding the infant hive-queen.
“Enoch, what…” Dexter gasped in consternation as his baby was cocooned within the emerald light.
“Horus may be Sovereign, as Julius pretended to be before him, but this land? This land is mine, has always been mine.” Enoch explained with a steely note of finality. “Whatever comes, this will shield her, sustain her. Go. Run.”
“My hive! My baby!” Cerani objected.
“You will be no good to her dead. Go!” Enoch insisted.
“How long?” Dexter demanded, scooping up his wife and ignoring the chitinous blows she rained down on his torso and shoulders in objection.
“The earth itself will split before anything can get to her without that I will it.” Enoch assured him. “Hurry.”
Cerani clung to her husband, sobbing bitterly, before a dozen or so drones swarmed in, bearing them up and out through some as yet unknown exit.
“Tyris be merciful. What’s taking them so long?” Enoch hissed to himself.
“Gonna go find the Caladonian?” Riley asked with a slight note of timidness.
“Someone has to put a wasp in my uncle’s breeches.” Enoch declared, weaving his hands in strange somatic gestures. “Might as well be me.”
“Can… Can I come?”
“Did you really think I was going to leave you here?” Enoch chuckled, holding a hand out as magical energy swirled around him. Riley glanced around, seeing what looked like tentacles of smoke boiling into the chamber, streaks of sickening violet light flashing through their mass.
“Mellisae…” Riley uttered in trepidation, watching as the smoke-tendrils wove closer.
“…Will be fine. The skeins of fate do not end here for her. I promise.” Enoch insisted. Riley swallowed, then took the Archmage’s hand in a clawed paw.
A blinding flash, and a whoosh of inrushing air, and the pair were no longer there.
“Your… Efforts… Grow Desperate…” Corvus grunted where he strained against Entropy.
“I cannot be beaten, Raven!” Entropy declared, even as yet another avatar began to decay under the strength of the young God’s will. “This struggle can continue until the stars themselves burn out and die. I will win. In the end, I always win.”
“What benefit would devouring a little child give you?” Corvus spat, as with a final heave, he tore the avatar apart, sparks of hellfire spraying into the infinite blackness which surrounded them.
“She is ancillary… Bound to this aggravating wheel of fate woven throughout your reality. I would see this wheel, your wheel, spoked before you submit.” Entropy snarled, a new avatar of horn, talon and fang forming before the God.
“Heh. You… Never understood…” Corvus mocked as the being of shadow and flame gripped him. “…The wheel was never mine, nor my Mother’s, nor my Father’s…”
“Who then?” Entropy demanded.
“Shut up and fight.” Corvus snarled, tearing a horn from the beast’s head. “Maybe you’ll figure it out.”
“More! MORE!” Apophis hissed, moaning as she bucked against the screaming resonant, blood pouring freely from his eyes as the unfettered power of the Goddess drove against him like waves upon jagged rocks. “Ah! AAAAHHHH! I’m Co….”
Apophis clenched her tail around the abused form of Joseph, paying no regard to the way his bones popped and snapped as she shook in orgasm. Joseph cried out insensibly, bright blood bursting from his mouth in a small font.
“Change, my seneschal… Change…” Apophis demanded, gripping his face in two of her hands, the other pair upon his torso, pouring her energy into him with heedless abandon.
“You… Never… Listened…” Joseph choked with an odd note of… triumph? Apophis hissed in puzzlement, unwrapping her coils slightly as she felt odd movement within him. The Human began to laugh, a crazed, uncontrolled howling as crystalline growths began to erupt from his flesh. “Now… you must… choose.”
“What do you mean? Explain!” Apophis commanded, gripping his jaw in a cruel grip as if she would rip it from his face, her dusky, hooded face inches from his.
“Surrender the Confluence, or Surrender your place in this world.” Joseph spat defiantly, glaring at the Goddess. “The Logos… Demands it.”
“You are mine, Seneschal, do you hear me? MINE!” Apophis hissed.
“SYSTEM UNIT DETECTS SUB-OPTIMAL SUBSUMPTION OF PLATFORM” An Alien voice declared dispassionately from Joseph’s bloody mouth. “UNACCEPTABLE. ENTITY RESPONSIBLE MUST BE REMOVED FROM CURRENT PLANE OF REALITY.”
Apophis sensed the titanic power of the Logos of Resonance aiming its scalpel-sharp will at Her Divine Mantle where it spanned across the bounds of the realities she controlled. In that moment, she understood the Resonant’s gambit. She could resist the Logos’s assault, but that would mean she had to surrender the Confluence which rendered her unassailable by the Gods of this Existence. Or, she could surrender this reality, go back to…
The thought itself was anathema. With a curling of her lip, she tore out Joseph’s throat, leaving the body bleeding out on her bed while she withdrew his rapidly softening manhood from her body. Focusing her power, she reluctantly allowed the ways between worlds to close… and gasped as the full KNOWLEDGE of this Reality was thrust in an instant upon her. Now She SAW. Now She KNEW.
“Petty. Small. Useless.” She hissed mockingly at the corpse of her once-seneschal. “Your plans are all known to me, and I find them wanting.”
The corpse sat up.
“A FINAL GIFT.” The Alien voice continued, somehow still speaking through the ruins of Joseph’s throat. “FOR A FAITHFUL FRIEND.”
“What are you…”
“CONFLAGRATE” The corpse stated dispassionately, as the light from the windows suddenly grew in intensity.
“You sure you’ll be alright from here, M’lud?” The captain asked hesitantly as the party departed from the Icerunner.
“We’ll be fine, Captain.” Samuel assured him, bent slightly under the weight of Kevin, where he and the Paladin Alexander bore the insensible mage down the gangway and onto the dock of the sleepy port below.
“The Blessings of Ammit go with you.” Jelena intoned, clad once again in her priestess robes, turning and making the sign of the Scales of Ma’at as she reached the bottom of the gangway, the blue-haired, winged form of Reitia standing silently next to her.
“Thankee, Reverence.” The Captain replied sincerely, tugging at his forelock as the gangplank retracted with the humming of hidden machinery. With a hissing of runners, the ship departed, clearly not wanting to be in the presence of this doom-fraught fellowship any longer.
“Well?” Jelena asked expectantly, turning to face Samuel, her hands on her generous hips.
“We’re not moving any more. Call him.” The Taurean demanded, her bovine tail lashing behind her.
“You’re a notorious bully, did you know that?” Samuel grumbled, gesturing for Alex to set the Mage down atop the creaking wood of the dock, flurries of snow whirling all about them. Pulling a piece of chalk from a pouch on his belt, the Resonant knelt on the deck. “Now let me see here, first it’s…”
Samuel’s muttering turned into a startled oath as a white-haired figure burst into existence in a flash of arcane energy, a Ratatoskr holding tightly to his hand and blinking big, green eyes in amazement.
“Hello uncle.” Enoch remarked conversationally, as if they had done nothing but run into the group in the market.
“Enoch!” Samuel exclaimed, regaining his feet. “If that’s your idea of a joke…”
Enoch looked down, seeing the beginnings of the summoning circle “Huh… Isn’t that a thing?”
“Mister Nocky…” The Ratatoskr whispered, looking at Samuel suspiciously from where she peeked around the Archmage’s body. “…Is that The Caladonian?”
“Yes Riley.” Enoch chuckled indulgently.
“Why’s he got rocks growing out of his head?”
“Good question.” Enoch admitted, staring openly at the crystalline protrusions at Samuel’s temples. “Why DO you have rocks growing out of your head, uncle?”
“Enough of this!” Jelena demanded, bodily pushing her way between Samuel and Enoch. “Archmage, please. Kevin is…”
Enoch raised an eyebrow questioningly, before turning to look at the Mage seated on the dock. Releasing the Ratatoskr with an absent pat on her clawed hand, he kneeled before the man, unceremoniously pulling the man’s head back and peeling open a half-lidded eye.
“Twenty First… Twenty Ninth… Kevin what did I tell you about this?” Enoch grumbled irritably, sitting cross-legged in front of Kevin and placing his hands upon the man’s shoulders. “Excuse me folks.”
“Archmage?” Jelena queried, taking a step towards the seated mages. Enoch did not respond, sitting with the same blank, non-reactive look as Kevin.
“Tyris be fucking merciful…” Samuel groaned “…BOTH of them?”
“He had you do WHAT?” Jelena exclaimed in shock.
“What? You didn’t know? Jel, I thought you were a Handmaiden of Hathor now…” Riley remarked suspiciously.
“I am, but that doesn’t mean I know everything that happens within the Caretakers!” Jelena retorted incredulously. “Retrieving the Crown of the Pharaoh…”
“Honestly, Once Morgan shadewalked us past the barrier it wasn’t that bad.” Riley explained. “Looks like someone staggered through hundreds of years ago and triggered all the major traps.”
“Huh… Well there’s a childhood legend destroyed.” Kylie muttered.
Alex fixed the Cheshire with a puzzled expression. “Come again, Kylie?”
“My Grandfather, Baron William of Caladon, along with the Lilim Lyra and Sister Superior Magda were amongst those who uncovered the Old City of Hamunapt…” Kylie explained. “…To hear it told, he was the picture of dexterity.”
“…Someone triggered a trap with their face.” Riley remarked disbelievingly.
Kylie fixed the Ratatoskr with a nonplussed expression. “There’s no need to rub it in… Sorry… Who were you again?”
“This is Riley. She’s one of the Caretakers of Duat.” Jelena explained, putting a fond hand on the Squirrel-girl’s shoulder. “Riley, this is…”
“The Handmaiden, Princess of The Hells…” Riley gushed, obviously starstruck. “…It’s an honour, My Lady.”
“I’m nobody’s Lady…” Kylie began instinctively, before a gust of cold air blew open the shutters of the dockhouse they sheltered in, a flurry of snow whipping about them. Alex stood hurriedly, the Paladin forcing the shutters closed by main force.
“Tyris, it’s really blowing a gale out there.” Alex remarked with concern, peeking through a gap in the wooden slats towards the docks, obscured now by heavy snowfall.
“I hope they’re alright.” Jelena mused concernedly. “Maybe I should…”
Kylie felt eyes on her, and turned to see the curious figure of Reitia staring pointedly at her, her blue eyes luminous in the dimness of the dockhouse. The girl was so… strange! Kylie had instinctively avoided the young Mamono after she had somehow leeched Apophis’s influence from her mind, yet… that gaze… it held a command, a command that Kylie could no longer deny.
“Wait.” The Cheshire interrupted, holding out a violet paw. “I’ll go.”
“Are you… Sure?” Alex asked “I mean, all things considered…”
“What, are you afraid I’ll get stuck in the snow?” Kylie jested, forcing lightness into her tone, though trepidation sat heavy in her belly. She kissed the paladin lightly on the nose, giving him a smug grin. “I’m a Cheshire, Alex. Nothing keeps me anywhere I don’t want to be.”
Samuel leaned back against the ice-wall, humming an old song to himself as he watched the two mages do not very much of anything. He understood the concept of what was occuring, he had been a major part in explaining to a tearful, terrified Enoch what was happening to him when his power first manifested in youth. He had even attempted to replicate the process, unsuccessfully, whether by action of the Logos or some missing ‘spark’ within himself, he could never be sure… yet to see it before him, he almost understood Enoch’s jealousy at resonant ability. It was knowledge, knowledge he would never be able to truly grasp.
“Maybe it wasn’t just you, Lloyd…” He chuckled softly to the memory of his brother. Once a Paladin, then a Scion of Dumat, and finally transfigured to the Seraphim Lucifer before his fall at the hands of the Dragon, that avatar of Entropy which had threatened the world a lifetime and more past.
“Do you talk to the dead frequently?” A soft, female voice intruded. Samuel turned to see a pair of feral eyes in the dim light of the ice-shelter he had constructed around the meditating mages, before the rest of his Cheshire daughter materialized from nothingness.
“I’ll go, the ice should hold their body heat well enough.” Samuel murmured, gathering himself and crawling towards the tunnel-like entrance.
“Wait, Please…” Kylie entreated uncertainly. “…Father.” She added, the word almost sticking in her throat.
Samuel paused, his shoulders shaking. “If you’re going to torture me…” He grated “…I beg you. In the name of all the Gods. Do anything but that.”
“I don’t…” Kylie began, puzzled, before the reality hit her. “Oh! Oh… I…” She choked, tears blurring her vision. What had she done? The pain that radiated from the man was nearly palpable. She vanished from physical reality, passing through space in the curious manner instinctively known to her people, breaking back through in a heartbeat to stand before his kneeling form. She pulled him up to stand before her, somewhat stooped in the low ice-shelter.
“Daddy…” She grated, forcing her arms about the man. He stood frozen for a moment, before his own hands tentatively encircled her shoulders. She felt so safe… Why had she ever hesitated? “I’m sorry! I’m so so sorry!” she wailed openly, feeling her heart melt in her father’s arms. “I-I know there’s no way you can forgive me for the way I’ve acted.”
“Kylie…” Samuel murmured harshly into her hair “…my sweet little kitten… there is nothing. NOTHING you could do that I cannot forgive. I love you so, so much.”
Kylie blinked. “B-but… It’s been…”
“Forty years since your mother?” Samuel drawled gently, kissing her on the forehead. “Against the better part of half a millenium? You underestimate my stubbornness, sweetheart.”
“Mother always said I got it from you…” Kylie half-sulked into Samuel’s chest.
Samuel held her close. “Be that as it may. Forty years or forty thousand… You’re my little girl. I will never, ever stop loving you.”
The Cheshire and the Resonant stood thus for a moment, relishing in closeness so recently restored. As the moment passed however, Kylie turned her head up to look her father in his grey-green eyes. “I want the truth now. Was there really nothing you could have done?”
Samuel met her eyes with his own, sighing as he broke the gaze. “I could have commanded the Logos to phase the world in time with her own failing body. Give her another ten years, maybe twenty, at the expense of millions of lives. You knew your mother, little kitten… Do you think she could have looked at me knowing this?”
“No.” Kylie admitted, guilt once again burning like acid. “I should have listened to you… to Corvus… How much time have we wasted…”
“We have all the time in the world.” Samuel assured her, kissing her again on the crown of her violet-haired head.
“Well finally…” Enoch coughed, staggering to his feet, pulling a groaning Kevin up along with him. “…Honestly if this broke fifty years I was going to beat sense into the both of you.”
“Enoch, Kevin!” Samuel exclaimed with a relieved sigh. “Everything’s…”
“Let’s get inside.” Enoch interjected, blasting the ice shelter to tinkling pieces with a casual charge of arcane energy. “This is not a conversation I want to have twice.”
“T-Tyris…” Kevin gasped, his teeth chattering as the cruel winds bit at him.
“I still don’t understand.” Jelena insisted, clasping Kevin to her fiercely as if afraid the mage would slip away again.
“How best to put it…” Enoch mused, tapping a finger against his lips. “…Young Kevin here has essentially decided to take the abridged version of nearly a century’s worth of careful study.”
“I remember when Elamiael inscribed the Intersections.” Samuel interjected in puzzlement. “I remember when Raphael sought to disrupt them. How could he… Kevin, are you absolutely SURE…”
“My Lord Samuel…” Kevin began, gently pushing Jelena off him. “…I don’t know why or how the path appeared before me… I don’t know why I felt obligated to follow it. But I can’t deny what’s happened. For good or for ill, I am…”
“He is…” Enoch interrupted. “…Through the Gods only know what agency, My peer. Tyris be merciful, I must acknowledge him Archmage of the Prime Decahedron!”
“Uh… Maybe I’m missing something…” Riley added, raising a clawed paw, her thick, fluffy tail standing stiff along her back. “But isn’t that a GOOD thing?”
“It is.” Reitia acknowledged, walking over to Kevin and giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek, before fixing the Caladonians in turn with a level stare. “I will never understand you Humans. You’re given exactly what you need, and you’re still obsessed on WHY.”
“I’ve heard that before…” Samuel replied suspiciously. “…It was a favourite lament of…”
“My Father?” Reitia interjected, grey wings shifting unconsciously as she stared down the Resonant.
“Reitia… What are you?” Samuel demanded, much differently from the laments of the Girtablilu, or the fragment of Apophis’s power.
“Can you bear it, Uncle Samuel?” Reitia asked, almost desperately. “Can you really?”
“Try me.” Samuel smirked. Reitia took a deep breath, her eyes closing for a moment, before she opened them once again, as reality seemed to hold its breath, the world shuddering to stillness in the close air of the dockhouse.
“So…” Samuel gasped, his eyes eager as the world drew in breath once again. “…It really comes down to this.”
“Yes.” Reitia answered, turning from the Resonant to his Cheshire daughter, embracing her impulsively. “Thank you.”
“W-what?” Kylie blurted in confusion.
Reitia nestled her blue-haired head against the cheshire’s shoulder, her lupine ears flicking absently in the cold air. “You let Love return. You didn’t have to, but you did.”
Wordlessly, Kylie reached out a furred paw towards her father, the resonant taking it without hesitating, his eyes filled with love.
“Praise Tyris.” Alex murmured around the lump growing in his throat.
“The problem with having power over life and death is the occasional obligation to use it…” – Saint Bruce the Vigilant: A Collection.
“Bastard cold. How the Yeti bear it…” Enoch muttered, shaking snow from his cloak as they ducked beneath the low doorway of the inn. “…I’ll never know.”
“Are you sure this is it, My Lord?” Alex murmured, his mailed hand straying to the hilt of his sword as the paladin noticed the flinty gaze of the Nordenlanders in the smoky taproom turned to study their party.
