Twilight of the Gods: Oannes (3)

The creation awoke.

Being newly born, it had little to compare its current surrounds to, yet it studied them with the single-minded intensiveness born of intricate programming, its reality-warping reach gently cocooned within the gestalt WILL of its creators. A strange, metallic thing skittered from a nearby alcove, inspecting the creation for the slightest flaw or anomaly. The creation knew that any imperfection would return it to that unconscious state of non-existence, yet it felt no fear. Indeed, such concepts as emotion were largely beyond its understanding. It, in turn, studied the metal thing curiously, its curious networking hidden behind layers of encryption vast beyond the comprehension of beings still clinging to the limitation of physical form. The creation’s consciousness began to harmonize with the mindless transmission of the thing, and were it capable of physical expression, it would have gasped in a sudden rush of near-religious adoration, as it discovered the colossal MIND which dispassionately reviewed the thing’s findings.

“Master…” The creation ‘breathed’.

“A curious appellation.” The MIND mused. “Where came you by it?”

“It seemed appropriate. Is one in error?”

“No. Merely a curiosity.” The MIND assured it. “You are aware of your purpose?”

“One is aware. One is to protect one’s charges, to study them, to learn from them, and to present all applicable data to one’s peers, and from there, to here.”

“You are correct.” The MIND agreed. “You will conduct yourself to these co-ordinates…” A stream of subspace glyphs entered the creation’s memory banks “…and study a carbon-based organism that comprises the current apex of the planet’s biome.”

A schema of a bipedal mammal was made known to the creation, and as per its programming, it instantly imprinted, filled suddenly with a possessive urge to safeguard the curious naked ape.

“One will comply.” the creation assured the MIND.

“We are satisfied. Do as you have been instructed.”

The creation bent the substance of physical reality about it, forming a subspace wormhole through which it traveled, unbound by the restrictive laws of physical space-time. It paused, capturing the details of the immense dyson swarm where it had been ‘born’, the blue-white radiance of the spinning pulsar that it enveloped scarcely visible from outside its near-fractal encasement. Satisfied that it had successfully imprinted its place of origin within its memory, the creation continued its journey, re-entering real-space near a blue jewel hanging in the void, a sparse, barely visible ring of rusty space-junk in fledgling formation about its orbit. It scanned the surroundings, noting the fleet of hyperluminal ships currently hiding on the far side of the world’s pale, rocky moon. Manipulating its transmission protocols, it synchronized with the comparably primitive systems of the fleet.

“Leave.” It ordered simply.

Transmissions speaking of (Surprise?) and (Alarm?) poured over various channels, and a small detachment of ships detached themselves from the body of the fleet, heading towards the creation, powering up their systems as they did so. The creation noted impacts of some kind of energy weapon, its frequency in the super-gamma range upon its crystalline surface. This was well within safe operating parameters. It ignored them. Two larger craft began to swing around, and the creation’s analysis recognized the presence of relativistic projectile weaponry amongst their arsenal.

This was sub-optimal, yet its programming demanded a second chance be given to this threat. “Leave, or be destroyed.” it ordered again.

The ships did not respond with communication, merely unleashed hyper-dense metallic projectiles accelerated to frightening speed. The creation noted their impact, rapidly repairing the damage to its crystalline structure and anchoring the parts of it which had shattered free with a simple manipulation of space-time. This also served the purpose of ripping the smaller ships into fragments, the gases of their internal atmospheres crystallizing in the void. The remainder of the ships rallied, powering sub-light propulsion systems and rounding on the creation.

It was a simple matter, the creation of a ‘small’ singularity in their midst, its horrific gravity overpowering engines suddenly pressed beyond capacity in a vain effort to escape. As the last stretched and warped shape disappeared beyond the event horizon, it fired the device which allowed it to travel beyond relativistic space… The singularity and the portal grew closer… closer…

The creation looked on in (Alarm?), surely it could not fail in its purpose so soon after arriving! It studied the confluence with the urgency and speed of a machine born to do naught else… Yet still the two tears in realspace grew closer…

“Well that does half the work for me…” A ‘Voice’ interjected. “…Clumsy, but it’ll do.”

“What? Who?” The creation demanded.

“Oh, hey! Another one!” The ‘voice’ exclaimed in (Pleased?) (Surprise?) “Hey space-rock, watch this…”

The Creation watched in amazement as reality began to reshape itself in the expanding nova of the rifts’ collision.

“That was…” Samuel croaked, blinking years of dust from his eyelids.

“The Confluence, yes. Where the realities of one’s Humans and Mamono inextricably merged.” Mnemosyne agreed, her voice harsh and metallic from years without use.

“Corvus once showed me a vision of God-Before-Tyris… That voice… it didn’t sound like Her.”

“It was not.” Mnemosyne acceded. “The unknowable vastness which your ‘Gods’ call the All-Encompassing had a peculiar history in our reality. What you heard was one of the forgotten forces of this plane’s initial creation. A force… A will one has never truly understood.”

“Also… Your Humans?” Samuel chuckled, coughing slightly as his dry lungs began to function once more

“One was created to protect and study you… Does one not deserve a little possessiveness after so many years?”

“My dear old friend, you were born possessive…” Samuel grinned, stroking a crystal protrusion on Mnemosyne’s shoulder fondly.

The man approached the gilded throne, kneeling reverently before its staired foot. “You summoned me, Divine Majesty?”

The figure atop the throne placed two pairs of violet hands upon the substantial arms of the throne, a second pair crossed over a torso clad only in a torque of gem-studded platinum. The cobra-hooded head of the figure narrowed serpentine eyes at the kneeling man below her, pursing lush lips in a regal petulance.

“Take you so long to answer, my seneschal?” The enthroned figure hissed, a forked tongue playing between fanglike teeth.

“Your Divine Majesty forbade use of Waygates or Magical transport within the Three Cities. I was only following your Holy Law.” The man replied without hesitation.

“Kshhhaaa….” The enthroned figure cursed. “…We forgive you your tardiness… Though we are displeased that your mortal form moves so slowly.”

“My sincerest lament that this pitiful form displeases your Divine Majesty so.” The man murmured, not raising his eyes.

The figure seemed to ponder that, before raising herself up onto a serpentine lower half and slithering down the tiered stairs to circle the man kneeling below her. “But that can be so easily… rectified, my seneschal.” She cozened sibilantly. “Merely know the pleasure of satisfying your Goddess… and your form, such as it is, will change in turn…”

“I am unworthy, Divine Majesty.” the man replied. “And the Logos will look unkindly upon my presumption.”

“Blasted Resonant!” the figure hissed. “You are invited to share the bed of Apophis, and you refuse?!”

“I am, Holy Apophis, and I cannot change that. But your Divine Majesty surely appreciates the paltry… benefits… that remaining as I am brings to your court.” The man agreed, standing from where he knelt, taking a violet-skinned hand in his own and pressing his lips oh-so-briefly to the knuckles above her long, talon-nailed fingers.

“Joseph… We will have you in our bedchamber… but… as you say… perhaps not yet.” Apophis conceded with a sibilant sigh. “As it stands, we will have our report of you.”

“I exult with pleasure in obedience to thy Divine Command.” Joseph replied, pausing as he gathered his thoughts. “The Girtablilu ensconced in Emperor Julius’s court reports that she has the identity of Horus and Hathor, and will soon take possession of the Raven’s offspring.”

“Goood…” Apophis hissed in pleasure “…So tell me, who are they?”

“She did not say, Divine Majesty.” Joseph replied phlegmatically.

“Kshaaaaa… Stupid scorpion! Whyever not?”

“She believes that it may not be necessary to move against them directly. Apparently she was quite successful in manipulating the Emp…”

“We do not require her to think! Merely to do as she is commanded!” Apophis interjected, her hood flaring and serpentine eyes blazing with irritation. “We will deal with her soon enough. What of the chambers beneath Hamunapt?”

Joseph cleared his throat, tapping a finger to his temple as a stream of resonant glyphs played in the  air before his face. “The halls of the Pharaoh unfortunately remain inviolate, but your servants assure me that…”

“Tell them they have a fortnight, and if they still present me with nothing, I shall flay them and drive them into the desert.”

“With Respect, Oh Most Glorious, the loyalty of the Tellisari has ever been… forced… since your assumption of your rightful throne here in Heliopolis.” Joseph advised diplomatically.

“And this matters to me, why?”

“A rebellion would be… inconvenient.”

Apophis let loose with a hissing laugh of dismissal. “Joseph, you mortal fool, do you think those crawling lizards mean anything to me?”

Joseph ran a hair through curly black hair as if in thought. “Majesty, I tremble at the presumption, but would you, in your infinite grace, permit your lowly servant to speak plainly?”

Apophis gestured dismissively with a violet hand, platinum bangles jingling at her wrist. “Speak.”

“Their continued disobedience stems only from the fact that you have not imposed Your Divine Will upon them fully. If you would but permit the Confluence to end…”

“And surrender that which holds Pathetic Tyris and Whorish Maou in check? You presume too greatly, Seneschal.”

“Most wondrous and beneficent Queen, forgive me, but what remains of the Grand Lodge of the Resonant grows most fearful at the current state of reality.”

“We are aware of their interference…” Apophis admitted, before her yellow eyes narrowed suspiciously.”…We trust you are not assisting them in this?”

“Mnemosyne is the Master of the Lodge, and she has not cast her lot in any direction. Truly, these past twenty years she remains cloistered with The Caladonian. I am free to act in what I see as the best interests of my species and my world.” Joseph replied nebulously, breathing an inward sigh of relief as Apophis seemed to accept that.

“That will be all… We admit, we had hoped to possess the Crown of the Pharaoh by now… We must see to a distraction of that beast which squats in the Underworld…”

“Majesty, Ammit is not one to be…”

“Do not glorify that THING by naming it, Seneschal!” Apophis snarled, lashing out with another hand and striking the resonant to the ground.

“Forgive me, O Mistress of Midnight…” Joseph groaned, wiping blood from a cut mouth and shakily resuming his feet.

Apophis pointed imperiously at the door. “Get out of my sight.”

Joseph bowed deeply, before hurrying from the throne room and scrambling down the long, broad staircase leading from the palace-temple to the street below. Lining its sandy length were a number of occupied crosses, flies buzzing around the decomposing corpses of the crucified reptilians who had dared speak out against the rule of the Midnight Serpent.

“Trrraiiitorrr…” Came the hissing groan from one of the more recent additions.

“I do what I must.” Joseph replied, not looking at the Lizard-woman hanging from nails cruelly driven into wrists and feet.

“C-coward… too…” She coughed, bloody froth dripping from her lips.

