The Pilgrimage: Da Pacem Domina (3)


“Mark, please do not take offense at this…” You began placatingly.

“Maou’s ample bosom, Pilgrim!” The Thrall blustered incredulously, his red-rimmed eyes wide. “What will it take for you to trust me?!”

“It’s not that!” You assured him, holding up your hand for peace. “Cirice… She…”

“She thinks I stink.” Mark finished for you. “Course she does, she’s Celestial. Is that really the most important thing to be thinking about right now?”

“It might be!” You rejoined. “What happens if she is so repulsed by the ‘smell’ that she is unable to aid us should the situation demand it?”

“Fine.” The Thrall snarled, stamping away from you. “But let me be clear, I’ll not wait for your permission to do what needs to be done!”

“I would not expect you to.” You nodded, turning again to Victor. “I am ready, Sir Knight.”

“Then come, little brother…” The Corvidian beckoned, waving his mailed hand in the air, taloned fingers seeming to claw at reality. “…Come and See…”

As before, an orb of utter nothingness sprang forth, reality again quailing at its presence… this should not be… and yet…

“Look, little brother… look into the nothing…”

Swallowing, you forced yourself to peer into the void which hovered in the air before you. It might have been your mind playing tricks on you, but after a while, you swore you saw something… moving.

“What is that?” You gasped, your knees weakening.

“Listen…” Victor hissed, holding you by the back of your neck, forcing your face closer to the nothing. “…Do you hear them?”

Your ears strained, the birds were silent, the wind still, the world itself seemed to be holding its breath… And then, you heard them.

“Reitia!” You moaned in horror, straining against the Corvidian’s grip “They’re screaming! Holy Mother, deliver me… They’re screaming!”

“Those damned beyond damnation… The bonfire in which the chaff is cast… “ Victor explained, his grip like iron about your neck and shoulders “…And the Dark Angel spoke to me, saying ‘come and see’, and behold, I saw a Black Horse, and the name of him who rode upon it was Hunger…”

“MAHORELA OZODONUGONU” You grated, as the words of the Angelic tongue forced themselves from your throat.

“Yes, little brother. The Dark Wind… The steeds of Holy Corvus…” Victor exulted, releasing you as the orb shattered, a smoking, ebon horse bursting into existence. “…You have looked into The Nothing, and have called it forth. From now it shall obey you.”

“I feel it…” you snarled, breathing heavily, the black pits of the horse’s eyes locked to yours. “…We… We… Hunger…”

Rolling her eyes slightly, Sasha stumped over to you, stomping a steel-toed boot atop your foot. You yelled in pain, the entrancement broken as you looked down incredulously at the Dwarf.

“Honestly, you mage-types are so feckin’ dramatic.” Sasha sighed. “You’ve got a horse now. Let’s go.”

“Bully for you.” Mark grumbled, tracing a magical sigil upon the dirt. “Give me a moment then.”

You rested your hand upon the neck of your new steed, the horse looking at you expectantly as if awaiting your order. Mark muttered an incantation, before biting viciously into his own wrist.

“Come, Chiroptera! The blood calls you!” Mark howled at the sky, as a screeching shadow flew across the sun, circling and coming to land before the Thrall. Your steed snorted a blast of black smoke, shying away from the giant bat which gazed at you all with feral hunger.

“Easy girl… They’re friends…” Mark soothed the bat, stroking its ugly face, heedless of the razor sharp fangs which rested bared within its cavernous mouth. “…For now.”

“Mark?” You ventured, noting the Thrall’s comment.

“With your blood I could have summoned a flock.” Mark replied, not looking at you. “Now? We’re ripe targets, and I’ve not yet cast my ritual to send her back to her physical body.”

“There is no need for your veiled threats, bloodbound.” Victor echoed from his raven-beaked helm, before summoning his own dark steed again.

“I’ll do what needs to be done, Sir Knight.” Mark retorted, clambering atop the giant bat. “So don’t get in my way.”

“Mount, Deniel.” The Corvidian stated simply, hauling Sasha bodily atop his own steed as Mark’s bat took wing. “We ride.”

“Not one for a sugar cube and a curry comb, are you?” You sighed, stroking the dark horse’s neck. The void-steed snorted again, a cloud of smoke wefting from its nostrils.

“Didn’t think so.” You murmured, clambering atop the steed and taking its mane in your hands. “Let’s go then.”

With an echoing scream, your steed burst into a gallop, the world seeming to bend around you at the sheer speed of its passage. You laughed helplessly at the exhilarating sensation of the supernatural horse’s movement… yet part of your mind worried… was that laughter tinged with madness?

“Hold here!” Mark snarled, his bat beating its wings at the horses, forcing them to halt, rearing and lashing out with their hooves at the Chiropteran horror which loomed above them.

“What are you doing?” Victor demanded, soothing his mount.

“This is the point of no return.” Mark explained, landing his mount and sliding off, muttering something in its cavernous ear before sending it back into the air. “I must perform my ritual.”

“Pilgrim?” Victor echoed, his raven-beaked helm turning to face you.

You nodded, sliding from your steed and patting it absently on its obsidian neck. “Do as he says. We’re in his house… after a manner of speaking.”

“Deniel, some sense finally? I’m pleasantly surprised.” Mark quipped snidely. “Now come, I need your blood.”

“No.” Victor declared simply, slinging a mailed leg over the neck of his steed.

“What did I say about standing in my way, Sir Knight?” Mark seethed warningly, his pale lips drawn back from bright teeth in sunken gums.

“You misunderstand.” Victor echoed, shucking gauntlet and bracer, baring the pale flesh of his corded forearm. “You will take mine.”

“That’s unexpected…” Mark blurted, the indignation fading from his pale features. “…Why?”

“Because of what is in his blood. You haven’t accounted for that, I would wager.”

“Deniel? What didn’t you tell me?” Mark accused.

“It’s complicated.” You admitted. “I had diablery forced on me as a child, and a pair of Angels are sort of… stuck inside me.”

Mark took a deep breath, long slim fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. “Deniel, remember when you said we needed to work on our communication? Didn’t you think that was the sort of thing to mention in passing to a Maou-blessed Blood-Mage?”

“It was never brought up!” You blustered. “You’re acting like I have any knowledge of Thaumaturgy outside what little I’ve seen you perform.”

“Gods and Devils… I now understand every Archmage driven to drink over Hedge-Mages.” Mark muttered helplessly, before returning his attention to the Corvidian. Pulling a small, wicked knife from his belt, he grabbed the Knight’s arm, baring its underside to his blade.

“I thought you would…” You began without thought.

“What, bite? Him?” Mark replied with a look of incredulous distaste. “Eurgh. Now fair warning Sir Knight, this will sting a little.”

“Pain is of no import.” The Corvidian stated simply, his posture implacable as Mark cut into the meat of his forearm. As the blood began flowing, Mark chanted gutturally, waving his hands in strange somatic gestures, the thick, red vitae hovering and spreading in the air as it dripped from the Void-Knight’s arm.

“Peccata patris filius peccata peccatorum…” Mark chanted, his red-rimmed eyes rolled back in his head, pale arms cast to heaven as a charnel wind began to howl about you. “…ad matrem suam: puer autem peccata…”

“Holy Mother…” You prayed in a muted whisper, your hands clenched tightly before your face “…Guard our souls, in this, the hour of our tribulation.”

“Redi vobis, spiritus et caro anathemate…” Mark howled, crimson energies flying into the air in seemingly random directions. “Et tenetur esto caecus. Me iubes, a sacra sanguis…”

“Ancestors, this is a bit full on!” Sasha cried, clinging to your leg in concern. Without thinking, you patted the Dwarf’s head comfortingly, giving a slight yelp as the diminutive mamono grabbed your hand in her powerful grip, holding fiercely to you.

“Redi! Redi!” The Thrall continued, his jaw seeming to unhinge, his skin taking on a leaden tone. “Vinciantur! CAECUTTIO!”

A scream echoed through the air, a shadow hurtling across the deepening afternoon light towards the shape of the Chancel in the near distance.

“It is done.” Mark grated, his appearance seeming to fluctuate between the pale, twitchy form you had become used to and the leaden, demi-human appearance he had assumed during the ritual.

“Mark? Are you alright?” You asked hesitantly.

“He hovers on the edge of humanity.” Victor stated dispassionately, retrieving his bracer and gauntlet.

“I am becoming…” Mark grated, straining against something within himself. “…The hunger… It’s too soon… too soon… Not… Yet…” He panted, screwing his feral eyes closed. Slowly, he returned to equilibrium, breathing heavily.

“Mark…” You repeated, extricating yourself from the Dwarf’s grip and grasping the thrall on the shoulder.

“I’m still here, Pilgrim.” Mark grinned wryly, his form once again human.

“It would seem the Red Witch has not been idle.” Victor remarked, gesturing to where the shambling, bedraggled forms of Tyrisian clergy had begun staggering from the chancel, makeshift weaponry dragged from limp grips as they mindlessly made their way towards you.

“Heresy!” You gasped in outrage.

“Indeed…” Victor agreed, drawing that evil-looking warhammer.

“Spare them, Sir Knight, if you can?”

“Their souls are in no danger…” Victor remarked simply, the warhammer whistling ominously through the air “…They do not act of their own volition.”

“Thank Reitia.” You sighed in relief.

“Their bodies, however, I make no promises in regards to.”

“Oh Reitia.” You groaned helplessly.

“S’orright Pilgrim.” Sasha chuckled, retrieving a short-handled mattock from her belongings and smacking the flat upon her broad hand. “Don’t much like Tyrisians to start with.”

“Do you much like anybody?” You spat back accusingly.

“Sir Victor, of course.” The Dwarf sniffed primly, before shooting you a wink. “And you’re a bit of alright, stuffy.”

“Vime Alonusahi!” You intoned, driving a group of enchanted Tyrisians head over heels with screaming bolts of magical energy, trying to ignore the obvious cracking of bones as they tumbled away from you.

“You’re a proper hand-cannon, aincha?” Sasha remarked in pleased appraisal.

“I take no pleasure in this.” You grated, filled with guilt at being forced to raise your hands against the servants of the Most High. “May The Lord of Order forgive me.”

“Necessity, Pilgrim.” Mark quipped, grabbing a priestess who swung a dirt-caked axe at his head and burying his teeth in her throat. “Ohhhh… Maou… Hurry… The Hunger…” He moaned, kicking the insensible body away from himself.

“There.” Victor pointed his warhammer at a Gated entrance in the wall of the chancel, a dark passage barely visible beyond.

“That’s it.” Mark exulted, grabbing you by the wrist and shoving you towards it. “Go on Deniel, it’s been warded against me, no doubt.”

“What about me?”

“You’re so holy you make my teeth hurt, Pilgrim.” Mark retorted. “No God would turn their wrath upon you.”

“What about the darkness?” You pondered as you walked hesitant towards the gate. Sure enough, a golden glow burst forward as you approached it, thrumming with power. You cast your memories back, remembering your lessons amongst the Tyrisian Abbey as a child.

“Benedictus Benedicat…” You intoned, raising your arms into the Sign of the Sunburst, silently begging for the favour of the Gods… Tyris… Reitia… Maou… Ammit… “Per Tyris Dominus Noster…”

The ward around the gate seemed to sing as you put your hands on the metal, the sensation of alien eyes studying you… Judging you…

“He is MINE!” You heard a voice resounding within the vaults of your mind, a wave of power battering against the power of the ward… Possessive, yes… but warm…

Holy Mother?

In a burst of soundless thunder, the ward shattered, the gate swinging open with a shriek of protesting metal.

“See?” Mark declared smugly, nonchalantly brushing past you as he near-waltzed inside “No trouble at… Oh…”

“What is it?” You demanded, hurrying forward before coming to a halt next to the Thrall. “Oh.” You echoed in dismay.

“This is… unexpected.” Victor noted, returning the warhammer to a ring in his belt as you all studied the loose rubble which blocked the tunnel just inside the gate.

“Bitch is smarter than I gave her credit for…” Mark snarled. “…Maou DAMMIT! We’ll have to come at her from above. Gonna be a hard climb and as soon as the sun goes down…”

“Ancestors… You Humans… Move!” Sasha blustered, forcing her way past you and hefting her mattock in her thick hands, bringing it down on the loose stone and heaving a surprising amount out with its impact. Her breathing was deep, even, and a quiet chant ran in an undercurrent with it, no doubt the Dwarf calling upon her ancestral magics.

Strange, it almost sounded like an old variant of Magisterian, and as Sasha’s small frame carved through the rubble with impossible speed, you could have sworn it translated roughly to “I am a Dwarf and I’m digging a hole… Diggy diggy hole, diggy diggy hole…”

But that would be ridiculous.

“Stinks in here.” Sasha remarked with distaste, the four of you creeping your way along the dank passage, the smell of mould and decay filling your nostrils.

“Welcome to the Oubliettes.” Mark replied snidely. “Where Tyris’s followers stick those humans they’d rather not have to deal with.”

“I don’t follow.” You coughed, holding your hand over your mouth and nose against the stink.

“The ones they can’t just straight out burn… Nobles and the like who charging in public would prove… problematic.” Mark clarifies. “For a Vampire, it’s an easy cold storage, and nobody asks questions when a few heretics come down with an unexplained case of anemia.”

“Hence your mistress making a sanctuary down here.” You reply, suddenly understanding.

“Just so. Now the Witch will be…” Mark begins.

“Oh Reitia…” You lament, your stomach lurching as greenish, decaying arms enter your field of vision, hands curled in a rictus upon the damp floor where they protruded from the pitted bars of a cell, scratch marks clearly made by broken nails trailing along its length. “…Poor soul… May Ammit be merciful in…”

Suddenly, the arms moved, a hissing, burbling sound ringing from the dark as the limbs began scrabbling at the stone.

“The wretch yet lingers.” Victor echoed, unhitching his warhammer again. “I will end its suffering.”

“Get BACK!” Mark Snarled, lunging at the Corvidian, his red-rimmed eyes bright in the darkness.