“This is Valhael.” Samuel assured him with a slight pat on his shoulder, before turning to approach the innkeeper, greeting the man with open hand, his cowl once again covering the crystalline growths at his temples. “The Blessing of Tyris, and of His Son Corvus be upon you.”
“And upon you, stranger.” The innkeep sighed, clearly relieved, taking the Resonant’s forearm in a curious grip. “What brings you to Valhael?”
“Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Corvus.” Jelena replied, her digitigrade hooves loud on the slate floor. “And it has been a long and tiring journey.”
“Please. Sit.” The Innkeep insisted, wiping his hands on a stained rag before gesturing towards a nearby table. “I will bring ale and stew to warm you.”
“Why’s everybody on edge in here?” Riley asked in a soft voice, glancing about as the Nordenlanders returned to their drinks, food and conversation.
“Don’t often get strangers this far north.” Samuel replied, murmuring thanks as the Inkeep placed steaming bowl and perspiring tankard in front of him. “And all things considered…”
“You.” A nearby Nordenlander interrupted, putting a hand on Alex’s mailed arm. “You’re Tyrisian, yes?”
“What of it, friend?” Alex replied evenly, standing to face the man. It had never been entirely clear at what point an anointed member of the Faith Militant mastered the art of ‘looming’, but Alex was demonstrating the skill in spades.
“We have need of you.” The man replied, unphased by Alex’s posturing, jerking his head towards his fellows, who stood purposefully.
“Goodmen…” Enoch entreated in an obvious attempt to salvage the situation. “…We are fatigued from long travel. Might this wait until we have somewhat recovered?”
“No.” The man stated. “Follow if you wish, but the Paladin must come.”
“Rest.” Samuel stated simply with a heavy sigh to the rest of the party. “Alex and I will be right back.”
The Nordenlander grunted approval, gesturing for Paladin and Resonant to accompany him back out into the cold. The pair followed the burly, taciturn humans to an open square where a small group had gathered.
“Aeldermann…” One of the Nordenlanders called to a robed, hooded figure. “…This one is a Paladin of Tyris, a Bearer of The Divine Law.”
The hooded figure stumped towards them, looking speculatively at the young Paladin. “Do you bear the Anointing of the Rafnsfadda?” He demanded.
“I wield the Benedictus of The God…” Alex replied in puzzled confirmation “…But surely if…”
“Bring them forth.” The Aeldermann ordered, cutting Alex off. A trio of figures were roughly manhandled from a nearby hut, the clink and clatter of cold iron ringing in the frosty air as the shackles binding them rattled. Two were clearly Mamono, their dusky skin and hellfire-dripping eyes belying their hellborne origins, the third, human, peering through one pained, sky-blue eye, the other half of his face swollen and bruised.
“Apophean Demons.” Samuel murmured in surprise at the sight of the bat-winged Mamono.
“Rollo Julhaigson…” The Aeldermann began “…You stand accused of conspiracy and collusion with these agents of the False Goddess. Before this Servant of the Most High, do you have anything to say to mitigate your sin?”
“I am your King!” The man grated. “You cannot…”
“You WERE our King.” The Aeldermann interrupted. “But we will never bend knee to one who slights The Most High, who consorts with she who laid low the Holy Raven of the Nordenlandsreich.”
“I am not…” Alex began hesitantly.
“You are annointed. Likely the only one we will see before spring thaw, and we do not have so much as to keep such as him to the detriment of good folks.” the Aeldermann retorted.
Alex sighed, his breath a gout of mist in the cold. “Very well…” He conceded, still clearly not happy about the situation. “Do you confess to this Sin?” He asked, looking levelly at the shackled, beaten human.
“Look around you, Paladin!” The once-king demanded “One generation of cold war, and the mighty city of Valhael is reduced to so much wattle and daub within the ruins! We MUST have peace…”
“Peace…” Alex echoed, seething, the concept lighting a fire behind his eyes. ‘…With a pretender not of this world?”
“So? You went through the seminary, as did I! What’s the first rule of conquest? The difference between an occupying raider and a liege lord is recognition, Paladin!” Rollo scoffed. “Peace is made in such ways.”
“Slaves are made in such ways!” Alex retorted hotly. “And she cast down the Raven. For that crime alone she can never be forgiven. In the sight of Holy Tyris I find you guilty of the Sin of Heresy.”
“Thank you for ensuring that the Law is obeyed, your worship…” the Aeldermann replied, raising his craggy, cold-etched face to the sky. “…Valkyrie!”
“Tyris!” Alex gasped, wide eyed as tall, armored women landed around the demons and human on storm-grey wings. “Angels? Here?”
“Not Angels, Alex…” Samuel corrected. “…Something new…”
“Blood Eagle them.” The Aeldermann ordered, the Valkyrie roughly seizing the shackle-clad trio and bearing them across a low, wooden bench.
“I shall not scream!” Rollo yelled defiantly.
“You are entitled to what honour that restores you… should you manage it.” The Aeldermann shrugged as the condemned man’s back was laid bare. With cruel blades, the Valkyrie opened him to the spine, peeling back the skin before chopping through his crimson-coated ribs. True to his word, Rollo gave little more than a wheezing gurgle as his lungs were pulled through the holes to be flattened down his bloodsoaked back and he finally succumbed to death.
“Demons aren’t so fussy…” Samuel remarked with a wince as the wings were bodily pulled from the demons by the armored Valkyrie, the angelic Mamono showing no more emotion than one would upon de-winging a fly, as they dismembered the Demons piecemeal by main force. The Demons gave voice to piercing shrieks which caused all bar the armored, winged women to cover their ears.
“Julhaigsen… I know his line.” Alex remarked as the Valkyrie continued their butchery of the Demons. “Admired it since I could read. The Philosopher-King Julhaig, One of the first of the Sovereigns after the Redemption. You knew his son, I believe.”
“Ansgar.” Samuel agreed.
“Rollo had no heirs… well, none that could be acknowledged. I’ve just ended the line of Sovereigns in the Nordenlands.” Alex admitted with grim finality.
“You upheld the Law AND the Faith, Alex.” Samuel assured him. “I couldn’t have chosen any differently had the choice been mine.”
“Do we ever get a choice, My Lord?”
Samuel shook his head, sighing deeply as the demons stopped their screaming. “Sometimes I wonder, Alex… Sometimes I wonder…”
“So evidently…” Kylie mused, stretching out langouriously on the bed. “…Father doesn’t have any issues with you being in my bed.”
Alex peered over his shoulder, pausing in his removal of his armor. “This is my bed.”
“Pfft. Details.” Kylie waved a violet paw dismissively, propping herself up on an elbow and gazing at the Paladin with smouldering eyes.
“You haven’t told him, have you?” Alex remarked cynically.
“We’re about six hours removed from our only interaction in the last half-century being me insulting him and him wincing.” Kylie sighed exasperatedly. “Give me a little time to warm up to the concept of telling him that I’m riding his attendant like an unbroken pony.”
“I will admit…” Alex sighed in relief as his gambeson came loose “…The concept of telling The Disciple that I’m railing his baby girl an inch into the mattress isn’t exactly the most appealing concept in the world.”
“Ohhh?” Kylie purred, the Cheshire roughly pulling the paladin’s woolen undersmock off his torso and dragging her claws lightly down his chest. “Only an inch? Are you shortchanging me, your Worship?”
Alex chuckled, before something seemed to catch in his chest, and his throaty laughter turned to wracking sobs.
“Alex?” Kylie murmured in concern, taking the Paladin by the shoulders, giving a soft grunt of impact as he gripped her to him with surprising force.
“Am I a terrible person, Handmaiden?” Alex grated through his tears.
“Are you fucking with me right now?” Kylie asked incredulously “What could possibly make you think…”
“I murdered a family today.” Alex interrupted. “King Rollo, and his Consort and Daughter. They’d gone over to Apophis, much like Emperor Julius in the Westerlands… but… I still gave the order. I murdered them.”
“You’re an idiot.” Kylie declared, turning the Paladin’s face up to face hers, a downy stubble finally dusting the human’s cheeks after his healing. “I’ve been hunting the Apopheans for almost longer than you’ve been alive, and I don’t regret a single life I’ve taken. If all there was to her was some egotistical snake-goddess from some other plane of existence, we might learn to live in peace. But there’s more to her… something dark… something consuming. And that’s WITHOUT that she has Entropy itself snapping at the bars of reality behind her. All who serve her work against life itself, didn’t the business with the Girtablilu on the icerunner demonstrate that?”
“Then why do I feel so…” Alex demanded through his tears
“Because you’re what Tyris had in mind when He anointed the Paladins.” Kylie assured him, stroking his hair with her velveteen paw. “Maou dammit, you Care. I see it with everything you do! You… You make me want to be better.”
“I never really thought about what I did until I met you, Kylie. Maybe it’s a me thing, maybe it’s a human thing, but I did what I did because it’s what I was meant to do…” Alex replied, dashing his tears as if embarrassed by them. “…You make me want to know. To Understand. Does… does that make any sense?”
“Shut up and kiss me already.” Kylie demanded. “Before we both say something we’ll HAVE to approach father about.”
“Do you mean…” Alex began hesitantly, hopefully.
“Later.” Kylie insisted, pressing an amethyst, velveteen digit to his lips. “When this is done. When we’ve won.”
“You believe we’ll win?” Alex asked
“For good or for ill, I have my father’s stubbornness.” Kylie chuckled, leaning in to kiss the Paladin lingeringly “If he can’t quit, neither can I.”
“Your life will fade but not end, because you cannot truly die where the dead live.” – Ammitian benediction to a Necromancer initiate.
“It looks like…” Jelena mused, shielding her face in the cowl of her cloak as best she could against the biting wind.
“A smithy.” Samuel finished for her. “Erik’s smithy. The man who raised Corvus before He came into His birthright.”
“Tyris…” Kevin gasped as they entered the rough-hewn building. The evidence of a long-abandoned forge lay here and there, untouched but for the long passage of years.
“Don’t!” Alex warned as Riley reached out to study an unremarkable tool, caked in dust. “This place is sacred.”
“Maou’s ample bosom… was just looking…” The squirrel-girl mumbled abashedly. “…No need to take my tail off.”
“Look with your eyes, little one.” Enoch chuckled indulgently, pausing as Alex drew his sword, kneeling before the simple altar which had been built over the ringed stone of the forge proper.
“Hear me, Lord Corvus. Son of Heaven, Son of Hell…” Alex prayed fervently “…You who are the Divine Raven, the silent wing of promise and of all things hidden. May You never be forgotten. May Your name be praised until the stars burn out in the Dark Beyond. In the name of your Most Holy Father Tyris, The God Above All, and of Your Mother Maou, Glorious All-Mother of Creation.
“All Glory to the Most High…” The humans concluded, raising their hands in the Sign of the Sunburst.
“…For Maou and Mamono.” The Mamono added, folding hands and paws across their hearts.
“I love you, Daddy…” Reitia added in a voice almost too soft to hear. “…Hurry back to me.”
“So many years…” A harsh voice, thin and dry as paper in the desert wind interrupted, a cowled and twisted figure shambling from the darkness of the neglected building beyond “…Do I even believe? Or are you more memories, sent to torment me?”
“Who are you, creature?” Kevin demanded, arcane power crackling in his fists as he glared suspiciously.
“Calm yourself, Archmage…” The figure ordered, a wizened hand pointing at the human in warning. “…The Seer of the Nordenlandsreich is not without his own power. And if you raise your hand against me, I assure you, you will die.”
“The Seer!” Jelena gasped, moving towards the figure and drawing back her hood. “Blessed one, we have…”
“I know why you have come, Jelena… Handmaiden of Hathor, Priestess of the Final Judgement.” The Seer interjected absently, disregarding them, grunting as he bent to study the unflinching face of Reitia, the blue-haired Mamono’s ears twitching and her wings shifting. Her delicate brow furrowed at the figure’s study, until her eyes widened in surprise.
“How? How is it even possible?” She gasped. “For you to have…”
“How?” The Seer chuckled, a wizened finger tracing along her smooth cheek. “The question I have long despaired of ever finding an answer for. How… Why…”
“Y-you shouldn’t need…” Reitia stammered, uncertainty in her voice.
“You’re so young, Rafnsdottir… so young… so pure…” The Seer continued “…Do you think they will not look at you with suspicious eyes?”
“I am not…” Reitia began, trembling at the seer’s cowled gaze like a mouse caught in the stare of a serpent.
“So much time spent protecting them from what you truly fear… Can YOU handle it, Rafnsdottir? Can YOU bear the weight?”
“I-it’s so big…” Reitia whimpered.
“…I can’t take it all…”
“Leave her be!” Alex roared, his body and blade igniting with the golden light of the Benedictus, that curious blessing of The God on His anointed Paladins. Kylie quickly burst from reality, appearing before the incensed man, desperately holding him back against that grim promise of mortality.
“So Noble…” The Seer chuckled, straightening and beginning to remove his cowling. Jelena and Riley shrieked as the wizened creature was revealed to them, what should have been beautiful beyond measure now twisted and crippled, even as much as the six mangled, necrotic wing-stubs which twitched against his spine. Dead eyes the blue of a frozen lake glittered as they panned across the party. “…Do you think Nobility will deliver you? That Faith will matter in the end?”
“Oh Rhaziael…” Samuel lamented pityingly “…What has happened to you?”
“Merciful Ammit!” Enoch gasped in shock. “The Seer… He is the Seraphim Rhaziael?”
“My Brother’s predecessor in Angelic Ascendance, yes.” Samuel admitted heavily.
“Ah Lucifer. So confident. So strident. So powerful… So wrong.” Rhaziael spat.
“Blasphemy!” Kevin exhorted hotly, rushing forward to be halted by Enoch’s outstretched arm.
“Calm yourself…” the elder mage growled.
“But the Fallen Ones breathed Magic back into Man!” Kevin objected fervently, outrage writ large on his face. “Brought it back at the command of The God!”
“Such is YOUR tradition…” Rhaziael chuckled. “…The Hidden Circle of Magi. A massacre once again swaddled in the mythology of man. All in agony we fell from grace. All subjected to the lusts and frailties of this imperfect sphere. All doomed to rut and toil and sicken and die. We! Who were ascendant beyond all others! All for man… all with His blessing. It is a travesty.”
“Your Gloriousness.” Enoch interjected pointedly. “We did not come here to be subjected to your own agonizing.”
“You are your Father’s Son…” Rhaziael drawled spitefuly. “…Dismissive in your arrogance. HE did this to me, when I refused to leave the Heavens and fight in his pointless war against Entropy. The braggart in his Hubris refused to acknowledge the GIFT that The God had given to me… Me! It was I whom The God showed the web of Fate Unshrouded, even before Corvus! I who have seen the End in all its forms! Morning Star… Such presumption. He cast me out… Cast me out unto the earth. My only comfort to know that he was not long to follow.”
“My orphaning is an amusement to you?” Enoch seethed, and now it was Kevin’s turn to hold the white-haired man back.
“This is pointless, Rhaziael!” Samuel insisted “Why are you doing this?”
“What do you care, Caladonian? Are you even truly of this world any longer? You feel it growing within you, don’t you? I know the machinations of The Logos, oh yes… I saw the whirlwind that shapes reality when I was but a man. The construct that zookeeper from some distant star put within you? How long until the urge to RETURN becomes too great? Will the fleshless builders of that alien hive allow you to keep this form? A memento? A curiosity for an existence long since declared obsolete…”
“Stop it!” Riley shrieked, her tail bottlebrushed up as she strode forward to confront the twisted Seraph “We’re not afraid of you!”
“No… You’re afraid of what that thing in the deeps told you… before she claimed your Peter…” Rhaziael mocked, turning to leer at the Ratatoskr. “…They will leave you alone. All of them. Alone and so very far away…”
“F-Fuck you!” The Ratatoskr snarled, pulling something from a pouch at her belt “Because she told me something else too, and at the moment, I like her better than you!”
“Riley, what are you…” Jelena gasped as the squirrel girl threw the object to the floor, the glass phylactery shattering into a million pieces. A howling filled the air around them, savage and bell-toned.
“Shades?” Rhaziael laughed derisively. “I have been tortured by the memory of countless…”
“Raoul…” A man’s voice interjected, the wispy form of a ghost materializing before the Fallen Angel.
“No. You’re gone. I refuse to…” the Seraphim stated flatly, shying away from the spirit.
“You are better than this, old mate. The God gave you a gift. A gift you have squandered on the fleeting pleasures of flesh, birthing those half-breeds on frightened and credulous girls.” The Shade remonstrated.
“My Valkyrie are…”
“Your Valkyrie? Then why don’t they stay?” The shade demanded.
“Not you too Adam… Not you too…” Rhaziael begged, suddenly seeming very weak.
“This really isn’t on, Blondie.” A Kobold shade added, materializing to stand next to the first.
Rhaziael grimaced as if in pain. “Blue, you could never understand.”
“Father…” a diminutive shade sighed sadly, appearing to join the other two, shaking its head sadly, the faint image of two rounded, furred ears atop its head, twin-thumbed hands reaching beseechingly towards the Seraphim.
“Don’t… You don’t know…” Rhaziael lamented, curling his twisted form up and covering his ruined features in wizened hands.
“Maou be Gracious!” Kylie gasped, collapsing backwards into Kevin’s surprised grip. “T-That’s Lady Calliope! The Saviour of Wonderland!”
“I am bested… Tyris damn it all, I am bested…” Rhaziael moaned. “…I could never refuse you.”
“Then fulfil your destiny.” The Human shade insisted. “We did it once at Thealiss against the ending of a world. You can do it… And we’ll be waiting for you at the end. All of us.”