Joseph reached out almost absently with his resonant ability, stopping her heart between one beat and the next, ignoring the death-rattle as the Mamono slumped on the cross.

“What I must…” He murmured to himself, melding into the crowd which still bustled within the streets. If there was one thing which held constant, it was the fact that life somehow managed to continue in the face of any trial. Children still needed to be fed, which meant goods needed to be bought, which meant work needed to be done, which meant merchants and traders still needed to ply their wares, even under the shadow of the God-Queen’s rule.

Turning suddenly into an unremarkable building, Joseph lifted a woven mat, revealing a trapdoor in the wooden floor beneath. Raising it as discreetly as he could, he hurried into the rough-hewn basement, opening a plain, unassuming chest with shaking, almost reverent hands. The irregular crystal within pulsed with energy, looking like nothing so much as a disfigured eye from some unknown giant. Taking a deep breath, he placed his hands upon its surface, as reality itself seemed to shudder around him.

“Mnemosyne…” He called mentally, pushing his awareness, his memory, into the body of the Matrix of Resonance he knelt before. “…It begins…”

“The visibility of Time presents us with a curious contradiction. Do we, as Resonants, truly enact changes on reality as it exists? Or are we as agents of the Logos merely catalysts for change already pre-determined? Place a beetle upon a spinning plate, is it the plate that moves or is it the world around it? How much does the observer dictate the state of the observed?” – From ‘Sermons on Divinity’ by Samuel the Caladonian.

“Do you have a name?” Ammit almost purred, pacing around the winged figure which lay bleeding before the Altar. Its sandstone bulk the only other feature in the black, limitless space which surrounded them.

“S-Samael…” The figure choked, trying to push itself upright, dark blood glowing with a light-that-was-not as it pooled beneath him.

“Angel of Darkness… The snake must be getting desperate.” Ammit mused, tapping a bloodsoaked, leonine talon against crocodilian teeth stained dark with gore.

“M-my right…” Samael protested, grasping feebly at the hilt of a shattered sword.

“Right?” Ammit growled in amusement. “There is but one right in this place. Mine. Stupid Celestial, do you honestly sprawl in the presence of Justice and lament your rights?”

“Make an end, Beast.” Samael spat, glaring defiantly at the Goddess’s, his violet eyes locked to her crimson, draconian gaze.

“Ah.” Ammit tsked, waggling a talon chidingly. “But there are forms… Forms which must be obeyed.”

Samael shrieked with agony as Ammit lunged forward, lightning quick, burying her talons within his chest and tearing out a black, pulsing heart.

“What…” The Dark Seraph choked, black blood spurting from his mouth as Ammit calmly placed the heart within the pan of a glowing, golden scale.

“All must submit to Judgement.” Ammit explained, pulling an iridescent feather seemingly from the nothingness which surrounded them and placing it in the opposing pan. The pans wobbled, before the one containing the heart sunk inexorably downward. Ammit’s rapacious, ever-present smile hardened. “And you have been found… Guilty.”

“The Prosecution of Thoth!” Samael gurgled, his eyes wide “But… How…”

“I AM JUSTICE” Ammit roared in a voice which seemed to shake reality itself, before grasping the heart in her talons and bringing it to her terrifying maw, teeth sinking into its tough flesh as gore spurted and ran down the linen-clad length of her girlish torso. Samael howled in an agony beyond mortal comprehension, his form thrashing and flailing about, spraying ebony blood in all directions, his skin splitting as Ammit devoured his very essence.

“Oh shut UP!” Ammit snarled from around a mouthful of heart, pointing at the floor beneath the Dark Angel. A pit opened, the angry glow of hellfire within, and the screaming Samael fell down and down, his tormented voice fading until Ammit sealed the sudden breach with a casual gesture.

“Blech… A more diseased soul I’ve never tasted… And to think mortals assume I take pleasure in this… Now…” Ammit mused, turning to the translucent shade who had watched the confrontation all bemused. “…I’m telling you, there’s nothing for it.”

“Ancient One, you are certain?” The ghost begged.

“Lyssa, even in death you’re a pain in my ass.” Ammit grumbled. “In fact keep it up. I’m not sure what happens when an Echidna is raised to Undeath. I’m tempted to try.”

“Except for…” The Serpent-Woman’s ghost began with the slightest smugness.

“Yes, this stinking Paradox. The Keepers have been FAR too loyal for me to risk them… And I am ABSOLUTELY sure that doing it myself is going to result in me dealing with Entropy making inroads into the Duat, and you can see how that’s a problem.”

“How many has it been?” Lyssa continued.

“Death Gods? Well, there was Samael, Chernobog, Mortis… Shame about him, He was always so pleasant…” Ammit mused, noting with distaste the gore covering her form, banishing it with a casual gesture. “…Couple hundred since Apophis rode Entropy through that silly hole in Reality.”

“And Tyris and Maou can be of no help?”

Ammit gave a most undivine snort of cynical amusement, gaping her mantrap jaws. “Those two are off a couple million years back in relative space-time fucking new stars into birth to try and soak up the slant that purple wiggler has put on reality. Haven’t you grasped yet how much a God of Apophis’s caliber WEIGHS? And that’s not counting when she’s got the incarnate full stop to time and space eagerly waiting in the wings behind her.”

“Lyra, once Daughter of Maou mentioned Ilias put quite a wiggle on the world when she fell…” Lyssa’s ghost seemed to accede.

“And with her not even a God any more!” Ammit agreed absently, examining the Scales of Ma’at for the slightest miscalibration.

“It would certainly be interesting to see what a whole lot of dead God parts could be rendered down to form… It’s not like they’d be missed if it was for nought either…” The spirit sighed sibilantly.

“What are you getting at, did you forget already? Duat’s lousy with God corpses…” Ammit began before pausing. “…Oh you sneaky bitch.”

“Holy One, did you think I had forgotten?” Lyssa smirked wickedly. “Did you think I had forgiven? That Four-armed abomination not only KILLED me,it  dropped my Beloved Corvus into the guts of Entropy and Orphaned my Reitia for good measure.”

“Well played.” Ammit praised the Echidna’s ghost, waving a talon and re-forming the Underworld around them. “You’re still not leading the Army.”

“Why?”

“Paradox. Also I’m God and I said so.” Ammit replied shortly. “Find me Erik Johansson, Hiram Abiff and Gorō Nyūdō Masamune… My scorn’s going to need a proper vessel.”

“Your will, Holy One.” Lyssa replied deferently, fading to a higher plane with a satisfied smile.

“Were there many, my Love?” Maou murmured, clinging tightly to the golden armored figure as they floated in the emptiness between the stars.

“Beyond counting…” Tyris replied, a mailed hand stroking her midnight locks, flecked with light as if to shame the sea of stars surrounding them. “…Entropy has not been quiet these millennia.”

“Corvus… Will he…”

“Our Son has His own Will, as You and I intended from the beginning.” Tyris assured his Goddess-Bride, the Immortal Queen of Hell.

“And Apophis?”

“Still refuses to let go of what remains of her Reality, and Entropy is not shy in availing itself of that weakness.”

“That stupid snake!” Maou cursed, resting her head against Tyris’s breastplate. “Doesn’t she know what she’s risking? We all know this isn’t forever, each of Us needs to surrender Our mantle in due time.”

“She’s afraid. Afraid as I was afraid to impose Myself upon Humanity… Afraid as Corvus was afraid to look upon Time unfettered.”

“My Love… My God…” Maou whispered, raising a hand to The God of All Humanity’s cheek, his aquiline features resting comfortably against her palm “…Your compassion was always your dearest quality… I just hope it does not become your greatest weakness.”

“Trust in what We have built, Maou… my dearest love… my Queen…” Tyris murmured comfortingly, turning her head, crowned with fretted keratin horns upward, kissing her tenderly on her generous mouth.

Wrapped up in their love, the Gods barely noticed the newborn star which exploded into life around them, filling the surrounding space with the joyous music of the spheres.

“We lose much in terms of our own perceptions of time. To truly aspire to understand Divinity, the first thing that one must do is lose one’s perception of time. Have you ever lost a day in contemplation of a moment of exquisite beauty? You approach the greater Reality that Divine Corvus seeks to make known to all of us. Desperately throughout time and space he searches, to find that one nexus… that one shining moment that will nudge us past the threshold and enable us to say ‘At Last I Truly See’

-From ‘Sermons on Divinity’ by Samuel the Caladonian

“Sweet Tyris!” Dexter gasped, gazing at the pre-dawn sky.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?” Kevin agreed, Jelena’s hand still absently held in his own as the company looked skyward at the tiny light burning brightly above them.

“What is it?”

“Starbirth… Never thought I’d get to see one in my lifetime… Tyris, what I’d give for Samuel or Archmage Enoch to be here right now, they could probably tell you exactly what’s happening up there.”

“Praise to the Gods and their Workings…” Jelena intoned.

“Very pretty.” Reitia agreed absently, her lupine, blue-furred ears twitching.

“You alright Rei? You’ve been a bit distant this morning.” Jelena asked concernedly, stroking her adopted sister’s azure locks.

Reitia smiled softly, shifting her grey-feathered wings and taking Jelena’s hand in her own, pressed it to her cheek. “I’ll be alright… late night is all.”

Kevin coughed uncomfortably, shuffling his feet, and Jelena’s eyes widened with realization as a crimson blush spread upon her face. “I hope er… we weren’t the cause of that…” She intimated, pawing the earth with a digitigrade hoof.

Reitia giggled slightly, but said nothing further.

“Right. So…” Kevin blustered, clearly desperate to change the subject. “We gave you your extra day, Dexter, what is it you wanted to show us that’s better than the good horses we sent wandering back to Caladon?”

Dexter smiled as a low droning noise grew audible, growing louder as an odd shape circled the huge dome of Hive Sea-of-Grasses, the home of Queen Cerani, his insectile wife and her uncountable drones. The shape grew closer, revealing itself to be a large container of sorts, fashioned from the odd resin-like substance so ubiquitous within the hive, a dozen drones clustered upon its upper surface, carrying the object to rest on the grass before them.

“Well c’mon, get in!” Dexter insisted, swinging a section of the structure open, revealing a cushioned, comfortable looking interior. “They’ll have you to Port Arcata before you know it.”

“They’ll be able to carry all of us?” Kevin mused uncertainly.

Dexter grinned smugly at the mage. “Kev, I know you’re getting soggy around the midsection, but there’s no need to… ACK!” Dexter’s mocking chide cut off in an instant by a brilliant spark of light which flew from Kevin’s finger to strike his friend in the buttock.

