Chronicles of The Pax: Magisterium (3)


 

Captain Arin squinted at the mast lying on the dock. Guess there was nothing else for it. Turning to the auburn haired youth at his side, he gestured grandly.

“Milord Squid-crusher, if you would?” he asked, a broad grin on his face.

The youth gave a long-suffering sigh. “Must you?” he entreated.

“Come on Samuel, don’t be such a stodgy prick.” Arin chuckled.

Muttering something about demanding revisions to maritime law, Samuel focused his attention on the mast. He held his hands before him, totally unnecessary, but for some reason it helped him solidify the concept in his mind. He called upon the Logos of Resonance and felt it respond.

RISE

Ponderously, the mast was pulled upright by unseen forces. Samuel gritted his teeth as he flung myriad glyphs at the floating mast, stabilizing its transit to the deck of the ‘Ruby’s Lustre’. Sailors stared in slack-jawed awe as tons of wood, sail, and rigging settled itself gently into the hollow in the deck with a grinding thud. Cheering, they moved to secure it with metal brackets and bolts. Captain Arin laughed, clapping Samuel on the back.

“You are a fuckin’ useful person to have around, My Lord.” He congratulated the young noble.

“Thank you captain.” Samuel replied breathily, wiping the sweat of exertion from his brow. “Tyris be good. That was harder than I was expecting” he thought, mentally invoking the name of The God.

“Well, that being done, I’d say you’d best be getting to it.” Arin said simply. The inevitable minutiae of bureaucratic busybodying had kept the crew and their Resonant passenger shipbound for two days while credentials and writs were checked, then double checked, then copied in triplicate, before being lost and re-filed. Samuel had comprised a list of names of individuals he would see turning over a slow fire as thanks for the tooth-grinding delays, if The God granted him the opportunity. He nodded at Arin.

“My thanks again, for everything.” He offered sincerely, holding out a hand to the older man, who took it warmly.

“You saved our skin lad. We’ll not forget it.” Arin said, pumping the youth’s hand in farewell.

Samuel looked to where the Reptilian bo’sun was ostensibly coiling a length of rope, studiously trying to avoid the eyes of Nines, the ship’s navigator. Nines noticed her consternation and snickered slightly, his smile bright and genuine. “You might want to tell those two to keep it below decks.” He murmured to Captain Arin. “You’re King and God aboard the ‘Ruby’, but out there they’ll be burned alive for heresy within an hour.” He urged, referring to the burgeoning romance between the two sailors, officially forbidden by the Pax Deus, the Peace of Gods which governed interaction between Human and Mamono.

Captain Arin gave a guffaw of amusement. “It’s not our first dance, nor the first time we’ve docked in Magisterium, m’lord!” he rejoined. “They know to keep it to themselves.”

Samuel descended the gangplank, and as his feet hit the broad dock of Magisterium, he heard a Sailor yell “To Lord Squid-Crusher!”

Harsh and wordless cheers met him as he ruefully smiled and gave the crew a wave of farewell. He’d sooner have forgotten the Mindflayer which had so nearly reduced him to a brainless thrall, the Mindflayer he had subsequently reduced to paste with Resonant power. It was only the timely intervention of Ruby, Captain Arin’s Kraken lover, and silent partner in the ship’s administration which had prevented his demise.

“If anything, they should have praised her.” He muttered, but he knew it wasn’t her way. She had slipped overboard in the night rather than have the sailors linger in farewell to her. Despite her pert congeniality, it was clear that Ruby was not entirely comfortable in the presence of humans, Arin being the obvious exception. Coming to know the Kraken in the few days she had remained aboard, Samuel felt he almost understood. Her entire life was below the rolling waves, there was so little she had in common with land-dwellers, or ‘leggies’ as she disparagingly called them.

Samuel headed towards the large highway which was bracketed by officious looking buildings of the Magisterium Port Authority. The administrative hub for all Human settlements, Magisterium had become the undeniable heart of commerce and governance in the settled world. So used to the blend of Human and Mamono in the outlying counties, and indeed, in his own father’s Barony, House Caladon, Samuel was slightly taken aback at the sheer mass of humanity present. It was easy to accept the necessity of the Pax in the hinterlands, where Humans were sparse, but presented with so many people, it clashed with the doctrine he had been taught from early childhood, that Humanity was a species clawing its way back from extinction, a fragile flame to be nurtured. He began to make his way through the sea of humanity before him, before an officious looking soldier bearing a Commander’s epaulets and the crest of the Faith Militant stepped in front of him, holding a hand out to stop him.

“Samuel of House Caladon?” the commander inquired. Samuel stood straight, making sure the heraldry on his salt-stained jerkin was visible.

“I am. Why do you impede me, Commander?”

“You are to come with us, sir.” The Commander answered shortly.

“I am not. I have been instructed to attend to the Caladonian embassy upon my arrival in Magisterium.” Samuel answered. His father had been VERY clear on pressing that point.

“Magisterium might be the beating heart of humanity, my son, but it’s no less a den of vipers than the lowest slum.” Lord William had said, “Once you are presented before the council of High Lords, however, you should have relative autonomy. None would dare stand against one so duly recognised.”

“My orders are to escort you to the Grand Lodge of the Resonant, my lord. It would behoove you to comply.” The commander responded, with no small air of menace.

“Is it the policy of the Faith Militant to herd a Son of Noble House against tradition like a common fugitive, Sir?” Samuel rejoined, raising his voice so that the curious people around him could hear. If he was to be abducted, there at least would be no shortage of witnesses.

“Make a scene, my lord, or attempt to dissuade us with your abilities, and you will be a fugitive, despite your rank.” The Commander said, his tone now openly threatening. His soldiers began to spread out purposefully.

“That will be quite enough, Commander!” a woman’s voice rang out. A tall, regal looking woman stepped from a palanquin borne by four ogre nulls to stand between Samuel and the surprised looking soldiers. “His Lordship will be coming with me to the Caladonian Embassy as Rank and Tradition dictate.”

“Ambassador…” The Commander quailed slightly, unsure of how he should proceed. “…Our orders were quite specif…”

“Your orders have been rescinded, Captain!” The woman interrupted, her tone imperious, brooking no disagreement.

“Er, it’s Commander, Your Eminence.” The soldier corrected somewhat timidly. The woman’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Impede me or my charge further, and it will be Lieutenant… Am I clear?” She hissed dangerously.

“Y-Your Eminence!” the shaken officer stammered, raising his hand in salute before sulfuriously turning his squad about and disappearing into the maelstrom of humanity around them. The woman turned to Samuel, who courteously offered her his arm. The irony of the situation did not escape him as she took it with a veiled smile, she had clearly just rescued him. Escorting her to her palanquin, he helped her step into the curtained litter.

“Will you ride with me, my lord?” She enquired, “My fine friends here can bear the weight.” She assured, gesturing to the Nulls who knelt at its corners, androgynous faces set in that dull disinterest which seemed so universal to the asexual Mamono. Samuel nodded and accepted her hand, climbing into the structure and closing the curtains. Bracing himself against the jostling as the Ogre Nulls shouldered their poles and began their brisk march towards the centre of the huge city, Samuel smiled at the woman before him.

“Ambassador Kyla, I think I owe The God effuse prayers for your fortuitous timing.” Samuel said gratefully. Kyla laughed.

“Actually my arrival would have been much less eventful if you weren’t showing off with that mast on the docks. Your proficiency concerned certain factions who are not too happy with the son of some backwater Barony stumbling across a Resonance Matrix, let alone being Awoken by it.” Kyla answered drily.

“Proficiency? Well… I suppose I did have time to practice somewhat… Oh, and if barrels of salted fish should happen to rain from the sky, I had nothing to do with it.” Samuel remarked with feigned innocence. Kyla looked at him incredulously before erupting in another peal of laughter. Wiping her eyes, she composed herself.

“Well either way I came as soon as I received notice your ship had been cleared by customs.” Kyla said, looking at him lingeringly before leaning forward and embracing him. Samuel was shocked to immobility at the Ambassador’s sudden display of affection.

“After all,” She whispered in his ear. “What mother would not want to greet her son after so many years?”

Samuel’s eyes grew blurry and a lump formed in his throat so he could not answer, only wordlessly return her embrace as the palanquin trundled ever closer to the seat of Humanity’s power.

Jeremy leaned forward in the high seat of Caladon’s main hall. A gathering of landholders buzzed with subdued conversation as he studied the kikimora before him. Her light tan hair blended with furred ears, laid back against her scalp as she pointedly stared at the floor in front of her. Her shoulders trembled with fear and he could hear her desperately trying to control her sobbing breathing. He stroked his jaw in apparent thought before addressing her.

“So Lani, you’re saying you have no knowledge of these events? That you, in a position which could be considered great regard, know nothing of this conspiracy against the Lawful and Acknowledged Landholder who has been blasphemously murdered in clear violation of the Pax?” He drawled evenly.

“N-No Master!” Lani gasped. “A-and I do not h-hear what others say… I d-do my duty to my… to my masters.” She whimpered pitifully.

“My Lord Father’s indulgence sees you as de facto chamberlain. I am not so foolish to think that others do not seek your guidance. Evidence has been presented to me that the Sin was planned, if not committed, by Mamono from this household. So again I ask you, are you sure that you have no knowledge of this?” Jeremy pressed, a little more forcefully.

“I-I would not harbour such!” Lani stammered, turning limpid eyes beseechingly upon Jeremy, where he sat as Heir Apparent upon his father’s throne.

“Come on Jeremy, this is ridiculous!” Charles hissed from his seat to Jeremy’s right.

“If the Officer for the prosecution has further evidence to present, let him do so formally or keep his peace.” Jeremy snapped at Charles. Charles ground his teeth before rising.

“If it please the Heir Apparent…” Charles grated, before crossing the floor to Lani. He met her tearful eyes with what small wordless comfort he could offer.

“Kikimora Lani” Charles began. “Could you inform the house of the significance of a Ledan feather being placed into the heart of a slain individual?”

Lani’s blanched with sheer terror. “I-I may not say master!”

“See? She keeps evidence from us!” Jeremy crowed as the landholders murmured in affirmation.

“On the contrary, Heir Apparent. My Lord, Gentlemen, this response is identical to the response I have garnered from every Mamono I have asked.” Charles interjected.

“It would seem the Officer for the Prosecution has forgotten his role. It is not for you to represent the accused.” Jeremy spat in retort.

“My role, Heir Apparent” Charles hissed, biting off the title like a venomous insult. “is to present this house with the evidence procured by my investigation to this point. And may I remind My Lord, that Lani was called to present testimony. She has not been formally charged.”

“Then let us rectify that!” Jeremy snarled. “Kikimora Lani, in the Name of My Lord Father, Baron William The Just, and before the witness of here assembled, I do charge you wi…”

“Your Lord Father can make his own charges.” A deep voice boomed as a man stepped into the chamber, his once-powerful frame stooped with age, beard now more grey than the lustrous black of his youth.

“The Lord Baron of House Caladon!” Charles intoned, before sinking to a knee. The landholders murmured with surprise, some with slight consternation before following Charles’s example. Jeremy stood.

“Father! How are you… Feeling?” he asked, and Charles struggled to keep his composure. That slight slip screamed to him. Jeremy knew his father had been poisoned. Knew, and chose to keep it silent.

“Tyris, if you ever loved me, let me be seeing shadows. Don’t let my brother have fallen so far as to attempt on my own father’s life…” Charles silently prayed, his first real entreaty to The God in many years. William strode across the hall, pausing briefly to rest a hand on Lani’s cheek. Her teary eyes spoke of wordless love and gratitude. Ascending to the High Seat, he paused to allow Jeremy to remove himself, which he did, with a notable reluctance.

Seating himself, Lord William looked over the assembled landholders. “Gentlemen, recent events have prevented me from performing my duties unto you. I beg your forgiveness. It has been made known to me of the enthusiasm with which My Noble Heir has assumed my duties where I have lapsed, and in your names I thank him for it. I am sure the weight of ruling this barony is a relief to have been lifted from his youthful shoulders.”

Charles suppressed a grin. His father was a master statesman, and in that seeming compliment, had pointedly dressed down Jeremy for so blatantly overstepping himself. “Sit down, eager boy,” that address had said, “And let the real men work.” Jeremy clearly understood the subtext also, as Charles noted his silent effort to maintain his composure as he seated himself to Lord William’s right. Lord William allowed the landholders some time to compose themselves.

“The details of Landholder Patrick’s demise have been communicated to me, as has the evidence gathered by my Noble Son…” William paused to nod in acknowledgment to Charles, who bowed formally in response. “…This… business with the heart and the feather seems to speak to Mamono mythology, clearly an area which is considered taboo to speak of. Thus it cannot be ruled out that this may very well have been an attempt to influence the Mamono, and Patrick simply the unfortunate medium of that message. Let it be known that Lani and her cousins have served me loyally and faithfully for years, and indeed, went days without food or sleep during my convalescence. House Caladon thanks them for their loyalty.”

Lani bowed, sobbing her gratitude. “W-we do our duty to our masters.” She repeated.

“You are free to go girl. I grant you the leave of the day to compose yourself from this trying experience.” William offered softly. Lani bowed again before hurrying from the room, her soft tail brushing against her skirts. Lord William stood.

“I dismiss this hearing, and inform those assembled that general business will commence at the third toll after noon.” He commanded, eyes playing across the landholders as they left the chamber. As the last departed, William turned to Jeremy.

“Kikimora, Jeremy?” he asked incredulously.

“She stood in the position to know, father.” Jeremy sullenly replied.

“Tyris be glorified, Kikimora are incapable of such an act!” William boomed “Their entire species is permanently indentured by the Council of Matriarchs because they are completely unable to exist in the outside world! Maou made them that way!” He said incredulously, invoking the name of the Demon Lord, sovereign and creator of the Mamono.

“Made them that way for what, father? To pervert Humanity? To whisper poison in the ears of Noble Houses?” Jeremy retorted.

“Oh shut up, boy. You displayed a shocking absence of judgement today. Subservient though the Kikimora are, the Council looks very unkindly upon houses which mistreat them. And I have not spent this many years forming this House’s reputation for you to bring their wrath upon us while I am abed!” William barked.

Jeremy sullenly bowed. “Have I My Lord Father’s permission to retire?”

“Go.” Lord William said wearily, raising a hand as Jeremy stalked from the chamber. As he exited, William sank into the chair, allowing fatigue to take his imperious bearing from him. Charles rushed to his side.

“You alright dad?” he entreated.

“That took more than I was expecting Charlie. Lani warned me not to come when she heard she was being summoned before the court, but I couldn’t let Jeremy do… Whatever it was he planned to do…” William replied, rubbing his temples.

“You’re aware of the pois…” Charles began.

“Don’t speak of it aloud. These halls have ears, not all of them friendly.” William admonished. Charles inclined his head deferentially.

“He’s getting out of hand, dad. I know I promised, but I’m finding it harder and harder to stymie him.” Charles murmured softly.

“My faithful son…” William began, gripping Charles’s arm. “Would that you had been acknowledged first, things might have been much different. Alas the Magisterium cannot allow a cut branch to reign.” He mused morosely.