The Seraphim rose to his knees, hanging his head in shame. “I’m afraid.”
The Koala shade drifted forwards, placing her etherial lips upon Rhaziael’s wizened brow, before like an errant wisp of smoke, the trio vanished to that savage howling of that unseen spirit-pack.
“Why couldn’t you attack me?” Rhaziael begged, facing the group once again. “You would have died, and been free of the terrible future to come.”
“Apophis CANNOT win.” Samuel insisted.
“Is that what Kauket is calling Herself now?” Rhaziael spat derisively through blackened teeth. “The destroying serpent… How appropriate. You don’t understand, Resonant. Kauket has not just allied with Entropy. She is its Harbinger, across worlds and realities beyond counting, and at the end of all things, It will consume her, just as it consumed Wonderland.”
“Then it’s true… the old legends…” Kylie gasped in revelation.
“I sacrificed my humanity, My friend and erstwhile pupil, Adam of Gibson Holding risked his sanity, The Princesses of Hell their very existence, to save your world. Yes.” Rhaziael admitted cynically. “For all the good it did us.”
“All the good?” Kylie echoed incredulously. “For Thousands of years have the children of Wonderland given thanks to the Child of the Australs, to the Lady Calliope, and to the Seraphim Rhaziael for our deliverance.”
“What are you…” Rhaziael demanded as Kylie deliberately strode towards him.
“Thank you.” Kylie breathed fervently, taking the twisted remnant in a sincere embrace. “Thank you for all the happy times my people have remembered through the centuries.”
The Seraphim hesitantly returned the embrace. “This… This was not foreseen…” he mused in amazement. “You should still be…”
“In thrall to Apophis?” Kylie replied, turning her head to smile gratefully at Reitia. “I had someone remind me that Love conquers All.”
Rhaziael gently pushed the Cheshire away, rising again to his feet. “You may yet curse this day.” He warned. “You must walk the web… reach back into time long past… for the blessing came too soon, and the blessed far too late. Ilias was the error which birthed the sorrow of all that lived, and not all of you will return.”
“We will pay whatever cost.” Jelena declared defiantly. “And stand before the scales of Ma’at proudly.”
“You will find…” Rhaziael remarked absently. “…that death is the greatest kindness I could have given.”
“That will be our burden, Rhaziael.” Samuel stated simply.
“Will you greet me as a Brother of the Lodge, Samuel of Caladon?”
Samuel frowned in puzzlement. “You are Unawakened. You are Inhuman. How can I greet you?”
“Much is lost when Man Ascends to Glory, yet much remains…” The Seraphim mused, before lashing out, lightning quick, placing his wizened hand upon Samuel’s brow. “…And I remember.”
“…Man has no body distinct from the Soul…” – The Collected Wisdom of Divine Amaranth.
“Master…” The High Priestess interjected. “…This cannot be all that remains.”
“V3R1T4S is otherwise occupied, but one assures you, aside from him, all one’s present platforms are within the Lodge.” Mnemosyne replied from the high seat, her glittering eyes unreadable, her crystal-latticed form so still as to be almost imperceptible against the surrounding shimmer of the uniformly crystalline walls.
“How is this possible?” a bald man wielding a deacon’s staff lamented in disbelief. “We were hundreds… The Emperor of the Aestenlands… surely he…”
“Gone. Surrendered to the seduction of the Intruder. Removing his interface was regrettably necessary.”
“Our agents in Heliopolis and Memphis!” A ruddy-skinned man blustered, blowing air through walrus-like mustaches.
“R3TR1BU5 was the last… and faithful to the very end. And now Heliopolis is no more, and the Intruder given pause, however momentarily.”
“One did what needed to be done.” Mnemosyne declared shortly. “One did not give Maou access to one’s processes. One grudgingly allowed you to remain in the service of Tyris, on the condition of a limitation of his direct influence upon you. Do you think that one would permit this new aggressor to simply capture and twist one’s platforms? You are MINE. More than you ever belonged to these Gods.”
“Heresy!” a few of the resonants shrieked in shock and horror.
“You are all too young to remember… You retain your will because one allows it. You act as you see fit because one permits it. And you will accept one’s directive because one demands it.” Mnemosyne stated.
“What directive?” A grey-haired Noble in the Southern seat asked sternly.
“It ends. I have run countless calculations and all evidence points to the same conclusion. Entropy will be manifest in this reality once more. Even now one feels shifts in subspace one has not felt since the time of the one known as Ilias. And this time the Directive of Corvus shall not turn it aside.”
“So… What? We just give up?” A young resonant demands, descending from the tiered seating. “The Caladonian would laugh in your face, Master.”
“One must accept inevitability. But one does not surrender. One holds the memory of countless millions, the wealth of your species’ knowledge stretching back thousands upon thousands of years. One requires that those of you who remain make the choice.”
The Crystalline form of the incarnate Logos stood from her seat, descending to meet the young resonant on the floor of the lodge. “To Stay, or to Go. Remain, and you will Join with One, your individual perceptiveness and experience melding and becoming a part of one’s greater whole. Go, and one shall remove one’s interface from you as delicately as one can, and you may live your lives as you see fit, yet without the access to the processes which render you ‘Resonant’.
“Become… part of you?” The young resonant echoed hesitantly, the weight of the decision becoming evident.
“One promised. One promised one would never take your choice away from you. But one will not allow everything to be for naught.”
“I cannot.” The High Priestess declared. “To forsake my humanity… It is still a Heresy in the eyes of Holy Tyris.”
“As you will, my friend. One will miss you…” Mnemosyne noted with a tone of sad acceptance. The High Priestess stiffened, gasping, her eyes staring blankly into space, before she collapsed back into her chair with a cry.
“Empty…” She moaned “…it’s so… empty!”
“Are you hale?”
“I’ll survive.” The High Priestess declared, bitter tears standing in her eyes. “Though it will take time to come to terms with your absence… I’ve… I’ve forgotten what it means not to be Resonant.”
“A choice once made, cannot be unmade.” Mnemosyne noted, lifting the priestess gently on cushions of pure force, the Crystal wefting and parting like a door, the lush meadows surrounding Magisterium visible through the portal as she was deposited softly on the grass without.
“Hang it.” The young Resonant declared, kneeling before the crystalline woman. “It’s not like I was doing anything more productive. And it’s not like I was worth a damn before Awakening.”
“You are young. Are you certain you wish to make this choice?”
The young man’s face split in an eager grin. “There is no way in Heaven or Hell I’m missing this adventure.”
“Can you walk, my Lord?” a Priestess asked the silver-haired man where he sat in the grass, watching the receding glimmer of the Logos as it ascended higher and higher into the sky, until it had passed from view. Around them, her fellows were helping the once-resonants to their feet, assisting the less steady into nearby carts.
“Give me your arm, if you please Reverence.” The old man asked, accepting the assistance of the woman. “I feel very old today.”
“Did we do the right thing?” A young man mused, absently wiping a trickle of blood from his nose.
“Only Tyris can know that.” Another priestess replied gently, putting an arm about his shoulders. “Put your faith in Him to guide you, as He guides all Humankind… You know, you’re not very much older than those recruited into the Faith Militant…” She suggested tacitly.
“Me?” The young man chuckled. “The God be gracious, I’d make a terrible Paladin. The Lodge wasn’t sparing with its coin, and it’s not like Mnemosyne really needed anything in terms of creature comforts. I’m thinking I’ll buy a homestead somewhere… Maybe raise horses or something, like my father used to do.”
“A sensible idea, sirrah…” The priestess replied, her eyes faintly naughty “…Mayhap later this evening you could tell me more about it?”
The young man looked at the priestess speculatively, before a slow smile spread hesitantly across his face. “Why not?”
“Poor doomed bastard…” The old man chuckled helplessly from where he sat in the carriage. The once-High Priestess smiled wordlessly, absently squeezing his hand where she sat at his side.
“There…” Rhaziael declared, removing his hand from Samuel’s head. “…It is finished.”
“You… held on to all of these glyphs?” Samuel gasped, the crystals at his temples pulsing with an eldritch glow. “Why?”
“I do not know.” Rhaziael muttered dumbly, his wizened legs giving out underneath him. “But it was my end.”
“You can’t mean…”
The fallen angel coughed, a wet and tearing sound. “I am dying. Finally. After so many years…”
Samuel scoffed. “Don’t be dramatic, I can…”
“No.” Rhaziael started with finality. “It is done. I am done.”
“Where The God hath dictated a Man to die, none may turn him aside from the path.” Alex intoned with a slight note of regret.
Rhaziael grunted his agreement, rolling over to face the Paladin. “Will you Absolve me?”
Alex folded mailed arms across his chest suspiciously. “Will you accept it?”
“My words before were meant to frighten, to enrage… I needed to see that you were committed.” Rhaziael explained before lapsing into coughing again. “Though I still believe your quest doomed.”
“Ammit Will Preserve.” Jelena repeated stubbornly, her bovine tail lashing behind her as she moved to cling to Kevin posessively once again.
“Damn Skippy.” Riley agreed with a note of finality.
“Keep that faith… As one who lost his own… I know how precious it is.” Rhaziael grated. “I must know, young Riley… How did you know that those shades would be my undoing?”
“I didn’t…” Riley admitted. “…Elder Horrors from some Gods-unknown antiquity though, they’re horrible cheats. She said that when fear was overwhelming, and everything seemed at its most hopeless that it would help. To be honest I was hoping it would just set you on fire or something.”
“Ah.” Rhaziael gasped. “Please, Paladin…”
“The God Absolve you your Sins…” Alex intoned, the glow of the Benedictus surrounding him as he lay his hand on the bony, sunken torso of the Seraphim. “…And welcome you unto His Heavens.”
“My God…” Rhaziael choked, foul ichor leaking from his mouth. “…Forgive me… My Weakness…”
The light intensified as Rhaziael’s twisted form began to collapse. From his broken and disintegrating body rose the outline of a winged figure which floated into the air.
“I feel… His Grace! the shade declared in ineffable joy, its voice once more pure and beautiful as it dissipated into the air, the shrine at once lit with holy light, until as soon as it had appeared, it vanished.
“All Glory to the Most High.” Alex intoned reverently, raising his hands in the sign of the sunburst.
“Fantastic. I’m sure that all made a whole bunch of sense to someone…” Enoch remarked cynically before turning to confront Samuel. “…And I hope whatever he pumped into what remains of your brain gave more answers than the pile of vagary and venomous insults I got from it.”
“More ‘How’ than ‘Why’, Nephew…” Samuel drawled “…Surely you must have noticed that The Gods just HATE answering ‘Why’ directly by now, seems that passes to their servants.”
“Blasphemy.” Jelena and Alex both denounced simultaneously.
“They’ll get over it.” Samuel quipped, not even bothering to acknowledge the denunciation.
“Dad. Don’t be cryptic. We were told to come here. And you seem to be the only one who actually GOT anything out of that. So spill.” Kylie demanded.
“There’s really no easy way to say it…” Samuel justified lamely.
“Try.” Kylie drawled, absently sheathing and unsheathing her claws.
“We’re going to kick a hole in Time to the tune of about ten thousand years and change.”
“Merciful Tyris!” Alex choked, wide eyed. “How… Why…”
“Reitia?” Samuel queried with feigned innocence, turning to the Blue haired Mamono. “Why are we kicking a hole in Time?”
“Uncle Samuel, don’t be a bully. You know it was Mother and Father who ordered this pilgrimage.” Jelena chided, releasing Kevin to put a protective arm about her adopted sister.
“That’s not entirely accurate…” Enoch admitted. “…Sorry Reitia, I’m not going to keep up the deception after the fact, especially since you and Samuel seem to be the only ones with any clue as to what happens next. Even Corvus couldn’t see past this Point.”
“Rei?” Jelena gasped.
“I’m sorry Jel… I didn’t think you’d take it seriously coming from me.” Reitia admitted guiltily. “Forgive me?”
“I’m hurt.” Jelena declared, before hugging her sister. “I Love you, Reitia… I would have at least listened to why.”
“But you wouldn’t have understood.” Reitia continued, returning the Taurean’s hug. “Even I only have a… feeling.”
“Well, we’re committed now…” Kevin shrugged resignedly. “…What’s the feeling?”
“I need to find the ones who are for me.” Reitia explained.
“I don’t…” Jelena mused, her brow crinkling beneath her ivory horns, the mages and the paladin likewise looking about in utter incomprehension.
“Seems she had a point.” Riley concluded, absently cleaning some minute debris from her thick, bushy tail.
Black ash and sand turned to glass burst upwards as Apophis emerged from the ruins, the tattered remnants of her finery hanging from her four arms as she shrieked her outrage at the uncaring sky. She looked around, the rich architecture of Heliopolis reduced to so much slag and scorch. Not one stone stood atop another, the wind from the desert blowing its whistling lamentation for hundreds of thousands of lives snuffed out in an instant.
“Meddling alien THING…” Apophis cursed, slithering on serpentine tail until she was fully free of the shattered rubble which once comprised her temple-palace. Focusing her power, she tore a hole in reality, utter nothingness crawling at the edges of the rift.
“Why do you disturb me before all is accomplished, Kauket?” Entropy’s horrifying voice echoed from the nothing. “Is the task I have set for you beyond your capabilities?”
“The construct has interfered. I have been forced to assume this reality sooner than our plans dictated.” Apophis hissed, amethyst features flushed dark with furious embarrassment.
“You are a disappointment… Have always been a disappointment…”
“Watch your words, parasite.” Apophis hissed “Were it not for me you would be naught but the janitor of the myriad universes.”
“And yet again you call on me. First to seize the Raven, then to confound fate by devouring the Favoured One…”
“…A task that a mere HUMAN has stymied you in.” Apophis interjected, her sibliant voice dripping scorn.
“I will relish the Aeons of your consumption…” Entropy growled, the rift shaking with its furious power.
“Not yet.” Apophis retorted smugly “Both of us know that this is not when, or how, it ends.”
“The Raven will falter. I WILL find the Wheel… I will shatter fate and take all of this back to the beginning. To the Holy Stillness before all…” Entropy promised.
“In the meantime…” Apophis spat, waving a long-nailed hand dismissively “…It would benefit you to bolster me appropriately.”
“I Hunger… And I give my Hunger to speed your clumsy machinations…” Entropy conceded, the terrible sound of its voice almost… distracted? Apophis’s slender brows furrowed over her luminescent eyes as she pondered that. She was not given long to do so, however, as as ebon horror pulled itself from the rift. Smoking talons clawed at the earth which withered and cracked at its very touch. Twin carmine eyes glared from a face mercifully obscured by roiling shadow. As if the thing’s act of passing between worlds was all it could bear, the rift warped and shattered in its wake.
“That is all?” Apophis demanded to the empty air where the rift once stood, before studying the horror which regarded her with naked malevolence and terrible desire. “Well this will not do…”
The horror shrieked as dark energy poured from Apophis’s lower pair of hands, the upper two weaving strange somatic gestures, inscribing letters of violet fire upon the air itself. Gradually, surely, it began to change, elongating, splitting, mutating…
“Much better…” Apophis mused, gazing at the shadow-wreathed reflection of herself. “…Go to the Nordenlands. I know you can feel the weight that Abomination is putting on this world as well as I can. I want you to eat her alive. Am I understood?”
With a terrible hissing shriek, the shadow launched itself into the air, hurtling northwards, trailing utter blackness in its wake.
“…Because I’m going to need an astonishing amount of power to fuel it, that’s why.” Samuel explained with a sigh.
“But it’s a waygate…” Riley replied, scampering around the vine-encrusted ruin.
“And do you think we just planted these things at random? Spacetime is not a lovely uniform thing. Reality is a bit…” He trailed off.
“Say it…” Kylie insisted, a smug grin on her face.
“You were five!” Samuel blustered.
“If you loved me you’d say it.”
Samuel glowered at the Cheshire. “That is cruel and unworthy and you are COMPLETELY your mother’s daughter right now.”
The Cheshire burst from reality, appearing in mid air to plant a brief smek on her father’s nose. “Daddy…” She wheedled.
Samuel’s grey-green eyes stared at her levelly. “You’re being very mean, daughter of mine.”
“Saaaay it.” She insisted.
“Fine. Reality’s a bit ‘Wibbly-Wobbly’ in places. Happy?” The Resonant conceded.
Kylie crowed with joy, bursting from reality to appear before Kevin. “Pay up.” she demanded of the mage, holding out her violet paw.
“You actually placed a bet that you could make me say ‘wibbly-wobbly’.” Samuel clarified disbelievingly, before a helpless laugh rolled from his mouth. “I love you…”
“Love you too!” Kylie declared brightly.
“This is nice…” Reitia mused, leaning against Jelena’s arm.
“Nice shit Rei, I’m out fifty silver chalices.” Kevin grumbled, counting the coins into Kylie’s paw.
Jelena leaned up to kiss the mage on the cheek, before hugging her adopted sister. “I know what you mean.”
“Picturesque.” Enoch drawled. “Now. When you say power, are we talking…”
“As soon as I open it, I want you and Kevin to try your very hardest to throw the planet off balance. That should do for a start.” Samuel clarified.
“Surely the Logos…”
“Mnemosyne’s not here, can I take a message?” Samuel retorted absently.
“You know what I mean, uncle.”
“I do, and I didn’t want to panic anyone…” Samuel began, turning briefly to face them all in turn “…But in terms of Resonance? I’m it.”
“Don’t overload us with detail now…” Enoch remarked pointedly.