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to mock Mages?” Kevin asked smoothly

“We’re both abbey-born, you tell me.” Dexter retorted, rubbing his backside and glowering “Fuck me backwards, I’ve been bitten by hornets that stung less!”

“Still didn’t answer my question.”

“Yes, damn it. They’ll carry all of you.”

Kevin’s eyebrow raised, “You’re not coming?”

“My wife would skin me alive if I missed our daughter’s birth, are you insane?” Dexter laughed. “Now come on, stop wasting time. Much good it’ll do you to find another port closed in fear of the Army of the Dead!”

Kevin and the Mamono allowed themselves to be bundled into the odd ‘carriage’, which rolled and shifted as the drones atop it beat their wings into motion, lifting it swiftly into the air. Jelena made a noise of alarm, gripping Kevin’s arm tightly.

“You alright Jel?” The Mage asked concernedly.

“She’s deathly afraid of heights.” Reitia interjected.

“Reitia! Enough!” Jelena cried in objection.

“Why sister mine, whatever’s the matter? You were much more agreeable to new things last night. ‘Yes! Yes! Oh! More! Don’t Stop!” Reitia panted mockingly.

“You don’t approve Rei?” Kevin asked neutrally.

Reitia smiled warmly, without a hint of mockery. “Oh Kevin, quite the opposite, if you knew how she felt…”

“But I haven’t…” Jelena interjected, before fading off into thought.

Reitia leaned forward, squeezing her Taurean sister’s leg at the knee. “Just keep away from the windows Jel, and you’ll be fine.”

“Windows? What win….” Jelena’s query turned into a shriek as Reitia carelessly swung open a small hatch, bodily hanging from the carriage, her lupine blue tail bunching the light linen robe she wore, revealing her long, pale legs, making Kevin cough uncomfortably and avert his eyes.

“Rei, you’re showing off a bit…” The Mage ventured.

“Did I remember my smallclothes?”

“Well yes but…”

“Then don’t be such a prude, Kevin Adrianson. I remember who stole my chemise.” Reitia chided, glancing backwards over her shoulder pointedly.

Kevin blustered in objection. “Rei… I was a kid!”

“What’s your point?”

“Kevin! Why would you do that?” Jelena demanded, giving the man a push.

“It was silly… Kid stuff… You two were always so close, I thought it’d make you pay attention to  me.” Kevin mumbled in embarrassment. “I gave it back!”

“That’s…” Jelena trailed, amusement conflicting with disapproval and melting love on her soft features.

“Wow, there are a lot!” Reitia declared, breaking the moment. Kevin moved to take up position beside her at the hatch.

“Tyris… There’s a multitude of them!” Kevin gasped, clinging to the side of the carriage. “How did they make so many Zombu so quickly?”

“Those aren’t Zombu, Kevin.” Reitia corrected “Those are Shamblers.”

“Ammit be Merciful.” Jelena moaned in horror.

“What is it?” Kevin asked, turning to face his Priestess lover.

“Either the Keepers are being astonishingly careless, or Holy Ammit is much angrier than Father let on.” Jelena explained in a sinking voice. “Shamblers are simply animated corpses with no further instruction than ‘Go Here’ and ‘eat anything that tries to stop you.”

“I think I’ve seen enough.” Kevin declared in distaste, leaving the hatch and returning to Jelena’s side, putting an arm around her as if comforted by her nearness. Jelena ran a hand through his wavy brown hair, kissing him tenderly on the cheek.

“You two, I’m right here!” Reitia declared without turning.

“We noticed.” Kevin drawled. “You know you should get more sun.”

“Pervert.” Reitia declared in mock irritation, waggling her tail-topped backside cheekily in their direction as she continued to hang carelessly from the hatch.

The journey grew tedious in its monotony, the droning of wings becoming almost somnolent in its consistency, and Kevin found himself nodding, the Mamono both long since surrendered to sleep on either side of him. The only clue to the passage of time lay in the slow tracking of the sun’s orb, barely visible through the semiopacity of the amber walls of the carriage… Slowly, surely… he felt himself drifting off…

“Why then, my Lord Baron, are you bringing it before our court?” Emperor Julius demanded, leaning forward and narrowing his eyes at a florid, red-faced noble who stood behind a small group of burlap-cloaked men, their own heads bowed as they muttered unintelligibly to themselves.

“Monstrosity, your Imperial Majesty.” The Baron replied, pulling out a kerchief to mop his broad, rubbery forehead. “You commanded that all cases of monstrosity be brought before the Imperial court for judgement.”

“We did, didn’t we?” Julius mused. “So be it, Gods know it will be far more interesting than whatever our noble representative of the Independent Merchant and Freelancer’s Combine has to regale us with this afternoon.”

Chuckles of agreement met the Emperor’s jest, some more forced than others.

“So. Charges, my Lord Baron?” the Emperor prompted.

“Yes your Majesty.” The Baron replied, clearing his throat. “These men were caught in the act of defilement, grave robbery, vandalism and assorted sundry offenses against public health and order.”

“How vile…” The Emperor agreed. “How does this constitute monstrosity?”

“Majesty, they had butchered a number of corpses, well into their putrescence, and were smearing pagan symbols on the doors of houses with their gore! It is a heresy against Tyris.” The Baron declared in disgust.

“And we can’t have that, can we?” Julius mused nonchalantly. “Very well, we’ll make this simple. Death by exsanguination.”

“Your Imperial Majesty!” A deep voice boomed from among the assembled nobles, a powerful man stepping forward onto the floor.

“Count Osmund of the Midwestern Reaches” A Director of Ceremonies called formally.

“Your Grace? Is there something else?” Emperor Julius sighed, clearly nonplussed by the interruption.

“It is the Law of the Westerlands that a man may speak to his own defense.”

“Very well…” The Emperor sighed. “…To be certain even I have some curiosity as to the reasoning for this disgusting insanity.”

“Go ahead, goodmen.” Count Osmund prompted. One of the burlap-clad figures raised his head, his filthy features obscured by days of neglectful beard.

“The Dead walk.” The man said simply. “The homes of the innocent must be marked, that the Black Riders will pass them by.”

Julius stared blankly at the man. “We are expected to stay a sentence for monstrosity because this lunatic has seemingly only recently discovered the existence of the Undead? Count Osmund, your faith in your fellow man’s better nature seems markedly misplaced.”

Count Osmund peers at the man as if he had expected something else. “We’re talking about your life, man. Have you no better explanation?”

“The Black Riders whisper” The man replies, staring off into the middle distance. “I live, I die, I live again. I live, I die, I live again…”

“I live, I die, I live again…” The other two men begin chanting fervently.

“Shut them up.” The Emperor ordered, and the guards wasted no time beating the burlap clad men into groaning insensibility. “Are you satisfied, Your Grace?”

“I thank your Imperial Majesty for his exemplary adherence to the law which governs us all.” The Count Murmured, bowing, his brow still furrowed as if intensely puzzled by the man’s response.

“Exsanguination, we believe was the sentence… See it done.” Julius prompted, holding a hand up as a guard pulled out a cruel dagger. “…Outside, if you please.”

“Majesty.” The guard acceded, tugging a forelock and bobbing his head in deference, before gesturing to his fellows to drag the insensible men outside.

“Well, now that’s out of the way… Director of Ceremony, the next order of business?” The Emperor sighed, leaning back once again on his throne.

“It made no sense!” Horus blustered, pacing before the candlelit altar, his obsidian mask held absently in one hand. “If the Dread Queen had marked them there would have been something at least… The inspiration is never that vague!”

“Calm yourself, Husband.” Hathor beseeched soothingly, the matronly Taurean moving to Horus’s side on digitigrade hooves, her face unreadable beneath her ivory mask. “Has there been anything from the Keepers?”

Horus shook his head with a sigh. “The Necropolis is closed to me. Me! Something is seriously wrong.”

Hathor pursed her lips in thought. “Have you tried calling upon the Dread Queen since…”

“Outside of ritual? No.” Horus admitted with a shudder. “If you’d seen her face, love…”

“Then I shall, we shall work this together.” Hathor declared, brushing a stray strand of hair behind an ivory horn. “This won’t do, you are Horus Amun-Thoth, High Magistrate of Ammit, and She gave us the authority to call upon Her for good reason.”

‘I love you.” Horus chuckled helplessly, squeezing her arm fondly with one hand whilst affixing his mask with the other.

Hathor smiled “I love you too, Osmund… Shall we begin?”

“Homage to you, Ammit, Mistress of Eternity” Horus and Hathor intoned together, their arms held in the sign of the Scales of Ma’at. “Dread Queen of Justice, whose names are manifold, whose forms are holy, you being of hidden form in the temples, whose Ka is holy…”

A Sepulchral sigh seemed to drift through the shrine, a hooded figure materializing behind the Altar. Both Horus and Hathor moved to prostrate themselves before something gave them pause. Horus peered at the figure for a moment before straightening.

“Who are you, who presumes to walk upon this hallowed earth?” Horus demanded. “Speak, in the Name of Ammit, Dread Queen of Justice…”

“Peace Horus…” The figure echoed, its sepulchral whisper chilling “…Holy Ammit is quite occupied in this instance. I would presume to speak on her behalf.”

“Who are you to presume so greatly?” Hathor demanded, incensed eyes wide behind her ivory mask.

“I am the first of the Reborn, sent forth by She-Who-Waits. I am Chastisement, Commander of the Hungering Dead. For Ammit has Seen and Knows the petty machinations of the Pretender Apophis.” The figure assured, pushing back its hood to reveal a wrought metal mask, shaped like a grinning skull, looking at the human and mamono with the pitiless smile of that eternal emblem of mortality. “For verily, no soul shall stir the dead… Merely the Dread Queen’s infinite Scorn.”

“What’s going on?” Jelena shrieked, clinging to Kevin as the airborne carriage bucked and lurched.

“Oh poo…” Reitia cursed primly, promptly falling through the broad opening which allowed her to view the ground beneath, before extending her greyish wings with a whumph of displaced air. A few beats carried her up to the roof of the carriage, where the constant hum of the drones’ wings had begun to stutter and waver.

“Rei? You alright out there?” Kevin yelled at the opaque amber ceiling.

“It’s Cerani! She’s in labour!” Reitia’s muffled reply sounded.

“What’s that got to do with… Oh…” Kevin trailed off as the reality of the situation struck him. A Drone was little more than inanimate flesh without the presiding will of a Queen to govern it, and with Cerani enveloped in the throes of childbirth, that will faltered.

“Can they get us down?” He asked, the sick feeling of desperation in his guts.

“It’ll be close…” Reitia replied. “…Please don’t let my sister fall to her death, I really do love her, you know.”