“You don’t need to remind me.” Charles grated, “I know I shall never sire the heirs to Caladon, and with Lloyd and Samuel gone, Jeremy encompasses the future of this house.” He concluded bitterly.

“I’m not so old as to not have an ear to the ground, son.” William rejoined “Your name is spoken with no small favour amongst the people, both Human and Mamono. Your brother fears your influence more than he lets on. He relies on your loyalty to me and to this house to keep you in your place.”

Charles pulled a flask from his jacket. “Small one before the rabble return?” he entreated his father, who took it with a chuckle.

“You’re a good boy, Charlie.” William laughed, taking a pull from the flask.

“You said it was infallible!” The man yelled. Jeremy pursed his lips in irritation.

“Nothing is infallible where the animals are concerned, sir.” Jeremy retorted.

“Yet Lord William lives! Do you have any idea the predicament we find ourselves in?” a second cried.

Jeremy smiled evenly, taking each of the cowled figures before him in his gaze. “The predicament you find yourselves in, gentlemen. Three words. That’s all I need to send all of you to the block.”

“You would not presume…” A third began, before being cut off by Jeremy’s laughter.

“I? I can presume whatever I bloody well wish, sir!” Jeremy crowed. “Wether next week, next year, or next decade, I am the future of House Caladon. Not simian Charles as he ruts with monsters, not effette Lloyd as he licks the boots and cunts of our Holy Whore Church, and not precious young Samuel, imprisoned within the confines of bureaucracy in Magisterium. Here I am, gentlemen, and here I remain!”

“And should we speak against you as a body, my lord?” a fourth spoke, voice dripping with venom. Jeremy sighed, before drawing a blade from his boot and jamming it through the eye socket of the man who had just spoken.

“Does that answer your question, sir?” Jeremy mused, spitting on the quivering corpse. The other assembled figures murmured in discontent. Jeremy held up his hands for silence.

“Gentlemen, regardless of this setback, plans remain as stated. Caladon will be the seat of the new empire, and we will convince The God that Holy War is the preferred state of mankind, or we will cast Him aside as God-Before-Tyris was cast aside. The Church will be governed as the Old Ways dictate, the Pax disavowed, and we will slaughter these animals to their last squalling infant!” Jeremy hissed, his eyes alight with fervour. “Gloria Hominis!” He intoned.

“The God Wills It.” The cowled figures responded.

“My King, what of him?” A fifth voice asked in a servile tone.

“Charles’s heart business has seen to that… Leave him somewhere the Ghouls will find him.” Jeremy purred.

“My King… I will grow accustomed to this…” He thought, as the corpse was dragged away.

The young man closed the door behind him.

Reaching out with power still untested, he sketched the runes of his Angelic authority upon the air before him. It helped, he found, to utilize the scripture as a metaphor for his actions.

And The God did reach forth His hand, and lo, their way was blocked. Neither therefore was egress found to the heavens, and their lamentations were eaten by the winds… he mentally intoned, and saw the rude sigils take more stable form, before becoming self-sustaining with a faint ringing sound.

“Ariael…” He murmured. A joyous choir seemed to sing at the very edges of his hearing, as with a burst of golden light, an Angel appeared before him. Seeing his face, her imperious visage softened.

“My Lloyd…” she murmured, reaching for him.

“I am troubled, Messenger of Tyris.” Lloyd spoke simply, avoiding her embrace.

“Why do you address me so formally, my love?” the Angel asked, consternation upon her perfect features.

“All my life I have been taught that Mamono were animals.” Lloyd began. “And now to find that the Messengers of The God share their nature… And to find as Dumat, the Lord of Silence, that I am nothing more than a vessel to be filled with their energy…”

Ariael beat her white-gold wings once, crossing to him in a fraction of an instant. “And I have viewed humans as base and lesser creatures, ruled by lust and unworthy of the favour of the High Heavens.” She stated simply, before placing her delicate hands on his shoulders. “But you… You are not those men…” she murmured, her lips seeking his with fervour. “You are Lord Dumat. And more than that, you are my Lloyd… My Heart… And I… I am not those beings. I am Ariael. Angel of the High Heavens, Seneschal of The God.” She entreated, her arms sliding about him. “And I am somewhat insulted that you would compare me thus.”

Lloyd melted into her embrace. “The ways of The God are not for one such as me to know…” He whispered. “…but it is difficult to cast aside the teachings of a lifetime.” Ariael patted his cheek gently.

“The fact you seek to cling to faith is endearing, my Lloyd, and no doubt The God is pleased with your faithfulness.” The angel mused, inspecting his work upon the door. “Nonetheless, you seem to have taken to your role with surprising ease. I would wager not even the Brides of Tyris could penetrate this ward without significant effort.”

“I thought it wise to speak to you of this in private.” Lloyd admitted.

“A fair assumption, still… It seems a waste to spend such privacy on mere talk…” Ariael said, her lips curving into a somewhat lascivious smile. Lloyd laughed helplessly.

“I will submit to the Will of the Divine.” He drawled, as Ariael shed herself of her vestments.

“Oh not right away, I hope.” She whispered, wrapping her wings about him as she kissed him fervently.

Later, Lloyd traced his fingers upon the naked form of the angel, a feathered wing beneath him as his Angelic lover and the bestower of his Divine Power made small noises of contentment in his arms.

“Is this crisis common, Ariael?” he asked lazily.

“Hmmm?” She murmured

“That Paladins find themselves questioning things after discovering that Angels are Mamono.” Lloyd clarified, cupping a breast in one hand.

“Ahhh… It is not the same…” Ariael gasped, her body still sensitive in the wake of their lovemaking. “The Benedictus is a common ceremony, three High Priestesses can invoke the foci to bestow that authority. Dumat is an order of singular individuals. Most break in the trial.” She explained, referring to the psychic storm Lloyd had endured during their first copulation.

“Then how many have you…” Lloyd began, before Ariael struck him ungently in the shoulder.

“My Lord Dumat!” She protested, “I am no brood mare! We choose our candidates.”

“That makes me feel much better.” Lloyd answered, rubbing his shoulder, even with only the merest fraction of her strength applied to the strike, it still rocked him. “The God forgive me, but it’s comforting to think of you as…” he paused.

“As what?” Ariael pressed

“Well, as mine.” Lloyd admitted.

Ariael’s luminescent eyes softened with love. “Always yours, my Lloyd” she murmured, spreading her wings about him again “Always and forever.”

“I look ridiculous.” Samuel protested, as Ambassador Kyla adjusted the trim on his formal garb.

“The fashion of Magisterium is a fickle mistress” Kyla answered simply.

“Is this really necessary?” Samuel entreated.

“I am not presenting my so… I mean, an heir of House Caladon before the Magisterium clad in a traveller’s jerkin!” Kyla protested vehemently. Samuel chuckled helplessly at the slip.

“I submit to your ministrations…” He murmured. Kyla straightened the front of his garb, and with a gentle smile, she kissed his cheek.

“And I am grateful for it,” Kyla whispered. “But let’s both remember to keep protocol when within the Magisterium, Hmmm?”

A maze of corridors stretched out before them, which Kyla navigated with practiced ease. Courtiers and administrative staff scurried from before them, bowing deeply as the Ambassador and her son passed them. Samuel marvelled at the ease with which Ambassador Kayla discerned which were worthy of acknowledgement, which deigned only a slight nod, and those which could be ignored entirely. After what seemed an eternity, they approached a solid wooden door, which a waiting seneschal opened deferentially, through which Samuel and Kayla stepped, into the mouth of madness.

“…And it is upon you, High Lords of the Magisterium…” a violet haired succubus was in the midst of remonstrating.

“…Then let it be so, emissary!” a blond-bearded man yelled with equal vehemence from his elaborately decorated seat in the east of the vast chamber.

“High Lord Skarsgard.” Kyla murmured in Samuel’s ear. “Regent of the Nordenland.”

“Respectfuly, My Lord, Zippangu has remained untouched for centuries.” The succubus continued. “Our request for assistance with infrastructure was not free license for humanity to establish an embassy on her shores!”

“Child of Maou,” an ebon-skinned High Lord entreated. “It is not the fault of Humanity that Mamono moved to secure mystic ley-lines after the War of Antient Times, whilst Humanity moved to restore infrastructure.”

“High Lord Selassie.” Kyla murmured. “Regent of the Suudenland.”

“Let us not resort to ancient history to justify matters, my lords” the succubus entreated. “We made a simple request for assistance in establishing simple facilities upon Zippangu, due to the growing population.”

“The Mamono on Zippangu were living in hovels, emissary!” A stout high lord protested, his brown beard streaked with grey.

“High Lord Anders…” Kyla began.

“High Lord Anderson, Regent of the Westerland.” Samuel finished, recognising the High Lord that House Caladon owed allegiance to. Kyla nodded in affirmation.

“Not the fault of Humanity that Mamono cannot understand the intricacies of a simple toilet!” the fourth High Lord interjected, his almond eyes narrowing beneath a shock of jet-black hair.

“High Lord Zhi Feng.” Kyla murmured. “Regent of the Aestenland. He claims ancestral rights to Zippangu, which is where this entire argument started.” Samuel nodded.

“We do not keep Zippangu from Humanity out of some misplaced sense of greed My Lords!” the Succubus retorted. “Would you have the economy of Magisterium destroyed because a Kitsune princess decided she wanted half of your merchant’s stock for free?”

“Emissary, two out of five of the Free Cities of the Known World are paying tribute into nameless trusts. Investigation into these trusts reveal only one signatory. A signatory with a Tanuki name. With respect, Mamono are already influencing the economy of Magisterium.” High Lord Anderson responded.

“Honoured and Worshipful members of the Magisterium, Revered Guests, clearly the discussion has grown far more heated than was originally intended, and unless my old eyes mistake me, we have new faces in the assembly which require acknowledgement.” High Lord Selassie offered diplomatically.

“Your eyes aren’t as old as you claim, you dark bastard.” High Lord Skarsgard retorted good-naturedly before rising. “Let those who walk amongst us be recognised.”

“Hawa, Prince of House Mugube” A Suudenlander Ambassador spoke, an ebon-skinned youth raising an arm behind her.

“Ansgar, Prince of House Valhael” A Nordenlander Ambassador cried, a powerful blond youth behind her raising crossed tattooed wrists.

“Samuel, Prince of House Caladon” Kyla intoned, and Samuel desperately searched for a response.

“Why not” He thought “Let them see a little theatricality” calling upon the Logos of Resonance, he felt it answer.

BRILLIANCE

Raising his arms into the sign of the Sunburst, Samuel squinted his eyes as golden light effused from his hands. A few Paladins in the lower galleries fell to their knees and responded to his sign.

“All Glory to the Most High!” he heard them intone.

“Oh that was good.” Kyla whispered.

“One does what one can.” Samuel answered cheekily.

“The High Lords of Magisterium recognise those presented, and would entreat the Prince of House Caladon to present himself before the Grand Lodge of the Resonant as soon as is permissible.” High Lord Zhi Feng responded, giving a tolerant grimace towards the westerland galleries.

“As Your Lordship Commands.” Samuel answered clearly.

“Oh Very good!” Kyla whispered. “Too bad you’ve just committed us to the rest of the day’s business.”

“Ah shit.” Samuel swore, as the inevitable tedium of bureaucracy swelled once again.

Later, as they both relaxed in the Caladonian embassy, Samuel stripped the elaborate pauldrons from his shoulders. “Do they always waste so much time in procedure?” he asked, sighing in relief as the weight of his formal garb fell from him.

“The Traditions of Humanity are dictated by The God.” Kyla answered simply.

“Surely Holy Tyris would find a way to shorte…” He paused, sensing a presence.

CONSTRICT

“NYAAAA! Put Yumi down!” a voice sounded from a nearby closet.

“Oh Tyris. Do let her go, Sam.” Kyla laughed.

“Her?” Samuel exclaimed, opening the closet with a Resonant glyph. A young Neko floated from its confines, struggling against the unseen forces which held her aloft.

“Oh Tyris, Ambassador. A Neko?” Samuel asked incredulously.

“Put her down, Samuel. That’s no way to treat an emissary.” Kyla entreated.

“A Neko?” Samuel repeated, releasing the glyph and resting the young catgirl on the ground. Straightening her clothes, she hissed venomously at Samuel.

“Samuel, I have the honour of presenting Emissary Yumi of the isles of Zippangu.” Kyla answered, her laughter barely held in check.

Samuel bowed formally. “I beg Your Grace’s forgiveness. I would request of Her Eminence that she make me aware of such august presences prior to the fact, in future.”

Yumi walked up to Samuel, sniffing at him. Holding her hands to her chest, she addressed Kyla with slight irritation. “Why you let your kitten treat Yumi so mean, Kyla-sama?”

“He wasn’t to know, Yumi.” Kyla apologised.

“He’s kind of kawaii though…” Yumi mused. “Can I have him, nyaa?”

“Don’t tease Yumi. He’s not for fun.” Kyla laughed. Yumi pouted slightly.

“I think I shall leave you ladies to your business” Samuel offered diplomatically.

“Yes, you probably should make yourself known to the Grand Lodge.” Kyla admitted.

“After they tried to abduct me earlier?” Samuel asked incredulously.

“You’ve been acknowledged by the High Lords, Samuel. They would have one hell of a diplomatic incident if they restricted your movements too strenuously.” Kyla entreated.

“Fair point. My Lady, Your Grace.” Samuel bowed to the neko and his mother as he exited the chamber.

Yumi watched him exit with curiosity. Turning to Kyla, she cocked her head to the side. “So he’s the one they’re making so much noise about nyaa?”

“That he is. And I’ll thank you not to make a point of referring to him as my ‘Kitten’ in company, Yumi.” Kyla replied.

“But why nyaa?” The catgirl enquired, her face scrunched with confusion. “It’s plainly obvious, you both have the same…”

“Obvious, but not to be acknowledged.” Kyla interrupted. “There was enough of an incident following that business with Jeremy’s mother, the last thing House Caladon needs is an accusation of Blasphemy.”

“You humans are weird nyaa!” Yumi exclaimed.

“I’ll let that one slide.” Kyla replied calmly “Don’t forget the Traditions of Humanity are dictated by The Pax. We do but obey The God’s commandments. You Mamono should feel lucky that Maou has set such a light burden on you.”

Yumi gave a most un-catlike snort of derision. “On Zippangu, all we have are incubi and bulls nyaa. The incubi are too kinky for mostly everybody but succubi, and the bulls are just ‘unf unf unf urrrr’ and they’re done. No fun nyaa.” She complained, lowering her voice to try and replicate the guttural grunts of the astonishingly rare male Mamono.

“I hate to break it to you, Yumi, but a lot of humans are like that too.” Kyla confided gently.

“He really was kawaii though…” Yumi mused. “…I might try and steal him anyway nyaa.”

“I’ll skin you if you try, dear.” Kyla said sweetly “And your hair is an absolute disaster, what were you doing in that closet in the first place? She asked, retrieving a comb from a nearby vanity and gesturing for the Neko to turn around.