“Corvus…” Victor cursed, dodging the Thrall’s swiping hands that were suddenly lit with a crimson fire. “…Bloodbonded if this is your idea of a joke…”

“BACK! ALL OF YOU!” Mark’s voice slavered threateningly, before he scrabbled like some kind of strange insect along the floor on hands and knees to seize the rotting limb of the caged figure in shaking hands, kissing its putrescent length with an almost religious fervour. “…Mistress… sweet Mistress… Your servant is here… your servant is here…” He whispered harshly.

“Oh Ancestors that’s disgusting.” Sasha retched through fingers quickly raised to her mouth.

A hissing, keening wail drifted thinly from the cell, the limbs now pushing at the Thrall as if trying to drive him away.

“No Mistress!” Mark begged. “Let me help you. I can bear it… Please Mistress… Please… Let me help you…”

“Reitia have Mercy…” You moaned in despair. “…Are we too late?”

“Not yet!” Mark hissed. “Open the cell.”

“A starving Vampire?” Victor objected, planting his Warhammer against his mailed shoulderplate and spreading his feet. “A starving ELDER Vampire? I did not come here to be lunch.”

“I can bear it!” Mark insisted, turning his lambent gaze upon you “Pilgrim… Deniel… If there was ever a time for you to trust me…”

You sighed deeply. “I have fought you at every turn…” You admitted. “…And you did not deserve it.”

“Deniel…” Victor growled warningly.

“I owe him this.” You insisted, raising a hand at the rusted gate. “Vime Alonusahi.”

The Gate gave way with a shattering of metal under the barrage of your magical projectiles. The rotting limbs rapidly retracted, and you spied a pair of crimson eyes darting this way and that within the cell. Without hesitation, Mark ran inside.

“N-no…” The thin voice objected.

“Drink, Mistress…” Mark’s whisper cozened. “…I Love you… I am yours…”

“K-Kill you!”

“I’m dead without you, and worse than dead!” Mark laughed, his voice tinged with the madness of desperation. “Take me, Mistress… Cast me down, and raise me up forever!”

Wet sound of teeth meeting flesh… Mark’s strangled gasp… his panting breath full of sounds of agony… adoration… arousal… His gasps coming slower… slower…

“Enough!” The thin voice declared, the sound of a body collapsing. “Sleep… Sleep my love… Sleep and live… Sleep and learn…”

A shape moved within the cell, and you shied away in revulsion as some kind of nightmare hag shambled from the gaping hole in the grating which was all that remained of the gate. The hag’s crimson eyes fixed you with a gaze filled with sardonic amusement.

“Do you not find me beautiful, Reitian?” The hag slathered in that same thin, harsh voice, clawlike hands playing at the lank remnants of hair which dangled from her peeling scalp.

“Keep back, creature…” Victor echoed, holding his warhammer out warningly.

“Is that a way to speak to a lady? In her own house?” The hag champed, the dugs of her decaying breasts swinging with her movement.

“We’re here for the Witch.” You reminded Victor.

“The world will miss not one Vampire…” The Corvidian echoed, violet fire illuminating the interior of his raven-beaked helm.

“Sir Knight!” You chided. “Mark was willing to sacrifice everything for her. We owe his loyalty our trust, if nothing else.”

“Your loyalty will be the death of you, Pilgrim…” Victor echoed, yet lowered his warhammer.

“Such a nice boy.” The hag clattered, holding a hand out for you to kiss. You recoiled, swallowing against the bile which rose in your throat. The hag gave a thin, hissing laugh.

“I know what I look like.” She admitted. “Vile Blood-Thief… I will have her measure. Come, Come! While my love’s blood yet sustains me.”

“She is beyond… Marcus’s magic is potent. Such a good boy. Such a sweet boy…” The Hag babbled, pointing a long, broken-nailed finger at a heavy door which blocked your path along the labyrinthine corridor. “She will say many things. All lies. All lies from that mouth.”

“The Void will feast.” Victor declared, stepping forward implacably.

“No!” The Hag objected. “Mine! Stole it… Mine! Need it back.”

“Then what, you stench?” The Corvidian demanded.

“Hold. Break spells, distract. Smash feet and hands. I will finish her.” The hag remarked almost clinically.

“I will go first.” You declared suddenly.

“Pilgrim…” Victor echoed warningly.

“This is my burden. She has the most to answer to me.” You declared, placing your hand upon the handle of the door and pushing it inwards.

“Deniel…” The golden-haired beauty in the serene-seeming room breathed gratefully “…Thank the Gods, you’ve come at last!”

“Don’t try to bewitch me, Heretic.” You grated, steeling your will against the waves of entrancement you sensed flowing from the beauty’s figure. “And you can stop trying to worm your way into my mind, I’m no longer a child.”

“Deniel! You’ve been led astray, your father’s lies have clouded your vision!” The beauty sobbed, reaching out for you with an expression of exquisite yearning. “The things he did to us both… Oh my son, you can’t possibly know!”

“I… remember…” You retorted. “…How can you say this, when I REMEMBER?!”

“Do you really, Deniel?”
Do you really?
Do you really?

You shook your head, putting the heel of your hand to your temple, trying to force yourself back to equilibrium. You did remember, didn’t you? But… they were the memories of a child, and here she was, real! Surely they couldn’t be true…

“My son…” The beauty breathed, walking towards you with arms spread wide. “…I love you!”

Her first mistake.

Her last mistake.

The Love of Reitia, of Cirice, of the Mothers in the Abbey, of your Brothers in the Temple flooded through you as if cleansing your mind and soul, and you knew her statement for the lie it was.

“NE IALPRG!” You snarled, and the beauty’s figure shrivelled, her glowing skin fading to leaden grey, the illusion of serenity and beneficence falling away as the holy fire burned the magic from the room.

“You ruined everything!” the woman snapped, her crimson-rimmed eyes glaring at you. “Filth! Wretch! I was a Goddess!”

A twinge of disgust and mingled pity plucked at your heart. Even now her madness still clouded everything. She would never acknowledge her actions. She would never seek redemption. This poor, wretched thing…

You flourished your iron shod staff briefly, taking a deep breath and centering yourself. What you were about to do was deliberate, calculated mutilation, and you needed your conviction to be like iron.

“Going to kill me now, is that it, whelp?” Your mother spat around yellowed teeth. “You don’t have the stones. Pathetic.”

“Kill you?” You echoed, whirling your staff again before swiping it against the side of her left knee, the joint giving way with a sickening snap. “I’m not going to kill you.”

Her jaw gaped for a moment, the shock of your attack holding off the pain for the briefest of moments, then she screamed, collapsing to the ground, holding her ruined leg, her grey features a mask of agony.

“You’re not yet a Vampire then…” You mused almost calculatingly. “…You can feel it though, the pain. As I felt it…” You continued, holding up your four-fingered hand. “…Every day, since the day I was born.”

“I’ll eat your heart!” the witch keened through her agony, trying to brace herself on her good leg. You glowered, raising your foot and turning your hips slightly, before kicking out and down, snapping her other ankle like a green branch, white of bone emerging from torn, pale skin. The witch erupted in another bout of shrieking, rolling around on the ground, gasping and sobbing her utter agony.

“You’re having to concentrate, aren’t you?” You remarked, stepping around her rolling, thrashing form. “You can feel the blood you stole betraying you… It doesn’t like you, does it? How does it feel? Even a Vampire’s blood holds no loyalty to you.”

“L-listen!” The witch sobbed, her eyes bright with desperation. “Your Father! He has found the fragment! I can help you! Look at me, I’m not a danger to you, let me help you!”

“Will you make me cut out your tongue, Mother?” you chided, a cold emptiness building in your breast.

The Witch’s hands flew to cover her mouth, her eyes filled with fear. You gritted your teeth, swiping your staff down, shattering a forearm where it lay across her body. The witch spasmed, blood spurting from her mouth, her scream raw and ragged, and you realized with a sinking heart that she had spared you that decision. In her agony, she had bitten through her own tongue.

“Reitia…” You gasped, the true monstrosity of your actions scalding your soul. Your staff dropping from shaking hands, You staggered back, staring at your own hands in horror and despair. “…What am I doing? What am I doing?”

“Enough.” Victor’s voice echoed from behind you, his ebon-mailed hand resting on your shoulder. “You have drunk of your own cruelty, and you must bear this cup, knowing that your actions were your own. Look, Pilgrim. Do you see?”

“I see.” You admitted, the vision of the mutilated form of your mother swimming as your eyes watered, guilt wracking you mercilessly. “And I’m ashamed…”

“Your shame is between you and the Rafnsdottir, I will neither condemn nor absolve you of it.” Victor stated simply, mailed boots clanking against the stone floor as he stepped over to the witch, mewling pitifully through her broken, bleeding mouth as she instinctively tried to claw her way on one good arm away from you, like some wounded animal. “This is what we are for, the terrible duty Lord Corvus has given to us.”

With that, the knight brought his foot down on your mother’s questing hand, pulping it beneath his mailed boot. Agonized beyond coherence, the witch gave a low moan, writhing spasmodically, vomiting blood and yellow bile onto the stone.

“Wasting it…” The hag muttered, shambling forward and grabbing the witch by the hair, pulling her up bodily until she hung eye to rotting eye with the horrible figure. “…Well? Still think I can’t fight? Hmm? Think I’m done, still? Yes?”

“Eniel…” The witch pleaded around her severed tongue, her eyes almost human as lucidity found her in extremis. “Hleeze… Ohn’t wangga Gie!”

“Neither did the angels, Mother. It’s time for your evil to end.” you sighed resignedly.

“Hah!” The hag chuckled raspingly, before her mouth mutated, her corpse-grin elongating and becoming a mantrap filled with razor sharp teeth. In a flash, they were set within the Witch’s throat, the wet sucking of the hag draining her dry filling the room, offset by the sound of the Dwarf Sasha being noisily sick somewhere outside. The witch’s form drew in on itself, flesh tightening and skin stretching as every possible drop of blood was inexorably drawn from her form, until finally, it was done.

“Ahhh…” the hag sighed, straightening, and your eyes widened as the mottled corpse-flesh filled out before your eyes. Limbs like sinewed sticks rounded. Pendulous, decaying dugs swelling, becoming firm. Thighs plumping out, becoming sleek and well-fleshed. Rank, sparse hair thickening, becoming a blue-grey wealth which tumbled over pale, flawless skin.

“That…” The Countess Maris declared, licking her lips and nonchalantly tossing the desiccated corpse aside. “…Was too long in coming.”

“Do not think me so credulous as to believe your hunger is sated, Vampire.” Victor echoed suspiciously through his raven helm.

The Countess smirked through plump, ruby lips, her carmine gaze playful as she studied the knight. “I can control myself, Sir Knight. And you, Pilgrim…” She continued, turning that burning crimson gaze to you. “…Thank you for helping my dearest Marcus, and for trusting him in the end.”

“I have done nothing worthy of thanks, My Lady.” You murmured, your eyes downcast, half in shame, half simply to avoid gawping at the Vampire’s undeniably lush form.

“What of the body?” Victor interjected.

“Marcus is not dead, Corvidian!” Maris hissed, her fangs suddenly bared. “You will not touch him…”

Victor’s expression was unreadable behind his raven helm as he cocked his head, stretching forth a mailed hand to point a taloned finger at the desiccated form at the Vampire’s feet.

“Oh! That…” Maris sniffed, retracting her fangs and waving her pale, elegant hand nonchalantly. “Do what you want with it, I couldn’t care less. But where are my manners? For such service, allow me to extend my hospitality to you. Come with me to my manse, my servants will avail you of every distraction…”

“No.” Victor stated simply.

“Thank the ancestors…” Sasha’s shaking voice sighed gratefully from without the room.

“Pilgrim?” The Vampire prompted, turning her smoky, carmine gaze again to you.

“I would not impose, My Lady…” You insisted, glancing back to the darkened passage from which you had come “…But after everything, I feel I owe it to Mark to be there when he recovers.”

“Be certain about your decision Pilgrim…” Victor echoed warningly “…For Hell and the Night are not without their own temptations.”

“How droll, Sir Knight…” Maris mused. “…I smell more Void on him than Blood…”

“Do you impugn, Madam?” Victor echoed in a low, threatening voice.

“I have lived for over three millennia, Corvidian…” Maris chuckled throatily “…I knew your God when he was a stripling boy, working oil into the shoulders of an Echidna in Magisterium, and working his…”

“How DARE!” Victor roared, ripping his warhammer from his belt, his armor shimmering with light-that was not, violet fetchfire positively dripping from the eyes and beak of his raven helm.

“Sir Victor!” You interjected, desperately throwing yourself between him and the Vampire. “I wanted to thank you. Neither of us could have saved her…” A pause to throw a pointed glance over your shoulder at the Countess “…without your powerful aid.”

“I see what you are doing, little brother.” Victor stated simply, the darkness and fire fading as he returned the warhammer to his belt. “Do not let your desire for peace overtake your reason overmuch. The kindness you have rendered to the Black Knights has been repaid. Do not call upon us in its name again.”

“I shan’t.” You agreed quickly, placing your hand over your breast and bowing slightly. “The Blessings of Reitia go with you.”

“And with you.” Victor replied, seemingly somewhat mollified, before making his way back into the labyrinthine dungeons. “Sasha? Are you hale?”

“I’m okay Sir Victor. Vampires turn my stomach is all.” The Dwarf groaned somewhat guiltily from without.

“Yes.” Victor agreed, the venom in his voice unmistakable.

“Quelle bitch…” Maris whispered, licking a pointed eyetooth as she smirked at the knight’s retreating back.

“The Pilgrim’s not coming with us?”

“No.”

“Aww… he was kinda nice. Hope he doesn’t do anything dumb.”

“As do I…” Victor’s echoing voice replied from somewhere along the passage, his heavy footfalls growing fainter.

“He would make a fine pet for my gargoyles…” Maris sniffed. “…So few can understand what it’s like to have rocks for brains.”

“Madam, that is unworthy.” You chided.

“Piffle.” The Countess dismissed, before pointing an elegant hand at the desiccated corpse of your once-mother. “Decided what you’re doing with the trash yet?”