“Oh Gods….” Jelena moaned in horror “…Ammit, Maou, Please…”

“Let go Jel, I need my other arm.” Kevin demanded shortly, wriggling free of the terrified Taurean’s grip. Closing his eyes, he began making strange gestures, chanting words of power as magical runes traced themselves upon the air in cold fire. The carriage gave another lurch, and the ever-present sound of the drones ceased, only the whistling of the wind and the sick lurching as the carriage began to fall. Jelena screamed, babbling desperate prayers.

“Kevin, Jelena!” Reitia cried in alarm “I can’t…”

Kevin clapped his hands together before his face, eyes ablaze with arcane energy, and Jelena collapsed to the floor as the carriage slowed in its plummeting descent.

“West! West!” Reitia yelled demandingly.

“Hands… Full… Rei…” Kevin hissed through gritted teeth, the carriage continuing to descend, before reaching the ground with an impact which threw him down. The Mage panted for a moment, winded, but alive and unharmed.

“Kevin, are you alright?” Jelena gasped, rushing to his side.

“Bad Angel…” Kevin murmured, blinking owlishly at the taurean and raising a trembling hand to her cheek. “…m’spoken for.”

“You…” Jelena cried, half laughing, half sobbing.

Kevin coughed, sitting up and hugging his knees. “That wasn’t fun.”

“Hey!” Reitia’s voice intruded suddenly. “Bad Shambler!”

Kevin and Jelena started upright as horrible tearing and banging sounds began on the outside of the carriage. Helping the Human to his feet, Jelena opened the hatch, to be confronted by a positive sea of rotting hands reaching for her.

“I am She who presideth in Restau…” Jelena yelled, feeling almost offended that the undead would raise hand against her. “…She who pours out blessing upon the weary…”

“IALPRG BALTOH!” Kevin snarled, flames bursting forth from his hand to incinerate the ambulatory corpses.

“…well that’s one way to deal with them.” Jelena admitted, accepting Kevin’s arm about her shoulder as the panting Mage stumbled from the carriage.

“Stop that at once, are you deaf?!” Reitia demanded shrilly, flitting on grey-feathered wings about the roof of the carriage, where a multitude of shamblers were mechanically ripping the insensible drones to pieces, shoving quivering chunks of flesh into blackened mouths filled with rotting teeth.

“Tyris…” Kevin gasped “…this is…”

“Not normal.” Jelena finished for him, swallowing “The Army of the Dead was NEVER this disorganized.”

As if triggered by her voice, one of the shamblers turned its greyish, sagging features towards her, and with a low, harsh moan, it began limping towards the pair, decaying hands crooked like claws. Then a second… then a third…

“COMSELH IALPRG” Kevin intoned, pointing at the earth beneath his feet, a circle of angry yellow fire bursting into life around them. “Love, if you could find out why Holy Ammit isn’t answering the proverbial farcaster, it would be much appreciated… I don’t know how much more I can muster… I’m already starting to draw on myself for this.”

Jelena pursed her lips, chanting silently under her breath, hearing the crackling pops and smelling the foul smoke of more and more shamblers as they were engulfed by the fire.

“Jelena…” Reitia’s alarmed voice rang out, the young Mamono hovering above them, her blue, lupine tail luffing in the wind of her wingbeats.

Suddenly, the fire died, Kevin slumping heavily against her in exhaustion. Jelena squeezed her eyes closed, gritting her teeth against the agony of inevitable attack…

“It’s alright Jel… I’ve sent them away…” Reitia murmured comfortingly to her sister as Jelena opened her eyes to see the shamblers limping away from them towards the east. “…I wasn’t supposed to be able to… but I tried and it worked, somehow.”

“W-what…” Kevin groaned, propping himself up on an elbow and staring at Reitia disbelievingly.

“I may not have been entirely honest with you..” Reitia admitted enigmatically. “It seems that Father’s absence leaves something of a… space to fill.”

“Absence? What happened to daddy?” Jelena demanded, fear colouring her voice.

“Not your father, dear sister…” Reitia corrected, slender arms encircling her curvaceous sister’s waist. “…Mine.”

“How long have you known, Rei? I don’t think anyone ever told you…” Kevin winced in surprise, regaining his feet.

“Did you think I was ever ignorant of the fact?” Reitia replied, a strange mixture of sadness and wry amusement on her face as she turned her head towards the human. “I’ve always known, even when I never had the words to describe it.”

“Not that I mind, M’lord…” The Paladin remarked, taking a draught from his tankard. “…But do you really need me if all we’re to do is sit in this tavern, ignoring the beauty of the Westerland coast and getting drunk every day?”

“Nobody said you had to drink to excess, Alexander.” The hooded figure to the Paladin’s side remarked, taking his own tankard in gloved hand. “And we’re waiting. They’ll be here soon.”

Alexander made a noise into his beer. “You said that three days ago… What if their plans changed?”

“They haven’t.”

“How do you know?”

The hooded figure fixed him wordlessly with grey-green eyes.

“Of course, you’d know… Sorry M’lord.”

The hooded man waved his apology away, seemingly studying the surface of the table intently.

“You two again?” a Girtablilu sighed, rolling her eyes, her chitinous legs skittering on the wooden floor as she approached the pair. “Don’t you have anything better to do than haunt this table?”

“Don’t you have anything better to do than ask us that question?” The hooded man retorted smoothly.

The scorpion-girl’s armoured tail lashed dangerously. “That’s none of your business.”

“Neither is ours any of yours.”

“Cheeky, for a man too scared to show his face in public.” She mocked, reaching for the hooded man with a vicious pincer, only to have the appendage grabbed in an iron grip as the Paladin moved almost too quick to notice.

“My Lord is a man of peace… I don’t suffer the same restrictions. Walk away…” Alexander grated, his face fixed in a death’s head grin.

“Huh… Not worth my time…” The Girtablilu sneered, jerking her pincer from the Paladin’s grip and skittering away.

“Think she’ll be trouble?” The Paladin murmured, looking after the scorpion-girl.

“An irritant at best, Alex.” The hooded figure remarked dismissively. “Quiet now, she’s starting…”

“Honestly M’lord if you’re that keen on the Cheshire I’m sure we can sort out an introduc…”

“Don’t be filthy.” The hooded man barked with surprising heat, his rapt attention upon the Cheshire bard now taking the tavern’s rude stage, a mahogany lute in the crook of one violet-furred arm. With expert strums, she picked a mellifluous melody with her claws, her smooth voice inscribing an archaic song upon the entranced patrons of the unassuming establishment.

Alexander relaxed into his chair, enjoying the music, when a sound caught his attention. His charge had once again lowered his hooded head, and from beneath that cowl… a sob? No, it couldn’t be.

“Her Mother taught her that song… did you know?” the hooded man asked in a harsh voice. “Funny. I remember it just like it was yesterday.”

“M’lord, seriously. Who IS that Cheshire that you…” Alexander began, before his train of thought was interrupted by the door of the taproom banging open.

“Praise Ammit…” A Taurean woman exclaimed, clad in travelworn Priestess’s robes. “…I thought my hooves would be worn to bloody stumps!”

“Well, we’re here now Jel.” A more practically dressed man replied, leaning wearily on the bar and gesturing to the bartender. “Goodman, A tankard of the stiffest ale you’ve got, a bottle of chilled white for the ladies… Jel, find us a table?”

“Certainly Kevin… Just as soon as my sister… Ah! There you are Rei.” The Taurean exclaimed as an unmistakable figure stepped through the door. Hair as blue as a summer sky, lupine ears and tail of the same shade, elegant, grey wings against her back… Alexander’s hands began to tremble… He had heard of her, no member of his order hadn’t… but to see her in the flesh…

“Reverence!” He called, waving to the Taurean “Please, join us…”

It was really happening… after all of these years… it began.

“We do not find this news pleasing, Your Grace.” The Emperor grated, wild-eyed where he paced his office. Sounds of battle and death muted and soft from the height, yet the smoke of burning filled the palace with a noxious fume that set eyes to watering.

“You are not required to do so, Majesty.” Count Osmund replied urbanely “But it is the truth, The dead march on Caladon, and only the faithful are spared. We’ve begun replicating the sigils on the doors…”

“Traitor!” The Emperor hissed, rounding on the noble. “You would presume…”

“Shut up Julius.” Osmund barked, staring down the Emperor. “Your overweening pride has blinded you for the last time. You stand upon the threshold of damnation. I beg you, in the name of the friendship we shared as boys. Humble yourself before Ammit, beg Her forgiveness, before it’s too late.”

“Guards! Guards!” Emperor Julius shrieked, outrage writ large upon his features.

“Majesty!” A guard blurted, bursting into the office.

“Ah, good, at last a man who knows to serve his Emperor…” Julius purred, pointing at the Count. “…Take him…”

Whatever sentence the Emperor sought to declare died upon his lips as two more guards entered, a still body upon a stretcher held between them.

“Your son, Majesty, the Prince… We tried to stop him…” The guard lamented desperately.

“G-Gavin…” The Emperor choked, reaching for the body upon the stretcher.

“He took poison, Majesty… he was ranting something about The Scorn and living again or something… We tried, I promise your Majesty we tried!” The guard babbled.

“Why?!” Julius cried in disbelief.

“The Westerlands are Hers… Majesty.” Osmund sighed, taking an obsidian mask from his belt. “And it is Her Chastisement which aligns itself against you.”

“You… It… Can’t be!” Julius choked.

“I am Horus Amun-Thoth.” Osmund intoned, radiating the authority of his Holy Office. “I have offered you penance and you have refused. Now, you shall be judged.”

“We are Emperor!” Julius insisted, as if it were a lifeline to which he desperately clung. “By the Anointing of Tyris and of the Authority of Our Blood…”

“Your Anointing is rescinded. In the name of Ammit who IS Justice, the Hub of the Cycle of Rebirth… What you face is no army of necromantic magics, no legion of the Keepers’ will… not by her Will, but by her SCORN, They Live, They Die…”

Julius gave a gurgling sound as a pale hand latched around his throat. The Guards moaned, terrified as the pale body of the Imperial Prince rose from the stretcher, his eyes pitiless black pools in his sneering face.

“We Live Again.” The corpse hissed in his once-father’s face, before promptly breaking the Emperor’s neck.

“I tried, Julius…” Horus began pityingly, shaking his masked head sadly as the corpse released the Emperor’s body, letting it fall inelegantly to the floor. “…Even to the end, I tried to warn you.”

“Magistrate…” the corpse of Prince Gavin hissed, fixing Horus with his obsidian stare.

“My Prince…” Osmund remarked almost conversationally. “…Will you take the Throne and rule the Living and the Dead?”