“I don’t know, I’m a kitty nyaa!” Yumi gushed vapidly, eyes wide with feigned innocence.

“You’re a very dangerous young woman.” Kyla laughed, running the comb through Yumi’s lustrous chestnut hair.

“That’s why they sent me, nyaa” Yumi purred, relaxing into Kyla’s ministrations.

The boy sat playing with the wooden soldiers on the floor, oblivious to the conversation occurring on the other side of the room.

“My Father is High Lord Anderson!” The woman protested.

“Your father is the current High Lord Anderson. He is most definitely… replaceable if deemed problematic by the other members of the conclave.” The priestess insisted.

“It is hardly my fault that your readings were wrong!” the woman accused, glaring at the cleric opposite her.

“The readings were not wrong.” The priestess corrected vehemently “Your menses contained a trace of energy when the Baptism of Anima was performed before you left for Caladon. You were given leave to give birth outside the Abbey of Blessed Innocence for fear that the child might be… Tainted.” She explained, referring to the communal nurseries where human children were raised.

“And look at him!” the woman cried, “He’s perfect!”

“And not yours to keep!” the priestess retorted. “He’s already well past the age of separation, he should be with the others! We’re going to have a hard enough time explaining…”

“Then don’t explain.” The woman wheedled, holding aloft a purse which jingled heavily with coin. “There’s a lot of money here, enough to convince a few scribes to draw a line under your name instead of through it when the church decides to Awaken the next High Priestess.”

The priestess snatched the purse with undisguised avarice. “They won’t hear it from me.” She assured. “And your role here is legitimate enough that none will ask questions. But remember, despite his Lineage the High Lords will see him as Caladon’s son before Anderson’s grandson. We don’t breed dynasties in Magisterium.” She hissed insistently.

“I know” the woman agreed “We breed spiders.”

The boy reached for the toy soldier with an arm which had suddenly transmuted to black chitin, taloned fingers digging into the carved wooden figure. He screamed…

…Jeremy woke with a start.

“Are you alright, My Lord?” a young landholder asked from the doorway.

“Benjamin. Fine, bad dream is all.” He stretched stiff muscles from where they had seized from his brief nap in the chair, standing to face the young man.

“You have something then?” he asked simply.

“Oh nothing much.” Benjamin smiled conspiratorially, “A spider nest that the Council of Matriarchs is unaware of. Technically shouldn’t exist.”

“And measures have been taken to ensure they won’t learn of it?” Jeremy asked insistently.

“The cow who found it has been told she will lose more than her horns if she mentions anything.” Benjamin assured him.

“Occupied?” Jeremy asked, his breath quickening in anticipation.

“Of course.” Benjamin replied, his smile broadening.

“Ready my hunting party… Tell them to take their time… I want to savour this.” Jeremy purred.

Benjamin bowed at the waist. “At once, My Lord.” He said, before departing.

Jeremy took a deep breath to compose himself… Something moved at the corner of his vision. He spun, instinctively reaching for a blade. A small figure moved from the shadows… A figure he recognised.

“So bitch, back for another go then? You beast sluts are all alike, one good fuck and you’re begging for more.” Jeremy snarled, his lips curled in a rictus.

The shade of the wolf-girl’s eyes dripped sulphur… Her mouth gaped wide, impossibly wide, black tongue lolling from its depths.

“Perverse! Accursed!” came her sibilant accusation.

“You’re dead, you little cunt. For all this bluster, all that remains of you is a stain on a sheet and a sooty smear on a forgotten rock.” Jeremy grated at the shade.

The shade did something unexpected… She laughed… Jeremy found himself laughing along with her, his vision swimming as her rapacious gaze burned hatred into his eyes. As the shade faded from view, Jeremy fought to stem his insane giggling, fought to regain control of his mind.

Perhaps his hunting party should not take too much time after all…

“Samuel?” a voice sounded from behind him. Samuel turned, looking up to meet the ice-blue eyes of a Nordenlander.

“Yes… Ansgar?” he enquired, recognising the tattooed youth from the Magisterium’s chambers. The youth nodded.

“Hear you’re headed to the Grand Lodge. Be alright if I came along?” Ansgar enquired in a clipped tone.

“Don’t see why not, between the two of us, we can’t get too lost.” Samuel quipped, a brief smile crossed the tall youth’s features.

“De tree of us.” Came another voice. The ebon-skinned Hawa emerged from a nearby hallway, a good-natured grin on his features. Ansgar grunted in acknowledgement.

“Take it you two have already met then?” Samuel asked.

“Ya, been waitin’ on you to be arrivin’.” Hawa answered. “Some folks be sore as de traveller who fell into de siafu nest dat you be comin’ into de Magisterium rather than a locked cell in de Grand Lodge though.” Hawa laughed, clapping Samuel on the shoulder familiarly.

“I hope you don’t number amongst them.” Samuel said warily.

“Not me. De Suudenlands be not havin de patience for dese northern games.” Hawa answered assuringly. “When dere be de disagreement back home, de two be go out, de one be comin’ home.”

“Same.” Ansgar said shortly. “Backroom dealings are for weaklings and thieves.”

“Glad to know.” Samuel said, relaxing slightly. “Well then gents, not much else for it?”

“Now into the Palace of Hel…” Ansgar intoned with a slight grimace.

“You be ‘avin no sense of adventure, white man.” Hawa joshed.

“Shut up.” Ansgar answered.

The three young nobles exited the labyrinthine colossus of Magisterium proper, and into the metropolis which surrounded it.

“Now it should be due east…” Samuel began.

“You don’t know it?” Hawa asked.

“By reputation, Tyris, it’s not like I grew up here!” Samuel shot back with frustration.

“Zen allow me to assist.” A bored voice sounded from within the throng of people. Out stepped two individuals, the first, a foppish young man, yellow hair artistically coiffed, sporting an intricately tailored outfit, a pencil-thin moustache gracing his upper lip, which he curled at the press of humanity around him. The second, dressed simpler, short red hair cropped close to his head and a sour expression on his features.

“Allow me to introduce myself. I em Prinze Jacques of ‘ouse Orleans. Yes yes, I know you are struck dumb by ze honour. Zis is Prinze ‘ahrold of ‘ouse Manchester.” The fop gave a brief articulation of his forearm and a slight incline from the waist in lieu of a bow.

“’Arry. Orright lads?” the redhead said simply.

“It is no divine providence zat I ‘ave magnanimously appeared before you. Ze Grand Lodge grows impatient to acknowledge Samuel, and to test ‘awa and Ansgar for Awakening.” Jacques continued.

“You wanted to know who wanted to see you in de cell Samuel?” Hawa began, his mouth absent of its near constant smile. “Ere dey be. Continentals.”

“Yesyesyes, but zat is yesterday’s business… honestly you outlanders.” Jacques sighed as if Hawa had brought up nothing more pressing than what he had for breakfast.

“Sorry, you expect me to just shrug off an attempted abduction in clear breach of protocol? Are you fucking simple or something?” Samuel asked incredulously, freeing his arm and placing it on the hilt of his bladed pistol.

“Orright, relax yer jacksie there. S’like this right?” Harold interjected. “You lads saw how many High Lords were sitting up in the tiddly-pies yesterday?”

“Four High Lords, Four Regions. What’s the issue?” Ansgar asked, folding his arms.

“Who’s the High Lord of the Continentals?” Harold pressed.

“You been smokin’ de dream-leaf?” Hawa asked incredulously. “De Continentals don’t have de High Lord by Tradition, to make sure Magisterium remains neutral in de governance!”

“And so we are forced to make with ze politics!” Jacques replied. “If we ‘eld Samuel, we could convince ‘igh Lord Anderson to make certain accommodations to streamline matters which will otherwise be tied up in years of debate!”

“Bout all we’ve got is the bleedin’ Grand Lodge, and that’s only because outlander Resonants jog on back to the cat-and-mouse as soon as they’ve been trained some, savvy?” Harold entreated. “It was a dodgy bottle-of-sauce to bet on, but we never meant no ‘arm. Promise on Tyris we didn’t.”

“You can believe ‘im.” Jacques agreed. “Ze Bongs will always tell you before they plan to betray you.”

“Bongs?” Samuel queried instinctively, barely following the curious continental dialects.

“Grand Clocktower of Manchester, the pride of our engineers.” Harold clarified. “The Frogs call us Bongs because of the noise she makes.”

“And zey call us frogs because zey ‘ave no taste.” Jacques replied with mock irritation. “Plus, you are recognised now by the ‘igh Lords. Even if we wanted to send good coin after bad, we could not touch you.”

“Besides, we’re Resonant too mate. We look after our own.” Harold assured.

“Well there are ways to prove that…” Samuel stated simply.

REVELAT… Samuel felt the glyph shatter as a counter was flung nearly effortlessly from Jacques.

“Onestly you outlander barbarians. Do you always seek to mangle ozers in greeting? Try zis instead.” Jacques held out a cupped hand in front of him.

RECOGNITION

Samuel gasped as a light floated from his chest to Jacques waiting hand, where it formed itself into his now-familiar signature, V3R1T4S.

Samuel allowed the concept to be made manifest, encompassing the two continental nobles in his mind, he repeated the glyph, holding out both hands before him.

RECOGNITION

M4N0S came from the light effusing from Harold, C3L3R from Jacques.

“Pretty.” Ansgar said, his face showing clear distaste.

“You don’t approve?” Hawa asked him.

“Not my desire this. Father insisted.” Ansgar replied simply.

“I know de feeling.” Hawa replied sympathetically.

“My Lords, we ‘ad best be moving, we cannot be putting on a show for ze city all day.” Jacques mused, gesturing to the gawping citizens around them.

The three, now five, set off towards the spires of the Grand Lodge of the Resonant, growing ever taller as the distance closed.

“This is so degrading!” the Taurean woman complained, clinging to the body of the centaur null as they rode at an easy canter, her digitigrade legs flapping inelegantly to the sides of its body.

“Jak already said he doesn’t mind, Jessie. What’s the issue?” Charles asked.

“How would you feel if I was riding on your shoulders?” Jessie shot back. The null beneath Charles turned its head slightly.

“Dom thinks shoulders not Master Charles’s first choice for riding.” It said in a neutral monotone.

“Did you just…” Charles gasped

“Jessie is soft and lighter than she looks, Jak thinks Master Charles will agree.” Jak answered in that same monotone.

“Jak!” Jessie screamed.

“Dom thinks if Master Charles and Jessie want to keep things to themselves, they should not be always meeting in the Stables where others are trying to sleep.” Dom said simply.

“No more Dom, we yield…” Charles begged. “And… Keep it to yourself yeah? It’s one thing to be a rumor, another for them to attach names to it. I don’t want anything to happen to Jess.”

“Not Dom’s business what breeders do in their spare time.” Dom answered, and Charles swore he saw a hint of a smile on the Null’s androgynous features.

“Besides. Stupid horses would spook at the trackers.” Jak quipped, gesturing at the four grey wolf-women who ran apace with the horses.

“Two Landholders inside a month…” Charles groaned. “Even Father’s growing impatient to see something come up.”

“Don’t count your harpies before they hatch.” Jessie replied, “Patrick was found at home, Adam is simply… Missing.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold too much hope love, the man was nearly as ignoble a cunt as Patrick. I had him pencilled for an audit just next month because of it.” Charles grated.

“Audit with claws and teeth, Caladon-Heir, much more effective.” One of the wolves called to him.

“Tradition and the Pax, Cara, Much as I might like to put a boot to some!” Charles called back. The woman laughed, and Charles was thankful that his reputation with the Mamono had held him in such good stead. The negotiations to indenture the trackers for this search had started… Coolly, for want of better word, thanks to the fracas with the black wolves, the fracas which had resulted in their destruction and Samuel’s Awakening to Resonance.

A howl started him from his musings, and Charles saw one of the outlying wolves break away towards the line of trees which marked the beginning of a sizeable evergreen forest. He gestured for Dom to follow, and soon rode up to where the four wolves stood impassively before a ghoul who stood upon a patch of torn earth, her simian arms spread wide and spadelike teeth bared, clearly ready to fight. Charles dismounted, walking towards the ghoul.

“Alright Gara, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” Charles asked the ghoul conversationally. At seeing Charles, the ghoul relaxed slightly, yet defiantly held her ground.

“Not rob grave! Body in wilds! Fair Claim!” she grated.

“And I acknowledge it, but surely you won’t begrudge a friend a look, for old time’s sake?” Charles entreated.

The Ghoul seemed to ponder that, her curled lips sliding back over her fearsome maw until she looked almost human, if one discounted the mottled, corpselike pallor of her flesh and the dead white eyes which flicked on the band before her.

“No touching!” she agreed grudgingly, clawing at the earth with her large hands. Surprisingly quickly, she pulled a body from the ground, and those around were suddenly struck with a wave of foul putrescence.

“By the Holy Name of Tyris!” Charles choked.

Gara snarled something and one of the wolves suppressed a burp of laughter.

“Did I miss something?” Charles asked.

“She says, ‘I don’t talk shit about your lunch”, the wolf replied.

“That’s disgusting.” Charles crinkled his nose as he bent to examine the body.

“Well the heart’s gone…” He remarked. Jessie moved to stand beside him.

“A good copycat.” She said simply, Charles’s head turned to her in confusion.

“In the quiet words of the Brides of Tyris, come again?”

“Look at the wound, that’s an axe or a big knife.” Jessie explained. “Patrick’s heart was torn out by mean strength.”

“You seem to be frighteningly well versed on what’s going on here Jess, and every time I try and press you on it, you dodge me. Please love, if you’ve got anything I can work with…” Charles begged. Jessie looked at him, her limpid brown eyes almost sad. Taking him by the wrist, she led him away from the grisly scene. She slid her arms around his shoulders as they stood beneath the boughs of a large tree.

“Do you Love me, Charles?” She asked.

“You know I do, with all my heart, Jess, now what’s…” He began, interrupted by Jessie’s finger stilling his mouth.

“Do you Trust me?” She asked.

“With anything.” He answered. Jessie leaned in, kissing him softly.

“Then please know, my love, anything I can tell you I will tell you, and have told you… This is not the same killer, and the other… Patrick… This is something the living don’t speak of.” Jessie whispered pleadingly.

“Well fuck, that’s it then.” Charles said simply.

“W-what? Are you leaving me?” Jessie gasped, pain and fear welling with tears in her eyes. Charles took her face in his hands and kissed her fervently.

“Does it look like I’m leaving you?” He murmured, and felt Jessie melt into him in relief. “Just means if the Living don’t speak of it, then I’ve got only one avenue to pursue. It’s time to talk to the dead.”

“Charles no, at least let me go with you.” Jessie begged.

“You know if the two of us go, she’ll kill us both. Alone, I may have a chance.” Charles said simply. Walking over to where Dom pawed the soft earth with a forehoof in distaste, he unslung a rifle with a wicked-looking bayonet from a harness across the Null’s back.

“Dom, Jak, Ladies, Make sure Jess gets home safe, yeh?” Charles entreated the Mamono.