“Dread Ammit, Chatelaine of the Underworld and Hub of the Wheel of Fate, before whom all must give account…” You intoned, holding your arms in the Sign of the Scales of Ma’at, the pyre bearing the body burning before you in an inferno of magical fire. “…Judge her fairly and with the Justice that is Thine. Holy Tyris, forgive us all our sins against Order… Reitia… H-Holy M-Mother… Spread Thy w-wings in m-mercy for… for…”

“Pilgrim…” Maris prompted, shifting her grip on Mark’s comatose body to put a cold, soft hand on your shoulder “…The Gods know your heart, there’s no need…”

“I need!” You grated around the lump in your throat. “I must… finish…”

“As you will.” The Vampire murmured indulgently.

“Spread thy wings in mercy… For she knew not what she did…”

“Do you believe that?” Maris asked, holding Mark’s body against her own as you turned away from the fire, the body of the witch little more than a rough blackened shape within the inferno. Soon enough it would be nothing but flaking ash in the wind.

“I have to.” You nodded “If she wasn’t irrevocably mad what hope have any of us? I have to believe that her kind of evil cannot be borne of a sane mind.”

“If you ever cross the Gates of Hell, you may come adrift of that comforting illusion…” Maris sighed, shifting her grip on Mark again. It would have been almost comical in any other situation, this relatively slight woman bearing a man half again her size as if he weighed nothing at all.

“Which way, Madam?” You asked politely, retrieving your staff and shifting the satchel at your side.

“Here.” Maris beckoned. “Come to me.”

“My Lady?” You frowned, stepping towards the Vampire in confusion.

“Closer…” Maris quipped, her teeth bright in the moonlight.

“I don’t…” You began, before sucking in breath as the vampire yanked you against her nude body, Mark’s comatose form blessedly serving as gooseberry, preventing you from being held tight against her undeniably alluring frame.

“Don’t worry Pilgrim, I don’t bite…” Maris chuckled. “…well actually that’s a filthy lie, I’m rather known for it actually.”

“What are you doing?” You gulped, your heart racing in alarm.

“Taking us back to the manse.” Maris explained, the ground around you glowing crimson with magic. “Now stay still… and here… we…”

You cried out involuntarily as the ground seemed to turn to liquid beneath you, sucking you into a glowing red abyss as you tumbled through crimson nothingness, your direction unknown as you spun through the morass.

“Reitia!” You gasped, dripping crimson as the morass vomited you onto the surprisingly well curated lawns of a stately manse, the points of its wings stabbing like a taloned hand at the starlit sky above.

“Mistress!” Hissing voices rang out, a bevy of pale skinned beauties flying from seemingly nowhere, their forms occluded by the mist which shrouded them.

“Tend to the Consigliere.” Maris ordered shortly, holding out Mark’s body. With coos and lustful sighs, the women took Mark’s body from the Elder Vampire, bearing him within the building with surprising speed.

“Your servants?” You asked, wiping the crimson from your face, succeeding in little more than smearing it further, you having no clean spot on your body from your travel.

“Some of them.” Maris admitted, her own body completely unblemished in comparison. “Come. The night grows late, and doubtless you would take respite.”

“Thank you, My Lady.” You sighed, feeling fatigue at last beginning to grip at you. “But I am all over… what is this?”

“Blood, of course.”

“Reitia!” You gasped in horror. “…Whose?”

“The world lives… the world can bleed…” Maris stated enigmatically, beckoning you onwards into the manse. “…come, do not drip unnecessarily on my floors.”

“My Lady!” You cried in astonishment, wide-mouthed at the opulence presented to you. A four-poster bed, clad in luxurious coverings and silks. A wide wooden tub, filled with steaming, fragrant water, a laden table, covered dishes wafting scents into the air that made your mouth water. A deep, roaring fireplace, filling the room with comforting warmth. “This is too much. Please, a cot in some out of the way corner. A skin of water, a crust of bread…”

“Pilgrim, you said you did not wish to impose…” Maris mused “…Yet here you are making demands of me in my own house?”

“F-forgive me… I don’t…” You stammered.

“I do not have a cot in an out-of-the-way corner. I do not have a skin of water, or crust of bread. What I have is a comfortable bed and proper bath. What I have is roasted pheasant and potage of rabbit and thyme.”

“I…” You trailed off helplessly.

“You are welcome.” Maris smirked, pushing you firmly into the room and drawing the door closed behind you. “Rest well.”

You stood there for a moment, soaked in the unidentified blood, staring helplessly at the luxury before you, Your legs ached with fatigue, the blood had begun to crust upon your skin, your stomach growled with hunger, and your heart yearned similarly for Cirice.

“Ne Pireda…” You began, before pausing, noticing the drying blood still thick upon your hand. No. You weren’t going to summon your fiancé looking like this. You lowered your hand, scattering the foetal beginnings of your spell, before plucking at the bloodsoaked lacings of your tunic. Before long, you had shucked your simple clothes, placing them as neatly as you could at the base of the tub, before gingerly stepping within.

“Ahhhh… Bless my host, Holy Mother… for this Respite…” You sighed, feeling the herb-infused waters leech the stiffness and soreness from your body, the blood loosening and falling from you as you submerge yourself within the tub. Taking a deep breath, you ducked your head beneath the water, your fingers busy amongst your sandy-blonde locks, working clotted crimson from its mass. You felt rather than saw a new body enter the tub, and quickly surfaced, a pale woman, crimson hair sitting opposite you, her pert breasts floating on its surface, pink nipples stiff in the cool night air.

“Who are you?”

“The Mistress sent us to see to your comfort.” The woman smiled, and her feral crimson eyes and elongated eye teeth gave away her origins louder than speech ever could.

“You are a Vampire.” You stated, folding your arms across your body in instinctive defensiveness.

“Eponine Marisspawn.” The Vampire drawled, licking those elongated fangs with a red tongue, split down the middle like that of a snake. “And you’re the Pilgrim of Reitia, Deniel Holdsward… I must admit, I wasn’t expecting you to be so…”

“So what?”

“Big.” Eponine breathed huskily, leaning forward.

“Madam, I am forsworn.” You objected, leaning away from the Vampire as she clambered her way across the tub to loom over you.

“You’re not to be fed on…” Eponine chuckled, licking a trace of crimson from your ear. “…and you’re to remain chaste. But Pilgrim… there are so many… many options…”

“Leave me be!” You demanded, your breathing quickening and your heart racing at the Vampire’s lush overripeness pressed against you. “I don’t want to hurt you… just leave…”

“Are you sure about that? Really sure?” Eponine moaned, her breasts rubbing against your torso.

“NE PIEREDA CIRICE!” You gasped, a dripping hand hastily inscribing a magical circle in the air to the side of the tub.

“Heh… What was that supposed to… URK.” The Vampire choked as a mailed fist closed around her throat. Her crimson eyes widened with fear as Cirice raised her bodily from the tub, the rose-glowing form of the cupid radiant and shimmering with power.

“P-please!” The Vampire begged, grasping at the mailed gauntlet around her delicate neck. “I didn’t mean any harm!”

“He is mine.” Cirice hissed, her lambent eyes wild and terrifying. “Out.”

With a hissing screech, the vampire vanished into a cloud of mist, hurtling towards the door before vanishing through and around it.

“Cirice…” You sighed gratefully, starting to rise from the tub. “…Thank you. I wouldn’t have called but for…”

“You!” Cirice cried in a clarion voice, her expression twisted in a fury you had not seen before. “Sit.”

Your mouth worked fishlike in surprise, but you lowered yourself back into the water. The Cupid closed her eyes, raising her mailed hands to her sides, light pulsing and flowing from her.

“Cirice… What are you doing?”

“This room stinks…” The cupid replied. “…I am sanctifying it.” A burst of light exploded from her form, the hangings of the room etched in stark contrast by its radiance. A female voice shrieked, and you noticed a second Vampire, once hidden in the shadows, bearing your bloodstained clothing in one arm, the other flung across her eyes, her pointed teeth bared in a rictus of pain.

“Out!” Cirice yelled again. “All of you… OUT!”

To your surprise, a number of nebulous clouds began flowing towards the door in a similar manner as Eponine’s mist form. You wondered absently how many Vampires had actually secreted themselves within the room as you watched them flow to and through the heavy wooden door.

“Cirice… she took my clothes.” You chuckled helplessly.

The cupid did not answer, merely thrust a mailed fist into the crimson-tainted water of your bath, causing the water to boil furiously.

“Cirice!” You cried in alarm, flinging yourself backwards in an instinctive attempt to save yourself from scalding.

“Oh hush.” Cirice snapped. “It won’t hurt you.”

You forced yourself to equilibrium… true enough, the temperature of the water stayed at the same comfortable warmth as it roiled at a furious boil around you. You noticed that the crimson stain was fading away, being replaced by a faint, rose coloured luminescence.

“That’s a neat trick love…” You smiled. “…You should teach it to me somet…”

“When did you get stupid, Deniel?” Cirice interjected hotly, floating above the bath, her fists clenched and her lambent eyes still flashing with anger.

“Cirice?”

“She SPOKE to you! She all but BEGGED you not to enact monstrosity upon your parents! And what did you do?”

Memory flashed before your eyes… the sensation of your staff impacting upon your mother’s knee… her ankle snapping beneath the blade of your foot… her scream as you shattered her arm.

“Countess Maris needed her blood back!” You blurted helplessly “It was the only way!”

“And that makes it alright?!” Cirice shrieked incensedly.

“Of course not!” You retorted instinctively, standing dripping in the tub, forgetting your nakedness in the heat of your argument.

“You would stain your soul for a mere Vampire?”

“Mark Loves her, and she him!” You roared, the muscles of your neck bunching as you yelled in the Cupid’s face. “I don’t matter!”

Cirice gave a furious cry, before raising her fist, driving it towards you, stopping shy of striking you, her armor vanishing in a shower of shimmering sparks as the Cupid flung her arms around you.

“H-how can you say that?” Cirice sobbed. “Y-you are so precious… Deniel… I LOVE you! Do I mean nothing?”

“You mean everything, Cirice.” You breathed, your own muscled arms encircling the samite shift-clad form of the Cupid.

“T-then stop throwing yourself to the world as a sacrifice.” Cirice demanded through her tears, her lips turning upwards, seeking yours.

“Would you love me if I was any less?” You breathed, kissing the Cupid.

“You don’t have words for how far my Love extends, Human.” Cirice muttered, kissing you hungrily, before pushing you regretfully away from her. “Now turn around.”

“Are you to flagellate me for my sins, love?” You sighed resignedly, wincing as Cirice smacked you across the back of the head as you turned.

“You think that would impress Her? Impress me?” Cirice sniffed in disgust. “You already know the price your actions will exact.”

“I will remember it.” You nodded. “Forever.”

“Just so.” Cirice agreed, and you heard the soft whispering of fabric as the Cupid shed her shift. “Now I am going to wash my fiance’s back. Because he is hurting, and his pain is mine.”

“You don’t need to…” You began.

“I love you.” Cirice replied, her delicate hands pouring the glowing water over you.

“I know, but this is…”

“I love you.”

“It was what had to…”

“I love you.”

“You don’t need…”

“I love you.”

“I…” You grated, your vision clouding against tears “…Why did it have to be like this?”

“I love you.”

“We could have been a real family!” You sobbed, gripping the sides of the tub as agony wracked you, tears falling freely from your eyes. “I could have brought you to meet her… She and my father could have delighted in their grandchildren… What power sings of sweeter promise than that? Why did she force me to be a Matricide?”

“I love you.”

“I wanted to love her! I wanted to be her son… why couldn’t she love me?” You gasped, clawing at the wood of the tub as your pain flowed through you. “…What’s wrong with me?”

“I love you.” Cirice stated again, clinging to your back, kissing the base of your neck in comfort, her wings encircling you both as you wept like a broken-hearted child.

“This isn’t optimal.” You remarked, breaking the quiet of the room now that your grief had finally run its course through you.

“How so, my love?” Cirice queried softly, kissing your earlobe as she cradled you in the steaming water.

“I can’t kiss you from here.” You quipped naughtily, leaning your head up and back to grin at the Cupid.

“There’s the smile I fell in love with…” Cirice cooed, kissing your forehead. “…But there’s a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“If you turn over, then we’ll be but one slip away from a rather irrevocable event.” Cirice whispered lustily into your ear, wrapping her smooth legs around your waist beneath the water, her pert breasts pressed against your back as if to reinforce the statement. “And I am NOT losing my virginity in a Vampire’s manse.”

“Don’t you trust me?” You drawled cheekily.

“Deniel, around you, I barely trust ME.” Cirice laughed, shoving at you.

“Are you hungry, love?” You ventured, stepping from the tub and gesturing towards the table.

“I’m an Angel, Deniel…” Cirice sighed indulgently, rolling her lambent eyes.

“Alright, could you eat?” You sighed, hunting for something to cover yourself, discovering naught but an elegant robe, black silk and trimmed with heavy furs.

“With you, I can do anything.” Cirice teased, standing from the tub and stretching wing and limb deliciously.

“Don’t tease me.” You near-begged, groaning at the delicious sight of the naked cupid before you.

“But it’s so much fun!” Cirice giggled, retrieving her shift and clothing herself, before fixing you with a studious expression. “You know, you look very regal in that.”

“Prithee, gentle lady, wilt thou do me such honour as to…” You began in flowery Magisterian, bowing flourishingly before the Angel and holding out your hand.

“S-stop…” Cirice giggled, pressing her hand to her mouth. “…W-where did you learn to mangle Magisterian like that?”

“A fifteen year old noble?” You grinned sheepishly, holding a chair out for the angel.

“It shows.” Cirice noted in amusement as she took the offered seat. “Now you’ll have to tell me how we approach this, Deniel.”

You pondered the largesse before you. “Well I guess the big knife’s for splitting the bird…” You began, driving the blade along the center crease of the Pheasant’s breast, halving it upon the platter on which it rested. “Hey, it’s stuffed with… I have no idea what that is.”

“Me either… It doesn’t smell terrible though…” Cirice mused as you awkwardly placed half the bird and a generous helping of the stuffing on the plate before her.