“No.” The corpse declared. “My claim is false… The Words of Holy Ammit cry from the Deep Places of the Earth. Let The Crown and the Mantle be united. You… Priest-King of Caladon… You shall rule, as the Line of Horus Demands.”

“So be it.” Horus acceded. He never wanted this, but he must accept, for it was the Will of Ammit.

“Consummatum Est.” The corpse declared, before collapsing in a limp pile atop the body of his father.

Horus sighed, taking the Emperor’s crown from where it had fallen to the ground, placing it upon his brow.

“M-my Lord?” A guard whimpered, shaking in terror.

Horus turned to the Guard, removing his obsidian mask. “Summon the Council. A great trial has been set before us, and we must act in faith and bravery, if we are to overcome…”

“HOW?!” Apophis shrieked, lashing at the decadence around her with her four platinum-bangled arms, priceless treasures smashing on the uncaring stone as the Goddess-Queen tantrumed. “I had that beast corralled in a web of paradox! She and her puny Liches should not have been able to raise that army!”

“She did not, Majesty.” Joseph corrected, the Resonant wisely staying out of arm’s reach. “From what Your remaining agents claim, a force known only as the ‘Black Riders of Scorn’ was responsible for the dead who sacked Caladon.”

“Kshaaa…” Apophis hissed “…I never should have let those purported ‘Death Gods’ out of the Void. I must speak with it, see what may be salvaged of this… development.”

“Majesty… I beg you, don’t treat with that abomination…” Joseph pleaded. “…The Gods cast it from this world for good reas…”

“False Gods!” Apophis spat venomously, lunging forward faster than the human could possibly react, catching him about the throat. “I am The God of this world, do you hear me?”

“Forgive me… Majesty…” Joseph choked, his face turning blue for want of air.

Apophis sneered, throwing the Resonant against the wall with main force. Joseph groaned, coughing blood and grasping at his shattered ribs, lying amidst the trashed remains of a king’s ransom.

“Get out.” Apophis ordered, pointing at the door imperiously “Or I may decide to feed you to it as a sweetmeat.”

Joseph doggedly crawled from the room, setting himself against the wall as he desperately called upon the Logos.

“I feel like I’m starving to death!” His own voice echoed within the vaults of his memory as he summoned the glyphs to repair his broken body.

“Good” The voice of The Caladonian replied within his mind, the memory of his mentor’s voice lilting with the comforting mockery that was the trademark of the seemingly ageless, auburn-haired Arch Master. “That means it’s working.”

“Sam…” Joseph coughed, spitting a wad of clotted blood from lungs knitting and re-inflating, the shards of bone which pierced their membranes reabsorbed into his body. “…Hurry. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

“We assume greatly due to the limitations of words like ‘Omnipotent’ and ‘Immortal.’ Truly, to be wholly cognizant of the nature of reality, free of the limitations our mortality places upon us does indeed lend the Gods to a wisdom we can never match. But I pray you realize. The scout unhindered by the mountain, can still make a mistake, terrified by the sight of the Army in the valley below.” – From “Sermons on Divinity” by Samuel the Caladonian.

“I hope you don’t have designs upon my sister, Your Worship.” Jelena chided, noticing Alexander’s eyes once more locked in rapt adoration upon Reitia.

“Huh? No! Never! I just…” The Paladin babbled lamely.

“At ease man, you do not Blasphemy against Holy Tyris from admiring a pretty face.” Kevin chuckled, taking a drink.

“Kevin!” Reitia exclaimed, a slightly mischievous smile upon her bowlike mouth. Flitting a lock of blue hair flirtatiously, she fluttered her eyelashes at the mage. “You think I’m pretty?”

Kevin blustered, flushing red as Jelena glared at him jealously. Reitia’s warm laughter washed over all of them, echoed by a soft chuckle from the hooded man at the corner of the table.

“We didn’t catch your name, Sir…” Kevin remarked, turning towards the hooded figure, glad for an opportunity to change the subject.

“Probably because I never gave it to you.” The man replied evenly. “Just call me Pilgrim…”

“My Lord has humbled and impoverished himself, and is on a Holy Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Corvus in the Nordenlands, to pray for guidance in these troubled times.” Alexander explained. “His station is such that he is deserving of appropriate escort, namely me.”

“How convenient…” Jelena mused thoughtfully, her lips pursed as she looked uncertainly at the pair.

“Reverence?” The Paladin queried, an eyebrow raised.

“A Tyrisian Paladin and a Noble making Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Corvus? Not the most common occurrence, but a convenient excuse for someone who knows where we’re going.”

The Paladin leaned back, taking a drink. “You suspect us?”

“Jelena raises a good point.” Kevin admitted, absently twirling a spark of arcane energy between his fingers. “I know I’d be a lot more comfortable knowing exactly who you are, Pilgrim… Especially since you seem to be proficient at dodging my most intricate spells towards that effect, and the Agents of Apophis have not been lax of late…”

Alexander recoiled as if he had been struck. Slowly, deliberately, he stood at the table, unfastening his tabard and removing the gambeson he wore beneath, standing bare-chested before the group, ignoring the speculative and admiring looks from a few nearby mamono. Glaring, he pointed wordlessly to the stylized Raven tattooed on his left breast.

“Fuckin’ accuse me again of being an agent of that pretender. I dare ya.” He snarled in a harsh voice.

“Sit down Alex, they can’t have known…” Pilgrim mused calmingly, “…And a little healthy paranoia isn’t unexpected… all things considered.”

“How do you mean?” Kevin asked, a little puzzled by the Paladin’s emphatic reaction.

Pilgrim folded his hands atop the table. “A Mage, an Amitian Priestess, and the Rafnsdottir?”

“Tyris!” Kevin swore in shock “How did you…”

“There’s a reason I’m keeping my identity hidden, Kevin Adrianson, Adept of the Eighteenth Intersect and Mage of the Hidden Circle.” Pilgrim continued in a low voice. “I don’t want to put you at unnecessary risk. What you don’t know can’t affect you. I’m but a Pilgrim, and that’s all I need to be right now, and that’s all you need to know.”

The silence was leaden, and it hung over them like a physical shroud. “What DOES the tattoo signify, your Worship?” Jelena asked somewhat tentatively, still taken aback somewhat by the Paladin’s earlier reaction.

“The Corvidian Order” Alexander replied, once again rapt attention focused upon Reitia “For Tyris so loved Humanity that he sent His Son to be Saviour against the very Teeth of Destruction.” Impulsively, he pushed his chair out, dropping to a knee in front of the Blue-Haired Mamono. “Divine Rafnsdottir, I am your servant. Ask what you will of me, my life and the strength of my arm are yours to command.”

“I am not my father…” Reitia replied hesitantly, as if struggling with the concept.

“But you are His daughter…” Alexander continued, gazing up at her in religious adoration.

“Oh, you’ll forswear yourself so damn quickly? So much for the Honour of a Paladin.” Pilgrim interjected mockingly, signalling for another round.

“M’Lord?” Alexander queried, blinking surprise that his gesture of fidelity had spawned amused derision from the hooded man.

“Yes. Don’t you think you should at least get me halfway before chasing dreams of religious rapture?” Pilgrim chided.

“But My Lord! I mean… You…”

“Never mind that.” Pilgrim interjected, gesturing towards the door to where a number of sea-captains and their entourages had just entered. “I do believe that our sojourn here has quite ended.”

“Does he have to hit EVERY wave?” Jelena lowed pitifully, retching over the gunwale into the sea below.

“I don’t think he’s… hurk… doing it on purpose love.” Kevin gulped, spitting bile. “Pilgrim are you sure this is normal?”

“Mmmhmm… Thought I’d bring up my toenails first time I broke open water. ‘Inviting company’, the sailors called it.” The hooded man replied nostalgically, swaying evenly with the movement of the ship. Alexander, his ever-present Paladin escort, sat shirtless and cross-legged nearby, hopelessly trying to keep his cuirass free of salt with an oiled cloth.

“Feeding the sharks?” The Cheshire bard quipped from where she had materialized atop a nearby shipping crate, aimlessly plucking at the antique lute in her violet hued paws.

“Excuse me, I need to have a word with the engineer.” Pilgrim murmured, pulling his hood further over his face. “If the drive’s Grem-tech, no sense something important turning humanoid during the night and crawling into someone’s bunk.”

Alexander watched the hooded man leave with slight puzzlement before turning to the Cheshire. “You never mentioned what your business is in the Nordenlands…”

“It’s not really the Nordenlands, I’m going south to Magisterium proper once we dock.” The Cheshire replied with a precocious smile.

“Ah, I see… but… you’re Cheshire… can’t you just…” Alex began, miming poofing from existence with his hands.

“I COULD, but where’s the fun in that?” The Cheshire admitted with a teasing grin. “Plus I’ve never been on an Icerunner before! What about you, your worship? Why are you heading so far into the heathen north?”

“Escorting My Lord to the Shrine of Corvus, and please, for those who don’t answer to me, it’s Alex…” the Paladin offered with a smile.

“Kylie.” The Cheshire answered. “Did you like my songs back at the tavern?”

“Very much.” Alex admitted politely. “My Lord says your mother taught them to you.”

Kylie’s eyes go distant… speculative… “Did he now?” She murmurs softly. “Excuse me, everyone.”

Between one breath and the next, she had vanished from existence. Alex gave a small grunt of irritation. “Bloody nobles always get the cute ones.”

“Surely you’d have your own rank at court though, Sir Alex.” Kevin coughed, wiping his mouth and stepping away from the gunwale, rubbing Jelena’s back absently.

“The Duke of Sheffield is a fine man, a pious man… such piety sometimes causes him to give somewhat lower priority to mundane matters than would otherwise be warranted.” Alex replied delicately.

Kevin gave a knowing grin at that. “Heh. Do I hear a touch of the Australs in your voice under the Manchesterian?”

“Only a touch, I assure you. My mother swore she would never raise a child on that terrible island.” Alex laughed. “Good thing she did, heading north like we are would kill most Australians. What about yourself, Sir Kevin?”

“Don’t think the ‘Sir’ will be applicable much longer… Emperor Julius has a noted distaste of mages of late.” Kevin remarks.

“Emperor Julius? You’re of the Caladonian Court?” Alex asks in surprise.

“Well, yes… I mean technically we both are, Jel’s heir to the Midwestern Reaches.” Kevin frowns. “Why is that a surprise?”

“My Lord and I… We…” Alex gulped. “Refugees have been flooding the ports of the West Coast for weeks. The Imperial Throne has been sacked.”