“What of that?” Jak pointed at the corpse, which Gara had already begun to cover.

Charles shrugged, “She has the right of it, it’s a kill in the wilds, outside Caladon’s control.” He turned to the ghoul. “Just please wait until I’m out of earshot before you do… Whatever it is you plan to do with it.” He begged.

Gara gave a harsh, tearing parody of a girlish giggle and Charles suppressed a shudder.

“Fucking Necrophages… I’m beginning to think this is not such a good idea…” He murmured as he began to trudge deeper into the forest…

“…Now I fucking know this was a shit idea.” Charles swore at nobody in particular, sighing in relief as he approached the crumbling stones of an abandoned graveyard. A curious dryad had chased him the majority of the way to the graveyard, and only his brandishing of a bottle of spirits and the sulphurous threat to ‘Burn this whole fucking forest down around me’ had sent her and her familiar treants sulking away. He definitely was not relishing the return trip. An owl hooted somewhere nearby.

“Oh, could we get any more fucking cliché…” He grated, taking a pull from the bottle before carefully picking his way amongst the headstones, heading towards a vine-covered mausoleum. Hearing faint scratching from the ground around him, he quickened his pace, rifle in his hands. As he approached the Mausoleum, two Skeletons separated themselves from the stonework and stood menacingly before the entrance.

“Fine. If anyone asks, I pissed myself. I need to talk to your mistress.” Charles grunted shortly at the skeletons, who paused, as if in thought. One opened the door with a creak of ancient bone and rusted iron, and the other gestured for him to follow into the darkness.

“Spooky cunts.” Charles muttered, before descending into the bowels of the structure. Blue light shone at the end of a passage lined with rotting coffins. Some residents were less quiet than others, and not a few times did he see a skeletal hand grasp the side of a casket as the body within stirred. Swearing softly under his breath, Charles fought to keep himself from turning around and fleeing in gibbering terror. As he entered the antechamber, he gasped at the sight before him.

A young man lay in the centre of a pentacle, his hair and skin so white as to be nearly translucent. Clinging to him was the slate-grey form of a Lich, who bucked and writhed atop him as they coupled. Magical energies flowed from and through them, half seen faces, whispers at the edge of hearing, shapes and memories at the edge of understanding. Their pace quickened, and Charles averted his eyes with a slight blush. Amidst the horror of the surroundings, this was fucking lewd! Their breathing quickened, and with a hollow cry, the lich climaxed, energy blasting out from her. Charles shielded his eyes with his hand at the brilliance, and heard the young man grunt as he reached his own release.

Breathing, gasping, the soft rustle of fabric. A pair of bare, white feet appeared where he stared at the floor.

“Hullo Charles.” The young man’s voice sounded, and Charles looked up into a pair of pink, albino eyes.

“Fuck me backwards… Damien?!” Charles expressed incredulously.

“Mmmhmm… Been a while.” The albino youth said simply, now clad in a simple black robe.

“Tyris fuck… We all thought you were dead!” Charles cried. Damien frowned in thought, his colourless brows knotting at the concept.

“Am I dead, my love?” He asked the lich.

“Not yet, husband.” The lich replied in her hollow voice, floating above the floor, a trickle of semen running unnoticed down her thigh. Charles shook his head and looked elsewhere. Didn’t need to be thinking about that.

“Soon enough no doubt.” Damien said simply.

“And… This doesn’t concern you?” Charles asked, mind reeling.

“No. My wife takes, and she gives. I will no longer be alive, but I will be something… else.” Damien said, before breaking into a grin. “Just hope it’s not a vampire. I’d look ridiculous in a cape.”

Charles laughed helplessly, it was too much… It was all too much… His childhood friend, long given up for dead. Weird little Damien, who got picked on by the other landholder’s sons for his looks. His laughter turned to sobs and he collapsed to the stone floor, resting his head on his knees. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and raised his head to see Damien sitting beside him, the same smile he remembered as a child looking back.

“Don’t worry, I want this.” Damien assured him. “I love her, and I know you can understand that.”

Charles frowned, “How…” He began.

“It leaves a mark.” Damien said, “As I get closer to becoming, it’s easier to see.”

“Then you know why…” Charles started.

“Father is dead.” Damien said simply.

“Not where I was going, but yes, Adam died recently. I’m sorry, for what it’s worth.” Charles offered sympathetically.

“So’s he, we had a good long talk, thanks to my wife.” Damien replied, smiling at his undead lover.

“I assisted only fractionally, dearest.” The lich interjected. “Your own powers of Necromancy grow stronger by the day.”

“If not about Father, why did you come?” Damien asked Charles, his freakish pink eyes querying.

“Well, it is and it isn’t.” Charles began. “Someone, we suspect Mamono, is killing landholders, but I’ve been told that the person who killed your father wasn’t the same person who killed Patrick.”

“The second kill I can help you with, the first… Is… Complicated.” Damien said, his brow furrowing. “Father was killed by men, who wanted to make it look like the first.”

“What’s the significance of the feather?” Charles asked desperately.

“The Living may not say…” Damien began.

“I know that, Tyris damn it all!” Charles retorted.

“The dead may help, if they so desire.” The Lich intoned hollowly. Charles felt a chill, and saw a shadow move to his other side. He turned his head, dread building in his guts.

The shade of a wolf-child stood staring impassively at him. The wolf-child Jeremy had brutally raped. The wolf-child Samuel’s first explosive taste of Resonant power had immolated.

“Will they never let you rest?” Charles choked, tears springing to his eyes.

“Rest?” the Wolf-child repeated in a sibilant whisper. “Did you think I had forgotten? Did you think I had forgiven?”

“So the trial, you were in on the farce as well.” Charles sighed.

“Necessary. Even the dead are bound by Maou’s orders.” The shade whispered.

“So here it ends. My failure to protect you is to be answered here. I’m to die.” Charles said flatly. “For what it’s worth, I’m so, so sorry.”

“All men die.” The shade whispered. Charles closed his eyes, preparing for the agony. A light kiss brushed his cheek. “But today is not your day.”

Charles looked up, the shade was standing over him. “Why would I ask you pay for your brother’s monstrosity? Why, when I sow the maggots of madness and terror even now in his mind?”

Charles couldn’t help it, he burst out in a mad giggle. “Well shit, Justice is a creative bitch.”

“And you touch now on the mystery you would ask of me.” The shade said enigmatically. “Justice is the Feather and the Heart and the weight between on the scales of Ma’at. Justice is the Judgement of the living and the dead.”

“So Patrick’s heart being ripped out, that Ledan feather being put in there, that’s some Mamono ritual for Justice?” Charles queried.

“All I can say I have said” the shade whispered, disappearing back into the shadows.

“Tyris FUCK!” Charles swore, leaping to his feet and reaching into the shadows in supplication. Finding nothing there, he turned to Damien and the Lich. “We’re all well and truly Blaspheming in breach of the Pax. Can someone please bite down on the damn shard-round and give me something…

“This is Older than the Pax. This is Eternity. The Chapters Coming Forth By Day.” The Lich said simply.

“You should really ask me about Father now.” Damien insisted.

“Alright. Shit… What happened to your father?” Charles said, too overwhelmed to dispute their enigmatic hinting.

“Jeremy killed him, and his co-conspirators mutilated the body to make it look like the unknown Mamono did it. Their attempt on Lord William did not go as planned.” Damien said simply, almost distantly, as if he were reporting on a conversation overheard.

Charles felt like he had been kicked in the guts. His own Brother! Patricide! Jeremy must have completely lost it, there was no situation where he wouldn’t end up burned at the stake for that… Assuming anyone ever found out. The cold reality hit him. Jeremy could do it and could get away with it, with all attention diverted to finding Patrick’s killer, the murder would be assumed to be by the same unknown Mamono.

“I have to go. Thank you, Thank you both so much!” Charles gasped.

“You’ll never make it back.” Damien said simply.

“W-what?” Charles started.

“The Graveyard above is awake… Also that dryad’s planning on teaching you a lesson for threatening her trees.” Damien answered.

“Hang it all Damien, what would you have me do, stay here?” Charles asked incredulously.

“Certainly not!” The lich exclaimed. “My husband and I have further… rituals… to perform, and I would not have the living gawping upon them.”

“Is she blushing?” Charles murmured aside to Damien.

“She’s dead, she can’t blush.” Said Damien with a slight grin. “My Love, if I could impose on you to…”

“You will owe me, Damien.” The Lich said.

“Fine, I’ll do the thing.” Damien sighed in mock resignation.

The Lich bit her lip in lustful anticipation.

“I don’t want to know, please, sweet Tyris, I don’t want to know.” Charles begged.

“See you Charles. It was good to be able to say goodbye. I’ll see you when… well… You know.” Damien said. Charles nodded, still unnerved at his old friend’s casual attitude towards death.

The lich stretched out her hand towards Charles, and glowing mist burst from the floor around him. She chanted a spell, and Charles’s vision of her fell away as the light and the shadows consumed him.

“Let the recognised take his place amongst the brethren.” An elderly Resonant intoned formally, as Jacques escorted Samuel along the tiered seats within the Grand Lodge. Sitting next to the continental noble, Samuel murmured “Was all that really necessary?”

“It is what is left to us. Ze ritual, ze tradition. Is no different zan ze asking Tyris to forgive you for minor blasphemy, no?” Jacques replied in a low voice.

“Still, three laps around the room, recognising this deacon and that master and the other warden… Half expected a medicus to pop out, wave the Benedictus at me, grab me by the balls and ask me to cough.” Samuel drawled. Jacques chuckled slightly.

The elderly resonant leaned over in his elaborate chair to a steel-grey bearded man, clad in a paladin’s formal armour and murmured something. The armoured man stood. “Let the candidates approach.” He intoned, voice still powerful despite clearly advancing age.

“Didn’t know the Faith Militant had a presence here.” Samuel murmured to Harold.

“Sorta does, sorta not. ‘e’s a special case. Awoken by accident, bit like yourself, ‘eard ‘t’was the first time a Paladin’s ever been ‘honourably’ stripped of the Benedictus. He sorta exists with one foot in both. Keeps the Paladins from getting too muscular with young Resonants who might fuck up here or there, Keeps the Resonants from getting high-flown ideas of the imperial nature. Official Title’s Lord High Arbiter.” Harold muttered in reply. Looking up, he gently elbowed Samuel.

“And ‘ere we go. Sit this one out, don’t want you muckin’ it up and destabilizing things, Matrixes are bastards when they pop.” He grinned slightly, the grin fading as he saw Samuel’s stony expression.

“Yes, they are.” Samuel said simply.

“Prince Hawa of House Mugube.” The Arbiter called. Hawa stepped forward, a sheen of nervous sweat standing out on his ebon brow. At the escorting Resonant’s direction, he gripped a metal rod that lay before a black stone altar. The grumbling of some hidden mechanism was heard, and the lid of the altar slid back, revealing an irregular crystalline matrix. Samuel swallowed with sympathetic nervousness, remembering the terror and pain of his own awakening. Hawa stared at the matrix, the whites of his bulging eyes being even more evident against the contrast of his dark skin.

The shifting energies in the heart of the matrix seemed to stabilize, concentrating themselves nearest to the nervous Hawa, and Samuel thought it looked like nothing more than a horribly deformed eye, studying the young man with vague interest. Samuel sensed the Resonants in the surrounding galleries throwing a repeating series of glyphs at the matrix, complex instructions which rolled over and over and over. Containment, Focus, Limitation, Shielding… Samuel suppressed a burp of laughter as comprehension dawned. The Resonants were essentially asking the matrix very nicely to stay in the box.

As if a decision had been made, the energy flew from the crystal, bathing Hawa in arcing light. The youth gave a choked cry, his eyes rolling back in his head and spittle flying from his mouth. Releasing the rod, he slumped to the ground, groaning involuntarily as blood poured freely from his nose. The escorting Resonant and a second scooped him up bodily, carrying his limp form out through a side door.

“Will he be alright?” Samuel asked with concern. Jacques gave a small laugh, waving his hand dismissively.

“E will ‘ave ze mother of all ‘eadaches and probably need to stay in ze dark for a day or two.” Jacques said assuringly. “Zat is a fairly expected reaction to Awakening.”

“Priestess Sarah, of The One Holy Church of Divine Tyris.” The Arbiter called.

“Ooh, potential ‘igh Priestess. Five gold says she pisses zose pretty white robes.” Jacques said to a resonant on the tier above him.

“No bet. You were feeding her wine earlier.” The Resonant responded candidly.

“You slight me sir!” Jacques jibed with mock outrage.

“I know you.” The Resonant grinned.

“Leave off gents, we’re startin” Harold called their attention to the priestess.

Samuel joined the others, casting the repeating cycle of glyphs towards the black basalt altar. It took his mind off the stress of having to watch the reaction of the candidates, although he did notice as the priestess was helped from the room, weeping and shaking uncontrollably, that a large, wet stain had in fact appeared on the front of her garments.

“Prince Ansgar of House Valhael” The Arbiter called. Ansgar approached the rod without pausing, gripping it in solid hands and gritting his teeth, glaring at the altar with those unblinking, ice-blue eyes.

“What does he zink he will do? Bully ze matrix into going easy on him?” Jacques mocked.

“I’ve been told will’s got a lot to do with your ability to recover.” A resonant from somewhere behind them remarked.

“Just because you kept your feet, blowhard.” Harold joshed.

The Resonants resumed casting their glyphs at the altar. When the energy hit Ansgar, he stiffened, yet refused to cry out. His lips peeled back from his teeth, his muscles bunched, yet he continued staring into that light even though energy arced cruelly all around him. Then, with a slithering sound, the matrix seemed to dissolve into shards, contained by the glyphs cast from about the room.

“Zat ‘appens.” Jacques explained to Samuel. “Et is why we keep ze wards, ozerwise all of us will be blind and bleeding in seconds.”

Ansgar still held the rod, panting as the trial ended.

“Are you hale, brother?” The elderly Resonant in the elaborate chair asked querulously.

“No Master.” Ansgar replied with a note of distaste. “I’ve soiled my fucking pants.”

A ripple of gentle laughter spread through the assembled Resonants. “Now ‘im, ‘im I like!” Jacques crowed, clapping with abandon. Others took up the applause and Ansgar was helped from the room to the sound. The Master rapped a gavel on the arm of his chair and the Arbiter stood.

“The Logos has chosen, and the Matrix has succumbed. This meeting is dismissed until a replacement can be installed. Glory to The God.” He intoned.

Grumbles sounded from the few candidates remaining, as the Resonant began to file from the chamber.

“Come, I shall show you to your quarters.” Jacques said to Samuel

Samuel followed the continental, a few Resonants heading in the same direction were already in conversation.

“Good haul this time!” one remarked.

“Not half, what was the last count? Four rejected, two dead?” another replied.

“Three rejected, two dead, one vegetative and euthanized.” The first replied.

“Well I’ll be offering prayers to Tyris that Suudenlander pulls through.” Came a third voice.