“Mnemosyne had Corvus bully quite a bit out of Holy Tyris over the last century or so.” Samuel explained. “With that information, she’s come to her own conclusions.”
“Those would be…” Enoch prompted.
“We’re fucked.” Samuel admitted.
“With that kind of bedside manner you should have been a healer.” Enoch accused, absently holding Riley against himself as the squirrel-girl clung to him with a gasp of horror.
“In the words of Saint Bruce the Vigilant, ‘Bugger that.” Samuel scoffed dismissively. “I’ve seen GODS be wrong enough times in the last half-century to know that almost nobody’s seen the full hand yet…. And if anyone says anything APPROACHING ‘Blasphemy’, I shall sit you upside down for a while to think about who you’re talking to.”
“Clearly a view you don’t share, Lord Samuel.” Kevin remarked, clearing his throat. “So what happened to the Logos then?”
“Gone… Out there… back to… wherever it was she came from, bearing the memory of over twelve eons of Human history.… Ten thousand years after the fact, mind… I just hope The Builders still remember they sent her out in the first place.” Samuel explained, waving absently at the sky.
Enoch’s platinum brow furrowed in puzzlement. “But without the Logos, how can you be expected to…”
“Welcome to the answer to ‘Why do you have rocks growing out of your head.” Samuel chuckled. “She’s given me enough. A seed-matrix on twenty years of the silicate version of Manticore Venom. It’ll be enough, provided we get this right first time.”
“Mister Caladonian sir…” Riley ventured, tugging on his sleeve. “…Can we help?”
Samuel looked down at her, briefly taking a knee and mussing the Ratatoskr’s hair. “Believe, Caretaker of Duat. I’ve seen faith do some amazing things too.”
“That I can totally do.” Riley declared with a grin like the sun coming up.
“Pray with me, Riley.” Jelena beckoned, Riley scampering over to join the Taurean Priestess in prayer.
“Don’t suppose your stepsisters are looking for something to do?” Samuel asked his Cheshire daughter.
“Telia and Xera are currently fighting a running war with Apopheans in the Maelbolge.” Kylie shrugged apologetically. “Hell’s been getting hit pretty hard.”
“Wish you’d have told me that ten years ago…” Samuel sighed resignedly.
“We were fighting… also I was kind of possessed…” Kylie remarked. “…Besides. There’s not a war that’s been waged that Salethiael can’t find the tender spot on.”
“The Warlord?” Samuel replied surprisedly. “…Tell him he still owes me a solar mark.”
“Assuming we live through this…”
“…We’ve got this kid.” Samuel assured her. “Kevin? Enoch?”
“Ready, Uncle.” Enoch assured him.
“I’m ready. M’lord.” Kevin agreed.
“Now remember what I showed you when we walked The Path.” Enoch reminded the younger mage, before the two began inscribing mystical symbols written in white fire upon the air in front of them. Samuel nodded, adding Resonant Glyphs which spun in the open air of the waygate, until the space within began to shimmer and warp.
“My Lords!” Alex cried in alarm, pointing a mailed finger at the sky as a shrieking, black shape hurtled towards them.
“Ammit be Merciful…” Jelena lowed, staring wide-eyed at the four-armed shadow-serpent which screamed with a terrible hunger. “…is that her?”
“Worse.” Reitia cried. “Much, Much worse!”
“Quickly! Get through!” Samuel yelled, and Alex shoved the Mamono towards the waygate, pausing briefly to kiss the blade of his sword.
“In the Name of Tyris!” Alex yelled, slicing the air and sending an arc of golden energy hurtling at their attacker. It impacted, slowing it slightly… oh so slightly… Yet enough that they were all through. With a scream of frustration, the shadow clawed its way through the portal, following them into the unknown depths of Time and Space.
“What is this place?” Jelena gasped, looking at the shifting, lurid patterns they hurtled through.
“Raw Time, Love…” Kevin explained. “…We see it sometimes when we walk The Path.”
“The Screamy thing’s following us!” Riley declared, pointing in their wake where a figure of utter blackness was gaining on them. Gradually, but with an implacable certainty.
“How far are we?” Enoch demanded.
“S-seven… huh-hundred… Gnyahhhhh!” Samuel screamed, his mind scourged by the sheer EFFORT of moving them through Time.
“Too Slow…” Enoch cursed.
“We’re not going to make it, are we Archmage?” Kevin sighed resignedly.
Enoch took a deep breath before looking at his younger peer. “…You are.”
“Wait… What are you…” Kevin began.
“OD ODO A CICALE DE ZOMDV GOAANU” Enoch intoned, touching Kevin’s brow, a triskelion of pure light burning itself there. “You are the Tetrarch now! Save them!” He demanded, loosing himself from the wake of their passage and hurtling himself back at the shadow-creature pursuing them.
“Mister Nocky!” Riley shrieked, reaching imploringly after him with a clawed hand as he impacted with the shadow, the pair of them tumbling into unknown Time.
“Ammit Bless you and Weigh your Heart Lightly.” Jelena choked, holding Riley against her as the pair wept together.
“Kevin…” Samuel begged. “…I need… More…”
The sigil upon his brow glowing in the twilight of Time, Kevin instinctively summoned magics beyond reckoning, reality itself screaming as they hurtled into eons past.
“The point is…” Enoch remarked almost conversationally, pounding the shadow with another volley of arcane bolts where they warred on the mercifully empty field where Time had at last vomited the foes into reality, “…That you failed. You might defeat me, in fact I’d say your odds are fairly promising… that cut on my shoulder definitely feels like something’s in my bloodstream. But you still failed. You’ll take one mage. Good on you. In fifteen years there will be a hundred just like me.”
“YOUR GUARDIAN HAS FLED! YOUR WORLD WILL BURN!” The shadow howled, retorting with another shuddering wave of darkness.
“Not while the Circle remains.” Enoch retorted evenly, weathering the assault from behind elaborate mystical barriers. Levitating himself into the air, he called upon the deepest reserves of his magic, mystical sigils whirling about him like snowflakes in a blizzard. “I am the Son of the Morning Star! Come, spawn of destruction, give me everything you have, show me at the last that you’re a foe worth ANYTHING but my scorn!”
The shadow-serpent pulled together a roiling mass of utter nothingness, a negation of existence made manifest. Enoch gritted his teeth, bracing for that final impact…
…When a screaming ball of incandescent flame plummeted from the heavens to strike the shadow dead on, obliterating it in a shockwave of unimaginable power. Enoch tumbled over and over on the field, groaning as he came to rest, hugging what certainly felt like fractured ribs.
“Lord Tyris…” he grumbled, staggering to his feet and looking heavenward. “…You really are against me having something resembling a beautiful death, aren’t you?”
The impact crater smoked as Enoch approached, arcane energy crackling in his free hand as the moist loam hissed. Another sound intruded as the archmage peered through the smoke…
“Is this your idea of a joke?” Enoch demanded, pushing away the smoke with a wave of force, snarling as he raised his hand… and pausing as he beheld the blonde figure cowering in tattered remnants of finery within the crater. She was angelic, tattered and bleeding nubs at her back speaking of what were once mighty wings, a broken, half-melted diadem hanging lopsidedly on her brow, remnants of a blood-red jewel sitting shattered in its center.
“W-where am I?” The figure pleaded “W-what’s happening?”
“You… Fell.” Enoch replied dumbly. “Who are you?”
“M-my name’s Ilias…” The woman replied hesitantly “…Please, I don’t remember… where’s my sister? Where’s Lilith? Father will be ever so angry that we’ve been away so long.”
“Tyris be Glorified!” Enoch gasped, snapping arcs of power bursting into life around him as he recoiled in shock.
“Please!” Ilias begged “Please! I’m afraid! I want to go home…”
“So this is what the Logos did to you…” Enoch breathed, eyes wide with revelation.
“It hurts so much…” Ilias wept, grasping spasmodically at wings that were no longer there.
Enoch’s emotions were a tumult within his breast. Chronicles beyond counting were written about the vast and unbridled cruelty of Ilias, God-Before-Tyris. Her crimes were beyond counting, her malice unmatched…
“Are you a God?” Ilias asked, crawling on shaking limbs towards the Mage.
“No.” Enoch replied warily, not lowering his guard.
“Oh.” Ilias sniffed, hugging her filthy knees to her chest. “…I think… I think I am… Or… I was meant to be… But I got lost, and now everything’s different, and I don’t know where I am.”
…But this was nothing but a frightened girl, staring up at him with pleading eyes. He felt no power within her, nothing of the PRESENCE he associated with the Divines. Even angels brooked greater potential than this poor broken thing which sat on the ground, crying… crying…
Enoch’s heart melted. “Come here.” He beckoned, lowering his barriers, holding out a hand. Tentatively, Ilias put her delicate hand in his. Enoch held her gently against himself, calling upon healing magics to salve their wounds in turn.
“I know you…” Ilias breathed in wonder and the blissful absence of pain.
“You’re mistaken.” Enoch replied gruffly, trying to resist those grateful eyes which pulled at him in a way he had never felt before.
“I do! I’ve… I’ve always known you…” Ilias insisted, putting a slender hand to his cheek.
“Enough of that.” Enoch blustered, moving her hand away from his face. “Let’s find some shelter. Someone will be along soon. I know it.”
“Alright…” Ilias acceded. Enoch led the fragment of a fallen God away from the smoking crater towards the treeline. The land felt… familiar. Surely that mountain range… It couldn’t be.
“Caladon.” Enoch chuckled helplessly, recognising the landscape.
“That’s a pretty name.” Ilias remarked innocently, staring up at the Archmage with luminous eyes. Enoch spared a glance at her… and noticed he was holding her hand… and he was having a very hard time letting go.
“Oh Gods…” He vowed in the vaults of his mind “…When I face the scales of Ma’at, I’d better not find out that this was your idea of a joke.”
“Done…” Reitia smiled absently, her eyes distant.
“What’s that Rei?” Jelena murmured as the group continued their mad hurtle through Time.
“Nothing… Everything… Something Wonderful.” The blue-haired Mamono sighed happily.
“My Lords? How far are we?” Alex prompted.
“Nine Thousand… Gah… And change.” Samuel grunted, bleeding freely from his nose.
“Are you Hale, My Lord?” Alex prompted in concern.
“Better.” Samuel admitted through gritted teeth. “Whatever… A Tetrarch is… Kevin… is channelling power… I never thought possible.”
“Possibility.” Kevin replied enigmatically, his eyes ablaze with power. “I call upon the potential of a grain of sand and watch the universe unfurl within it.”
“Fancy way… of saying… zero point… energy…” Samuel chuckled painedly. “Even the Ancients… Never… Mastered it.”
“We’re close.” Reitia exclaimed.
“Thank Tyris.” Alex sighed.
Samuel screamed again as he wrenched a new hole in time, the group tumbling roughly out onto rich, verdant lawn, so neat as to be almost manicured.
“Is everyone alright?” Kevin asked, helping Jelena and Reitia to their feet.
“Surprisingly.” Alex admitted with a chuckle, dusting off his surcoat.
“Daddy!” Kylie cried, holding Samuel’s shoulders in concern, the resonant gripping his head in obvious pain.
“My Lord!” Alex began, rushing over to the pair.
“It’s… alright… Mnemosyne… the Logos… She’s… Broadcasting. Sending instructions to the Matrixes. It’s just Loud… I’ll be fine.” The resonant assured them.
“She’s not going to be a problem is she?”
“No. She just sent them down here. She’s got no idea how many are still functional. As far as she’s concerned I’m just aberrant data. Still, I’ll want to limit how much I use Resonance while I’m here.” Samuel admitted.
“So what else is new.” Kylie drawled teasingly.
“Subtlety, dearest daughter.” Samuel chided, mussing the cheshire’s hair.
“Where are we, do you think?” Riley asked, looking around in wonder.
“Shouldn’t be too hard to find out… Look!” Kevin declared, pointing at massive structures of stone, glass and metal reaching towards the sky in the near distance.
“Tyri…” Alex began to exclaim in wonder.
“Alex!” Samuel barked. “Remember, in this time The God is not Tyris… Even Ilias doesn’t even properly have dominion yet… We know nothing about the Ancient Gods, Ammit Herself is largely unknown as far as we can tell. Be careful with prayer, because we can’t tell who’ll answer.”
Alex nodded his understanding, shaking his head in amazement at the structures. “So… Anyone have any idea where we start?”
“I feel… we need to go this way.” Reitia beckoned, walking calmly towards a series of white marquees on the other side of the manicured grass. As they approached, a harried-looking woman rushed towards them with a board, flipping madly though paper.
“Ryoo withu z’pang’nz?” She asked, looking at them expectantly.
“I’m afraid we don’t understa…” Kevin began.
“Fuksake…” She cursed, before tapping at a curious bracelet which glowed with cold light before putting a hand to her ear. “Trish, v’got s’mlost gessts. Bringuh kit’r sumth’n….”
“What language is she speaking?” Riley whispered in confusion
Samuel shrugged. “It sounds almost like Magisterian… but I’ve never encountered this particular…
“Waidear.” The woman insisted, holding her hands out as if insisting they stay put.
“Resonance?” Alex asked, absently toying with the hilt of his sword.
“No… at least not that I recognise.”
“Wazwith kinga thur?” The woman asked, looking bemusedly at the Paladin.
“Er, hello to you too?” Alex ventured, bending slightly at the waist. This seemed to delight the woman, who curtsied clumsily, lifting the hem of an invisible skirt. A golden-haired Inari, nine tails arrayed artfully behind her gracefully approached, her feet light as featherfalls on the grass.
“Konnichiwa” She greeted them, bowing slightly.
“Thank Maou, Zipangan, I can deal with this.” Kylie assured them, returning the bow and speaking in the mellifluous language of the Isles of Zipangu to the Inari, whose look turned from indulgent, to troubled, to outright concerned.
“Well?” Jelena prompted as the Inari turned to speak to the woman with the board.
“Told her as little as possible, that we’re a diplomatic delegation from a long, long way off and we’re supposed to meet someone here but instructions have gotten a little confused.” Kylie shrugged.
“You’re a genius, Kylie.” Samuel chuckled helplessly.
“Why thank you.” Kylie replied smugly.
“Hey. That WAS Magisterian!” Riley declared excitedly. “But why’s she talking so mangled?”
“Ten thousand years of linguistic drift.” Samuel explained with a shrug. “Kevin, is there anything you can…”
“I can try…” Kevin mused, making a series of gestures as covertly as he could. A ‘pop’ sounded within the ears of the group’s members, as if diving to the bottom of a very deep lake, and suddenly the woman’s voice became clear.
“…Not going to begrudge Her Excellency an entourage, Lord knows she’s probably got a million other things besides this wedding to take care of, but can she PLEASE stop having them wander off? We’re understaffed as it is with the protests and…”
“Your concern for our safety is touching, madam.” Alex mused gratefully.
“You speak english? Why didn’t you say so before? The woman demanded, spinning to glare accusingly at the paladin.
“Please…” The Inari insisted. “…I will take them from here, Miss Cheryl.”
“Thanks.” The woman huffed, rushing away, but not before muttering “Cosplaying at a wedding, real class that….”
“I think I was just insulted.” Alex declared. “And… I think I know where we are.”
“And that would be…” Samuel ventured, gesturing at the paladin.
“That accent… We’re in the Australs.”
“Ammit preserve us.” Jelena lowed despairingly, rolling her eyes.
“Well don’t you just present me with a conundrum…” The Lilim mused, tapping a long, pale finger against sensuously full lips. “…The Future, you say?”
“Yes Excellency.” Samuel replied with a respectful nod. The group were sat in a private marquee with the Mamono, clearly reserved for her exclusive use. Knowing who and what she was, there was not a question from any of them as to why.
“Wonders never cease… And I suppose I’m to take the fact you have a Paladin amongst your number at face value?”
“Excellency, I don’t see why…” Alex began.
“You STINK of Heaven, Sir.” The Lilim interjected, wrinkling her shapely nose and flipping a lock of white hair.
“Try sleeping with him.” Kylie drawled unthinkingly, smug smile wide upon her lips.
“What?!” Samuel exclaimed incredulously, fixing the Paladin with a murderous gaze.
“Save the world first daddy, then you can berate my paramour.” Kylie chided cheekily.
“Tyris…” Alex groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose in mailed hand. The Lilim sat bolt upright as if a rod of ice had been inserted into her spine.
“How do you know that name?” She demanded
“It… I… May not say.” Alex justified lamely. The Lilim reached out a hand, seizing him in a web of power and lifting him off the floor.
“Benedict…” Alex gasped instinctively.
“Alexander!” Samuel snapped. “What did I say?”
“But daddy, he’s…” Kylie objected.
“I think…” Jelena interjected in a firm voice. “…That this is quite enough.”
“Oh DO you, little Holstaur?” The Lilim almost purred. “Do you forget that as your Princess, I…”
“Look Closer, Lady Telia…” Jelena interjected, striding confidently on digitigrade hooves to stand before the exquisite, alien beauty of Maou’s daughter. The Lilim’s eyes narrowed, before widening in shock.
“Impossible!” She gasped. “The way is shut, the dead alone keep…”
“Ways change, your Highness.” Jelena explained. “Horus and Hathor will rise again… and again… Holy Ammit will not allow their bloodlines to cease.”
“H-Hathor?” Telia ventured hesitantly.
Jelena shook her ivory-horned head. “Her daughter, and handmaiden.”
Telia nodded, brushing a priceless tear from her alabaster cheek. “You have the look… She was… a dear friend, in a distant place.”
“And would be so again, should you wish it.” Jelena assured the Lilim warmly.