“Now… this here in the pot-thingy… is that supposed to go on top?” You mused, looking in puzzlement at the rich rabbit potage.

“That… sounds like a good idea?” Cirice replied helplessly, shrugging her slender shoulders.

“Then if it sounds good to you, love, that’s what we’ll do.” You declared, pouring a deluge of the potage over Cirice’s pheasant.

“Strange…” Cirice mused.

“What’s that love?” You queried, raising your eyebrow as you repeat the process over your own portion of pheasant.

“For just a moment I thought I heard someone crying in despair… Must just be this horrible place.”

“Countess Maris has been the soul of hospitality thus far.” You objected.

“Hmph. Vampires. I don’t know how you can stand them.” Cirice sighed as you filled a crystal goblet before her with honey-coloured wine.

“Must be a Human thing.” You smiled, filling your own goblet. “A toast… to us…”

“To us.” Cirice agreed, shifting her wings slightly, a demure blush on her cheeks as she raised her goblet to you.

“Oof…” You sighed, dabbing your forehead with a napkin.

“Oh Reitia…” Cirice lamented, rubbing at her stomach, her face twisted in discomfort. “…Did we eat too much?”

“I think so…” You agreed, suppressing a belch. “…Maybe some more wine… Oh… It’s empty.”

“I blame the Vampire.” Cirice declared, her face flushed and her eyes unfocused.

“Are you drunk, my love?” You chuckled.

“YOU’RE drunk.” Cirice retorted.

“Maybe a little…” You yawned. “…I’m so tired I can’t tell.”

“Go to bed then, silly Denny…” Cirice giggled, blinking owlishly.

“Sleep with me?” You offered, standing and gesturing to the bed.

“I already told you…” Cirice blustered, staggering to her feet and poking a finger into your chest. “…I am not losing my virginity in the stinking manse of a…”

“No… no love… SLEEP.” You clarified, pulling back the silken, down stuffed coverlets and patting the bed.

“Oh!” Cirice gasped in apparent revelation. “I get to be the little spoon.”

“Whatever you want.” You chuckled, sliding beneath the covers behind her, embracing her about the waist, your arms nestled under her wings.

“Deniel?” Cirice murmured.

“Mmm?”

“Did we have our first fight tonight?”

“No…” You replied without thinking. “…That wasn’t nearly personal enough. Our first fight will be about rice, believe it or not. I’ll say something silly, and then you’ll laugh, and we’ll fall into bed together. That’s the night our son is conceived.”

“Deniel!” Cirice gasped. “Have you learned how to Prophesy?”

“Maybe?” You mumbled, fatigue, wine, and far too much rich food clouding your thoughts. “You’re in my head love, you tell me.”

“Hmmm….” Cirice mused happily.

“What?”

“It’s nice to know I won’t have to wait too long for you to reach the Adept intersect.”

“Wait… What?!” You blurted.

“Keep going the way you’re going…” Cirice breathed, grinding her firm, rounded backside against you. “… Please.”

“Don’t tease.” You ordered with a tense groan.

“I love you.” Cirice giggled, snuggling backwards into you.

“I love you too.” You sighed happily, your nose filled with the scent of Cupid wings.

“Pilgrim?” A voice ventured from the door.

“Whu? Whazzat?” You groaned, blinking for a moment at the unfamiliar surroundings. You sat up in the luxurious bed, Cirice murmuring slightly in her sleep as you shifted. At the door stood a strange, dark figure. She was dressed in a maid’s outfit, yet at the same time seemed strangely… moist?

“The Mistress would like to know if you would join her for the morning meal.” The strange figure remarked, her movements somehow too fluid to be normal. “And would inform you that whilst she does not begrudge you your choice of company, she would prefer to be informed of unexpected guests. If you had summoned the Cupid in the west wing, things could have gotten somewhat… Disastrous I believe is the term she used.”

“What’s in the west wing?” You blurted, still not quite fully awake.

“You need not concern yourself, Pilgrim.” the abnormal, fluid figure assured you, folding her… hands? “She is not interested in humans. This month, at least.”

“I uh… Thank you…” You murmured, shaking your head and trying to make some sense of it. The figure inclined her head politely, closing the door and… Was that another glowing yellow eye that just appeared in her shoulder?

“Cirice?”

“Mmm?” The Cupid murmured, rolling towards you and opening her lambent eyes, looking at you with an expression of such adoration that for a moment you could think of nothing else.

“You’re so beautiful…” You blurted without thought.

Cirice gave you a smile, and it was like the sun rising again. You leaned forwards, pressing your lips to her lush, bowlike mouth.

“Good morning to you too!” Cirice giggled softly, encircling your neck briefly with her arms before sitting up in the luxurious bed. “It is morning, isn’t it?”

“It is.” You acknowledged, catching one of the cupid’s questing hands as she stretched out deliciously. “And Lady Maris has sent one of her servants to advise breakfast is ready.”

“Erk.” Cirice grimaced, her soft lips twisted in a moue of distaste. “Deniel are you really going to subject me to a meal at a Vampire’s table?”

“Quite the opposite.” You grinned guiltily. “Though I don’t doubt you can force yourself to civility, I don’t want to risk offending her, especially since she’s been so generous.”

“Sent her whores to tempt you and everything…” Cirice grumbled, her wings rustling as she slid them free of the silken sheets. “…But I must say I agree with your reasoning.”

“You’re not put out with me, love?”

“No, but If one of those slatterns so much as lingers a hand upon you, I’ll burn it off.” Cirice declared posessively.

“Then I shall be an image of reservation.” You laughed, stroking the Cupid’s hand gently with your fingers.

“Good.” Cirice sniffed, before pursing her lips at you. “Now kiss me away.”

You put a hand on the cupid’s cheek, and for a moment were struck with how petite and delicate she appeared in your hands, completely belying the astonishing power she wielded. You bent your mouth to hers, closing your eyes as you lost yourself in the kiss. Cirice’s radiance brightened, brightened, until you could see it through your closed lids…

…and then she was gone.

You sighed, the world seeming a little duller with her absence, before hunting down that fur-lined robe you had found last night in absence of your own simple garments. At some point you had been clad in some brief linen shorts to preserve your dignity… but for the life of you, the memory of exactly WHEN that had occurred escaped you. Putting it out of your mind, you shrugged the robe over your shoulders, lacing it firmly and inspecting yourself in the floorlength sheet of mirrored glass which stood where the bath once… wait… when did the bath disappear?

Shaking your head in dismissal, you had to admit, you did look kinda mean in this thing.

“Good morning, Pilgrim.” Lady Maris greeted you, seated demurely at the head of the table… A table which to your complete surprise, was generously bathed in warm morning light!

“My Lady Countess.” You blurted, quickly bowing as you remembered yourself. “I must say I’m surprised at the… decor.”

“Oh, the sunlight?” Maris smiled. “A Vampire of my age learns to overcome many limitations, and I must say I enjoy the warmth… briefly, of course.”

“Wonders never cease.” You replied politely, not sure what to say to that. “I apologise, but I had to avail myself of this garment. One of your servants took my clothes and hasn’t yet returned them.”

“You had a Cupid in your room, I’m hardly surprised.” Maris quipped, licking one of her pointed eyeteeth.

“I apologise if for any impost that caused, but at the time I…”

“Eponine was… overenthusiastic.” Maris admitted, cutting you off. “Even in life she was a hot-blooded girl… part of why I simply had to collect her. In any case no harm was done, and I sense she has since left.”

“She has, Countess, and thank you for your understanding. You have been entirely too generous.”

“Oh not at all Deniel. If nothing else the picture of innocence of the pair of you sleeping was entirely worth my frazzled pets.”

You frowned slightly. “You… Looked in on us, My Lady?”

“Nothing occurs in my Manse without that I am aware of it, Pilgrim.” Maris smiled mysteriously, lifting a heavy metal goblet to her lips. “But please, sit. Eat.”

“Thank you, Countess.” You nodded, your mouth watering at the sight of the largesse before you. Sausage, Bacon, biscuits, beans soaking in gravy, mushrooms positively swimming in butter…

“Heh.” You chuckled as you filled your plate. “Tomatoes.”

Maris raised her eyebrow. “Something the matter?”

“Nothing… just something someone said once. Tomatoes are the worst kind of fruit, they don’t go with anything but themselves.” You admitted, sitting back and grabbing your cutlery.

Maris pursed her crimson lips quizzically. “I suppose you had to be there.”

“You might be right, My Lady.” You nodded, tucking in. “Say…” You murmured after a few mouthfuls, pointing with the heel of your knife at a stone figure opposite you, a half-eaten plate in front of it. It was feminine in shape, framed by horns and massive batlike wings. “…That’s an interesting sculpture.”

“Oh drat, and here was me thinking she was just being shy.” Maris sighed, smacking her hand against the wooden table “Gethra! Wake up! You’re being very rude!”

“Wha? Mistress!” The Statue blurted, coming suddenly to life and nearly making you choke on your breakfast in surprise. “I was just resting my eyes and… Hey! Where did you come from?”

“I have told you. If you can’t stay awake at my table then don’t come to breakfast so late.” The Vampire chided.

“I’m sorry mistress…” the now ambulatory statue mumbled, before spreading a fanged mouth wide in a yawn of creaking stone.

“Pedestal, young lady. Now!”

The statue stole a quick few bites of the half-eaten meal before it, before scrambling from the room in a strange gait, its long arms almost assisting it as it ambled from the sun-bathed room.

“Gargoyle?” You queried helplessly.

“One of my favourites. Gethra.” Maris chuckled helplessly. “Word of advice Pilgrim, don’t accept a hug goodbye from that one if it’s anything near dawn.”

You ducked your head respectfully. “Thank you for the advice, My Lady. I fear I must be on my way shortly, but I had hoped to say farewell to Mark before I…”

“Mistress…” A voice sobbed, and you half-turned to see a pale-skinned figure clinging to the edges of the shadows, avoiding the beams of sunlight as if her life depended on it.

“Elise! What are you doing out here, you’ll get burned!” Maris chided with a gasp, half rising from her chair.

The Vampire servant wrung her hands in consternation. “T-the Consigliere ordered me… H-he said he wants meat and ale.”

“I told him broth, blood, and fruit juice until he is on his feet.” Maris declared in a voice like iron.

“Y-yes Mistress, but he…”

“Go and tell him he’s making me cross.” Maris ordered.

“P-please don’t make me…” Elise whimpered, warring against the compulsion of her mistress’s command.

“And why not?”

“He’ll… he’ll yell at me!” the younger vampire wailed, crimson tears springing from her eyes as she sobbed.

Maris sighed pityingly. “Oh Elise… What will I do with you? Go on, to bed with you.”

“Yes mistress!” The Vampire gushed gratefully, fleeing the room.

“Well well…” Maris murmured thoughtfully. “…His strength is surprising.”

“My Lady?” You ventured questioningly.

“Marcus. His command not only made Elise risk the sun but made her resist me, however weakly… It’s an interesting development.”

“Does that mean he’s a Vampire now?” You asked with slight trepidation. The man was intractable enough as a human, questionable as the designation was.

“Marcus? Hah… He’ll not be a Vampire. Human men don’t take to the turn very well… But between my blood and his magic, he’ll be something… more.”

“More?”

“A POWER, Sweet Pilgrim. A Blood-Knight such as the world has not seen in aeons. But he’s not there yet. Not without that I let him. This is still MY house, after all.”

An irresistable temptation whispered in your mind, and you smiled slightly. “Countess, I would be happy to bear your instruction to Mark, along with my farewell.”

“Oh?” the Vampire smirked, obviously coming to similar conclusion. “Would you, sweet pilgrim? I would be most grateful.”

“Reitia!” You gasped, opening the door to a scene of debauched luxury. Naked Vampires sprawled across the palatial bed, squirming and groping at each other, the air thick with the musk of rut and the copper stench of blood. Amidst the carnal mass, propped up on pillows, sat the unmistakable, dark-haired figure of Mark. A Vampire crawled up next to him, panting her lust, before biting her wrist and holding it out towards the man’s face.

“Away!” Mark snapped, slapping at the vampire’s hand. “Meat and beer! Have you all gone simple?”

“Mark?” you blurted incredulously “What is this?”

“Therapy.” the Blood-mage spat, his expression dour. “Would you believe it? Blood, Broth and juices, like I’m some kind of swaddling childer.”

“It’s the Pilgrim…” One of the Vampires hissed.
“…Smells so pure…”
“…Yessss…”
“…Come Pilgrim…”
“…Don’t you want us?”

One of the Vampires nearest the foot of the bed spread her legs lewdly, her fingers busy within her sopping womanhood, her pointed eyeteeth biting teasingly at her pouty lower lip as she stared at you with smouldering, feral eyes.

“Are they always like this?” You sighed, not looking at the blatant invitation.

“Only every chance they can get. Dratted whores.”

“You say…”
“…the sweetest things…”
“…dear Consigliere.”

One of the Vampires clearly had enough of being ignored and left the bed, sauntering towards you, her tongue licking at her teeth, her pale, pert breasts heaving with desire.

“No!” Another hissed, grasping her fellow about the waist, and you recognised Eponine from the night before. “Smell the angel on him! It is death.”

“I’m glad to see you’re alright, Miss Eponine.” You acknowledged the vampire politely. “But I did warn you.”

“I didn’t mean any harm…” Eponine whispered, her eyes downcast as the lustful vampire turned her attention to her, groping and moaning as she nuzzled at Eponine’s neck.

“I know, but I’m hers, and she’s mine. Reitia has seen fit to bring us together.” You explained.

“Maybe I’ll find that someday…” Eponine sighed, her feral eyes half-lidded as the other Vampire worked her fingers between her legs.

“Reitia Willing…” You agreed, turning your attention again to Mark. “…You’re making them do this, aren’t you?”

“Maybe a little.” Mark admitted with a sheepish grin. “Convalescence is so damned BORING after all. Thank you for visiting, Deniel, I appreciate the distraction if nothing else.”