“Here’s hoping, and hells, we got another wilder amongst us, The Arbiter better watch his seat!” the first said again, and Samuel felt an unfamiliar hand squeeze his shoulder.

“If you’re looking for someone with a foot in the Church, you got the wrong Caladonian.” Samuel replied.

“S’orright Westerlander, I heard about your moonlighting as a shipwright the other day, I’m sure you’ll do fine!” came a good-natured response. Samuel smiled, the camaraderie of shared experience was a welcome relief, after the time he’d spent feeling like he had to hide that new part of himself.

He followed Jacques as he headed up another hallway, stopping in front of a plain wooden door.

“My cell?” Samuel enquired.

“Oh will you stop wiz zat shit already!” Jacques implored. “No brozer in ze Logos will live like some ascetic while I am to Lodge!” He declared, pushing open the door.

A well furnished room greeted Samuel’s view as he surveyed his quarters. A door, clearly to washroom and privy stood on the far wall, A bed, larger and more sumptuous than he was expecting in the corner beneath a high window. A wooden hardwood desk on the other side, with a rope bellpull leading to the ceiling.

“Zis is yours, for as long as you remain wiz us.” Jacques stated simply. “Ze bell will summon servants, but be discerning, we do not employ so many as to ‘ahve you waited on like some rank Aestenlander.” He curled his lip.

“You come by your prejudices honestly, I take it.” Samuel joked.

“Resonant Candidates are treated like Demigods in ze Aestenlands.” Jacques answered. “If I ‘ahve to slap ze sulk off ze face of one more pampered slant-eye, it will be too soon.”

“Pretty sure that’s Heresy.” Samuel replied, grinning.

“You can ‘ahve ze fight ze next time zen.” Jacques laughed, gripping Samuel’s bicep.

“Dinner in ze main hall at ze eighth toll. And a bit of light reading.” Jacques said, dropping a heavy tome from a nearby shelf on Samuel’s desk with a grunt. “Chapter three will be useful in finding your way around. See you zen!” he bowed floridly, shutting the door. Samuel noticed his salt-stained travel bag had been placed at the foot of his bed. He set about sorting his belongings. First thing was always to get a small touch of home to the place. That being done, he surveyed his surroundings. An odd contraption sat in a small alcove on the shelf. He studied it briefly before recognising it. A Farcaster! His father had one in his study back at Caladon. Usually used for important messages, it enabled the user to speak instantaneously with a recipient anywhere in the world.

“Well screw it” Samuel thought, “They wouldn’t have it here if I wasn’t to use it.” He adjusted the device, working through its functions by intuition alone. Satisfied he had configured it correctly, he thumbed the device which came alive with a low hum and an eldritch glow.

“House Caladon?” Came a female voice from the glow, and Samuel frowned.

“Lani?” he enquired, finally recognising the Kikimora.

“I am she.” The confused response came.

“It’s Samuel.” He replied.

“Oh! Master Samuel!” Lani gushed “Is everything alright?”

“Yes. Yes everything’s fine.” Samuel replied assuringly. “I…” He thought for a moment, he wasn’t sure why he had ‘casted his home… Maybe just missing it…

“I just wanted to make sure Father knew I was in Magisterium, and everything is alright… and… Give him… my regards?” Samuel asked, feeling uncomfortable sharing anything more intimate over the device.

“Oh, of course, Master Samuel! I shall tell him at once!” Lani said.

“Thank you Lani, and take care of yourself.” Samuel said by way of farewell. Deactivating the caster, he turned to the tome on the desk.

“Onne Realitie and the manipulatione thereoffe” the embossed title read.

“Light reading… Fucking continental.” Samuel muttered as he opened the tome and started reading.

Lloyd swore.

Ariael stirred on his bed, her murmurs turning to pained objection as she came fully awake. “Urgh. I forget how uncomfortable this world is.” She complained. “Honestly, my Lloyd, I don’t understand why you insist on remaining here.”

“I am not so familiar as to treat the High Heavens as a love nest, Glorious one.” Lloyd replied with mock formality.

“Humans…” The Angel grumbled. With a gesture, she spun a garment of coherent light about herself, before moving to Lloyd’s side and resting a hand familiarly upon his shoulder. “Whatever are you doing?” She asked.

“Trying to plan a trip to Magisterium. Though having been ‘asked’ to play the Noble-come-Paladin, organising it through official channels without leaning on my authority as Lord Dumat is not as easy as I thought.” Lloyd answered, thumbing through parchments.

“Plan? Trip? Why don’t you just go there?” Ariael’s perfect face contorted with confusion.

“I don’t have the luxury of descending from The Heavens wherever I am bid, beloved.”

Ariael paused, before erupting in a peal of crystalline laughter. “Put that useless mundanity aside and meet me in the field.” She said simply, before vanishing in a burst of golden light.

Lloyd gave a startled oath, dispelling the wards on the door and hurrying outside. In the fading afternoon light, he stood in the middle of the large field which surrounded the Chapel where he had trained with the other Paladins all these years. “Alright Ariael” he said to empty air. “I’m here.”

“Seek you the power I have given, Lord Dumat” her ethereal voice whispered in his ear. Lloyd frowned, searching within himself at her insistence… No… It couldn’t be that simple… Surely he couldn’t just…

“And borne aloft were the faithful, that the world may know that Tyris is The God” he mentally intoned, drawing on the angelic power within him. The distant voices of the choir of The Heavens rang in his mind as a pair of ethereal wings, glowing with golden light, burst from his back. Lloyd laughed with the sheer delight of this revelation. Tying his blond hair back with a leather thong, Lloyd gave an experimental flap of the glowing wings, before launching himself skyward.

“You see, my love? It wasn’t so hard at all!” Lloyd heard from above him. Looking upward, he saw Ariael hovering in the air, a grin on her perfect features. With a whoop, he drove himself upwards, taking her in his arms and kissing her passionately.

“Why did you not tell me this was possible?” he gasped breathlessly.

“How shall a bird tell a fish of the world beyond the lake?” The Angel answered enigmatically. “Through you, my heart, all things are possible, should you find the will!”

“How quickly can we get to Magisterium?” Lloyd asked, breaking their embrace, yet leaving a hand entwined with hers.

“How strong is your will to do so?” Ariael smiled.

Lloyd focused, willing himself in the direction of the hub city of Humanity. The world seemed to distort around him as they hurtled towards their destination. Land and sea were a chaotic blur beneath him.

“Careful, or you’ll end up going all the way around, my Lloyd.” Ariael chided gently. Lloyd looked down to see the rapidly approaching city as he sped towards it. Focusing on a clearing some small distance from the city’s landward gate, he made to set down in it. Ariael slowed their pace, drawing him to her.

Ariael kissed him gently, “It would be best if I left you here.” Lloyd nodded, and she vanished in a corona of golden light.

Lloyd came to earth with a forced exhale. Even supported by his angelic powers the sudden return of gravity was a shock. Making sure his Heraldry was clearly visible, he walked across the clearing towards the main road leading into the city…

…He sighed as the door to the wing of Magisterium’s colossal central palace which housed Caladon’s embassy was closed by an officious guard behind him. Next time he would fly to the damned roof, and Tyris hang the consequences! Three attempted muggings, four offers of a “Guaranteed return on investment, gracious Lord if you’ll just sign here” Six offers of continuance from hedge-baronies desperately trying to eke an alliance with an established house, twelve shady characters offering coupling with indentured Mamono (Once you’ve tried snake, all else feels fake!) who, most shockingly, only haggled harder up when he revealed the paladin embossing on his epaulettes.

The hub of Humanity. The living, beating heart of The God’s favoured children. He had dreamed of coming here when he was younger. Now he was wondering if his power as Lord Dumat extended to travelling through time and smacking his younger self in the face for the foolishness. Straightening his garments, he headed towards the embassy proper, stopping occasionally to ask directions of harried looking courtiers, officials, and bureaucrats. He knew academically that the vast majority of Humanity’s administration was conducted by women, but it was another thing to see the fact in flesh, so to speak. Not a few times their gazes lingered appraisingly on him, and having so recently been at the whim of what he had assumed was any priestess whose fancy he took, he found an itching sensation growing between his shoulder blades. Thus, it was in a surly temper that he entered the Embassy of Caladon, to see Ambassador Kyla deep in discussion with an attaché. A young Neko girl sat on the edge of the desk, clad in the fashion of the far aestenlands. Apparently only half-interested in the conversation, she kicked her feet absently, seemingly oblivious to his entry. Lloyd cleared his throat.

“…and Lord William must come to a decision on whether or not Caladon is going to negotiate for that acreage with House Iona. Lord Kevin is not well and his son is not the sort I would trust to sit the right way on a privy und… Oh!” Kyla started at seeing Lloyd. Smiling warmly, if somewhat absently, she waved in the direction of a comfortable looking chaise lounge.

“So good to see you Lloyd dear, do make yourself comfortable. Feel free to call for refreshment if you desire.” She looked at the pile of parchment before her. “Now, on to proposals for the Rite of Continuance. Amy, director of statehood funding for the eastern coast proposed for Jeremy, no surprise there… Ambassador Ling Mai of the Aestenlands for Samuel… Tyris be good, she’s thirty five now?”

“Thirty two, your eminence.” The attaché corrected politely

“Still, let’s take that one under advisement until we can consult with the Mistresses of Bloodlines. This smells of a political manoeuvre, and it is rare that they would seek continuance of two regions so far removed without any further information. Now… My, there are a lot of proposals for Samuel!”

“He made quite an impression on the Magisterium with his abilities the other day.” The attaché offered.

“The members of the Magisterium should not be so easily wowed by a simple display of resonance… Now, who else? Emmissary Yumi of Zippangu…” She paused, looking askance at the catgirl on the desk. “Really Yumi?” she drawled.

The young Neko shrugged, “Was worth a try nyaa!”

Lloyd cleared his throat again.

Kyla’s eyes turned to meet him, a slight irritation in her gaze. “Did you need something else Lloyd?”

“I need to speak with you alone, Ambassador” Lloyd insisted.

Kyla stood up. “I must say I’m disappointed in the Faith Militant for educating you so poorly in protocol. A Paladin, even a son of the house we both serve, does not presume such of an Ambassador.” She placed her hands on the desk, staring at him with an expression which brooked no disagreement. “And if you intend on making a denunciation of Blasphemy against Yumi for the proposal, know that I will challenge it, and I outrank you in that regard as well. Now, was there something?”

That tore it. His task was hard enough without being stymied by protocol. He had the rank, he concluded that now was as good a time as any to use it.

“A Paladin does not, your eminence.” He admitted, unbuckling his outer jerkin and letting it fall to the floor. Beneath it was the simple black tunic, glittering silver thread forming the insignia of an eight-winged sun on his left breast. “But as you can see, I am no Paladin.”

Kyla gasped in shock, her imperious expression instantly fleeing her face. “Leave us.” She commanded the attaché curtly, who bowed with an expression of confusion on her face before exiting.

“Yumi has missed something nyaa.” The neko said, her delicate brow furrowing.

“My Lord Dumat, this is Emissary Yumi of the Isles of Zippangu, duly recognised and appointed by the Council of Matriarchs. Yumi, this is Lloyd, Samuel’s brother… And Lord of the Order of Dumat, it would seem.” Kyla explained, unsuccessfully attempting to hide the nervous quaver in her voice.

“He’s really pretty nyaa…” Yumi began, taking a step towards Lloyd and sniffing. Her eyes went wide as saucers and her tail bottlebrushed out in stark terror.

“Mrrraaaaaaaa! Yumi sorry! Going now!” the neko stammered, bolting out of the room in a state of near panic.

“That was unexpected.” Lloyd murmured.

“I don’t blame her, Tyris only knows what a Hand of The God smells like to a Mamono.” Kyla remarked, regaining her equilibrium. “Now if you will give me a moment, I will summon the hearing.”

“No Ambassador, I’d prefer to keep this informal if possible. The Church does not wish my existence to be widely circulated.” Lloyd began to protest. Kayla shook her head almost sadly.

“No Lloyd… You’ve played the card, now you have to deal with the consequences. I’m afraid protocol must disappoint our Holy Mother Church. The Traditions are quite explicit. Upon presenting themselves before an Ambassador of the Magisterium, the presence of a Lord of an Angelic Order is to be recognised by the select conclave.” Kyla said resignedly.

“Is there no way around it?” Lloyd entreated.

“Only if you killed me” Kyla whispered, allowing some of the fear to show in her eyes. “It is not unheard of…”

“No… I would never… Oh Tyris what am I doing?” Lloyd buried his head in his hands and sat upon the chaise. Kyla allowed herself to look upon him in sympathy for a moment, before turning to a nearby farcaster…

Jeremy laughed.

The gathering of armed men began stripping their weapons and armor, cleaning them of gore and tattered spider silk.

“What’s so funny, my lord?” a hunter asked, pulling his gauntlets off and rubbing his wrists.

“You have a hand in your belt.” Jeremy replied. The hunter looked down at the small chitinous hand which still clutched spasmodically at the thick leather belt he wore. Pulling it free, he gave a slight chuckle, waving it at his compatriots before tossing it in a growing pile of rags and discarded webbing. Another hunter gave a grunt of distaste.

“What’s wrong with you?” the first asked.

“Baby spiders? Not exactly a challenge.” The second replied disgustedly.

Jeremy tsked slightly, grabbing a large sack which roiled with squirming movement. “Honestly Brian, you take all the fun out of life sometimes.” Shouldering the sack with a slight grunt of exertion, he left the party to continue cleaning their gear. Whistling absently, he dumped the sack unceremoniously in the corner of a room before closing the door. Pulling a knife from his belt, he cut the sack open, tumbling its occupant onto the floor. The adolescent arachne choked back sobs, blinking her multiple black eyes as she studied the room around her. Seeing Jeremy, she choked back a squeal, raising her arms and forelimbs in a shaking threat posture.

“Pathetic.” Jeremy sneered, calmly closing the distance between them and seizing the young spider-girl around the throat with one hand. She futilely scrabbled at him with hands and forelimbs, freezing as he grabbed one of her chitinous legs in one hand. She whimpered in terror, tears springing to her eyes as Jeremy’s wild gaze, burning with a perverse lust, bored into them.

“I’m going to savour this…” He hissed, a bulge already appearing in the front of his trousers. “…And you have my permission to scream.”

And scream she did, as with a sudden wrench, he snapped the leg he was holding neatly at the knee joint, her thin voice ringing off the uncaring stone.

Charles gasped as the world returned to normal around him. The weird, alien plane which the Lich had hurled him through left him shaking and cold. Memories of forms, faces, half heard whispers were fading from his memory, like dreams too long in waking. One vision remained, however. A woman, red of hair, her lower body sinfully ample, almost hypertrophic, yet contrasted drastically by the almost girlish form of her torso… Heavy, leonine paws at the end of muscled arms where she pointed at him imperiously. Her mouth, impossibly wide, seeming almost lipless where rows of dagger-like teeth fixed her mouth in a permanent smile. Her eyes, the draconian yellow of a crocodile, glowing with a power the mind shuddered to comprehend. In those eyes, a command.