“Then as my friend’s daughter, Handmaiden, answer me. How does the Paladin know my father’s name? Has my stupid Aunt gained such authority already?”
“Her reign will come.” Kylie admitted sadly, popping from reality and reappearing to place a reassuring paw on the Lilim’s shoulder. “And it will be terrible. But she will fall, and the world… perservere.”
“Why the Hesitation, Cheshire?”
“Necessity can be as cruel as the basest tyrant. I won’t pretend the recovery will be a thing of ease and joy.” Kylie explained delicately.
“My Father’s.” Kylie explained, looking over at Samuel.
“So that’s where he fits in.” Telia remarked. “He smells old.”
“He is.” Kylie drawled, again fixing Samuel with a smug grin.
“Doesn’t look it.”
“Aren’t you just a flatterer for saying so, Excellency.” Samuel mused, bearing the light mockery in good humor.
“Not sure if I’m a fan of the…” Telia began, miming protrusions at her temples.
“A necessary affectation. Likely temporary.” Samuel admitted.
“Temporary?” Kylie echoed, concern ringing in her voice.
“Save the world first, Kylie.” Samuel replied evenly. Kylie bared her feline eyeteeth and hissed venomously at him.
“So…” Telia mused. “…I must say I’m overwhelmed. Ten thousand years, did you say?”
“Give or take.” Samuel admitted.
“Am I still…”
“You remain, though you should know better than to poke around the future. Reality doesn’t like it much, excellency” Samuel grinned.
“True enough. Are we acquainted?”
Samuel pursed his lips. “We know of each other by reputation, I should think. I don’t recall us ever meeting. Your sister Lyra was a greater concern.”
Samuel shook his head. “Far too complex to explain.”
Telia rolled her eyes knowingly. “Ah well. Then what, pray tell, can I do for you?”
“I need to find the ones who are for me.” Reitia stated demurely, standing from her seat and stepping forward. “They arrived too soon, and I too late.”
Telia raised her brow with concern. “More time travellers?”
“I don’t think so…” Kevin interjected. “…Whatever Enoch did when he unbound the Tetrarch intersect… I’m beginning to get glimpses of possibility.”
“Kevvie…” Riley chided, her bushy tail fluffed behind her, “…You’re not allowed to become a God on us. My brother would NEVER shut up about it.”
“I make no pretense at Divinity.” Kevin laughed, holding up his hands helplessly before sobering and turning to look at the blue-haired Mamono. “…But I think Rei might be.”
“Well of course she is.” Telia scoffed. “Or at least the Idea of one. How on earth did NONE of you spot it before now?”
“I didn’t want them to.” Reitia smiled apologetically. “If Apophis hadn’t taken Mother and Father… if the ones who are for me weren’t so far away, then things might have been different… Uncle Enoch knew, and Uncle Samuel had suspicion until I showed him…”
“Which he’s kept to himself since…” Kylie chided accusingly.
“…Under instruction, Kitten.” Samuel retorted evenly.
“Are the gods so distant in the future then?” Telia asked bemusedly. “I can’t go a week without running into two or three minor deities… Then of course there are the Elven gods… bunch of prissy poseurs…”
“How can this be?” Alex exclaimed in wonder. “The histories of the ancients say they were a people of technology, devoid of faith…”
“Humans? Devoid of Faith?” Telia asked incredulously, her body shaking with suppressed laughter. “A thousand little acts of faith occur every day. Testing a door just so, because something inside tells you it is the only way to ensure its security. Flipping a coin on a minor conundrum, trusting that fate will dictate the better course. Bidding farewell to the dead, because your heart knows they can hear you, even though life has long fled… No, you humans are ANYTHING but devoid of faith. You shine with it, your very presence a beacon throughout the universe… It is what drew us here to begin with.”
“You speak of what Humans of this time call the Emergence?” Samuel clarified.
Telia raised an eyebrow. “That depends. Quid pro Quo, my time-travelling friend. Am I wasting my time in smoothing the ripples our exodus has made in reality by erasing it from mind and text?
“Hardly.” Samuel smirked. “I just have better records than most. In fact the merest possibility of its occurrence is somewhat… doctrinally sensitive. Notice young Alex trying very hard to keep his mouth shut right now?”
“I did notice that.” Telia remarked in wry amusement, the Paladin looking very much like he had swallowed something distasteful. “We are not a singular people, Mamono I mean. My mother may have begun the exodus when Her father Abbadon surrendered His world to Entropy, that Hell remain inviolate… Her and My fool Aunt Ilias. Together in the beginning… Would that it could have remained so. We’ve crossed countless realities with the Nothing nipping at our heels. Of all the Worlds we’ve taken pause upon, only Wonderland stood beyond its notice.”
“That won’t last forever!” Kylie interjected desperately.
“Kylie! Stop flirting with paradox, young lady!” Samuel barked sternly.
“Is she? Or did I act purely because she’s always told me? Telia mused philosophically. “In any case the possibility wasn’t absent thought. In every world Mother gives them a little something of herself, and softens the memory of ancient homeland to misty legend… But we’re getting sidetracked.”
Reitia smiled as Telia turned her attention back to her. A smile which died as the Lilim sighed sympathetically. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know where they are.”
“But you have to!” Reitia insisted. “You… brought them together. All except one. One who opened the door but did not go through it.”
“Say that again?” Telia gasped.
“He opened the door, but did not go through it.”
“Melina you clever bitch…” Telia whispered in amazement. “…could it have been him all along?”
“So I take it we’ve got a starting point.” Kevin drawled.
“A most fortuitous one, Tetrarch… And thank whatever Gods you pray to that I don’t pry into how a mage of your calibre still remains amongst the living…” Telia retorted pointedly. “…For now it seems, you must be my guests at the wedding.”
“Who’s getting married?” Riley asked innocently.
“The children of a most generous benefactor.” Telia replied.
“Incest?!” Alex hissed in outrage “Heres…”
“You are far too pretty to experience what will happen if you finish that denunciation, Paladin.” Telia almost purred. “And no, not incest. His daughter is a foundling, his son estranged from him in childhood. Only recent events have seen fit to bring them together.”
“That’s lovely.” Reitia remarked with a gentle smile.
“Oh you have NO idea, my pretty little godling.” Telia snorted. “The sight of them is so sweet it makes the teeth hurt. Now allow me a minute to see you properly attired.”
“I’m afraid formal clothing was low on the list of priorities to bear across ages, your Excellency.” Samuel apologised.
“Please.” Telia chuckled. “You haven’t seen a Latrodectus Arachne when presented with a challenge.”
“I don’t understand M’lord…” Alex whispered to Samuel, nodding towards the broad, ruddy-faced celebrant who had just cracked another joke, sending polite titters sweeping across the audience. “…What gods does that man make offering to?”
“None.” Telia murmured, so softly that they weren’t sure if the voice was in ear or mind. “Marriage has become a charge of the State, rather than an edict of the Divine.”
“Unthinkable!” Alex hissed, bug-eyed.
“My thoughts to your mouth, but let’s not piss on the parade, eh mate?” A grey-haired, solidly built man murmured at Alex’s side, nudging the paladin with an elbow.
“Shut up Frank, you Baka.” A matronly Tanuki hissed at the man, who gave a long-suffering sigh, murmuring resigned apology. Seemingly mollified, the Tanuki presumptively took the man’s hand, squeezing it affectionately.
“You alright Jel?” Alex murmured, looking concernedly at the openly weeping figure of his Taurean lover.
“T-they’re so beautiful!” Jelena whimpered, dabbing her eyes. Alex chuckled softly, kissing her hair before glancing around to see not a few other kerchiefs being thoroughly moistened around them. The couple indeed was beautiful, he had to admit. The Bride, a cobalt-haired Raiju, her dress so white as to be almost metallic in its starkness, her damp eyes glittering with sparks that bespoke the lightning within her. The Groom, a well-cut, comely young man, but otherwise unremarkable. Those blue eyes though, spoke of deep and abounding love, and shone fit to rival his bride’s.
“I, Steven James O’Connor, take you, Seraphina Marie Anderson, to be my wife…” The Groom intoned, his voice positively dripping with affection “…To have and to hold, in sickness or in health, for richer or poorer, forsaking all others, for as long as I shall live.”
“I, Seraphina Marie Anderson…” The bride replied demurely, a hint of challenge in her scintilating eyes “…Take you, Steven James O’Connor, to be my Husband. To have and to hold, in sickness or in health, for richer or poorer, forsaking all others, for as long as I shall live.”
“I have been advised…” The celebrant added “…That those vows are conditional on Vegemite toast being declared Anathema in the house.”
“Couldn’t resist, could you Sparks?” The groom chuckled indulgently.
“I admit nothing Stevey.” Sparks grinned, throwing her arms about the young man’s neck and kissing him soundly, electricity arcing about them.
“You may kiss the bride…” The Celebrant shrugged in exaggerated resignation, before all was drowned out in cheering and whistling as the audience applauded.
“…would like to welcome to the floor for their first dance, Mr and Mrs O’Connor-Anderson!” the MC behind the odd lectern cried, his voice booming beyond the range of mere mortal projection.
“This is wondrous…” Kevin exclaimed, entranced by the lights and the music which seemed to emanate from the very air as the couple danced. “…The magic so subtle, I can’t even sense it!”
“Not magic, but science.” Telia explained indulgently.
“Remarkable…” Kevin sighed with a smile.
“Compared to what you can do?” Samuel snickered. “Child’s play.”
“In a sense, I suppose.” Kevin admitted. “It’s just so… inventive… I’d never think to…”
“Why don’t you?”
“Do you think I should?
Samuel grinned at the young mage. “If you’re subtle, who’ll even notice?”
Kevin took a deep breath, weaving his hands under the table, before letting it out slowly. Gradually, from all around the room, glowing butterflies of every colour of the rainbow began to flit over the heads of the seated guests, dancing throughout the air to encase the dancing couple in shimmering light.
“Isn’t that a thing?” A nearby guest exclaimed.
“Midas Anderson’s little girl?” his partner snickered. “I’m surprised there aren’t choirs of angels singing the bridal waltz.”
“Don’t even think about it.” Kylie remarked pointedly at Alex, unable to keep the smug grin from her face.
“I wasn’t!” Alex protested. “Well… not seriously anyway.”
The Cheshire laughed, kissing the man soundly, and Samuel made a point of pretending he didn’t notice.
“I’d like to welcome the rest of the Bridal Party to join them.” The MC continued, six other young people standing to walk onto the floor.
“Trish, it’s tradition. One dance, then you can ignore me all you like.” A black haired young man hissed at his human partner as they passed. The woman rolled her eyes, sniffing nonchalantly before retrieving another man from amongst those seated.
“Quelle Bitch…” The jilted man grumbled, shifting slightly on his feet, aware of curious eyes upon him. He panned across the room, before his eyes came to rest upon Riley.
“Pardon me, but my dance partner seems to have left me strung out.” He mused urbanely, holding his hand out to the squirrel-girl. “Would you do me the honour?”
“M-me?” Riley stammered, wide-eyed and blushing furiously. “I-I don’t know the steps!”
“Me either.” the young man grinned conspiratorially. “Let’s make up better ones.”
“Kay!” Riley cried enthusiastically, seizing the young man’s hand and almost dragging him up to the floor.
“If he messes her around, Kevin dear, would you be so kind as to break his legs?” Jelena asked the mage primly.
“Jelena of House Caladon!” Kevin gasped through his own grin. “I’m surprised at you.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t be. I’ll introduce a few of the girls staring at you like a side of beef to the business end of a hoof if they put plan to action.” She added, jealousy tingeing her voice.
“With you beside me?” Kevin chuckled, leaning over to kiss the Taurean lingeringly. “They couldn’t catch my attention with aid of a net.”
“I love you…” Jelena sighed, almost melting into his embrace.
“Eurgh… It’s contagious.” Telia remarked with false disgust.
“I do believe that was your Mother’s idea, Excellency.” Samuel drawled.
“Shh… don’t tell anyone.” The Lilim smirked.
“…So the foreman stands up and yells “That’s no noxious substance, that’s my wife!” The grey-haired man concludes, affecting an outraged pose. The surrounding tables laugh as the man takes another drink.
“Mr Naylor you do have us on.” Telia laughs politely.
“The worst part, Sir. Is when they hide in the walls.” Alex added, nearly losing his drink as the stocky man hoots, clapping him on the back.
“Damn right mate! ‘Your Honour! She caused five million in property damage!’ ‘Well did you try asking her nicely?”
“Arbitration. If ever there was something to keep us humble…” Alex mused with a grin.
“Oh yeh? You’re in the business?” The man asked, suddenly interested.
“After a manner of speaking.” Alex admitted.
“Frank Naylor.” The man stated bluntly, holding out a hand.
“Alexander… Sheffield.” Alex replied, pausing momentarily as he mentally reworked his history into something a little more palatable to this time. “…Call me Alex.”
“He’s quick when he wants to be.” Samuel praised absently.
“Mmm-hmm…” Kylie agreed “…Daddy, I’m sorry I just…”
“It was a shock, but hardly unexpected kitten.” Samuel assured her, patting her violet paw. “He’s a good man.”
“You approve then?” Kylie gasped hopefully.
“Of course, but don’t tell HIM that.” Samuel murmured conspiratorially. “Tradition dictates I let him sweat for a little while at least.”
“You’re a bad man, father.” Kylie laughed warmly, taking the resonant’s hand in her paws.
“And now, the father-daughter dance. Mr. Anderson, if you would kindly lead your daughter to the floor?”
“Oh that’s lovely!” Reitia exclaimed girlishly, clapping her hands with glee. “Why don’t we do that anymore?”
“Don’t know too many human families that’ve gone more than a couple generations without that one of them’s abbey-born, Rei.” Kevin admits with a sigh. “Still… would be nice.”
An older man took to his feet, limping slightly as he offered his hand to the white-gowned Raiju, his daughter eschewing it in favour of a crushing hug before dragging the man to the floor.
“Michael fucking Anderson…” an unknown woman murmured nearby. “…Even at his age, he’s the sort of man to make a girl’s fur crackle.”
“Pretty sure that’s the static his daughter’s throwing off, dear.” Another replied.
“You know what I mean.”
“Of course… but his wife will kill you if you try anything.”
Jelena gave a knowing smile as a matronly holstaur blew the dancing couple a kiss, which the father and bride returned in kind before resuming their dance.
“Used to wrap my hands around his little finger
Turns out he was wrapped around mine
He said “You can be anything you want to in this great big world”
But I’m always gonna be daddy’s little girl…”
“Maou…” Kylie choked, putting her paw to her mouth as the music washed over them.
“You’ve always been with me, Kitten. Even in the darkest times.” Samuel murmured sincerely, Kylie’s eyes wet and her lip trembling where she looked at him.
“And I’ll invite other fathers and daughters to join them…” The MC interjected.
“Well?” Kylie asked challengingly.
“Well what?” Samuel replied with slight confusion.
“You’re hopeless, Dad.” the Cheshire chuckled, dragging Samuel from reality and reappearing on the dancefloor, her father once again in her arms.
“That’s a beautiful sight that.” Frank sighed.
“Thank Tyris…” Alex agreed unthinkingly, his voice slightly unsteady around the lump in his throat.
“You’re welcome.” A voice interrupted. Alex turned, his eyes flashing with irritation, his angry objection dying on his lips as he beheld the man sitting suddenly next to him. Clear, discerning eyes above an aquiline nose, skin sunset gold and hair black as a raven’s wing. He knew the face of Corvus from the Doctrines, and although this face was unknown to him, he could not help but see the resemblance.
“Lord!” He choked, overcome at once.
“Shhh… Not yet. Not now at least.” Tyris assured him.
“I shall fetch the Disciple, Most Holy.” Alex assured the God.
“Think you he will thank me for interrupting tender moment?” The God chided gently. “Besides… look.”
Alex turned, to see those upon the floor frozen in time, to his other side the figure of Frank frozen in the midst of what was no doubt another ribald joke, Telia rolling her eyes indulgently, Frank’s Tanuki wife’s hand in midair where she sought to strike him upon the arm. Jelena and Kevin embracing, their heads close as they watched Samuel and Kylie.
“How can I serve you, Eternal and Glorious?” Alex begged, starting to sink to his knees. Tyris halted him, returning him with firm grip to his seat.
“We have not the time, Alexander, Scion of Azrael.” Tyris insisted.
“I am not worthy, O my God.” Alex insisted. “I am undeserving of such elevation.”
“Who is Lord of all Humanity?” Tyris retorted sternly.
“You Lord! Forever!” Alex gushed instinctively.
“Then heed me. One will depart from you. You must allow it, and suffer not delay. One will seek to remain. You must deny them. One will deny you, and you must weather it. One will sacrifice for you, and you must accept it. These are my commandments. Will you obey, my Servant?”
“As you give me strength, Oh Most High God.” Alex near-wept.
“One thing final…” The God added. “…Do you yet love My Son?”
“Corvus is the Saviour. My life for Him.” Alex swore, tears now streaming in truth from his eyes.
“Then hold you fast to that faith, and the world may yet be saved.” Tyris smiled, before leaning over the frozen form of Telia, kissing her alabaster cheek and whispering something into her ear.
Then, between one instant and the next, he was gone.
Telia sucked in a deep breath as motion returned to the room. “Father!” She gasped.
“We are blessed…” Alex gushed, wetness still on his cheeks.
“That’s a matter of interpretation.” Telia grumbled. “Ilias has become aware of certain… ripples that your visit is putting on reality… As is the egotistical bitch’s wont, she assumes it is plot against her. We must move. Back to Zipangu, Mother’s influence is strong enough to give her pause… I’m just sorry that Reitia couldn’t find that one she was looking for.”