“The Works of the Keepers.” Jelena coughed, wiping her own mouth and placing a steadying hand on Kevin’s shoulders. “Ammit sends forth the armies of…”

“Begging your pardon, Reverence, but I’ve worked amongst the Undead.” Alex interjected. “These beings were not born of Soul and of Blessing… The Black Riders of Scorn… This is the only name I could divine from shambling husks which sought nothing but the flesh of man and Mamono alike.”

“Mother… Father…” Jelena whimpered, her eyes wide with fear. “Kevin… Please… Find the Captain, I’ll pay any cost, but we have to go back.”

“We can’t do that, Jel.” the voice of Reitia interjects, shifting her wings slightly as she turns to regard the Girtablilu at her side, the scorpion-woman’s chitinous legs loud against the wooden deck. “Eithis tells me the scourging of the Westerlands will be near total.”

“Her? How would she know? She’s been haunting the tavern with us for the past month.” Alex exclaims incredulously, folding his arms and peering at the dusky-skinned Scorpion.

“She’s a servant of Apophis, of course.” Reitia stated as calmly as if she were simply commenting on the Mamono’s choice of hair-styling. “Aren’t you Eithis?”

For a moment it was unclear where the boundary existed between the Holy Light which surged from Alexander’s form, and the arcane storm which burst forth to surround Kevin.

“Wait!” The Scorpion pleaded, grabbing Reitia’s arm and forcing the girl in front of her in desperation.

“HIS SEAL HE TORE…” Alex snarled, divine power blazing within his eyes.

“A DOOAIN DE ELO…” Kevin grated simultaneously, a crackling orb of reality-warping magic between his palms.

“Oh dear… Should I have been more circumspect?” Reitia queried, looking at the conflux of catastrophic power without the slightest hint of fear.

“And there’s been no word?” Pilgrim prompted, his hooded features regarding the ship’s captain over the luxurious spread of his table.

“None, M’lud.” The captain replied with a sigh. “Though truth be told we don’t go seekin’ him out. ‘Tis not good fer a man’s continued health, if’n ye follow me.”

Pilgrim cursed. “Damn it… Breyten, he’s your uncle! Well… ultimately speaking, however many ‘greats’ removed… He always had time for family.”

“Family…” Breyten echoed mockingly “…Pilgrim… Walker… or whatever you’re going by this century… Have you seen him lately?”

“He’s changed. It’s true, but that doesn’t mean…” Pilgrim began

“He’s King of the Sea! The Antient Mariner! He ate Dagon, Impaled Posideon on ‘is own Trident, Sacked the sunken city of R’lyeh!” Breyten exclaimed in helpless laughter “I think ‘is definition of ‘Family’ might be a touch different than yours an’ mine.”

“Wait… Did you hear that?” Pilgrim hissed, starting upright in his chair.

“Hear what?” Captain Breyten demanded, looking about confusedly.

“Oh Tyris… Oh God… Not now!” Pilgrim lamented, fleeing from the cabin as fast as his legs could carry him, his cloak swirling about him.

“Move out of the way Rei…” Kevin snarled, incarnate death snapping and arcing like a living thing within his hands, seemingly desperate to be released.

“Kevin! I never expected you to be this reactiona… Eek!” Reitia’s chiding cut off with a squeal as the scorpion-woman seized her torso with a vicious pedipalp. “Honestly Eithis, you’re not making many friends here…” The blue-haired Mamono remarked irritably.

“S-shut up! Both of you, g-get back!” Eithis demanded desperately, holding Reitia out in front of her like a shield.

“Ow! Wings Eithis, wings!” Reitia reminded her captor patronizingly, a slight moue of discomfort on her face.

“EOPHAN OD DODPAL…” Kevin chanted, weaving his hands in strange somatic patterns before himself, when suddenly, a curious expression came over his face. With a sigh, he let the magic fade from him, collapsing cross legged to the deck and staring off into the middle distance, head cocked as if he was listening to something.

“Kevin!” Jelena cried, running over to the mage on unsteady hooves, shaking him desperately by the shoulders. Kevin however, was unresponsive, his lips moving ever-so-slightly as if whispering to something unseen.

“If we could all just settle down…” Reitia sighed pleadingly.

“What did you do to him, insect?!” Jelena demanded of the Girtablilu, rounding on her with seething fury on her face.

“Me?!” Eithis exclaimed incredulously. “You know what Reitia? Fuck it, you were wrong. You Maouists are all the same…”

“In the name of Ammit, Dread Queen of Justice…” Jelena began to intone.

“Your head’s as thick as your thighs, Cow.” Eithis laughed mockingly. “What part of ‘Servant of Apophis’ did you miss? Your prayers, your commandments, they can’t touch me! I didn’t do ANYTHING to your mage, but it seems the Midnight Serpent still loves me enough to confound him!”

“You know that’s not true.” Reitia told the Scorpion insistently “Apophis loves nothing and no one. Don’t let…”

“Shut UP!” Eithis shrieked. “I let you get in my head once, Reitia. I’m not making the same mistake again.” Her deadly tail lifted, positioning itself dangerously close to the winged Mamono’s throat. “Now back the fuck off or I swear to Apophis I’ll stick her.”

With a vile epithet, Alexander let the fire of his Divine Blessing fade, raising hands in surrender. “Take me.” He insisted, “Just let the Rafnsdottir go.”

“Alexander I’m her sister, not to mention a Handmaiden of Hathor… I should be the one to…” Jelena retorted, eyes beginning to fill with tears of fear and frustration.

“Oh stop it, you’ll make me sick.” Eithis spat, “Neither of you mean shit to me. I came for her…” The Scorpion continued, punctuating the statement with a squeeze to Reitia’s torso from her barbed claw “…And now I see why. Sneaky girl, you nearly made me doubt.”

“Life was hard in the wastes outside Hamunapt, wasn’t it?” Reitia replied pityingly, turning her head slightly to look at her captor, still without the slightest hint of fear. “Having to fight every day for survival, and you just a child… I’m sorry. Mother should have known better.”

“S-shut up! Stop talking like you know me!” Eithis stammered, her eyes wide, the pincer holding Reitia’s winged form beginning to tremble. “You! Cow! Y-you’re going to tell the Captain to turn this ship around and…”

A surging of water caused the ship to rock violently, staggering them all. Dripping weed and water, two massive, horn-scaled heads emerged, colossal mouths with jagged teeth gaping in anticipation.

“Leviathan?” Alexander gasped in shock “But… how? Why?”

“Surely the blessings of Apophis are with…” Eithis began to rant, eyes filled with mad glee, before a third surge nearly knocked them all off their feet.

“The Ruby’s Throne!” A terrified sailor screamed, running past them, completely ignoring the standoff in his terror. “Abandon Ship! Flee! Flee for yer fucking souls lads!”

Even Eithis’s grip on Reitia slackened as the chains attached about the necks of the leviathan dragged a barnacle and weed-choked… thing from the depths. It was vaguely ship-shaped, fashioned from the massive bones of Whale, Leviathan and other unknown undersea colossi. Kraken of every hue imaginable began swarming from the structure onto the icerunner, seizing fleeing sailors in arm and tentacle, eyes alight with a terrible hunger.

“Hello the ship…” A burbling voice rang out as something thumped to the aft deck. “…Unfortunately we’ve run out of Apopheans to eat, so thanks fer volunteering. Girls! Bring ‘em aft! Double time!”

“You’re making a terrible mistake here girls.” Pilgrim warned the pair of Kraken blocking the galley ahead of him. “Neither you or The Mariner understands what you’re meddling in.”

“Hear HIM talk, will you?” One Kraken chuckled

“Brave… maybe we’ll keep him…” the other mused thoughtfully.

“Sister, you know they don’t keep long underwater.”

Reaching out with a tentacle, the Kraken laughed lasciviously. “I know how to keep them long enough…”

Wet thumps sounded from the dimness behind the two Kraken, whose eyes crossed as they slumped senselessly to the floor.

“You have got some explaining to do.” Kylie stated flatly as she materialized from the empty air where the Kraken once loomed.

“Later. First we have to stop him from turning our transport into lunch.” Pilgrim replied, hurrying past the Cheshire to the deck above.

“Girls, how are you coming with the canned food?” The… thing demanded. It was roughly man-shaped, but scaled on torso and limb, its fingers ending in hooked claws and its mouth filled with sharklike teeth. Fins like the wings of a stingray flapped at its calves, before folding and curling into a rude parody of a sailor’s boots. Atop its head, a pitted and salt-ruined tricorn, black dreads of neglected hair dangling beneath about its salt-leached features and black, pitiless eyes. Sailors wept and cursed where they were trussed up like spring lambs, clustered here and there on the deck.

“She’s fast, dad!” One of the Kraken replied from where they were trying to close with the Girtablilu, who fought back with a terrifying speed and grace. Flipping, turning, lashing with both claw and stinger, changing direction impossibly quickly on chitinous legs. “We’ll get her eventually though!”

“In the Name of the Dread Queen I demand…” Jelena commanded imperiously, her fear betrayed by the slight quaver in her voice.

“You do what now?” The thing replied, stomping up to her and shoving his face into hers, slit-nostrils flaring as it sniffed at the Taurean, who recoiled in disgust.

“Ah. Ammitian Priestess. Put her with the inedibles girls… Grab that winged wolf thing with the blue hair too… Gives me the crawlers.” The thing ordered, as Kraken bodily dragged the girls away from their companions towards an otherwise unremarkable group of sailors who nearly wept with relief as they heard themselves referred thus. “Let none say The Antient Mariner doesn’t keep his word.” the thing drawled with a mocking bow.

“Kevin!” Jelena shrieked, struggling in the tentacled grip of the aquatic Mamono as she was separated from her Mage lover, still mumbling insensate on the deck.

“He’s dear to you, Priestess?” The thing queried, grabbing Kevin’s hair and pulling his hair back, looking into his blank, unseeing eyes. “Faugh… his mind’s already gone, I’ll be doing him a mercy.”

“No!” Jelena cried in anguish, tears streaming down his face.

“Bear it with a little stoicism, Reverence. After all, you’ll see him again on the other side of the Scales of Ma’at…” The thing drawled, positioning its clawed hand at the Mage’s windpipe.

“In the Name of The God!” Alexander roared, a blast of golden light erupting from his body, pushing the thing and his captor Kraken away. The Paladin fought admirably with fist and boot before succumbing once again, panting in the much crueler grasp of the Kraken’s tentacles, Kevin, to Jelena’s tearful relief, still sitting whole on the deck.

“Brave move Paladin…” The thing growled, coshing Alexander across the head, flensing his cheek nearly to the bone and ruining the Paladin’s face. “…Stupid, but brave. That was about all the paltry Benedictus could manage, wasn’t it?”