“I did genuinely want to see that you were alright.” You insisted. “Without you, I don’t think I could have done any of it.”

“Without me, you’d have sweet-talked the Tyrisians into running a Crusade on the place.” Mark grumbled. “But thank you.”

“And…” You continued “…I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Oh?”

“I’m continuing my Pilgrimage… just as soon as I figure out where in the name of the Gods I am.” You admitted with a slightly sheepish grin.

“You’re in Albany, you dolt.” Mark snorted. “Town proper’s three hours east, A few day’s travel from Doric by good wagon, a week and change to Iona, or the same to the docks in Halifax.”

“Oh… well, thank you.” You replied brightly.

“No charge… did… did my mistress say anything?” Mark asked hopefully.

“She did.” You nodded, beginning to turn from the borderline orgy.

“Don’t be a dick, Pilgrim, what did she say?”

“I believe it was ‘Broth, Blood, and fruit juices…” You remarked simply, walking from the room. “…Reitia be with you, Mark.”

“You’re an asshole Pilgrim, you’re lucky I like you!” Mark’s snarl sounded as you closed the door behind yourself.

“Excuse me…” You called, holding a hand out to the scurrying Vampire who slunk along the shadowed wall.

“I didn’t touch you!” The Vampire hissed, shying back from you.

You frowned in puzzlement. “I… Didn’t say you did.”

“P-please Pilgrim… Don’t set your Angel upon me…” The pale-skinned girl near-sobbed, looking at you pleadingly, her glowing, feral eyes filled with fear.

“Peace, miss…” You murmured assuringly. “…I only want to know where your fellows took my belongings.”

“O-oh…” The Vampire sighed in relief. “…I can show you.”

“Elise, isn’t it?” You remarked, recognising the pale figure from breakfast.

“Y-yes.” the vampire stammered nervously.

“There’s no need for fear.” You assured her. “I have no quarrel with you.”

“I-I know…” Elise whimpered. “…B-but my dreams show me things.”

“Your dreams?” You echoed in confusion as the Vampire led you up darkened, windowless halls.

“I am an Onieromancer.” Elise explained in a hesitant voice. “It is what the Mistress saw in me… why she… turned me…”

“A Dreamwalker?” You gasped in pleased astonishment. “That is a rare gift.”

“It’s awful, Pilgrim!” Elise sobbed. “I’m so tired… but my sleep keeps showing me things… terrible things…”

“Elise…” You ventured, your heart welling with sympathy, reaching out a hand and squeezing the Vampire comfortingly on the shoulder. “…Part of what I do is to hear the sorrows of others, to try and help them, as Mother Reitia has taught me. Will sharing your fears with me help you at all?”

The Vampire paused, hesitantly putting her hand atop yours. “Did you know, Pilgrim, that there is a secret song at the center of the world?”

“I didn’t, but I don’t see…” You replied indulgently.

“Its music is the sound of teeth in flesh.” Elise choked, turning and throwing her arms around you. “I’m so tired… so tired… and so… thirsty…”

A crawling sensation of unease worked its way up your shoulder blades, and you put a hand against the Vampire, gently pushing her away from you.

“So warm…” Elise hissed, grabbing at your arm and baring a maw of broken glass as her face mutated into a mantrap.

“eLiSe… ReLeAsE tHe HuMaN…” A voice intoned in the tongues of madness itself.

“I’m sorry!” The vampire shrieked, dissipating into mist before fleeing down the darkened hallway. “I’m sorry!”

“Ob Norzu Mal…” You murmured, summoning your magical energies as you turned to face the new threat… Only to pause as you recognised the strange, fluid figure from that morning.

“They are intractable in their youth…” The figure apologised, bowing slightly to you. “…Might I be of assistance?”

“Er… Thank you… uh…” You mumbled, your magic dissipating.

“You may refer to me as Li’ir.” The figure smiled, a new set of eyes blinking briefly in its torso before vanishing into the morass of its shifting form.

“Li’ir…” You repeated “…Forgive me, but… what are you?”

“You are not equipped to comprehend the truth, Pilgrim. It pleases your people to title me ‘Shoggoth’.”

“I fear that in itself means little to me.” You admitted with a helpless grin.

“Innocence…” Li’ir whispered, a cool hand raising briefly to your cheek. “…Hold to that, Pilgrim of Reitia, for as long as you may.”

You blinked uncomprehendingly. “…Thank you?”

“You are welcome. Now, what is it you seek?”

“My belongings, please.” You repeated.

“Ah…” Li’ir acknowledged, somehow turning within herself to face in the opposite direction. “Follow me, please.”

You followed after the strange creature, all bemused as she seemed to flow along the ground, coming to a halt as she knocked on an otherwise unremarkable door.

“Selthis? How are you coming dear?” the Shoggoth asked pleasantly. Her only answer was a string of chittering curses, plus something heavy impacting on the door.

“Oh my…” Li’ir chuckled, a strange liquid sound, before opening the door and flowing inside.

“Fuck off, Shoggy.” an angry female voice hissed. Curiosity got the better of you, and you followed after the strange creature, to be confronted with a confusing mass of spiderweb which bedecked seemingly every surface. Slight movement caught your eye, two slender, chitin-coated legs shifting position in the dim light of the doorway as a carmine-eyed, shadowy mass lurked in the darkness beyond.

“I thought you loved a challenge, Selthis.” Li’ir remarked in that same dulcet, polite, yet strangely liquid voice.

“There’s a challenge, you eldritch thing, and then there’s trying to restore a garment from fragments chewed to near oblivion!” The voice chittered, and a wad of fabric sailed from the darkness to land in a sodden heap on the stone floor before you. With a sinking feeling, you recognised a rough quarter of your tunic, chewed and rent as if a pack of wolves had set upon it.

“What happened?” You blurted in shock.

“This is him?” The voice asked, the carmine eyes coming closer. “Of course it is. Beefy thing he is… positively REEKING of Angel and Innocence… No wonder the girls devolved into frenzy.”

You frowned in puzzlement. “Madam? Are you saying…”

“A dozen vampires, you great slab. All fighting and fucking and chewing on this rag like it was made of black lotus. If you weren’t here before me I’d say Lady Maris was having fun with me. But… Here you are.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” The alien figure of Li’ir stated, flowing elegantly from the room.

“M-my satchel and staff?” You gulped, returning your attention to the shape in the darkness.

“They’re fine.” The voice sniffed dismissively, as the shape moved closer to reveal a large Arachne, the humanoid female form of her upper torso surprisingly petite considering the span of her spideresque legs. “But I think we’ll be better served by starting from scratch. Strip.”

Your eyes widened in shock. “W-what?”

“Take off your clothes, Human.” the spider demanded, two pairs of chitinous limbs planting themselves to either side of you, her black-armoured hands grasping at the front of the robe you had clothed yourselves in. “Or do you require assistance?”

“COMSELEH IALPRG” You snarled, a blazing arc of fire bursting into life around you.

“Maou’s pert buttocks!” The spider shrieked, recoiling and batting at the flames which licked her limbs. “What the hell, pilgrim?”

“I will not be raped in violation of my holy vows…” You growled, feeling the depths of your magics swell and build within your soul… Reitia preserve, in such a short time, you had become so… STRONG!

“R-raped?” The Arachne laughed incredulously, her voice tinged with pain as she cradled a forelimb, its chitin cracked and dark blood welling from the flesh beneath. “Offer to make him a replacement tunic and he accuses you of rape… Humans… They’ll never fucking change…”

“You didn’t say anything about replacing my tunic…” You objected, letting the fire die.

“Didn’t I? Fuck!” the ebon-limbed spider cursed. “Well that does kind of explain your recalcitrance… Maou be glorified that hurts!”

“Commoh Tah Noblo Zien…” You intoned almost apologetically, healing magics flowing from your hands to encase the spider in softly glowing light. She mewled, a strangely delicate sound, as the magic knitted split exoskeleton and charred skin, until before long, not a trace of the burns remained.

“Perhaps we can start again on a better footing. I’m Deniel.” You offered in a soothing voice.

“Selthis, the tailor.” The Arachne murmured, somewhat more subdued. “Now will you please take your clothes off? I can’t get accurate measurements with that rug over your shoulders.”

“How do you find it?” Selthis asked, smoothing the front of your tunic with her chitinous forelimbs.

“It feels like I’m wearing nothing at all!” You marvelled. Through some magic unknown to you, the spider had replicated the soft earth-colours of your previous garment, though the fabric was softer, more flexible, and felt like it could stop a broadhead arrow in mid-flight.

“Simply put…” Selthis near-purred in pride. “…Good at what I fucking do.”

“You are indeed a master of your craft, Lady Selthis.”

“No Lady, please. I work for a Maou-damned living.” The Arachne sniffed, before nestling a forelimb in your hair, mussing it whimsically. “You know you don’t half remind me of my little boy.”

You blinked in surprise, meeting the spider’s multiple, carmine eyes with your own. “A son? You’re married then?”

Selthis snickered, an odd chittering sound, before pressing a talonlike finger against your chest. “Remember that the next time you accuse a nice old lady of rape.”

“Again, my sincerest apologies, but it has been a trying…”

“Ah… You won’t be the first man who’s had the wind put up ‘em by the Countess’s little flock.” Selthis snickered. “Plus I can make the hubby baby me outrageously when I tell him a Reitian set me on fire.”

“Er… I don’t think that’s…” You began.

“Pilgrim, I said I forgive you. Doesn’t mean I’m going to lie to my man for you.” Selthis interjected firmly.

“That’s fair.” You conceded.

“Damn right… Although some of the poems in here…” Selthis chuckled, holding out your satchel on a translucent strand of silk. “…Not sure I’ll get a chance to tell him once I repeat them to him… I never knew you Reitians were so LEWD!”

“Lewd?” You echoed in puzzlement. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“I am a flower, opening softly to the warm caress of the sun…” Selthis intoned “…Maybe it’s a married eye that sees it differently.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” You nodded, retrieving satchel and staff. “My thanks again, Master Tailor…”

“Don’t leave that lying there.” Selthis demanded, pointing a spideresque limb at the robe you had removed earlier.

“Oh… I nearly forgot that.” You admitted, scooping it up and laying it over the band of your satchel. “Do you think Lady Maris would mind if I kept it?”

“If she put it in that room, she intended for it to get torn to shreds.” Selthis drawled. “Be careful with the gifts of Vampires. There’s always an unseen ploy in there somewhere.”

“I see. Reitia bless you.”

“Thank you Pilgrim. You’re heading to Albany proper?”

“That is the plan.” You admitted.

“If you see my son, tell him to come see his mother once in a while, will you?”

You nodded instinctively. “How will I know him?”

“A wine-stain birthmark, here.” Selthis explained, pointing her finger at your throat. “Solid, though not as big as you, slab. Black of hair like his daddy.”

“I’ll remember.” You assured her, gripping your staff and ducking your head as you exited the chamber. Closing the door, you took a deep breath. Somehow you felt like you were hurtling towards something… You just wish you knew what that something was.

“And Love came to rest upon her, yea…” You preached in the fading light of late afternoon, the crowds hurrying past without sparing you more than a slight glance. “…Even her, Blessed amongst Blessed, the Daughter of the Disciple, and did melt a heart frozen to ice, e’en as the cruel wind of the north lashed at them. So too will the Blessing of Reitia rest upon all of you, who suffer under manifold trials. Rejoice, Humans and Mamono alike! Rejoice, for Love is Here! Rejoice, for the All-Mother of Creation spreads her arms to embrace any who would turn to her for comfort…”

“Whatcha doin?” a piping voice interrupted, combined with a slight tug at the leg of your trousers. You looked down, seeing a young, human-looking girl peering up at you, her slight body clad in a strangely bound and patched outfit.

“Hello there.” You smiled, taking a knee. “Out with your parents for the evening?”

“Heehee… You’re funny!” The girl giggled. “Whatcha doin?”

“Spreading the word of Reitia, sweet girl.” You explained patronizingly.

“Why?”

“Because She loves us all. You, me, all of the good people here in Albany. Everybody in the Westerlands, Everybody across the wide, wide world.”

“Why?”

You blinked slightly. “Because that’s who She is. Love, and Love more abundantly. It was Her blessing that brought your Mother and your Father together. Her blessing that made you…”

“Why?”

“Because it is her Joy and Pleasure to do so…” You replied helplessly.

The girl giggled again. “You don’t know, do you?”

“I suppose not.” You admitted. “Not in any real detail anyway. Maybe she’ll tell me someday.”

“Maybe.” The girl nodded, her small, bowlike mouth pursed in deep thought. “Wanna come back to my place?”

You frowned slightly in hesitation. “Will your parents be alright with that?”

“Yeah sure.” The girl assured you, snickering as if remembering a joke.

“Well… alright…” You shrugged, looking about. “Doesn’t look like people are in the mood to hear a sermon anyway.”

“Yay!” The girl squealed, grabbing your hand and pulling you along behind her.

“Hey there!” You exclaimed in amused surprise, grabbing your staff from the ground as the girl yanked insistently at your arm. “Where’s the fire?”

The girl turned her cherubic features to you, her smile broad and eager. “C’mon!”

“Alright, alright… So how far away is your house?”

“Not far.” The girl replied enigmatically, turning into an alleyway, leading you through tightly built walls of bleak, grey stone.

“Do you usually wander through here on your own?” You murmured in a low voice, your eyes busy on the many shadowed underhangs and culverts. You could swear hooded eyes peered out from the cracks of heavy doors as you passed, figures moving with unknown intent as the shadows deepened into night.

“Uh huh!” The girl answered cheerily, her skipping gait fearless and constant, her grip on your wrist unceasing in its insistence.

“It doesn’t seem the safest neighbourhood…”

The girl looked over her shoulder at you again with a giggle. “You’re funny.”

“If you say so…” You shrugged.

“Copy me now.” The girl stated simply as you turned down another blind alley, releasing your hand and hopping and jumping along a series of cobbles, childlike drawings scrawled in brightly coloured chalk upon their surface.

“Hopscotch?” You chuckled incredulously. “I haven’t played this in years…”

“Come ooooonnnnnnn…” The girl begged, stamping her feet impatiently at the other side of the chalk drawings.