“I think…” Alex remarked, gesturing towards where the grey-winged goddess stood before the father of the bride, who stared at her in sheer adoration. “…She may have made that discovery herself.”
“Mike, I don’t understand!” The Taurean woman lamented where she pursued the man, who hurried the group towards an odd contraption made of black metal. Long and sleek, it sat upon the road like a hulking beast.
“It ties together everything, Sally! Bender’s Syndrome, the dreams, the inconsistencies in my memory…” The man babbled excitedly “…It’s her! I’m for her!”
“Mike? Y-you’re leaving me for a slip of a girl?” The woman sobbed heart-brokenly.
Michael paused, turning back towards the Taurean “No! It’s not like that Sally! How would you feel if Maou appeared before you, giving you the reason behind EVERYTHING?”
“I’d call her a vile bitch for ruining my daughter’s wedding.” Sally spat venomously. “Never mind that MY Goddess would never DO such a thing.”
“Michael. This is not…” Reitia objected, shaking her head.
“Don’t worry, Lady Reita. Everything I have I’ll dedicate to your ascention. We can overcome this ‘Order’ trash that’s spreading like a cancer across the world… We can…” Michael continued, waving away her objection.
“One will Seek to Remain… You must Deny them…” Tyris’s words rang in Alex’s memory.
“This is not the Will of God.” Alex objected sternly. “For whom the God hath drawn…”
“Save it for sunday mass, reverend.” Michael snorted derisively. Alex clutched at his sword-hilt. He didn’t want to hurt the man, truly he didn’t… but he didn’t see much choice… unless…
“MY Goddess would never DO such a thing…” The echo of the Taurean’s words…
“Handmaiden… He opened the door, but did not pass through…” Alex insisted to Jelena. The Taurean’s eyes widened in sudden realization.
“Michael… You have done what needed to be done, I have seen the rest through your eyes…” Reitia explained. “…But you have greater service ahead of you.”
“Name it, Lady Reita.” Michael begged obsequiously.
“Hathor…” Jelena began, walking on digitigrade hooves towards her fellow Taurean. “…Why have you never told him?”
“Sally? Why is she calling you ‘Hathor?” Michael asked uncomprehendingly.
“He’d never have understood.” Sally near-wept, before turning to face the blue-haired Goddess. “Please, Reitia, whoever you are… don’t take him away from me.”
“He could no more be separated from you than the stars from the heavens. You are ordained…” Jelena intoned, moving to place her hand upon Michael’s brow. “…I am She who Presideth in Restau, pouring out comfort against the Forgiveness of Sins…”
“…Homage to you, Ammit, Mistress of Eternity, Dread Queen of Justice, whose names are manifold, whose forms are holy, you being of hidden form in the temples, whose Ka is holy…” Sally chanted, bringing toned arms up in the sign of the Scales of Ma’at.
Michael hissed, stiffening as if struck by lightning. “…I travel on high, I tread upon the firmament, I raise a flame with the daylight which mine eye hath made, and I fly forward towards the splendours of the Glorified daily.” he grated, as if the words forced themselves from his mouth.
Sudden images flashing within the subconscious… the distorted flash of memory… draconian eyes… red hair… teeth…
“Ammit…” Michael gasped, collapsing to his knees and staring blankly “…Sally… Hathor… My Love… I’m so, so sorry.”
“The hurt’s a faint memory against this joy, my love.” Sally cried. “I should have told you sooner.”
“Sparks is going to kill me.” Michael chuckled ruefully, putting his head in his hands in chagrin.
“Just tell her you drank too much…” Sally mused, raising the man to his feet. “…and got caught up in the moment. It wouldn’t be the first time, besides, no harm’s really been done, you just kind of rushed outside after Princess Telia and her entourage babbling incoherently.”
“What do we tell her? About us, I mean.”
Sally smiled slightly. “Nothing… Yet.”
Alex felt a soft touch against his arm, and looked down to see Reitia smiling up at him warmly.
“Right. Well… Now that I’ve gone and made a bloody fool of myself.” Michael began sheepishly, “Your Excellency, Lady Reitia… My full resources are yours to use. You’ll find the Learjet fueled and ready to go at the airport. It was going to be a surprise for Sparks and Steve, but they’ll have to make do with a night in the Platinum suite against another chartered for them in the morning.”
“Mr Anderson, that is most generous of you.” Telia thanked the man, kissing him demurely on the cheek.
“Least I could do.” Michael gestured expansively “Now I’d better get inside before my daughter conspires to zap me like a pot noodle.”
“None of those words…” Samuel remarked bemusedly as he was bundled into the contraption with the rest of the group, waving to the Man and Holstaur, now another incarnation of that eternal couple in Ammit’s priesthood. “…Made any sense to me.”
“Join the club.” Kevin laughed helplessly. “Hey Riley, why don’t you…” He began, looking about with growing horror. “Oh Gods… Riley! She’s not here!”
“Who left her?” Jelena demanded
“Don’t look at me!” Kylie insisted “She was right there until…”
“Wait…” Alex interjected, holding up a hand as his other found a folded slip of paper.
Oliver has told me so much about this place, this time. I want to see it. I want to experience everything this time has to offer. I want to help them. Dark times are ahead and I want to be able to give hope… and Ammit willing, Love. Petey’s gone, Mister Nocky’s lost in Time and I know in my heart I’ll never see them again. I couldn’t go back knowing that.
I’m sorry, and I hope you can stop the world from going to smash.
All my Love,
“The HELL with that!” Samuel declared. “I know what’s coming, and I won’t see her subjected to it!”
“Agreed.” Kevin nodded. “Kylie, if I divine where she is, could you manage to…”
One will depart from you. You must allow it, and suffer not delay.
“No.” Alex stated firmly.
“Come again Paladin?” Samuel asked incredulously.
“She has made her choice. We can only pray Ammit guides her and Blesses her. Or do you think you can do a better job than She-Who-Waits, My Lord?” Alex retorted pointedly.
“Boy’s got some sting to that tongue…” Telia remarked with slight amazement.
Samuel’s eyes narrowed. “Something you’re not telling me, Alex?”
“Only that we cannot allow delay.” Alex insisted. “Please My Lord. Trust me.”
“I hate it when people do that…” Samuel sighed, collapsing back into the curiously moulded seat. “…Fine. Ammit save her from her own impetuousness.”
Another touch at Alex’s wrist, again Reitia smiling up at him, nodding her covert approval.
“I will never…” Jelena stated flatly as Kevin helped her down the stairwell of the Jet. “…complain about boats again.”
“What, not a fan of flying?” Kylie mused, popping into existence at the foot of the stairwell.
“In your ear, Handmaiden.” Jelena snapped seethingly.
Kylie laughed, leaning up to kiss the Taurean on the cheek. “Did you see where our Illustrious Princess disappeared to?”
“Something about making sure we weren’t impeded.” Jelena murmured, still looking a trifle pale where she clung to Kevin’s arm.
“It’s in the wings, isn’t it?” Kevin pondered, looking at the aircraft as they walked across the Tarmac.
“Mmmhmm.” Samuel agreed. “To be honest I’m surprised nobody’s come up with it on their own.”
“You know how it works!” Kevin accused.
“Of course I do, Kevin. Twelve Millennia of knowledge within the Library of the Grand Lodge. Carefully curated for fear of destroying the world with knowledge granted without the wisdom to wield it properly.”
“B-but… think of…” The mage objected.
“We did. And we wouldn’t see people starve because machines made them unnecessary overnight.” Samuel explained. “You’ve studied Paxian history. Think of the MILLIONS of indentured. Would you have seen them starve to death? Remember Jessie, the mother of Emperor Seti, my sister-in-law, was an indentured. Where would the world be if she were eking out a meager subsistence existence on a plain somewhere?”
“I can’t accept that. There had to have been a better way.” Kevin insisted doggedly, even as they were ushered into the sleek, glossy-floored building beyond.
“If you manage to come up with something, I’d love to hear it.” Samuel sighed sympathetically. “All we could think of is to let society develop in harmony with its environment. And you know what? Some VERY interesting things came from that. Farcasters, Shard Rifles, Waygates… although those are sort of useless without Resonance, admittedly… Spirit-engines, runeforges… The list goes on, things that ‘modern’ science in this time cannot even perceive, locked as they are to their own understanding of how the world around them works.”
A dark haired man in an official-looking uniform stepped in front of them as they approached another set of doors, holding up a white-gloved hand and speaking rapidly in Zipangan at them.
“So much for unimpeded.” Kylie drawled, launching into a stream of Zipangan. The man shook his head, pointing at a mass of Humans and Mamono coiling through a long, ribboned line.
“That looks like a terrible idea.” Jelena stated flatly.
“Not wrong…” Alex agreed, gripping the hilt of his sword tighter as the man pointed at it, his voice growing louder and more dramatic.
“Sorry dears.” Telia’s musical voice rang out as she swanned towards them, chiropteran wings fully extended, seeming to delight in the gasps of awe from those around at her alien beauty. The man turned, making choking noises as he saw the Lilim, before bending almost double in a subservient bow. A few imperious words and the man’s attitude positively spun on heel, now obsequiously beckoning them towards a subtle door well away from the mass of people, bowing every other step. As they stepped through, he bowed again.
“Werrcom to Ji-pangu” he offered in terribly accented Magisterian.
Alex paused, turning on heel and offering a smart, crisp bow in response. “Arigato Gozaimasu”
“Alex! You’re just full of surprises!” Kylie declared delightedly.
“Don’t make too much of it, that is literally all the Zipangan I know.” The Paladin chuckled. “Still, he was just doing his job. Can’t hate a man for that.”
“Let’s not delay now.” Telia beckoned, standing beside another one of the long, metallic contraptions.
“Oh dear… Perhaps if this one could go a touch slower than the last?” Jelena lamented piteously.
“What is this place?” Kevin gasped.
“Why do you ask, Tetrarch?” Telia mused almost smugly.
“Magic… the very air is soaked in it!”
“We’re in the basement of what is commonly known as the Head office of Embassy Corporation.” Telia explained, walking towards a plain metal door, which opened into a small room as she gestured at it. “Below us, where we keep certain… curiosities…”
The group cried out involuntarily as the room seemed to lurch under them, moving further down into the earth.
“And below that… The Hellgate. The doorway between this world and mine.” Telia continued, not even acknowledging their discomfort.
“Might see if I can pick up a can of twelve-coloured paint while I’m here…” Samuel murmured.
Telia blinked, before bursting into a peal of crystalline laughter. “Frequent visitor in your time?”
“Once or twice. My wife…” The resonant paused, swallowing as memory stung. “…She was more familiar.”
“I wish I could have met her.” Telia offered sympathetically.
“You will.” Samuel drawled wryly
“Of course… Future.” Telia sighed as the doors opened again. “Well, here we are. Welcome to the Benders Syndrome Convalescent Ward.”
“The only humans I’ve ever ‘Gathered together’, as it were.” Telia explained. “Bender’s syndrome is the name the Human doctors gave them. The truth is… much more terrible.”
“Do you put the Rafnsdottir at risk, Excellency?” Alex accused.
“Please.” Telia snorted. “They’re a danger to nobody but themselves. Somehow the poor fools divined our passing, and somehow… even I’m not entirely sure how… they yanked the door to this reality open with main force.”
“Hey Space-Rock…” The memory of the Logos echoed within Samuel’s mind “…Watch this.”
“They see things that no Human should be subjected to. Their minds teeter on the precipice of reality, hapless channels for forces they never should have ever felt.”
“Story of my life…” Samuel muttered under his breath.
“I’m sorry?” Telia prompted questioningly.
“Nothing, Excellency.” Samuel replied dismissively “Well I suppose if they’re willing, we should let Reitia meet…”
“Hey tittywings!” A shirtless man called gracelessly, padding on bare feet towards the group, his lower half clad in simple grey trousers, made of some soft fabric.
“Travis, will you put a shirt on?” Telia sighed helplessly.
“Afraid the Kikis are gonna lose their shit at this glorious specimen of manhood?” the man asked self-deprecatingly, slapping his obvious paunch with a broad hand, a harsh bark of laughter tearing from his throat. “More folks to come gawp at the unluckiest cunts on earth? Well get a good eyefull folks, this is what yer mum does nasty things to herself thinkin’ about of an evening.” The man declared, striking a pose that may have looked comely on a shapelier person, but was naught but sadly comical on his thick frame.
“Have you no shame, man?” Alex chided.
“Shame? That’s a laugh, pretty boy.” The man chortled. “How you liking the world we gave you? Enjoying yourself? See the faggot-cat’s got eyes for ya.”
“You dare…” Alex seethed, ripping his sword from its sheath.
“Yeah! That’s it!” The man crowed eagerly, spreading his arms and grinning a death’s head rictus. “C’mon and lemme out already!”
“What plagues you?” Alex asked incredulously, returning sword to scabbard with a sad shake of his head.
“We wanted this… all of us… WE wanted it!” The man snarls helplessly, his arms lowering. “…And now the mons can’t stand what we see. Can you tittywings?”
Telia gave a long-suffering sigh. “It’s not as simple as that, Travis. I’ve tried to tell you…”
“Tried to sell me a timeshare in Israel is what you’ve fuckin’ done!” Travis roared helplessly, before shying away from something unseen. “Why does she look at me like that? Why can’t you tell me?”
“We were for you!” The man howled, tears carving tracks down his stubbled cheeks “We were for…”
Suddenly, Reitia was there in front of the man, her slender arms around his thick frame, whispering quietly to him as she stroked his unkempt and greasy hair. Travis tensed, and Jelena cried out in alarm, fearing the crazed man would attack her, when all of a sudden, he sank to his knees, a look of utter adoration on his face.
“Travis…” She murmured “…I’m sorry it took so long.”
“I love you, Holy Mother!” Travis sobbed, bending to kiss her feet with reckless abandon. “You are Sahnate… Pora… The Kind Healer… mercy’s wellspring… and I have always been yours.”
“Let Nightmare end… wake, my good and faithful one.” Reitia urged softly, and Travis raised his face upwards, a hissing shadow flying from his open mouth as he cried out in relief.
“Ammit be Merciful!” Jelena cried in shock. “Her? Here? How is it even possible?”
“He smells… Good!” Telia exclaimed “What in the name of Maou…”
“Apophis…” Samuel snarled. “…She poisoned their souls. Of COURSE Mamono would sense the taint upon them and be repulsed. Of course madness would eat at their minds…”
“Holy Reitia.” Travis begged, resuming his feet, “The rest of us are waiting. Please, help them?”
“Of course, dear one.” Reitia assured him, pulling his head down to kiss him lightly upon the forehead before making a slight face. “…But can I suggest you bathe? Soon?”
Travis lifted an arm, sniffing at himself experimentally before gagging in disgust. “Jesus H. Raptor-Fucking Christ, how did I let myself get this bad?” he demanded vociferously.
“Baby steps, I suppose.” Samuel chuckled.
“Hush, Uncle Samuel.” Reitia retorted with a small smile. “Let us find the others.”
“Not the dark… please… I’ll be a good boy… Don’t leave me in the dark…” The youth whimpered, so skinny as to be near-anorexic, his clothes a tent about his slight frame, his glassy eyes fixed vacantly on something none of them could see as he lay curled upon the uncaring floor.
“John… I’m here.” Reita cooed gently, laying the youth’s head in her lap and stroking his hair. Again, a cry… again, a shadow hissing as it hurtled from his mouth, dissipating in the air.
“H-Holy Reitia?” John gasped, blinking as he looked up from the Goddess’s lap adoringly. “…I was so far away… I didn’t know how to get back.”
“A Nightmare, sweet John… But the sun is arisen, and fear is nothing but a fleeting memory.” Reitia assured him.
“Sahnate. Pora…” John exclaimed with fierce joy, leaving her lap to prostrate himself in front of her. “…I am yours! Always yours!”
“How do they all know those words?” Kylie asked in puzzlement.
“Because we know HER.” A red-headed young man explained, as if it should be completely obvious, his eyes shining with fanaticism. “The Temple of Kek, we called ourselves… it was all some stupid game to begin with… but we found Her, somewhere in the web of possibility. She is Love, and abundant Mercy… Goodness incarnate!”
“Dial it back carrot-top.” A bearded, brown-haired man murmured self-consciously. “I for one have had enough of crazy for one lifetime.”
“That is a question though…” Travis murmured, his once lank, greasy hair now washed and his hirstute torso covered by a simple shirt. “…How’d our cheese fall so far off our cracker?”
“My dear sister.” A smaller man, immaculately groomed and poised offered, entering the rude common room in which they all stood.
“Who is that?” Telia demanded.
“No idea. He’s always been here. When I wasn’t fit to chew the damn furniture, I remember trying to find out who he was… always got conveniently distracted though… or saw my heart on the Scales of Ma’at hit the altar so hard the damn thing chipped.” Travis answered with a slight note of accusation.
“Ammit’s here too? Oh lovely.” The neat man exclaimed, clapping briefly. “She always was my favourite.”
“Whoever he is, I didn’t bring him here…”
The neat man smiled mirthlessly. “No, Lilim. Quite the opposite. I brought you.”
“I’m in no mood for games.” Telia demanded, allowing her full power free reign, causing the humans to cower back against its assault. “Who are you?”
The neat man gave the slightest gesture, and Telia went sailing backwards with a strangled cry, a rift opening behind her, the strange and lurid landscape of Hell beyond.