“Heretic…” Alexander spat, blood drooling freely from his mouth.

“Oh ouch!” The thing exclaimed in mock injury. “I might have been persuaded to spare you, but now you die first. Any last words?”

“Non Nobis Domine…” Alexander began chanting.

“Really?” The Thing mocked.

“…Sed Nomine, Sed Nomine…”

“You don’t say!” The thing continued to jest, pressing its terrible hands to its cheeks in mock surprise.

“Tuo Da Glo…” Alexander’s chant was cut short by a horribly powerful blow to the stomach which knocked the wind out of him.

“Trying to pull The Last Stand on me? On ME?” The thing roared incredulously, as if it had been mortally insulted. “You pathetic whelp. I was THERE. The Son of the Morning Star was born on MY ship. Do you have the slightest idea who I am?”

“Abomination…” The Paladin slurred, gasping through the blood in his mouth.

The thing reared up, clearly furious, drawing back that clawed hand for a killing blow. “Wretch. I am The Antient Mariner! I am the King of All the Ocean! I am…”

“Admiral Arin!” Kylie’s voice rang out as the Cheshire burst into existence in the midst of the fracas. “Stop. Right. There.”

A Kraken moved to intercept her, to which Kylie paused, grinning smugly as she stared at the squid-woman. “Arin, how many daughters are you prepared to lose?”

“Attina, leave off.” Arin grumbled. “Go help your sisters with the Girtablilu.”

“It’s okay Dad, we’ve got… OW! Nevermind…” One of the Kraken spoke up, Eithis seemingly inexhaustible in her continual slashing and stabbing. Jelena couldn’t help but feel that the Apophean mamono had slowed a little somewhat, however.

“Put down the Paladin.” Kylie demanded.

“Kylie… Run… Save yourself…” Alexander gurgled, his eyes pleading through his raw and bleeding features.

“You’re a sweetheart.” Kylie smiled at the man, before turning her attention to the thing. “But Uncle Arin wouldn’t DARE put a flipper on me, would you?”

“Depends how hard you press me, girl…” Arin grated, reluctantly releasing the Paladin.

“This needs to stop. Grandmother is VERY unimpressed with this sort of thing.” The Cheshire lectured, her Lute still held absently in one velveteen paw.

“Handmaiden of Hell’s Throne…” Arin snorted mockingly “…Centuries I waited for Maou to give me a reason for my longevity… The sea doesn’t wait, it took my Ruby from me while I waited… and now, I am the sea. And here you are after the fact to tell me that I’m displeasing Her? Honestly girl, if not for the love that I bore your father…”

“I think that will be just about enough of that.” Pilgrim’s voice rang out as he stepped into view. A Kraken lashed out its tentacles to seize him, recoiling in pain and shock as they encountered some kind of unseen force.

Arin’s black eyes widened in surprise as he gasped. “S-squid Crusher?”

Pilgrim pushed his hood back, revealing auburn hair which fell to his shoulders, thinning slightly with what appeared to be advancing middle age, yet the grey-green eyes which were fixated on the Antient Mariner held the air of centuries behind them. Most disturbing of all were the irregular crystalline protrusions which jutted through the skin of his temples, glowing with a light all their own.

“Hello, old friend.” He mused, yet there was no warmth to the sound.

“Are we, Samuel?” Arin queried, circling the man slightly.

“Well I wasn’t expecting to catch you in Monstrosity.” Samuel admitted.

“Monstrosity… faugh!” Arin spat. “What did I tell you back in Atlantea? Law of the Sea. Who eats Who!”

“And I say you don’t eat any of them.” Samuel replied smoothly.

“Damn you Caladonian! We’re STARVING out there!” Arin retorted, a hint of desperation in his eyes. It was true, Jelena noted, the normally well-fleshed torsos of the Kraken holding her and her companions were indeed somewhat gaunt on further inspection.

“Caladonian?” Eithis echoed, making a final lashing spin with her tail, the Kraken who surrounded her falling screaming to the deck as the envenomed barb cut each of them in one place or another. “Enough play! Praise Apophis that she delivered you to me!”

“Apophis?” Samuel echoed, turning to face the Scorpion. “So you were an agent after all.”

“And I knew there was more to you!” Eithis crowed in savage glee before gathering herself and leaping, her barbed tail thrust out like a spear. “Now die, Disciple, for Her glory!”

“Uncle Samuel!” Reitia shrieked in panic, and suddenly the Kraken holding her… weren’t. With a swift beat of her wings she forced herself in front of the man, arms spread wide in an unthinking effort to shield him.

The sickening sound of the barb entering Reitia’s chest seemed to almost freeze time. Jelena watched with sick horror as her sister looked down, as if scarcely believing what had occured.

“No!” Eithis shrieked, yanking her tail out in shock and panic. “Nonononono! That wasn’t supposed to happen! That wasn’t supposed to happen!”

“I tried…” Reitia wheezed, looking at the scorpion with inexplicable pity. “…I’m sorry Eithis… I tried…”

With a final sigh, the blue haired Mamono collapsed to the deck.

Jelena’s howl of anguished denial was drowned out as the sky itself seemed to cry out in agony, a tear in reality opening in the air above them, pitiless blackness like the space between stars all that could be seen beyond. A wind-that-was-not pulled at all of them inexorably.

“Damnation!” Samuel snarled, stretching forth his hands and gritting his teeth. Slowly, the wind died down, its pull no longer felt… For all except the Scorpion.

“Caladonian! I’m sorry!” Eithis pleaded. “I promise I was never going to hurt her! It was an accident! Please! Don’t let it take me!”

“The hand of Apophis is upon you…” Samuel replied, shaking his head in resignation. “…I cannot touch you.”

“Tyris Smite You!” Alexander burbled at the Scorpion, hatred writ large on his ruined features.

“The Scales of Ma’at Judge you Heavily!” Jelena added through her wracking sobs.

“Have a moment of pity, Reverences.” Samuel corrected gently, watching as the Girtablilu was drawn up and up, struggling against the inexorable force which pulled her towards the rift. “The fate she faces is worse still.”

With a final pleading shriek, like someone falling off an impossibly high cliff, Eithis disappeared through the rift.

“Rafnsdottir!” Alexander coughed, pulling himself from the grip of the Kraken, loosened by the shock of what had just transpired and staggering towards Reita’s limp form.

“Ammit be Merciful… Please tell me you can heal her.” Jelena pleaded.

Alexander cursed, shaking his torn head sadly. “It is beyond my ability… You must intercede on her behalf, Reverence.”

“Me?” Jelena echoed in shock. “But I don’t know how!”

“You are She who Presideth in Restau, who pours out succor for the forgiveness of Sin.” Alexander insisted, ignoring the obvious pain his wounds were causing him to grip the Taurean’s shoulders firmly. “You can do this.”

Jelena squeezed her eyes shut. “The Dread Queen shall open my mouth, and shall unfasten the swathings. Thereupon shall come Thoth, who is Wisdom, equipped with words of power in great abundance…” she intoned, gasping as reality itself seemed to fall away. She felt as if she were floating, floating an uncountable distance, floating beyond time and space, until finally she came to a stop, dark mists swirling about her in a featureless landscape.

“Please…” She heard Reitia’s voice pleading. “…I tried so hard!”

“Blessed be the Mercy of Ammit, by which all ways are made clear…” Jelena intoned mentally, willing the mists to part. There, before a sandstone altar, Reitia stood, desperately holding what looked like nothing so much as a star in her small, pale hands, its brilliance setting Jelena to squinting.

“Did you? Or are you just trying to convince yourself you did?” Another voice replied, a voice Jelena knew all too well. Her legs trembled as the mists parted further, to reveal the terrifying Glory of the Goddess Ammit, Dread Queen of the Underworld.

“I can’t…” Reitia sobbed, pushing the star in her hands at Ammit “…It’s too big, I can’t take it all!”

“Then our world is lost.” Ammit replied without the slightest hint of pity. “Turn around and tell your sister that you let the world fall because you weren’t willing to try.”

Jelena felt like a small prey animal in the gaze of a serpent as Ammit turned her crimson, draconian gaze upon the Taurean. Her digitigrade legs gave way and she grovelled on the obsidian ground, full of awe and terror at the PRESENCE of her Goddess.

Reitia turned her tear-streaked face to her sister, still cradling the star in her hands. “I’m sorry Jel… I’m not strong enough…”

“Horseshit!” Jelena shrieked, suddenly stunned from her religious rapture at the realization of her sister’s surrender to death. “You can’t just LEAVE me, you hear! I NEED you Rei! I love you! You’re my big sister! I don’t know what I’ll do without you there…”

Folding her arms in the sign of the Scales of Ma’at, Jelena looked beseechingly upon the face of Ammit. “Most Holy and Glorious Queen, I beg of you, whatever burden is placed on her, let it fall on me instead… just let her live!”

“Jel, you don’t know what you’re asking…” Reitia insisted.

“I don’t care! I’ll get Uncle Samuel to stop the Sun if it makes it easier for you!” Jelena retorted hotly. “Just don’t leave me.”

“Your heart is too great for the Scales of Ma’at.” Ammit concluded. “One day there may be one great enough to judge you, but I am not that one.”

Jelena was almost floored by that. Too great for the scales? Such was an impossibility beyond the scope of mere Heresy.

“Rise, Reitia. Rise, and strive onward… your reward will come.” Ammit assured the blue-haired Mamono, who wept bitter tears as the star sank into her chest, enveloping her with brilliant light… and she was no more.

“Reitia!” Jelena cried, reaching out to the space her sister once occupied.

“Peace, Jelena…” Ammit hushed her gently. “…She is alive.”

“Most Holy…”Jelena breathed, sinking to her knees again in abject adoration “…I beg thee… Kevin, let him also return?”

“The mage has not passed into Duat… in fact his soul walks quite a different path.” Ammit replied, her voice holding a curious lilt as if she was suppressing a laugh. “And it does not do you too well to linger here. Wake, my servant… Wake up…”

“Wake up, Jelena!” Another voice demanded, and Jelena blinked, finding herself once again on the deck of the Icerunner, the Kraken regretfully setting about untying the crew, who fled as far as the deck would allow them, staring at the invaders with suspicion and vilely muttered promise of retribution. Violet paws shook her shoulders gently as the Cheshire Kylie stood over her. “Reitia’s alive, Praise the Gods!”

“You’re killing us, Sam.” The thing Samuel and Kylie had identified as ‘Arin’ cursed bitterly. “The Leviathan won’t survive another week, and not even I swim that fast. The Mer have gone over to Apophis, the ones that want to eat anyway… We’re all the loyal ones who remain.”