“I’ll try…” You sighed, taking a grip of your staff and leaping inexpertly atop the nearest cobblestone. It was much harder than it looked, your feet being much larger than your guide’s. Sure enough, on the third jump, your foot hits the stone at a glancing angle, and you felt yourself slip. On instinct, you stuck your staff out to steady yourself, only for the sturdy looking stonework to bend and fold, a terrible thing of claw and tentacle bursting through to champ at the staff, shattering the hardwood into splinters.

“Ob Norzu Mal…” You began instinctively, raising your arms.

“Awwww!” The child sulked. “You’re bad at this game.”

“Run!” You yelled at the child, reaching deep within yourself, feeling yourself rise off the ground as power arced and snapped around yourself, the thing pulling itself further forward, and you finally began to behold it in all its horrible glory. It was spider-like, as far as it went, yet its powerful, chitinous legs were four in number, not eight, and where a Mamono’s humanoid torso would begin, it possessed only an immense ever-gaping maw, filled with fangs and writhing, slapping tendrils.

“Why?” The girl asked with that same fearless innocence.

The surprise of that statement threw you off equilibrium, and your first bolt of lightning flew wide, blasting red-hot fragments of stone from a nearby wall, fragments which blessedly sprayed mostly onto the spider-thing, causing it to screech and scuttle sideways.

“Tina!” a new voice yelled. “You two-bit omnishambles! Why are you bothering him?”

“It’s not my fault Gretchin! This one’s got big feet!” The girl lamented, turning her attention to another girl who had stepped from a nearby doorway. Your eyes widened as you too turned to look at her, the surprise making you momentarily forget about the spider-thing. She appeared to be of similar age to the girl who had led you – Tina, apparently, but that was where the similarity ended. Her hair was glossy black, with red, insectile eyes peering from beneath its bangs in three diagonal pairs down her forehead. She was clad in the briefest shards of what appeared to be discarded chitin, and to say they covered her dignity would be a laughable statement. Four segmented, pointed limbs flailed in anger where they sprouted from her spine as she stomped over to the spider-thing on dainty, human-like feet, flashing a murderous glare over her shoulders at the girl.

“May your ears turn to assholes and shit on your shoulders!” She spat, before smacking the spider on one of the meaty tentacles sprouting from its ‘face’. “And you! You’re about as useful as a marzipan dildo! Couldn’t you smell the magic from a mile away? He would have turned you into a leaking smear on that wall there… at least then you’d have a body to match the privy-pan you call a brain!”

The spider-thing shrieked, rounding on the foul-mouthed girl, and you stretched out a hand, desperate to stop it from devouring her. “Ialp…”

“Don’t even think about it you brick-topped cock with attached man.” the girl spat at you, fixing you with a glare of such utter poison that your spell withered on your lips in mid cast. The spider-thing wasted no time, lunging forward and enveloping her legs and lower torso in that nest of fangs and writhing tentacles.

“Ahnnn~” Gretchin moaned, her small hands gripping spasmodically at the coarse hair atop the thing’s body. “Wretch… S-scum… P-p-pathetic… Oh Elder Ones I’m cumming!”

“What. In the name. Of Reita?!” You demanded, your eyes wide with shock and horror.

“Gretchin you’re so lewd!” Tina lamented, as the spider-thing dragged Gretchin’s tiny form back beneath the illusory ‘ground’ from which it had sprung, the girl’s limbs, both humanoid and arachnid gripping at the thing, her mouth hanging slack, her tiny pink tongue hanging out as she panted in paroxysms of ecstasy.

“Heresy…” You blurted in mindless shock “…Heresy…”

“C’mon Deniel…” Tina chuckled, the warm suggestion in her voice even more horrible coming from her childlike mouth. She grabbed your hand again, her eyes flashing violet, and your mind seemed to fog over, your limbs moving almost of their own accord as she pulled you into the door Gretchin had emerged from.

“Sit there please.” Tina instructed, and you felt yourself sink onto a garishly painted armchair, pastel pink, with childlike designs scrawled all over it. The part of your mind still lucid felt a distant sense of wry amusement, the chair was so small your knees almost reached your chin, and you felt the wood creaking underneath you.

“Tina!” Another voice rang out, and a third figure flitted into the room, catching your guide in an enthusiastic embrace. You had seen immature succubi before, but this one was different. There was none of the presence to her, none of the preternatural intellect… in all ways this one was… simpler.

“Imp…” You finally realized, and with a rush of horrified revelation, you realized where you were.

Throughout all doctrines and records of history, the Sabbath were the sort of thing most societies preferred not to acknowledge, let alone deal with, millennia of pederasty being an unquestionable death sentence rendering the solitary ‘What if’ beyond the stomach of even the most idealistic egalitarianist to tackle. They were, from what little you knew of them, little more than a loose collective of those few mamono blessed (or cursed) with near-immortality and an unchangeably youthful appearance. The lucid part of your mind cursed your inattention. You should have been immediately suspicious of the girl, especially considering the clannish behaviour of the remainder of Albany’s residents.

“He’s a big one!” The Imp remarked impressedly, trailing a finger along your forearm.

“Hey!” Tina objected in a high, shrill voice. “I found him, Kumi.”

“You’re no fun at all, Tina.” The imp sulked.

Tina pursed her lips, her small thighs rubbing together as she looked at you with a lewd hunger. “Well I am willing to share, he’s big enough to be a big brother for the both…”

Suddenly, your mind cleared, and the girls squealed as your spasmodic movement shattered the chair underneath you, laying you out on the floor. Tensing yourself, you began to rise, before freezing as the blade of an obviously hell-forged scythe came to rest beside your neck. “Tina what in the name of Maou have you gone and done?” a new voice demanded.

“I found an Onii-Chan, Lizette!” Tina declared brightly, sitting presumptively on your stomach.

“And I get to share!” Kumi insisted, plopping herself down next to the girl.

“Witches… At least the Imp has an excuse for stupidity…” The voice sighed, and you craned your neck backwards, to be confronted with a dainty pair of goatish legs. Following them up, you looked upon the pubescent form of a goat-girl, her undeveloped body clad in an outrageously indecent outfit, her face held helplessly in a furred appendage closer to a beast’s paw than a human hand. Removing her hand, she looked down at you with devastating azure eyes, a depraved smile spreading across her bowlike mouth, a pair of small fangs just barely protruding over her bottom lip. You heart sank. A Baphomet.

“Enjoying the view, mister?” She piped in a voice whose innocence belied the salacious innuendo behind it.

“Reitia!” You gasped, fighting the urge to get up and flee… the keen edge of that scythe was way too close to your neck.

“And don’t even think about calling that Cupid…” She continued, before turning her attention to Tina again. “…And that’s the other thing, he REEKS of heaven. Are you so hard up for a headpat that you’ll go snatching Pilgrims from under Celestial noses?”

“Poo to Angels. All’s fair in love and war.” Tina harrumphed, folding her arms in a sulky pout. “He’s not marked yet, he’s still a virgin, isn’t he?”

“I am forsworn, please…” You whispered, a pleading expression on your face. “…I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Hurt us?” The Baphomet echoed incredulously. “Awww… You’re a big sweetheart aren’t you? Maris did say you were as soft as candy-floss but I thought she was talking about your tummy.”

“That’s not soft.” The imp, Kumi declared, running her small hand down your stomach, feeling the solid muscle underneath your spider-woven tunic. “I wonder if…”

“Down Kumi. I do not want a war with Heaven this week.” The Baphomet ordered, the Imp harrumphing and sulking in a similar pose to the witch.

“Maris… It was you, in the west wing of her Manse!” You declared.

Lizette smiled at you. “See now you can make that kind of deduction based on nothing and yet you go wandering off with a witch… I don’t know if you’re stupid or just that innocent.”

“Just let me go.” You pleaded. “This has clearly been a big misunder…”

“Ah ah…” Lizette interrupted, leaning down and poking your nose with a furred digit. “I don’t come across many Reitian Pilgrims… I might have something I can use you for yet.”

“I found him!” Tina insisted, getting up off your stomach and stamping her feet in an apparent tantrum.

“When you should have been preparing for the ritual!” Lizette retorted, removing the scythe from where it rested against your neck. “Now put him with the other ones. We’ll sort this out later.”

With a flick of her beastlike wrist, a glowing bolt of magenta energy struck you in the face, and you saw nothing else.

“You’re awake?” A black-haired young man murmured, shaking your shoulders gently.

“Yeah…” You coughed, blinking and shaking your head slightly. The room you were in was dimly lit with candles set high along the walls, glowing with a light that was clearly not entirely mundane. “…Where are we?”

“Hell.” Another man, heavyset, with a shock of curly, mud-brown hair sighed hopelessly where he sat on a simple bed, his chin resting glumly in his hands. “We’ll succumb eventually… then we’ll burn.”

“Speak for yourself Horace.” The black haired young man snorted. “I did not spend this long following the song to be stumped by a bunch of pubescent mamono.”

“Alice will come back, Doyle…” Horace lamented “…She almost had me last time.”

“Then don’t look. Sing one of those awful Tyrisian hymns at her until she goes away.”

“Blasphemy!” The fat man blustered, his jowls shaking.

“I’ll apologise to the Lord of Order when He gets us out of this mess.” Doyle declared simply, and your eyes were drawn to a purple marking along the side of his throat. A burp of helpless laughter escaped your mouth, and for a moment you were lost in uncontrollable mirth.

“Oh Tyris, he’s gone mad!” Horace cried, standing and backing away from you.

“I’m fine, goodman…” You gasped, holding your hand out. “…It’s just… The mark…”

“What about it?” Doyle demanded, putting a hand to his throat self-consciously.

“Your mother sends her regards.” You replied simply. “Holy Reitia, what did I do to annoy Fate so vigorously?”

“Oh does she?” Doyle mused, straightening and folding his arms. “Then you can tell her exactly what I told her. I don’t care HOW nice the Tarantula at the steading outside Halifax is. I’m following the song, and that’s final.”

You blinked uncomprehendingly. “What? She only told me to pass on her regards if I ran into you, and to ask would it be too much for you to visit her now and then.”

Doyle eyed you suspiciously. “She didn’t tell you to try and make me stop following the song?”

“Goodman, I don’t know what in the name of Reitia you’re on about!” You admitted honestly.

Doyle sighed, brushing a lock of ebon hair behind his ear. “Maybe she’s come to accept it then.”

“Maybe?” You chuckled helplessly.

“You invoked the name of Reitia, you’re a Pilgrim then?”

You nodded. “I am. My name is Deniel.”

“Doyle Tailorson, bard of some small repute.” The ebon-haired young man replied whimsically. “The fat git over there is Horace Holdsward. Don’t take him too seriously, he’s of Dixon, and we all know how Tyrisian that holding is.”

“Do you cast disparagement upon the Worship of the Most High?!” The heavyset man demanded, his voice shrill with outrage.

“The Lord of Order is the God of Humanity, may honour ever be extended upon His name.” You responded placatingly, raising your arms into the Sign of the Sunburst.

“All Glory to the Most High.” Horace murmured, mirroring your gesture, somewhat mollified by your reverence.

“I wonder who he’s trying to convince.” Doyle chuckled. “He followed the song same as I did in the beginning, before we got blindsided by…”

A light knocking at the door interrupted your conversation. “Hello?” A soft, innocent voice sounded muffled through the wood. “May I come in?”

“Oh Tyris Preserve me!” Horace near-whimpered. “Pilgrim! Your order is skilled in magic, yes? I beg you, in the name of Tyris, don’t let her come in here!”

Doyle rolled his eyes, turning his attention again to you. “She’ll be in here one way or another. If he truly wants to avoid it, he’ll manage. Personally I think he wants it to happen.”

“It is Heresy!” Horace blustered. “Please Pilgrim… I… I can’t resist her again.”

“What’s the password?” You demanded, hurrying forward to throw the latch.

“Password?” The soft voice echoed. “I don’t know about any passwords.”

“I’m going to die…” Horace moaned helplessly.

“Goodman, shush.” You demanded, before returning your attention to the door. “Gotta have the password if you want to come in, those are the rules.”

“W-why are you being so mean to me?” the voice demanded in a heart-wrenching whimper, and you caught your hand moving towards the latch almost before you could think. Damn, this one was strong!

“C’mon… It’s a game.” You wheedled, trying to keep the desperation from your voice. A tiny part of your mind worried that if whatever this ‘Alice’ was were to ask you directly, you would let her in without so much as a murmur of protest. “Don’t you like games?”

“I don’t wanna play games. I wanna see my onii-chan.” The voice demanded petulantly.

You sighed in exaggerated resignation. “Well alright, but all the kids at the Temple say Brother Deniel makes up the best games.”

“Really?” The voice asked in hopeful excitement, a sentiment mirrored by Horace’s open mouthed incredulity and Doyle’s raised eyebrow.

“Alright, not ALL of them, but a good number!” You blustered, your ingrained antipathy to falsehood forcing its way out.

“Okay. How do I get the password?” The voice replied eagerly.

“You need to bring me something.” You began, wracking your brain frantically.

“What?”

“Uh… The answer to this riddle.” You blustered.

“Of no use to one, Yet absolute bliss to two.
The small boy gets it for nothing.
The young man must be cautious in accepting it.
The old man’s treasure cannot buy it.
The baby’s right,
The lover’s privilege,
The hypocrite’s mask.
To the young girl, faith;
To the married woman, hope;
To the old maid, charity.
What am I?”

“Ooh…” The voice murmured. “…Okay! I’ll be back when I find it!”

You held your breath, listening to the light sounds of small feet running away until you were absolutely sure the Alice had left. Releasing your breath in an explosive sigh, you turned back towards your fellow humans. “Goodmen, I believe that gives us a little breathing room.”

“See Horace? The Pilgrim’s managing to hold himself together just fine, where’s that Tyrisian fortitude?” Doyle mocked gently, jostling the man slightly. “You’ll be alright, big guy.”

“Screw you Doyle.” Horace spat, glowering at the slighter man. “You don’t know what it’s like to have that little temptress work at you.”