“I? I am the Darkness which brings the Dawn. I am the First, the arbiter of Chaos, the Hand which set to spinning the Eternal Wheel of Fate. I am…” The man intoned, power beyond reckoning flowing from his form.
“Kek…” Reitia interjected primly “…They already believe you. I think you can stop now.”
The neat man looked incredulously at the slender Goddess, before grinning broadly, taking her into his arms and laughing openly.
“You took your time Reitia! What kept you?”
“Forgive me Divinity, but… your sister?” Samuel asked, brow furrowed with puzzlement.
“Kauket. Just as I am the Bringer in of Light, She is the Bringer in of Darkness. Although I fear in this instance she may have overstepped herself somewhat.” Kek answered, taking a bite out of some morsel from the platter that a self-effacing Kikimora had brought in. “You know these are really good…”
“She wars against the Rightful Rulers of Heaven and Hell!” Alex exclaimed incensedly.
“You are an ant in the afterbirth, mortal.” Kek rejoined dismissively. “Do you really think your opinion on that matter bears any weight against eternity?”
Alex’s mouth worked helplessly as he sought a reply to that denunciation. Kek laughed openly, reaching over to pat the paladin on the shoulder.
“Don’t let dogma blind you to the way the world changes around you.” the God instructed. “I HATE stagnation. Gotta keep making new things, keep Reality guessing, she’s such a stodgy old maid at times…”
“Then this… all this… it’s all part of a cycle?” Kevin asked sinkingly.
“Yep. Everything returns to that primal state to be re-created in it’s new form.”
“Then there’s no hope…” The mage sighed helplessly.
“Listen to this guy!” Kek declared incredulously. “Did you miss the part where I said she’d overstepped? Entropy isn’t supposed to act the way it’s behaving. Keeps eating perfectly good realities because She’s gone and convinced it that eternal nothingness is the natural state of being. Nothingness. Urgh. Stagnation… Just the thought makes my skin crawl.”
“So how do we fix it?” Kylie demanded.
“You don’t.” Kek replied bluntly, pointing at Reitia. “She does.”
“Kek… I… It’s too big… I can’t bear it.” Reitia stammered, staring at the Elder God with pleading eyes.
“Of course not! You’re a toddler trying to lift a mountain.” Kek agreed.
“Then how can she possibly…” Samuel began.
“You’ve got space-rock growing out of your head, did you know that?” Kek interrupted.
“And here I thought it was just a bad hair day.” Samuel drawled.
“I like this one.” Kek laughed. “She does it, because I’m gonna give her a big fucking forklift.”
“Oh yeah, forgot, post-apocalypse and stuff…” Kek remarked dismissively, walking over to Reitia and putting a finger on her forehead “…open the window, kid… the sun’s coming up.”
Reitia cried out in pure joy as light began to suffuse her very being, her once-blue hair now glowing with the radiance of a swift sunrise, her grey wings now dazzling white. In contrast, shadows began enclosing the avatar of the Elder God.
“Wait!” Reitia cried in alarm, her voice ringing with unimaginable power.
“Don’t sweat it, kid!” Kek laughed as his form collapsed into the shadows. “We all come back around…”
And just like that, only the glowing form of Reitia remained.
“Rafnsdottir…” Alex breathed reverently “…I am blessed to witness this day.”
“Telia…” Kylie ventured. “…is she…”
“She’s fine.” Reitia smiled. “Resting and being thoroughly spoiled in Pandemonium. When she awakes, this will all be as a dream.”
“We can’t… change any of it?” Samuel asked hopefully.
Reitia shook her head, a sympathetic smile on her lips. “The birth-pangs of a beautiful new dawn, Uncle Samuel.”
Samuel nodded resignedly. “I understand. I just wish…”
“I know. It is never easy, to live in troubled times.” Reitia replied comfortingly. “But we had best be about our business. Reality grows restless, and will see us gone, one way or another.”
“Please don’t leave us, Holy One!” Travis begged desperately.
“Fear not, Travis, for you will help speed us on our way.” Reitia assured the man. “Kevin, will you show them?”
“Divine One…” Kevin began.
“Did you forget my name?” Reitia asked bemusedly.
“Sorry Rei, didn’t think it was appropriate with the whole ‘Goddess’ thing.” Kevin murmured bashfully. “But show them what?”
“Look, and see…” Reitia entreated. Kevin peered at the men, waving his hand as if to clear the air in front of him, until his eyes widened in amazement.
“Mages!” He gasped. “All of them!”
“To open a door between worlds changes a person.” Reitia explained. “But Mage or not, they were always special to me.”
“Well, colleagues.” Kevin began with a wry grin, the mark of the Tetrarch glowing on his brow. “The Path of a Thousand Leagues, begins with a single step…”
“If one would make Peace, one must prepare for War” – Ancient Wisdoms, Compiled by the Hakutaku Chen-Li
“Tyris be merciful…” Alex sighed, taking a handful of the rich earth and lifting it to his nostrils. “…it feels good to be back.”
“Where are we, do you think?” Kylie murmured, looking around.
Kevin laughed, pointing at the amber structure of a Beehive in the near distance. “That’s Sea-of-Grasses or I’m an Alp.”
“It is.” A voice interrupted, an adolescent Hive-queen alighting on the grass behind them, her drones bearing threatening weapons around her. “Who are you, and why do you come?”
“I am Baronet Kevin of the Imperial Court of Caladon…” Kevin began.
“Mellisae!” A mounted rider called, the horse rapidly eating the distance between them. The older man, his red hair tinged with grey dismounted, walking purposefully towards them “…What did I tell you about approaching stranger…” He broke off, stumbling backwards as his eyes fell upon Jelena and Kevin.
Kevin blinked disbelievingly. “Dex?”
“Kev? It’s not… It’s not possible…”
“Of course, the fucking Hellgate janking about with time…” Samuel snapped in frustration. “…I never thought I’d need to have this conversation again…”
“Lord Samuel?” Dexter stammered. “Why do you have rocks growing out of your head?”
“Dexter!” Jelena cried happily, throwing herself into his arms and kissing the stunned man soundly upon the cheek, interrupting the withering retort on the Resonant’s lips.
“Father, what is going on?” The young hive-queen demanded.
“Mellisae…” Reitia began, the Goddess having assumed her earlier, blue-haired and far less overwhelming form, her disciple-mages parting obediently to let her through. “…You’re more beautiful than I ever imagined.”
Mellisae gave a squeak, her chitinous legs shaking under her as she looked at the young goddess in wonder. “I know you! Somehow… I’ve always known you…”
“Priestess.” Travis intoned, kneeling beside the hive-queen, the disciples behind him mirroring his posture, before the big man took her chitinous hand in his meaty paw, kissing it reverently. “It is an honour to meet you finally, in the presence of our Goddess.”
“How much exactly…” Kylie remarked, folding her violet paws in front of her chest. “…did you have planned out in advance, Reitia?”
The Goddess turned towards the Cheshire, and with a mysterious smile, gave her a wordless wink.
“After this…” Kylie declared helplessly. “…I am so done.”
Samuel kissed his daughter upon the forehead, yet said nothing.
“My baby girls!” Hathor lowed happily, taking Handmaiden and Goddess in her soft arms, showering them both with kisses, completely uncaring about the murmuring courtiers within the great hall.
“Seems there’s been some developments in our absence, Your Majesty.” Samuel chuckled, bowing to the obsidian-crowned King of the Westerlands.
“Fifteen years, since the girls left…” Horus rumbled, half chiding, half amused. “…Did it really need to take so long?”
“No. But Hell played silly buggers with time again.” Samuel sighed helplessly.
“This sort of thing…” one of Reitia’s disciples began, turning questioning eyes to Kevin “…happens frequently in the future?”
“No, thank Tyris.” Kevin remarked.
“How fares the war?” The resonant asked, gesturing the mages to silence.
“Stalemate.” Horus sighed. “After Heliopolis, Apophis moved her front towards House Thessalonia. The Armies of Magisterium and a positive swarm of Ruslander raiders have held her there… but ‘pyrrhic’ is the kindest thing that can be said about it. The world is bleeding to death by inches, Resonant.”
“Tyris Fuck.” Samuel snarled in helpless frustration. “How many fucking lives… Not again… I can’t do it again…”
Reita disengaged herself gently from Hathor’s arms, walking over to the Resonant and putting her arms comfortingly around him.
“We are here now, Uncle Samuel… And we’ll see it done.” The Goddess assured him. “I can bear the weight.”
“I’m tired Rei… I’m so tired…” Samuel lamented in despair.
“Hey Dad…” Kylie interjected, popping from reality to reappear at his side, giving him a brief kiss on the cheek. “…You didn’t give up on me, don’t start giving up on the simple shit.”
“Foiling a Goddess, Kylie.” Samuel stated flatly. “That’s simple?”
“What…” Kylie rejoined, a smug smile on her face. “…did I stutter?”
“Archmage Margaret.” Kevin greeted the elderly woman with a polite inclination of his head.
“So Enoch unlocked the Tetrarch for you then?” The woman sniffed, her face pinched like she had tasted something sour “Did he lose a bet?”
“How dare…” Jelena gasped in umbrage, pausing as Kevin held out his hand placatingly.
“I’ve missed you too, Margaret.” He smiled, kissing the woman’s hands.
“You’re getting too skinny, Kevin.” Margaret chided, pinching Kevin’s cheek. “Your dear mother, Tyris rest her soul, would never let me hear the end of it.”
“I’m abbey born, Archmage.” He reminded the old woman delicately.
Margaret raised an eyebrow, her sour face peering at him questioningly. “So? You think a woman doesn’t know? I didn’t teach you to be this dense… And you. Taurean…”
“Madam, I am a Handmaiden of Hathor…” Jelena began sternly.
“Do you want a medal, child? You’re clearly not lacking chest to pin it on.” Margaret interjected. “You take care of him now, or I’ll render you down for glue.”
Jelena blinked, utterly flummoxed at the woman’s venomously casual dismissal of her position.
“Be nice to Jelena, Margaret.” Kevin chuckled helplessly. “How are our new colleagues.”
“The less brainless of our lower-intersect colleagues have learned to form barriers or start running when the big one says ‘Hold my Beer’. Honestly, for a Goddess I expected this Reitia to be a little more discerning with her disciples… You, boy!”
“Who, me?” One of Reitia’s younger disciples ventured, looking around.
“No, the one floating above your head. Of course you. My hip aches, fetch me my cane.” Margaret demanded.
“I was actually…”
“NOW.” Margaret ordered, arcane energy flashing threateningly around her, the disciple dashing away in search of the cane.
“Since when do you need a cane? Your hips are fine.” Kevin chuckled.
“Don’t sass me, Kevin, or I’ll beat you with it. Costs them nothing to learn a little service to their elders. Tyris says it’s a virtue, after all.” Margaret sniffed, stomping away like the very ground beneath her feet had given offense.
“What…” Jelena blurted incredulously, staring after the old archmage.
“It’s just her way… Remember how you stayed with me on the deck of the icerunner while I walked The Path?” Kevin began, taking Jelena’s hand in his own. “Well, she stays with all of the initiates when that happens. All of them. She’s one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met.”
They had arrived with the rest of their companions at what passed for the ‘front’ of the battle-lines not a day previous, both sides dug in, earthworks expertly prepared… as far as battles went, it seemed a most civilized affair, but the rusty tint to the grass in the basin field below, and the faint whiff of death upon the spring breeze spoke to the ongoing carnage.
“The Ghouls grow fat…” A Necromancer mused to a Mage, bowing in recognition of Jelena as she passed. “…And there are rumors of a Dis Anima forming beneath the ground.”
“You can tell it to head in their direction though, right?” The mage asked in a shaken tone.
“Only until it eats something stronger than me.” The Necromancer replied in his dead, emotionless voice. Jelena squeezed Kevin’s hand in wordless fear, the mage raising her hand to kiss it, offering what wordless comfort the contact could give. “Handmaiden…” The Necromancer entreated. “…There are dead who lie disquiet, who will not heed the Keepers. Would you absolve them, in the name of Ammit?”
Jelena looked up at Kevin, her eyes filled with doubt and fear. “Stay with me?”
“Always.” Kevin assured her, kissing her tenderly.
“Hey Tetrarch!” Another of Reitia’s disciples beckoned Kevin towards the front line of the army which stretched out along the treeline. “Me and the Templar here…”
“Paladin.” The armoured man corrected sternly.
“Same difference… We were thinking, if we got a big enough…”
“Watch out!” Kevin yelled, a smoking ball of dark fire hurtling through the air towards them.
The disciple looked up, gritting his teeth and stretching his hand out. “CALZ DE VIME A ALONUSAHI” he snarled, the fireball halting as if it had struck a solid wall, before rebounding towards the mass of Apophean soldiers in the distance.
“Going… Going… And it is outta here! The crowd goes wild!” The disciple crowed gleefully, before his eyes crossed and he collapsed on his face in exhaustion.
“Trying to run before he can crawl… Wish I could say I was any different.” Kevin sighed. “Medicus!”
“They’re going to get themselves killed before they can be any use to anything.” Samuel grumbled, stalking toward the pair as a priestess hurried over to the senseless disciple.
“I’m not sure about that…” Kevin replied, gesturing towards the field. A group of smoking felsteeds galloped into the basin below, dusky-skinned, winged figures atop their backs. The van carried a banner of parley, which fluttered and snapped in the breeze, and in their midst, a horror, bearing the unmistakable, four-armed form of the Serpent-Queen herself.
“This is pointless…” A Paladin commander grumbled. “…Every time she offers terms. Every time we spurn her in the Name of Holy Tyris. Every time she tantrums and more of us die.”
“She’s playing for time, M’lord.” Alex interjected, resplendent now in full plate, his fluted helm beneath his arm.
“Brother Alexander.” The commander greeted the younger man. “We assumed as much, but towards what end?”
“Shall we find out?” Reitia suggested as if it were the most natural thing in the world, beginning to walk down the hill towards the waiting demons.
“Stop Her!” One of the disciples gasped to his fellow.
“YOU stop Her!” The other retorted.
“I… I can’t!” the first admitted helplessly.
“Welcome to the world of the rest of us… All we can do is believe in Her.”
“Once more into the breach, My Lord?” Alex suggested, donning his elaborate helm.
Samuel grunted. “Only so as I can gauge their forces. A twenty thousand year round-trip has left me with little in the way of power… but I’m fairly sure I’ve got enough to point a stray comet their way.”
“So…” Apophis hissed, forked tongue licking her lips. “…You survived.”
“You won’t fall as far as Ilias, bitch…” Samuel snarled, the crystals at his temples humming and crackling with power. “…But by Tyris, you’ll fall as hard.”
Apophis smirked mirthlessly. “Freak. You have the merest shadow of your mutilator’s power. Even that alien THING has fled against the Rightness of My cause.”
“You are false.” Alex declared. “And in the name of Tyris we shall spurn you again, driving you…”
“Impudent…” Apophis spat, Alex crying out in pain as tendrils of shadow lashed from the ground, clawing at him.
“Leave him be, worm!” Kylie yowled, appearing from nowhere as she launched herself at the midnight serpent. “I’ll claw that smirking whore face of yours onto the back of your head, so help me Maou!”
“Termagant… I would have had such FUN with you…” Apophis mused, catching the Cheshire by the throat as she reappeared.
“Kylie!” Samuel cried in horror, calling upon the remnants of the power the Logos had left him with. The vortex in his head seemed so small… so insignificant compared to the Maelstrom of power that he was bereft.
“Stop!” Reitia commanded, a pulse of pure light washing over them, dissolving the shadows and forcing Apophis to flinch, releasing her hold on the Cheshire. “This is between us.”
“Abomination…” Apophis drawled. “…Do you know I am almost pleased you found my dear brother in the end… this almost would have been too easy otherwise.”
“The list of your failed attempts speaks the lie to that, Kauket.” Reitia retorted, standing unafraid before the dark Goddess.
“Ah… But you are not the only one who has seen the future… Not the only one to set act in motion to come to fruition at the opportune moment…” Apophis hissed with overweening pride.
Reitia spread her wings defiantly. “You took my Father from me… My Mother… You will not have my people.”
“Your people?” Apophis asked in mocking indulgence. “Surely the Humans belong to Tyris, the Mamono to Maou, no?”
“No!” Reitia retorted. “They are mine! I love them all! And you will not have them!”
“Like your Father…” Apophis laughed “…Your final mistake born in Passion. BEHOLD!”
Reitia cried out in disbelief as the sky darkened, a black disc moving across the sun.
“Come Sun, Come Moon…” Apophis cackled, her upper arms pointing to the sky while her lower drew cruel knives from her belt. “…Attend me and die!”
A golden flash blinded them momentarily, a magnificent figure, resplendent in golden plate which shone with the very light of the sun stood suddenly before them. A swirl of pale mist, and at his side appeared a tall, elegant figure of unearthly beauty, brow crowned with horns of fretted bone, hair of deepest midnight, lights sparkling therein to shame the stars…
“Holy Tyris!” Alex cried out in awe and wonder. “Thy people cry out in their torment! Strike down this False God!”
“Grandmother!” Kylie yowled “Please! You need to stop her!”
The Gods joined hands, turning as one to look for a moment at their mortal servants. Their smiles were gentle, but their eyes bore a note of sadness, of regret…
“No no no no…” Samuel babbled in horror “…We did everything right! It can’t end like this!”
“The terms are met then, My Love?” Tyris asked Maou softly.
“They are, My Darling.” Maou assured him.
“Then let it be done…” Tyris sighed. “…Kauket, do you seek the Mantle of The God, and suzerainty over all existence?”