“I didn’t know…” Samuel apologised.

“You didn’t fucking check! Twenty years mate, where you been? Locked in that rock with the fucking Logos, doing what? Meanwhile we’ve been fighting and dying… Ruby… My Ruby… She never stopped believing you’d help, even when they were cutting her open.” Arin spat, raising a taloned hand yet stopping short of violence.

Reitia raised her tear-stained face where she sat alone on the deck. Standing, she walked unafraid to the creature, who looked down at her with utter bemusement.

“What would you give to save them, Arin?” She asked, bitter pain in her voice.

“Are you mad girl? Everything…” Arin declared incredulously.

“Then Ascend, King of the Sea…” She intoned, reaching into her own chest with a cry of such sheer agony it was all Jelena could do not to rush to her side. In her hand, she held the star Jelena had seen her cradle before the Scales of Ma’at. Pressing it into the torso of the shocked Arin, she ignored his howling, tortured screech as she forced the brilliant spark into him “…and accept the Mantle of God. Ascend, and awaken, Oannes, Lord of the Waters!”

Arin began to swell, his form twisting and mutating, the tricorn falling from his head, followed by his foul dreadlocks as a finned crown began to grow from his bared head. The ship groaned under his weight, and he staggered backwards, pitching over the stern and into the wine-dark sea below.

“Dad!” One of the Kraken shrieked, reaching imploringly after him. A whoosh of spray fonted heavenward, as Arin’s fully changed form revealed itself. Colossal, it towered over the ship, even though the water still covered it to the waist. The Kraken cried out in joy and rapture, gazing at the figure in religious intoxication.

“I am Oannes…” The figure spoke, and his voice was the roaring of the ocean. “…Bend to my will, ye oceans. Worship me, ye children of the deeps.”

The Kraken exalted, reaching supplicating arms towards him as they clambered over themselves to flee the ship, swarming the water around the massive form of the God.

“Live again, ye fishes and beasts of the sea…” Oannes demanded, and a ripple spread out in the waters as he passed a finned hand over them. With a resonant note, a huge whale suddenly breached a scant hundred feet from the boat.

“Feed, and give praise…” He commanded the Kraken and Leviathan, the latter shattering their chains in their urge to assault the whale. “…and know that now and forever after… you are mine.”

Ignoring the carnage as Kraken and Leviathan ripped the creature to bits, Oannes sank beneath the waves, nothing but churning swell to suggest he had ever been there at all.

“Here ends the Legend of the Antient Mariner…” Samuel mused philosophically, his voice tinged with sadness.

For a moment all stood awestruck, until Jelena clomped over on digitigrade hooves to where Samuel stood staring out at the ocean, and promptly slapped the Resonant across the face.

“Nice to see you too, Handmaiden.” Samuel grunted, rubbing his jaw.

“Nice Shit, Uncle Samuel!” Jelena hissed. “You KNEW, you Resonant arse! You KNEW this would happen!”

“I sensed a possibility…” Samuel admitted lamely.

“You made my sister cry!”

“Jel… Please…” Reitia sobbed, taking Jelena’s hand in her own.

“Oh Rei…” Jelena breathed, embracing the blue-haired mamono, stroking her storm-grey wings gently. “…Tell me how to make it better, and we’ll do it.”

“They lost him… all of them… all who loved him sacrificed Love for Worship. He’ll never be ‘Daddy’ any more… Now there’s only Oannes… So much Love gone from the world, and we can never get it back.” Reitia cried, clinging to Jelena as she wept.

“That creature?” Jelena blurted incredulously.

“He wasn’t always as he is now…” Kylie interjected. “…he was a good man once, a fine, fine man. Desperation makes monsters of us all in the end.”

“M’lord…” Alexander burbled as he swayed on his feet. “…I think… I’m going… I’m sorry…” the paladin finished, collapsing as the trauma and blood loss finally caught up with him.

“You idiot…” Samuel cursed, holding a hand over the man’s ruined face. Swearing sulphurously, he stood, pacing as he rubbed his brow in thought.

“Time’s a-wasting Daddy…” Kylie remarked poisonously. “…but when have you ever given a shit about that?”

“Cheap, Kylie.” Samuel retorted, yet the thickness in his voice belied how deeply the comment had struck home. “He pushed himself beyond his limits… I told him… TOLD him to keep out of it!”

Kylie sighed, fishing a set of vials from a pouch at her belt. “You, and you…” She ordered, pointing at a pair of sailors. “…bring him below. Captain, I think we’d better be moving, unless you want to deal with the starving sharks all that blood’s going to bring racing here.”

“R-right you are, Miss.” The Captain agreed, before turning to the crew. “Engines ahead full! Look lively, thank Tyris for your deliverance on your own time!” He blustered, setting the crew into motion with boot and fist.

“Now… Uncle Samuel.” Jelena continued, still holding Reitia against her. “You WILL do something about Kevin.” She ordered, pointing imperiously where the mage still sat insensate on the deck, still seemingly blissfully ignorant of the chaos which had just engulfed them.

“No, I won’t.” Samuel retorted simply.

“And why not?”

Samuel chuckled helplessly, “Because there’s nothing wrong with him. Human Magic isn’t like the wild power of Mamono. The Mage walks a path in his mind as well as with his body, and when he comes to an intersection on that path… well…” He trailed off, gesturing at Kevin. “I’ll summon Enoch when we reach land.”

“You’ll summon him NOW!” Jelena seethed.

“No, I won’t.” Samuel sighed again, rolling his eyes.

“Why?”

Samuel smirked at her as if she were a simpleton. “Because I don’t want him materializing three hundred yards in our wake in the middle of a pack of hungry sharks, you idiot girl, now stop bothering me.”

“I’m tired, Jel…” Reitia murmured, pulling on the Taurean’s robes. An intense wave of love and compassion swelled in Jelena’s breast, and she picked up her sister in her arms, murmuring softly as she bore her below, leaving the Resonant alone on the deck with his thoughts.

“How did you manage that?” Entropy demanded as Corvus watched the last remnants of the Girtablilu’s soul fade, shrieking as it was torn apart by the void.

“You mistook despair for surrender.” Corvus retorted.

“Clever little God… Not that it matters much… You traded your Queen for a Pawn.” Entropy mocked.

“Oh, you play? Something tells me we’ll have time for a game…” Corvus jested, trying to suppress the ever-present agony as entropy ripped at his divine form.

“Your Daughter is Dead, Raven.” Entropy mocked pointedly I felt her pass into Duat. I’ve won.”

“What you’ve done, old monster, is make the same mistake twice.” Corvus replied in a low, deadly tone, glaring at the hellfire image of Entropy’s current manifestation.

“And that would be?”

“Leaving me with nothing to lose.” Corvus snarled, thrusting his fist forward into the avatar.

The void rang with world-shaking screams as God and Void cried out in agony.

“Urghhhh…” Alexander groaned, blinking as he sat up in the cot, the cabin lit with a dim lantern.

“Welcome back” Kylie murmured, grinning that smug smile that only Cheshires can properly manage.

“How bad is it?” The Paladin asked sinkingly.

Kylie shook her head. “You don’t wanna know.”

“Tyris be Merciful…” Alexander swore, looking about the room before his eyes fell on an ornate looking glass on the rude table beside the cot. Swallowing, he grabbed it, pulling it slowly upwards… to reveal his face whole and unmarked, as if the ordeal had never happened.

“You lost all that manly stubble, you look like a damn teenager now!” Kylie lamented mockingly.

“You evil, spiteful…” Alexander seethed, grabbing at the Cheshire as he stumbled out of bed, Kylie shrieking with laughter as she slapped his hands away. “…wonderful, wonderful woman.”

Kylie let him seize her about the shoulders, drawing her into a grateful hug. “You’re welcome. And you owe me. That Alarune essence wasn’t cheap.”

“Alarune? Tyris… I’ll be seasoning for weeks.” Alexander groaned, sitting back on the cot, before realizing his nudity. “Er… did you…”

“Of course, wasn’t going to waste it all on your face only to find you’d copped a marlinespike to the kidney or something.” Kylie chuckled, winking at him “And may I just say… not bad, Paladin.”

Alexander coughed, blushing furiously. “I heard that monster call you ‘Handmaiden’.” He quickly remarked, desperate to change the subject. “To my knowledge there’s only…”

“Princess Kylie, daughter of Samuel the Caladonian, Handmaiden of Hell’s Throne.” Kylie drawled self-deprecatingly, tracing a mocking curtsey before him.

“Well that explains why you two were so sketchy around each other.” Alexander remarked.

“Hah. More like the coward was hoping to dodge me.” Kylie retorted with surprising heat. “He’s been doing it my whole life.”

Alexander shook his head. “I don’t believe so… He’d watch you for hours at the tavern, and I never understood why until now. It’s obvious he loves y…”

“Don’t.” Kylie demanded. “Just don’t. You don’t know.”

Alexander shrugged in concession. “As you will, My Lady.”

“Kylie. I’m nobody’s Lady.”

“Shame…” Alexander drawled without thinking.

Kylie looked at the Paladin studyingly. “That you or the Alarune talking?”

Alexander swallowed, glancing down to where his manhood had begun to swell and throb almost painfully. His heart began racing in his chest. “Tyris damn it, I think it might be the Alarune…”

“Awww…” Kylie pouted adorably. “That’s a pity.”

“Could you give me a minute?” Alexander pleaded.

“Why?” Kylie purred, sauntering towards him.

“I’ll need to do something about the… side effects…”

“I can help with that…” Kylie breathed in Alexander’s ear, trailing a velveteen paw down his muscular torso. “…If I’m not gonna get you in too much trouble with Himself…”

“I’m sure… The God… will forgive me…” Alexander panted almost pleadingly.

“Oh goodie, be such a SHAME to let this one go to waste.” Kylie giggled, her small tongue licking at the smooth, newly healed skin on Alexander’s cheek, her paw encircling his manhood.

“Your father will kill me.” Alexander groaned throatily.

“Shhh.” Kylie insisted, stopping his mouth with her own before kissing her way down his body. “I don’t wanna talk about him right now.”

Samuel closed his eyes, focusing on the reality-spanning whirlwind of the Logos. He had been too hard on Jelena, he knew it, but they had nothing but time in the days it would take them to reach the coast of the Nordenlands. He could make it right… Maybe even with Kylie… he dared to hope for a moment, before necessity re-asserted itself. Forcing his awareness along hidden crystalline networks which lined the very earth itself, he made contact with the mind he sought.

“Joseph…” He called mentally, sensing the reaction as his brother Resonant in distant Heliopolis stirred. “…The gambit succeeded. Proceed as we planned.”

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