“They’re cute enough…” You admitted, frowning in puzzlement “…But they still look like children. Reading them a story is about the only thing I can envisage doing with them in a bedroom.”

“That’s how it starts!” Horace declared, gesturing at you in helpless desperation. “Read her a story… play along with her tea party… bounce her on your knee… blow raspberries on her cheeks… Then all you can think about is how soft her skin is and how sweet her breath is and…”

“Easy man. Easy.” Doyle insisted, grabbing Horace by the shoulder and squeezing comfortingly. “Don’t think about it. If you let them in your head, you may as well give up. Focus on the song, it’s working for me!”

“I never heard the song…” Horace admitted, nearly weeping “…I’m sorry Doyle… I wanted to, but I never heard it.”

Doyle stiffened as if the man had struck him, his grey eyes filled with hurt and anger. “Why?”

“Because I’m fat, and not very good at anything.” Horace admitted with a voice drenched in self-loathing “Even the Mamono never give me a second look. Why would they? Dixon Holding, home of the first Abbey of Blessed Innocence in the Westerlands, churning out healthy, clean limbed Humans every day, every one of them with more potential than me… I wanted a chance at adventure… for my life to have at least SOME meaning! So when you fell off the stage in that tavern and started asking people if they heard the song, insisting that you had to follow it… what could I do?”

“Then I’m just crazy, and this has been for nothing. FUCK!” Doyle cursed, kicking at one of the simple beds. “If we get out of this mess alive, at least I don’t have far to go to tell my mother I’m an insane failure of a bard.”

“Seriously?” You blurted disbelievingly “This is the depth of your conviction? For shame, gentlemen… Horace, was it? Stand up.”

The big man’s jowls quivered as he stood, his broad paunch hanging over his belt, yet there was a solidity to him… the man was no slouch, evidently.

“I put on quite a bit of weight as a youth, after a prolonged sickness.” You explained “When we get out of here, I’ll be happy to show you the exercises I used to…”

“You can stop there, Pilgrim.” Horace sighed indulgently. “I unload wagons from dawn ‘til dusk, and I’ve been reliably told that if my meal portions were any more miserly I’d starve to death. There’s a problem with my body, something I was born with.”

“Truly…” You mused, tapping your finger against your lips. Perhaps it was time to nudge against the limitations of your abilities again. You could heal old wounds now, but birth defects still eluded you. If nothing else it would give you an excuse to see Cirice again. “…I may be able to help… On one condition.”

“There’s always a catch.” Horace sighed. “Yes, Pilgrim?”

“Somebody please tell me what the hell is going on here?”

Both men laughed, and the mood instantly relaxed. “Well, I guess it depends on how much you already know about the Sabbath.” Doyle began.

“Childlike Mamono, nearly Immortal in a lot of cases, socially insular, a little bit mercenary in their political and religious leanings.” You replied simply

“Don’t forget astonishingly powerful.” Horace added. “There used to be a Knight Colonel of the Faith Militant and an Archmage in Albany. Emphasis on the USED to be.”

“What happened?”

Colonel Dorian made Kumi cry in front of Tina and she… I’m not sure there’s a word to describe it in Magisterian. She blew him up, then blew the parts up, then blew those parts up.” Horace explained with a quizzical expression. “It’s strange… it doesn’t seem quite… real.”

“Trust me, I know the feeling, and I’m a mage.” You assured the heavyset man. “And the Archmage?”

“Picked a fight with Lizette, which is where we got caught. We were travelling with Archmage Topher towards Iona and he decided to go snooping around Albany… I will say, I warned him.” Doyle sighed resignedly, shaking his head.

“So they haven’t been… active?”

“Active?” Doyle echoed bemusedly.

“You know… propositioning?” You trailed off, gesturing to try and drive the point home.

“Oh! Well of course they have. But who in their right mind would go following an unaccompanied girl who invites them home?” The bard snickered knowingly, casting a glance at Horace who nods his vigorous agreement.

“Who indeed?” You mused flatly, more angry at your own inattention than any insult.

“Pilgrim?” Horace blinked. “Did you follow one of them home?”

“Mistakes were made.” You admitted sourly.

“Hohohohoho…” The big man chuckled, holding his paunch as he helplessly guffawed. “Pilgrim! What were you thinking?”

You sighed resignedly. “Look, with everything that’s happened over the past… Reitia… I’ve forgotten how long it’s been… I won’t lie, I genuinely forgot the Sabbath were a thing.”

“That almost makes me feel better…” Doyle smiled. “…At least WE can say we were caught legitimately. You just wandered in like a doe struck by fey-light.”

“Alright alright… yuk it up gentlemen.” You groaned, rolling your eyes. “So do you know anything about this ritual they’re casting?”

“It’s a summoning, from what little Lizette would tell me when I was braiding her hair.” Doyle began. “The song REALLY frustrates her. I start humming along whenever she tries to seduce me, and all she can do is splutter and sulk.”

“See that doesn’t strike me as the hallucinations of a madman.” You mentioned aside, pointing at the bard.

“That’s nice of you to say, Pilgrim, but who hears voices in their head?”

“Me.” You retorted plainly. “And I’m not sure I could name or even number them all. It’s something you come to accept and guard against as a mage. Have you been tested for proficiency at all?”

Doyle purses his lips, brushing a lock of ebony hair out of his eyes. “I… I don’t remember. Dad didn’t much care for magic, but surely mother would have…”

“Another thing we can address once we get out of here.” You nodded. “Well this “Alice” is likely to be a while, what say we make good on that?”

“You’re forgetting about Scott.” Doyle sighed cynically.

You blinked in surprise. “Scott? Who’s Scott?”

“If you came in through the front door you must have seen him. Brusque chap? Four legs? Spider with a face like the business end of a Scylla?”

You recoiled slightly at that. “That thing has a NAME?!”

“That thing was a human, once upon a time.” Doyle explained. “Gretchin, the one who would put an IMFC captain to shame for selection of invective? She’s what they call “Atlach Nacha,” And Scott’s what happens to their husbands after enough time has passed.”

“H-how do you know this?” You stammered, wiping the clammy sweat from your brow.

“He talks. Sometimes. When Gretchin’s not finding new and interesting ways to drive him into shrieking fury.” Horace continued. “He’s vicious in his own right though, man doesn’t strike me as the sort who was a paragon of virtue before… well… before…”

“And he’s likely to try and stop us?”

Doyle gave a cynical chuckle. “Pilgrim, he’s likely to try and EAT us. Whatever humanity he once had is long gone.”

“I need a better look on all of this.” You stated simply, sinking to your knees on the uncovered stone floor.

Horace raised an eyebrow “How do you mean?”

You smiled wordlessly at the man, before closing your eyes, breathing deeply and centering yourself. “Sahnate, Pora, Reitia Dei in Excelsius…”

You felt yourself sink into the now-habitual meditation, your inner eye clearing, your mind-self manifesting, once again, in an unfamiliar landscape. The ground was of grey scree, your surrounds obscured by thick smog, bearing a distinct crimson tinge to it. A worm of concern began growing in your breast. This was not a vista that boded well…

“Cirice?” You called, looking about for the form of your Angelic fiance.

“What did I tell you, Pilgrim?” A young voice sighed from behind you. “Don’t try and summon that Cupid.”

“Deniel?” Cirice’s voice sounded faintly from without the smoke “I can’t see you… Where have you gone, my love?”

You swallowed, turning to come face-to-face with the scythe-wielding form of the Baphomet Lizette.

“You are not welcome here.” You snapped forcefully. “This is MY mind, and you…”

“You are in MY house, Pilgrim!” The Baphomet interjected with a voice like iron. “Do you honestly think your petty meditations are beyond my notice?”

“Holy Mother…” You prayed fervently “…Grant unto me the clarity of thy Love, In thy Mercy, deliver me from iniquity, and cast forth with the power of Thy voice…”

“How do you know she’s not speaking through me, Pilgrim?” Lizette interjected again.

“Blasphemy!” You cried in outrage.

Lizette smirked. “How Tyrisian of you… Think about it Pilgrim. If I had appeared in a visage of Reitia, what would you have done? If she ordered you to aid Alice in her seduction of Hector, you’d be tying him up in a pretty bow and throwing open the door to your room. If she ordered you prevent it, you would be doing violence to me and mine without a single thought. What have we done to earn your wrath, Pilgrim? Have we not housed you in relative comfort? Have I not prevented Tina and Kumi from violating your vows? What wrong have we done?”

“I know about the Colonel, and the Archmage.”

“Ohhh… that classic comedy duo with you have been talkative, I see.” Lizette laughed. “You’re a mage, Pilgrim. You should know that mortals see less than half of any given situation, and even then imperfectly.”

“Then explain.” You demanded.

“Dorian wanted to send Kumi back to Hell… Do you know what she was in Hell, Deniel?” Lizette near-seethed. “She was PREY. Imps are not exactly high-ranking amongst the hierarchy of Pandemonium. Tina called her from that… welcomed her like a sister… greeted her like a friend. Would you do any less for your siblings-in-faith?”

“I…” You began helplessly.

“And Archmage Topher… Oh he would have had me… Had me shackled whilst he leeched my power like some base reliquary… I was a GENERAL in the Infernal Legions, Dammit! Maou HERSELF sought my council in matters of war, before Princess Telia supplanted me with that two bit Incubus… Warmaster Salethiael… faugh. Meat-head twenty-first century marine…I’ve overseen PLANETARY warfare, whilst that grunt barely experienced the basest skirmish!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” You blustered incredulously.

“Of course you don’t!” Lizette sighed. “And that’s the cruellest joke of all.”

“What do you want?” You demanded.

“A home.” Lizette replied with what appeared to be bare-faced honesty. “Our ritual? We’re calling what you Humans know as Dark Matter. I’m going to make a place in this world where we can be US, without apology, without having to hide what we are, without having to couch our husbands in cute euphemism… Onii-Chan… The term’s a joke.”

“I recognize the Zipangan…” You remarked, trying to parse the Baphomet’s furious rambling. “…But I don’t understand it.”

“It means ‘Older Brother’…” Lizette near-sobbed. “…We in the Sabbath have become so used to the horror our existence inspires amongst you humans that we’ve mythologised our own lies. We don’t have ‘Husbands’, we have big brothers. No Mister Paladin, he’s my big brother. No sex here, Mister Hell-Knight. Dark Magic? Don’t know what you’re talking about, Corvidian-sama… After enough millennia, it starts to stick in the craw.”

“The world has changed.” You retorted, hearing the desperation in your own voice. “Surely Maou can grant you…”

“She wouldn’t dare.” Lizette snickered, her petite body brandishing the scythe before leaning against its haft. “Being Sabbath is a CHOICE, Pilgrim. Tina can give up the power any time she likes. She can grow up… be a middlingly talented mage… blossom and wither and die in obscurity, maybe finding love… maybe not… Or she can have eternity as a Witch of the Sabbath, and shape her life according to her own terms. She’s happy with her choice, single or otherwise. She’d never let Kumi suffer again, no matter the cost.”

“And Alice and Horace?”

“I don’t know what will happen there.” Lizette admits. “Alice are strange creatures… we never truly understood them after the fall of Wonderland. When they pair with a human, something happens. Some choose to neglect the memory of the occurrence, locking themselves into an endless loop of amnesia, perpetually playing the virginal bride… Some… Some become something else.”

“And which is it with them?”

“I don’t know!” Lizette declared, grabbing your arm in a beastlike paw. “But doesn’t she deserve the chance to find out on her own terms?”

“And Horace’s feelings mean nothing on the matter?”

“He can say no.” Lizette sniffed dismissively “He could always say no.”

“Against that kind of charm magic?” You scoffed.

“It’s an easy word, Deniel. That annoyingly attractive bard had it right… Part of him wants her. Wants HER. Because she’s the first woman to seek his affection, or because he likes them young… who knows? But if he succumbs, it’s on him.”

“You mentioned Doyle… He spoke of a song. What’s he talking about?”

“THAT…” Lizette snarled “…Something is calling him… something powerful… some spirit beyond the ken of Life.”

“An oneiromancer spoke of a song as well…” You continued, pushing forward, steeling your will. “…A secret song, at the centre of the world…”

“…Whose music is as of fangs rending flesh…” Lizette laughed openly. “No, the song he hears is nowhere near as profound. You are wasted on Heaven, Deniel. You are strong, despite your shortcomings… You could learn its words…”

“What are you saying?” You swallowed, jerking your hand from the Baphomet’s grip.

“I smell the Angels in your soul… You want to be rid of them… I can make it possible…” The Baphomet wheedled, running a paw down her pubescent form in a clear gesture of enticement. “…Be with us, Deniel… Be a prince of my new kingdom…”

“I abjure thee!” You howled, desperately flinging the full force of your will against the Baphomet’s image. “In the name of Reitia, I abjure thee!”

“Because you love the Cupid? Or because I look like I do?” Lizette’s faint voice echoed as the smoke-wreathed landscape fell away “In all your life, have any been as honest with you as I?”

“I abjure thee!” You howled, staggering backwards and impacting with the wall, staring blindly in all directions as you rudely return to reality.

“Didn’t go well then, Pilgrim?” Doyle sighed, scratching absently at a callous on his hand as you blinked.

“Lizette…” You panted, rubbing at your eyes, forcing yourself back to equilibrium. “…That goat has a miasma of a sort I’ve never encountered over this place. If there’s anything to be gained here I need to speak to her directly.”

“Good luck with that.” the bard chuckled incredulously.

“On that note, you did mention that this “Song” of yours protected you against her power. Show me, Please.”

“You still don’t think I’m crazy?” Doyle murmured hesitantly.

“I know madness, goodman. Whatever this is, it’s not madness.”

“As you will…” Doyle sighed, straightening and drawing in a deep breath. Closing his eyes, he released it in the controlled fashion of a trained musician, his rich tenor voice ringing with a plaintive pair of wordless notes. He repeated the pair again, followed with a descending septet, his voice throbbing as the music took him over… Then… out of nowhere… his voice was joined by a spectral accompaniment, the new voice seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.”