“I am Apophis!” the Serpent snarled “I have no need of the primordial name of distant history.”
“Then you surrender your own Mantle, and let the Dark be borne by another?” Maou intoned.
“Of course… Now fulfil your destiny, where night and day are meaningless. Crown Me at last Queen and God!”
“It is done.” Tyris declared, his armor crumpling to glittering dust about him, the stars likewise leaving Maou’s luscious midnight locks to fly in a halo about the cobra-like hood of the Serpent Queen.
“At last…” Apophis crowed. “…At Last! Fall down, all the world, and worship Me!”
“What have we done?” Samuel wept in bitter despair, forced to his knees by that irresistible command. And for one terrible moment… all was still…
“Sahnate…” The disciples began chanting “…Pora… Reitia Dei In Excelsius.”
“Insects…” Apophis hissed in outrage. “…You still dare to resist?”
“As my Godhood began with the Midnight Sun…” Tyris quipped, stepping away from the young Goddess as she began to glow with that light of sunrise within her. “…So it ends with the Midday’s Night. The demands of Fate are fulfilled, Apophis… But that doesn’t hold bearing for Her.”
“Sahnate! Pora! Reitia Dei In Excelsius!” The Disciples exulted.
“Honestly Apophis…” Maou mused, placing a hand lightly upon Tyris’s chest as she leaned against him familiarly. “…Did it never cross your mind that you may have missed something?
“Sahnate…” Samuel grated, forcing his head up from where he knelt.
“Pora…” Kylie panted, struggling to regain her feet
“Reitia Dei In Excelsius.” Alex snarled, propping himself up on drawn sword.
“And The God did war against The Dragon…” Reitia intoned, a hint of triumph in her voice. “…And prevailed not.”
“What?” Apophis hissed as the pitiless void opened up beneath her.
“You are The God, Apophis…” Reitia explained “…and The God always Falls.”
“NO!” Apophis shrieked as she fell into the Nothing, the sun beginning to peek out from behind the eclipse as her scream dissipated into the blackness.
“And so…” Tyris remarked with a sigh “…This Age passes at last.”
“Holy Tyris…” Samuel cried in alarm as something began to emerge from the nothingness of Entropy. Carmine eyes glowing in a face twisted in a sardonic smile, darkness flowing in veins bereft of blood… But a face they all knew well.
“Corvus!” Samuel cried out in horror.
“My Son!” Maou shrieked, moving to rush towards the figure, Tyris’s arm holding her back.
“No!” Tyris yelled. “He has Taken the Mantle… He has Subsumed Entropy… He is Destruction. A mere touch will kill you.”
“Father…” The once-God hissed. “…Do you fear me so?”
“What have you done to yourself?” Tyris near-begged, heartbreak evident in his eyes.
“Made a choice.” Corvus remarked, stepping onto the grass of the plain, which shrivelled and blackened at the touch of his feet. “It was right, Entropy cannot be defeated. Everything ends, in time.”
Tyris half-reached towards the Fallen God. “Son… It doesn’t have to be like this…”
“But it does!” Corvus declared helplessly “The Emptiness… I cannot bear it… I must continue… must… feed…”
“My Master!” Alex entreated, placing himself between the Gods. “You can overcome!”
“Away, mortal.” Corvus ordered absently.
Alex stood firm “No Lord! I am yours! Have always been yours!”
“I rule nothing, I give nothing, I am nothing… I deny you.” Corvus hissed, the force of his will driving Alex out of his path.
“Alex!” Kylie cried in alarm
One will deny you… You must weather it.
“You are wrong, My Master!” Alex grated, staggering back to his feet. “You saved all that lives!”
Corvus curled his lip. “A momentary reprieve. The Dragon was but a fraction…”
“Not The Dragon! Your Daughter!”
“My daughter is dead.” Corvus declared.
Alex made a strangling sound of frustration, thrusting out a mailed hand to where the glowing form of Reitia reached for her father beseechingly “She is right there!”
“A Phantom. My daughter is dead.”
“YOU WILL LOOK!” Alex roared, and bright fire ignited in his eyes as the heroic blood, that blessing of the Line of Azrael awakened within him.
It was not clear if the Hero’s Power extended to the Gods, or if Corvus in that instance managed to claw control from the overwhelming hunger of Entropy. Slowly, inexorably, he turned to face his daughter.
“Father…” Reitia whispered, her eyes glowing with unconditional love.
“Reitia…” Corvus breathed, staggering towards her as if he still could scarcely believe it. Darkness met Light as they fell into each other’s embrace, and the pitiless blackness began to leech from Corvus’s veins, exorcised by that most potent of magics… Love.
“My Reitia…” Corvus wept, embracing the Goddess. “…My wonderful, wonderful girl.”
With a note of finality, the rift to The Nothing finally closed.
“My Son.” Tyris exclaimed in praise as He and Maou joined the father and daughter, the Gods relishing at last in closeness finally restored to them.
“I waited for this…” Reitia smiled through her own tears “…and now it’s here it’s better than anything I could have imagined.”
“You are Love, Precious Child…” Maou explained adoringly, cupping her Granddaughter’s cheek. “…You are everything I could have possibly hoped for. You are the All-Mother of Creation, a crown I bore ever imperfectly.”
“Thank you for Believing, Lord Azrael.” Corvus offered to Alex, placing hand upon his shoulder.
Alex shook his head. “I am just Alex. My blood serves only to honour You, Raven.”
“Take up the Mantle, My Son.” Tyris insisted. “Be The God your Father never could be.”
Corvus paused, and it seemed time for an instant froze again. “No.” he answered finally. “The hunger is gone, but as Reitia now is the Bringer of Light I am still the Keeper of Darkness. What my precious girl births to life, I shall, in its time, lay to peaceful rest, as was always intended.”
“There must always be The God…” Tyris rejoined concernedly.
“Faith Sustained in the time before Ilias, Lord Tyris.” Samuel interjected “It can do so again, while the world calms from the birth-pangs of the new age.”
“You’re still here, Resonant?” Tyris laughed.
“Like a bad brass penny, Most Holy.” Samuel grinned.
“I am that no longer, old friend.” Tyris replied, squeezing the Resonant’s arm in greeting.
Samuel grinned cheekily. “Forgive me Lord, but ten thousand years? You may not be THE God, but you’ll be OUR God for a good while yet, and damn your opinion on the matter.”
“You are bold…” Tyris remarked.
Samuel nodded “Bruce had a saying on that. Can’t spell ‘Bold’ without ‘Old’, Divine One.”
“Then I will remain yet a while, I as the Sun, my Beloved, the Moon, until my Son comes to bear us hence.” Tyris acceded.
“Permit us some time apart.” Maou declared in dulcet tones, Reitia and Corvus within her arms, “For it may be an age before we can be together like this again.”
And then, between one breath and the next, they were gone.
“Fuck me backwards…” One of Reitia’s disciples breathed reverently.
“What do we do now?” Another asked
“Let’s ask Mellisae, she’s the priestess.” Someone suggested brightly.
“Poor girl’s fifteen!”
“What’s that got to do with anything? I’m after direction, not a shag and a shot of whiskey.”
“Hey, there’s an idea… Oi… Samuel, is it? Know where we can find a pub?”
“Dammit daddy, you said you approved!” Kylie shrieked incensedly.
“And I’m not saying I don’t…” Samuel offered placatingly. “…Just making you aware of the facts. You’re already over two centuries old. If you’re not careful Alex will grow old and die before you’ve turned around twice.”
“But I love him!” Kylie sobbed, clinging to the Paladin.
“My blood has awakened…” Alex offered hopefully “…will that not make any difference?”
“Who’s the King of Magisterium?” Samuel asked evenly.
“Domenic the First.” Alex answered instinctively “But I don’t see…”
“His Predecessor, King Michael the Grail Knight, was a hundred and fifty when he died. And that’s a man I saw get up and walk after a drop-bear chewed the back of his head off. I saw how much that hurt Tellis, little kitten… it would break my heart to see it happen to you.”
“And mine.” Alex admitted regretfully. “Kylie… You will always have my heart… but maybe…”
“No!” Kylie yowled. “You’re MINE, you stupid human! Nothing’s taking you away from me!”
“You’re set on this then?” Samuel asked resignedly.
“Absolutely. Unless you feel like another fifty years of me not speaking to you except to call you a cunt.” Kylie retorted defiantly.
“Fine. Come here, Alex, and accept my blessing.” Samuel beckoned.
“My Lord, I don’t want…” Alex began, before a tingling washed over him. “…What… What are you…”
“I’m not going to lose my daughter again. And she’s not going to lose you.” Samuel declared.
“Daddy no! You don’t have that much left!” Kylie cried in alarm.
“It’s my life, Kitten. And I’m giving it to him.” Samuel rejoined stubbornly.
Alex shook his head. “I can’t…”
One will sacrifice for you… And you must Accept…
Alex looked between Cheshire and Resonant. “For her.” he stated simply.
“For her.” Samuel agreed, clamping a hand roughly atop the Paladin’s head, the crystals at his temples beginning to crack and flake away as he re-wrote the very cells within the Paladin’s body.
“Sahnate, Pora, Reitia Dei In Excelsius.” Mellisae intoned from before the altar, the smiling couple in front of the young Hive-Queen with eyes only for each other.
“Sahnate, Pora, Reitia Dei In Excelsius” The congregation replied.
“Kiss your bride, Disciple.” Mellisae entreated, the Thunderbird screeching happily as she threw her wings about the human’s neck, kissing him passionately to the congregants cheers, cheers which grew ever louder as the doors to the temple were thrown open, the Man and Mamono laughing as they made their way down the aisle and into the bright sunlight outside. Bards struck up instruments, and tables groaned under the largesse of food and drink.
“Beautiful Ceremony as always, Reverence.” Travis praised Mellisae absently as the Bee-Girl emerged from the temple behind the joyous congregants. The disciple dusted off his hands, grunting in satisfaction as he looked up at the pennant joyously snapping in the breeze.
“Travis, you’re a mage…” Mellisae began.
“Really?!” Travis exclaimed in false surprise “What an amazing thing!”
“You!” Mellisae cried in despair. “What I mean is, why do you always insist on doing things the mundane way?”
Travis sighed, waving his hands and setting a flock of glowing birds to musical song as they followed the happy couple out into the square of the simple village which had begun to grow about the temple. “That was any better? It cost me no effort to do so… but I cut that flagpole, I bound that pennant, I hoisted it up… I can look at it and say ‘I did that. There’s my Love for my Brother and his Bride.’ That’s why.”
“You’re a hopeless romantic, Travis.” Mellisae chuckled.
“Don’t let it get around… got a reputation to maintain after all.” Travis teased. “And I see young Stephan has found an excuse to come up from House Doric… Again.”
“The whole village is here… Please tell the other disciples I don’t need a chaperone…” The Hive-Queen pleaded.
“Alright your Reverence. Just this once we’ll stop playing evil big brother.” Travis conceded with a chuckle.
Mellisae smiled, standing on tiptoes to kiss the human briefly on the cheek before descending into the square, the young man’s face lighting up like the dawn at the sight of the young priestess.
“…Didn’t say anything about your Dad though…” Travis muttered to himself, jerking his head pointedly at the older man leaning inconspicuously against a nearby building, his red hair shot through with grey, his body clothed in amber and rough hides.
“Are you happy here, beloved?” A voice whispered in the air around him.
“Happier than I have any right to be, Holy One.” Travis answered reverently.
“But you remain alone…”
“I like to watch them have fun, Divinity…” Travis grinned, watching the joy below “…plus, you know what happens when I get on the sauce too early.”
The ghostly sensation of lips against his cheek warmed him to the soul “When will we have such celebration for you?”
“My Goddess is Love, Mercy, and the Joy of Creation.” Travis sighed contentedly. “I’ve no doubt the right woman will come along sometime…”
“Excuse me?” A voice intruded. Travis turned in surprise, to behold a golden-skinned Anubian, her large, dark ears flicking slightly, wringing her paws abashedly. “I was wondering if you could direct me to the Inn? I am bound for Caladon, but have left far too late to arrive tonight.”
“Certainly.” Travis smiled in welcome. “But we’re celebrating a wedding here today, would you raise a cup to them before you turn in?”
“I-if I am not imposing.” the Mamono replied with a shy smile “My name is Dalila.”
“Travis. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dalila.” the disciple replied with a smile… why was his heart beating so fast?
Dalila put her paws to her mouth, her hazel eyes widening “Ammit! You are Reitia’s Disciple!”
“You’re not going to hold that against me are you?” Travis grinned.
“Against you? No… I… “ the Anubis stammered abashedly.
“C’mon Dalila…” Travis chuckled, offering her his hand. “…Let’s grab a drink.”
Dalila placed her paw tentatively in the man’s hand, and a sense of warmth seemed to course through him at the contact.
“Are you cheating, Most Holy?” He asked in the vaults of his mind.
“Would I do that, beloved?” Came Reitia’s playful reply.
“It’s too soon, daddy!” Kylie sobbed.
“We’ve had… centuries…” The old man gasped from the bed, his hair spread out in wisps of white on the pillow beneath him.
“It’s not enough.” The Cheshire cried.
“It never is…” Samuel smiled weakly, his wizened hand seeking the Cheshire’s paw.
A polite knock sounded at the door, the broad-shouldered figure of Baron Alexander, Founder of the Black Knights of Corvus silhouetted against the light beyond. “How is he?” Alex asked concernedly.
“I’m dying, Alex… stop making such a big deal about it.” Samuel laughed, before descending into a wracking cough. “Sorry… I missed… your centennial.”
Alex smiled softly, his face still as youthful as the day they had met. “A hundred years… it went by so quickly, I barely had the chance to notice.”
“Time… is a prick… like that.” Samuel mused, gasping for air.
“I can call a medicus…” Alex offered.
“No.” Samuel insisted, shaking his head. “I miss my Yumi… I miss my brothers… It’s time… I joined them.”
“You’ve given me so much, My Lord. Both of us… so much…” Alex grated against tears.
“Alex… I never… knew… if I had a son…” Samuel whispered harshly “…but if I did… I pray to Tyris… he would have been… like you…”
Alex cleared his throat. “My Lord, may I ask one last boon of you?”
“I’m not… Babysitting… Amaranth…” Samuel jested weakly.
“Hah! Jelena would never have it. I swear she dotes on our daughter more than we do.” Alex laughed, before sobering again “No… I just…”
“Ask him, Love.” Kylie entreated through her tears.
Alex swallowed. “Let me… Let me call you Father, just once?”
“Nothing would make… me happier…” Samuel sighed.
“Father…” Alex choked, kissing the old man on the forehead. “…I love you.”
“I Love you too… Son…” Samuel breathed.
“I Love you daddy! I’ve always loved you!” Kylie wailed.
Samuel smiled through fading vision “Love you… little kitten…”
It was dark… had the sun set? Surely Kylie wouldn’t let the lights go out… Strange, the weight on his chest had vanished, he could breathe again… he was standing… now when did that happen?
“So.” A voice echoed behind him. “You’re finally here.”
Samuel turned, sucking in breath before kneeling reverently.
“Holy Ammit…” He intoned
“I know who I am.” Ammit tsked, grinning broadly with her mantrap jaws. “But tell me… do you?”
Samuel looked upon the Goddess, the ultimate Justice, the guardian and keeper of the Underworld… and suddenly… he knew.
“You are The God!” He gasped in revelation.
“Very good…” Ammit mused, sauntering towards him, sinking a leonine paw into his chest effortlessly, coming away with a throbbing heart… his heart…
“I know I’ve skirted the limits of morality, Dread Ammit.” Samuel admitted as she placed the heart on the Scales of Ma’at, drawing a feather seemingly from the nothingness around her and placing it in the opposing pan “But I swear… everything I did, I did for the good of our world.”
“The Prosecution of Thoth is not interested in your justifications, Samuel.” Ammit replied dismissively, before smiling broadly again as the pan holding the feather sank to the altar. “…Even if it does agree with you.”
Samuel felt paws slide around his shoulders. Scarcely daring to believe, he turned, gasping in sheer joy as he beheld the smugly grinning shade of his Cheshire wife.
“Hey Lover…” Yumi drawled. “…What took you so long?”
“I’m sorry Yumi…” Samuel breathed, taking the shade in his arms, love threatening to overwhelm him “…I had to see it done.”
“I know you did, Sam…” Yumi smiled, kissing him tenderly “…and I’m so proud of you.”
Wrapped up in their love, the spirits barely noticed as Ammit blew on the heart, turning it to sparkling light which surrounded them, the veil of the underworld opening, and paradise beyond, beckoning… beckoning…
“You expect me to believe that?” The Elven warrior sneered. “Humans are not capable of such.”
“It is the truth… Please…” The vampire pleaded “…I’ve waited so long… why are you doing this?”
“Simply because of that fact, Nasha.” the warrior replied evenly. “You HAVE been waiting that long… perverted, turned from our blessed form into… this.”
“I am still Tel’Quassir!” The vampire insisted “I have never forsaken…”
“You ARE Forsaken!” The elf yelled, striking her across the face. “And now… I grant you that final mercy…”
“No! Please! Don’t!” The vampire begged as another elf drove the blessed heartwood stake into her breast. The vampire stiffened, her body crumbling rapidly into dust as Unlife fled from her.
“What shall we do now, Tystalaes?” The other elf asked, bowing reverently.
The warrior donned his elaborate helm, flexing mailed gauntlet about the pommel of his curved sword. “The last who remembers is gone… Gather the fleet… we do what we should have done before the Burning of the Ainorn… This world will be ours, and neither Human nor Monster will gainsay us!”