“Bring him to me.”

Unable to speak, or slow the tumultuous pace of his travel, he could only stare dumbly as the vision faded into the lurid landscape about him. Her commandment echoed again.

“Bring him to me.”

He gathered his bearings. He had emerged in a storage alcove within the walls of the inner keep in Caladon. Thanking fortune that the door was not locked, he emerged into the courtyard. The stables were before him, and oiling tack on a railing outside them, the familiar Taurean figure of Jessie, She had been crying, he could see that, and his heart leapt to his throat. The quiver of her lips ignited a hunger in him that remained as intense as the first day he had kissed them. He let his eyes drink her in as he approached.

“Orright Love?” He drawled, leaning on a post. She sighed with irritation at the unwelcome intrusion, before looking up at him, eyes widening in surprise. Squealing in delight, she almost dropped the tack in her urgency to throw her arms around him.

“Oh Charles! Charles! Thank Maou you’re alright!” she sobbed in his ear, tears flowing from her reddened eyes once again. Charles’s heart was full to bursting with love as he held her, stroking her brown hair as she clung to him.

“I have so much to tell you.” Charles murmured, before spinning at the sound of a discrete cough behind him. A Taurean null stood before them, scuffing a digitigrade hoof against the floor of the stables.

“Jessie, Master Charles.” The null greeted them, lowering its horned head deferentially.

“Tak” Charles replied, separating himself from Jessie, who reluctantly released him. “What is it?”

“Nala bids you come at once. HE’s doing it again.”

White hot fire flashed before Charles’s vision, as with a wordless snarl he stormed out of the stable and towards the stairs to the upper keep. Passing a surprised guard, he held out his hand. “A loan of your weapon, sir.”

“M-milord?” the militiaman queried, coming to attention.

“The axe man, the axe. Fuckin’ give it.” He barked impatiently. The guard surrendered the heavy axe, bringing his now free hand to his breast in salute.

“Go get another.”

Saluting again, the guard hurried towards the armoury for a replacement. Catching up to him, Jessie put a hand on his shoulder.

“Charles! What’s going on?” she cried.

“Ask Tak. It knows. I am sick of cleaning up his mess. I am done. No more. Tonight, one way or another, it ends.” Charles snarled, before bounding up the stairs, the heavy axe gripped tightly in his hands.

Jeremy gave a choked cry as he climaxed. Gripping the neck of the spider-girl, he forcibly turned her head to face him, his member popping from an empty eyesocket, dripping blood and ocular fluid, only to see the vacant stare of death in her three remaining eyes.

“Thought you spiders were made of harder stuff.” He murmured, releasing her mangled body to fall in a lifeless pile on the floor. Wiping his brow, he gave a slight exclamation as it came away covered in gore.

“Or maybe I enjoyed myself a little too much.” He admitted with a crazed giggle. The door creaked as it opened behind him. “Just in time, do be a good fellow and deal wi…” Jeremy’s order died in his mouth as his eyes met his father’s which bulged in shock and fury.

“Monstrosity!” Lord William roared, his lip curling in utter disgust.

“Now Father it’s only…” Jeremy began, wiping at the gore which coated him.

“No! You call me that no longer! You have dug your grave with your own hands, Jeremy.” William snarled, striding into the room, finger pointing imperiously. “I Renounce you. You are no longer Heir. You are no longer my Son.”

Jeremy’s eyes narrowed dangerously, his grin broadened with all the warmth of a feeding shark. “You would cast your boy out into the cold, daddy?” He sneered.

“You have done this. The Sin is yours and no longer will your brothers be obliged to bear it for you! I cannot abide what you have become…” William paused, grief fighting with the rage and disgust within him. “You will leave House Caladon. You will present yourself to the chancel. You will beg for the mercy of Tyris.”

“Ah… Imprisoned in the guts of our Holy Whore Church, reading the scriptures by the light of an oubliette…” Jeremy laughed insanely.

“Blasphemy!” William hissed.

“Oh come now, what are the words of the Scriptures?” Jeremy mocked. “A time hath The God given for all things in His purview. A time to sow and a time to reap, a time to build, and a time to tear down, A time to be born…” Jeremy’s hand flashed to his waist, and with an easy cast he flung a blade at his father, where it buried itself in his gut with a meaty thunk.

“…And a time to die. And you just wouldn’t. Couldn’t just let me sire the new Empire of Humanity. Couldn’t let your legacy be as the father of Mankind’s ascendancy, as the final victory over the monsters.”

“Y-you…” William wheezed as his legs gave out beneath him.

“Don’t worry Father. I am a gracious King. I will forgive your slight…” William whispered, bending down and holding Lord William’s hands away from the spurting knifewound. “…I will have your body bronzed and set atop the battlements, as testameHGKHK…” Jeremy’s words ended abruptly in a wet choking noise as the point of a kitchen knife suddenly appeared from the front of his throat. Grabbing dumbly at the blade, bloody foam burst from his mouth as he collapsed, wet gurgles coming shallower and shallower before life fled him.

With what little strength remained, William raised his head to view his saviour, and gave a pained gasp of surprise to see the beskirted form of Lani, his Kikimora chamberlain. Tears streaming from her eyes, she rushed to his side, crying out in sorrowful protest upon seeing the mortal wound still streaming blood.

“You were wrong, my Master. Kikimora will fight…” she sobbed “…to protect one we love.”

William raised a shaking hand to her face. “Lani…” he gasped “Dear… Sweet… Girl… In another life… In another time… I would have loved you.”

Lani’s eyes teared with wordless love as with a final rattling sigh, Lord William gave up the ghost. Lani fell across his lifeless body, wailing openly in heart-wrenching grief.

Charles let the axe fall from numb hands as he took in the sight before him. Jeremy, covered in gore, prone, glassy eyes staring blindly at the ceiling. The sad, mutilated form of the young arachne. His father, lying in a pool of dark blood, the kikimora keening with loss atop him, clinging to him and kissing his dead lips. The room swam, he couldn’t breathe… yellow eyes stared at him from the swarming blackness behind his eyelids.

“Give him to me. Let Justice be done.”

And, with a rush of alien revelation… He understood.

A clopping of digitigrade hooves on the stone as Jessie and Tak approached. A slight scream from Jessie at the carnage… Lani’s crying… Tak blowing air through its broad nose in disgust.

Charles pointed at Jeremy’s corpse. “Give that to one who can prepare it for the scales of Ma’at”. He heard himself say. Tak nodded and heaved Jeremy’s body atop its shoulders. Touching an unremarkable brick, a section of wall slid aside with a deep grinding note.

“Tak will be discrete.” The null said in assurance, entering the passage and sliding it closed behind him.

“Charles? How did you…” Jessie gasped

“Not now.” Charles sighed, turning to her. The shocked detachment was fading, and the sight of his father’s body ripped into him like a barbed hook in his heart. “Have Nala call the Landholders.”

“Charles I…”

“Please love…” Charles entreated.

Jessie nodded, her hooves clopping up the hall as she ran to find the Kikimora. Charles knelt next to Lani who still shook with sobs.

“Thank you.” He whispered, his voice harsh and metallic in his ears.

Llani looked at him with ravaged eyes. “Master?” she enquired.

“At the end, he knew love… Even bound to duty, he knew it…” He gave a gallows sigh. “There will be a trial. The landholders will call it murder. I will shield you from it as much as I…”

“No!” Lani yelled, her eyes suddenly fierce. “I killed the perverse and accursed! I will go to Maou proud that I avenged my love!”

Charles recoiled slightly in shock “You know this means death? The Pax is unmistakable in this.”

Lani turned her head back to his father’s body. “What life have I without him in it?”

“What life have any of us?” Charles answered, voice choked with tears. A cry escaped him, a harsh, wracking thing.

“Dad… dad…” he sobbed, holding the limp hand of his father as he surrendered to grief.

“You ate all the fucking bacon?” Samuel asked incredulously.

“I be recuperating, is good for de blood!” Hawa protested.

“Don’t stand between a Suudenlander and his pork.” Ansgar mused, slightly more at ease in the company of the other resonant, now that he too shared the burden.

“You did sleep in, Sam.” Harold drawled. “Y’weren’t ‘avin yerself a bit o’fun last night then?” He cozened.

Samuel turned to the Manchesterian in confusion. “All by myself?”

“Oi Jacques, you bloody deviant, did you forget to tell ‘im?” Harold called to another table, where the Orleansian noble was in discussion with other resonants.

“Tell ‘oo what?” Came the absent reply. Harold sighed.

“Sam, what would you say if’n I told ya that in the ‘ole of the known world, the number of resonant numbered only slightly over a hunnred, including the ‘igh Priestesses?” Harold asked

“I’d say we’d better not accidentally kill each other.” Samuel joked, clearly not understanding.

“By The God ‘e’s sittin’ right the fuck on it and still ‘e sings…” Harold said, shaking his head in despair. “What it means, you tit, is that the Magisterium is desperate to make more. And in all these thousands’a years, they still ain’t got the fuckin’ foggiest ‘ow the Matrixes choose those to smack with the Logos.”

“What’s that got to do with…” Samuel started.

“It means they’re breeding us.” Ansgar replied simply.

“An’ chuckles’s nailed it. There is a list as long as my proverbial of women who would ‘ave continuance with an ‘orse if the magisterium told ‘em it had resonant ability.” Harold answered.

“So?” Samuel asked.

“So?!” Harold echoed in astonishment. “You bloody gormer, you call, they come, then so do you!”

“It’s just continuance, you act like a teenager seeing a priestess drop her shift for the first time.” Samuel rejoined, clearly nonplussed at the concept.

“You-er… Like a bit of the other then?” Harold suggested delicately

“What?”

“Y’know, a man amongst men, as it were?” Harold insinuated.

“Blasphemy.”

“Challenge.”

“Fuck you.”

“No thanks.”

“And there you have it.” Samuel concluded. “No, I’m not a deviant. I just don’t see why everyone gets so worked up about getting their end away. Honestly my brother with all his talk of ‘love’ makes more sense than you right now. Sure, it’s fun, well, most of the time, and yeah, it feels great, but it’s just another duty, and I’ve got plenty of those already.”

Harold, Hawa and Ansgar were looking at him like he had just sprouted a second head.

“Think it’s a wilder thing?” Ansgar queried

“Nah, I reckon dey tied him to de bed and bred ‘im until ‘is mind done broke” Hawa answered.

“Oh Tyris fuck lads… We can make reality itself sit down and shut the fuck up, and you’re rejoicing about a backlog of continuance proposals?” Samuel said.

“An’ thou shalt find thy Joys in the fulfilment of My Commandments.” Harold intoned with mock piety

“Glory be to de Most High” Hawa answered, raising his eyes to the heavens.

“Amen.” Ansgar concluded, clapping Samuel on the shoulder before walking away, shaking his head in disbelief.

Samuel rose from the table. Surely life in the other provinces wasn’t that much different from what he experienced in Caladon. Was Charles right? Was humanity changing, and his indifference to lust a symptom of an encroaching trend? It didn’t bear thinking about.

Still, the concept bothered him as he headed towards a small, recessed arena, where, he was told, he would be given a refresher in hand-to-hand combat. His awkwardness aboard the Ruby’s Lustre had reduced his faith in the shard pistol which was his preferred sidearm…

…This was a mistake.

The hugely muscled man strode around the handful of resonants who had joined Samuel for the ‘refresher’.

“I am Dominus Bruce. Waylander of the Australs.” He roared. An almond-eyed resonant to Samuel’s left gave a snort.

“Something funny, cunt?” Bruce hissed, striding up to the aestenlander.

“The Australs are uninhabitable. And you would do well to learn your place when speaking to a noble, waylander.” Came the curt reply. Bruce smiled, before hooking his fist into the gut of the young noble.

“The Australs are fucking harsh, it’s true. We have Mamono like you’ve only seen in the bed-shitting nightmares of your youth. Everything in the Australs wants to kill you, even the earth itself seems to hate the fact you’re walking on it.” Bruce admitted. “So, for me to be standing here means I am, to coin a phrase, not to be fucked with, and when the Lodge tells me to train you shitmouse cunts in hand-to-hand, you fucking listen!”

Total silence was his response, to which he seemed satisfied.

“Orright! Let me introduce you to your training partners!” He gave a sharp whistle, and three ogres, dressed in sleeveless leather armour came trotting onto the field.

“This is Hara, Ulat, and Raru.” Bruce said simply. “The challenge is this. Put your opponent down, and I start treating you like humans, instead of the cunts I see before me. However. You may not be cheeky fuckers and rely on fucking around with resonance! No fire, no mazing, no pain, no illusions, no fuckery! Anything you do, you do to enhance yourself only!” The resonants looked amongst themselves with concerned murmurs.

“SHUT IT CUNTS!” Bruce roared. “Oh, and one more thing, if she puts you down without you getting a lick on her, I have graciously granted her the rights to you for the evening, as is their tradition.”

“Blasphemy!” a gasp from Samuel’s right sounded. Bruce stormed up to the resonant, who quailed beneath his iron gaze.

“Challenge.” He hissed in a tone which spoke of death. The resonant flung a hastily formed glyph at the man, who shattered it with a counter without even changing his expression.

“Y-you said you weren’t resonant!” The young man stammered

“When did I fucking say that, did you hear me say that Ulat?”

“No Dominus!” The ogre barked.

“W-withdrawn.” The young man gulped.

“Your grace is received… And thank you for being the first volunteer cunt. Ulat! Give this milksop continental a fucking stick and prepare to teach him something.” The ogre stepped forward, handing a quarterstaff to the young man, who seized it in trembling hands. She ogled him openly.

“Pretty.” She said, grinning tuskily.

“Right, next. You, the Nordenlander, you look like you might last more than a minute. Get ‘ere. Hara, give him a…”

“If it’s all the same… er… Dominus, I think I’d prefer without.” The Nordenlander said simply. A hulking bear of a man, he had a mass which eclipsed even Bruce’s muscled frame. The Ogre seemed absolutely delighted with the concept. Bruce gave a short laugh.

“Well stone the fuckin’ crows! Hope your pelvis is in good shape then cunt.” He answered, gesturing towards the centre of the sand. “Right… Who next… You. Westenlander, surrender that sidearm and get the fuck here.”

Samuel felt the remaining resonants move away from him.

Shit.

He walked resignedly towards Bruce, disabling his shard-pistol expertly and handing it, hilt first to the Australian. Bruce acknowledged his competence with the weapon with a faint nod. “Least there’s one cunt I don’t have to worry about sharding himself in the foot. Now quit dawdling, westerlander, Raru wants to fuckin’ play.”

The ogre handed him a hardwood staff, and Samuel tested its balance. He remembered Charles teaching him some basics with a polearm when he was younger, as they watched the drilling of the house militia. He hefted the staff with his hands towards one end, tip extended like a spear.

“Good start westerlander, pike defence is much more adaptable than whatever milksop is doing over there.” Bruce called. Samuel risked a look to where the continental resonant was holding the staff in an odd high guard, length running down the side of his body.

“At least he stands, Dominus, last one started crying by now.” Ulat grunted.