(And again, ‘twas my love singing to me, and it filled me with desire and yearning. I bid him come to me, yea, for my heart longs for him…)

“Who is that?” You gasped, looking this way and that.

“Who’s what?” Hector demanded nervously.

“The voice, you don’t hear it?”

Hector looked at you with an exasperated expression. “I already SAID I don’t!”

“You hear it? Truly Pilgrim?” Doyle gasped in anticipation, redoubling his vocal acrobatics.

(But peace, o my nightingale, for a new voice joineth in my chorus… sing for me, ingenue… sing for me…)

“That’s new!” Doyle exulted, rushing forward and gripping your tunic eagerly. “Sing, Pilgrim! Sing!”

“Miserere Mei, Dea, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam…” You sang, your voice uncertain. You closed your eyes, focusing your thoughts on the All-Mother of Creation, making your song an offering to Her. “…Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem mean…”

(And light… such pure and warming light… it spilled upon me in the darkness of my dwellings… a blessing! A blessing of love and faithfulness… Sing, blessed one! Sing yet more!)

“Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me…” You continued, your voice straining as the melody soared upward.

(I exult! The heart which beateth not is warmed by such. So did I bid them come yet unto me, both. A Groom, and a Holy Priest with which to marry us. My love throws open the door, and they come to me, yea, e’en as they lament in their imprisonment…)

You opened your eyes at that, to see Doyle eagerly haul at the door, throwing it open to reveal the slight form of yet another member of the Sabbath, her small hand raised as if to knock.

“I found the answer to that riddle, mister Deniel.” She stated precociously, her hands folded behind the sky-blue sundress she wore, her stockinged feet tracing adorably on the stone floor, her azure eyes fixed upon you with a pleading innocence.

“And what is it?” You acknowledged dumbly.

“Love!” The girl exulted “Love for my onii-chan…”

“Pilgrim!” Horace cried. “You’ve doomed me!”

A moment of clarity struck you, and you straightened, turning towards the heavyset man. “You hide behind Tyrisian tradition in an attempt to keep from exercising your own will. If you truly do not want this, tell her. Your destiny is yours to weave.”

“I’m not strong enough!” The man blubbered, edging backwards, his feet giving out as he collided with the bed, falling onto his backside atop it with a creaking of protesting wood.

“Onii-Chan!” Alice cried, skipping forward. “Do you like my dress?”

“It’s… very pretty…” Horace choked, his jowls shaking and cold sweat standing out on his brow.

“Your fate is your own. Whatever you choose, may the blessings of Reitia be upon you.” You declared, giving the big man your back and following Doyle from the sparsely furnished room.

“We’re just going to leave him?” Doyle murmured in surprise.

“We have to… It’s how… It’s how the story goes?” You explained in puzzlement, squinting as you attempted to find some reasoning for that statement.

“The Song…” Doyle nodded in understanding. “…You’re hearing it now, aren’t you?”

You paused, listening to the barely audible music in your mind. “It wants us to leave… quickly… It… it wants you… and it wants me to speed you there.”

“Scott!” Doyle cried, rolling beneath the leg which bit cruelly into the wooden beam where his head once was. “Dammit man, we’re going to see Lizette!”

The spider-thing grumbled in an inchoate tongue which was tantalizingly, terrifyingly familiar.

“He says he doesn’t believe you. He thinks you’re… going to disrupt his weavings?” You translated, swallowing heavily.

“How did you get that from “gblgmrfmghg?” Doyle demanded, regaining his feet and wisely taking up position behind you, magic’s threatening glow already casting its lambence upon the dim hallway, the spider’s bulk ahead of you blocking your progress.

“Never mind that.” You muttered dismissively, there was no time to be discussing what the Dark Tongue meant coming from this thing’s mouth. “I thought you said it spoke Magisterian!”

“He does! Scott… it’s me!” Doyle cozened desperately. “I left Albany to get AWAY from weaving, remember?”

“Doyle…” The spider grated. “…Wasn’t… talking about… you…”

“Me then?” You retorted, the magic around your hands glowing slightly brighter. “I know nothing about any weavings. What you and… whatever your wife is get up to is no business of mine. Reitia bless and give increase to your love…”

“MG.” The spider-thing spat, horking a gobbet of some kind of foul fluid from its tentacular maw.

“Ialprg!” You snapped, a bolt of fire incinerating the slime in mid-air.

“Ymg’mgn’ghft fm’latgh.” Scott slathered, his front legs dancing threateningly “Ymg’mgr’luh ya Gretchin ng y’ngahnah. Ymg’ c’ah’r’luh hup fahf shuggog!”

“Pilgrim? What is he saying?” Doyle begged, his eyes wide with fear.

“He says that I want to see him and his wife burn, that the light I bring with me will end only with their screaming…”

“What? Why?” The bard demanded, grabbing your arm and staring at you incredulously.

“That’s what I’d like to know!” You yelled in exasperation. “I could have killed you so many times it ceases to be amusing! I. Just. Want. To. Leave.”

The spider’s mouthparts twisted weirdly, and with a note of revulsion, you realized it was smiling. “Ng ulnah ya mglagln.”

“No…” You gasped, recoiling in horror. “…Don’t make me. Please. In the name of all the Gods. Don’t…”

“Deniel?” Doyle prompted, shaking you.

“Scott wants me to tell him to leave.” You replied in a quavering tone.

“So? Tell him to rattle his dags and get on with it… The song… It’s getting insistent…”

“You don’t understand. He wants me to order him in the Dark Tongue. It is the language of Hatred… for a mage to speak it… you don’t know what it will do… Reitia, I don’t know what it will do!” You blustered, your frustration building, until, at last, it overflowed. “Fuck. This. Shit.” You snarled, magical energies crackling around you.

“Pilgrim?” Doyle murmured uncertainly.

“I for one…” You snapped, flinging a bolt of white fire at the spider, driving it shrieking backwards. “…Am sick and tired of people forgetting who and what I am.”

Scott chittered, lunging forward at you, only to have his limbs seized in your hands, the corded muscles of your forearms flexing as you glared at the multiple carmine eyes in the mass of the beast’s ‘head’.

“Ne Ialprg!” You grated, holy fire blazing around you.

“REEEEEEEEEE!” The spider shrieked, recoiling from the fire, ripping its limbs from your grip and scuttling backwards in sheer panic.

“BEGONE!” You heard yourself roar. “Work your machinations away from me! I am Pilgrim of She who is Love! She who is Goodness! She who is All-Mother of Creation! I am Forsworn and Claimed of Heaven! I am Shu! I study at the feet of Khepri! I am a Journeyman of the Sixteenth Intersect!”

“Y’ephaimgsyha’h h’mgah’ehye n’ghft l’ah…” Scott snarled.

“OB NORZU MAL COMMAH…” You grated, the hallway lit as if under the bloom of the sun itself as you raised a scintillating orb of Holy Magic above your head.

“Pilgrim!” Doyle yelled, throwing himself in front of the spider. “He doesn’t know better… Please…”

“Doyle…” The Spider grated, its mouthparts flaring and its multiple carmine eyes flaring in surprise. “…Have threatened… Why do you protect?”

“You just want Gretchen to be happy… You told me, remember? He’s Reitian, he’s not gonna stand in the way of that… Please… Just let us go…”

The wordless chords of The Song built around you, the spider’s tentacular mouthparts twitching with indecision.

“Go.” It ordered, clambering somehow INTO the floor-tiles, the ground displaying that same weird distortion as it disappeared.

“I’ve only said that a dozen times since I got here…” You snapped sarcastically, extinguishing your magic with a somatic gesture. “…who knew one more was all it took?”

“Yeah… you’re not a bard. The message sometimes comes secondary to the messenger. The way he tells it you came stomping in trailing clouds of glory in your wake and tried to set him on fire the instant you saw him.”

“The floor gave way, he ate my staff, and it was a touch removed from playing hopscotch with a little girl a moment earlier!” You blustered.

“I suppose it was at that…” Doyle admitted. “…you’re not gonna turn around and say this capture act was all a ruse and you’re here to purge this whole place now, are you?”

You paused, slightly wounded by the question. “Do I look like the ‘Purging’ sort, Goodman?”

“About a minute ago, yep, sure did.” Doyle admitted honestly. “Now? Not so much. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen all types of folks through the Westerlands. It’s strange The Song brought me back here… Almost like… Nah, that’s silly.”

“Almost like what?”

“Like it needed narrative closure… sometimes I find myself doing things that would spell out great in a ballad but just make no sense…”

“Why not just ask her?”

“Ask who?”

“The Song?”

“How?”

“You just…” You blustered, before considering the matter. You had made contact with Cirice first in the vaults of your own psyche as you meditated. Maybe it wasn’t as simple as you thought.

(And yea, in his Pious Humility did that Precious One decided it was not a good idea to confuse my Nightingale. For verily t’would not behoove him for accident to befall ere the story continued.)

Accident? What accid…

“Ow.” You gasped, hopping in pain as you smacked the little toe of your right foot into the leg of a carelessly discarded piece of child-sized furniture.

(Say thou not that thou hast not been duly warned…)

“So he can’t speak to you?” You asked within the vaults of your mind.

(The Precious One was informed that breaking the fourth wall in the middle of a story was frightfully bad form, and to stop it at once before he ruined everything.)

“Reitia deliver me…” You chuckled helplessly, resting your forehead briefly in your four-fingered hand.

“What is it?” Doyle demanded.

“Never mind. It wouldn’t make any sense to you.”

The bard paused as he trailed along behind me. “Try me.”

“Ever had a conversation with the other side of a mirror?” You asked pleasantly, referencing a very disturbing meditation technique you experienced in the early days of your acolytehood in the temple. Watching your own face question you was profoundly unnerving.

“What?”

You grinned, squeezing the man on the shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

“Are all mages as confusing as you?”

“No.” You laughed. “Most are worse. I should tell you about…”

“Onii-Chan!” A piping voice intruded, the petite form of the Witch Tina suddenly blocking your path. You started in surprise at the sight of her. Far from being the bright-eyed, playfully smiling child of your previous encounter, she was pale and haggard, with dark shadows painted under her eyes. “Where are you going?”

“We’re leaving, Tina.” You explained simply. “Please don’t try and stop us.”

“No! You can’t!” Tina cried, stomping her foot. “It won’t let me sleep!”

“What won’t?”

The Witch looked at you with pleading, tear-filled eyes. “The music! It just keeps playing! I’m so sleepy, Onii-Chan… but it won’t let me sleep!”

(And the Precious One’s heart was filled with pity, and lo did he take the hand of…)

“You’re not serious!”

(The. Precious. One. Did. Take. The. Hand. Of…)

“I am forsworn!”

(Ammit’s Thighs, Reitian, wilt thou TRUST me on this?)

“Come on Tina…” You sighed resignedly, taking the witch’s hand and letting her lead you back to her room.

“Pilgrim…” Doyle called warningly after you.

“It’s fine. I’ll be back soon.” You assured him as the witch pulled you along eagerly.

“What’re we gonna do on the bed?” Tina asked eagerly, throwing herself onto the luxurious coverlets with a soft ‘pomf’ of displaced air.

“Nothing, Tina.” You chuckled softly, pulling aside the covers.

“Awwww!” The witch lamented, sliding her petite form beneath them and allowing you to tuck her in. “I woulda been real nice to you…”

“I’m sure. But my heart lies elsewhere.” You smiled gently, stroking the witch’s head and sitting next to her atop the covers.

“It’s still singing…” Tina lamented in frustration, yawning massively.

“Then we’ll find a new tune.” You assured her… strange… where did that impulse come from?

“Lay down…” You began softly, your voice deep and rich as you sang a lullaby to the diminutive witch, patting her absently on the head “…Your sweet and weary head.”

Before long she was asleep, her tiny face a picture of peace as her slow, gentle breaths made the coverlets rise and fall.

“Reitia bless you with Happiness, Tina.” You prayed sincerely, bending to plant a chaste kiss atop her forehead, before standing and softly sneaking towards the door.

“He’s too sweet…” You heard her piping voice murmur, thick with sleep. “…I don’t think he’ll sing the hidden song… I know… But even with that… he’s too good… It’s a shame it’ll kill him…”

Troubled, you frowned, making your way back toward where you had left Doyle, only to come to a worried halt as you saw the scythe-wielding form of Lizette standing on goatish legs before him.

“It’s not fair!” Lizette lamented “We were kids together!”

“Lizzy… we were childhood sweethearts… emphasis on the child.” Doyle explained. “People change… I think sometimes you Sabbath forget about that. Not to mention you’ve got millennia under your belt.”

“But I could give you power!” Lizette wheedled.

“But not purpose.” Doyle sighed pityingly, taking a knee and patting the Baphomet’s horned head gently. “I’m following the song, Lizzy. That’s my purpose.”

“Shhh…” You ventured, approaching the pair. “…Tina’s sleeping.”

Lizette fixed you with a look of longing and pain, before squeezing her eyes shut. “Even if I had cause… That in and of itself would make me let you go. How did you overcome it, Pilgrim?”

“I didn’t…” You murmured. “…It told me to…”

“Then maybe I was wrong all along.” Lizette sobbed, dashing away tears.

“Your home…” You ventured. “…Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Know anything about making a pocket universe?” Lizette drawled mockingly through her tears.

“A what?”

“Didn’t think so. Get out. Both of you.” Lizette choked, walking away from you, leaning heavily against the shaft of her scythe. “Before I lose clarity.”

(And My Beloved Nightingale and The Precious One did with all haste…)

“You don’t need to drive the bloody point home!” You yelled mentally, before colliding with a previously unseen doorway, your shoulder throbbing with the impact.

(Again, The Precious One was warned…)

“Properly prosaic, isn’t it?” Doyle murmured, leaning against a tree.

“Suspiciously so.” You agreed. The early dawn light coloured the surrounding fields with pink and gold, and the cool wind was soothing. Everything about you seemed to speak to peace and tranquility.

(And yea, did they take of welcome respite, resting sure in undisturbed peace, that they might awaken refreshed and speed their way ever onward…)

 

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