“Fair fucking call Ulat. Orright, in your own time, lay the fuck on!” Bruce yelled.

“Tyris give me strength, Tyris give me strength…” Samuel heard the continental praying.

Hang on.

Good idea that.

Samuel desperately called upon the Logos, searching through its vastness for the word which would make the concept manifest. Raru launched herself at him, and Samuel gave a panicked, snapping thrust with the tip of the staff, and out of sheer luck, managed to strike her on the bridge of the nose.

“Oof!” she grunted, stepping back and rubbing her now streaming eyes.

“Looks like the westerlander will be unmolested!” Bruce yelled. “Let’s see if the cunt can keep out of the infirmary though!”

Samuel felt a glyph being cast, and risked a glance towards the Nordenlander. He was surprised to see that he had somehow coated his fists in what looked like rock, and was swinging them like hammers at the ogre’s head. The Ogre grinned, dodging the slow strikes with apparent ease.

Suddenly, he felt the Logos answer, just as Raru readied herself for another attack.

STRENGTH

His body suddenly felt astonishingly light, and for some reason Raru’s attack had slowed to a crawl. He launched a series of strikes at her, each one meeting its mark as she desperately tried to counter with arms that moved as if mired in mud. With a final yell, he swiped the staff at her shins, snapping it and knocking the ogre onto her face in the sand.

“And Halt!” Came Bruce’s yell.

Samuel breathed deeply, his blood rushing in his ears, his heart pounding… pounding…

“Milksop seemed to have forgotten he’s resonant, have fun Ulat.” Bruce offered with a grin, as the Ogre calmly scooped up the continental as he groaned in the sand.

“Big Hairy Bear over there seems to have forgotten that turning your fists to rocks is damn useless once your opponent gets a grip on you.”

The Nordenlander was struggling against a tenacious ogre as she held him in a submission hold. His eyelids fluttered, and his body went limp.

“Did bear-man get hit in, Dominus?” Hara asked hopefully.

“If he did, I didn’t see it.” Bruce offered. Hara squealed with delight, shattering the rock surrounding the big nordenlander’s hands with a closed fist.

Samuel’s heart was pounding… pounding… his vision began to swim.

“You alright there, Raru?” Bruce asked the ogre where she rubbed at her shins and spat sand.

“Ulat thinks Raru has never been as wet as she smells right now!” The ogre jested at her fallen compatriot.

“Good point, careful with that, Westerlander, you’ll have her writing you love letters if you make a habit of dominating her like that!” Bruce laughed. Raru gave a wordless groan of protest, trying to hide her blush.

Samuel’s heart was pounding… pounding… His legs began to turn to jelly, before collapsing beneath him.

“If you will look here, You’ll see what the westerlander forgot.” Bruce called to the other resonants. “He won, sure, but he’s killed himself. He used Resonance to hyperstimulate his adrenal gland, and if it doesn’t get back under control, his heart’s probably gonna explode.”

“Help… Me…” Samuel gasped.

“Good lesson. MEDICUS!” Bruce roared, and a priestess came running from an alcove. Extending her arm, the golden light of the Benedictus enveloped it, and as she ran it slowly along Samuel’s torso, slowly his heart rate began to return to normal.

“And here, my dear cunts, is the focus of today’s lesson. Youse all study an awful lot about the world outside yourselves, and youse all can do pretty flash things with it. But you’re neglecting the one thing that you’ve had since you came screaming into this world stinking of afterbirth. Your own bodies. Learn to know them. Understand why they do what they do. A resonant in command of their own body is nearly invincible.”

A murmur of disbelief came from a couple of resonants in the group. Bruce swore, pointing at the ogres, two dragging their quarries whilst helping the third which cast doe-eyes at Samuel over her shoulder.

“How d’you think I got three mountain ogres to do what I fuckin’ tell them and call me Dominus then cunts? Me rapier fuckin’ wit?” He yelled.

The murmurs subsided, and not a few of the group seemed lost in thought. Samuel’s breathing evened out, and even he was forced to consider Bruce’s lesson in a new light. The Medicus stood.

“He’ll be fine, Dominus.” She offered politely.

“Cheers yer rev.” Bruce replied flippantly. The cleric shook her head as she retired.

“Here endeth the lesson, now fuck off and try not to be so shit this time next week.” Bruce ordered, and the resonants near-scattered in their hurry to be out of his presence. Samuel groaned as he regained his feet. Bruce grabbed his wrist, pulling him up.

“Walk it off mate, you won’t feel any better moaning about and feeling sorry for yourself.” He said brusquely.

“Thanks… ah… Dominus?” Samuel entreated. “Would that really have killed me?”

“To be frank, mate. I’m surprised we’re not digging a grave for you right now. If that big fuckin’ nordenlander had tried it, he would have dropped on the spot. You seem to be either the luckiest cunt on the face of Tyris’s green earth, or He really fuckin’ doesn’t like you.” Bruce answered simply, offering Samuel back his pistol.

“I’m pretty sure that’s Heresy.” Samuel said with a tired grin.

“Won’t tell if you won’t.” Bruce muttered shortly, giving him a gentle shove towards the residences.

Charles seated himself in the High Seat to a murmur of surprise. A murmur which only increased as Charles placed the baronial coronet upon his head. He paused, his hand remaining on the haft of the war-axe which sat to the side of the High Seat, waiting for the disturbance to subside.

“Gentlemen, those of you who know me well know that I am not a lover of formality. Let it be known then that tragedy has befallen House Caladon. My Lord Father, Baron William, is dead.”

A buzz of consternation at that. “Where is the Heir Apparent?” a voice called from the throng of landholders.

“A good question sir. Assuming you’re referring to Jeremy, currently lying in state with a dagger in his throat after engaging in patricide.” Charles answered, allowing a hint of menace to creep into his voice.

“Where is the proof?” Came another voice. Charles stood, hefting his war axe.

“Do you call me a liar, sir?” He snarled. Silence greeted him.

“Gentlemen, The facts stand thus. And they stand thus because I declare them to stand thus. And I’m more than happy to fight any prick who gives me too much lip about it!” Charles cast his baleful gaze across the assembled landholders once more, as if awaiting a challenge. Seeing none forthcoming, he resumed his seat.

“Jeremy did engage in Monstrosity, for which he was disavowed. The evidence of this is present in a room on the east wing of the keep, should you wish to see. I would hurry though, the servants of the house do not abide the stench of such Sin to remain for long.” Charles paused, none moved.

“My Lord Father found him… In the act, as it were. Jeremy did violence upon him, and he died. Jeremy’s own life was ended by one of Father’s Mamono in revenge.” He said, forcing his voice to remain steady.

“Heresy!” A number of voices cried. Charles raised his hands for silence.

“The Mamono in question has admitted to her Sin, and stands ready for judgement. Kikimora Lani, will you step forward.” Charles gestured in front of him. Lani demurely yet purposefully strode out, curtseying deeply before the High Seat.

“Lani, do you admit that you did strike down a Noble Son of House Caladon, in breach of your Indenturehood and of The Pax Deus?” Charles asked formally.

“I do so admit.” Lani said, her voice calm and clear.

“The Headsman stands waiting, my lord!” A landholder cried from the throng.

“No.” Charles replied. “As the Sin was done against my House, so shall I enact its punishment.” He stood, walking down from the raised dais until he stood next to the kikimora. Hefting his axe, he gestured for Lani to kneel.

“This will hurt… I’m sorry.” He whispered.

“It cannot surpass the pain which is in my heart. Thank you, Master, for allowing me to carry this.” She replied softly.

Charles raised the axe. “Then I declare you guilty, and do sentence you to die.” He said, before bringing it down sunderingly upon her delicate neck. A meaty thunk resounded, and Lani’s head left her shoulders in a font of crimson. Her mouth worked briefly as her head hit the floor, before the light dimmed from her eyes. A faint keening could be heard from the other Kikimora as they lamented their cousin. Turning to a pair of androgynous Taurean nulls, Charles gestured for them to retrieve the body.

“Let her body be prepared as is fitting amongst her people. So is the commandment of The Pax Deus.”

A murmur of “Glory to The God” and “For Maou and Mamono” echoed through the hall.

Climbing back into the High Seat, Charles turned his gaze across the assembled landholders, cleaning the blood from his axe almost absently.

“Gentlemen, I have just killed the one member of this household who came to my Father’s aid in his time of need. If this gives any of you pause to contemplate the nature of your souls, I would say such is long overdue.”

A shuffling was heard as the discomforted landholders fidgeted under his even gaze.

“Jeremy, Once-prince of House Caladon, stands accused in absentia toten of the murder of my Lord Father. I, Charles, Prince of House Caladon, as a witness to his Monstrosity, and to the egregious Sins of Patricide and Treason, do declare him Guilty. His name shall be stricken from our House, and his sons shall never more hold Title in our lands and holdings.”

Murmurs of consternation rippled through the assembled throng.

“As the Eldest Son, therefore, I do, by Blood and Right, name myself Heir Apparent, and do assume the Mantle of Baron of House Caladon.”

The murmurs turned to shouts.

“A cut branch may never inherit!” came a voice from the throng. Charles stood again, lifting the axe once more.

“I was not aware, Benjamin, that a landholder of a mere hundred hectares of middling to piss-poor farmland was privy to the declarations of Magisterium.” He said evenly. “I welcome the ratification of my claim by High Lord Anderson, and should he deem me unworthy, I shall gladly step aside in favour of either of my younger brothers. Until then, know your role, Ben, and shut that hole in your face!” He roared. “Because the next time I pick up this axe, so Help Me Tyris, I’ll be using it!” Cowed, the young landholder sank back into the throng.

“Gentlemen, the Unspoken who was once my brother did not act alone. I am well aware that members of your number acted in conspiracy with him. Thus let my first order as Baron be thus. In honour of my father’s memory, I grant you the peace of the day. Let those who hold guilt in their hearts bid farewell to sons and households, draw a hot bath and slit their wrists, or take a draught of whichever poison takes your fancy. But should you remain amongst the living by noon tomorrow, I promise you. I will find you, I will seize your holdings, I will have your sons pressed to rank service in the most bitter wastes of the known world, and I will make you beg for death before the end.” Quiet fury in his face, Charles scanned the nobles.

“My Lord!” Came a call from the throng.

“We recognise Sir Brian, Landholder of Caladon.” Charles intoned.

“I will not draw a quiet bath while a Kikimora shames me by facing the blade with pride and honour!” Brian said, pushing his way through the throng. He held aloft a sealed parchment. “Here is my confession, and herein are named my co-conspiritors.”

Shouts and cries of despair rang from the throng.

“We accept your confession. You are found guilty of treason.” Charles said simply. “Do you have any final words?”

“My son… He’s a good boy. But our Bees have taken a liking to him.” Brian explained. “I am but a landholder, the prohibitions of The Pax keeping Mamono from claiming nobles do not stretch to me and mine. I fell to despair, and Jer… Forgive me… The Unspoken offered me a way to see my son free from the temptations of the Hives.” Brian fell to his knees before the High Seat. “I beg you, My Lord, do not let a father’s weakness fall upon his son.”

Charles descended, resting a hand upon Brian’s shoulder. “Your Son shall be under Our protection, we acknowledge his succession and hold no guilt upon him for your Sin.”

“It is tradition, My Lord, that the accused may seek the method of his death.” Brian entreated.

“Speak your plea.” Charles replied.

“Grant me a clean death. Let my household and son mourn me as befits one who has served faithfully ere his faith broke.” Brian pleaded.

“We do so grant this mercy, and do thank you for the contrition you have shown.” Charles said softly. “Sword.” He called, a guard bringing him a slender bladed longsword.

“May Tyris accept you into His Heavens.” Charles intoned, resting the point of the blade in the hollow of the man’s throat, angling it sharply downwards.

“Amen” Brian gasped, before Charles drove the point home. Brian gurgled, spat blood, and collapsed with a rattling sigh. A pair of guards retrieved body and blade, couriering it discretely from the hall. Re-ascending the high seat, Charles gesticulated to the landholders with the sealed parchment in his hand. “Just in case any of you thought you had a chance to hide. Noon. Tomorrow.”

Charles looked towards where the Mamono of the household were gathered. “Second, Let Jessie the Taurean, Stablemaster of House Caladon step forward.” He ordered.

Jessie gave a sound of surprised confusion, coming before the High Seat, digitigrades hooves clopping on the stone floor.

“House Caladon thanks you for your ceaseless efforts in your indentured role as Stablemaster, Jessie. Let it be known that you are released from indenturehood and the full and total payment of your reward shall be made available to your herd.” Charles intoned formally.

“M-My Lord?!” Jessie asked with slight alarm.

“House Caladon, in recognition of your loyalty and fidelity, would extend to you the position of chamberlain. Do you accept?” Charles asked, a secret smile on his lips.

“Y-Yes… Of course, My Lord.” Jessie near gushed, relief clearly written on her face.

“I object My Lord!” A portly landholder cried. “The Position of Chamberlain is a high honour, one better suited for a human!”

“The current absurdity of traitors standing amongst us aside, the last Human Chamberlain was a foul drunk who tried to fondle my baby brother, sir. You were in attendance when My Lord Father, Tyris rest his soul, lit the fire under his stake if my memory serves!” Charles retorted fiercely. “I must be able to trust my staff, sir.”

Charles rested the war axe across his knees. “Let me be clear, gentlemen. The Unspoken has allowed unseemly rot into the fine work my father has performed over many decades. I intend to restore that legacy, and I am cleaning house. Have a care you do not wind up in my sweepings, for I shall be meticulous in my efforts. Am I Understood?”

“Yes, My Lord.” Came the subdued response.

“Sure, fine. I still blame you for not telling me the training was run by a half-mad Australian!” Samuel yelled to a resonant who was walking down the hall.

“Anyone from the Australs who is only half-mad is a good find, wilder! Trust me, the Master doesn’t put Sinners in the stocks, he sends them to the Australs on embassy duties!” the resonant jested in reply.

Samuel laughed, opening the door to his room. A figure stood from behind his desk.

“Hello Samuel.”

“Lloyd?” Samuel gasped, “How are you here? What’s happ…” He broke off with a gasp as Lloyd raised a hand towards him and he found himself bound in nebulous golden light.

“I’m sorry. By Command of the One Church of Divine Tyris, you will submit to the scrutiny of The God.” Lloyd intoned bitterly, a series of glowing runes appearing before his raised hand, which began to spin and cycle as he walked determinedly towards Samuel.

“Then may I make a polite suggestion…” Samuel hissed through clenched teeth.

SHATTER

The golden light fell away from his body, and Lloyd recoiled. Raising both hands, a new series of glowing runes began to form.

SUBSUME

The runes fell away, and Lloyd cried out in pain and panic. “You… I Cannot… What have you done!” He demanded.

CONSTRICT

Lloyd gave an involuntary wheeze as the unseen force of Samuel’s resonant power gripped him like an invisible hand, lifting him bodily off the floor.

“…If you’re going to attack a wielder of the Logos, make sure you have the capability to do so. Sister Magda was right, you are a poor student of history. The Resonants were formed to fight God and Demon, remember?” He said, shaking his head sadly as he crossed the room. Lloyd gasped and struggled helplessly where he floated. Samuel tapped the embroidery on Lloyd’s breast.

“Lord Dumat, unless I’m mistaken. Thought it was a myth… It’s certainly a higher station than I expected, big brother. Nice work.” Samuel released his hold on Lloyd, who returned to the floor with a shuddering gasp.

“The next time you want to know something about me. fucking ask.” Samuel said with a note of regret, before punching Lloyd in the face…

…the two brothers looked at each other, shoulders heaving with exertion. “Are we done?” Samuel asked, panting.

“Done.” Lloyd replied, spitting blood onto the floor. Samuel felt his eye began to swell as he looked around the room. The two brothers had beaten on each other for a good while, both releasing the fear, tension, and uncertainty that the recent upheavals of their young lives had left within them. Samuel felt an odd satisfaction as he viewed the chaotic state their fight had left his room in.

“Did you want to…” Samuel began.

“First things first.” Lloyd interrupted. Raising his hands to his face, A corona of golden light encompassed the blond youth, and Samuel watched as the cuts and contusions shrank and disappeared. Holding his hands towards Samuel, Lloyd repeated the process, and Samuel felt a warmth pervading his body as his own minor injuries were healed.

“Thanks… That doesn’t work on the room, does it?” Samuel asked with a grin.

Lloyd gave a rare laugh. “Afraid not.” He admitted apologetically. “Now, if I may…”

Samuel nodded, and Lloyd stretched forth his hand again. Samuel felt a strange, almost alien presence suffuse his body, searching… searching… and it was gone.

“Nothing…” Lloyd said incredulously “There’s nothing!”

“Care to share with the rest of the court?” Samuel drawled.

“The Conclave of the Faithful feared you tainted, considering the manner of your awakening, but there’s not a scrap of Mamono anywhere in you.”

Samuel gave a helpless laugh “Our Dear Mother Church must be growing senile in Her dotage!”

“Blasphemy”

“Challenge”

“Withdrawn… Sorry, force of habit.” Lloyd said apologetically.

“Your Grace is received… Something’s changed about you… You’re not acting like there’s a stick up your arse.” Samuel joked.

“Are we going to fight again?” Lloyd drawled, and Samuel held his hands up in surrender as he laughed.

“No fear, this time you might remember you can call the Host of Angels to back you up… What?”

“Tyris Save me… I can do that, can’t I?” Lloyd mused in astonishment.

“High Lords and Barons piss themselves at the name of Lord Dumat and he forgets… Sweet Tyris, the world’s fucked.” Samuel gasped, holding his stomach in helpless laughter.

A noise intruded, and Samuel looked to where the farcaster sat in its alcove, a book lying across it. Removing the book, Samuel activated the device, which glowed as it awoke.

“Samuel?” Ambassador Kyla’s voice came from the machine, it sounded choked, as if she had been crying.

“Eminence, is everything alright?” Samuel asked in concern.

“Is Lloyd with you?” She asked, ignoring the question.

“I am here, Your Eminence.” Lloyd answered.

“Thank Tyris… I don’t think I could bear it if you two had killed each other.” Kyla gushed in obvious relief.

“We had a good scrap, but it’s all fine now. Clean as a whistle.” Samuel quipped assuringly.

“…I have no idea what you are talking about. My Lords, I have… some very hard news…” Kyla replied, her voice catching again.

“What’s wrong?” Lloyd asked, leaning closer to the farcaster.

“Your Lord Father… He… He’s dead.” Kyla’s voice dripped with sorrow

“No!” Both men cried. Samuel leaned towards the farcaster. “Listen to me, Ambassador. I don’t care who we have to bribe, who we have to kill, who we have to fuck, for the sake of the House, we must delay Jeremy’s assumption of the Barony.” He hissed through gritted teeth.

“The Unspoken is no longer a concern. One of your father’s Kikimora apparently stabbed him in the throat to try and save Lord William. He has been disavowed. Charles has taken the mantle and coronet.” Kyla said assuringly.

“Lani?” Samuel asked

“No Doubt.” Lloyd croaked “I knew she had designs on father of an intimate nature… I asked him to turn her out a number of times for that very reason… Thank Tyris he didn’t.” The blond man dashed tears where they grew in his eyes.

“Please, My Lords. A summoning of the Privy Council of the Westerlands will be needed soon. Attend me as soon as you are able… And… I’m… so, so sorry for your loss.” Kyla offered in farewell as the farcaster went dead.

Lloyd wordlessly embraced Samuel, and both young men fought the grief which welled within them.

“I must go.” Lloyd choked “I would… Pray… for his soul.”

Samuel nodded

“You will be alright?”

“I’m not going to reduce Magisterium to rubble, tempting though the prospect is right now.” Samuel grated, barely keeping his emotions in check.

“I understand. Be well, Samuel, I shall see you at the embassy.” Lloyd moved his hands in an intricate pattern, before vanishing in a nimbus of golden light.

“FUCK! FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!” Samuel screamed, pounding his fist into a closet until blood began to spatter the door. Sucking his knuckle where it had split, he began to pace the room swearing sulphurously through his tears. A soft sound caught his attention, and he saw a wild-eyed Yumi appear from the closet he had just beaten on.

“Nyaa… You two are loud.” The neko murmured.

“Find amusement elsewhere, Your Grace, I am in no mood.” Samuel snarled.

“No… Yumi isn’t here for that.” The neko said, shaking her head and walking over to the bed. Sitting on it, she looked at Samuel. “Sit with me, nyaa?”

Taking a deep breath, Samuel approached the catgirl. “You shouldn’t be here, you know.” He said warningly.

“Half the fun, nyaa. Now sit.” She said with a slight note of imperiousness. Samuel couldn’t help but chuckle slightly at the absurdity. He sat next to her on the bed.

“Yumi doesn’t remember much about her father, nyaa. But mother said he was human. Yumi just remembers how kind his smile was, and how gently he held her when she was just a kitten, nyaa. Yumi remembers how sad she was when he wasn’t there any more… Yumi thought that you might be that sad too…” The catgirl put her arms around him, and a strange sound began to emanate from her torso.

She was purring…

Like a dam breaking, Samuel’s grief spilled from him as he sobbed into the delicate shoulder of the neko emissary, who stroked his head gently, her soft purring soothing the pain as he wept like a broken-hearted child.

“You summoned me, My Lord?” Jessie asked, adjusting her garb as her ample bosom threatened to spill out of it.

Charles took her in, his mouth curving into a wicked grin as he ogled her. “The Chamberlain’s garb looks good on you, Jess.” He drawled.

“Well I’m having Nala adjust it first thing in the morning. I’ll not run the risk of falling out of my clothes in public!” Jessie objected.

“Oh just ruin all my fun.” Charles said with a mock grumble.

“Stop playing Charles, what did you need?” She asked with a gentle smile.

“I’m troubled, Chamberlain, there seems to be something wrong with my bed.” Charles said, walking over to her and sliding his arms about her waist.

“Oh? What seems to be the problem, My Lord?” Jessie’s voice was husky as Charles started nibbling at her neck.

“There is… umm… a distinct lack… of you in it.” Charles murmured, before spinning her about and pushing her onto the bed.

Jessie gave a slight squeal as she landed on her back, her breasts bursting from her too-small clothing. Charles raised his eyes and folded his hands before him in mock reverence. “Thank you Tyris.” He breathed, clambering onto the bed himself and kissing her insistently, grabbing an ample breast eagerly with one hand.

Jessie moaned into his kiss, before gently pushing him away. “Charles… wait… Are you sure now is the best time, with all that’s happened?” her deep brown eyes stared into his, concern written on them. Charles kissed her again, but softer, shifting himself to lie next to her. His arm, still draped across her body, traced her outlines almost absently.

“Jess, I’ve got a crown I’ve never wanted, of a Barony teetering on the edge of sheer fuckery, with the distinct possibility of a violent coup, and the high likelihood of the Magisterium subsuming the whole Tyris-blasted thing out of hand because I’m a cut branch of a bloodline. Tomorrow, I bury my father, and lead a squad of militiamen out to perform a veritable decimation of my human landholders. You are about the only joy left in my life, and right now I want to lock that damn door and pretend that the woman I love is the only thing in the world, if only for a little while.”

“Charles…” Jessie breathed, kissing him gently. “If only I could have told you… Maybe this could have been avoided… But I can’t…”

“I understand love… After all, how in the name of Tyris, Maou, or any God or Demon throughout history could you even begin to tell me that you’re Hathor, High Priestess of Ammit?”

Jessie’s jaw dropped. “How… How…” she squeaked.

“She told me. She showed me everything. Now can we kindly leave the world to its own devices for a few hours?” Charles begged, kissing at her neck.

“Your door locks securely?” Jessie half-moaned.

“They’d need a ram and two hours to break it, or one determined ogre.” Charles murmured.

“There’s no ogres this side of the mountains…” Jessie drawled, pushing him onto his back, her tail swishing behind her.

“I know…” Charles grinned lecherously, grabbing her horns and pulling her down for another kiss.

“Then what was the damned point?” Lloyd roared. Sister Magda frowned at him.

“Manners, dear boy.” She remonstrated.

“It was a test, to see if you were willing to humble your authority in service to the Church.” The Lord Commander of the Faith Militant rumbled, stroking his steel-grey beard. “We had faith that neither of you would be in any real danger.”

Lloyd paused, before doubling over in helpless laughter. The High Priestess and the Lord Commander looked at each other in confusion, before he regained his composure.

“It’s really been that long, hasn’t it?” He asked, wiping tears from his eyes.

“What do you mean, My Lord Dumat?” The Lord Commander queried, his brows furrowing.

“Allow me to demonstrate, My Lord.” Lloyd offered. Closing his eyes, he intoned the scriptures.

“And Lo, upon the wings of Heaven came Hosts of Angels, and the peoples of the world did cry ‘Holy! Holy! Holy!’ At the majesty and power, and all would know that Tyris is The God.”

 With a shattering blast of choral voices, Lloyd was flanked by four armoured angels. Invoking his own angelic powers, ethereal wings sprang from his back, and he rose to float beside them.

“I am the Morning and the Evening Star.” Lloyd intoned, eyes blazing with power. “Know me, and Know why my Name is Silence.”

The Lord Commander fell to his knees, overwhelmed at the sight. Taken aback slightly, Sister Magda held her ground.

“Impressive display, Lord Dumat. And you are well aware that I can bring you, and your Blessed and Glorious allies there down like an errant moth with a simple thought.” She warned, her eyes flinty.

“Yes… Curious it is that the Church maintains Resonants in its ranks, when the anointing of the Heavens is there to be obtained.” Lloyd mused. “And more curious still, that Paladins are encouraged to forget that Resonance was born to fight Demon… And God.”

“The ways of The God…” Sister Magda began

“…Are not for us to know…” Lloyd finished for her. “But I wonder… If you say that He speaks no longer to His Brides… Or was that another ruse?”

“It’s true enough, and the timing was close enough to your brother’s awakening that it did cause concern, but if we were really worried, we would have just ordered he perform continuance with a priestess anointed with the Benedictus, far less violent and far less panicking to the general population… You’re already immortalized in song and there are rumours that a few notable dignitaries soiled themselves in stark terror, by the way. Now if you’re quite finished?” Sister Magda entreated calmly.

Lloyd pondered that for a moment. He raised his hand and gestured, and the Angels disappeared with a flash of golden light, and Lloyd returned to the ground. Offering a hand to the awestruck Lord Commander, he helped the old Paladin to His Feet.

“I am sorry if you were distressed, My Lord.” Lloyd apologised.

“Distressed?!” The Lord Commander crowed, “If I live to be a hundred years old, I shall never forget such a sight as them! Glorious! What a thing it must have been, those five hundred years ago when the last Lord Dumat…”

“My Lord!” Sister Magda yelled in caution. The Lord Commander swore, realizing his slip.

“Five Hundred years?!” Lloyd asked incredulously. “How then… How was I chosen for this?”

Sister Magda placed her hands on his shoulders. “Are you still a faithful son of the Church, Lloyd?”

“The Holy Church is the footstool of The God’s Kingdom on earth.” Lloyd replied dutifully.

“Then come with me” she answered “And I will show you.”

“I am nothing if not completely disappointed by this, you know.” Caris murmured as she skittered around the cold stone room. Spinning a silken thread, she payed out a decent length before snapping it off with a chitinous rear limb. Pointed legs moving with scratches on the stone, the Arachne loomed over the glassy eyed corpse before her.

“Invade my nest? Kill my daughters? You utter shit, I would have done you far worse than a knife through the throat.” She hissed, mandibles flaring in quiet fury.

“Still, with the way the madness was spreading, it’s not entirely unlikely you would have even recognised what I was doing to you, before the end.” Caris sighed softly.

“You know, Jeremy, you perverse little cunt of a human, this isn’t actually the first time we’ve met.” She drawled conversationally, feeding the silk up his nostril with a chitinous claw, which buried itself deep, deep within the corpse’s head.

“Your Mother, you see, was coming to Caladon to see me. Lord William was just a convenient excuse.” Caris drew the silk out evenly. The corpse’s eyes seemed to sink back into their orbits slightly as with a wet sucking noise, its brains were drawn out with the silk.

“She was… Hah… A wonderful woman. I truly could have grown to love her, had I been given the chance.” Caris mused, splitting open the corpse’s torso and slicing out organs with ruthless efficiency.

“I guess that’s the funniest thing. You were the mistake. I gave her something that your nasty little magisterium could never take away. A life. A life she could hold, a life she could keep. Little spiderlings she could love and laugh and grow old with.” Caris began sorting the organs into canopic jars, filling them with salt.

“And then, of course, you had to toddle in and start screaming your precious little head off. How was I to know she was too soft to give you up like we planned? Too much love and not enough sense in that woman. But ah… What’s passed is passed. I still miss her, you know. I couldn’t bear to see her burn.” Caris removed the heart finally.

“You’re ours now… And the Land of the Dead has such sights to show you… And you won’t even need eyes to see them!” Pulling on a strand of silk, Caris lowered a webbed bundle from the high vaulted ceiling. Extracting a pristine white feather from it, Caris pushed it deliberately into the ventricle.

“May the Scales of Ma’at weigh heavy against you.” She intoned ritualistically, before placing the heart into the final canopic jar, sealing it with a crocodile-head lid.

“But I have it on the best authority that they will. I certainly hope Lady Ammit takes her time eating your heart…”

She hummed softly as she set about dismembering Jeremy’s corpse further. Being long dead, he was clearly beyond feeling, but Caris could not help but take comfort in the fact that his hanging jaw made it look like he was screaming.

“I am she who protecteth you for millions of years. Whether ye be denizens of the heavens, or of the hells, or of the South, or of the North, or of the East, or of the West, the fear of me is in your bodies. I am she whose being has been wrought in her eye. I shall not die again. My moment is in your bodies, but my forms are in my place of habitation. I am “She who cannot be known.” – The Book of the Dead

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